My night with the Birmingham Barons – May 2, 2014

After playing in the suburbs for 25 years, the Birmingham Barons moved back to downtown Birmingham in 2013 when Regions Field opened.  I didn’t get to visit Regions Field during its inaugural season, but I put it high on the priority list for 2014.  It was also much easier to accomplish now that I live just an hour away.  A few days ago, I made the trek to Birmingham for my first visit.

The most unique aspect of the stadium is the steel facade that spells out “BIRMINGHAM.”  I walked past this as I approached the stadium, and made sure to get a picture.

The signature signage at Regions Field.

The stadium has three entrances, but the primary entrance is at the corner of 1st Avenue South and 14th Street South by the Serra Kia Auto Plaza.

Main gate at the Serra Kia Auto Plaza.

After getting a pair of seats behind home plate an hour before the game, my friend and I decided to walk around and check out the food options.  While we were checking out the concession stands, we came across something neither of us expected to see.  With the Aaron’s 499 running at Talladega Superspeedway just 50 miles away, the Barons celebrated with NASCAR Night.  The team had NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison throw out the honorary first pitch, and had his 1988 race car on display.

Bobby Allison’s car that he drove to victory lane at the 1988 Daytona 500.

After getting a photo of the race car, we continued touring concession stands.  I didn’t take photos of each stand, but I found two unique stands.  The first we ran across was a food truck.  MELT: A Grilled Cheese Truck has a title that says it all, but what it doesn’t say it that it offers a special take on the classic grilled cheese sandwich.  One example is the Flyin’ Hawaiian, which has smoked ham, Cajun grilled pineapple, and Monterey Jack cheese on a pretzel roll.

The food truck craze is growing nationally, and some Minor League teams have organized special nights around local food trucks.  However, the South has been very slow to catch onto the food truck craze, so I was shocked to see this inside the gates at the stadium.

MELT: A Grilled Cheese Truck was setup beyond right field next to the batting cages.

The food truck contrasts nicely with the next stand, something Southerners know and debate about a lot: barbecue.  There’s probably a master’s thesis about the spelling of said food item, too.  Without stirring up a debate about how to spell it or what kind of sauce to use, there is one name that is most often associated with barbecue in Alabama: Dreamland.

In addition to BBQ nachos, fans can get a half rack of ribs or a sandwich at this stand.  The BBQ nachos are a signature item, but I opted not to get them because I ate them in 2012 when I visited Regions Park during the Barons’ last season in Hoover (you can read about that visit here).

Dreamland Bar-B-Que originated in nearby Tuscaloosa, and has spread throughout the Southeast.

Continuing to walk around the outfield, I came across the Brobdingnagian video board.  Just how big is the video board?  So big, I couldn’t fit it all into the shot I took.

The appropriate American idiom to describe the Barons’ scoreboard is “big ass scoreboard.”

Not far from the video board is the Bright House Family Fun Park, where I found a giant inflatable bounce house in the form of the team’s primary mascot: Babe Ruff.

An inflatable bounce house is only part of the Bright House Family Fun Park, which has a variety of games for kids.

After walking around the stadium, my friend and I settled into our seats behind home plate to watch the start of the game.

Birmingham Barons right-handed pitcher Myles Jaye delivers the first pitch to Mobile BayBears center fielder Mike Freeman.

After watching the first three innings, my friend and I went to find food.  My friend had initially committed to getting the Dreamland BBQ nachos, but kept waffling on his decision as we walked around the stadium before the game started.  He thought about getting something at MELT, and then the Magic City Dog, and then Steel City Burger, and finally settled on getting a Chicago Dog at Piper’s Pub & Grill.

I opted for the Magic City Dog after reading about it last year.  Plus I generally try to get an encased meat when I visit a ballpark.  I’m not a picky eater, and really just want to try a signature food item.  However, hot dogs and baseball have been synonymous for decades.

The Magic City Dog, which is a sliced sausage with BBQ sauce, cole slaw, and spiced mustard.

If I hadn’t gotten the Magic City Dog I would have ordered the Steel City Burger.  The description says it is 1/3 lb. all-beef patty on a bed of grilled onions and topped with pepper jack cheese, bacon, a fried egg and Sriracha mayonnaise and served on a Ciabatta roll.

I did watch some of the game beyond the first pitch, so I have this photo from the first base line.

Birmingham Barons starting pitcher Myles Jaye on the mound.

Based upon my photos so far it may look like the stadium lacks a second deck and luxury suites, which is not the case.  So while I took this next photo primarily to capture the action, it shows off other facets of the ballpark.

More game action with a view of the luxury suites on the third base side.

And in case you didn’t get a clear view of the video board before, I made sure to take photo focused on it.  It certainly is a large video board.

The elephantine scoreboard in left field.

The team’s web site says that steel and brick are used to evoke the city’s industrial heritage, which you can see when you take a look back and view the entire third base seating area and its berm.

A view of the third base line from the right field foul pole.

My friend camped out in right field at the end of the game because we wanted a good seat to watch the post-game fireworks.  However, it was tied 1-1 at the end of the 9th inning.  We hung around until the 13th and decided to finally head out with the contest still knotted, and seemingly no end in sight as the pitcher’s duel continued into the extra innings.  Ultimately, the game went 17 innings and lasted 5 hours and 25 minutes.  It fell one inning short of tying the longest game in franchise history, but took the record for the longest game time in team annals.

I hate leaving a game early, but the temperatures were dropping and I was constantly yawning at 11 p.m. when we departed.  Sadly watching fireworks was as likely to happen as my photo with the team mascot: nonexistent.

Despite missing out on fireworks and my mascot photo, the ballpark experience was great.  There’s a wide variety of food items (signature and standard), beers, and entertainment options.  The area around the stadium is still undergoing redevelopment, but Railroad Park provides a great option for families and Good People Brewing Company, right across from the stadium provides an adult option.

Regions Field reminds me a lot of ONEOK Field in Tulsa.  Both are located in gentrifying areas.  Both brought baseball back to downtown.  Both are the envy of teams in their league.  Both are a great place to watch a game.

Final: Mobile 5, Birmingham 3 (17 innings)
Box Score

My night with the Tampa Yankees – April 11, 2014

After deciding to visit Clearwater and Bradenton for games while in Tampa for a conference, I opted to make the short trek from my downtown hotel to watch a Tampa Yankees game at George M. Steinbrenner Field.  I made the 15-minute drive from my hotel, and arrived armed with the code of “Peter O’Brien” to take advantage of the ticket deal on Bill Currie Ford Social Media Friday.

Before delving into details about the ballpark, fans should see the signage that greets visitors as they arrive at the stadium.

The signage for the Tampa Yankees’ home is easily visible off Dale Mabry Highway.

After taking advantage of the free parking (a rarity at Minor League games), I was quickly inundated with imagery related to the big league club that calls this facility home during Spring Training.  A life-size statue of former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, namesake of the stadium, greets fans as they walk up the stairs to the entrance.

A bronze, life-sized statue of George M. Steinbrenner was added outside the stadium in January 2011.

In addition to the Steinbrenner statue, there is a sculpture dedicated to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

“We Remember” is a memorial to the people who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Using the social media promotional code, I got my reserved seating ticket for $4 instead of the usual $6.  I could have gotten a general admission ticket for $2, but I preferred to have a reserved seat behind home plate.  Either way, it was a steal.  Ultimately, I got a refund after the ticket office staffer happened to print me a ticket for Sunday’s game, and I had to return to the box office and swap out my ticket.  He apologized and comped my ticket without me asking for any kind of compensation.

So with the proper ticket in hand, I headed back upstairs to enter the stadium.  Steinbrenner Field is unique for a Minor League ballpark because you walk up a large set of stairs before entering the stadium, which then requires you to descend many steps to reach your seats.

Main entrance to the ballpark.

Visible beyond the main gate is a merchandise stand that notably sells “New York Yankees” merchandise.  There is a larger souvenir stand downstairs, but like its smaller counterpart it was stocked primarily with items from the big league club and did not have a wide selection of Tampa Yankees paraphernalia.  Admittedly it was just a few weeks after Spring Training had concluded, and one staff member assured me they would be receiving more Tampa Yankees gear in the next few weeks.

My first impression of this being home of the New York Yankees did not change when I took a closeup view of the concession stands, which has the scalloped grandstand facade of the original Yankee Stadium.  While I am not a New York Yankees fan, I attended a game in “The House That Ruth Built” during its final season in 2008, and appreciate the Tampa ballpark’s homage to the Bronx.

Concession stands have the scalloped façade of old Yankee Stadium.

After looking over the pedestrian concession options, I decided to walk around the stadium and explore the landscape.  As I walked out to the seating bowl, I saw the night’s lineups.

The starting lineups for the Daytona Cubs and Tampa Yankees on April 11.

As I walked toward The Walgreens Deck in right field, I ran into the mascot: Blue.  Naturally, I had my picture taken with the alien from Pluto.

Me with Tampa Yankees mascot Blue.

I didn’t think to ask Blue what he thought of Pluto’s demotion from planet status, but he seemed focused on meeting and greeting people.

On my way back to my seat behind home plate, I stopped by the Yankees bullpen and got a picture of the night’s starting pitcher warming up.

Tampa Yankees starting pitcher Rafael De Paula warming up in the bullpen before the game.

Eventually I wandered back to my seat and relaxed while waiting for the first pitch.

Tampa Yankees right-handed pitcher Rafael De Paula delivers the first pitch of the game to Daytona Cubs second baseman Tim Saunders.

Speaking of seats, I found a pair of seats reserved for the 2014 Most Valuable Patrons.

Two specially reserved seats.

I’m not sure what makes Manuel and Jean Martino-Perez the “Most Valuable Patrons,” but I expect it relates to them being season ticket holders.  Regardless of the reasoning, it’s a cool designation.

Continuing the theme of seats, the seat at the end of each aisle had a New York Yankees logo on the side.

It is obvious the seats need a fresh coat of paint.

With a design that mimics old Yankee Stadium, George M. Steinbrenner has a scalloped overhang.  Unlike old Yankee Stadium, the ballpark in Tampa has sunscreens that spell out the team name.  These have become an iconic part of the facility, and are commonly featured in photos of the ballpark.

The iconic Yankees sunscreens along the third base line.

As I mentioned previously, the stadium lacked any signature food items.  Unless I wanted to have all-you-can-eat chicken wings on The Walgreens Deck, the concessions choices were hot dogs, burgers, or chicken tenders.  I ultimately decided upon a Chili Cheese Home Run Hot Dog.

Chili Cheese Home Run Dog, which is a foot-long hot dog topped with chili and nacho cheese.

The Chili Cheese Home Run Dog was OK, but the most distinctive part about the concession stand experience for me was the sticker shock about beer prices.  There were no craft beers or regional brews offered, instead all the options were macro-brewed choices like Bud Light Platinum or Miller Lite.  However, the prices for these 12-ounce beers was $7, which may not be shocking at a major league stadium, but is very steep for a Minor League ballpark.

Despite some of the things I disliked about the fan experience, the video board is definitely a plus.  It’s been in the background of some photos, but it merits its own photo and commentary.

Tampa Yankees first baseman Reymond Nunez’s info on the scoreboard in left field.

The videoboard’s columns evoke design elements of old Yankee Stadium, so it contributes further to the feeling of the stadium as the springtime home of the New York Yankees.  My camera struggles taking some nighttime photos, but the resolution on the video board is fantastic.  It’s impossible to miss any tidbit of the game because the videoboard has it all covered.

The other highlight is a more personal one, but something any fan can enjoy.  It’s not secret to those who know me that I love using social media, especially Twitter.  For the second year in a row, I won something at a Minor League game because of social media.  During the game, the Yankees had a giveaway during the game to a fan who tweeted their seat location.  I won 4 tickets to the next night’s game plus a serving of Mini Melts, which are similar to Dippin’ Dots.  I ended up giving away the tickets, but definitely enjoyed the winning experience.

Like most Minor League games, after the game the Yankees hosted a launch-a-ball contest.  Blue made his way down to the field during the contest to check for any winners who landed their ball in the bucket, but alas there were no winners.

Tampa Yankees mascot Blue and a staff member watching for potential winners during launch-a-ball.

Despite the pricey beers and lack of signature food items, the gameday experience at George M. Steinbrenner Field is enjoyable.  Ticket pricing certainly makes it an attractive option for families, whether they live in the area or are visiting an want to attend a game.  While I understand the appeal of making the stadium experience like a visit to mini Yankee Stadium, I hope the staff can incorporate some uniquely Tampa items into the food and souvenir selections.

Final: Daytona Cubs 1, Tampa Yankees 5
Box Score