My day with the Saitama Seibu Lions – Sept. 29, 2018

For a long time I have wanted to attend a professional baseball game in Japan.  I don’t remember when I first became interested in watching baseball played outside the United States (and outside of MLB).  However, when the prospect of moving to Japan became a reality, I became excited about being able to experience a Japanese baseball game in person.  So when the prospect of attending a game presented itself after my wife & I had settled into our new home in Japan I jumped at the opportunity.

Although we live in Greater Tokyo, my first baseball game in Japan wasn’t going to be seeing the famed Yomiuri Giants.  Instead my first game was going to be seeing the Saitama Seibu Lions at the MetLife Dome on the western side of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Instead of taking the train to the ballpark, which is what most fans do when attending games in Japan, Katie & I took a tour bus as part of a day trip organized by the military base where she works.  Although we were in the minority of people taking private transit to the stadium, we were not alone as there were three other tour buses in our parking lot and a smattering of cars as well.  So after the bus parked we walked across a pedestrian bridge to MetLife Dome.

An overview of the MetLife Dome.

Although we were in the minority of fans who arrived at the ballpark via private vehicle, the train station let fans out into the large plaza outside the stadium.  You could tell when a train had arrived as the plaza swelled with people.

Fans pile off a commuter train at the station next to the stadium.

In front of the stadium was a large plaza, which was packed with fans because we were attending the final home game of the regular season.  The plaza offers a variety of amenities ranging from concession stands to a merchandise stand for the visiting team to fan club counters for the home team.

Due to a consistent, but light rain I did not take too many pictures in the plaza and instead hurried into the ballpark.  Additionally, the nearly overflowing volume of fans in the plaza made it difficult to capture images that properly showed off the amenities.

MetLife Dome is an interesting ballpark because it was not built as a domed stadium.  It opened in 1979 without a roof, but one was constructed in two stages following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.  Although the ballpark started the 1999 season as a dome stadium it is an open-air stadium, as the roof only covers the field and stands.  There is no wall that closes the ballpark from the surrounding environment.  So some concession stands around the park sit just beyond the roof, which prevents the concourse from becoming overcrowded.

As I navigated the crowd toward my seat on the third base line I captured a photo of what can best be described as loge boxes.

Fans sit in loge seating along the third base line.

As I passed the loge boxes I decided to walk around the park to a spot behind home plate so I could capture that perspective before the game began.

An overview of the stadium from near home plate.

As the game started at one o’clock, I grabbed some food after perusing the nearby concession stands while walking the concourse.  Stands carried a variety of traditional Japanese fare from bowls of ramen to meat skewers, and even globalized items like KFC and Blue Moon Belgian White beer.

I opted for a simple yet filling option of a beer skewer, mostly because it had a relatively short line and I wanted to be able to enjoy the start of the ballgame instead of missing the pre-game festivities and the first pitch.

A trio of beef skewers.

After devouring my skewers, I settled in to watch the first pitch.

Saitama Seibu Lions right-handed pitcher Tatsuya Imai delivers the first pitch to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks right fielder Seiji Uebayashi.

I settled into my seat to soak in the experience, so the majority of my photos of the ballpark and the atmosphere were taken from my seat along the third base line.

The ballpark was renovated following the team’s posting of Daisuke Matsuzaka after the 2006 season, which garnered over $50 million for the club.  So it features many of the amenities fans find at MLB ballparks like a large videoboard in center field and luxury seating behind home plate.

Sitting midway down the third base line, I had several opportunities to capture photographs of the pitchers and batters.  So I regularly snapped shots during the game hoping to capture each team’s uniform and the subtle differences in pitching form and batting stance of each player.  By far the coolest moment I captured during the game was when Kazuo Matsui came to the plate late in the game as a pinch-hitter.

Matsui played for the Lions for nine seasons before signing with the New York Mets in 2003 and spending seven seasons playing in the MLB.  After returning to NPB in 2011, Matsui signed with the Lions for his final professional season.

There are a lot of things to take in attending a game at any professional ballpark, but it’s quite different when you’re attending a game in Japan.  There are many similarities between games in the U.S. and Japan, but SO many differences, too.  One of the biggest differences is the delivery of beer.  In Japan, young women carry mini kegs on their backs and pour beer for fans instead of lugging around giant tubs of beers in cans or aluminum bottles.  Additionally, the biiru no uriko (“beer girl”) only sells one brand of beer.  So each woman is outfitted in attire specific to the beer she is pouring.  Although craft beer exists in Japan, the only brands being poured by the beer girls were the major macrobrews like Kirin, Asahi, Suntory, and Yebisu.

Beyond seeing several young women selling beer, women also dominate the majority of vendor positions.  I was able to capture different women selling cotton candy and ice cream later during the game.

One of the better documented aspects of Japanese baseball games is that fans lead the cheers for players instead of the sound system being used to generate excitement.  The fan-led cheering results in unique cheers for each player, and sometimes this brings about unique signs for particular players, too.  I saw that at play with Lions designated hitter Ernesto Mejía, as fans held up Venezuelan flags each time he came up to bat.

Saitama Seibu Lions fans show off Venezuelan flags for designated hitter Ernesto Mejía.

Whenever I attend a baseball game, I always make an effort to get a picture with the team’s mascot.  That is usually more difficult to accomplish at a Major League game, and that experience was no different at today’s Lions’ game.  I saw the team’s mascots a few times on the field, but never saw either walking through the stands.  However, I did get a picture of the pair on the field.

Saitama Seibu Lions mascots Lina and Leo. The pair are based upon characters in shōnen manga “Janguru Taitei” (or “Kimba the White Lion” when dubbed into English).

Without a doubt, the seventh inning was the most unique experience I’ve ever encountered during a baseball game.  In Japan, fans from both teams sing their respective fight songs in the top and bottom of the inning and then release team-colored balloons into the air.  The tradition is called the “Lucky Seventh,” and is a way for fans to help rally their team in the late innings.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fans wave banners and hold their balloons high while singing their team’s fight song during the Lucky Seventh.

In addition to capturing a photo of Hawks’ fans singing their fight song, I got a video of the Lions’ fans singing their team’s fight song entering the bottom of the seventh.

Unfortunately for Lions’ fans hoping to see the team clinch the Pacific League regular-season title, the home team did not come out victorious.  However, players from both teams paid their respects to the fans with the customary post-game bow.  The home Lions lined up along the third base line and bowed multiple times in different directions to show their respect and appreciation for the home fans while the visiting Hawks lined up in right field and bowed to their fans and the home fans as well.

Like many others in attendance, I had hoped to see the Lions clinch the regular-season crown, so I was disappointed to see them lose and miss the opportunity to watch the trophy presentation following the game.  Putting the game result aside, it was a great experience.

It was exciting to be in a packed ballpark.  Despite a packed house, I never felt cramped or fighting for space while walking on the concourse.  The food options met my expectations, although I had not anticipated such long lines to get food.  The food I ate was delicious and satisfying.  The beer was cold and refreshing.  The atmosphere far exceeded my hopes and dreams.  The crowd was loud from start to finish, but it was not a deafening experience because of the unique roof that does not completely enclose the stadium.

Despite traveling by private transportation, I got to enjoy what feels like the quintessential experience at a professional Japanese baseball game.

Final: Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 3, Saitama Seibu Lions 1
Box Score

A Minor League Baseball road trip through Alabama

People who enjoy baseball, and especially Minor League Baseball, regularly plan their summer vacations around visiting ballparks.  These trips are often based around individual goals, whether it’s to visit new states or new ballparks or to watch top prospects or even the most ambitious goal of seeing all 159 active, affiliated Minor League baseball stadiums.

With good timing, visiting all of the Minor League ballparks in Alabama can be done in a matter of four days.  I undertook this adventure earlier this summer with my wife Katie.

THE BASICS
Currently, Alabama has three Minor League Baseball teams: Birmingham Barons, Mobile BayBears, and Montgomery Biscuits.  From north-to-south, the drive from Birmingham to Mobile is about four hours (266 miles).  The drive between Mobile and Montgomery is about two-and-a-half hours (172 miles), and the drive from Montgomery to Birmingham is about one-and-a-half hours (90 miles).  So for any baseball fan, this is a really easy drive whether you start in Alabama or begin your trip in a neighboring state.

THE PLANNING
Planning this trip is a bit more difficult because a few years ago the Southern League, the Double-A league all three Alabama teams play in, switched from the traditional structure of three-game series to five-game series.  So when one of the Alabama teams hosts another team from the state it can be difficult to visit all three ballparks in quick succession.  Everybody has their own method for organizing schedules to create travel plans.  I am a BIG fan of putting everything into an Excel spreadsheet so I can look at what teams are at home side-by-side.

A spreadsheet showing home games for the three Minor League teams in Alabama for the end of May.

I was fortunate that my goal of seeing all three teams play at home came together over Memorial Day weekend.  Once the dates were settled, then I started working on planning hotels in each of the cities and what other sights my wife Katie and I could see along the way.

PLAY BALL!
As we lived in Tuscaloosa when planning the trip, we headed south to Mobile and worked our way north to see each of the teams.  Due to the Southern League having an off-day on Monday, May 28 (Memorial Day), we were unable to see all three teams on consecutive nights.  However, if schedules align it is quite feasible.  So instead of trying to cram three ballparks into consecutive nights, we added a few extras days to spend in Mobile, Gulf Shores and Montgomery.

GAME ONE: MOBILE BAYBEARS
We visited two breweries (Fairhope Brewing Co. and Serda Brewing Co.) and checked into our hotel in downtown Mobile before heading to Hank Aaron Stadium west of downtown near the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 65.  I had previously attended a Mobile BayBears game in 2015, but this was Katie’s first visit to the stadium.

The entrance to Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears.

The stadium is located on reclaimed marsh land and is surrounded by a variety of shopping plazas, so there are plenty of parking spots at the ballpark that opened in 1997.  The stadium is named after Mobile-native and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, but a plaque outside the park honors all of the city’s native sons who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The plaque notes that Satchel Paige (Class of 1971, Willie McCovey (Class of 1986), Billy Williams (Class of 1987), and Ozzie Smith (Class of 2002) are also enshrined at Cooperstown alongside Aaron (Class of 1982).

After walking under the gate that proclaim “Hank Aaron Stadium,” fans are immediately greeted with a dose of the team’s history.

The gate to Hank Aaron Stadium.

Many fans may overlook the BayBears Hall of Fame because it is on the left-hand side of the entrance to the ballpark, but it is worth checking out in addition to the banners highlighting former players who have achieved notable levels of success in Major League Baseball.

The stadium has a unique design because the luxury suites are not elevated, as they are at most ballparks.  Instead, the luxury boxes are on the field level and infield seating for the general public is elevated about 20-feet above the field.  So the view for spectators is quite different from what fans experience at other baseball games.  With luxury suites underneath the general seating area, concession stands face the luxury suites.

A view of a concession stand at the Mobile BayBears stadium.

Each concession stand carries the same items, so fans don’t have to go in search of specialty items available at only one stand (as can be the case at some Minor League stadiums).  Fans will find all the typical ballpark items at the concession stands ranging from sunflower seeds and peanuts to hot dogs and hamburgers.  The most unique items with local connections are a foot-long Conecuh sausage and Conecuh jambalaya.  As I had ordered the Conecuh sausage on my previous visit, I opted for the jambalaya.

A view of the jambalaya at Hank Aaron Stadium.

The best sight lines in the stadium are in Sections 106 or 107, which are immediately behind home plate in the seating bowl above the luxury suites.  My seats down the first base line were enjoyable, but the view of home plate was cut off by the luxury suites.  So my recommendation for buying seats would be to find something in either 106 or 107, assuming you actually want to watch the game action.

A view of game action from the first base line.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a Minor League Baseball game, and attending a game at Hank Aaron Stadium offers a particularly unique reason.

A view of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum on the grounds of the Mobile BayBears stadium.

In 2010, the City of Mobile relocated the childhood home of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to the ballpark’s site and restored it as a museum (read more here).  Visiting Aaron’s childhood home and museum should be on the must-see list for any baseball fan.  The museum is open to visitors Monday through Friday on non-gamedays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission costs $5 for adults, and $12 for children under 12 years-old.  However, the museum is open during ALL games and admission is free.

Final: Biloxi 3, Mobile 11
Box Score

GAME TWO: MONTGOMERY BISCUITS
After seeing some sights in Mobile, Katie and I headed to Montgomery for the second game of our road trip.  Due to the Southern League’s schedule, we would not get to watch a baseball game until Tuesday evening.  So we enjoyed a couple of days in town seeing some of the city’s historic sights, and some of its newer sights.

Montgomery had a long history of supporting Minor League teams before the Biscuits arrived in 2004, but the last affiliated team to call the city home, the Southern League’s Montgomery Rebels, left in 1980.  So a downtown ballpark built that incorporated part of an old train shed was welcomed by the community.

An overview of the former train shed and entrance to Riverwalk Stadium.

The downtown location of Riverwalk Stadium means there is limited parking, but it is great if you’re visiting from out-of-town.  Depending where you stay in downtown, walking to the ballpark takes between five and ten minutes.  If you aren’t staying in downtown there is parking on streets around the stadium, but there is are dedicated surface parking lots explicitly for the stadium.

When Katie and I arrived the team’s mascot, Big Mo, was just inside the gate greeting fans.  So we quickly stopped to get our photo with him.

My wife Katie and I with Montgomery Biscuits mascot Big Mo.

Big Mo may look like an aardvark or anteater or some other real or imagined animal, but he is NONE of these.  The Biscuits call him simply, “A Biscuit Lovin’ Beast.”

Regarding biscuits there is NEVER a problem finding them at the park because there is a portable concession stand right behind home plate that sells biscuits, of course!

A concession stand selling solely biscuits, of course!

Maybe if for some unbelievable reason a fan doesn’t like eating biscuits, but instead wants to wear some biscuit paraphernalia then the team store is the place to go.

A view of special Greenbow Biscuits gear available at the Montgomery Biscuits team store.

On the night I visited, I found some special “Greenbow Biscuits” gear for sale.  The team did a special promotion and renamed themselves the “Greenbow Biscuits” in honor of the fictional hometown of Forrest Gump.  However, I was more impressed by the biscuit-shaped “hat” you could purchase that was on display next to the Greenbow Biscuits jerseys.  Naturally, there is a LOT of other team gear available in the store, too.

Like most Minor League baseball stadiums built since 2000, visitors to Riverwalk Stadium enter on the main level and walk down to the seating bowl.  The concourse wraps around the ballpark, so Katie and I explored a bit before settling in to watch some of the game.  The concession stands offer a variety of food options from the common ballpark fare like hot dogs and chicken tenders to the more unique like chicken wings (a special on Tuesday nights) and, of course, biscuits.

We didn’t get food on our first trip around the ballpark, but did find a great selection of craft beers.  Down the right field line there is a bar with a large entertainment stage.  The Club Car Bar is a full-service bar that offers liquor drinks and wine in addition to beer.  There are over a dozen beers on draft in addition to several in cans and bottles.  There is a solid representation of Alabama craft beers as well with brews from Fairhope Brewing, Ghost Train Brewing, Back Forty Beer, and Goat Island Brewing on draft when we visited.

A portable stand by home plate also had a solid selection of craft beers with offerings from Alabama breweries like Back Forty, Fairhope, Folklore Brewing, Ghost Train, and Goat Island.  Seeing these selections shows how much the craft beer industry has grown in Alabama over the past five years, as beer drinkers can support local breweries at the ballpark.

After picking up a beer at the Club Car Bar, Katie and I took our seats behind home plate and settled in to watch some of the game.

A view of the field at Riverwalk Stadium from behind home plate.

The design of the stadium is conducive to great sight lines everywhere, but it is particularly fun watching the trains pass by left field wall.  The luxury suites are elevated above the seating bowl with six built into the old train shed and the remainder in a newer structure down the third base line.

Like my previous visit to Riverwalk Stadium in 2012 (read it here), it was a great time at the park.  The stadium is beautiful with a great downtown location that makes it easily accessible to local fans and visitors alike.  The promotions are unique, and fun.  The food and beverage choices are diverse, and most importantly reflect location connections and options.

Final: Jackson 6, Montgomery 3
Box Score

GAME THREE: BIRMINGHAM BARONS
If you ask baseball fans what’s the oldest stadium in America many of them are likely to say either Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago, and both answers would be wrong.  The oldest professional ballpark in the United States is Rickwood Field in the West End neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala.  It opened in 1910, two years before Fenway and four years before Wrigley.

Despite being the old professional baseball stadium in America, Rickwood Field hasn’t hosted a regular tenant since 1987 when the Birmingham Barons relocated to suburban Hoover.  However, since 1996 the Barons and Friends of Rickwood have hosted a throwback game at the stadium.  The game usually takes places during the Barons’ first homestand in late May or early June immediately after Memorial Day weekend.  I previously attended the 20th Rickwood Classic in 2015, but Katie badly wanted to attend the game so it was incorporated into our road trip plans.

Really ambitious baseball fans can attend a Barons’ game at Regions Field, which opened in 2013, in downtown Birmingham, and attend the Rickwood Classic on consecutive days.  Usually the Barons’ schedule has them hosting a game at Regions Field the day and after the Rickwood Classic, so it is possible to see all four Minor League ballparks in Alabama within a relatively short time frame.

Stories say that Rick Woodward, who owned the Birmingham Coal Barons in the early 1900s, used Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Fields as the models for his new ballpark.

My wife Katie and I in front of Rickwood Field.

Attending the Rickwood Classic is really like attending a game from another era.  The starting lineups are written in chalk on a board shortly after entering the park.

The lineup for the 2018 Rickwood Classic between the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts and host Birmingham Barons.

Beyond the chalk-written lineups, the game lacks many of the elements of a modern Minor League game.  There are no promotional contests between innings and no walk-up music for batters or music between innings.  The only music is played by a live band behind home plate that plays music fitting each year’s theme.  The 2018 Classic celebrated the “Fabulous Fifties” when the Barons were affiliated with the New York Yankees (1953-56).

The game usually starts at 12:30 p.m. with gates opening at eleven o’clock, so visitors are provided ample time to wander around the ballpark and bask in its history.  It is been painstakingly restored, including the manually-operated scoreboard in left field and the advertisements on the outfield walls that feature vintage-style ads of current companies and one dedicated to Woodward Iron Co. paid for by descendants of Rick Woodward.

After exploring the park, Katie and I settled into our general admission seats near home plate under the roof that was added to the ballpark in the 1920s.

A view of Rickwood Field during the 2018 Rickwood Classic.

One possible short-coming of attending the Rickwood Classic is the lack of unique food items at the game.  The most “unique” items available would be the Polish or Italian sausage available at a tent outside the seating bowl where a grill cooks up a variety of encased meats.  That’s not to say the food is bad because it is quite delicious, but fans will not find as many options at the Rickwood Classic as they would attending a Barons’ game at Regions Field.  One modern convenience is that fans can regularly find personal-sized pizza from Papa John’s at the park.  Beer choices are limited to either Miller Lite or Yuengling, so sadly none of Birmingham’s delicious craft beers are available at the game either.

None of these limitations should affect the enjoyment of the game because the purpose of attending the Rickwood Classic is to bask in the essence of “old timey” baseball before technology became integrated into our enjoyment of the contest.  Watching a baseball game in America’s oldest professional ballpark is about watching the sport in virtually its purest form.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of attending the Rickwood Classic is that fans are allowed onto the field after the game.  At most Minor League stadiums only kids are allowed onto the field to run the bases after certain games, or if people of all ages are allowed onto the field it is only on rare occasions.  As part of being a “living museum,” fans are allowed onto the field to play catch, run the bases, take home some of the infield dirt, or just lay down in the grass and reflect on the history that has occurred at the ballpark.

Final: Chattanooga 1, Birmingham 7
Box Score

WRAP-UP
So after an extended weekend, Katie and I got to see all three of Alabama’s Minor League Baseball teams play at home.  It took us five days to see all three teams, but the additional days provided us the opportunity to see and experience a bit more in each city.  Whether you’re from Alabama or visiting from out-of-state there is a lot to see and do in each city, even if you’ve been to the cities before there is something to explore in each downtown area.  There are several craft breweries and award-winning restaurants in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham, along with a bevy of historic sights and contemporary museums to keep baseball fans of all ages engaged on a road trip to see Alabama’s Minor League teams.

My night with the Lexington Legends – June 12, 2018

The second stop on my trip through the Bluegrass State for baseball and beer was Lexington, Ky.  It is a city that I used to know really well because I attended the University of Kentucky for two years as an undergraduate, but it has been nearly two decades since I was last a student at UK.  So returning to Lexington to explore its budding craft beer scene (yes, BEER not bourbon) while also visiting another Minor League Baseball stadium has been on my “to-do” list for quite a few years.  Finally this summer, I got to make it happen.

So on a Tuesday afternoon following some visits to the city’s local craft breweries, my wife Katie and I made it to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Lexington Legends.  When I was a student at UK in the mid-1990s there was regularly talk of Lexington seeking a MiLB team, but none of it came to fruition until 2001.  Unlike many other ballparks built during the early-2000s, the Legends’ stadium is not in downtown, but instead northeast of downtown off a ring road (New Circle Road) across from a strip mall.

I didn’t know it at the time we planned our visit, but it was a mystery giveaway night.  It turned out that the Legends were giving away a bobblehead of University of Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops.  So I neglected to capture my customary stadium entrance photo, as we hurriedly entered to secure out bobblehead.  However, I went back outside to capture the view the typically greets fans arriving at the ballpark.

The main entrance to the ballpark.

There was a LOT going on after entering the ballpark, but in a good way.  Fans see a lot of branding in multiple places, so you have to be oblivious to the environment to be unaware that you are attending a Lexington Legends baseball game.

For fans interesting in scoring the game, you find the home team’s lineup and the South Atlantic League standings.

Although Katie and I hurried through the gate, we had plenty of time before the game started so we wandered the concourse checking out the food options with a brief pit stop at the team gift store.

We didn’t get any food before the game because I wanted to get a picture of the night’s bobblehead honoree, UK head football coach Mark Stoops throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.  So we headed to our seats that were just to the right of home plate.

Following Stoops’s ceremonial first pitch we watched the beginning of the game, which pitted the Columbia Fireflies against the host Legends.

Lexington Legends starting pitcher Janser Lara delivers the first pitch to Columbia Fireflies left fielder Raphael Gladu.

With seats almost immediately behind home plate, we also had easy access to the Kentucky Ale Taproom.  It has a full-service bar and kitchen with many ballpark staples, but also some of the signature food items available at the ballpark like the Larry Mac Burger (more on that later).

After watching some of the action, I went exploring the concourse again.  Along the way I found something most Minor League teams incorporate into their ballpark, and something I had never seen before at a baseball stadium.  Near a display case showing off the team’s current uniform set, I found plaques commemorating all of the players who played for the Legends and made it to the Majors.  The unique item I found was artwork created to commemorate the team’s 15th season in 2015, which was made from signed mini baseball bats.

Speaking of unique items at the ballpark, the Legends feature a collection of wall decals featuring two prominent groups of people: former Legends who made it to the Majors and former University of Kentucky basketball players throwing out ceremonial first pitches.

I’ve seen all sorts of ways Minor League teams commemorate their former players who reach “The Show,” so seeing a collection of generic Fathead decals wasn’t surprising.  It was different, but certainly not surprising.  However, it was very surprising to see wall decals of former UK basketball stars (Patrick Patterson, Willie Cauley-Stein, and others) throwing out ceremonial first pitches.  Wildcat basketball may make the world go ’round in Kentucky, but it was not something I expected to see incorporated into a Minor League stadium in Lexington, even if it is the university’s home city.

The concourse does not wrap around the ballpark, but I was easily able to photograph the bleachers in left field and the Pepsi Party Deck in right field.

There are also multiple spots around the stadium to keep kids entertained.  Down the right field line is a basketball court, which seems unusual at a baseball stadium but also seems completely natural in Kentucky.

An overview of the basketball court and the entrance to the part deck.

Down the left field line is the more traditional kid zone.  The team’s kids club is sponsored by Jif peanut butter, which is produced in Lexington at the world’s largest peanut butter production facility.

At Whitaker Bank Ballpark, the bullpens of both teams are in play.  The home team’s bullpen is down the right field line and the visiting team’s bullpen is down the left field line.  While exploring I was able to capture photos of both bullpens and some other scenes of the ballpark.

Although I walked around the entire stadium to capture the surroundings, I did manage to watch some of the baseball game.  Katie and I literally had front row seats, so there was no shortage of baseball watching this night.  In fact, the Legends starting pitcher Janser Lara, first baseman Nick Pratto, right fielder Seuly Matias, and catcher MJ Melendez are among the Kansas City Royals’ top-30 prospects.

Eventually watching all of these top prospects made Katie and I hungry, so we settled upon the aforementioned Larry Mac Burger, which we found at the Ballpark Favorites concession stand along the third base line.  The burger is a third-pound Kentucky Proud burger topped with either original or jalapeño Larry Mac’s beer cheese, Applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion.

My dinner for the night was the Larry Mac Burger.

The version I received was a two quarter-pound beef patties smothered in jalapeño beer cheese.  Unfortunately there was no lettuce, tomato, or onion in sight.  It was a deliciously, gooey, and messy meal though.  In hindsight, I might have opted for the original beer cheese, as the jalapeño-version remained with me throughout the night.

I did not have any beers at the ballpark, but that was not because of any shortage of craft beer options.  The Kentucky Ale Taproom is sponsored by Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., which produces the Kentucky Ale line of beers and the Town Branch Distillery spirits.  Craft beer choices are available throughout the stadium, but The Handle Bar (along the first base line) has the largest selection of beer.

The biggest deterrent to having a beer at the ballpark to compliment my Larry Mac Burger was that shortly after ordering my food the skies opened and the tarp came out to cover the field.  Following a 37-minute delay with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning the game was called.  When the game was called the skies had started to clear, but apparently the field was too wet to continue the game and it had progressed far enough to be an official game.

The cloud appear to part after a heavy downpour led to the cancellation of the game after five innings.

Despite an abbreviated game, I had a great experience at Whitaker Bank Ballpark watching a Lexington Legends game.  There is plenty of parking at the stadium, which is a benefit of its outside of downtown location.  The stadium has been well maintained and updated since its opening in 2001.

Most importantly the experience at the ballpark checked off all of the boxes I expect when visiting a Minor League ballpark.  The stadium had a pleasant setting and was well-maintained.  The food and beverage choices were unique and included locally-produced products.  The team offered unique promotions during the game.  The staff was friendly and helpful.  I wish the game had resumed so I could’ve enjoyed the atmosphere at the ballpark more, but it was an enjoyable experience and definitely a family and fan-friendly place.

Final: Columbia 1, Lexington 2 (Five innings)
Box Score

Disclosure: My admission to the Lexington Legends baseball game was provided by the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau (VisitLEX).  I received a media rate for my two-night stay at the Lexington Hilton/Downtown.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here are 100% my own.

My night with the Louisville Bats – June 11, 2018

There is something to be said for returning to places you have visited before.  If you haven’t been to that place in a number of years you may get to see how it has changed since your last visit.  Sometimes the more you visit a place the more you notice different characteristics.  That was the case this summer when I returned to Louisville, Ky., to attend a Louisville Bats baseball game.

I had previously attends a Bats game in 2005.  So some things had changed and some things had relatively remained the same since my last visit 13 years ago.  The Bats still play at Louisville Slugger Field just east of downtown Louisville.  However, the team’s color scheme changed dramatically ahead of the 2016 season.  The team switched from a purple and black color scheme to a red and blue color scheme, and overhauled their logos.  However, the exterior of the facility appears the same as it did when I visited several years ago.

A view of the ballpark at the intersection of Main and Preston streets with the former Brinly-Hardy Company warehouse being incorporated into the stadium.

Fans walking from downtown will see the former Brinly-Hardy warehouse first, but the “real” entrance to the ballpark is adorned by one of Louisville’s favorite sons: Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

The main entrance to Louisville Slugger Field with a statue of Louisville-native and National Baseball Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese.

Although the statue of Pee Wee Reese serves as the welcome to fans attending a Bats baseball game, but it is really a facade before fans get to enter the seating bowl.  The stadium’s incorporation of the Brinly-Hardy warehouse allowed the stadium to enclose all the entrance ways on Main Street, and create a restaurant at the end of the building that is now occupied by Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse.  The space between the building and seating bowl also allows the team to decorate with pieces of the franchise’s history.

Fans walking into Louisville Slugger Field will find that they enter the stadium concourse and walk down to their seats unless they’re in the more posh luxury suites upstairs.  As my wife Katie and I arrived at the ballpark just a bit before the first pitch, we took a moment to hang out behind home plate so I could capture the official start of the game.

Louisville Bats starting pitcher Homer Bailey delivers a pitch to Columbus Clippers center fielder Todd Hanks.

With the seating bowl below the concourse there are numerous concession stands around the level, which wraps around the entire field.  As is my habit, I walked around the entire concourse to peruse the food and beverage options and get a feel for the stadium.

In addition to the concession stands and portable stands between the first and third base bags, Katie and I saw some food options down the left field line and on the outfield concourse.  However, it was just beyond the gate in left field that struck my attention during our stroll around the concourse.  So I investigated and found something I did not know existed at the stadium.

A statue of Louisville-native and famed football star Paul Hornung stands at the northwest gate to the stadium.

A statue of famed Green Bay Packer and Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Paul Hornung.  I was stunned to see this statue outside the stadium because it featured a football star outside a baseball field, but also because until seeing the statue and doing some research I had no clue that he grew up in Louisville.  In hindsight, it still seems a bit odd to see a statue of a famous football player outside a baseball stadium, but it is also cool to see the city commemorate its star athletes.

After capturing a photograph of the Paul Hornung statue I returned to the ballpark to snap shots of the view from the outfield concourse.  One of the first things I saw was an empty chair reserved in honor for POWs.

“One empty seat” as part of the POW-MIA Chair of Honor program sits in left field.

After capturing the Chair of Honor, I turned my attention back to the stadium and the downtown area.  The stadium’s location on the eastern edge of downtown provides a lot of great views of the downtown Louisville skyline.

As Katie and I continued walking around the concourse, we were dwarfed by the scoreboards.  In fact, the primary scoreboard in right field loomed over us so much that I had to capture of photo standing beneath it.

A closeup of the scoreboard in right field.

The concession stand beneath the scoreboard is aptly named because the scoreboard overlooks everything around it, including the kid play zone nearby.

A glimpse of the carousel and kids play area in right field.

After finishing our walk around the stadium, I started to contemplate my food and beverage choices for the night.  While walking around the stadium, I saw the usual ballpark food items (hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, pizza, etc.), but nothing screamed, “You must eat this food at a Louisville Bats baseball game!”  So while continuing to think about my food choices, I remembered that the Bats had partnered with Against the Grain to create a beer specifically to be served at the ballpark.  After asking a few people working at stands serving alcohol, Katie and I ended up behind home plate at the Diamond Drinks concession stand.

A view of the Diamond Drinks stand behind home plate.

In addition to offering a variety of beers, including some craft beers, Diamond Drinks is notable because the stand serves liquor and wine.  So if you’re not a beer drinker, you can still find a quality drink at the ballpark.  We each ordered our 16-oz. cans of Bats Win! and took our seats.

The beer is a golden ale that checks in with 4.9% ABV.  It is a light, crisp, and clean beer that is great for summer and baseball.  It is among the growing trend of collaborations between Minor League Baseball teams and local craft breweries, which I wrote about in a guest piece for MiLB.com’s Ben Hill (a.k.a. Ben’s Biz).  You can read the piece here if you want to learn more about the trend.

Soon after finishing our beers, Katie and I started discussing food options.  As I try to avoid the “usual suspects” at the ballpark, I remembered that a few years prior the Bats had entered a grilled pork chop sandwich in the annual MiLB Food Fight.  We also happened upon a sign advertising the delectable treat, and decided that was the right choice to fill our bellies.  We located it at the outfield grill in center field.

The sandwich did not come with the advertised lettuce, tomato, or onion, which would have really complimented the deliciously grilled pork.  However, the sandwich was filling and definitely a unique food item that I’ve not seen or read about being served at other ballparks.

With my stomach full and my thirst quenched, I turned my focus to capturing the sights of the ballparks.  I realized that during my walk I had photographed much of the park except for a closeup of the seating bowl and the scoreboards in the outfield.

As I took pictures of the scoreboards, I got to witness one of the between-innings contests put on by the Bats.  As is common practice at baseball games, teams have people race around the bases or sometimes around the warning track.  Often times these races incorporate a local connection to make it more unique.  In Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, the team has people dress as horses and race around the bases.  It was a nice twist to a classic ballgame contest.

Although my focus was not as much on the game at hand, I did get to enjoy watching Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Homer Bailey make a rehabilitation start with the Bats.  Additionally, I got to watch some of the top prospects for the Cleveland Indians like catcher Eric Haase and infielder Yu-Cheng Chang and some of the top prospects for the Cincinnati Reds like infielder Nick Senzel, who is the fourth-rated prospect in all of Minor League Baseball, and reliever Tanner Rainey.

Although ogling over star prospects and rehabilitating Major Leaguers draws some people out to the ballpark, my focus is always on the experience.  I come to the stadium to eat some great food, drink some good craft beer, and enjoy the atmosphere.  Without the doubt, I got to do all of those things at Louisville Slugger Field.  The stadium does not show its age, despite opening in 2000.  Most importantly, the Bats do a great job of keeping fans involved in the game with some local twists on the between-inning contests.

Final Score: Columbus 7, Louisville 4
Box Score

Disclosure: My admission to the Louisville Bats baseball game was provided by Louisville Tourism.  I received a media rate for my two-night stay at the Aloft Louisville Downtown.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here are 100% my own.

Touring Hank Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile

It’s not every day that a ticket to a baseball game also gets you admission to the childhood home of a baseball Hall of Famer.  However, that is precisely what you will find at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Ala., home of the Mobile BayBears.  In 2008, the city moved the childhood home of Mobile-native Henry Louis (“Hank”) Aaron to the grounds of the stadium that bears his name.

HISTORY OF THE HOME
Herbert Aaron, Hank’s father, built the house in 1942.  It initially consisted of three rooms, but the Aaron family gradually expanded the house.  It now has seven rooms, and it is possible to see where the Aaron family added an extension to the rear of the house.  In 2008, the home was moved from its original location in the Toulminville section of Mobile, restored, and dedicated on April 14, 2010, as the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum.

INSIDE THE HOME
When visitors enter the home they are greeted by Hank Aaron’s voice detailing his childhood in segregated Mobile, and see a sign detailing the transformation of the home into a museum.

A sign displaying the restoration of the historic home.

The first room to the left used to be the bedroom of Hank and his brothers.  It has now been converted into a room that preserves Aaron family pieces, including a dress worn by his mother Estella.

Items from the Aaron family home including a china cabinet.

The only room in the house that resembles its original appearance is the kitchen.

A view of the kitchen.

The remainder of the exhibits chronicle Aaron’s illustrious baseball career starting with playing semi-professional baseball for an independent Negro League team and concluding with his final season in the Major Leagues playing for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Most notable among the exhibits are the items associated with hitting the record-breaking 715th career homerun, which made him the Major League homerun king.

Hank Aaron received numerous accolades after hitting his 715th career homerun to become the all-time homerun leader in Major League Baseball history.

The exhibits focus primarily on the accomplishments of Hank Aaron, but his younger brother Tommie also played and later coached in the Major Leagues.  So  two lockers feature items from Hank and Tommie’s careers in baseball, including photographs of them as teammates on the Atlanta Braves.

Lockers reflecting the career of siblings Hank and Tommie Aaron.

The home centers around what Hank Aaron accomplished on the baseball field, but it was first and foremost a family home.  As visitors exit the home you see a portrait of Hank’s parents, Herbert and Estella Aaron.  It was commissioned by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in honor of the dedication of the home museum on April 14, 2010.

A painting of Herbert and Estella Aaron commissioned by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

If you want to visit the home of this National Baseball Hall of Famer and cannot attend a baseball game, it is also open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is $5.

Presidential sights in Nashville, Tenn.

When people think about visiting presidential sights, it’s easy to get caught up in visiting Washington, D.C.  However, there are a couple of presidential places in Music City people can visit.

The most famous presidential resident of Nashville is Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh president from 1829 to 1837.  He moved to Nashville in 1788 following his appointment as a prosecutor in the Western District of North Carolina (historical note: Tennessee did not become a state until 1796, and was a part of North Carolina up until that time).  Jackson eventually married Rachel Donelson in 1794, and purchased the plantation that would become known as The Hermitage in 1804.

Main entrance to The Hermitage.

The Hermitage includes the mansion, gardens, numerous outbuildings, and Jackson’s tomb in a small family cemetery (see more here).  Admission pricing varies depending on the type of experience you want.  General admission provides access to the mansion, the grounds, the exhibit gallery, and the souvenir store.  You can upgrade to the president’s tour or the VIP tour for an additional price.  You are not able to tour the mansion on your own.  People wishing to visit the mansion are required to participate in a tour, which is led by a costumed guide.

The other president associated with Nashville was a protégé of Jackson, and was also born elsewhere before his family moved to Middle Tennessee in 1803.  Following his graduation from college James K. Polk moved to Nashville and began his career as a lawyer in 1818.  Polk eventually served as the eleventh president from 1845 to 1849.

Although Polk served in the Tennessee government in a variety of roles before becoming involved in national politics, he primarily resided south of Nashville in Columbia.  Following his departure from the White House, Polk and his wife Sarah toured the South en route to their recently purchased home, Polk Place.  However, Polk reportedly died from cholera a few months after moving to Nashville and was initially buried in Nashville City Cemetery before being interred at Polk Place per the instructions of his will.  Sarah was buried besides him in 1891, but both their bodies were moved to their current location at the Tennessee State Capitol in 1893.  The Polk Tomb is located on the northeast side of the capitol grounds (see more here).

The grave of James and Sarah Polk is on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.

There is no fee to visit the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.  Tours of the building are also free, and run on the hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Monday to Friday.  Visitors can also take a self-guided tour of the building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week.  You can also take a virtual tour of the building through the Tennessee State Museum’s website.

The state capitol is also home to a statue of Andrew Jackson, which is located in the east plaza of the grounds.  The statue is a replica of the Clark Mills sculpture that was erected in front of the White House in 1853.  There are four versions of the statue with the most famous statue residing in front of the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

The Clark Mills designed statue of Andrew Jackson sits on the east side of Capitol Hill.

Many people may be unaware of the connection between Jackson and Polk, but it is fitting that the connection between these two presidents is displayed virtually side-by-side in downtown Nashville.  If you want to see presidential sites closer to you, check out my Presidential Pathways page.

John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass.

Prior to his death, John F. Kennedy explored potential sites for his presidential library in Boston around the campus of his alma mater, Harvard University.  He had wanted a library to be built near an academic institution to increase scholarly use of the facility.  However, following his death resident of Cambridge objected to the construction of the library because of the perceived negative impact on the community.

Eventually, a location on Columbia Point in the Dorchester neighborhood was chosen.  Construction of the facility began in August 1977 and was completed two years later.  The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum was dedicated on Oct. 20, 1979.  In 1993, a new museum opened as part of the facility that overlooks Boston, Dorchester Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

A special exhibit titled “Young Jack” was on display during my visit in April 2017.

The first permanent exhibit is “1960 Presidential Election.”

A special installation titled “Freedom 7 Space Capsule” is part of the permanent “Lift Off! The U.S. Space Program” exhibit.

U.S. Navy Commander Alan B. Shepherd Jr. piloted Freedom 7 during the first American manned flight in space.

The “White House Corridor” exhibit features a variety of gifts from heads of state.

Pope Paul VI gave Kennedy a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Robert Kennedy’s tenure as Attorney General is incorporated into the museum as the “Robert Kennedy’s Attorney General Office” exhibit.

“The Oval Office” exhibit replicates the office during his presidency.  The exhibit features film footage from 1963 that relates to the civil rights movement.

The museum also features an exhibit focused on the legacy of First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Some of Kennedy’s most famous words are preserved on a note card from a speech in 1963.

“State Visit to Europe” exhibit preserves Kennedy’s trip to Europe during the summer of 1963. A note card from Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin in front of the Berlin Wall on June 26, 1963.
Rotunda following the hallway retelling President Kennedy’s assassination.
A portion of the Berlin Wall commemorating Kennedy’s 1963 address in West Berlin.

The tour of the John F. Kennedy Library concludes with visitors entering the Profile in Courage Plaza.

William Howard Taft Burial Place in Arlington, Va.

Following his defeat for re-election in 1912, William Howard Taft and sought the opportunity to practice law.  He ended up becoming the Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School.  Taft held the academic position until 1921 when he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, which made him the first person to serve as both president and chief justice.  He served as chief justice until 1930 when he retired because of his poor health.  On March 8, 1930, Taft died from cardiovascular disease.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, thus becoming a first president buried at the cemetery.

Noted sculptor James Earle Fraser designed the 50-foot granite monument at the graves of William Howard and Helen Herron Taft.
William Howard and Helen Herron Taft were the first president and first lady buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

George Washington Burial Place in Mount Vernon, Va.

The estate that is George Washington’s final resting place sits along the Potomac River near Alexandria, Va.  However, Washington did not purchase the property, but inherited it in 1754 and did not become the sole owner until 1761.  Mount Vernon is closely linked to Washington because it served as his country home for the majority of his life.  Following his death, the property fell into disrepair, but was saved from demolition when The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the property in 1858 and eventually restored the mansion to its previous grandeur.  In 1960, the Palladian-style mansion became a National Historic Landmark.

Immediately following his death, Washington was interred on the property in a family tomb that be built after inheriting the property.  Following debate about moving his body to the capital city that bears his name, he was re-interred in a new tomb built on the property in 1837.

Visitors can participate in the hourly wreath laying ceremony at his tomb.  The event usually involved three to four individuals, so if you want to participate you should arrive about ten minutes before the hour to be able to partake in the wreath laying ceremony.

The Old Vault where George and Martha Washington and some family members were entombed.
Details of the tomb Washington wanted built were specified in his will.
The Washington family tomb with the American flag and Washington’s flag as General of the Armies.
Marker above the Washington family tomb.
Sarcophagi of Martha (left) and George Washington (right) with a wreath laid during an hourly ceremony.

Martin Van Buren Burial Place in Kinderhook, N.Y.

Following his failure to be re-nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1844, Martin Van Buren retired to his home Lindenwald (now the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site).  He stayed active in national politics and sought the presidency as the Free Soil Party’s candidate in 1848.  By 1861, he was bedridden and suffering from pneumonia.  On July 24, 1862, Van Buren died from bronchial asthma and heart failure at Lindenwald.  He was buried next to his wife Hannah in the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery.

Two markers direct visitors to Van Buren’s grave.
An obelisk marks the graves of Martin and Hannah Van Buren and their son Martin Jr.
Hannah Van Buren died from tuberculosis in 1819, and never saw her husband become president.