Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Syracuse Chiefs 1 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders 3 (International League) - April 12, 2015

Back in 2003, I attended 40 games in 30 venues in 35 days in April and May, my only venture into hardcore sports road tripping (i.e. at least one game every day and no more than three straight days in any one city). The journey started with a snowstorm that caused me some difficulties in Buffalo (where opening day was played in 29 degree weather) and Rochester, but spring arrived when I turned south for Scranton. On the first Sunday of the minor league season, a perfect afternoon that represented the end of a long, cold winter, I saw the Ottawa Lynx shutout by Chase Utley and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons at Lackawanna County Stadium.

Twelve years later and although things have changed in AAA ball (the Ottawa Lynx are no more, the Scranton ball team is now the RailRiders and affiliated with the Yankees instead of the Phillies, and the stadium has been fully renovated and renamed PNC Field), I decided to repeat the past, returning to the Scranton area to welcome spring by watching a minor league game. The season started on Thursday, but the first few days were still chilly up in the northeast. Sunday turned out to be a perfect day though, a cloudless sky and temperatures in the high 60s, so I drove to Moosic, PA to renew acquaintances with my favourite sport for road tripping.

PNC Field is located in a valley just off 1-81, down Montage Mountain Road. Parking is $2 but you get a completely useless coupon book to help mitigate the cost. The ticket office is to the right of the main entrance, and you can pick up a free copy of the game day program before entering as well. Outside, the silver facade gleams in the sunlight, but it is inside where this stadium really shines. It is located at the bottom of a valley, giving it some great views of the hillside from the seating bowl. Early in the spring, the trees are still barren but a search of images shows that this place is quite attractive come summer and fall, when the leaves change.

Back in 2003, the field was an ugly artificial turf, but when the franchise signed with the Yankees in 2007, a grass field was mandated and it is top notch now. As well, there used to be an upper deck but that was removed as part of the renovations in 2012 and the seating bowl is now sleek, with about 18 rows in most sections. During the early part of the season, much of the seating bowl is in the shade throughout the afternoon; if you want to remain in the sun best to buy a lawn seat and bring a blanket. The spacious concourse encircles the entire field and is worth the obligatory tour, you can watch the starters warm up in the bullpen.

Concessions are reasonably priced, with jumbo hot dogs running $3.50 this season and offering the best condiment selection I have seen anywhere (below). There is a craft brew pub right behind home plate that had some decent offerings for $7 or so.

The only negative here (and I'm really reaching) is the scoreboard - it is huge but could contain more information on the batters and pitchers, such as the full lineups and more statistics. A minor quibble in what has become a wonderful ballpark destination. Scranton is only a couple of hours from my office (without traffic, about 3 1/2 hours during rush hour on a Friday) so I expect to return here much more often than every 12 years.

The Game

The Syracuse Chiefs (Washington's affiliate) were in town to open the season and had taken two of the first three contests. Chase Whitley (15th round, 2010, warming up in the photo above), who appeared in 24 games for New York last year, started for the RailRiders and was solid, scattering 4 hits over 5 scoreless innings. Meanwhile, Syracuse sent Scott McGregor (15th, 2008, St. Louis) to the mound. McGregor, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer who is no relation to the former Orioles star of the same name, gave up a solo shot to Tyler Austin (13th, 2010, below) in the second and allowed Austin to slam an RBI double in the 4th that ended his afternoon prematurely.

In the 6th, SWB's Rob Refsnyder (5th, 2012) reached on an error by Cutter Dykstra (son of Lenny and partner of Jamie-Lynn Sigler for you Sopranos fans) and Austin singled him to third. Austin Romine (2nd, 2007) followed with a double that scored Refsnyder to make it 3-0.

Tony Gwynn Jr.

Syracuse spoiled the shutout when Caleb Ramsey hit a solo homer in the top of the 9th, but that was all they could muster in a 3-1 loss that took 2:40. All in all, a great day and the first of what I hope to be many minor league games this season.

Player to Watch

Austin, who had a chance for the cycle in the 8'" but grounded out. He is the Yankees #18 prospect. Click that link if you want to see the future of baseball; each team has 30 prospects listed - that's 900 players to study!

Refsnyder, a second baseman, is the Yankees #5 prospect and an interesting story. He led Arizona to the NCAA championship in 2012 and was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. Born in South Korea, he was adopted as a baby by parents based in Southern California. If he makes the Yankees, I wonder if there will be any reaction from the Korean community here or overseas.


The Scranton franchise played in Jersey City (where I now work) between 1937-50 and my hometown of Ottawa between 1951-54. Perhaps that is why I feel a historical connection to this ballpark.

The Scranton area is known for anthracite (a form of coal) and somewhat tangentially, the train system that delivered it around the country. That's where the new nickname RailRiders comes from. If you are a fan of old railroads, visit the Steamtown National Historic Site which has some great displays about the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway that used to pass through here.



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