By JAY LeBLANC
August 2, 2008
The ballpark is pretty much my favorite place to be. I enjoy everything about it - the atmosphere, the food, the action on the field, being outdoors on a pleasant summer evening … I could go on and on. Combine all that with the fact that I also like road trips, and the end result is that I’ve been to a ton of different major league and minor league parks during my 28-plus years on this planet. After taking in a Richmond Braves game just for the sake of taking in a Richmond Braves game the other night, I decided to rack my brain and try to think of every stadium I’ve been to and my memories of being there. I’ve alphabetized the places I’ve been by team name, because in many cases I don’t even remember what the park was called, and in others, “Arthur W. Perdue Stadium,” for example, isn’t as synonymous with “Delmarva Shorebirds” as “Fenway Park” is with “Boston Red Sox.” Enjoy.
After driving by Ripken Stadium countless times and remarking each time how I’d like to see a game there at some point, I went to my first - and so far, my only - IronBirds game last September. It was the team’s second- or third-to-last game of the year and last year’s Orioles first-round pick Matt Wieters had recently reported to the team. I headed up to Ripken Stadium in hopes of catching his professional debut, and while he didn’t end up playing for the IronBirds at all last year, he was in uniform and signed a card for me. Ripken Stadium is beautiful and the team draws incredibly well given its location and short-season Class A status. Even though it’s a small town, I think Aberdeen could serve as home to a double-A franchise down the road given the level of local fan interest.
I first saw a game at Camden Yards in 1994, when the park was still very new and the Orioles were still pretty good. Maybe it was the Boog’s barbecue ribs, maybe it was the fact that I got Cal Ripken’s autograph, or maybe it was just the fact that Camden Yards was a breath of fresh air after years of cookie-cutter big league parks, but I loved the place and still do to this day. Nowadays I end up going every year when the Red Sox are in town, usually to meet up with buddies from my home state of Massachusetts who make the trip down. This February, some friends of mine invited my girlfriend and I to a Sox-Orioles game on May 31. When that day finally came, Manny Ramirez - quite possibly my favorite player - was sitting on 499 career home runs. By the time we left, he was the 24th member of the 500-home run club.
Baseball City Royals
Advanced Class A, Kansas City Royals (when I went)
I was about 10 and on a family vacation in Florida when we realized a minor league team played its home games just across the street from the campground we were staying at, so obviously we checked it out. Apparently there was some kind of there park there called “Boardwalk and Baseball” and the team was part of the attraction. All I remember about the game was that Phil Hiatt, who appeared briefly in the bigs, was playing for the Royals, and since virtually nobody else was there, I left the park with about 12 official Florida State League baseballs.
I went to my first Red Sox game in 1988, when I was eight. They played the Blue Jays that night, and though I don’t remember whether they won or lost, I do remember that Wade Boggs waved to me from the driver’s seat of his car as he pulled out of the player’s lot after the game. A couple years later, in 1991, I got an autograph from Ken Griffey Jr. there when he was the No. 1, biggest star in the game. But my favorite Fenway memory - and I’ve been there quite a few times - was Game 4 of the 2003 American League Division Series against the A’s. My mother - a knowledgeable baseball fan in her own right - somehow scored two tickets to take me to my first - and so far, only - postseason game. The Sox were trailing 2-1 in the series and facing elimination, but won the game on a clutch eighth-inning RBI double by David Ortiz off Keith Foulke, then one of the premier closers in baseball. They went on to win the series the following day, setting up yet another disappointing ALCS loss to the hated Yankees. There isn’t a ton of breathing room at Fenway, not every seat offers a great view of the action, parking prices are excessive and it’s not always the cleanest park in the world, but nothing beats the atmosphere.
Prince George’s Stadium is just down the road from where I live, so I’ve probably been there at least 20 times since I moved to Maryland in September 2006. They flash pitch speeds on a monitor, and I’ll probably never forget the sight of regular-sized Radhames Liz throwing 98 mile per hour smoke past overmatched double-A hitters. This year I’ve done a lot of the interviews for my Prospect Q&A columns there, including Phillies prospects Greg Golson and Jason Donald, Indians prospect Wes Hodges, Nationals prospect Jordan Zimmermann, and of course, Orioles prospects and Baysox stars Chris Tillman and Nolan Reimold (above). The stadium is clean and nice and I’ve never had a bad time there. If you go to a Baysox game, I suggest you hit up Chili’s across the street beforehand for happy hour margaritas.
I went to a Bisons game in the early ‘90s when I was staying with my aunt and uncle in upstate New York and they were still the Pirates’ triple-A affiliate - it’s now an Indians farm team. I was probably about 11 or 12 and I remember thinking that the stadium was huge for a minor league park. The Bisons didn’t have any legitimate prospects, and the only guys I can remember from the team I saw are big league washouts Joey Meyer, who played with the Brewers in the late ‘80s, and Cecil Espy, who came up with the Rangers in the late ‘80s and bounced around to a couple other teams before calling it a career.
I never knew the Shorebirds played in Salisbury, Md., until my girlfriend and I drove by the stadium one day on the way back from Ocean City. Since then, going to Shorebirds games has become part of the Ocean City experience. The Shorebirds are the Class A affiliate of the Orioles, and their stadium is pretty much the exact same as Bowie’s, which isn’t a bad thing. The last time I went to a Shorebirds game, in April this year, lefty Tony Butler - one of the prospects the Orioles got from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade - fanned like nine or 10 batters in a dominant seven-inning performance.
The first time I ventured up to Frederick for a Keys game, my girlfriend and I spent the afternoon there and got a kick out of how cool the downtown area is, and now we always spend the day up there before heading to the ballpark. I first went up there last summer because the Keys were playing the Potomac Nationals and the Nats’ 2007 first-rounder, Ross Detwiler, was scheduled to make his pro debut. Unfortunately, the game got rained out. Later last summer I saw a Counting Crows, Live and Collective Soul show at Harry Grove Stadium, but I never actually saw a game there until this year. We went up there a bunch of times to see Matt Wieters terrorize Carolina League pitching before his promotion to Bowie, and I did my Prospect Q&A interview with him there. As for the stadium: It’s eerily similar to Bowie and Delmarva, making me think the O’s might be doing that intentionally.
I somehow failed to make it to a Suns game last summer - my first in Maryland - but I’ve made up for it by getting up there a couple times this year. The first thing you notice when you get to Municipal Stadium is that it’s really, really old and somehow manages to seem even older. From the back, the outfield wall looks like it was built by the ancient Romans. There’s a hand-operated scoreboard, and there’s a hill in left field; it’s not a stupid, ill-conceived intentional one like the Astros have, just a hill that was apparently there when they built the park and never smoothed over. All in all, the stadium is pretty charming, however. Thursday night is $1.25 beer night, and the whole town of Hagerstown shows up for it, though few of them actually seem to watch the game. Even though the Suns are a Nats affiliate, they used to be an Orioles affiliate and still wear black and orange uniforms, which is a little weird. Last time I went, Nats top prospect Michael Burgess hit an absolute bomb over the right field wall, and I enjoyed it even more than I would have otherwise because it was $1.25 beer night.
I went up to Harrisburg for Opening Day this season, and boy, was it cold. The game went into extras and had to be suspended after it started sleeting, and I was one of about 20 people still there when that happened. The ballpark is in a pretty cool spot, on City Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, and it was a nice place to catch a game; I should probably get up there again sometime when it isn’t sleeting out. After that Opening Day game, my girlfriend and I found this cool restaurant/bar nearby called Duke’s, and we’ll never go to Harrisburg again without going there. The food was great, the beer selection was outstanding and Justin Maxwell, who had a cup of coffee with the Nats last September, showed up there after the game as well, which was pretty random and cool.
Short-season Class A, Montreal Expos (when I went)
My uncle and aunt used to live in Jamestown, which is in the southwestern corner of New York, near the Pennsylvania border. I stayed with them for a week one summer, went to a bunch of Jamestown Expos games and had a blast. I don’t remember too much about the stadium because I was 11, but I remember that Mark Grudzielanek was on the team, as were Brian Looney and Derrick White, both of whom had cups of coffee in the bigs. I still have a ball signed by that 1991 team, which I bet isn’t worth a whole lot.
Advanced Class A, Houston Astros (when I went)
I went to a game in Kissimmee in 1993 on a family vacation, and it was memorable because of one man: Shawn Livsey. Livsey was a supplemental first-round pick of the Astros in 1991 and had a 1992 Topps baseball card. I had it, and brought it to the park to get it signed. Livsey was so surprised that a) I knew who he was, and b) I had his card that he autographed the bat he used that day and gave it to me, and took me into the clubhouse and gave me a bunch of batting gloves and wristbands and such. He never made it past double-A, but he’s still one of my favorite ballplayers to this day. I hope everything turned out well for him.
I don’t know if this counts because I never saw a game there, but I played on the Spinners’ field during my American Legion days with South Attleboro (Mass.) Post 312. I was a pitcher by trade but I remember patrolling center field the day my team played there. I don’t remember much about the game other than looking at all the colorful ads on the outfield wall and thinking that it was pretty cool to be playing on a pro field, when I should have been focused on the game. Maybe that’s why I’m writing instead of playing. Probably not, though.
Long story short: A buddy of mine, during his college days, went to Florida during spring break and met a girl who went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It must have been pretty magical, because he called her several times a day, visited a bunch of times and eventually moved out there for a summer before the whole thing fizzled. I used to be his road trip buddy when he was visiting her, splitting driving duties during the 16-hour drive from Amherst, Mass., to Milwaukee in exchange for a cheap vacation. One of the times we went, we saw the Brewers play the Expos. I was quite impressed with the stadium, which was new at the time (maybe 2002 or so), and I remember Vladimir Guerrero hitting an absolute bomb to dead center field.
I went to the old Olympic Stadium during a family vacation to Montreal in 1993 and absolutely loved it. I’d never been in a domed stadium before, and I got a huge kick out of how the base lines and infield dirt and mound and everything else was so precise, and of course, the fact that it was all indoors. The Expos were playing the Marlins the day we went and I got Gary Sheffield to sign his 1989 Topps rookie card, the one on which he still has “GS” in cursive on his two front teeth. I was able to get it because there were about 150 people there, and chances are none of them even knew who Sheffield was.
My 1990 trip to Shea Stadium definitely ranks as one of my all-time favorite baseball memories. I mentioned in an earlier column that my mom’s friend babysat for Brett Butler’s kids during the baseball season, and that he got me all the Giants’ players autographs from their 1989 N.L. Championship team. The following season the Giants were playing the Mets, so my parents and I headed down to Shea - the nearest N.L. park to Massachusetts - to meet Butler. I remember him popping his head out of the dugout and saying “Hi Jason!” - people used to call me Jason when I was little - and talking to me about the Giants and Little League and just generally making me a happy little kid. We sat in the upper, upper deck and I remember getting a kick out of the hugeness of the stadium and the big, random home run apple in center field.
Short-season Class A, New York Yankees (when I went)
I went to an Oneonta Yankees game while attending a baseball camp in Cooperstown, N.Y. - home of the Hall of Fame - with fellow National Pastime writer Nick Leco when I was 14 or so. Oneonta is a Tigers farm team now but was a Yankees affiliate at the time, and John Elway played there before focusing on football full-time (good idea). The big stud prospect playing for Oneonta at the time was Shea Morenz, a first-round pick out of the University of Texas who never panned out. I also remember that Ramon Castro, now the Mets’ backup catcher, was playing for the visiting Astros farm team. All I remember from the game is that a foul ball got hit down the third base line and when I reached down to pick it up, some old, sweaty guy bum rushed me and knocked me headfirst onto the field. I threw a fit over the fact that he ruined my ballcap - it was just dirty and cleaned up just fine - and he gave me the ball.
I went to my very first pro baseball game at McCoy Stadium in 1987, when Brady Anderson and Jody Reed were playing for the PawSox, and have been back hundreds of times since. Some of the players I’ve seen come through Pawtucket on their way to the bigs include Deion Sanders, Mo Vaughn, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra; I got autographs from all of them, and hundreds of others over the years. I also attended a Red Sox tryout camp there and got switched to the outfield group after barely touching 80 with my fastball. The last time I went - in mid-July, on a trip to see family and friends in Massachusetts - just happened to be David Ortiz’s first rehab game after sitting out two months with a wrist injury. The place was packed and the atmosphere electric, and Big Papi didn’t disappoint, going yard in his second at bat.
I’ve been to a pair of Phillies games over the past couple years, and both times they got creamed by the visiting Red Sox. Citizens Bank Park is a lot like Camden Yards in that it has an old school feel and there’s a lot going on at the park besides the game. I get a kick out of the massive scoreboard in left field and the fact that the park seems even smaller in person than it does on TV. I’m surprised Ryan Howard doesn’t go yard there every time he actually manages to make contact. One thing that really disappointed me is that Phillies fans gave up on their team both times I went, rushing for the exits with a couple innings remaining like they were L.A. Dodger fans or something. Slightly inebriated last time I went, I let them hear all about it.
Class AAA, San Francisco Giants (when I went)
My family and I went to a Firebirds game on a 1996 vacation to Arizona. What I remember most about it was meeting Jacob Cruz, who was a top prospect at the time. The Firebirds sold cracked game-used bats in their gift shop, and when I saw “Cruz 32” on the handle I begged my parents for the $15 bucks or so needed to buy it and got Cruz to sign it after the game. Future Red Sox third baseman and A.L. batting champ Bill Mueller was also on that Firebirds team, and I got a card signed by him as well.
I make it down to Woodbridge pretty frequently. The stadium is nothing special, but somehow it’s a pretty cool place to watch a game anyway and a lot of good young Nats prospects - Chris Marrero, Justin Maxwell, Jordan Zimmermann, Adrian Alaniz, Ross Detwiler, etc. - have played there the past two years since I’ve been going. Pfitzner Stadium has a nice, laid back atmosphere and I’ve done a ton of player interviews there this season. Best of all is “Belly Busters” on Wednesday nights. For an extra $4, you get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring Uno’s Pizza, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Bob Evans and burgers and hot dogs in an area near the right-field foul pole. It’s the best deal going - rivaled only by Hagerstown’s $1.25 beer night, of course.
Even though I’ve only been there once, Reading is one of my all-time favorite minor league destinations. The stadium is just really cool, in a number of ways. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and there are also plenty of unique spots from which to watch the game. There’s a bar in left field, and a walkway right behind the left field wall that is reminiscent of Fenway Park’s Monster Seats, just 20 feet lower. There’s also a pool in right field and trees in center. The team draws very well and the concourse area has somewhat of a carnival atmosphere. The time I went, Phillies prospect Greg Golson won the game for the home team with a clutch, two-out RBI hit that hit the chalk along the right-field foul line. Reading is two and a half hours away from my house, which is kind of a hike, but it’s definitely on my list of ballparks to make a return trip to.
I went to a Richmond vs. Columbus game on Wednesday because my girlfriend starts school this week, we wanted to make one last road trip beforehand, Richmond was not too close but not too far away, and we’d never been there before. I wasn’t all that impressed with the stadium, but the upper deck offered some pretty cool views of the action. Word is that the Braves won’t have their triple-A affiliate in Richmond anymore starting next year; maybe the Nats could make like the Orioles and start to consolidate their minor league affiliates in the area by moving their triple-A club there? No offense, Columbus, but shouldn’t your team be a Reds or Indians affiliate?
Salem is about four hours southwest of where I live, and made for a perfect early-season road trip this year. The drive down Interstate 81 through the Appalachians was beautiful and scenic, and the Roanoke/Salem area is a really nice place to visit - and live, I would imagine. I was really impressed with Salem’s stadium and it was interesting to see Roger Clemens‘ son, Koby Clemens, in uniform for the Avalanche even though he didn’t play the night we went. The game was memorable because the Avalanche entered the bottom of the ninth trailing Wilmington by three runs, and after making little noise with the bats all night, they exploded in the ninth to win it. There weren’t a ton of people there, but the ones that were went crazy, and we left happy.
In 1999 my mother, brother and I took a weekend trip to the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area just to get away for a few days, and we decided to take in a Devil Rays vs. Braves game at Tropicana Field. Everyone talks about Tropicana Field like it’s some kind of dump, but I actually liked it quite a bit. The building seems too small to host a big league baseball field, but the field has pretty regular dimensions anyway. I remember walking down the steps in the upper deck and thinking that they were extremely steep and that someone could easily tumble down them and over the railing. I also remember some sort of brawl involving Jose Canseco, who was actually intimidating then, before he got tooled on by diminutive former NFL kick returner Vai Sikahema.
You might find this hard to believe, but I haven’t been to Nationals Park yet. It’s so close that I know I can get there any time, and as you can see, I like going to minor league games, and the Nats play a month of games after the minor league season ends at the beginning of September. I’ll definitely get there before the end of the year. I did, however, make it to RFK last September before it closed down, and I actually found it kind of charming somehow. It was way too big to serve as a MLB stadium, but it’s vastness allowed it to offer tons of unique views of the action. Besides, I could sense the history in the building.
That’s the list so far. There isn’t much time left this summer, but I hope to make a visit to Nationals Park and take in a Wilmington Blue Rocks game. Maybe next year I’ll make it to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park - I’ve heard it’s pretty nice - or maybe visit National Pastime’s Sean Raposa in San Diego and take in a Padres game. Hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment field below if you’re so inclined.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and mayor of the National Pastime web community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.