Wednesday, August 24, 2016
On my recent trip to the south, I spent a couple of days in both Augusta and Columbia, which gave me a chance to do a bit of sightseeing. There were two attractions that stood out for opposite reasons: the first was a history museum that was surprisingly detailed and had some incredible artifacts; the second was an abandoned ballpark that shows what happens when a place is simply forgotten.
Augusta Museum of History
Located a block from the east end of the Riverwalk in downtown Augusta, this museum lowers its admission price from $4 to $1 during the month of August. It is worth paying that just to escape from the heat and humidity as the museum is fully air conditioned, but once inside, you will find that the exhibits will keep you here for a couple of hours. The first floor is a chronological history of Augusta and its environs, while the second floor has some special exhibits, including a couple of rooms on the history of golf, with special attention paid to the nearby Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.
A few pictures to illustrate what you can expect here:
Georgia was a confederate state and the Civil War is covered in detail.
A streetcar, one of many large-scale artifacts on display.
A small tribute to baseball in Augusta, including a GreenJackets jersey from the newest incarnation.
James Brown grew up here and there is a large exhibit dedicated to him. The poster above is from a show in Croatia in May, 2006; Brown died on Christmas Day that year, truly the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
Capital City Stadium
The Columbia Fireflies may be the newest team in the minors, but the city has a rich history of minor league baseball. From 1983-2004, the Mets South Atlantic League affiliate (known as the Columbia Mets between 1983-92 before becoming the Capital City Bombers) played out of Capital City Stadium. This ballpark was originally constructed in 1927 and rebuilt in 1991. A year after the Bombers moved to Greenville in 2005, a collegiate wood bat league team, the Columbia Blowfish, moved in, using the stadium until 2014, when they moved again, this time to Lexington, just 20 miles west of Columbia. In the two years since, the stadium seems to have been ignored and is now considered abandoned. However, you can still stop by and the outfield gate is open, so you can get inside and walk around. It is kind of depressing.
The scoreboard still has the Blowfish name on it and a mural is signed by the 2010 interns.
Weeds are sprouting up down the lines.
The seating bowl is still clean, though the seats themselves seem a bit weather-beaten.
A garbage can sits in the batter's box. How fitting.
This was my first experience seeing an abandoned ballpark, and it was certainly interesting and worth a look if you are in Columbia. If you want to see what the park looked like when it was in use, click here.
Columbia is home to three microbreweries, all located within a couple of miles of each other. River Rat, Swamp Cabbage, and Conquest all offer tasting rooms. Conquest's IPA was available at Spirit Communications Park, so my friend Meg and I went to the other two. River Rat has food, so we started there, and then moved over to Swamp Cabbage, which is a much smaller operation.
One of the interesting things we found in the games corner there was an old pinball machine shaped like a baseball diamond. The object is to get the balls into the holes at the top, with each hole labeled as single, double, triple, homer, or out. It was fun for a couple of minutes, but not recommended with precious beer glasses nearby as the game moves a bit as you play it.
Sunday, August 21, 2016
The final stop on this trip was Lawrenceville, Georgia, where the Gwinnett Braves play. Gwinnett is a county just northeast of Atlanta and Lawrenceville is the county seat and also where Coolray Field is located. The Braves AAA franchise has resided here since 2009 when they moved from Richmond. The name of the field might sound cool, but actually it is an air conditioning firm based in Marietta that owns the naming rights.
It is easy to get here as the ballpark is just a mile or so south of I-85, but remember that rush hour traffic in Atlanta can be brutal so add 30 minutes to your planned travel time if you are attending a 7:00 game. Parking is $5 and is well organized on the way in, with three people collecting the fee simultaneously. I can only guess that the postgame exit is much more frustrating; I attended a fireworks night and left immediately after the final pitch while most of the crowd stayed around to watch the pyrotechnics.
This was yet another doubleheader after a rainout the previous night, but I had completely forgotten to double-check the start time after arriving at my hotel, so I missed much of the first game. This turned out to be a minor blessing as I got a free ticket handed to me as I walked to the box office. Even better, the ticket came with a cap giveaway, a nice old-style Braves hat with the Gwinnett logo.
The park has a single seating bowl with suites above and an open concourse that allows views of the field from wherever you are. Note that the roof does not curve at all, this leads to a few covered seats in the top rows along the lines, as you can see below.
There are a number of individual standing tables that are mostly unused and provide some space to eat or score the game. The view below is from one of those tables, and as you would expect, you can easily move into the seating bowl after a couple of innings. In fact, the Braves are last in the International League (and all of AAA) in attendance at 3,357 per game, perhaps due to the access issues. With capacity over 10,000; there should never be a problem getting a row to yourself.
There is a walking path that takes you around the entire ballpark. The visiting bullpen is next to the right field berm should you feel the need to heckle.
The large scoreboard is behind right field and offers basic stats. Behind it is a condominium development known as The Views with floor plans named after Braves legends. You can see that I arrived around the top of the fifth of the first game. Oops.
The view from center field shows the overall ballpark design.
In the left field corner is a picnic area that was open to the public on this day. This looks to be a good spot to get foul balls.
Compared to some of the newer AAA parks I have visited this season in El Paso and Nashville, Coolray Field is not that fancy but it does the job. Concessions are varied with several specialty stands such as Burgertopia, Steakadelphia (Philly cheesesteaks), and Hickory BBQ some of the options. I enjoy any park that provides a standing area in the infield, something more useful here than elsewhere as you'll want to stretch out after spending an hour stuck in traffic trying to get here.
Gwinnett won the first game 7-5 as Charlotte's Carson Fulmer gave up six runs in one inning in his first start for Charlotte since being sent down.
The second game featured David Holmberg for Charlotte against Aaron Blair, both who have several games in the majors. The game was over pretty quickly when Adam Engel (19th round, 2013) hit a grand slam for Charlotte in the bottom of the second. The Knights tacked on another run in the inning and coasted from there, with Holmberg going the distance, yielding just 2 hits. One of those was a triple by Mel Rojas Jr. (3rd, 2010 by Pittsburgh), who scored on a sacrifice fly for the Braves only run. Gwinnett used 5 pitchers for their 7 frames, but every change occurred to start the inning, so this one finished up in a relatively quick 2:06 as Charlotte gained the split with a 5-1 win.
Coolray completes the International League ballparks and thus AAA for me. At this point, I have 24 minor league venues left to see but that number is always in flux. Already we know of three franchises moving next season, requiring more visits on my part. Fortunately all are roughly in the same area as two High A teams are moving from California to North Carolina while the Brevard County Manatees are shifting 50 miles west to Kissimmee. I'll probably see these in combination with the Braves new stadium and my sole remaining Southern League ballpark in Jackson, Mississippi on one trip.
The other leagues with remaining teams are the Midwest (8), Northwest (6), and Pioneer (8) and I'll plan trips to those once the MLB schedule is out and we know the Jays road trips as I'm hoping they get to Wrigley and Miller Park at a minimum as they will be facing the NL Central in interleague play.
That's it for baseball this season, and I'll be pretty quiet over the winter as I return to work for a while. I've got a short CFL trip to Toronto and Montreal coming up at the end of the month, and I'll be seeing the Leafs in Chicago in October. I also have to add the four new Club 122 venues (Rams, Vikings, Oilers, Sacramento Kings) which will keep me busy enough. As always, my schedule is updated regularly, so if you are in a city I am visiting, drop me a line and we can meet up for a game.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Thursday saw a relatively short drive from Sevierville, Tennessee to Rome, Georgia. Google Maps suggested a rather roundabout route back through Knoxville and down I-75, 196 miles total that would take just over three hours. Or, if you wanted to drive 34 miles less in much more relaxing conditions, you could take US-411 and GA-25 most of the way, at the cost of 22 extra minutes. Seems like they should suggest the shortest route before the fastest when the mileage difference is so big, but hey, most people can think for themselves and figure out what is in their best interest, right?
Anyway, after a severe storm passed overhead just as I was leaving Sevierville, the rest of the drive was in good weather and I arrived in Rome a couple of hours before the 5:00 first pitch. The odd start time was due to a rainout the night previous, so I had two 7-inning games to look forward to.
The Braves play at State Mutual Stadium, their home since they moved here from Macon in 2003. It is located just north of downtown next to the Oostanaula River and the remote location allows them to charge $5 for parking, ridiculous for low Class A ball. As I arrived, the rain from which I had escaped earlier in the day began to reappear. I turned on the radio broadcast to hear that the tarp was on the field as a storm was expected to pass overhead shortly. The stadium has no covered seats, so I walked across the street to Bella Roma Grill, an Italian restaurant that has a roof, a small bar, and a happy hour from 3-6 with pints for $1.75. Sure enough, the rain came and thankfully departed before happy hour was over. I made my way back to the stadium, picked up a ticket and entered just a few minutes before the first game was scheduled to start at 6:00. As an aside, you might be able to park at Bella Roma and enjoy a happy hour pint or two before walking to the stadium; just confirm with the bartender or manager to avoid being towed.
The stadium has a couple of unique features: directions measured in steps (above), and a number of detailed history displays about baseball in the area that are well worth reading.
There are two seating levels here with a small walkway between them. The seats in the sections behind the plate are Club ($13) and allow admittance into the Three Rivers Club, a restaurant just inside the main entrance. Dugout seats ($20) are obviously found behind the dugouts, while field level seats ($11) are further down the lines. Box seats ($9) are those on the second level outside the club area, while a GA ticket is $6 and allows you to sit in any of the public areas. Of course, ushers don't bother checking, so you can safely use this option when the ballpark is not crowded. Note that you can save $2 by purchasing in advance.
There are a couple of special seating areas: an All-You-an-Eat suite for $35 (I'm guessing you'd need a group to enjoy this) and the Captain's Chair, reserved seats in a "marina" next to the left-field berm that include a drink and a bucket of popcorn, not a bad deal for $15. You can see two boats in the middle of the shot below that mark the marina.
There is a small roof but it only seems to cover the suites; something to keep in mind should you visit on a rainy day.
Next to the suites on the first base side is a terrace with a full service bar that is open to all fans over the age of 21. The views from here are pretty good (below) and if you get a foul ball, you don't have to worry about giving it to a kid. One thing I found interesting is that the netting only extends partway down the dugout as you can see.
There is a picnic area down the left field line with a good selection of food and tables that are protected from the elements. It was Thirsty Thursday, so $1 beers were also available, but only about 8 ounces of Budweiser and the like. Better to visit Bella Roma beforehand.
The Braves Brigade is a group of eight ladies who help with promotions and occasionally dance on the dugouts. They were quite busy on this night as the team does put a lot of effort into entertaining fans, even when there were only about 200 in the stands for the first game.
The sun sets behind third base, not so much of an issue on this night but it could be a problem in the middle of summer.
Overall, I liked the design here as it is slightly different from most new ballparks. Many fans dislike the main concourse lacking a view of the field, but that doesn't bother me in this case as the space is not wasted with the unique touches mentioned above adding to the experience. Staff was quite friendly; particularly the oddly-dressed dancing salesman that talks to pretty much every fan in an attempt to sell toy bats and caps and the like. Parking is the only issue; at this level it should be no more than $2 to park, but that should not dissuade you from paying a visit to Rome to see their version of the Colosseum.
I did not pay much attention to the first game as I was moving around from section to section, hoping to snag a South Atlantic League ball to commemorate complete all the ballparks in this league (which I did when a foul landed just behind me). Hagerstown won 4-2 for what it's worth.
The second game started at 8:37 and was excruciating to watch. I don't want to mention any player names because everything about the game was crap - crap pitching (8 walks and 6 wild pitches), crap managing (Rome manager Randy Ingle was ejected in the first, lucky for him), crap umpiring (the base ump called a line drive that was trapped by the shortstop an out, leading to Ingle's ejection), and crap fielding. Rome scored in all but the first inning but still only managed 6 runs, nickel and diming themselves to a 6-2 win. The game lasted 2:37 for 6 1/2 innings, absolutely intolerable for the second game of a delayed doubleheader. The majors are bad enough with their interminable games but I fear now the minors are following suit. The Pitches Per Minute in this one was a molasses-like 1.48. To compare, the Nashville game I attended the previous day took 2:33 for 8 1/2 innings, a great pace of 1.73 PPM. I used to hate fans that left early, now I can't blame them.
Friday, August 19, 2016
With the Nashville Sounds game ending at 2:40, I had just over three hours to drive the 200 miles to Kodak for a 7:05 start at Smokies Stadium (remembering that I would lose an hour by re-entering the Eastern Time Zone). After getting out of Nashville fairly quickly, I zoomed along I-40, only to be slowed by traffic where I-75 merges just outside of Knoxville. Once that cleared and I approached Kodak, I realized that I would be a few minutes late for the game. However, it started raining heavily around that time, so I pulled into a gas station to find out if the game would even be played. Thanks to social media, I discovered that the storm would be a short one and the game would be played after a brief delay. I thus continued on to the stadium, arriving around 7:30 just as the rain stopped, giving me about 30 minutes tour the venue before first pitch at 8:05.
Smokies Stadium rests atop a hill north of I-40 off Winfield Dunn Parkway on a small street cleverly called Line Drive. Parking in the lots near the ballpark costs $5, slightly too much for AA ball in my miserly mind. I did notice many cars parked in a grass field off Stadium Drive below the ballpark, but I couldn't figure out if they were going elsewhere or parking there parsimoniously. Anyway, I made my way to the box office and picked up the cheapest ticket, a berm seat at $9.
Smokies Stadium was opened in 2000 (and called Smokies Park back then) to replace Bill Meyer Stadium, which was located in Knoxville itself and hosted the Blue Jays AA affiliate from 1980-2002. With the move to Kodak, the team changed their name to Tennessee Smokies. The ballpark is fairly standard, with infield seats in Kelly green and benches down the lines. Part of the concourse is covered but further down you are exposed to the elements.
The stadium is symmetrical as you can tell by comparing the two pictures above.
What really impressed me here were the food choices, with several concession stands throughout the ballpark offering specialty items. The Smokies have been the Cubs affiliate since 2007 so you even have "A Taste of Chicago" as one of the options. The Thunder Road Distillery offers alcoholic slushies, but with still a few miles to drive after the game, I declined this temptation.
The best spot is the Smoky Mountain Brewery down the left field line, which offers a large menu of made-to-order pub grub and craft beers at reasonable prices, i.e. not much different from a restaurant. There is a seating area inside, while others order from the concourse and then watch the game from a nearby vantage point while their food is prepared. There is also a party porch above the left field fence called Calhoun's at the Yard after a local restaurant chain. Both these places are open to groups as well.
I found standing rails scattered around the concourse and used one for a couple of innings before moving into the seating bowl. The view from my spot is below; note that the netting does not extend the length of the dugout.
And that's about it. I didn't see much in the way of history on display, though it's possible that I missed some stuff as I did only a cursory tour due to fatigue and hunger. The Smokies website has an incredibly detailed history of baseball in Knoxville since 1896, so they definitely pay attention to it. With all the talented prospects that recently played here on their way to Wrigley, I'd expect an impressive "Road to the Show" exhibit after the Cubs win the next five World Series.
Overall, I liked this ballpark, but I did feel rushed a bit even with the delay. This will be the last time I visit two new venues on the same day, something I don't recommend because it can be overwhelming to take everything in. I might pay another visit to Kodak on my trip to Jackson, Mississippi next year to check it out in a more relaxed atmosphere.
The Jacksonville Suns (Miami) were the visitors in an ironic twist as the sun was nowhere to be found. They sent Chris Mazza (27th round in 2011) to the hill while Tennessee answered with Tyler Skulina (4th, 2013, below). After retiring the first four batters, Skulina gave up a deep fly ball to right field off the bat of Alex Glenn (12th, 2012 by Arizona). Ian Happ (9th overall pick in 2015, Cubs #1 prospect) went back and jumped to make the catch, but the ball bounced out of his glove and over the fence for a surprise home run. Jacksonville added two more in the third when Austin Dean (4th, 2012, Miami's 6th-ranked prospect) doubled home Kenny Wilson (Toronto's 2nd-round pick in 2008) and scored on a single from J.T. Riddle (13th, 2013, #11 prospect).
Tennessee got one back in the 4th when Happ singled, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly. It didn't take Jacksonville long to reply as Brian Anderson (3rd, 2014, Miami's #4 prospect) homered in the 5th, and they added a final run in the 8th when Glenn drove home Riddle as the Suns won 5-1 in a thoroughly forgettable affair.
You will note the number of top prospects mentioned in the brief recap, which shows that AA is really the best place for watching up-and-coming stars. Many are promoted directly to the bigs, bypassing AAA on the way, while AAA teams have a lot of AAAA players who jump back and forth between the majors and minors, as well as some over-the-hill guys playing for one last chance at The Show.
Just to the south of Kodak are three communities that cater to tourists: Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg. A couple of famous attractions are Dollywood and a Titanic Museum, but of course I didn't have time to visit. I did stop at Boogaloos, a dive bar with surprisingly good food and unsurprisingly bad karaoke (the food and service make the singing tolerable). If you do visit Kodak for a Smokies game, look for a hotel in one of these towns instead of Knoxville and stay an extra day to see some sights.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
Last year, the Nashville Sounds opened a new downtown ballpark to replace venerable but outdated Greer Stadium. Known as First Tennessee Park after a local bank bought naming rights, the new stadium received rave reviews and I was excited to finally see what all the ruckus was about. Not only that, but this visit would complete all active Pacific Coast League ballparks for me, a quest that began in 1991 when I moved to Vancouver, whose Canadians were members of the PCL back then. The schedule maker was kind, setting a Wednesday nooner that would allow me to see an evening Tennessee Smokies game in Kodak, about 200 miles away.
I drove down from Bowling Green, arriving in Nashville around 11 am. For evening games, there are many free parking lots in the area, but these are permit-only during weekday afternoons. Fortunately, there are spots on 5th and 6th Streets just north of Jefferson that are unmetered. From here it is a short walk to Junior Gilliam Way, named in honour of a Negro League great, which is closed to vehicular traffic before the game. The ballpark looks more like an office building as you approach along Gilliam Way (above); it is only when you look inside the main entrance (below) that you can see the gates and the field beyond. The neighbourhood is undergoing quite a bit of construction; when I stayed nearby in 2013 during my NFL trip it was not very pleasant, but there are already many new condominium developments and signs of gentrification are everywhere.
Tickets here are really expensive if you want them to be, for example, the couple in front of me spent $64 on a pair of club seats. When I looked inside, I saw that there was standing rails around the whole concourse, so I bought the cheapest option at $9 and stood there for much of the game before moving into the premium seats ($25) for the last couple of innings. One of the advantages of standing is that you are completely out of the sun, and I wish all ballparks had this option. You can see the standing rails in the picture below behind the seating bowl.
I took the obligatory lap around the park, impressed by its spacious concourse. Concessions were not overpriced, with an Italian sausage going for $5, typical for minor league baseball.
There are many features worth noting as you make your way around. First, small plaques honouring Nashville baseball legends are attached to the overhead directional signage.
Bullpens are located on the field, as you can see below.
In the left field corner, more history is on display, though this is of the ancient variety. An odd addition to the ballpark, but a good description of what happened here long, long ago.
The view from center field gives you the overall look of the ballpark.
The scoreboard is beyond right field and is shaped like a guitar, just like the one at Greer Stadium was. A great touch; even the tuning pegs are part of the scoreboard, while the neck of the guitar is the linescore.
Right next to the scoreboard is The Band Box, an area for fans to relax, with its own concession stand. Sofas and chairs abound, and this looks to be a fun spot for groups to socialize.
There is also a nine-hole mini golf course that costs $5 to play.
The designers really put a lot of thought into everything here, even the location of home plate, which faces downtown, with a bit of the skyline visible beyond the fences.
Overall, I was really impressed with First Tennessee Park. It has something for everybody and is a must-see for any ballpark aficionado. I hope to return once the surrounding area is more developed, and I think in a few years, a Nashville Sounds game will become a destination in itself for more than just sports travellers.
The Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle) were visiting Nashville (Oakland) in a battle of the top two clubs in the league. Minor league journeyman Jarrett Grube (drafted in 2004 with 0.2 IP in MLB) took the hill for Tacoma, while Dillon Overton (2nd round in 2013, Oakland's #15 prospect) was the Sounds starter. Ryan Strausborger homered for the visitors to lead off the 3rd, but Arismendy Alcantara did the same for Nashville in the bottom half. Strausborger singled to lead off the 5th (Tacoma's last hit as it turned out) and later scored on a groundout to give Tacoma another lead but Joey Wendle (6th, 2016, Athletics #28 prospect) mashed a 3-run shot in the 6th that saved Overton from the hard luck loss. In the 7th, Grube was replaced by switch pitcher Pat Venditte, who gave up 4 consecutive weak singles that led to Nashville's fifth and final run. The Sounds bullpen was nearly perfect in 3 innings, allowing just one baserunner on an error as the fans went home happy after a 5-2 Nashville win.
Facing a long drive to Kodak, I needed a quick game and that is what I got as it finished in 2:33, allowing me to make the evening affair in time, though I was helped a bit by Mother Nature. More on that in the next post.
The mascot race features three country music legends (Reba McEntire, George Jones, and Johnny Cash) and is run during the middle of the 5th inning (below). There is also a group of cheerleaders (Nashville Sound Waves) who perform before and during the game.
With this visit over, I only need Gwinnett to complete the AAA parks. Until, of course, another new ballpark opens.