Reviewing my 2018 ballpark resolutions

Over the past four years I’ve made ballpark travel resolutions based primarily upon seeing Minor League Baseball games, and each year I recap the goals and assess how successful I was in accomplishing my goals.  So without further ado, here is how I did with my 2018 ballpark travel resolutions.

Resolution #1:

I had previously seen all of Alabama’s Minor League teams play at home, but never during the same season.  More importantly, setting the goal of seeing all three Alabama teams at home in one season was about my wife getting the opportunity to see each of the teams at home.  In turn, this goal was about us as a couple seeing each team play at their home ballpark.

We accomplished this goal pretty easily, as we built our Memorial Day weekend plans around this travel resolution (read about the trip here).  We made a trip down to Mobile and visited some nearby craft breweries before attending a Montgomery Biscuits game, and finished the trip with my wife’s first time at the Rickwood Classic.

Resolution #2:

It wasn’t the easiest resolution to keep, but I did get to see the Lexington Legends and Louisville Bats at home with my wife this past year.  For the past seven years I’ve participated in the AP Human Geography Reading in Cincinnati, Ohio, in early June.  As my wife had never been to Ohio, we made plans for her to fly into Cincinnati at the end of my work week, and for us to drive back through Kentucky on our way home to Alabama.

So I created an itinerary that would allow us to spend a few days in Louisville and Lexington en route to Alabama.  After a great weekend in Cincinnati, we caught a Bats games in Louisville (read about it here) and a Legends games in Lexington (read about it here) before our trek back to Tuscaloosa.

Resolution #3:

When I make my travel resolutions, I try to be fairly realistic about what I can and cannot accomplish.  I don’t always go for easily attainable goals, but I don’t go for the nearly-impossible-to-attain goals either.  When I set the goal of attending a Potomac Nationals game during the Beer Bloggers Conference, I felt like it was something I could make happen.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I moved to Japan shortly before the conference and was unable to attend.  Naturally this meant that I did not get to attend a Potomac Nationals games this past season.

So I whiffed on this resolution.

Resolution #4:

I’ve been to several Major League and Minor League ballparks before getting married last year.  So when my wife & I got married, I wanted to start something new with her as I (and ultimately we) continued to visit more ballparks.  So after being introduced to the MLB BallPark Pass-Port a few years ago, we decided to purchase the large, leather-bound book to chronicle our journey to attend games at all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.

As we made plans for her to meet me in Cincinnati in early June, it was easy to get a stamp in our “big book.”  I hoped to visit at least one other MLB ballpark in 2018, but our July trip to Central Europe and move to Japan prevented us from traveling more in the U.S.  So I count this as a resolution being kept.  However, I would have preferred adding at least one more MLB park this past season.

Recapping the Resolutions
  1. See all three Minor League Baseball teams (Birmingham Barons, Mobile BayBears, and Montgomery Biscuits) in Alabama with my wife.
    Resolution kept.
  2. Attend a Lexington Legends and Louisville Bats game with my wife.  Resolution kept.
  3. Attend a Potomac Nationals game during the Beer Bloggers Conference.  Resolution not kept.
  4. Visit a new MLB ballpark with my wife and get a stamp in our passport book.  Resolution kept.

I upheld three of my four ballpark resolutions for this past year.  In hindsight, I don’t feel like my resolutions were particularly difficult to keep.  However, I am please that I accomplished most of my baseball travel goals this year.  Now to contemplate my New Year’s Resolutions for 2019.

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.

Revealing my 2018 ballpark resolutions

Since 2014, I have posted travel resolutions for each new year.  They typically related to traveling to see new Minor League Baseball stadiums.  As I rung in the new year, I sat down and posted my resolutions.  So here are my resolutions for the upcoming year.

My first resolution for 2018…

Over the past six years, I have managed to see all of the MiLB teams in my current home state of Alabama.  However, I have not seen them all with my now wife Katie.  Since she moved to the Yellowhammer State just over a year ago, she has stated how much she wants to see all the teams in the state.  In fact, it was a resolution I made last year, hoping to see all three teams in 2017.  We’ve seen the Birmingham Barons on multiple occasions, as Regions Field is just about an hour away from our home.  However, she wants to attend the Barons’ annual game at Rickwood Field.

So our goal for this year is to visit all three teams over Memorial Day weekend. Tentatively we’ll start our trip with a game on the Gulf Coast in Mobile, and then work our way north through Montgomery, and conclude our trip with the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham.

My second resolution for 2018…

For the past few years, I’ve been made resolutions to see all three MiLB teams in Kentucky. Specifically, I made the resolution in 2016 and 2014, and resolved to see the Lexington Legends in 2015.  I’ve fallen short each time, and so far have only seen the Bowling Green Hot Rods.  I first saw them in 2014 by myself (read about it here) and next saw them in 2016 with Katie (read about it here), and enjoyed the game from the club level.

The plan this year is to see the Legends and Bats on the way back to Cincinnati, Ohio, after the A.P. Human Geography Reading, which is the first week of June.  The game schedules line up to allow us to visit both ballparks after spending a few days in Ohio, so I’m pretty optimistic that we will get to visit these two ballparks.

My third resolution for 2018…

Last year, I learned that there was a conference/convention for people who blog about beer. It was in the fall in 2017, so I was unable to attend because of my other commitments. However, I followed closely the announcement of the dates and venue for 2018, and decided that I would attend it this year.  So while I will be going to Loudoun County, Va., primarily to network and learn more about beer blogging, I’m going to arrive a few days in advance of the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference to visit a few MiLB teams in the area.  There are a LOT of teams within a two-hour drive or so from the conference hotel.  So I am not 100% sure what teams I will see just yet, but I felt like I should visit the Potomac Nationals because of the continuous rumors about the team moving into a yet-to-be-built stadium or potentially relocating.

My fourth resolution for 2018…

Last summer, I started a new “collection” with my wife Katie.  In an effort to keep us traveling and visiting new cities, I purchased the MLB BallPark Pass-Port.  There are a variety of books you can purchase, but I opted for the “big book” that contains a set of pages for each of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.  A friend I met through participating in the A.P. Human Geography Reading has been using the passport for years to track his family’s quest to visit all 30 parks, and finally last summer I decided to join the craze.  It functions like a standard international passport that is stamped each time you enter a new country.  The idea is to “stamp in” at each stadium and journal about your visit as a way to preserve your memories of visiting a new place.  There is also a book that focuses on Minor League Baseball ballparks, which I purchased for Katie and I to chronicle our visits to MiLB stadiums since getting married.  So we now have something new to do when we visit stadiums together.

My resolution about visiting a new MLB park this year is that Katie and I have planned our summer around a variety of events, and have tried to find a time to visit a new ballpark.  Unfortunately, we have not been able to figure out a time to visit a new stadium.  So I am hoping that making this resolution will set us on a path of making the time to visit a new park together in 2018.  As much as I’d like to plan a long trip around visiting a new ballpark, I will be content to visit over a weekend for the sole purpose of getting another stamp in our “big book.”

RECAP
Do you make travel resolutions for the new year?  Are they about visiting countries, states, sports venues, or something else?  I’d love to hear what others resolve to do related to travel each year.  Share in the comments, and let’s keep each other on point to fulfill our travel resolutions for 2018.

My night with the Gwinnett Braves – July 19, 2014

The cliché goes that people don’t see the sights in their hometown because the sights are right there.  While that isn’t totally true about me visiting the Gwinnett Braves, there is a kernel of truth in the statement.

I grew up in Cobb County about 40 miles and roughly an hour drive from where Coolray Field stands now.  Growing up in suburban Atlanta during the ’80s and ’90s there was only ONE team in the area: the Atlanta Braves.  Going to a minor league game at that time meant a trip to a number of towns two hours away like Augusta, Columbus, or Macon.  Since 2009, minor league baseball fans haven’t had to venture far to catch a game because the Atlanta Braves relocated their AAA farm team to suburban Atlanta.  However, I haven’t made many trips to Lawrenceville because it’s not particularly geographically convenient to me.

I made one visit in 2011, but did not blog about that experience.  I decided to visit this summer with a friend from grad school who lives in Cumming (approximately 20 miles and 30 minutes away from the stadium) so I could write about my fan experience.

Main entrance.
Ticket office next to the main gate.

Even the casual baseball fan can deduce that the Gwinnett Braves are owned by the Atlanta Braves, so it’s not a surprise to see signage at Coolray Field connecting the G-Braves to the big league club.  However, I was quite surprised to see banners with Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron welcoming fans.  None of the three ever played or coached the Gwinnett club.  Jones did play for the franchise when it was in Richmond, Va., but he didn’t even do a rehab stint with the team.

As a minor league baseball and Atlanta Braves fan, I’d rather see banners boast players who spent time with the G-Braves like Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, or Jason Heyward, who are highlighted on the Gwinnett team’s website.

My friend and I arrived at the stadium about 40 minutes before the start of the game, so we were too late to get one of the Ron Gant bobbleheads.  There was an extremely long line of people waiting for him to autograph items, so it made exploring the food options a bit difficult because it wrapped around so much of the concourse that it was tough getting to some of the concession stands.  Despite the lines at some of the stands, the wait wasn’t very long because there was a plethora of stands plus a few specialty places like a McAlister’s Deli stand, a Chick-fil-A kiosk, and Niekro’s, which is a full-service restaurant with a bar.

Best-named concession stand.
They do serve McAlister’s Famous Sweet Tea.
Home of the ballpark’s signature food item: The Knucksie.
Food options along the third-base concourse.

I chose not to eat right away after checking out my choices, so I opted not to get dinner and instead waited for the first pitch.  However, before the first pitch you need to know the lineup.

The starting lineups featuring Evan Gattis on a rehabilitation assignment.

To the best of my memory, I have never been to a minor league game when a major league player was doing a rehab assignment.  So seeing Evan Gattis in the lineup was a first for me.

First pitch between the Durham Bulls and Gwinnett Braves.

After the first pitch, I returned to Niekro’s and ordered a Knucksie.  My friend got a chicken sandwich from the Chick-fil-A kiosk.  As has become custom, I had to take a photo of my food during the game.

The Knucksie: house-smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw served on a toasted corn muffin.

The sandwich was delicious and very filling.  I didn’t detect two BBQ sauces, but the sweet, mayo-based cole slaw mixed well with the BBQ sauce and created a very tasty mix along with the corn muffin.  I opted for it because it is genuinely the signature item at the ballpark, and because none of the other items at the concession stands stood out as truly unique.

The beer selection was limited, too.  Georgia has a growing craft brewery industry, but the only local brew I could find was SweetWater 420 on draft at Niekro’s.  None of the concession stands had it on tap nor did I see it offered in bottles or cans anywhere in the stadium.  In this day of neolocalism and ballparks trying to offer signature food items and drinks, it’s disappointing that there were no special beers or drinks at the stadium.

Due to the larger than average crowd, I did not walk around the stadium as much as I did when I first visited in 2011.  So I stayed in my seat along the third base line to take most of my photographs, especially of the game action.

Scoreboard in right field.
Durham starting pitcher Alex Colome with Gwinnett shortstop Ozzie Martinez taking a lead off first.
Gwinnett Braves catcher Evan Gattis (a.k.a El Oso Blanco) at the plate.

While watching the game from the third base line, I captured a few shots that showed off the stadium like the right field fence that featured the club’s two retired numbers: Tommie Aaron and Jackie Robinson.  I shouldn’t have to explain to baseball fans why Robinson has his number retired, but Aaron has his number retired when the franchise played in Richmond and it was re-retired during the club’s 2012 season.

The G-Braves’ two retired numbers honors by the visitors bullpen.

Even if you’re not a vexillologist, everybody likes to have fun with flags.  One my interests as a kid was flags, so I always try to capture a photo when flags are flying.  Of the three flags, I only could identify two of them: the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the State of Georgia.

The best flag photo I captured on a night that wasn’t very windy.

Although the food and beverage choices did not provide a unique touch to the gameday experience, the stadium seats did.  The seat at the end of each aisle is emblazoned with the Coolray Field logo, which isn’t a big part about going out to the ballpark, but it is adds a unique touch to the stadium.

A great detail on the stadium seats.

Speaking of seats, I always enjoy a view of the grandstand because it shows how multiple layers are blended into one.  In this case, it shows off the suite boxes on the second level along with the press box.

View of the grandstand with the press box behind home plate and the suites down the first base line.

After walking around a little bit, fog started to set in so my friend and I sat down along the first base line to watch the end of the game.  That didn’t stop me from taking photos, as I snagged the following shots.

Awesome alliteration as the Bullpen Buffet overlooks the home team’s bullpen.

As a longtime baseball fan, one of the most enjoyable things about watching minor league games is being able to see players make the Majors.  If you’ve watched enough baseball, sometimes you get to see a player who made it to the Majors playing in Triple-A trying to make a big-league roster.  I got to see that with Durham’s Wilson Betemit, who came up in the Atlanta Braves system and made the big-league roster in 2004.  Ten years later he’s played on six MLB team’s and is with his seventh organization (Tampa Bay Rays).

Former Atlanta Braves farmhand Wilson Betemit playing first base.

Another reason I wanted to walk around the stadium was to find the team’s mascot, Chopper.  As my friend said, there are two things people will almost always see when I post photographs of my visit to a Minor League Baseball stadium: a food photo and a photo with the team mascot.

After securing my food photo early in the game, I needed to find the groundhog to get my mascot photo.  I found him along the first base line, as my friend and I walked around to check things out.

Me with Chopper.

Overall the gameday experience was good.  The between-innings contests were good, and you can read more about them from MiLB.com’s Ben Hill’s visits in 2010 and 2014.  The stadium is easily accessible to the surrounding Gwinnett County community, and the view of the outfield doesn’t lead fans to see the state highway in the distance.

As a fan of baseball and, especially Minor League Baseball, I wish the team incorporated more local elements into the food and drink choices and pushed the envelope.  The team does a great job with traditional promotions like bobbleheads that obviously brought out a large crowd on a Saturday night.  The club has jumped on board with the zombie craze and is taking advantage of the fact that The Walking Dead is filmed in the Atlanta area by hosting “The Day of the Dead” promotion on Aug. 3.  So the marketing crew has the potential to think outside the box and exploit local elements, but the food and drink choices haven’t received the same treatment from their corresponding department.