Brian’s At the Ballpark Archives

At the Ballpark – Jack D. Hughes Memorial Park, Pineville, NC
July 24, 2011, 3:25 am
Filed under: 2011, Reviews

Jack D. Hughes Memorial Park, Pineville, NC - click photo for more images of this visit

I never realized how much I had been missing living in an area without summer college wood bat baseball before moving to an area with these leagues. Wood bat baseball gives scouts and fans alike the opportunity to see tomorrow’s professionals in a challenging – yet fun – environment. Major programs send some of their players to these leagues to get work, and players from smaller programs go to test their skills against the players from the bigger schools.

A number of these leagues exist throughout the country, and there are two of particular note along the eastern seaboard. The Coastal Plain League contains 15 teams in Virginia and the Carolinas, and the Southern Collegiate Baseball League (SCBL) features eight clubs in North and South Carolina. The two-time champion of the circuit, the Tennessee Tornado, folded after last season, and a new team was created in Pineville, North Carolina. This first-year club performed well in their new home, but is their ballpark an up-and-comer or a flash in the pan? Let’s find out.

Concessions: C

I almost hesitate to give this grade, because it was not as though there was not any effort paid to the concessions or that they were unfairly priced. There is just not a lot from which to choose.

There were only four hot options available – hot dog ($1.50), nachos and cheese ($2.25), soft pretzels ($1.50) and popcorn ($1.50). Candy, peanuts and other assorted snack items were also available at reasonable prices. Three different types of ice cream were also served, which is helpful when cooling off after a long hot day in the Carolinas. Soda prices were about average, at $2 for a 20 ounce bottle of soda, Powerade or water. You certainly won’t go broke feeding your family here, but if you have a picky crew, it may be wise to pick something up before heading to the park.

Atmosphere: B

There were very few people in the park the night I attended. This was both good and bad – good, because the park might seat 500 people (not counting standing room), and bad because it limited the atmosphere. The fans in attendance were quite involved in the game, and a few visiting fans even made their way out to support their club. There was a decent selection of music between innings, though some of it was repeated, and there was very little to interrupt the flow of the game.

The one thing I will say about the atmosphere here is that it feels distinctly more college-y (I know, that word does not exist) than the parks in the Coastal Plain League. I have never been to an SCBL contest before this one, but there is next to no emphasis on the in-game presentation. This may be due to the non-profit status of the league, a desire to keep things more low-key, or both. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the feeling between leagues is definitely different.

Sight lines: D

Anyone who routinely reads these reviews knows of my hatred for netting. I realize its necessity, but parks tend to go way overboard with its installation. This park is no exception. There is a net that is every bit of 20 feet tall encircling the seating bowl. It makes a fan feel as though they are watching a game in jail.

There are also a few large support poles for the netting that create even more of an obstruction. If you sit in the front row of the seating bowl in just the right place, you have to battle not just the ridiculous netting, but the support poles for the netting and a railing that goes along the top of the brick wall behind the plate. All of the obstructions really take away from the enjoyment of the game.

If you go to the top of the seating bowl, there are a few places you can see without obstruction down either the right or left field line (respectively), which is all that saves this grade from being an F.

Parking: A+

All of the dream characteristics of parking are met here: a) free b) close and c) paved. The furthest spot from the door is still only a few seconds away, even though the lack of seating in the park does help with getting out the door and back to your car. There are two methods of entry and exit to and from the parking lot, so there is never a bottleneck when coming or going. Also, keep in mind that this field is located in a city park, so there is a little bit of a drive from the main road to get to the field and parking area.

Quality of baseball: B+

Both starting pitchers threw reasonably well in this contest, as they showed good command early. Liam O’Sullivan (Rhode Island) faced off against Clemson’s Clay Bates. Lake Norman (Copperheads) scored an early run against the homestanding Pineville (Pioneers) club, adding on three in the 4th and blowing the game wide open in the 9th with 4 more after Pineville had cut the lead to 4-1. Lake Norman compiled their 8 runs on just 6 hits, while Pineville strung together 9 hits and the single run.

The game got a bit sloppy toward the end, as both teams’ pitchers seemed to have some trouble with finding the strike zone. Lake Norman managed to mostly neutralize the Pineville attack, however, and came away with the victory.

Overall grade: B-

I really enjoyed the visit to the park, and this game was a nice introduction to the circuit. I wish more people would come out and give this league a look, as there is some really good baseball being played right under their collective noses. In this era of pinching every penny, the Pioneers and the SCBL provide an affordable evening at the park for even the largest family.

I was disappointed in a few things, and I have outlined those here, but I would certainly revisit the park without my arm feeling twisted. I am glad that the league chose this market for relocation, and hope the organization can continue to get a foothold in the community.

How to get there:

For the uninitiated, Pineville is a southern suburb of Charlotte, NC. The city park and stadium are tucked into a smaller neighborhood off NC Highway 51. Access from major roads is relatively simple. Take I-485 (Charlotte’s city loop) to exit 65. If coming from I-77, there will be a separate exit for Pineville; if coming from the other direction, follow the signs for Pineville at the top of the exit. Take South Blvd. (this turns into Polk Street) to NC Highway 51 (Main Street). Turn right onto Main Street, proceed through downtown and cross the railroad tracks. The park will be just ahead on your left.


At the Ballpark – Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, FL
July 11, 2011, 11:43 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews

Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, FL - click the photo for more photos of this visit

One of the many great things about the Florida State League is that, with an exception or two, the entire circuit plays in spring training facilities. This makes for a convenient atmosphere for fans and clubs alike. Fans are greeted with large facilities and plenty of room to move, while clubs can be close to their spring bases. Some teams also send players to this league to rehab.

While a lot of the league outposts are in or near the more major markets in Florida (four teams in the Tampa area, for instance), one tends to stand out like a proverbial sore thumb. Port Charlotte, Florida is a small community on the western coast of the state best known to many as an area that was hammered by Hurricane Charley in 2004. It looks a lot like many Florida coastal towns, and despite the lack of a more notable city nearby, Charlotte Sports Park (built in 1987 and renovated over the last few years) has still served quite the purpose to this area.

The Rangers spent 15 years making Charlotte Sports Park their home, and now the Rays hope to further carve their niche in southwest Florida. The club has made the area the home for their spring camp, FSL affiliate and rookie Gulf Coast League team. Has the team found a worthy home? Let’s find out.

Concessions: B

There are several concession stands on the main concourse, including a grill on the first base side and a stand almost immediately to your left as you enter the park. The workers at the stand I attended were reasonably nice, and the prices were passable. I had a pretzel with cheese ($3.50) and a soda. The pretzel was decent, if undercooked a little. The soda was also decent, but in a somewhat flimsy souvenir cup. The park pours Pepsi products, including Dr. Pepper.

There are also some more interesting options, such as Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches (not available on Sundays) and hamburgers. The hamburgers looked like pretty standard fare, not something that was freshly grilled. I also saw someone a few rows down with an order of nachos that looked downright monstrous. I don’t know exactly what they were or how much they cost, but they were gigantic.

Atmosphere: F

Quick editor’s caveat: I am often berated by fans of teams who feel as though I have something against their team or city when I review parks. I say to you now, as I do to them, that these grades are representative of what I see the day I attend. The experience may be perfect every other time, but it is only fair to document exactly what I see. With that said…

I didn’t want to just like this park. I wanted to love this park. I came away hugely disappointed by a number of things, however.

This ballpark had a number of things about it that made it distinctly “minor league”. It took three different times of asking at the ticket office to determine which pricing level actually guarantees a fixed seat (it’s the $9 tickets, by the way). That pricing level allows you to sit anywhere in the 200 level or the last section of each side of the 100 level. Once inside, the focus is almost strictly on baseball, which isn’t totally a bad thing. There was one between-innings promotion, featuring a seven or eight-year-old girl doing a “singalong” to a song that was released in 1984 (some helpful fans told her the lyrics, though). The main distraction from the game is that the PA announcer has a goofy sound effect locked and loaded for every pitch, every foul ball, every event whatsoever that happens in the game. The constant intrusions get really tiresome, particularly when there can’t be 150 people in the park, which happened on this day despite the “announced” attendance of 1700-plus.

There was another experience that I had regarding fan friendliness that really rubbed me the wrong way. It started to rain during the game (welcome to Florida, I suppose), and was actually raining harder than it did the previous day when the game got rained out. I had an umbrella with me, which I had brought past numerous people into the park with no one making a single comment regarding its use. I opened the umbrella – after seeing others with open umbrellas in the seating bowl, mind you – and was approached by a team employee telling me that I couldn’t have the umbrella open in the seating area. I was given the options of joining the rest of the huddled masses in the nosebleed seats at the top of the 200 section, with the few rows covered by the overhang, or sitting out in the rain. The fact that a) I was the only one visibly approached with others having open umbrellas and b) there were literally ten-plus rows of open seats behind me made me almost angry enough to leave at that point. I waited until after game one of the doubleheader to do so, and the second game was suspended (by rain, of course) in the second inning.

I found out after getting back from the game that it says on the team website that umbrellas cannot be opened in the seating bowl for “safety reasons”. That might be understandable if anyone had even been remotely near me, and I would have even been okay if someone had mentioned this to me before I entered the seating bowl. However, I had no access to the team’s website before entering the park, and there was no need to be rude on behalf of the team. So, if you’re planning to come to the park, be sure not to bring your “deadly weapon” umbrella (but wait, you can use it on the concourse!), and bring some ear plugs to drown out the sound effects. There were two really nice team employees that deserve recognition, Nicole (I believe) in the team store, and a team employee who thanked me for coming to the park as I exited through the first base gate. I didn’t catch the gate employee’s name, but the fact that he took the time to thank me took a bit of the sting off my otherwise annoying experience.

Sight lines: A

The sight lines are among the greatest selling features of the park. There is very little in the park that is not visible from the seating bowl, and there is very little netting to obstruct the view like in so many other parks. Only the area behind home plate is covered by a net, and the 200 level is only separated from the field by a few rows of seating and a concourse. There is also a wraparound concourse that is referred to as the “Baseball Boardwalk”. There is a tiki bar type of establishment in the outfield, similar to that in Clearwater. There are also berm seating areas in the outfield.

A couple of things will not be visible, though, and this should also be taken into account. The bullpens are behind the outfield fences, and they are barely visible through the fence. A trip to the outfield area is necessary in order to see the bullpen action. The left field corner is also not visible to most of the seats on the third base side. There were very few balls hit into the left field corner – or hit at all, but more on that in a moment – but this is a concern. Finally, the concourse is completely behind the seating bowl, so remember this when going to the stands or the bathroom. This is a beautiful park, and that should be plainly obvious upon your arrival.

Parking: F

Any parking situation in which the attendant gives me instructions to “turn left at the third gravel road and park next to the closest car” is ridiculous and requires an immediate overhaul. I had to pay $4 for this privilege at a single-A park. The parking is also in the grass, which creates quite the messy situation in the aforementioned Florida rains. If you’re charging $4 for parking during the season (and at least $10 during spring training), you can afford to at least pave the lot. The parking is close to the ballpark, but that’s the only positive thing to say about it.

Quality of baseball: A+

As A-level games go, this was among the best I’ve seen. It matters not that this was a 7-inning game, or that very few were there to see it, I was quite impressed. Rays prospect Alex Colome pitched a complete game for the homestanding Stone Crabs, striking out seven, walking two and allowing one earned on three hits. Jupiter (Marlins) righthander Kyle Kaminska also threw four solid innings, allowing a lone hit, striking out five and walking three. The Hammerheads took a 1-0 lead in the fifth on a Sharif Othman double, but the Stone Crabs plated two in the bottom of the sixth, with catcher Jake Jefferies plating the eventual game-winner. Both teams were solid on defense, and there was a sense of drama throughout. Outstanding game, especially for this level.

Overall grade: C

I can’t say enough how beautiful this park is, and you are immediately stricken with the fact that this is not the average everyday minor league park. There is even a mildly amusing mascot named Stoney who wanders the concourses. The baseball was also tremendous, which made for an outstanding in-game experience.

I did not feel at all welcome as a visitor, however, and it seemed as though the fans were only there to serve as a money-making vessel for the team. The constant sound effects and lack of interest from the team staff killed a lot of the interest I had in the park, and I hope that I just caught them on a bad day. As it stands now, I get the feeling that visitors (especially one from as far away as I am, and cannot come visit every day or access the team’s website on game days) are better off going somewhere else where the team feels as though they matter.

How to get there:

Charlotte Sports Park is located in Port Charlotte, Florida. This is an hour from Tampa, an hour from Fort Myers and is, in reality, closest to Sarasota and its related beaches, though even Sarasota is a half-hour away. The park is most easily accessed by I-75 and US 41 (Tamiami Trail). If taking I-75, take exit 179 (Toledo Blade Blvd.) and follow the signs. The park is about 10 miles off the interstate on El Jobean Road. If on US 41, take a right on El Jobean (if traveling south) or a left (if traveling north). The park will be ahead on the left in the 2300 block of El Jobean. There is very little around the park, so be prepared that you will need to travel up El Jobean to Toledo Blade or Tamiami Trail to find much in terms of food, gasoline and the like.

At the Ballpark – McNair Field, Forest City, NC
July 3, 2011, 8:51 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews
McNair Field, Forest City, NC – click for more photos of this visit

North Carolina is a great state loaded with numerous baseball outposts. The history of the game spans centuries, and from the days of teams based in mills and factories to present day, the sport has a part in households from the mountains to the coast.

Nestled between Charlotte and Asheville is one of these baseball outposts. Forest City, North Carolina gained a team in the collegiate Coastal Plain League prior to the 2008 season. The team was relocated to this quiet town from Spartanburg, South Carolina. The hometown Owls had a record-setting 2009 season, finishing the season 51-9, and that success has led to two straight league championships.

McNair Field, the home of the Owls, is named for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair. McNair is a native of Forest City, and contributed a large amount of money and resources to make the stadium happen. Does the stadium live up to the investment? Let’s find out.

Concessions: B

There are certain expectations in ballpark food, and all of those expectations are met at McNair Field. All of your favorites are available at the concession stand down the first base line. The prices are reasonable ($3-4 for most major items), and a beer garden is just behind the stand, for those who prefer the occasional libation at the park. Be careful, however, because the concession stand is in a very popular area of the park (the souvenir stand and entrance to the park are in the same area), so the area can get a bit crowded.

There is also a little bit of local flavor in the concession selection in Forest City. Two local establishments, Dino’s Pizza-a-Plenty and The City Table have a presence in the park. The pizza seemed rather popular in the park, especially with the kids. The City Table, meanwhile, is a local barbecue establishment, and they have a large stand down the third base line. It is no great upset to have a barbecue joint in a North Carolina ballpark, but this one seemed to get great reviews from the fans sitting near me.

Atmosphere: B

Forest City is a garden-variety small town park, with the usual mix of regulars, families and kids running about begging for baseballs. Most of the families were lined up along the third base line in folding chairs, talking about church and Little League. It was exactly what one comes to expect in these types of parks.

The focus is mostly on baseball here, but the between-innings entertainment that is at the park doesn’t really break down any barriers. There is a mascot race, a frozen t-shirt contest, a hula hoop ring (this was every bit as awkward as you might imagine), a pizza scream (ugh) and a t-shirt toss. There are very few sound effects in the park, but those they use are played to death (‘everybody clap your hands!”, “day-o”, etc.), and could easily be lost and never again found.

Sight lines: A-

The angling of this ballpark makes it pretty easy to see just about all the action going on in the park from any seat (or spot on the grass) you may have. The park is well-lit at night, and you can see toward the small downtown area of Forest City beyond the fences. I sat on the third base berm and never felt as though I was missing anything.

There are two areas that could stand to be slightly improved, though. If you are walking from the third base side to the first base side (or vice versa), the concourse actually winds around behind the seating bowl for part of the walk, prohibiting your view of the field while you traverse the area. The bullpens are also somewhat hard to see, as they are in each corner of the field, and a dark tarp covers the fence to the bullpen. The view of the bullpen could be improved just by taking down these tarps, even if nothing else could be done.

Parking: A

Parking is free at McNair Field, and there is a large paved lot just behind the entrance to the field. I went on a busy night and arrived about 15 minutes before the game, and there were still a few spots available in the paved lot. There also appears to be some parking at nearby grassy areas and other lots, should it be required.

Two things should be noted, however. First, there is a large cemetery next to the parking lot, which is unusual, if nothing else. Also, egress from the park is a bit of a problem on busy nights, as the city street onto which McNair Drive empties is not the widest roadway in the state. This can cause backups when exiting the park. Keep this in mind when leaving the park, and allow a little extra time.

Quality of baseball: A

I got the feeling this grade might have been a bit lower after the first inning, as Forest City jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning. Run-scoring hits from Eric Fisher (Arkansas) and Danny Canela (NC State) plated those three scores, but also produced the last major offensive threat from the home team until the ninth inning. The visiting Wilson Tobs gradually pecked away at the lead, tying the game on a Joe Costigan (Clemson) homer in the sixth, then taking the lead in the ninth on a Keith Morrisroe (Concord) hit, scoring Alex Jones (Northern Illinois). Forest City tied the game in the bottom of the frame on a double by Buddy Sosnoskie (Francis Marion), but the Tobs eventually won the game in the top of the tenth on a single by Jones.

Both teams pitched quite well – especially after the output from Forest City in the first – and played solid defense. The transition to wood bats seemed pretty seamless for most of the players, as there were a number of hard-hit balls on both sides. I have seen a lot of quality baseball in my exposure to the Coastal Plain League, and this game certainly did not disappoint.

Editor’s Note:  Wilson’s team (the Tobs) have quite the strange nickname, and I wanted to share the origin of said nickname.  “Tobs” is short for “Tobacconists”, which has been a common name for Wilson-based teams going back to the Class D leagues of the 1930s and 40s.  The team pays homage to this history with a tobacco leaf on their jerseys, along with their unique name.

Overall grade: A

The park is very symbolic of the town in which it resides – very small and friendly. All of the team staff were kind and professional. I also noticed that team staff stood at the gates and thanked patrons as they left, which is a great touch. This park is not Yankee Stadium, but all things considered, it is a must-see for real baseball fans in western North Carolina.

How to get there:

Forest City is accessible via US 74 or 221, and is (as mentioned) about halfway between Charlotte and Asheville. Take US 74 to exit 182 (US 221A – Broadway), then turn left toward the downtown area. Take this road to its end, then turn left (continuing on 221A – E. Main St.). Continue through the downtown area, and turn right on McNair Drive. The ballpark is straight ahead on the right.