The Best of the Minor Leagues
1. Fifth Third Field, The Roost Seats (Toledo Mud Hens)
Four years after the Detroit Tigers opened Comerica Park, their top farm club, the Toledo Mud Hens, opened a new park that includes a nostalgic nod to old Tiger Stadium, while also making excellent use of some previously neglected downtown buildings.
These Roost Seats in Ohio hang out over the right-field corner, offering fans lucky enough to sit in them an effect reminiscent of the right-field, upper-deck seats at Tiger Stadium.
2. Bright House Networks Field, The Tiki Seats (Clearwater Threshers)
Following the lead set by many of the Cactus League parks built in the 1990s, Bright House Networks Field which doubles as the Grapefruit League home of the Philadelphia Phillies includes a sloped seating berm atop its outfield fence, where fans plop down on blankets and watch the game in repose.
But the most relaxing spot of all at this Sunshine State ballpark is in the four rows of quickly ascending seats atop the left-field fence. Here, in the shadow of the ballpark's trademark thatched-roof Tiki Bar, fans sit on barstools.
Bob Carson, publisher of the popular Minor Trips directory and newsletter, believes this is the kind of oasis Florida teams need to attract fans to their often sweltering ballparks.
"If any franchise can shake the attendance lethargy that plagues the Florida State League it is the Threshers at Bright House Field," Carson said. "Sure it's hot in Florida, but sitting in the Tiki Seats down the left-field line for a beverage or two is a cool deal. Strolling to the Tiki Seats is a trip to Margaritaville."
3. Blair County Ballpark, The Rail Kings Seats (Altoona Curve)
No, the Double-A Eastern League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates isn't named after the curve ball, or even after the curves on the 70-foot-tall roller coaster that looms beyond Blair County Ballpark's right-field wall. Instead, the Pennsylvania team is named after a famous stretch of local railroad tracks called the Horseshoe Curve.
The unusual tracks, which date to the 1850s, make a U-shaped bend as they snake through the Allegheny Mountains just west of downtown Altoona. Thus, the team's moniker, and thus its mascot, Steamer.
And even the ballpark's trademark seats offer a nod to the region's railroading history. Each night a handful of lucky fans on the left-field party deck get to be Rail Kings, sitting in a row of unique seats along the railing atop the left-field wall.
4. Five County Stadium, Second Level Boxes (Carolina Mudcats)
Five County Stadium is one of the most uniquely configured ballparks in all of the minor leagues. It offers just four rows of seats in its lower seating bowl, while the majority of its seats are located in a steeply graded upper deck that hangs dramatically over the first level so that fans are practically right on top of the field in Zebulon, N.C.
According to Mudcats general manager Joe Kremer, this one-of-a-kind seating location was created almost by accident, as expanding costs required that the Mudcats revise their stadium construction plans midstream.
"We had already paid an architect to design the upper deck," Kremer explained, "so we brought the footprint (of the field and lower level) in tighter, which caused the seats to be steeper and closer to the field. Then, when we were done, we realized it had come out really well, so we sort of patted each other on the back."
5. Jerry Uht Park, The First Base Reserved Seats (Erie SeaWolves)
Because the architects who designed Jerry Uht Park needed to make the Pennsylvania ballpark fit within a preexisting city block, they had to be creative very creative. As a result, the grandstands on the third-base and first-base sides bear little resemblance to one another.
On the third-base side, where there was ample room to build, the grandstand takes a familiar approach, beginning behind the box seats and continuing up to the press box and luxury boxes.
But on the first-base side, where 10th Street runs parallel to the base line just behind the boxes, there was no room to build a normal grandstand, so they stacked the second deck on top of the concourse and back rows of lower seats. The result is a delightful bank of nicely elevated seats overlooking the infield along the first-base side.
6. Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium, The Train Shed Seats (Montgomery Biscuits)
While the big-league stadiums in cities like Baltimore and San Diego do well to incorporate preexisting buildings into their designs, and the aforementioned Fifth Third Field does quite well, too, no ballpark succeeds as fully in this regard as Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium in Alabama.
The stadium was built around an old railroad storage facility that has stood at its present location since 1898. The "train shed" is a long, thin building that rises behind the field-level seats along the first-base line. Fans pass through it as they enter the stadium and find the concession stands and restrooms tucked right into it. And, upstairs, the train shed houses several luxury boxes that hang their balconies right over the first-level concourse.
"Those in the suites enjoy the rustic feel of 19th century charm, along with the luxury of padded seats and full food and beverage service," said Biscuits radio play-by-play broadcaster Jim Tocco. "Montgomery is a town proud of its history, and this was a perfect way to mix the city's heritage with its present and future."
7. Midway Stadium, The Massage Chair (St. Paul Saints)
Where else can traveling fans get a haircut at the ballpark? Or spend the game Velcroed to an advertising sign above the outfield fence, hoping to catch a home run ball and win $10,000? Or have the doubly sublime experience of relaxing into the grips of a massage while enjoying a baseball game? Nowhere else.
These are only-in-St. Paul, Minn., experiences provided courtesy of Mike Veeck and his troop of "fun is good" disciples. As for Sister Rosalind Gefre, a nun and massage therapist at the facilty, "She really does have healing hands," said Saints spokeswoman Annie Huidekoper.
8. Recreation Park, The Fan Dugout (Visalia Oaks)
After a renovation in 2007, Visalia's cozy little California League ballpark has a third dugout for the fans to examine the game up close and personal.
The Fan Dugout is in left-field foul territory, just 35 feet from third base. It offers room for 25 paying spectators to enjoy the atmosphere of a replica of the two players' dugouts at Recreation Park. The fan dugout is sunken and concrete, with a long bench and a protective screen to shield patrons from hot smashes.
9. Banner Island Ballpark, The Back Porch (Stockton Ports)
The home park of the Stockton Ports in California offers a right-field fence as odd as fans will find anywhere. But it's odd in a fan-friendly way, as its bowed course creates a bubble off the right-field seating lawn where an elevated porch offers patrons the chance to sit out in the middle of right-field fair territory.
And these lucky fans sit in style, reclining beneath a shaded canopy in two rows of wooden rocking chairs at the Jackson Rancheria Back Porch. There are 50 rocking chairs in all.
10. Cheney Stadium, The Ben Cheney Seats (Tacoma Rainiers)
Back in the 1950s, when Tacoma was looking to get into the minor-league game, local businessman Ben Cheney was one of the leading voices in efforts to find a big-league team to serve as Tacoma's parent.
With help from his friends, Cheney eventually succeeded in convincing the San Francisco Giants to move their Triple-A team to Tacoma, contingent on the city building a new ballpark. The inventor of the two-by-four stud, Cheney wound up chipping in $100,000 of his own money toward the stadium that now bears his name, and the project was completed in time for the 1960 season.
Today the Rainiers are a Triple-A affiliate of the Mariners and fans who visit the team's delightful, old ballpark in Washington state angle for seats in Section K, between home plate and the Rainiers' first-base dugout, where they sit by a life-size bronze sculpture of Cheney, posed with a bag of peanuts in his hands and a scorecard and peanut shells at his feet.
Josh Pahigian is the author of several baseball travel guides, including the recently released "Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road Trip."
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