Brian’s At the Ballpark Archives

At the Ballpark – Appalachian Power Park, Charleston, WV
August 7, 2011, 2:29 am
Filed under: 2011, Reviews

Appalachian Power Park, Charleston, WV - click photo for more pictures of this visit

(Ed. note:  This is my first West Virginia ballpark review.)   

West Virginia is, for right or wrong, the butt of a lot of jokes. Whether someone throws out insults about relations with family members or couches set ablaze, those who have never visited are never short on material about the Mountain State. Once you cross the state line, though, the natural beauty of the area becomes quite obvious. It’s even tough for those of us who grew up across the state line in Virginia to find much negative to say about the surroundings.

West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, is loaded with baseball history. Professional baseball has made its home here off and on for over 100 years, and has seen many division and league titles come to the various inhabitants of the city. Fans can still purchase reminders of the city’s baseball past, as throwback jerseys of Dave Parker from the Charleston Charlies team in the 1970s are freely sold. A lot of Charleston’s baseball memories were made in Watt Powell Park, built in 1948. That park was decommissioned in 2005, though, and the Charleston baseball franchise moved a few miles down the road to Appalachian Power Park. Is this new downtown facility “almost heaven”? Let’s find out.

Concessions: C

I honestly expected more from a park that has this many concession options. The concourse looks almost like a food court, starting with the Power Alley Grill around the right field entrance and continuing all the way to the left field wall. Just about any concession item one could ever imagine – and some that would never cross your mind – is available at the park. Everything from deep-fried brownies to beef brisket sandwiches can be had here.

The big concern was the prices related to the portion sizes. I have been to a number of the parks in this league, and this park has what is probably the worst value of any of them in the concession realm. A 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade was $3.25 (outrageous on any day, but particularly terrible on this day), and I spent quite a bit of time in line trying to figure out how to convey to the servers what I wanted. The board listed “pepperoni rolls” (exactly that way) for $4.75, so I asked for that. After going back and forth for quite a bit of time while they tried in vain to explain that you get a roll (singular, not plural) for that price, I paid my $8 for a pepperoni roll and a bottle of Gatorade. The “roll” was a hot dog bun sparsely filled with pepperoni and cheese, and even with the marinara sauce provided, was chewy and flavorless. My father had a cheeseburger and seemed okay with it, but be cautious not to set your sights too high with the concessions here, as I did.

Atmosphere: B

This is one of the more visually unique ballparks you’ll see. There are historic buildings all around the park, and they are easily visible from your seat. If you look beyond the right field wall, you can see the golden dome of the Capitol building of West Virginia. Inside the park, there is not a lot to distract you from the game. There is pretty decent music between innings, a fairly unobtrusive set of between-innings promotions (including a “guess the lyrics” contest, which I’ve not seen), and there is not a sound effect on every pitch, which is nice. They do have commercials on the video board at times, though, which I despise. I understand the reasoning for having them, but I still hate them.

The thing that took away from the atmosphere on my visit was the fans – or lack thereof. The attendance was listed at 1198, but that had to have been considering the season ticket holders. The crowd was extremely sparse at first pitch, and continued to dwindle throughout the game. That may have been due to the heat (which was also falsely reported at 88 degrees), or the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon game. The end of the game felt similar to a spring training game, as I think most people there were just as content to see it end. I would imagine – or at least hope – that things are livelier there for night games, as this is a really cool area.

Sight lines: A

One of the few drawbacks of this park (the lack of an overhang to provide shade) is also a pretty large benefit to fans wishing to see the game. Virtually the entire concourse is open to the field, so if you go get an overpriced soda or food item, you can still see most of what is going on down at field level. There is netting around parts of the seating bowl, but it is kept to an absolute minimum. This is much appreciated. The bullpens are visible from the seating bowl, as they are right along each foul line.

There are a couple of things to watch out for, however, including a “blind spot” down the left field line from some of the third base seats. This may or may not be a concern, but keep it in mind on any balls hit into the corner. There is also a canopy on the third base side that could block your view at times. This and the support pillars of the lone modest overhang on the third base side proved to be a bit of an issue for me, as I escaped under that overhang to try to stay in the shade as much as possible. You may have to step out from under the shade or around the canopy to see the ball from time to time.

Parking: B

Parking is close, just outside the right field entrance to the park and across the street. The part that is not so good, however, is that it costs $3 to park and shares a lot with a Family Dollar store. There are a few other lots scattered about, but to park close to the stadium will cost you, and I didn’t feel good about taking a leisurely stroll through the surrounding neighborhood, even in the daytime. There is a parking garage near the stadium, but that appeared to be for the hospital next door. There may be some parking nearby for the various government offices, but it was not labeled in a fashion I could quickly identify and get out of the road.

Quality of baseball: C

The game was, for the most part, forgettable. The visiting Lakewood Blue Claws (Phillies) defeated the West Virginia Power (Pirates) 6-1, and the outcome of the game was almost never in doubt. West Virginia scored a run in the second on an Elias Diaz homer, but were barely heard from again. The Power left 12 runners on base while going hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position.

The foundation of what the Pirates are trying to do in terms of player development was pretty evident. There were quite a few “toolsy” players on the West Virginia side, including Diaz and third baseman Eric Avila. There appears to be a bit more focus on bringing in guys who have a high ceiling and can be “molded” a bit more, versus guys who have very little room to go and are so-called “safe” players. Time will tell how this strategy works, but considering the struggles of the Pirates chain in recent years, it’s worth a shot.

Overall grade: B

This park is – if you’ll pardon the expression – a real diamond in the rough. There is potential all over the facility with just a tweak here or there. Even with things as they were, it’s one of the cooler places I’ve seen. The integration of the park with the surrounding neighborhood is pretty darn cool, and almost gives the stadium a retro (I loathe that word, but it fits here) feel. Appalachian Power Park is certainly worth a visit if you’re anywhere close to Charleston, but be careful of day games unless you need to sweat off a few pounds.

How to get there:

Getting to the park is relatively simple. There are signs on I-77/64 telling you which exit to take, but the signs are not as visible once leaving the interstate. Take exit 100 from I-77/64 (Capital St./Leon Sullivan Way), then turn left at the first light onto Washington Street. Go to the second light on Washington, then turn left onto Morris Street. The park is ahead on the left after the first stop light, and the parking lots are on the right.


At the Ballpark – American Legion Stadium, Florence, SC
August 6, 2011, 6:33 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews

American Legion Stadium, Florence, SC - click photo for more pictures of this visit

If you’ve ever visited Myrtle Beach or gone south on I-95, the chances are pretty decent that you’ve passed through Florence, SC at some point. This burg of slightly less than 40,000 residents is served by two major interstates, and is just miles away from Darlington, famous for both NASCAR racing and being the home of MLB second baseman Orlando Hudson.

 Florence has made quite the name for itself, though, as many large businesses call it home. Florence also has quite the athletic history, with wrestling territories in the 1970s and 1980s finding the city to be a popular stop. Baseball also has deep roots in Florence, dating back to the 1920s. The city also served as a Blue Jays minor league affiliate from 1981-1986, hosting such future stars as Jimmy Key, Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff. The Blue Jays’ reign in Florence ended after 1986 when they relocated 70 miles east to Myrtle Beach. Does the former Florence Blue Jays home still have its charm? Let’s find out.

Concessions: A+

This may be a smaller park, but you’ll never go hungry – or thirsty – here. I managed to catch a game where all beverages were $1, which helps. Even if you don’t go on a night with a beverage special, the sodas are only $2. There are tons of soda selections (see the pictures for this park), and a beer garden is just down the right field line, for those who wish to have a frosty one. The park also offers Powerade and water for hydration on the hot days in Florence, and they are quite common.

The food selection is also outstanding, as burgers with just about any topping known to man are available. There is also the $5 Wolfburger, which I did not try. If you are more into hot dogs or smoked sausages, no worries, as those are also served here. Corn dogs, brats, pizza, various snacks and candy round out the menu, and everything is reasonably priced. I have seen a number of affiliated parks that came nowhere close to the selection and prices here, and that certainly deserves note.

Atmosphere: A-

Considering this game was a 10pm (local) start and the ballpark in Florence is surrounded by virtually nothing, things were rather lively on the night I attended. There were a number of kids at the park for that late hour, and despite their ignoring the PA announcer stating that they had to be accompanied by an adult to go after foul balls, they were mostly well-behaved. The locals really love their hometown Redwolves, and that was made apparent on this night. A number of umpires were in the stands, if you catch my drift.

The team has a mascot named Homer, who is (appropriately) a red wolf. He was involved in a number of the between-innings promotions, including the dizzy bat race (which almost saw a collision between two dizzy kids) and two different occasions where free items were tossed to fans in the stands (t-shirts and water bottles). He was around enough to where the kids could see him and such, but not so much that he was annoying or intrusive. This park also features a good selection of music from nationally and locally-recognized artists, and I also got to see a fan shag dance to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” for the first – and probably last – time.

Sight lines: F

Unfortunately, there is not an unobstructed seat in the house at American Legion Stadium. Every seat is behind a fence, net, pole, support beam or some combination of such. When you combine this with the fact that the seating bowl is away from the field by a decent distance because of a sidewalk and another couple of rows of fixed seats, it really helps to kill the atmosphere that already seems to exist in the park. There is one section of seats in the general admission area that is inexplicably angled toward the first base bag, and if you are sitting in that area and trying to look straight ahead, you are blocked by a) a railing, b) a support beam and c) a net. If someone hits a ball down the left field line, you turn to track the ball and end up looking directly into yet another railing. I understand the need for safety and such, but if the team ever gets the budget to do so, it’s time to just scrap any seat that isn’t fixed and start over. When you can’t see either bullpen down the line and even the scoreboard is obscured by netting, that’s a problem.

Parking: B

Parking here is close to the park, which is great – except for the several cars that got hit by foul balls, despite all the overkill of netting and fencing. The parking is free, but is in a huge grass lot. This has to be nightmarish on days when the random pop-up storm heads through the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, but I was luckily not affected. Ingress and egress are relatively quick, as the park is quite close to US 52 (Irby Street) and US 76 (Palmetto Street). My recommendation is to bring some rain boots just in case, and to park as far away as you realistically can.

Quality of baseball: A

Edenton came into this game with the longest active win streak in summer collegiate baseball, but Florence, who did not even make the playoffs in the Coastal Plain League, was up to the task. The homestanding Red Wolves defeated the visiting Steamers 5-3, despite Edenton collecting 11 hits on the evening. Red Wolves starter Hunter Adkins (Middle Tennessee) started a bit shaky, but managed to settle down and keep Edenton mostly at bay. Edenton third baseman Vinnie Mejia (UT-Pan American) hit a monster home run into the trees in left-center. Both teams played solid defense (despite four total errors) and made some outstanding plays to keep the game as close as the final indicates.

Overall grade: A

This visit was totally unplanned, but I am truly glad I made it. I had a wonderful time, even with not being able to see things at times. The concessions are cheap, the staff is super-friendly (I can’t emphasize this enough – great job, everyone), and if you make the trip, you won’t be disappointed. I’ve had a great experience every time at Coastal Plain League facilities, and this one continues the streak.

How to get there:

As mentioned earlier in the piece, Florence is located just off interstates 95 and 20 in eastern South Carolina. The park is just outside of downtown Florence, and is virtually next to the Florence Regional Airport. Continue through downtown Florence on either US 52 or 76 to Darlington Street, then to Oakland Avenue. The park is ahead on the right. It may be helpful to use Google Maps for directions.

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.

At the Ballpark – Grainger Stadium, Kinston, NC
April 24, 2011, 9:49 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews | Tags: , ,

Grainger Stadium, Kinston, NC - click photo for more photos of this visit

One can be forgiven if they confuse Kinston, North Carolina with somewhere else. This is not a bad thing, mind you – it’s just that a lot of the neighboring towns in eastern North Carolina tend to look alike. What cannot be mistaken, however, are a few common threads, including the charm, history and good people you most often see in a small town.

Kinston has a story much like a lot of the other sleepy towns in which this game is played. The home of professional baseball for over 100 years, a tremendous group of A-listers has called this place theirs for a summer. The legendary (Rick Ferrell), the dubious (Pete Rose, Jr.) and the mercurial (Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez) grace the list of former Kinston players.

Kinston’s current baseball facility, Grainger Stadium, opened its doors at the corner of East Grainger and Vernon in 1949, and 2011 may be the last hurrah for affiliated baseball in the city. The team will relocate to Zebulon, NC for the 2012 season, and become the Carolina Mudcats, while the current iteration of the Mudcats will move to Pensacola, FL to begin play in the Southern League for 2012. Six teams have graced Grainger Stadium with league championships during its existence, but how is the grand old park holding up in its possible final year? Let’s find out.

Concessions: A-

It’s pretty hard to complain about what is available at Grainger Stadium. There are a number of concession stands throughout the park (though, be aware that the stand behind the third base seats contains mostly beverages, causing the other two stands to pretty heavily back up at times), and there is a little of the expected and the unexpected from which to choose.

The prices are quite reasonable, and the portions are gigantic. The french fries, for instance, were $2.50, and the portion was much larger than expected. Pepsi products are available throughout the park, so if soda is your thing, expect a Pepsi. There are also a number of beers, if that is your preference. My recommendation for something for you to try, despite my lack of guts to do so, is the bologna sandwich. I have never seen a bologna sandwich in a park before, so if you’re more adventurous than I, give it a spin.

Atmosphere: B

There is something about a ballpark in a small Southern town. You’re surrounded by friends, so it’s not uncommon to see people hug, shake hands and share stories. Kinston is no different in this territory. The polite atmosphere, though, extends throughout much of the game. The ¾-full stands rarely made much noise, except when prompted to do so by the scoreboard. To be fair, though, there was not much reason to do so. More on that in a minute.

The focus is on the baseball in Kinston. There are a few between-innings promotions, but they are not intrusive and are mostly forgettable. The PA system was not very loud – in fact, I had to strain to hear it at times – but the music soundtrack was rather good, when audible. Some of the sound effects were a bit repetitive, however.

It should also be mentioned that a group of Star Wars characters was in attendance at the game, but was not announced.  They posed for pictures, signed baseballs (a Sith Lord signing a baseball? Seriously?) and were generally quite amusing.

Sight lines: B-

I was very excited to purchase tickets and find them in the front row of one of the seating areas behind the plate. Be warned, though, that this is not a good thing. The main concourse is between these seating areas and the “box seats” (an area with folding chairs inside metal gates), and between the late-arriving fans and those who cannot seem to find their seats, your view can be entirely blocked for large portions of the game. I finally grew tired of the steady stream of people (and the net in front of me), and walked down to the bleachers, which helped my experience.

Two other issues exist of which you should make yourself aware. First, the concession areas are mostly on the “outer” concourse, which runs behind the seating bowl. There is one concession area down the first base line within view (somewhat) of the field, but that stand remains busy, as could be expected. Also, the bullpens are tough to view. The home bullpen is on the third base side, and is mostly obscured unless you are in the bleachers or on the berm down the first base line. The visiting bullpen is past the right field corner, and is virtually invisible. This is bad for those who like to watch pitchers warm up.

Parking: A+

The parking situation at Grainger is about as perfect as one will find at a professional-level park. There is plentiful free parking within steps of the stadium, and despite the lack of a stop light at Grainger Avenue, which can make the left turn into the ballpark a bit tough, there is very little about which to complain. Egress from the park is quite easy, as well, as I had virtually no wait in leaving the lot and going on my way.

Be careful where you park your car, however, as much of the parking lot faces the plate, and a foul ball would not have to travel very far to find your vehicle. I parked in the back of the lot (only about four rows back), and was within a minute of my car from the front gates.

Quality of baseball: B

The grade in this category was considerably higher until the 7th inning. The game, which had been breezing along at a nice clip until this point, slowed to a halt as Myrtle Beach (Rangers high-A affiliate) put six runs on the board on five hits. Myrtle Beach sent 11 men to the plate in this frame, and it essentially cemented the end result. The visiting Pelicans scored 11 runs on 16 hits, with an alarming 22 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

The homestanding Indians put together only 2 runs on 7 hits, with both scores coming during a mini-rally in the 8th. Left fielder Bo Greenwell (yes, son of Mike) was the hitting star for Kinston, notching three of the team’s seven hits. Both teams displayed some outstanding defensive chops, with Myrtle Beach’s middle infielders (Leury Garcia and Santiago Chirino) proving themselves to be real defensive standouts. Myrtle Beach third baseman Mike Olt also made several unbelievable stops, but received an error on a throw when he threw wide of the bag on one of those stops. Pelicans right-hander Joe Wieland turned in a great effort, throwing seven shutout innings, while striking out six Indians batters against zero walks.

Overall grade: A-

As any regular reader knows, I grew up around Carolina League baseball, and Kinston is one of the few parks on the circuit I had not yet gotten the chance to see. The recommendations of several friends and the likelihood that this season would end Kinston’s run in the professional ranks hastened my trip. A visit to Kinston is like stepping into a time machine – in a good way. The city has done a great job with renovating the park when necessary so that it doesn’t “look old”, as it were, but the age of the park is still quite evident, as is the slower pace of the town.

If you consider yourself a true baseball fan and have the means to do so, Kinston is a necessary visit. In the new era of downtown parks, luxury boxes and corporate sponsorships, this park is a true jewel and a reminder of how the game – and the people who watched it – used to be.

How to get there:

Kinston is truly a “you can’t get there from here” type of town. Nestled an hour or so west of the Atlantic Ocean and North Carolina coast, the only major roads that access Kinston are US 70 and US 258. If coming from the Raleigh-Durham area (the closest “major” city to Kinston), take US 70 east (exit 309) from I-40, and continue along until you see the exit for US 13/70/117 toward Kinston. As US 70 joins US 258 heading into Kinston, signs for the stadium begin to appear. The stadium is directly off Vernon Avenue (US 70/US 258), and is on the left if coming in from the west. The team’s website also has detailed driving directions for any city from which you might approach.

At the Ballpark – Winthrop Ballpark, Rock Hill, SC
March 5, 2011, 11:48 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews


Winthrop Ballpark - Rock Hill, SC - Click photo for more photos of this visit

Most people know of Rock Hill, South Carolina – if they know of it at all – as a “bedroom community” about 20 minutes southwest of Charlotte. Bankers and other professionals who prefer the quieter life to the hustle and bustle of the “big city” often call Rock Hill their home. What you may not know about Rock Hill is that it has a little baseball history, as well.

Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson led four consecutive minor league teams to pennants in the mid-to-late 60s, and the first one was the Rock Hill Cardinals of 1965. That Western Carolinas League champ was not loaded with future big league talent, but having Sparky running your club doesn’t hurt. Rock Hill fielded minor league teams at Legion Park in 1947-48, and at the corner of York and White in Municipal Stadium from 1949-68.

Though it is no longer the home of affiliated baseball, Rock Hill is still home to the highly-lauded Winthrop University. Winthrop is consistently one of the highest-performing institutions in the Southeast, and has earned a ton of accolades. Is their baseball facility as great as the university? Let’s find out.

Concessions: A-

As college parks go, there’s a lot of variety at Winthrop Ballpark. There are no hamburgers or cheeseburgers here, but there are barbecue sandwiches (a staple in this part of the country), Chick-fil-A sandwiches and several other choices. The park also offers pretzels, nachos, pizza, peanuts (roasted and boiled), hot dogs, corn dogs, ice cream, chips and candy. Just about all of the prices are reasonable, with the sandwiches the most expensive items at $4. They even have Dr. Pepper, for those like my father who are connoisseurs of the caramel-colored treat.

The one downfall was the popcorn, which was $2.50 for a tiny box of popcorn. I didn’t bother to try it, but that appeared to be the lone questionable choice in an otherwise decent grouping of selection and value.

Atmosphere: A

This is, plain and simple, a comfortable ballpark. There is plenty of room to move around, a group of respectful and supportive fans and an ample seating bowl. There are occasionally a few goofy sound effects, but the same person who does the public address announcing for the triple-A White Sox affiliate Charlotte Knights a few miles up the road is also on the microphone at Winthrop.

Winthrop has a large video board, but it is mainly used for the in-stadium Bingo game and player/team graphics. There is a large clock on the scoreboard (this helped quell my habit of checking my watch every five minutes) and a pitch speed section. Though the radar gun appeared to be off at times, it was a nice touch to have on the scoreboard.

Sight lines: B

For those who have read my reviews for a while, you will know there is one thing I hate in ballparks, and it is excessive netting. There is a 20′ (or so) high net surrounding the entirety of the seating bowl, and no matter where your seat may be in the park, it is as though you are watching the game inside a jail cell. They announced over the PA that fans could trade in foul balls for a $5 gift card to McAlister’s Deli. The only way to get one of those, however, is to have one popped up that clears the net, or to have a line drive make the perfect carom off the top of the seating bowl.

There appears to be standing room down each baseline, and that area is free of the nets. The standing area is on the “lower” level of the park, whereas the seating bowl is accessed by stairs and rises above the playing field. The concession area is also on the lower level of the park, and the field is not visible from this area. Keep this in mind if going to get a sandwich or a soda.

Parking: A+

Winthrop has one of the best parking situations I’ve ever seen on a college campus. The athletics “complex” is all in the same area, anchored by Winthrop Coliseum. The ample lot for this 6000-plus seat facility serves as the parking area for the baseball stadium, as well as most of the other athletic fields. Simply park your car (for free!) in one of the many available spaces and enjoy the short, tree-lined walk past the tennis facility to the stadium.

Quality of baseball: A

For a game played in a relatively constant rain, this was a pretty darn enjoyable brand of baseball. Winthrop defeated visiting Notre Dame 7-2, behind a well-pitched game from starter Matteo D’Angelo. D’Angelo pitched seven strong innings, striking out three and giving up one run on five hits. Winthrop banged out 13 hits, paced by catcher Eddie Rohan’s 3-for-4 performance and a homer from Patrick Gamblin. Notre Dame received a homer from left fielder Eric Jagielo and a bases-loaded walk.

Winthrop was also extremely solid in the fundamental aspects of the game, perfectly executing a number of bunts. One of those bunts was a two-out suicide squeeze. Winthrop also hit the ball back up the middle on a number of occasions, which is exactly what a coach wants to see.

Overall grade: A-

This is the second collegiate tournament I have attended this year, and the experience at this one was considerably better than the first. Winthrop has one of the nicest facilities in the Big South Conference (if not the entire Southeast), plenty of reasonably-priced seats for everyone and a good brand of baseball. I really enjoyed my trip to Winthrop Ballpark, and I definitely plan to be back sometime soon.

One other tip that I can offer is that this is one of the few parks I have visited where I have not felt completely cramped. The seats have plenty of space, and if you have long legs like I do, even the front row offers you a reasonable amount of room to move. The feeling of watching a game in a cage is not very desirable, but there’s not a lot else to make you feel bad about your trip to this facility. Should your travels bring you to Rock Hill, give this diamond in the rough (no pun intended) a try.

How to get there:

Take Interstate 77 south from Charlotte into South Carolina. Take Exit 82 A-B-C (US 21/SC 161) and continue following the signs for US 21 toward Rock Hill at the bottom of the ramp. Continue along this road past the US 21 South (Anderson Road) and US 21 Business (Cherry Road) split. Stay on US 21 Business for approximately 3 miles until reaching the sign for Winthrop Coliseum (Richmond Drive). Turn left at the light, continue past the stop sign and the parking is on the left, with the stadium on the right.