2019 Baseball Stadiums Update

Colorado Springs makes a big drop in levels as they go from AAA to Short-Season A ball

Baseball had a minor-league shuffle during the offseason. Despite not having a plan for a new or significantly upgraded stadium, San Antonio moves up a class to the PCL. They will take the spot of Colorado Springs, who move way down, into the Pioneer League, where they will go by the Rocky Mountain Vibes. The Vibes will play in the league’s biggest stadium as their existing ballpark (Security Service Field) is light years ahead of the American Legion field that was used in the 40 years that Helena played in the league. They say goodbye and while I feel for the folks in Helena who will miss the summer tradition, I do think modern baseball has far outgrown their facility at Kindrick Legion Field. Taking San Antonio’s spot in the Texas League is a new team in Amarillo. They have one of the coolest names for a stadium as Hodgetown opened downtown and it looks like a beauty. Too bad it’s the Sod Poodles for the team name (yuk)

Four other ballparks will open this season, two of them in affiliated ball. Las Vegas leaves Cashman Field for the Lights soccer team of the USL and they head west to the planned community of Summerlin where the former 51s become the Aviators. The name will be short-lived (Las Vegas Ballpark), but the stadium seats will not be, as breathable mesh chairs are just a small part of the added comfort in this ballpark to better deal with the desert heat. In Fayetteville, NC, their new ballpark is going to be a part of a more traditional downtown. Segra Stadium is one piece of a mixed-use development in the always risky play that the whole thing will be worth all the money spent. After a few temporary years in Buies Creek, the city finally gets their team in the Carolina League permanently this season as the debuting ballpark will be home to the Woodpeckers. In the wacky Atlantic League, we have another team bucking their geographical (lack of) identity. After the northeastern outfit went south to Texas seven years ago (Sugar Land), we now have a team in High Point, NC. Amazing that the Tar Heel State does not suffer from oversaturation of baseball teams. The nickname “Rockers” is pretty neat and they will play at brand new BB&T point near the center of the city. Another Independent League sees a new stadium as the American Association goes to suburban Milwaukee, specifically the town of Franklin as Routine Field becomes the home of the Milkmen. Major League Baseball has no significant changes this season, other than that this is the last season for the ballpark in Arlington. Didn’t even make it past its 25th birthday, all in the name of air conditioning.

In College Baseball, the conference with the best fan support saw a few changes in the offseason, most notably in Lexington, where the Wildcats debuted Kentucky Proud Park. By SEC standards, it is quite small at a capacity of 2,500, but it packs a lot of punch having many notable fan-friendly features. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the powerhouse that is Dudy Noble. Mississippi State’s two-year renovation has wrapped up and while the famed Left Field Lounge is definitely different, the concept is the same with a more modernized set-up.

“And We’re Living Here in Allentown”

We’re a few months away from Baby #2 here in the Rowland household and Stadium Visits will slowdown temporarily as we look forward to the wonderful crazy-ness to come. The last game before this brief break was a short journey an hour down the road. I only have eight stadiums left on my list to visit that can be considered a day-trip and I’ve been holding out on the PPL Center in Allentown until now. It’s been five years since the building opened and the AHL debuted in the Lehigh Valley. I’ve learned to give new facilities a grace period of at least five years as it does a number of things: addresses initial opening problems, allows for finishing nearby development, tries to weed out the beginning surge of fans going because it’s the hip thing. This was an arena I was looking forward to seeing and it becomes the 12th AHL building in my book. Just four more left to complete the Eastern Conference.

Allentown is a city that I’ve been around many times, but never completely in. Similar to their big-league affiliate in Philadelphia, downtown is called Center City. They’ve done an impressive job creating multiple mixed-use sections that coincided with the arena opening (at a cost in terms of money and eminent domain). However, the drive south after departing US-22 made me think of the Billy Joel song. It’s a 180 from the glitzy new development around the PPL Center. The arena itself doesn’t really stick out as it is part of several other buildings, including a new hotel. Inside, soft yellows give a different tone than the Phantoms’ loud black and orange. There’s a nice lobby, but the space is not all that expansive given how new the facility is. Premium seating is abundant here and take that for what you will. I did really like how they stacked the club and double-decker suites on one side of the interior, leaving the other side with a more optimal bowl that includes an upper deck. They definitely have a nice look on the inside of this arena. There are some negative features made more surprising given that the PPL Center opened in 2014. There are obstructed views in the upper deck as dozens of seats have some sort of protruding railing get in the way of the ice view. In the lower deck, the rows are unusually narrow and the seat cup holders jut out, enough so that I bumped into it on two separate occasions. Just like they do for the IronPigs, fans continue to support the Phantoms quite well, though this Saturday Night game was laughingly announced as a sellout (see pic above, I’d say it was 65% full, at best). They were a lively bunch even in spite of them fading in support as we went through the third period. One awesome feature in the Phantoms/PPL experience: the goal horn is the sound of a Mack Truck as Allentown was the long-time headquarters for the company.

These two rivals gave us an entertaining matchup that featured goals, plenty of chances, a fight and late drama. Sam Lafferty got WBS on the board first, but it only took 28 seconds for the Phantoms to answer as Philip Samuelsson connected on a sweet one-timer. The Baby Pens scored the next two, the latter coming in the middle of the second after they put away a rebound after a spectacular save. LV came back with three unanswered and it looked like they were going to hang on as third period dropped a level in play. However, Lafferty got his hat trick on a game-tying goal by crashing the net with just 59 seconds left. In overtime, a horrible turnover by T.J. Brennan led to a Ryan Haggerty converted breakaway as the visitors went home victors.

Random College Basketball Thoughts

I’ve been watching a lot of college basketball the last few weeks as we are in my favorite time of year. But to quote Frank Costanza: “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re going to hear about them!”

…For my sanity, please go to a challenge system! I am about to lose my mind if I see one more image of referees crowding around a monitor. It is so absurd that they can’t make a decision in the final two minutes and need to check who the ball went out of bounds on or that the clock should be 35.2 seconds instead of 34.3. I get it, some (stressing some) of the outcomes are vital to who wins the game and need to be right. But this replay thing is sapping the fun and flow out of the game. Just like other sports, have the coaches challenge a call. Give them two per game and call it a day.

…Speaking of the refs, why can coaches berate them, yet players say something remotely questioning under their breath and they get T’d up? Happened in the Buffalo-Bowling Green game.

…I’ll continue my ref rant for a little while more: Stop telling players to sit down on the bench. The coach is standing (and sometimes has a foot on the court), but players can’t stay on their feet for a bit to clap and cheer?

….You get a technical foul for softly trash talking now? C’mon. I was at the Hartford-Albany game and two guys jawing at each other (not yelling) both got a T. What a joke.

…After a buzzer beater, watch those idiot referees closely. They are so obsessed with their stupid replays, that they blow their whistle incessantly, wave their hands and try to stop the crazed bench/starters floor celebration (the most fun part for teams and fans), so they can “take a look at it”. Even when it’s obvious to somebody not trained that the basket is good and the buzzer sounded.

…TV Producers: We don’t care about the coaches handshake. I know you have a giant boner for the can-do-no-wrong, almighty head coach, but after a game winner or a championship, I want to see players celebrating with each other, not the handshake line.

…Stop saying Bid Thief! They did not steal a bid, they earned a bid. If you want to go to the NCAA Tournament, win your conference. It’s that simple. Stop demeaning these teams that earn it by harping on how they “took one” from a bubble team.

…I understand announcers have to take their cue from directors and producers, but ESPN’s directives make the game hard to watch. I went to mute during Belmont-Murray State as Doug Sherman (who I normally love) and Malcolm Huckaby told us at least 30 times….how there were x number of NBA scouts in the building (including Magic Johnson!!!), how Ja Morant is a top 5 lottery pick (and the greatest of all time), how Joe Lunardi says that Belmont is in even with a loss!

…The cursive writing of team name on a uniform is cute and it looks good on Seton Hall. But wayyy too many teams are using it that shouldn’t after it became cool again when the Pirates brought it back.

…I’m not a complete grouch as there are some good things: Andrew Catalon and Steve Lappas are a joy as they have become my favorite announce team. Such great chemistry and they offer solid analysis and insight. Nothing is fake or forced with them. Lapp is really good at breaking things down and being honest while Catalon calls a terrific game and is excellent with his voice during big moments. Wish these guys got to be one of the four pairings calling the Regionals.

…I love a conference tournament that has a standard bracket (no double bye) and a consistent, geographically-sensical host. That makes the MAC and Missouri Valley two personal favorites. I especially get all warm and fuzzy when watching Arch Madness and hearing a Casey’s General Store promo from John Rooney.

Hockey in Springfield and becoming a Hartford Hawks fan

Ahhh, March in the Northeast…always a fickle time. This trip started by waiting for traffic enhanced by snow to ease up before making the drive to Springfield, MA. My plan was to spend most of the day at the Springfield Museums, but the delay meant it wasn’t worth spending the $25 for the 5 museums when I would only have time for one. So I went to the Armory, a former facility nationally run and historic in longevity. It’s interesting if you’re into that stuff, which I am not as I can’t find appeal in guns and weaponry given their purpose. From there, I walked to the MassMutual Center for outdoor pictures. I found the city to be quite grumpy as many were not all that welcoming (outside of anyone attracting customers). After a frustrating encounter with team staff, I walked around nearby Court Square, which features some pretty cool architecture. There was a bit of time to kill and the very recent opening of the MGM Casino a few blocks down was perfect for that. They actually fulfilled my historical needs as an interactive display gave a great overview of the city.

Puck drop was 7:05 PM and Hartford took on fellow cellar-dwellers Springfield. It may be a historic AHL city, but looking past their 7 Calder Cups, you see just three playoff appearances in the last 18 years. However, the impact the Thunderbirds have had is big as their replacing of the Falcons a few years back led to a complete overall of how hockey would be done and fans responded. On this night, the building was 60-65% full and the home side thrilled with a 5-1 thrashing. Renovations have done this 1970s-arena well as side rooms for a bar and a grill helped to add space to an otherwise crowded concourse. Inside, is an oval seating bowl that is subtly great for hockey. Excellent sightlines from seats that are angled very nicely throughout the building.

The next morning featured a steady light snow as I stayed in to catch up on work remotely. Roads were fine as I made the 20-minute drive back to Springfield. Those looking to spend time in the city, there are the aforementioned attractions, while the biggest one is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is close to downtown. It is pretty awesome and I’ve been there a few times. The reason I went back this afternoon was for some college hockey as American International College (AIC) started playing here recently instead of the municipal rink in West Springfield (the Olympia Ice Center). That one may have been dinky, this one is much too large. AIC is second-lowest in NCAA attendance and around 500 people came out for the last home game of the year. The folks on hand did a respectable job cheering their boys on and there was a little pep in the building, which I did not expect. The Yellow Jackets responded with a 4-1 win that clinched the Atlantic Hockey Regular-Season crown for the first time in their long-suffering history. While being off-campus is a disadvantage, the MassMutual Center has way better amenities, hence the move and why their opponent Sacred Heart did the same thing a few years ago by taking up shop in Bridgeport’s arena.

Immediately after the final whistle, I got on I-91, an Interstate that I became quite familiar with the last few days. It’s only 30 minutes to Hartford and the suburbs is where the University is located. The Hawks play out of Chase Family Arena, a disjointed gym with lots of exposed interior material. Seating is not comfortable either as the shallow-rising side sections feature poorly-constructed chairs. They are loosely connected, so whenever someone leans back, you feel it and after awhile, it’s like you are on a ride. Thankfully, the game more than made up for the arena and so did the fans. It was Senior Day and the Hawks found themselves behind, down 16 at the half. They came out firing in the 2nd, starting on a 10-0 run. It was a fascinating contest as Hartford couldn’t quite over the hump, yet they managed to tie the game in the final two minutes. They had a chance to win and a desperation tap out led to a long heave at the buzzer that agonizingly hit the back rim, bounced high up and hit the rim again before falling out. The crowd did a double gasp in case it dropped (as did I, apologies for the orgasmic noises). Despite poor local support, the fans that were there, were great through the game. I really was impressed by their enthusiasm and volume. Did not expect that from a team averaging a crowd less than 1,000 and it was a pleasant surprise. In OT, Hartford took control and they got the big win 82-80. I thought the players were so well-poised and controlled during their comeback, especially senior leaders J.R. Lynch and George Blagojevic. I also liked their 9-year coach: John Gallagher. He got on the mic after the game imploring fans for their support on Tuesday as they have a chance at the 2 seed in the conference tournament. He also was genuine and embraced each graduating player and their families during Senior Day festivities with true care. The Hawks have never been to the NCAA Tournament and after this game, I think I found the team I want to win the America East Playoffs.

That’s Not Canada…

Trip planning in March is always a challenge and I was shocked that we somehow squeezed in a visit to Lake Placid in between four blockbuster storms last year. This go-around, I made plans for a few more OHL games with trips to Kitchener and Saginaw, while picking up my brother along the way. From Jersey, that would be four separate days on the road and each of them faced the risk and likelihood of snow. Breaking down each event, I specifically didn’t want to chance dealing with lake effect snow in Michigan/Ontario that could easily accumulate given very cold temps forthcoming, plus I likely needed to be into work Monday for a storm as we’re entering an extra busy work stretch. So the brakes were halted on that trip and a long night of researching resulted as I still wanted to go somewhere…

Springfield and Hartford ended up being the final result as a nice set-up of schedules will allow for a couple of new stadiums to be seen. First, I’ll wait out the local morning snow before making the three-hour trip to the Pioneer Valley. I’ve been to the Basketball Hall of Fame a few times, but never visited anywhere else in Springfield, so I’m hoping to have the afternoon to explore a little within the Metro Center (downtown) section of the city. At night, we’ll check out our 11th AHL venue at the MassMutual Center with a game between the Thunderbirds and nearby Hartford Wolfpack. Then, to fulfill my odd beginning desire to see college hockey games, American International College (AIC) fills that need as they have a 1 PM game in the same building. Amazingly, that’s the third Atlantic Hockey game I’ll see this year. Over the state border, but short in distance is Hartford and their University plays out of Chase Arena in the America East Conference. It’s a 5 PM game for them against Albany, which works perfectly for this schedule. I’m still debating the plan after the game, whether I want to drive 3 hours home in a bit of wintry weather or just stay another night in the nearby hotel and have a nice meal post-game. Hedging towards the latter. I did even consider another game on Sunday as UConn plays an hour away in Storrs at Noon. In the end, I decided against it because I don’t want to get caught in another approaching winter storm that might begin as I start heading home. Plus, UConn is building an on-campus hockey arena in a few years and I’ll check out both those venues at the same time.

A Saturday at BC and Bentley

After three minor snow events in four days, it was nice to get a break here in the Northeast and the weather relaxed enough for me to take a jolt up to Boston for a sports doubleheader. The four-hour drive went super fast thanks to another entertaining pod from “Something to Wrestle With” as I thoroughly enjoyed the Jake The Snake episode. There were about six things that I tried to remember to search YouTube for later that night in the hotel. Before I knew it, I reached Chestnut Hill after about 10 minutes of navigating the twisty roads that randomly branch off in the area. This was my second visit to this beautiful campus and since I did all the touring during the football trip a few months ago, I went right to the arena for the game. Conte Forum has been home to both Boston College basketball and hockey since 1988. The multi-purpose venue displays school character quite well with maroon and gold all around and a mighty impressive trophy case highlighted by a bronze eagle. For basketball, the seating bowl isn’t as great as others in the conference since corners have poorer sightlines given that the building needs to support hockey. Also, the top-half of the seating is uncomfortable bucket bleachers. At least the views are good with an adequate pitch between each row. BC came in to this contest against Notre Dame at 1-4 in the conference, yet they put up a good fight and this was an entertaining affair. The Irish pulled through in the end 79-73 and watching them in person, I remember that I’ve always enjoyed the style and way that Mike Brey’s teams play. My BC takeaway is that Kyle Bowman is a selfish player constantly looking for his shot and I’m guessing he takes half-a-dozen bad ones per game. There was a good crowd that turned up for this one and we were treated to a student rendition of Mr Brightside, an enjoyable BC tradition.

Getting out of the Commonwealth Garage on campus was a nightmare and it took me 30 minutes just to get out of BC. I’m glad that I didn’t go with the original plan and see UNH hockey in the evening as time-wise, it would’ve been way too close for comfort. Instead, I traveled over to nearby Waltham, for an off-List game at Bentley University. Before that, I walked down Moody Street in this city nicknamed for their Watch production history. Originally, I planned to eat in the Deli at Moody’s, but the place turns into a reservation-only dinner at night, so I settled on Bison County, which was a good alternative. The school just opened Bentley Arena last year as decades of playing at a municipal rink a town over finally ended. It is a terrific facility that has wonderful, energy-saving technological advances. The color-scheme is quite sharp and everything about the building is sleek. They only built it for 2,000 seats, so the bowl features just 6-7 rows around the rink. It is steep, but with so few rows, only the top couple have an obstructed view without glass partitions / seating angle inevitably getting in the way. Attendance is certainly better at the new place, however the student turnout was disappointing as the “Top Shelf” section sat mostly empty with less than 100 on hand, half of them just playing on their phones. The atmosphere was odd because when the crowd popped for a goal, the celebration from the fans lasted 10 seconds. As for the game, it was dull and clutzy with players seemingly falling over themselves. Bentley won their ninth in a row over Air Force 4-0. Fun Fact: This was the first matchup where each team had the same nickname (Falcons).

Back to BC (and Bentley too)

We’re on a rare nice string of monthly stadium visits and it continues this weekend with a basketball-hockey doubleheader. Fresh off a fall trip to Chestnut Hill, I am heading back to complete the facility reviews at Boston College by seeing a game at Conte Forum. The arena is attached to the football stadium and I’ve already had a look inside, so there won’t be much surprise when going through the gates. The biggest question was whether I wanted to see basketball or hockey. I’m starting to get the itch to see all college hockey venues, but in the end, the schedule fit basketball best. The Eagles take on Notre Dame at 2 PM and that’s the game we’ll see as this is a quick trip with very limited time outside the sporting events. I would figure to be leaving Conte Forum between 4:00 and 4:30 PM, which is just enough time for an evening game somewhere in the area. My original pick was to go see a New Hampshire hockey game in Durham, but I didn’t want to sweat being delayed as I like to get to an arena well before game-time to do a full tour. Unfortunately, that’s the only facility on The List available. I went back and forth for awhile and in the end I want some time at the arena and also want to combine it with a trip to UNH’s football stadium, so I’m gonna save it. At the same time, I’ve really enjoyed my recent college hockey games and I remembered that nearby Bentley University just built a new arena that opened last year. They are also in a Boston Suburb (Waltham) and even though the arena is very small (< 2,000 capacity), I’m going to still go check out. That game is against Air Force at 7 PM and I’ll stay overnight in Watch City before heading back Sunday Morning.