My night with the Lake Elsinore Storm – April 13, 2013

When you have a friend whose last name is Storm and you have the chance to watch a team called Lake Elsinore Storm, it’s a requirement to attend a game with him.  Lake Elsinore is about 90 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles, where we were staying for our conference.  So on Saturday afternoon we headed out to help my friend accomplish the goal of seeing the Storm play.

After exploring a bit of the town, we arrived at the ballpark a bit before games opened.

Sign welcoming fans to the Lake Elsinore Diamond.

So after parking the car and heading toward the main gate, we had to wait in line as a crowd was already waiting in line.  It was especially surprising because there was no promotional giveaway item at the ballpark, so the line was just fans anxious to catch an early season game on a Saturday evening.

A throng of people waiting to enter Pete Lehr Field at the Lake Elsinore Diamond.

One advantage of entering a ballpark before first pitch is the opportunity to explore, check out the cool gear in the team store, decide on food and drink options, and watch all the pre-game festivities.  In this instance I got to see both mascots on the field during warmups.

Prior to the game, Jackpot greets fans on the field. Jackpot, who is the score keeping rabbit, also operates the manual scoreboard in right field and comes out to celebrate Storm homeruns during the game.

More on the team’s primary mascot, Thunder, later on.

As player introductions concluded, my friend Storm and I settled in to watch the first pitch and a little bit of the game.

Lake Elsinore Storm right-handed pitcher James Needy delivers the first pitch to Inland Empire 66ers shortstop Eric Stamets.

With our seats just rows behind home plate, I felt like my photo didn’t show off the stadium and the fan’s view.  So later during the game I took a photo from farther up in the seating bowl, which I think does a better job of capturing the mountains that surround the city of Lake Elsinore.

An overview of the field during the second inning.

While capturing an overview of the field, I also got photos of the views down the left field line and right field.

The Storm is known for its distinctive logo that features a pair of eyes.  Depending upon personal taste, the eyes are either really cool or really creepy.  The eyes are just about everywhere in and around the stadium.  Even when you don’t think the eyes are nearby, they are!

The concession stands have a few unexpected items, but the most unique are served in The Diamond Club.  Traditionally, I try to enjoy an encased meat.  The Storm serve a variety of meats made by Masterlink, which is a local sausage company.  I opted for the Portuguese Hawaiian Sausage over the Habanero Hot Link.

The Portuguese Hawaiian Sausage, which is topped with grilled peppers.

The Storm feature craft brews from Hangar 24, and I selected the Baseball Beer.  The Diamond Club features many other selections from Hangar 24, but I felt that I had to sample the Baseball Beer.  What else would have been appropriate on a Saturday night watching America’s pasttime?

After finishing my delicious beer and sausage, I was walking around the ballpark and ran into the team’s primary mascot, Thunder.  I attempted to take a selfie with my camera, and failed miserably, so I was thrilled when another fan offered to take my photo with man’s best friend.

Me with Lake Elsinore Storm mascot Thunder.

Overall, the experience at the Lake Elsinore Diamond was outstanding.  Despite waiting in a long line to enter the stadium, the service at the stadium did not suffer because of the large crowd.  The staff in the team store was friendly and helpful, even offering my friend a small discount because his last name is Storm.

The on-field entertainment was unique and delighted the crowd, young and old.  The food choices covered the staples, but offered special selections for fans who want to experiment when they visit the ballpark.  The seats, which were right behind home plate, were outstanding.  Overall, the Storm provide the epitome of the Minor League Baseball experience.  Every baseball fan should attend at game at Lake Elsinore Diamond.

Final: Inland Empire 1, Lake Elsinore 10
Box Score

My night with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes – April 9, 2013

It’s spring time, which means two things in my life: the start of baseball season and the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting. This year I got to combine the two for my trip to Los Angeles, Calif.

After booking my flight to arrive the day before the conference so I could visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I decided to attend a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game.

Three recreational softball fields flank LoanMart Field, which had been The Epicenter until just a few days before the Quakes’ season opener.  With the stadium changing names just before the start of the season there was not a lot of signage celebrating the new name, but I did not find any signage for the old stadium name either.  Palm trees flank the main entrance, but nothing screams for the spectator’s attention.

Main entrance to the recently renamed LoanMart Field.

A week before my trip, I saw that the Quakes were running a promotion on their Facebook fan page that would allow the winner to throw out a ceremonial first pitch as the Social Media Monday winner. I posted many times, but I think that my last post probably clinched the win.

“I’ve got tickets for April 9, but I’ve never seen a California League game before. My students at Oklahoma State University want to see me get a photo with Tremor, but I’d like to one-up them by getting a picture of me throwing out the first pitch!” – the winning entry

Due to stereotypical traffic in greater Los Angeles, my friend and I arrived a bit later than we hoped.  However, we made it to the ballpark just in time for me to scurry into the stadium and deliver my ceremonial first pitch.

I didn’t deliver a strike, but my first pitch was around home plate.

I also got a photo with Quakes outfielder Robbie Garvey, who was responsible for catching all of the day’s ceremonial first pitches.

Me with Robbie Garvey and the ball he dug out of the dirt from my ceremonial first pitch.

I never planned to make it a habit of getting my photograph with team mascots, but I feel like it’s become expected of me considering that my students asked if I was going to get a photo with the mascot before going on my trip to California.  So here’s my obligatory photo with Tremor, the mascot for the Quakes.  Tremor was on the field as people were throwing their ceremonial first pitches, so I was easily able to grab my photo with him.

Me with Rancho Cucamonga Quakes mascot Tremor after delivering my ceremonial first pitch.

Shortly after getting my photo with Tremor we were escorted off the field so the real athletes could play.  So my friend and I settled into our seats and I captured the game’s first pitch.

Rancho Cucamonga Quakes right-handed pitcher Duke von Schaman delivering the first pitch to Modesto Nuts left fielder Brian Humphries.

As we watched some of the game, I quickly took a few photos of the two scoreboards.

After enjoying the game for a bit, my friend and I started to contemplate our dinner options.  It was not easy selecting a unique food item to enjoy at the stadium because the only unique encased meat was a Dodger Dog. While talking with a concessions worker I stumbled upon a uniquely California item: a tri-tip sandwich.

Tri-tip is a cut of beef from the bottom sirloin that is typically served as a roast, but in my case was shredded onto a bun and served with barbecue sauce. It was delicious, although somewhat fatty. I washed the sandwich down with a local craft brew from Hangar 24. The only choice at the stadium was the Orange Wheat, which blended perfectly with the tri-tip and had a fantastic zest of its own.

A shredded tri-tip sandwich with barbecue sauce.

Maybe it’s the geographer in me, but it was really awesome to see the fault lines in the jersey numbers of the Quakes players and staff. I know the team tries to push the boundaries with its logo choices and I appreciate that the club plays up its name in almost every way possible.

Rancho Cucamonga Quakes batting coach Jay Washington (#15) with first baseman Angelo Songco (#22).

Traffic leaving downtown Los Angeles to reach Rancho Cucamonga was worse than I expected, even as someone who grew up driving in Atlanta.  However, dealing with traffic and the frantic dash to the stadium was worthwhile considering the memory of throwing out a first pitch and getting to see the scoreboard proclaim: “Quakes Win!”

The LoanMart Field scoreboard lit up after a Quakes win.

Overall, I had a great time at LoanMart Field with the Quakes. The customer service was excellent from purchasing tickets over the phone to winning Social Media Monday to throwing out a ceremonial first pitch to receiving some Quakes cash to eating a delicious sandwich and drinking a thirst-quenching beer to watching an entertaining mascot dance on top of the dugout to leaving the stadium following a 1-0 win for the home team over the Modesto Nuts.  There really is nothing like Minor League baseball.

Final: Modesto 0, Rancho Cucamonga 1
Box Score

My night with the Memphis Redbirds – Aug. 10, 2012

After two games in two nights on my way to Stillwater, Okla., I capped my road trip with a stop in Memphis, Tenn., to take in a game at AutoZone Park.  I got to see the Memphis Redbirds host the Tacoma Rainiers at the start of the 35th anniversary of Elvis Week.  Beyond attending a game at a great ballpark and enjoying some delicious food, I went to the Friday night game because I wanted an Elvis bobblehead.

Not surprisingly, there was a large crowd waiting outside the gates to claim their own mini Elvis.

Main entrance to the ballpark.

The Redbirds run a block party on Friday nights, which featured a band performing covers of Elvis songs.  With $2 Coors Light drafts and good music, it’s a fun way to start the weekend.

A band performs in the entry plaza before the game.

The block party also featured an Elvis impersonator who took photos in front of a Graceland backdrop, so naturally I had to get my picture with him.

The King lives on!

If Elvis wasn’t enough, the Budweiser Clydesdales greeted fans outside the stadium.

The Budweiser Clydesdales along Third Street.

Like many ballparks constructed during the late 1990s to early 2000s, AutoZone Park opened in downtown in a previously rundown area.  City officials hoped the ballpark would revitalize the surrounding area, which from what I can see had mixed results.  The warehouses and other previously abandoned buildings provide a great backdrop for the ballpark.  However, it does not appear that much new construction has occurred around the ballpark.  Thanks to the warehouses beyond the outfield fans get an enjoyable view from behind home plate.

Memphis Redbirds left-handed pitcher Tyler Lyons delivers the first pitch to Tacoma Rainiers center fielder Darren Ford.

The grub

It was extremely difficult deciding upon food at the ballpark.  I had to choose between BBQ nachos (which I’ve now learned is way more common at Minor League stadiums than I expected), the BBQ bacon hot dog, the Big Dog, and chicken on a stick.  Many people around the stadium suggested the BBQ nachos, but I declined because I had eaten some a few weeks ago at Birmingham Barons game (read about it here).

After much debate and introspection, I opted for the Big Dog.  The Big Dog is a foot-long hot dog covered in chili, shredded cheddar cheese, topped with three large onion rings, and served with a fork and knife.

The appropriately named Big Dog.

Upon further review, this camera angle may not give the Big Dog its due respects.  The fork and knife were extremely useful in consuming the Big Dog because I would have otherwise ended up with a giant mess down my t-shirt.  I debated upon getting a dessert item afterward, but I was too full from the Big Dog.

Mugging with the mascot

I had quick success getting a shot with Memphis’s Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird.  Immediately after first pitch I found him on the concourse, and got my picture.

Me and Memphis Redbirds mascot Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird.

Ballpark atmosphere

The Redbirds did a great job with in-game presentation, as Memphis players had their headshots converted into Elvis-style headshots for the game.

The scoreboard in right field with special player headshots in honor of Elvis Week.

Elvis may not resonate with everybody, but he is still clearly a fan favorite in Memphis and an Elvis bobblehead helped drum up a big Friday night crowd.

The King is in the ballpark.

The sightlines are great from every seat in the ballpark, as I was easily able to capture a couple of action shots during the game.

A very minor downside of the stadium design is that the concourse does not wrap around the entire park.  As has become more common, the bullpens are beyond the outfield walls, which assuredly affected the ability to build a concourse that connected all the way around the park.  Fans are able to walk far enough around in left field that they can see the entire grandstand and some of the city’s skyline.

A view of the grandstand with the historic Peabody Hotel overlooking the ballpark.

Recapping the night

From the beginning to the end I enjoyed my experience at AutoZone Park.  The block party is a great way to start off Friday night, especially because I was just passing through and didn’t have to wake up early the next morning.  The music was great and the drink specials were worthwhile, so much so that I didn’t buy another beer at the ballpark.

I cannot rave enough about the delicious food at AutoZone Park.  As a matter of fact, there were almost too many tempting food options.  I wanted to sample the BBQ bacon dog, but I was too full from the Big Dog to even consider it.

In addition to the delicious food, the night’s promotion was outstanding.  Instead of just giving away an Elvis Presley bobblehead, the team incorporated Elvis into the entire night with the block party, the Elvis-themed player headshots, and more.  I know I missed something special the following night when the Redbirds honored the Negro Leagues, but I was thrilled with my Elvis bobblehead and the entire evening.

Final: Tacoma 1, Memphis 3
Box Score

My night with the Mississippi Braves – Aug. 9, 2012

The last affiliated Minor League team in Jackson, Miss., left after the 1999 season.  While the city had some independent-league teams, residents did not get the opportunity to see affiliated ball until 2005 when the Greenville (S.C.) Braves relocated to the suburb of Pearl.

The renamed Mississippi Braves opened Trustmark Park on the eastern outskirts of Jackson.  Friends have told me that there was almost nothing around the stadium when it opened, so the presence of the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World means that development has grown up around the stadium.  Unfortunately, the stadium blends into the surrounding when you pass by it on I-20.  In fact, I didn’t realize it had its own exit when I first drove into Jackson to do some sightseeing before the game.  I only noticed the stadium exit the next morning.

Capturing the quintessential views

The main entrance is in right field, which is quite unusual for modern Minor League ballpark.  I hoped and expected to see a grander entrance, but it was just a gate with signage.  Nothing stood out about it.

Main entrance to the ballpark.

The view from behind home plate meets a trend I have noticed recently with newer Minor League stadiums.  The scoreboard in left center was nice, but the view beyond the outfield is just a cadre of trees.  It can be somewhat disappointing to fans who expect and want a great view at every ballpark, but the reality is that not every stadium can have a fantastic view.  It’s OK to be utilitarian and get the job done.

I hoped to get a photo with the M-Braves mascot, Trusty, but I never saw him in the crowd.  I only saw him on the field with the motorcyclists because it was Bike Night, and bikers got $5 tickets.  It is difficult to describe him, but for those who haven’t seen him I wanted to include the best photo possible.

Mississippi Braves mascot Trust high-fiving players as they run onto the field during introductions.

Per my routine, I camped out behind home plate after player introductions so I could capture the first pitch of the game.

Mississippi Braves right-handed pitcher David Hale delivers the first pitch to Birmingham Barons center fielder Justin Greene.

Grubs and suds

I hoped to find something unique to eat at the park, but had a very difficult time settling upon something.  As usual, I talked to employees and fans asking for suggestions.  I was told to try a Philly cheese steak, but couldn’t force myself to eat that in the South.  After reviewing all the concession stands and seeing that the food was simply generic – hot dogs, burgers, chicken tenders, etc. – and that nothing stood out as special I opted to eat at the Farm Bureau Grill. A ticket taker told me he really liked the gumbo and shrimp po’ boy, so I opted for the po’ boy.

I wanted to try the Knuckle Balls (naturally named for Braves legend Phil Niekro), but my request to get one each of the beef, chicken, and pork variety was rejected.  I hoped to sample a variety, so instead I stuck with the words of wisdom of the ticket taker.

The shrimp po’ boy I ordered at the Farm Bureau Grill in right field.

However, my experience with beer at the ballpark was better.  As I searched the concessions stands for something interesting, I stumbled upon a craft beer stand tucked behind a corner.  The stand had Shock Top, Blue Moon, and some other national varieties but the saving grace was the local choices.  I sampled three different brews and settled upon Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.  I got a 32-oz. drink for $8, which is a great bargain for this quality of beverage at a ballpark.  It was a tasty treat that complemented my shrimp po’ boy, and I’d definitely sample some of their other beers in the future.

Ballpark atmosphere

After eating and having a drink, I wandered the ballpark to capture a variety of perspectives.  Like many newer baseball stadiums, Trustmark Park has a wrap-around concourse, so I was able to capture a shot of the grandstand from the outfield.

An overview of the grandstand from center field.

Before too long I returned to my seat and focused on taking some pictures of the game and other features of the stadium like the scoreboard.

Recapping the night

Overall, I enjoyed Trustmark Park.  I wish the team store had their mascot on sale instead of generic hot dogs and peanuts with the M-Braves logo, but apparently the staffers don’t control what products get sent their way.

It was interesting to see team caps in the colors of the state’s three major universities: University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and University of Mississippi.  These weren’t caps for each of the schools, but instead the M-Braves logo on a cap in Golden Eagle or Bulldog or Rebel colors.  I’ve never seen that before at a Minor League stadium, but it was a unique touch.

Final: Birmingham 3, Mississippi 4 (13 innings)
Box Score

My night with the Montgomery Biscuits – Aug. 8, 2012

On my way back to Stillwater, Okla., for the school year I took a scenic route to watch some baseball games and see some sights. After seeing some National Park Service sites in Tuskegee, Ala., my first baseball game was a Montgomery Biscuits game at Riverwalk Stadium.

The ballpark is built into a former railroad building, which is clear from the signage at the corner of Coosa and Tallapoosa streets. The building still bears decorative signage dating from 1898 as home of the Western Railway of Alabama.

Main entrance to Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium incorporates part of a former train shed.

The view from home plate does not provide fans with a spectacular view.  There is a nice scoreboard in left center and fans get an open view of the field, but the backdrop isn’t one that has people bragging about the view.  The signage in the outfield isn’t excessive, so fans get to watch the game without being inundated with advertising.

Montgomery Biscuits right-handed pitcher Merrill Kelly delivers the first pitch of the game to Jackson Generals third baseman Francisco Martinez.

The crowd was almost nonexistent, and I’m not sure why.  It was a Wednesday night in August, so it’s not a prime game-night.  However, I expected the crowd to be better than what I saw.  Granted, August in Alabama is always humid, so maybe that’s why there were so few fans at the game.

Biscuits galore

With a team called the Biscuits and being in the South, I had to try the biscuits.  The biscuit stand is on the concourse immediately behind home plate, so you can’t miss it.  I had a few options for my biscuits, but settled on plain biscuits for two reasons:

  1. I didn’t want to eat JUST biscuits, so I couldn’t get chicken biscuits or biscuits and gravy and feel like I could eat something else.  Whenever possible, I try to sample a few noteworthy items at a ballpark.
  2. I almost opted for the strawberry shortcake biscuits, but passed when I learned that the strawberries were not fresh and came from a can.  By default that meant I had to order plain biscuits and top them with butter and either syrup or jelly.
Biscuits with butter and syrup.

Growing up in the South I’ve had biscuits with honey or jelly quite often, but I had never considered putting syrup on my biscuits until this night.  I faced a difficult decision: original Alaga syrup or Alaga Yellow Label syrup.  After taking into consideration some sage advice from the veteran biscuit seller and sampling the two varieties, I opted to mix and match.  I combined the Yellow Label and the original cane syrup for a delicious treat.

The meats…

For my sustenance I opted for a foot-long red hot sausage at the Sausage Shack.  I love encased meats, so I chose the locally-made sausage.  I’ve never heard of Conecuh before, but I was very pleased with their meat.  Yes, insert inappropriate meat joke.  I got my sausage topped with grilled peppers and onions and added sauerkraut before topping it with just a touch of yellow mustard.

A foot-long Conecuh red hot sausage.

I paired it with a beer from Back Forty Beer Co., which is based in Gadsden, Ala.  I drank their Truck Stop Honey previously (read my visit to Regions Park for more details), so I decided to stick with a local craft brew and tried their Naked Pig Pale Ale.  It was a good pairing with the spicy sausage, and I’m glad I stuck with a brand I knew.

I passed on Dreamland BBQ nachos because I ate them at Regions Park a few weeks prior to this trip.  So I didn’t feel the need to eat them again.  Many folks told me to try something from the South of the Border cart because it was the best bang for my buck.  Maybe next time I’ll experiment with Mexican food at an Alabama ballpark.

Mugging with the mascot

Food is always great, especially when it’s unique to the ballpark or region.  However, I think the best moment of the game was getting my photo taken with Biscuits mascot Big Mo – the biscuit lovin’ beast.  I don’t know how to describe him, but a friend said he looked like an anteater.  I guess it just goes to show you that some creatures are beyond description, and you just have to love them for what they are.

Me with Montgomery Biscuits Big Mo.

A wild finish

The game moved along fairly quickly as the Biscuits rallied in the 9th to claim a 2-1 victory over the stunned Jackson Generals.  A dribbler down the first base line left the pitcher and first baseman confused as to who should cover the bag and who should field the ball.  The runner on second raced around the bases as the batter dove head-first under the tag of the first baseman to give the home team the win.  It was a great finish to the game!

The nightly recap

I loved my experience at Riverwalk Stadium.  It is a great location in downtown with ample street parking nearby.  It wonderfully incorporates an old building into a newer structure.  To top it off, the Biscuits’ staff plays up the aspects that make people fall in love with Minor League Baseball: the food is unique, the prices give fans a good bang for their buck, and most importantly the staff is friendly.

Final: Jackson Generals 1, Montgomery Biscuits 2
Box Score

My night with the Birmingham Barons – July 21, 2012

For the first time in 19 years I went to a minor league baseball game in Hoover, Ala., and saw the Birmingham Barons host the Montgomery Biscuits.  My first visit to the stadium now known as Regions Park came in August 1993 with my dad, and sadly I don’t recall many details from that visit to the park.  Except for some souvenirs I have little recollection about the game.  However, I made sure to document my most recent visit to the stadium previously known as Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

I got great seats on the day of the game right behind home plate an hour before first pitch.  I don’t know if sales are slow because it is the last season the Barons will play at Regions Park or a reflection about the team’s overall attendance trend.  Regardless, I had great seats on a humid night.

Main entrance to Regions Park (formerly Hoover Metropolitan Stadium).

The stadium opened in 1987, which is obvious from the massive concrete grandstand, and lack of charm despite attempts to renovate the entrance.  The flags were at half mast because of the shooting in Aurora, Colo., the previous day.  Whether at half mast or not, the flag poles disrupt a fan’s ability to read the name of the park at its main entrance.

The souvenir shop is just feet past the gate, but is very small and has just the minimal amount of novelties for sale.  I purchased a Babe Ruff doll for my friend’s two-year-old son, which I know he’ll enjoy.  However, I was disappointed that the store did not have the replica wooden bat I wanted.  I hoped to find a natural-colored mini bat for my collection, but the store only had red and black varieties.  The team did the best with a not-so-great situation, but it certainly lacked the appeal of other souvenir stores.

After finding our seats, my friend Wally and I settled in for the start of the game as I wanted to be sure to capture the first pitch.

Birmingham Barons left-handed pitcher Spencer Arroyo delivers the first pitch to Montgomery Biscuits shortstop Hak-Ju Lee.

Grubs and suds

I had mixed results with the food and drink selection.  Three concession stands had the same items, except for the Stadium Pub & Grill.  The decor was the same as the other stands, but it featured Dreamland BBQ nachos.  The nacho chips were covered in melted cheese, pulled pork, bbq sauce, sour cream, onions, diced tomatoes, and jalapenos.  I’ve seen BBQ nachos at other ballparks (notably at Dickey-Stephens in North Little Rock and Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn.), but these were something to brag about.  I complemented the nachos with a 16-oz. Shock Top, and felt full but not stuffed.

Dreamland BBQ Nachos, which are nachos topped with pulled pork, Dreamland BBQ sauce, queso, pickled jalapeños, salsa fresco, and diced onions.

There were a few specialty stands like Mojitos Mexican Grill and Barber’s (an ice cream stand), but the thing that stood out the most was the premium beer stand along the first base line.  It has a variety of local microbrews, but the most shocking thing was the inclusion of Rolling Rock as a premium beer.  I’ve had Rolling Rock on many occasions, but I’d never classify it as a premium beer!  At least the Back Forty Truck Stop Honey  I drank hit the taste buds just right.

Ballpark atmosphere

As I watched the game, I made sure to capture a few photos of the seating bowl.  The stadium has undergone numerous renovations because it regularly hosts the Southeastern Conference’s annual baseball tournament.  However, the ballpark clearly lacks the amenities of newer parks.

The in-game entertainment was nothing special, but the postgame fireworks show compensated for any shortcomings.  The entertainment was not bad, but nothing stood out about the between-inning contests.  It was also difficult to hear the public address announcer.  The mascot names were cute, but Babe Ruff and Lillie Mays could have contributed more to the entertainment experience.

The fireworks were a great finish to the game.

Fireworks finale on a summer night.

Granted it is difficult to leave a ballpark unhappy after watching a fireworks display.

Final: Montgomery 5, Birmingham 1
Box Score