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.

Reviewing my 2016 ballpark resolutions

Like many people, I make New Years’ resolutions.  Unlike most people mine aren’t about losing weight, spending more time with family, getting organized, or any of the other most common resolutions that people end up breaking a few weeks into the new year.  Instead, my resolutions are about travel related to baseball teams.  Specifically, I tweet my resolutions about the baseball teams/stadiums I hope to visit during the upcoming year.

So as 2016 is nearly coming to a close, I’ve taken some time to sit down and look at my success of accomplishing my New Years’ resolutions.  Since 2014, I’ve written four resolutions on January 1st of each year.  So without further ado, I’ll review how I did accomplishing my resolutions for 2016.

Attending a Thirsty Thursday game hosted by the Asheville Tourists was easily accomplished as part of my trip to the Carolinas following my engagement.  It was the second stop of our trip through the Carolinas, and we did indeed took advantage of the beer specials that night (read about it here).

It’s tough for me to assess this resolution because I did not get to see all four South Carolina Minor League teams play at home, but I did make it to all four towns and had the intent of attending a game at all of the stadiums.  However, the Greenville Drive‘s home game was rained out on the night I was in town as part of my #SCMiLBTour.  So I ended up seeing the other three Minor League teams in the Palmetto State.  You can read about my experiences in Myrtle Beach (here), Charleston (here), and Columbia (here).

Since 2014, I’ve tried to see all three Kentucky Minor League teams in action, and have failed to accomplish that resolution.  Sadly, this past year was no different.  In early August, Katie and I attended a Bowling Green Hot Rods game (read it here), but we were unable to incorporate visits to Lexington or Louisville into our trip.

I hoped to make it to multiple Braves games at Turner Field during the 2016 season, but had to settle for just one ballgame before the club moved out.  However, in late May on the way back from the Carolinas, Katie and I watched the Milwaukee Brewers take on the Atlanta Braves in Turner Field.

As I’ve previously mentioned, trying to assess whether I accomplished all four of my resolutions is a bit difficult.  However, if I apply a black-or-white filter things become much clearer.  In a black-and-white world, I accomplished two of my four resolutions by attending a Braves game at Turner Field during their final season there and by attending an Asheville Tourists game on a Thirsty Thursday.  So overall I finished the year 2-for-4 (0.500 average).

If I break down the individual components of the resolutions my average climbs to 0.667 or 6-for-9.  As usual, my eyes are often bigger than my schedule when it comes to attending baseball games.  But now it’s time to consider my resolutions for 2017…

My night with the Columbia Fireflies – May 24, 2016

After two days in Charleston (read about it here), Katie and I headed to our last stop on our tour of Minor League Baseball stadiums in South Carolina.  Before making it to Columbia to watch the Fireflies, we explored Congaree National Park, which is the place that inspired the team’s name (read about it here).

Before heading to the game, we stopped at a couple of local breweries (Conquest Brewing Company and Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse), but those will be covered in a separate post.

Following parking in a field on the grounds of the former Bull Street Lunatic Asylum, we headed toward the newest Minor League Baseball stadium in the United States: Spirit Communications Park.

Main entrance.

Although Katie and I made the 1/3-mile loop around the concourse and checked out the gift shop, we opted to wait on food and beverages to watch the beginning of the game.

Columbia Fireflies starting pitcher Andrew Church delivering the first pitch to Augusta GreenJackets shortstop Lucius Fox.

Somehow I never found a posted lineup for the game or the South Atlantic League standings posted at the stadium.  However, due to an online box score I was able to see what San Francisco Giants prospects (see full list here) were playing for the visiting Augusta GreenJackets and what New York Mets (see full list here) prospects were on the field for the hometown Columbia Fireflies.

After watching a few innings of play, Katie and I made another trip around the concourse so I could take some photos.  So first things we saw was the kids zone in left field.

Inflatables in the kids zone.

 

Grandstand with suite boxes on the second level.

Among the buildings in the outfield there are a number of displays detailing Columbia’s baseball history.  One of the displays specifically discusses the first professional team in Columbia, which used a variety of names before settling on the Comers.

One of two displays detailing the history of baseball in Columbia.

 

Display detailing the Columbia Commies, which played in the original South Atlantic League from 1903 to 1930.

 

Second set of display detailing Columbia’s baseball history, including the Columbia Reds and the Capital City Bombers, who were the last professional team in Columbia until the Fireflies moved to town before the 2016 season.

 

Display honoring Larry Doby, a native of nearby Camden, was the first African-American player in the American League
and second  African-American to play in the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson.

Beyond the current stadium wall is the South Carolina State Hospital, which was locally known as the Bull Street Lunatic Asylum.  The stadium and other planned developments are being built on land that once belonged to the hospital, which the Babcock Building (read its entry on the National Register of Historic Places here) and other structures still stand (read about development plans here).  The Babcock Building’s Italian Renaissance Revival architecture provides an aesthetically pleasing perch overlooking the ballpark.

The Babcock Building just beyond the ballpark.

After getting beers at the bar in right field, we fortunately ran into the Fireflies mascot Mason.  So Katie and I waited for him and had our picture taken with him for the second time that day.  We originally got a photo with Mason by the main entrance, but the staff member’s shadow was evident in the first photo.

Katie and I with Mason.

Following our trip around the concourse, I finally settled on my dinner choice.  There is a portable concession stand near home plate that serves barbecue.  South Carolina is noted for its unique take on barbecue, so I felt like having some was appropriate as we had not eaten any during the rest of our trip.

Barbecue Sliders with three sauces: Carolina Gold, Sweet ‘n’ Spicy, and Pepper Vinegar.

The shredded pork was excellent.  It was moist yet not sopping wet.  The sauces were a mixed bag, as could be expected.  The Carolina Gold sauce was great.  It is a mustard-based sauce, but it was sweet and tangy all at once.  The Sweet ‘n’ Spicy was a tomato-based sauce that matched its name to a T.  The Pepper Vinegar sauce was OK, but I have never been a fan of vinegar-based sauces.

Following my meal, I decided to take a few photos of two notable locations on the concourse that I had missed earlier.  The first was the gift shop, which unto itself is not special, but I wanted to capture the iridescent glow on the marquee that is featured at other locations along the concourse.

The gift store.

The other location I wanted to feature was the SweetWater Brewing Company-branded bar behind home plate.  SweetWater is an Atlanta-based regional craft brewery.  So I was a little surprised to see their name splashed across the bar instead of seeing one of the local breweries featured.  While beers from Columbia-based breweries are available at the stadium, I did not expect to see an Atlanta-based brewery to have naming rights at the ballpark.

Home Plate Bar featuring the branding of Georgia-based SweetWater Brewing Company.

In addition to capturing these two shots of the concourse, I realized that I did not have a photo of the videoboard or any good pictures of players in action.

Videoboard in left field.

 

Augusta reliever Jake McCasland facing Columbia right fielder Kevin Kaczmarski.

Unfortunately my camera does a mediocre job taking photos at night, but I felt like it was necessary to show off the Fireflies’ uniforms.

Perhaps one of the funnest things Katie and I got to do took place after the game when all fans were allowed to run the bases.  Running the bases is a common event at many MiLB stadiums, but it’s usually reserved for kids and typically takes places only one day a week.  However, the Fireflies let fans of all ages run the bases after all home games, so Katie and I took advantage and ran the bases after the final out.

Although the stadium opened on time for the season, the push to complete the stadium meant that the parking lot was not completed when we attended the game in mid-May.  However, all the amenities at the stadium were completed.  So I got to enjoy delicious barbecue and a good selection of craft beer.

While the barbecue was great, I was a bit disappointed to see that the team didn’t push the envelope by offering more unique food items.  In their first season, the team may not have wanted to experiment too much with food choices.  Regardless, the food available at the stadium was excellent, and the beer selection covered the bases with domestic macro brews, regional craft beers, and local craft beers.  The stadium is beautiful and was completed on time, as promised.  Hopefully fosters further development as Hardball Capital‘s stadium project in Fort Wayne did.

Final Score: Augusta 2, Columbia 14
Box Score

Previewing my trip through the Carolinas

Since this past December, my girlfriend and I have been planning a trip to North and South Carolina once the school year was over.  She grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, so she has not visited many of the states in the Southeast.  She loves to travel, and thankfully appreciates and supports my desire to visit baseball stadiums – Major League and Minor League.

So when I thought about places we could visit in the spring after we both wrapped up the spring semesters, I had two suggestions: the Carolinas or the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans.  As Katie has visited Louisiana before, and made a brief stop in Mississippi last summer, she quickly said she would prefer to visit the Carolinas.

Next came the more difficult task of figuring out a schedule.  As Ben Hill or Malcolm MacMillan or Craig Wieczorkiewicz and countless others can tell you, it is difficult pulling together a schedule where you see a new ballpark every day.  I can’t attest to how others compile their schedule, but I usually put multiple teams’ schedules into an Excel spreadsheet and highlight dates where the home schedules overlap or are at least contiguous, which would allow me to visit one team on Wednesday, travel the next day, and visit another team on Thursday.

The biggest goal I laid out for this trip was to limit driving each day to 3-4 hours.  Considering the distribution of MiLB teams (see map) in the Southeast this was an easy goal to accomplish.  However, considering that my girlfriend lives in Nashville, and we are departing from there to begin our journey I had to make an exception and we’ll make our first stop at a Tennessee ballpark.

So without further back story, here is our schedule:

Wednesday, May 18: Birmingham Barons at Tennessee Smokies, 7:05 p.m.

Thursday, May 19: Kannapolis Intimidators at Asheville Tourists, 7:05 p.m.

Friday, May 20: Lexington Legends at Greenville Drive, 7:05 p.m.

Saturday, May 21: Lynchburg Hillcats at Myrtle Beach Pelicans, 7:05 p.m.

Sunday, May 22: Day Off

Monday, May 23: West Virginia Power at Charleston RiverDogs, 7:05 p.m.

Tuesday, May 24: August GreenJackets at Columbia Fireflies, 7:05 p.m.

If you prefer a visual perspective with the list, you can follow along with the map below.

Map of upcoming baseball stadium visits.

I may not have the staff of MiLB.com like Ben Hill to Photoshop stuff for me, but this former SID still has a few Photoshop skills.  You’ll be able to follow along via my Twitter handle (@geoSteven) or my Instagram (@geo_steven).  If you want a woman’s perspective, you can follow Katie’s Twitter handle (@DJKati).

Katie and I have traveled together before, but never for such a long period of time or to so many baseball stadiums.  We also share a common interest in craft beer, so we will incorporate our visits to local breweries into the blog as well.  We have not come up with a name for our brewery visits, but we will create a dedicated page on the blog for these visits.  So along with visits to a number of baseball stadiums with my usual write up, you’ll be able to read about some of the South’s craft breweries.

Revealing my 2016 ballpark resolutions

Over the past two years I’ve made some baseball-related travel resolutions for the new year (Read 2015 resolutions here).  I’ve continued that trend into 2016, so before the semester gets away from me I wanted to sit down and recap my goals for the upcoming baseball season.

Getting right to the point, my first Minor League Baseball travel resolution is to…

I’ve previously made resolutions to see specific teams, but I have not made a resolution to attend on a specific day of the week or to attend a specific promotion. I have avoided these resolutions for two reasons:

#1, most teams do not release their complete promotional schedules until February or March at the earliest;

#2, my goal is usually to visit multiple teams on a trip, which means that in order to visit multiple teams on a trip that I may visit a specific club on a Tuesday because another team is on the road and I have to visit them on a Wednesday.

However, I have already been planning a trip through North Carolina and South Carolina, so I know that my schedule permits me to attend a game in Asheville on a Thursday. So my resolution is more about sticking to my plan than making a special effort to attend a game on a Thursday night. While many MiLB teams have a Thirsty Thursday promotion, it is unique in Asheville because the promotion originated with the Tourists. You can read about the origins of the promotion from MiLB.com writer Ben Hill here.

My second MiLB travel resolution is to…

I have previously aimed to see all the Minor League teams in a state before, and so far I’ve had mixed success in achieving the goal.  In 2014, I made separate resolutions to see all the teams in Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky.  While I saw teams in each of those states, I did not come anywhere near reaching my goal.  However, last year I made only one resolution to see all the MiLB teams in a state.  I was able to meet that goal when I visited all four teams in Georgia.

My girlfriend, who thankfully enjoys baseball and many of my other interests, has not yet visited South Carolina, so she and I have been discussing taking a trip to the Palmetto State after the spring semester.  So it seemed natural to me that we try to visit all of the teams in South Carolina because each of the cities represents a different region of the state, and allows us to see the variety that the state offers visitors.

The added bonus is that I have never seen any Minor League games in South Carolina, so I would visit four new ballparks and add another state to my tally.

My third MiLB travel resolution is to…

For the second time in three years, I have set the goal to see all three Kentucky MiLB teams.  In 2014, I saw the Bowling Green Hot Rods (read it here), but did not see the Bluegrass State’s other two teams in action.  My motivation for seeing all three Kentucky teams in based primarily around proximity.  My girlfriend lives in Nashville, and wants to see Mammoth Cave National Park, which is approximately 90 minutes away.  As I have never seen the Lexington Legends in action nor have I written about visiting the Louisville Bats, I’m aiming to make a short trip to the Commonwealth to explore baseball, bourbon, and beer.

The past two years I have made four MiLB-related resolutions, one often ties into my travel to the AAG Annual Meeting.  In 2016, the conference takes place the last week of March, which is before the start of the Minor League season.  So for the first time ever, I limited my MiLB resolutions to three, and made my first MLB-related resolution.

My first MLB travel resolution is to…

I’ve written previously about growing up an Atlanta Braves fan, and the club plays its final season at Turner Field before moving to a new stadium in the suburbs for the 2017 season.  So while Turner Field is not a particularly historic venue, it holds special significance to me as a fan and as someone who worked at the stadium for many years.  So I would like to see at least one more game at the stadium before it is replaced.

With my resolutions set, now the planning and working to ensure they happen really starts.  While I upheld three of my four resolutions from 2015, we will see what 2016 holds and how many of my baseball-related travel resolutions I can uphold.