Print and Go Back SportsTravel [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Updated: July 26, 7:23 PM ET
Trip 4: South Atlantic Circuit

By Bryan Williams
Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Previous: Trip 3 - Pennsylvania | Next: Trip 5 - Mid-South to Ohio

It's a slow initiation to the Single-A South Atlantic League on this tour, but once it begins, it doesn't let up. Following a Triple-A stop in Norfolk and a southward trek to see Durham, a former Single-A franchise that hit it big thanks in part to Kevin Costner and a randy Susan Sarandon, it's onward to the sleepy, small-town communities of mountainous western North Carolina. The circuitous route then heads back toward the coast to finish with a flourish in Charleston, where fans have made headlines in recent years by participating in crazy schemes devised by a mad genius of baseball promotion.
• Six more great ballparks: make sure to include Greenville and Savannah

Look for dates for this trip in the Baseball Road Trip Planner
(Schedules for minor-league teams in independent leagues are not available)

ico_orbitz Norfolk: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight
ico_orbitz Durham: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight
ico_orbitz Charleston: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight

Ballpark: Harbor Park
Address: 150 Park Ave, Norfolk, VA 23510
Capacity: 12,067
Opened: 1993
Team: Norfolk Tides (Mets)
League: International (AAA)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

The Tides took their nautical theme and ran (or sailed) with it when they built Harbor Park in the early 1990s. The facility is located in downtown Norfolk on the Elizabeth River, and fans enjoy terrific views of the waterway and shipping traffic as a backdrop to the outfield, and the stadium itself has a high-seas thing going as well. Flagpoles flying what resemble maritime signal flags stand above the entrance, and two light towers reminiscent of shipyard cranes rise high above the field.

Like most minor-league parks, Harbor features picnic areas where fans can stretch out for a quick meal during the game, but for those with more refined tastes, there's the Hits at the Park, a full-service restaurant with 300 seats and a full view of the playing field. After the game, it's just a short walk along the river to the Waterside Festival Marketplace for food, drinks and live music at any of five different bars and clubs.

ico_orbitz Norfolk: Hotel

Driving distance from Norfolk to Durham: 185 miles

Ballpark: Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Address: 409 Blackwell St, Durham, NC 27701
Capacity: 10,000
Opened: 1995
Team: Durham Bulls (Devil Rays)
League: International (AAA)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

Fans of the movie Bull Durham will recognize one denizen of the concourse at Durham Bulls Athletic Park: the famous snorting bull, which found a new home as well when the team left the old Durham Athletic Park following the 1994 season. It was the popularity of the film -- and the subsequent droves of fans heading to Durham to see Carolina League baseball -- that ultimately led to the construction of "D-BAP" and the Bulls' promotion to Triple-A.

All the seating at DBAP is comfortable and close to the action thanks to the fact that the stadium is just a single deck, a rarity among Triple-A parks with comparable capacities. The Bulls took a cue from Boston's Fenway Park and constructed their own "Blue Monster," a 32-foot wall out in right field with a hand-operated scoreboard, and in a nod to their erstwhile home, they topped it with a giant bull modeled after the one that stood for so many years at DAP. A painted message on the bull offers words of inspiration for the hungrier power hitters: "Hit bull, win steak. Hit grass, win salad."

ico_orbitz Durham: Hotel

Driving distance from Durham to Hickory: 153 miles

Ballpark: L.P. Frans Stadium
Address: 2500 Clement Blvd, Hickory, NC 28601
Capacity: 5,092
Opened: 1993
Team: Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
League: South Atlantic (A)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

As if any legitimate reason is required to go see a team called the "Crawdads," there's L.P. Frans Stadium, a quaint red-brick ballpark nestled among the green foothills of western North Carolina. With a capacity of just above 5,000, the Single-A stadium and its one-deck seating provide a cozy spot to check out a game, and Hickory's friendly fans are resolute in their support of the 'Dads.

Outside, the tall peaked entrance stands nearly as high as the stadium roof, with three archways providing access to the park. Food lovers will be particularly impressed by the Crawdad Café, which features outdoor seating along the first-base line where fans can scarf down their nachos and beer while taking in the action. Kids will appreciate the merry-go-round in the concourse behind third base and the accessibility of the players for autographs; after the game, fans can follow a path right up to the home dugout, where the 'Dads often sign memorabilia or pose for pictures.

ico_orbitz Hickory: Hotel

Driving distance from Hickory to Asheville: 75 miles

Ballpark: McCormick Field
Address: 30 Buchanan Place, Asheville, NC 28801
Capacity: 4,000
Opened: 1924 (Renovated in 1992)
Team: Asheville Tourists (Rockies)
League: South Atlantic (A)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

Few parks in the minor leagues can boast of a rich history like Asheville's McCormick Field. Originally opened in 1924, the stadium in its early years frequently hosted exhibition games between major-league teams. During one infamous visit by the New York Yankees in 1925, Babe Ruth collapsed after disembarking the train in Asheville. The rumor mill spun into action with reports that the Babe had actually died, and the incident soon was known as "The Bellyache Heard 'Round the World."

The 1992 renovations modernized the decrepit grandstand, roof and façade with brick and concrete, but the park retains much of its original design. In fact, with the dimensions between home plate and the right-field wall remaining a miniscule 300 feet, the team built upward, and the advertisement-laden, 36-foot wall in right is one of the highest in the minors. The park is classic in its simplicity -- much of the seating is just old-fashioned metal benches (yes, with backs) and there are no luxury suites, just an unobtrusive press box that looks like a mobile-home park transplant. Views of the surrounding trees and the quiet, cool air of the Blue Ridge Mountains only add to McCormick's reputation as a terrific baseball experience.

ico_orbitz Asheville: Hotel

Driving distance from Asheville to Augusta: 223 miles

Ballpark: Lake Olmstead Stadium
Address: 78 Milledge Rd, Augusta, GA 30904
Capacity: 4,322
Opened: 1995
Team: Augusta GreenJackets (Giants)
League: South Atlantic (A)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

Built beside Augusta's scenic Lake Olmstead and just minutes from Augusta National Golf Course, tiny Lake Olmstead Stadium is a curious departure from its retro-crazed mid-1990s contemporaries. The GreenJackets (get it?) went minimalist on the exterior style, with minimal brickwork and open-air views of the grandstand inside. The seating bowl itself is divided into three sections -- one behind home plate and one each along the first- and third-base lines -- much of which is covered by truly old-school overhangs that come complete with view-obstructing support beams.

Another unique feature at Lake Olmstead is the home team's bullpen, an elevated deck above the wall and just inside foul territory in right field where the GreenJackets relievers get a nice vantage point for watching the game. Also in right field is an eating area and "Grill & Bar" hawking concessions, and in left field is another picnic spot and a playground with a view of the field, so parents don't have to miss the action while their kids burn surplus energy on the monkey bars.

ico_orbitz Augusta: Hotel

Driving distance from Augusta to Charleston: 184 miles

Ballpark: Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park ("The Joe")
Address: 360 Fishburne St, Charleston, SC 29403
Capacity: 5,900
Opened: 1997
Team: Charleston RiverDogs (Yankees)
League: South Atlantic (A)
Web site | Directions | Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

Like Lake Olmstead Stadium, Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park -- which the Charleston RiverDogs share with The Citadel -- is atypical of facilities built in the 1990s. Located on the banks of the swampy Ashley River, The Joe doesn't go overboard with the brick-and-iron hipster architecture, though it does contain skyboxes and three group picnic areas. Spectators enter through a small gate adjacent to left field, and the concourse that wraps behind the seating bowl is mostly open. Beyond the stands in right field is "Shoeless Joe Hill," a terraced, open-seating area with palm trees and sand named for South Carolina native and blackballed major leaguer Joe Jackson.

The RiverDogs are co-owned by one of the geniuses of baseball promotion, Mike Veeck (the mind behind Chicago's infamous "Disco Demolition Night"), and they don't disappoint with their frequent and outrageous theme nights. In recent years, they've hosted "Silent Night," when fans attempted to set a record for quietest game, and "Nobody Night," when fans partied outside the park but were locked out until the fifth inning in an effort to set a record for lowest attendance.

ico_orbitz Charleston: Hotel

Driving distance from Charleston to Savannah: 107 miles

Ballpark: Grayson Stadium
Address: 1401 E. Victory Dr., Savannah, GA 31414
Capacity: 8,000
Opened: 1941
Team: Savannah Sand Gnats (Nationals)
League: South Atlantic (A)
Web site | Directions | Schedule

At the behest of senior writer Jim Caple, who took a modified version of this South Atlantic Circuit trip for Page 2, we've added Grayson Stadium and Savannah, Georgia.

Not that our arms had to be twisted to add this venue as an extra stop -- Savannah is one of the more unique destinations in the U.S. (and has seen tourism skyrocket since the release of both the book and movie versions of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), and Grayson Stadium is one of the more historic venues in the minors (Aaron, Mantle and Jackie Robinson all played here).

The approach to the stadium along stately, tree-lined Victory Drive is lovely. What the ballpark may lack in modern amenities is offset by plenty of old-school charm. Not only is the exterior made of red brick, but so is the foundation of the main grandstand seating area. There are bleachers behind the short porch of 290 feet in left field (a Class A rarity), but you can no longer sit in them, as they've been condemned and are scheduled to be torn down. Take it over to the Skybox Bar & Grill in right field, or simply stick to the covered grandstand area and enjoy a relaxed Savannah evening at the ballpark.

Previous: Trip 3 - Pennsylvania | Next: Trip 5 - Mid-South to Ohio