Friday, September 10, 2021

South Bend Cubs 5 at Beloit Snappers 2 (High-A Central) - September 9, 2021

The Beloit Snappers spent 40 years at Pohlman Field, a stadium that was not up to the minor league standards imposed by MLB during the recent contraction. Fortunately, the team had seen the future and had begun planning for new digs long ago, though it took some time before those plans could be turned into reality. The club broke ground on a new ballpark last summer and it took just over a year to complete. Built a cost of $37 million, naming rights were taken by ABC Supply, whose chairperson, Diane Hendricks, was instrumental in getting the stadium privately financed. The Snappers played at Pohlman until mid-July and then moved over to ABC Supply Stadium on August 3rd. This forced me to postpone my trip until September, when I was able to visit during the last homestand of the season.

I flew to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and took a bus from there to South Beloit (still in Illinois) as rental car prices were nearly $100 per day. I then had to take a rideshare to get to downtown Beloit. As usual, the closer you have to go, the more it costs per mile: it was $75 to fly from NY to Chicago, $30 to bus to South Beloit, and $12 to travel the final three miles into Wisconsin. I ended up at Lucy's #7 Burger Bar, where I had dined over six years before, though a few new places have popped up in the meantime. After a quick dinner, I hustled over to the stadium, passing by the historic sign below. 

The ballpark is just a few minutes away, with a water tower the iconic feature that you will see in many of the photos.

ABC Supply Stadium sits on the north side of Shirland Avenue, part of which is also the border between Wisconsin and Illinois. However, across from the stadium the border is just a few feet farther south, so you have to walk all the way down Depot Street to get back into Illinois, if you are into that sort of thing.

The box office is on the left side of the building and has three windows. I had a credential and hence did not need to buy tickets, and as this was the last homestand of the season, there is no point in putting ticket prices here as they could change for next season.

The ballpark is located next to the Rock River, which provides a nice view from the concourse. Of course, this also means bugs, and there were thousands of tiny gnats or some such insect on the seats in the later innings, though no biting bugs were seen or felt. This river does flood on occasion but the team expects no issues with that, unlike what recently happened in Somerset.

What I liked most about this place was that it was different from all the other new ballparks that I visited this year. As you can see above, it is a brick structure with an open concourse. Of course, this means little shade during an afternoon game and no cover if it rains, but on the night I attended the weather was perfect, so I had nothing to worry about.

Most fans will make use of the free parking outside the center field gate, which is also closest to downtown. When you enter here, you will notice that the stadium is part of the Riverbend District, which should see some growth over the next few years.

Inside, typical green seats make up the bowl from first to third base. Note the very large suite above, this is the only suite in the ballpark and I would guess it is not for sale to the general public. 

Looking the other way down third base, you can see the club section above and the berm in the distance.

One of the things that surprised me was the length of the rows, with some having as many as 27 seats. Fortunately, the Snappers don't draw particularly well, so this shouldn't be a problem most nights.

Below, you get a feel for the entire brick structure, which is quite attractive. 

Despite the big concourse, however, there are no drink rails behind the plate, though they can be found in other areas of the ballpark.

Though not as impressive as the bridge that makes Modern Woodmen Park so recognizable, the water tower in right field will become an iconic shot over the years.

The berm is artificial turf, just like the field, and sits in front of a party deck down the left field line. I should note that the artificial turf will allow the field to be used for other events such as concerts, a critical consideration for venues in smaller places such as Beloit.

The berm provides netting, making it a perfect place for kids to play while the parents keep watch from a table above.

A bit further down the line and you have quite a unique view back towards home plate. Not a lot of foul territory here and the ball disappears from view if you are sitting along third base.

There is also a small kids zone in this area, though I saw few kids in the ballpark on this night.

The scoreboard sits above left field and is not fully operational. The linescore works, but above that there is nothing but the Snappers 2021 Farewell Season logo. Oh, it is the farewell season for the Snappers name as the team will rebrand during the offseason, with one of the following five monikers to be chosen: Cheeseballs, Moo, Polka Pike, Sky Carp and Supper Clubbers.

The bullpens are also in right field and offer the chance to take photos of your favourite up-and-coming minor league relievers.

I like the picture below that shows the curving fence with the setting sun. Many new parks try to add some odd features to the wall, so it was nice to see something almost old-school for a change.

In the right field corner is a bar creatively labelled Deck Deck Goose, as it serves Goose Island brews. This is an excellent pregame spot and even worth spending a few innings out here if you are not particularly interested in the game.

The view from this area is below. As you can see, protective netting extends all the way down, so you can be less attentive than you used to be. 

Since I was working for Stadium Journey and had a credential, I was able to access the club area. There is a long balcony that has a few tables.

Inside, there is free food and beer for sale, though nobody was actually sitting here. 

The views from the club are excellent. That is Deck Deck Goose below, with the party deck in front.

You can see the entire left field setup in the photo below.

Finally, the view from behind the plate, without the water tower for a change.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at ABC Supply Stadium. It is a simpler venue than some of the other new ballparks that have popped up over the past few years, but this is exactly what Beloit needs. It is a small town with a population under 40,000 (about 163,000 in the metro area that includes Janesville) and as such does not require anything more than what has been built. The location is perfect for a night out and with a relaxed approach to the game, fans can get comfortable anywhere in the stadium and enjoy their renamed Snappers in 2022.

The Game

The South Bend Cubs were visiting in this High-A Central matchup and they started Jordan Wicks (warming below), the 21st overall pick this year from Kansas State. He made his professional debut four days earlier, pitching an inning. I was hoping for more and got just that as he lasted an inning and a third, taking 35 pitches to record four outs, though one batter reached on an error.

The game was scoreless until the 5th when Bryce Ball (24th round, 2019 by Atlanta) homered for South Bend. The Snappers (Miami's affiliate) got that back in the bottom half on a single, two walks and a ground out, but they quickly allowed the Cubs to score a pair, again with two walks the key. A hit batsman, double, single, and two more walks led to another couple of runs for South Bend in the 8th and two more walks in the bottom half were followed by a single that allowed Beloit to plate the final run of the game as they lost 5-2. I enjoyed the checkerboard linescore, though as you can see, the farewell season logo is all that shows above.

A very ugly game with 15 total walks, 10 from Cubs pitchers. I don't know how you only score two runs after being walked 10 times, but the Snappers did just that. All those walks meant the game went quite long, taking 3:25. Thankfully, fellow sports traveler Sean had offered me a ride back to Chicago, so I did not have to worry about catching any sort of transit option. 

Notes

This was the eighth new minor league park to see this year (including Somerset, which I had visited before when it was independent), which leaves just Sugar Land to again get current with all 120. I will visit there at the end of the month on my way to LA for the Rams and Chargers. 

The Marlins have the Mesa brothers in their system, with Victor Victor Mesa, a one-time top prospect how is now 25, playing for Beloit and his younger brother Victor, who just turned 20 and is their #18 prospect, toiling for Jupiter. If Trevor Rogers is still with Miami and either of these guys gets called up, there should be some fun Airplane jokes in the locker room.

Best,

Sean


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Georgia Southern Eagles 1 at Charlotte 49ers 3 (NCAA Soccer) - August 29, 2021

After watching the worst team in minor league baseball play like it, I drove over to UNC Charlotte for an evening soccer match. I am always on the lookout for venues I have yet to visit and Transamerica Field was just that, making it more enticing than an evening ballgame at the Charlotte Knights. I had seen college hoops here as part of a tripleheader in early 2019, and was looking forward to my return.

The stadium is part of the Irwin Belk Track and Field Center (entrance above) and is located in the middle of campus. It is possible to take the Lynx light rail system from downtown Charlotte all the way out here, but I can't imagine too many fans doing that, since there is little traffic and plenty of free parking on campus, at least on a Sunday evening.

When you get to the front of the building, the box office is to the right of the main entrance (above). On this night there was a doubleheader, with the women taking on Wofford, while the men battled Georgia Southern. You could see both games for $6, a bargain, especially considering that the men were ranked #18 nationally. I skipped the women's game and arrived about 15 minutes before the men kicked off at 7:30.

There are six life-size bronze sculptures of soccer and track athletes, with four of them outside and two more inside. All are made by Richard Hallier, and they are very impressive in their detail.

The stadium is unusual for NCAA soccer in its size. Most venues at this level have a few rows of seats around midfield, but here there are over 20 rows of benches from end to end, separated into two levels. All seats are general admission and you can move around easily. The benches face west, so the setting sun would have been a pain for the women's game at 5, but as the men got started, the sun had disappeared behind the trees in the distance.

Of course, as this is also a track and field venue, there is a large running track that separates the pitch from the fans. So it makes some sense to sit a bit higher to get a view of the entire game.

There is a long walkway that separates the upper and lower levels. The photo below is taken from the south end of the stadium, right near the concession stand, which sells your basic stadium fare along with beer, surprising for a campus venue.

Starting lineups are posted just inside the main entrance, something that I haven't seen for NCAA soccer before.

Once the sun had set, it was a very comfortable evening and I enjoyed the game, which was quite entertaining.

The 49ers wore striped uniforms, while Jokull Blaengsson, the Georgia Southern keeper who hails from Iceland, was trying to resemble the referees. I sat near the top for the first half, which saw the Eagles score a surprising goal at 9:43 (NCAA soccer uses exact times for goals, which I appreciate) when Jacob Green-Pedersen headed a corner into the far netting. Charlotte tied it 25 minutes later when Kameron Lacey made a galloping run down the left flank, crossed to Joe Brito, who turned and fired to beat Blaengsson.

The half ended 1-1 and I used to break to move to the other side and down low in front of the net that Charlotte would be shooting at, figuring that they would dominate the second half. I was right, and most of the action happened right in front of me. The 49ers took the lead just over seven minutes in when Jonathan Nyandjo drove one home from the top of the box after the Eagles failed to clear several times (celebration below). 

Georgia Southern had a couple of good chances but Daniel Kuzemka made two excellent saves to maintain the lead, and with 4:04 to go, Brito got his brace after the Eagles again had trouble getting the ball out of their own box. I snapped the picture below and watched the rest of the game from the top, making a quick getaway when the final whistle blew. A very professional and very brief highlight package can be found here for those interested.

This was a welcome change from the long baseball games I've been seeing at all levels lately. Charlotte were obviously the better team and it will be interesting to see if they can make the tournament in December. The final will be played in nearby Cary, and with Marshall showing last season that a smaller school can win the title, you never know. 

Notes

The 49ers obviously share a sports nickname with San Francisco and I found it interesting that their soccer stadium naming rights are owned by Transamerica, whose Pyramid building is an icon in downtown SF.

Next Up

My minor league catch-up continues in Beloit next week. I'll follow that with the Twins and Royals at Target Field, and then head to Cincinnati for Bearcats football, FC Cincinnati hosting Toronto FC, and the Bengals and Vikings. Check back in a couple of weeks to see how it all went.

Best,

Sean


Monday, August 30, 2021

Lynchburg Hillcats at Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Low-A East) - August 28-29, 2021

When I first planned all of my minor league trips earlier in the year, this trip to Kannapolis was to be the final one to coincide with my birthday. But Beloit didn't open their park until August, and the game in Sugar Land was rained out, so I couldn't combine the celebrations. Still, it wasn't worth the hassle to change my plans, so off I flew to Charlotte, where I rented a car for the short drive to Kannapolis, about 30 minutes northeast of the airport.

I visited the Intimidators (who were so dubbed after owner Dale Earnhardt's nickname) back in 2015, but the team rebranded to coincide with opening their new stadium, which was planned for last year. Now known as the Cannon Ballers, they play out of Atrium Health Ballpark, which is part of a downtown renewal project that seems to be working quite well already. As I approached along Main Street, I turned onto Vance Street and saw free covered parking. Leaving the garage on West Avenue, I found Old Armor Beer Company next door. After a brief stop to sample some of their wares, I walked across the street to the ballpark, with the view from West Avenue above. There are $5 grass lots on the other side of the park that appeal to more profligate fans, but I found the covered parking to be ideal as it kept the car cool and allowed for a quick getaway afterward.

I got there a few minutes early and gates had yet to open, so I wandered around, noticing the sign above. The stadium is actually used as a public park when there are not games or other events being held, and you can walk around the concourse as much as you like during those hours, while kids can entertain themselves in the play area. The outfield bar is even open!

As I walked along Cannon Baller Way, I stopped at the batting cages that are open to the outside and watched the players taking their cuts before the game. After that, I headed to the box office, which is located in a trailer next to Gate 1 (below). Note the mascot on the trailer below; that is Boomer Baller, a stuntman who retains Earnhardt's trademark moustache in honour of the late driver. You can get a standing room ticket for $10, but I splurged for my special day and got a seat down low for $13. 

And what a ticket! It is beyond frustrating that pro teams use cost as an excuse to shaft their fans when small organizations like this demonstrate what is possible with a little creativity. The main reason teams want to avoid having you use the box office is so they can charge you "convenience" fees for purchasing online; any other excuse is utter bullshit. 

When I entered, I stopped by the Guest Services booth to pick up a copy of Light the Fuse, the rather thin program that I mostly used to protect my ticket. I then began my tour. 

The first thing that caught my eye was the dunk tank, which was manned by somebody who might be famous in the area. This was part of Starry Night, an initiative to raise funds to fight pediatric brain tumors. Lanterns were for sale for $10 and the team wore special uniforms that were auctioned off after the game. I was unaware of any of this at the time however, and so proceeded to move around.

This ballpark follows the template that most new minor league venues use, with picnic areas in the corners, a bar in the outfield, the stadium structure allowing for an open concourse with some drink rails, and suites and a club area above. Gate 1 is the main entrance and leaves you in the right field corner, above a terrace of picnic tables. Turn to your left to see the team store and the wide concourse (below).

The seating bowl is as you would expect at this level, with 15 sections from corner to corner. The three middle sections behind the plate (107-109) are $15, while the rest of the seats are two bucks cheaper. Capacity here is 4,930.

The view from behind the plate with some beautiful buildings in the background.

There are some concourse "suites" for groups that include some fancy office chairs along drink rails. 

There are also some standing drink rails along the lines and one behind the plate that is ideal for an afternoon game as it is shaded, unlike the one in the photo below.

The play area is behind third base and includes a splash pad. Foul balls do occasionally find there way over here, so pay attention if you have an oblivious little one frolicking here.

Down in the left field corner is another picnic terrace.

Looking into the field, you can see the berm and the batter's eye, along with my shadow. Off in the distance to the right is the outfield bar, which has a good selection of craft beer.

For Saturday's game, there was a giant inflatable Boomer, but he was not there on Sunday.

Looking back at the entire stadium structure with the sun setting behind third base. For an afternoon game, the sun shines on much of the seating bowl, so get a seat near the back rows behind the plate if you want to remain in the shade, or just stand on the concourse as I did. There are no ushers checking tickets anyway, so you can move around with ease.

A better look at the shaded outfield bar along with another seating area jutting into the outfield. The dimensions are 325 feet to the left field foul pole, 400 to center, and 315 to right.

A cute touch on the restroom signage.

Concessions are fairly limited in variety, though very affordable. The most expensive item was a corn dog at $6, and a Baller Basket comes with a cheeseburger (or hot dog or plant burger), chips or fries, soft drink or water, and cookie, all for $11. There is a roasted corn stand near Gate 1 that also looked very tempting. The team had some difficulties early in the season with logistics that led to long lines but those have been straightened out. There are still signs telling you how long you have to wait, but for both games I attended, lines moved quickly. Over the two games, I enjoyed a cheeseburger and chicken tenders, each for $5 and each a decent option.

Below is the view from behind section 107, with the scoreboard above left field and the surrounding buildings in the distance, making for a pleasant scene. Note the yellow socks in the on-deck batter, these matched those Starry Night jerseys I mentioned.

Atrium Health Ballpark was voted Best Low-A Ballpark by the readers of Ballpark Digest, and it certainly is an ideal spot to watch a game. The downtown location is great and should get even better as more bars and restaurants open up, and the overall ambience is very relaxing. Unfortunately, the team is terrible this year, as I witnessed in the two contests I attended.

The Games

Kannapolis came in at 30-70, tied with Visalia (Arizona's Low-A West affiliate) for the worst record in minor league baseball. But they were on a 3-game winning streak, so maybe things were looking up. Then again, maybe not. In the first game, Jesus Valles (below sporting the Starry Night jersey) started for Kannapolis and gave up 4 runs in 5.2 innings, including a 2-run homer to Miguel Jerez. His offense could only muster a run, and the bullpen allowed a pair as Lynchburg (Cleveland) won 6-1 in a game that inexplicably lasted 3:11 for a PPM of 1.49, which is a slower pace than many MLB games.

Sadly, Sunday's affair was much worse, as the Hillcats plated 14 runs in the first 5 innings while Kannapolis did little more than strike out, totaling 20 Ks on the afternoon as they were embarrassed 15-0. That's White Sox #11 prospect Bryan Ramos below; he was the only Cannon Baller not to whiff. Well, Kannapolis does start with K after all. This game saw 360 pitches in 3:23, for a much faster pace of 1.77 PPM, its only redeeming quality.

There's the result below. Visalia won both their weekend games so now the Cannon Ballers are officially the worst team in baseball with a month to go. Not that it means anything.

Notes

I lucked out on Sunday as the giveaway was a stadium replica, the only giveaway that I actually collect. 

There was an organist on the concourse for Sunday's game. Known as Greazy Keys, he also plays at Charlotte Checkers games at Bojangles Coliseum and was a welcome addition to the otherwise drab game that unfolded that afternoon. Boomer is the background and also on the organ in a nice display of meta mascot mania.

Best,

Sean