It is a unique experience to watch an Eastern League game. All 12 teams are located in mid-sized cities or metropolitan areas that are neither overwhelmingly big or so small that you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.
The Double-A circuit provides an affordable venue to see some of baseball's best young players just before they hit the big leagues or sneak a chance to see a Major League star working off some rust while rehabbing an injury.
Ten of the 12 ballparks have been built since 1992, complete with all the latest amenities, while Harrisburg's Commerce Bank Park -- built in 1987 -- just underwent a massive renovation. The league is also one of the best draws in the Minors, averaging better than 4,500 fans per game in stadiums that hold between 6,000 and 9,000 seats.
Sitting on the banks of the Delaware River lies one of the EL's jewels: Mercer County Waterfront Park, home of the Trenton Thunder. Business has been good to the New York Yankees' affiliate, which has been cited by Minor League Baseball as the top organization in the country. The stadium is complete with great seats, good food and an engaging atmosphere. Unfortunately, some of the staff has gone to the dogs.
That's because one member of the Thunder literally is a dog.
If you see a golden retriever running toward the batter's box during the game, don't fret. Chase the retriever is a specially trained canine employed by the Thunder since 2002 to bring back the bat of each Thunder hitter. The 5-year-old pooch also does occasional special appearances and never has bitten a single human, though he has gone from being a retriever to a "reliever" on occasion.
"We originally just wanted him to get familiar with all the staff, but everyone liked him so much that he just sticks around the whole time," Thunder general manager Brad Taylor said. "It's almost impossible to have a bad day at the office when you see Chase walk in and cozy right up to you."
Fans and staff members aren't the only ones taken aback. Taylor insists that no Thunder player has asked not to have Chase bring back his bat, including any of the Yankees who have appeared in Trenton.
"When Derek [Jeter] was here back in 2003, he just fell for Chase," Taylor said. "He wore a Chase T-shirt under his uniform for the entire time he was down here, and after he left, he made a couple calls asking for more Chase stuff."
While the Thunder thrive in a stadium built during the Clinton administration, the Reading Phillies are the lone Eastern League team still operating in a ballpark older than all of its players. That hasn't stopped the Phils from being one of the most successful franchises in all of the Minor Leagues.
FirstEnergy Stadium originally was called Reading Municipal Memorial Stadium and debuted in 1951. A rainbow of red, yellow and blue seats lie under a simple roof or unprotected from the sun without a luxury suite in sight. The main concourse and food courts lie under the seats and out of view from the field, going against the common design of many new parks. Still, FirstEnergy Stadium routinely draws sellout crowds each year without some of the bells and whistles of its contemporaries.
"We do have a lot of the modern amenities that the newer parks have, but Reading still has all of its original charm, just like a Wrigley or a Fenway does today," said Phillies director of communications Rob Hackash. "It's good to know that the same fans that first came here in the 1950s and brought their kids back in the 1970s can bring their grandkids to the same place today. And it doesn't seem like it's a completely different ballpark."
Today, FirstEnergy Stadium has a unique mixture of new and old features. The original structure hasn't changed too much, with active concourses separating additional seating areas down the first- and third-base lines. Out in left field is an outdoor bar and picnic area that was added in the mid-1990s, while a heated pool is nestled just beyond the fence in right field. The most unique thing about FirstEnergy Stadium is actually something that lies just outside the ballpark.
When the current ownership group first sold naming rights to the stadium in 1999, it still wanted to commemorate area veterans who gave their lives over the years. After much debate, the Phils' front office agreed on a dog-tag statue and erected a monument outside the main entrance to the ballpark the following year.
Reading also was home to the Reading Railroad, which ran from eastern Pennsylvania's coal mining region to all parts of New Jersey. The Phillies certainly did not forget the city's heritage, with little reminders scattered throughout the stadium. In addition to the rail line cutting through one of the parking lots, FirstEnergy has its own railroad-version of an exploding scoreboard. When Phillies runners are in scoring position, a neon train on the scoreboard starts smoking while crossing signals light up, and when a run scores, the whistle goes off and explodes in fireworks.
Reading isn't the only EL team with significant railroad ties. Midway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is Altoona, a railroad town that's home to Horseshoe Curve, a loop still used by trains traversing the Allegheny Mountains and a meeting spot for railfans all over the world. It's no surprise that the Altoona franchise chose the Curve as its nickname.
Railway references are found throughout Blair County Ballpark, but the most notable one is the stadium itself. The facility is built to resemble a roundhouse, a semicircular building used to house locomotives, with large brick archways lining the exterior. Once in your seat, you'll see another kind of train just beyond right field.
Right next to BCB is Lamont Park, an amusement park with two of America's oldest wooden roller coasters -- the Skyliner and its white trestle and framework are in full view of everyone at the game. The coaster stays active during games, and fans can see Curve mascots Steamer and Diesel Dawg plummeting down one of the coaster's valleys in the lead car.
The Skyliner seems like an inviting target for the untrained eye, but BCB's spacious right field has earned a reputation as a place where left-handed hitters go to die. The tracks are another 80 feet beyond the fence. According to Curve director of broadcasting and communications Jason Dambach, it took a Major League star to hit a moon shot to the Skyliner.
"The Pirates were here back in 2000 for an exhibition game and a home run derby," Dambach recalled. "Brian Giles came up to bat and launched probably the longest ball hit in the stadium, hitting the coaster in the middle of where there's a dip in the tracks. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just gawked."
Up in Manchester, N.H., another building is preparing to be assaulted by horsehide and twine. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats' new home, Fisher Cats Ballpark, is the centerpiece of the city's downtown revitalization project, which includes a new hotel built just 25 feet from the left-center field power alley. With home plate just 425 feet away, builders made sure that any window facing the field was equipped with shatter-proof glass.
Of course, the Fisher Cats are an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, whose stadium has a hotel built along the upper deck in center field. Fisher Cats Ballpark also features a retractable batter's eye, allowing guests to have a full view of the park while the team is not playing.
While in New England, there are constant reminders of the beloved Boston Red Sox. When the Portland Sea Dogs became a Red Sox affiliate in 2003, the front office decided to pay homage by replicating Fenway Park's most famous feature at Hadlock Field. The "Maine Monster" is an almost exact replica of the Green Monster, measuring 37 feet high with the Coke bottle and Citgo sign.
Hadlock Field has some unique touches, too. Whenever a Sea Dog smacks a home run, a lighthouse rises from beyond center field, with smoke spewing, a foghorn blaring and light rotating.
The one thing people think of when they think of Maine is lobster, a fact not lost on the Sea Dogs' braintrust. A between innings promotion is the lobster toss, in which contestants try to catch 10 plastic lobsters in rickety old lobster pots, with the winner getting a free meal at a local seafood restaurant.
If the idea of catching shellfish with a wood-and-wire basket doesn't thrill you, it could be worse. Imagine what the prizes are for those who toss the most plungers in an inflatable toilet at Jerry Uht Park, home of the Erie SeaWolves.