Sunday, May 30, 2021

New Hampshire Fisher Cats 6 at Somerset Patriots 1 (7, AA Northeast) - May 29, 2021

Three years ago, I went to visit TD Bank Ballpark (not to be confused with TD Ballpark in Dunedin) in Bridgewater, NJ. In those days, the Somerset Patriots were a member of the Atlantic League and I enjoyed the experience of watching a playoff game there. Now, however, they are part of minor league baseball, one of three teams that moved from the independent leagues (St. Paul and Sugar Land are the others) as part of the wholesale changes to the minors. Somerset replaced Trenton as the Yankees AA affiliate, and as such, I had to return there to keep my quest of seeing a game in every minor league park alive. Moreover, with Toronto's AA team playing in the same league, I wanted to see them as the visitors. The AA Northeast has 12 clubs and all but one (Binghamton, sorry Mets fans) will visit Somerset once for a six-game series. So this past week was my only chance as that was the only time the New Hampshire Fisher Cats would be in town.

The Patriots were hosting games with a limited number of fans. which made tickets relatively scarce. Then it was announced on Monday that they would open to full capacity with no mask requirement starting with Friday's game. I had originally planned to attend Wednesday, but when it was announced that Alex Manoah would make his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium that night, I pushed it to Friday, when tickets would be widely available. It didn't matter as both games were rained out Wednesday so I spent Thursday watching three MLB games, including a masterful Manoah as he shut down the Yankees. The rain returned Friday, and again the Patriots were postponed, setting up a Saturday afternoon doubleheader starting at 4:30. This was an ideal time as the train to Bridgewater that stops right behind the ballpark arrives at 26 after the hour, so there would be no waiting. Although it was very chilly, the forecast said that it would remain dry, so off I went, taking the two-hour trip to Bridgewater.

The train arrived on time and I scurried to the box office to pick up a ticket. The cheapest option was $13.50 plus tax, which is about average for AA ball. On the way in, I noticed a new statue of Sparky Lyle, who managed the Patriots from their inception in 1998 until 2012, and Steve Kalafer, founder of the team (above). A nice addition to a ballpark that has a lot of special touches.

Inside, things hadn't changed much, as you would expect in just three years. Food is still overpriced and there is limited selection, while the ballpark structure remains as is. The Atlantic League trophies and pennants have also been retained, as they should. The team has a proud history and that should not be forgotten. 

There were a couple of additions to the Wall of Fame however, including a tribute to the parent club (above).

As well, there is a poster of the entire league, which is currently dubbed AA Northeast. You can see all 12 clubs, their affiliations, as well as some MLB stars who played here when it was the Eastern League, including a few Yankees who spent time in Trenton. In fact, this stadium is quite similar to Trenton Thunder Ballpark, not surprising since they share the same architect.

I wore my Blue Jays cap, which garnered several stink eyes from the grumpy fans who now support the Yankees. Other than that, it was good to get back here and see a few future Blue Jays in their only stop in Somerset.

The Game

Somerset came in leading the Northeast Division (yes, the AA Northeast has a Northeast Division) with a 15-6 record, a full 7 games ahead of New Hampshire despite the Patriots having only two top prospects on their roster, which shows just how subjective and unreliable prospect rankings are. Still I will include them in my minor league posts as it is fun to look back and see if these guys actually succeeded.

Zack Britton (above), making the first rehab appearance in Patriots history, started for Somerset and faced four top Jays prospects. First was Austin Martin (5th overall in 2020, #2 prospect, below), who grounded out to short on a 1-0 pitch, though it was a close play and I thought he was safe.

Next up was Jordan Groshans (12th overall, 2018, #3 prospect, below), and he chopped a 1-2 offering to first for an easy out. Then came Otto Lopez (#11 prospect), who beat out a slow infield roller on a full count. A wild pitch moved Lopez to second, but Gabriel Moreno (#7 prospect) could only ground to second on a full count, ending Britton's day after 18 pitches.

Zach Logue (9th round, 2017, below) was the Fisher Cats starter and he was impressive, striking out 8 of the first 9 hitters. Meanwhile Shawn Semple (11th, 2017) had replaced Britton and kept New Hampshire off the board until the fourth. Then, a pair of errors along with a passed ball, combined with a single, walk, and double, allowed three unearned runs to score.

Logue continued to cruise, though a solo homer from Isiah Gilliam (20th, 2015) in the 5th ended the shutout. In the 6th, Martin singled home 2 more and the Cats added a final run on the 7th when Moreno scored from third on a throwing error from Patriots backstop Donny Sands (8th, 2015), their fourth miscue on the afternoon. Logue threw six innings, fanning 12 in a most efficient fashion with 60 strikes out of 88 pitches. He receives my Player to Watch award. Andrew McInvale (37th, 2019) retired the side in order to preserve the 6-1 win.

That was all I needed to see. With the temperature dropping and the next train back to Newark leaving at the same time as the second game would start, I stopped by a nearby Target for some sustenance and headed home, skipping a 12-0 rout for Somerset, who won the series 3-2 after Sunday's game was cancelled. Though in hindsight, I should have stayed and thus avoided the Leafs monumental failure in Game 6 against Montreal. C'est la vie.

Next Up

Another new minor league park as I head to Fredericksburg on Tuesday (assuming I am still alive after the Leafs game on Monday). The FredNats are one of the worst teams in the minors but their new park promises to be a lot of fun. Check back for recaps next week.



Friday, May 21, 2021

Pittsburgh Penguins 5 at New York Islanders 4 (East Division Semifinal, Game 3) - May 20, 2021

The New York Islanders will be saying farewell to Nassau Coliseum after this season and I wanted to get out to Uniondale to see one final game there. During the regular season, when capacity was still rather limited, prices were much higher than I was willing to pay. But with the playoffs, the rules changed so that half the arena would be sold to fully vaccinated fans at around 75% capacity, while the other half would be socially distanced at perhaps 20%. Total attendance was 6,800, which makes sense given the 14,500 capacity. Even better, a friend had an extra, which I was only too happy to take off his hands for face value. So I spent the two hours needed to get to the Coliseum and arrived at 6, along with many excited Islander fans.

Going in, there were two areas - one for those who were vaccinated and had to show proof, and one for those who weren't, and had to show a recent negative PCR or antigen test result, presumably along with a ticket to a socially-distanced section. Otherwise, they could just sit anywhere. Not that it matters, even if you are not vaccinated, if you are surrounded by vaccinated people, nothing to worry about, right? Of course, masks still need to be worn in all sections, which is ridiculous in an area where everyone is vaccinated, and most fans didn't bother once the game started. It is unbelievable how stupid the situation has become here in New York, where the test positivity rate is less than 3% (and the real rate is far less as vaccinated people no longer get tested). But when you read about vaccinated individuals saying that they are still double-masking, you realize that stupid is just a way of life these days.

Anyway, back to the game. The Islanders have their hashtag outside the main entrance, which makes for a good photo opportunity. 

Inside, the concourse is not as busy as usual, obviously. The good news for those who have never seen a game here is that other teams, such as the Long Island Nets, will continue to use the facility. So there still will be opportunities to get inside this storied venue. My seat was in the last row behind the net that New York would attack twice. This is the last of the old barns where such a location is not bad at all, as you can see below. When the Islanders open up UBS Arena, I would guess a similar seat would be twice as far away. You can see the orange giveaway t-shirts on the seats and see the difference between the vaccinated and socially distanced sections. Note that there was an empty seat between each pod in the vaccinated sections, which is why capacity there was not 100%.

The game started quickly when Kris Letang lofted a shot from the point that got by a surprised Semyon Varlamov just two minutes in. Unfortunately for Islander fans, that surprised Varlamov look would happen several more times. The Islanders tied it in the second on a Scott Mayfield wrister, but Jeff Carter soon got that back with a shot from the right circle that should have been saved. Jason Zucker then gave the Penguins a 2-goal lead with a nifty shot above Varlamov's left shoulder. 

Some naive fans thought the game was over, but the Islanders got one back early in the third, when Cal Clutterbuck banged one home after a perfect pass from Casey Cizikas. Then the fun began. After a goalmouth scramble saw Penguins keeper Tristan Jarry pushed into the net, there was a line kerfuffle (above) and all 10 skaters, including Sidney Crosby, were handed minors, something I had never seen before. After everyone was separated, Jake Guentzel slashed Kyle Palmieri and that earned the Islanders a power play. Just 18 seconds in, Anthony Beauvillier beat Jarry five-hole from the side of the net and we were tied again. Crosby emerged from the box, which confused most of us. Shouldn't Guentzel's penalty be the one that expires? Nope, the rule was correctly interpreted, as when there are coincidental minors but one team has a power play, the captain can choose which penalty goes on the board. Crosby chose himself and when Beauvillier scored, it was the Penguin captain that was freed from the sin bin.

This had immediate ramifications as just over a minute later, with the Pens on the powerplay, Carter again beat a hapless Varlamov with Crosby on the ice. Undaunted, the Isles continued to press, and tied it for the third time, as Clutterbuck notched his second when a point shot bounced off his chest and into the net with 5:43 to go. And for the third time, the Penguins replied quickly, when Brandon Tanev batted home a loose puck just over two minutes later, a worthy winner for this incredibly entertaining game. The Islanders had one final chance but Crosby dove to block a shot from Brock Nelson and Pittsburgh held on to win 5-4 and take a 2-1 lead in the series. Well worth watching the highlights if you have not seen them.

This is the sort of contest that keeps me coming back to live sports. Even though the Leafs were playing their first game against Montreal (not televised for me), I would rather see a live game over anything on TV, except a championship match. I usually don't remember watching TV games, but will not soon forget this affair.



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Tennessee Smokies at Rocket City Trash Pandas (AA South) - May 15-16, 2021

Back in 2014, I made a visit to Huntsville to see one of the last games at Joe W. Davis Stadium, as the hometown Stars were moving to Biloxi the following year. But Huntsville would not be barren of minor league baseball for long. In 2018, it was announced that the Mobile BayBears would be moving to Madison, a city of 50,000 that is part of the Huntsville Metropolitan Area. Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, the nation's civilian rocketry research center and its largest NASA installation, earning it the nickname Rocket City. With this in mind and in keeping with the recent tradition of inventive minor league team names, the new franchise called themselves Rocket City Trash Pandas after a fan vote, the largest in minor league history. The name received some catcalls initially, though over $4 million in merchandise sales suggests that the unusual moniker was a good call. A trash panda is simply a raccoon, by the way, whose determination and ingenuity are characteristics found in the space industry. 

The club built a new ballpark, Toyota Field, and were ready to begin play in 2020, but obviously the pandemic put paid to those plans. When the minor league season got underway at the beginning of May, the Huntsville faithful finally had a chance to see their new team, though as members of the AA South rather than the Southern League. It was during their first homestand that I paid a visit, attending games on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Located just south of I-565 in a newly developing area, Toyota Field is still undergoing some hiccups. Parking is a rather high $10, but you can save $3.25 if you reserve in advance. Arrive early to beat the rush, but if you do park in the lot, expect a bit of a wait after the game. There are three points of entry to the lots, with one of them being a large gravel lot behind the scoreboard (below). You can park for free across the street in the new housing development, which is still under construction. I don't know how long this will be available, but it is worth checking out to save some cash. I use the term 'cash' figuratively here because the ballpark is entirely cash-free and all payments are either through credit/debit card or contactless devices.   

The team is drawing very well early on, nearly filling the park's 7,500 seats every night. Most fans enter through the main Pepsi gate, which leads to the concourse in right field, and lines are long and slow, as fans show up well before gates open. I arrived 90 minutes before Friday night's game and the line was as you see below. Fortunately, there are two other entrances, one for suite holders and another at center field, which are far less popular. They may need to open gates 30 minutes earlier when crowds are large to keep fans from waiting.

You can buy tickets in advance, but if you want a stub, you will need to visit the box office. Tickets are $16 ($18 on game day) for any seat and $8 for the berm or SRO. You can also get an SRO ticket for the Stadium Club for $25, but this does not include food and drink.

Once inside, you will want to get your refreshments quickly, because lines form early at the two main concessions (Gravity Grille and Dumpster Dive) and remain long throughout much of the game. If you queue at one of the concessions at first pitch, you might miss an inning or two. The team is aware of the issues, which are exacerbated by a local labor shortage, and they are trying to hire more staff, but so far this is the major problem here. As the season progresses and the novelty wears off, things will no doubt improve in this area. The shot below is of All Stars, a concession that honours the previous team; this was taken well before the game and by the time the action had started, there was a long line here as well.

Concessions themselves are extremely varied and reasonably priced, so much so that a season-ticket holder can probably order something different every game. The signature item is the Dumpster Wrap (a cheese quesadilla with two hot dogs, fries, beef chili, fried jalapenos and chipotle aioli, rolled up like a wrap). At $12, this seems like a bargain. Beer is also affordable, with both cans and draft available. Most fans were taking advantage of the 32-oz. drafts that are $11 for domestics and $13 for craft, which includes some local offerings from nearby Old Black Bear Brewing. As I was doing the Stadium Journey review for this new venue, I took a lot of pictures, so will make the rest of the post a photo essay. For Sunday's game, I was able to enter before the fans and some of the pictures are of the empty stadium, such as below.

The concourse is wide enough for the crowds, though sometimes concession lines slow you down a bit, but you can complete an entire circuit and there are a lot of things to see.

Just inside the main entrance are the lineups, team leaders, and league standings. Just below are a few sections of four-tops, small tables with four chairs that are sold as one. 

You can also see the batting tunnels here. Both teams make use of them before the game, and you can watch from a distance.

The berm is in the right field corner, with the Rock Porch bar just to its right. This bar has a fake rock overhang that is reminiscent of the outfield rocks in Anaheim, which is fitting as the Trash Pandas are an Angels affiliate.

This area is open to the public and provides a great spot to sit and watch the game while enjoying a few beers.

The outfield wall has a little trick to it, which must be annoying for visiting fielders.

Below is the view from the Outfield Experience, which comprises the standing area just behind the fence. 

As you make your way to the centerfield entrance, you will find a vegan food truck as well as a barber's tent, where a haircut will cost you $40.

The bullpens are also out here and with the low fence, you have many fans who spend the game in this area hoping for home run balls, of which there were quite a few on the weekend.

Continue around past the picnic table area (above), and you will be back on the main concourse, which is covered by the suites, thus providing protection from the sun in afternoon games. Many fans choose to stand along the concourse to watch the game as well, and there is no problem with that.

As you make your way along the concourse, you will notice several open-air suites surrounded by brick. These are the concourse suites and include a 2.5-hour catered meal for 25-35 people. 

In one section, the brick extends into the field of view for the last row of seats in the next section, but if you happen to be stuck here, you can easily lean forward to see the action in left field. 

The bowl has grey chairs, with some rows having 24 seats, so if you are in the middle, you might want to grab all your food before first pitch. All seats have cupholders and legroom is enough to pass by. Netting protects all of the seats and extends well past the dugouts.

The top three rows behind home plate are known as the Home Plate Box seats, which are tall blue chairs along a table that is big enough for your food and drink. These are sold out to season ticket holders, but you might be able to find your way into one of these as the game progresses.

There is an upper level with a stadium club and suites, and you might be able to walk in to have a look if you ask nicely. One of the suites is Budweiser themed and has some interesting memorabilia related to the King of Beers.

You can also enter the stadium club if you have a ticket, the view is below.

The picture below shows the structure of the seating bowl and the suites above.

The mascot is Sprocket, a raccoon, while the mascot race uses the other aspect of the theme as three astronauts run around the infield warning track.

I found that standing on the concourse between the bases was a great way to avoid the crowd in the seating bowl and move around to enjoy the different areas of the ballpark. If you are concerned about spending 4 hours in the Alabama sunshine, the seats in the last few rows between the bases are shaded for the entire game. The shot below was taking about 90 minutes before a 2:35 start.

This one was about an hour before a 6:35 start and gives you an idea of how the sun and shadows move during the afternoon.

The game I attended was one of the first with no mask requirement, which was a wonderful change from all the games I have seen in New York. With no social distancing, it was a return to normality and one that made me very happy indeed. I even ran into fellow sports traveler Karen and her son John, who were finishing up a whirlwind tour that included Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. It is always great fun running into friends unexpectedly and we had a long talk about our recent adventures.

Overall, Toyota Field is a great addition to the minor league landscape. The minor problems with lines will dissipate as the season moves on, and as the area develops, this will become a prime spot to spend an evening in North Alabama.

The Games 

Saturday night saw the Trash Pandas smack three homers off Tennessee (Cubs) pitching on their way to a 9-1 win. This despite making 98 errors as you can see below. Cooper Criswell was the star, going seven impressive innings for the win. 

The game also saw the Trash Panda debut of Gavin Cecchini, who was the Mets first round pick (12th overall) in 2012 and spent time with them in 2017-18. He went 2-5 with a no-doubter, so maybe he will find his way back to the bigs with Anaheim.

On Sunday, the Pandas wore their camo jerseys (batting below is Torii Hunter Jr., Anaheim's 23rd-round pick in 2016) and quickly fell behind when Vance Vizcaino (drafted four times, most recently by KC in the 11th round in 2016) hit a 2-run homer in the first. In their half of the second, Rocket City got a walk, single, and hit batsman to load the bases for Ibandel Isabel, who was hitting .034. Naturally, he crushed the first grand slam in Trash Panda history. The Smokies added single dingers from Connor Myers (27th, 2016) and Tyler Payne (30th, 2015) to tie things up.

At this time, I decided to walk around the ballpark to watch the action from various vantage points. As I approached the Tennessee bullpen, Darius Valdez was warming up (below). The Cubs #29 prospect is a 6-8. 254-pound behemoth and I watched him throw a few pitches. Every pitch was over the right-handed batters box and I thought "He's gonna hit a guy". Valdez came in for the 7th and sure enough, he hit leadoff man Michael Stefanic, a righty, with his second pitch. A walk and infield single brought Cecchini to the plate with the bases loaded, and he singled home two runs. Valdez hit 100 MPH on the radar gun a few times, but his lack of control is a problem, exactly as mentioned in the scouting report linked above.

Anyway, the Trash Panda bullpen could not hold the lead, and we went to extras tied at a half-. I had to leave to get back to Nashville for an early flight Monday, but stayed for one more inning. Tennessee scored once in their half, but Rocket City matched that when Isabel led off by singling home the runner on second (I do not like these extra inning rules). Then Ray-Patrick Didder tried to bunt Isabel over, but popped it up. The Smokies infield converged on the ball, only for it to fall safely, and with no runners covering the bases, Isabel went to third while Didder had a bunt double. With runners on second and third and nobody out, I was sure the Pandas would prevail, but Hunter Jr. struck out and after Stefanic was intentionally walked to load the bases, Orlando Martinez (Anaheim's #17 prospect) went down swinging and David MacKinnon (32nd, 2017, out of Hartford) popped out to prove me wrong. Having spent nearly six hours in the ballpark and with a two-hour drive ahead of me, I departed. Rocket City won 12-8 in 13 innings, with the winning runs coming from a MacKinnon grand slam off Erick Castillo, a position player who now has an ERA of 108.00. Gotta love the minors!


A big thanks to Aaron Cheris and the Trash Pandas crew for their assistance during the weekend.

Next Up

A few local games to keep me occupied, including the Islanders and Penguins in Game 3, likely my last visit to Nassau Coliseum, as the Isles are moving to UBS Arena for next season. Then the minor league tour continues with a midweek visit to Fredericksburg, home of the 0-12 Nationals. As always, check back for recaps.



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Rochester Red Wings 6 at Buffalo Bisons 3 (10, AAA East) - May 11, 2021

With the Toronto Blue Jays moving to Buffalo's Sahlen Field starting in June, the Buffalo Bisons, their AAA affiliate, need another place to play this season. Fortunately for me, the Bisons chose Trenton as their temporary home, which means I can make day trips to see the Baby Jays. Until 2020, the Trenton Thunder were members of the AA Eastern League, but they were one of the franchises who lost their minor league affiliation as part of the changes that took place last year, becoming an inaugural member of the MLB Draft League instead. This meant that they could easily open up their ballpark to the Bisons, and so New Jersey saw its first AAA ballgame since 1961.

The minor league season started on May 4th, but I had to wait a week before I could go. There is an express train from NY Penn Station that takes just over an hour and had me in Trenton before 6. I decided to walk the 20 minutes to the stadium rather than take the River Line light rail, which saved $1.60. As you can see above, not a lot of demand for this game. The stadium is officially referred to as Trenton Thunder Ballpark in all minor league media, but the Arm & Hammer name remains on the front. It is not clear which name will be used when the Draft League team takes the field.

I visited here a few years back but did not do a full review due to time constraints. Obviously things are much different this time as we are at the tail end of the pandemic, with capacity limited to 30%. Even then, tickets are not sold out and you can pick one up at the box office. I found the length of the potential concession line below to be very optimistic.

Along the wall of the concourse behind home plate are your starting lineups. The team calls themselves the Thunder when playing at home, and even uses Thunder uniforms, but will still be the Bisons when on the road and in any minor league media. You can pick up a scoresheet, rosters, and a program at the Fan Services kiosk on the concourse.

There is a Road to the Show placard as well with names of major league players who had toiled here. As the team was a Yankees affiliate, there are many of the listed.

As well, there are posters above the suites that honour Aaron Judge, Derek Jeter, and other Bronx Bombers. I assume these will be taken down in due course.

The most endearing aspect of the Thunder was Chase, a golden retriever who was the bat dog for years, and whose progeny has continued that tradition, though not on this night. There are several spots where you can find pictures of Chase or one of his descendants doing their job, such as on the left below.

Unlike most ballparks these days, unused seats were not tied down, so you could sit anywhere except in the first row near the dugouts. Attendance was 1,526, slightly more than were at the games in Dunedin I saw a couple of weeks back, and ushers were not checking tickets.

There are standing areas on the concourse, but they are blocked by netting as you can see below. This is the only area that is covered, but despite a threat of rain, it only drizzled for about a minute during the lineup exchange.

Friday is the day to go if you want cheap beer. I will definitely be back a few times this season.

The Game

The Bisons started Toronto's #30 prospect Nick Allgeyer (12th round, 2018), and he was solid, giving up just one run in 6 innings. His opponent for Rochester (Washington's affiliate) was Tyler Eppler (6th, 2014 by Pittsburgh), who had good numbers at AAA with the Pirates in 2018 but never got the call. After spending 2019 with Orix in Japan, he is back home trying to make The Show. He also pitched well, except for one mistake, a 3-run homer to Nash Knight.

The score remained 3-1 into the 8th when Rochester's Raudy Read hit a monster shot off Hobie Harris (31st, 2015 by the Yankees). It was cool to see the ball disappear into the night, something that you rarely witness at a major league park, as homers usually don't leave the stadium. Kirby Snead (10th, 2016) came on for the save in the 9th and gave up a leadoff single to Wellington Castillo. Adrian Sanchez followed with a grounder to third that should have been a double play but it bounced through Knight, and when Rafael Bautista bunted for a single, the bases were loaded with nobody out. After a strikeout, Gerardo Parra beat out a double play and the Red Wings had tied the game at 3. Buffalo could not do anything in their half, and we went to extras, which was good for me as I had to wait until 11:18 for the train back to NYC. Rochester plated three in their half, including another massive homer, this one from Daniel Palka and Buffalo could not get anything off Kyle McGowin (who I saw toss an inning in Dunedin exactly two weeks prior) as the Red Wings came from behind to win 6-3.

This was a great game to watch from four rows away, where you could hear so much going on. Shane Livensparger was the home plate umpire and he joked with Rochester manager Matt Lucroy about being demoted twice. Given the reaction of some players to Livensparger's strike zone, he might be down in AAA for a while yet.

Update: this was the only game of the 6-game set that Rochester won, and they were 2-12 after two weeks of the season. Amazingly, this was not the worst record in the Nationals system, as the Fredericksburg Nationals lost their first 14 of the campaign. Combined, the four clubs under Washington's tutelage are 14-42.


In the summer of 1990, I saw my first minor league game in London, Ontario, home of the Eastern League's Tigers. Those Tigers moved to Trenton in 1993, part of the minor league exodus from Canada. So it is fitting that a team with ties to Canada is playing here.

This was the fourth Toronto team I had seen play a home game in a different venue following TFC in Hartford, Raptors in Tampa, and Blue Jays in Dunedin.

My last minor league game was on September 10, 2019, when the Brooklyn Cyclones won the New York-Penn League title. That was 609 days ago.

Next Up

There are eight new minor league parks to visit this season (plus Somerset) and I will see the first this weekend as I travel to Alabama to check out the Rocket City Trash Pandas and Toyota Field. Check back next week for all the details!