Commentary

About the only game in town

A tour of the Pacific Coast League, home to the seven loneliest sports cities in Triple-A

Updated: August 26, 2009, 11:44 AM ET
By Rick Paulas | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Cashman FieldAshley L. EvansIt may be lonely for the sports fan in some Pacific Coast League cities, but the view still can be nice.
• Photo gallery: Ballparks of the minors' loneliest sports cities

The great comedian-philosopher Chris Rock once said "A man is only as faithful as his options." And this goes for sports fans, as well.

Many of us are spoiled by our urban habitat. Throughout the year we can choose from any one of the big four professional sports.

But does having these options, like Rock says, make us less faithful? Is our fanimosity diluted? Are those without as many options more passionate about their only sports offerings? (This would account for the worldwide popularity of soccer, while it's an 18th option for most American sports fans.)

Luckily, we have our own test study available, and it's called the Pacific Coast League. The PCL is one of Major League Baseball's three Triple-A minor league systems, the final hurdle ballplayers must clear before getting into The Show. Of the 16 teams that participate in the PCL, seven play in cities that offer precious few other big four professional sports options. (NBA Development League teams are based in three of the cities.)

But just because they're among the only "big-time" sports options doesn't mean they play in cardboard-quality, cookie-cutter ballparks. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The parks run the gamut from a new, state-of-the-art facility in Reno to a classic historical landmark in Omaha to a dirt-cheap mess in Vegas. (Apparently, the only thing that doesn't happen in Vegas is building a new ballpark.)

So let's take a tour and get better acquainted with these seven somewhat-out-of-the-way outposts of the Pacific Coast League. After all, if you're ever in these cities on a business trip or visiting family, PCL baseball is about the only game in town.

Principal Park, Des Moines, Iowa

Home of the Iowa Cubs

While it's been more than a century of futility for their major league counterpart, fans of the Iowa Cubs have only had to live in their championship drought since 1993, a year after their squad moved into their plush new digs in downtown Des Moines. Principal Park is nestled between the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, providing parkgoers with a view of the Des Moines skyline over the center-field fence. While in the park, stop by the fountain in the right-field corner, as recommended by team spokeswoman Andrea Breen. "If it's a warm day, you sometimes see kids come to the game in their swimsuits prepared to run through it," she said. There also is a manual scoreboard -- just like at iconic Wrigley Field in Chicago -- and the windows in the Bottom of the Fifth bar behind home plate contain a variety of memorabilia, including 2008 National League Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto's chest protector.

The basics
Address: One Line Drive, Des Moines, IA 50309
Capacity: 11,500
Opened: 1992
Phone: 515-243-6111
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Chicago Cubs
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Steakhouse
801 Steak and Chop House
801 Grand Ave., No. 200
Des Moines, IA 50309
515-288-6000 | Web site
You probably won't have a problem choosing the right wine, seeing as how this restaurant has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the past 15 years.

Cheap eats
A Dong Restaurant
1511 High St.
Des Moines, IA 50309
515-284-5632
A reasonably priced Vietnamese menu with a number of vegetarian options.

Sports bar
El Bait Shop
200 SW 2nd St.
Des Moines, IA 50323
515-284-1970 | Web site
It's hard not to be intimidated by the drink menu, with more than 100 beers on tap.

Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha, Neb.

Home of the Omaha Royals

Farming is all about tradition, being handed down from one generation to the next. So it's not surprising you would find a Nebraska institution like The Blatt having been handed down through generations of hardball fans in the middle of the nation's heartland. Built in 1947, the stadium has been the home of the Omaha Royals since 1969, marking the second-longest Triple-A affiliation a minor league team has had with its major league counterpart. "We've had Frank White, George Brett, David Cone. All of the greats come through here. And there's a lot of people who can still remember that," said team spokesman Rob Crain. "We have a lot of 41-year season-ticket holders." But on the day Crain spoke to ESPN SportsTravel, the Royals were playing second fiddle to the year's main event at the stadium: the College World Series. "A lot of people in our market view the CWS as their big-league equivalent," Crain said. As well they should: The stadium has been home to the CWS finals since 1950, and Omaha recently signed a deal to continue hosting the championship through 2035. Unfortunately, most of those championships won't take place inside the landmark. As part of the deal, Omaha agreed to create a new stadium downtown in time for the 2011 College World Series. And it was originally thought Rosenblatt had a date with the wrecking ball after its final year of hosting the CWS in 2010. But recent reports indicate The Blatt might remain open to accommodate the 2011 baseball schedule of co-tenant Creighton University. Either way, if you're going to make your trek to the baseball mecca that is Rosenblatt, you had better start planning, because its days are numbered. (Also see: Pilgrimage to Rosenblatt Stadium.) Meanwhile, the Omaha Royals have secured a new stadium deal with nearby Sarpy County, where they plan to seat fewer than 5,000 per game starting in 2011.

The basics
Address: 1202 Bert Murphy Ave., Omaha, NE 68107
Capacity: Holds more than 24,000 for College World Series, but shrinks to 8,900 for Royals
Opened: 1948
Phone: 402-734-2550
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Kansas City Royals
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
American
Zesto
3901 S. 13th St.
Omaha, NE 68107
402-932-4420
An ice cream icon located right next to the stadium. Be prepared to stand in line during games. Zesto also claims the best cheeseburgers in town, and locals seem to agree.

Mediterranean
Greek Islands
3821 Center St.
Omaha, NE 68105
402-346-1528
Enthusiastically recommended by locals and visitors alike. This humble hole-in-the-wall serves authentic Greek food at a reasonable price.

Asian
Indian Oven
1010 Howard St.
Omaha, NE 68102
402-342-4856
East meets Midwest. Come for the masala fries with chutney; stay for further inventive takes on familiar Indian dishes.

Cheap eats
Louie M's Burger Lust
1718 Vinton St.
Omaha, NE 68108
402-449-9112
A bit of a walk from the stadium; with a name like that you'd best steer clear if you're a practicing vegetarian.

Sports bar
Starsky's Lounge
4020 S. 13th St.
Omaha, NE 68107
402-734-9071
Across the street from the park. If you didn't get the singing out of your system during the seventh-inning stretch, Starsky's features karaoke three nights a week.

Dell Diamond, Round Rock, Texas

Home of the Round Rock Express

Being named after a computer company brings certain expectations with it. Think personal laptops for every fan with complete up-to-the-second game information, 4-D glasses so you can see how the game looks through the space-time continuum and hot dog guns that pierce steel. And while none of those fan amenities have yet to be introduced, if someone is taking bets on which stadium will blaze those trails, you couldn't do better putting your money on Dell Diamond. "We did a $3½ million renovation in the off-season," team spokesman Avery Holton told ESPN SportsTravel. And just how do you use $3.5 million? For starters, build the Intel Club, a 4,000-square-foot luxury lounge on the second level that features 14 huge flat-panel TVs, lavish seating, Wi-Fi, two bar areas and a full buffet. "It's filled to capacity every night," Holton said. But no matter what kind of high-tech doohickeys you put in the stands, if you don't have a winning team on the field, those renovations are for naught. Right? "The fans here are tremendous, because the team isn't always doing as well as other teams in the PCL," Holton said. Three-quarters of the way through the season, the only question is whether or not the team will finish in last place. "But the fans keep coming," Holton said. "It doesn't matter which night it is."

The basics
Address: 3400 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock, TX 78665
Capacity: Just more than 8,900, with room for about 2,500 in the grass
Opened: 2000
Phone: 512-255-2255
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Houston Astros
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Barbecue
The Salt Lick
3350 E. Palm Valley Blvd.
Round Rock, TX 78665
512-386-1044 | Web site
Virtually in the parking lot of the Dell Diamond, this Austin-area institution offers family-style barbecue.

Cheap eats
Chuy's
2320 North I-35 Highway
Round Rock, TX 78681
512-255-2211 | Web site
A reasonably priced menu with homemade Mexican-style recipes and a whole lot of Elvis memorabilia.

Sports bar
Plucker's
300 Mays Crossing, Suite 300
Round Rock, TX 78664
512-671-9464 | Web site
Bar menu is supplemented with an expansive selection of hot wings.

Isotopes Park, Albuquerque, N.M.

Home of the Albuquerque Isotopes

With much of the fan base composed of students from the nearby University of New Mexico, it wouldn't be surprising if many of the seats in Isotopes Park were left empty in this tough economic climate. But that's not the case when you're the only game in town. "In the summertime, you either go see a movie or you go to an Isotopes game," said team rep Steve Hurlbert. "The nights here are so pleasant and nice it becomes a no-brainer." It certainly has shown in the ticket sales. "Last year we set a record for attendance, and this year we're ahead of that pace," Hurlbert said. And this year there's the added bonus of being the new Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that has strong ties to the city since it's had a minor league affiliate in town since the late 1960s. But those are all side dishes compared to having one of the most beautiful parks in the minors. "It's kind of become a place to be seen," Hurlbert said. "A place for a lot of the community leaders to hang out. A place for families. … A place for ardent baseball fans." And don't be afraid to bring your Simpsons paraphernalia to the park. That's where they got the name, after all.

The basics
Address: 1601 Avenida Cesar Chavez S.E., Albuquerque, NM 87106
Capacity: 13,259
Opened: 2003
Phone: 505-924-2255
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Los Angeles Dodgers
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Steakhouse
Tucanos Brazilian Grill
110 Central Ave. S.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87102
505-246-9900 | Web site
The meats are prepared on skewers, which are brought to your table, and the meat is sliced onto your plate depending on your preference in flavor and cut.

Cheap eats
Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central Ave. S.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-266-0550 | Web site
A favorite of nearby University of New Mexico students, this cafeteria-style restaurant is open early and closes late.

Sports bar
Coaches Sports Grill
1414 Central Ave. S.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-242-7111 | Web site
A whole lot of big screens and late-night happy hours make this a meeting place for fans of the Isotopes and the University of New Mexico Lobos.

Chukchansi Park, Fresno, Calif.

Home of the Fresno Grizzlies

Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Fresno is the calm between the two metropolitan storms. And Chukchansi Park has become the town's jewel. (It's the first image on the city's Wikipedia page for a reason.) To get a sense of the park's magnificence, one need look no further than the company that designed it: Populous, which also is behind such MLB landmarks as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Petco Park in San Diego and Detroit's Comerica Field. Unfortunately, some of the subtle aesthetics of park design are lost on many of the park's inhabitants. "They've got a great carousel ride out front. But the big highlight of Chukchansi Park is the mascot -- a funky bruin with orange fur and green paws. The kids just all absolutely love Parker," said Grizzlies superfan Bruce Campbell. He's been going to Grizzlies games for the past decade, but has been making more frequent trips over the past few years now that his youngest daughter is age-appropriate for the park. She's 4. "I've never been there when it's been an unruly crowd," he said. "I never have to worry about bad language in front of my kids." The only thing he has to worry about is which day he goes. But Campbell seems to have his favorite day of the week locked up. "We try to go on Friday nights, since they do a fantastic fireworks show," he said. And lest we pretend that's only for the kids: "Kids, grown-ups … everyone loves fireworks," Campbell said.

The basics
Address: 1800 Tulare St., Fresno, CA 93721
Capacity: 12,500
Opened: 2002
Phone: 559-320-4487
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: San Francisco Giants
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Steakhouse
Joe's Steakhouse and Grill
831 Van Ness Ave.
Fresno, CA 93721
559-486-3536 | Web site
Located behind Chukchansi Park, head over here if you can't find enough certified Angus beef inside the park.

Cheap eats
Los Panchos Mexican Restaurant
1000 Fulton Mall
Fresno, CA 93721
559-497-9999
Only steps away from the stadium, this restaurant has authentic Mexican cuisine for very little dinero.

Sports bar
Hero's Sports Lounge and Pizza Company
820 Van Ness Ave.
Fresno, CA 93721
559-233-8866
Housed in a converted warehouse, this open-space atmosphere features an eatery and drinkery spread over two levels.

Cashman Field, Las Vegas

Home of the Las Vegas 51s

It's always a risk trusting media-relations people as sources; their job is essentially putting a positive spin on everything. Which is why the first words out of Las Vegas 51s spokesman Jim Gemma's mouth were so surprising: "I'm not trying to bash it, but we have one of the worst Triple-A parks out of the 30." That's apparently what the Dodgers thought, too, moving out of the confines of Cashman Field as soon as their contract was up after last year. The Toronto Blue Jays have since signed with the park. The venue is not all boring, though. It does have the deepest center field in Triple-A ball at 432 feet. So if someone knocks out a home run, you know it's legit. But after that the fan-friendly amenities become as bleak and inhospitable as the Area 51 from which the team gets its name. "It's kind of an experience to go down early," Gemma said. "Go to the eateries around the ballpark, and you have luxury boxes and interactive fan zones for kids; we don't have any of that." Then again, who needs fan amenities or kids' sections when there's gambling to be had right across the street?

The basics
Address: 850 N. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89101
Capacity: 9,334
Opened: 1983
Phone: 702-798-7825
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Toronto Blue Jays
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Nightlife
Fremont Street Experience
425 Fremont St.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-678-5600 | Web site
About a mile from the park, the pedestrian mall offers a number of restaurants, casinos, hotels, free concerts and extravagant lighting set against a scenic backdrop of old Las Vegas.

Cheap eats
San Francisco Shrimp Bar and Deli
1 Fremont St.
Las Vegas, NV 89136
702-385-1906
There might be nothing more to add after writing "$1 shrimp cocktails." But we will anyway: You'll find it located in the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino.

Sports bar
Triple 7 Restaurant and Brewery
200 N. Main St.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-387-1896 | Web site
Located in the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino, the brewpub features six varieties of handcrafted beers to go along with a fresh sushi bar.

Aces Ballpark, Reno, Nev.

Home of the Reno Aces

Whereas the better-known city in Nevada hasn't been able to figure out its ballpark issues, no such problems befall Reno. Then again, this is the first year they've had a Triple-A team. Previously known as the Tucson Sidewinders for the past decade, during the offseason the team changed names, locations and cities, moving into a new ballpark that's already solidified itself as an iconic destination in "The Biggest Little City in the World." "I think the reason this ballpark has become so popular is its fusion between state-of-the-art amenities and classic style and ambiance," said Aces rep T.J. Lasita. Among the highlights are a kids' play area, a grassy berm in right field perfect for a picnic blanket and a modern update to a classic baseball tradition. "In the middle of the seventh inning, a giant inflatable baseball rises from behind the batter's eye in center field and leads the singing of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,'" Lasita said. And despite not having a ballpark for years, Reno citizens are warming quickly to our nation's pastime. "There is an NBA D-league team in town," Lasita said. "But this is the highest level of professional baseball that northern Nevada has ever had, and I think people recognize how special it is. You can't walk a block in downtown Reno without seeing an Aces hat or T-shirt."

The basics
Address: 250 Evans Ave., Reno, NV, 89501
Capacity: 9,013
Opened: 2009
Phone: 775-334-4700
Surface: Grass
MLB affiliation: Arizona Diamondbacks
Web sites: Team | Stadium

Food and drink
Steakhouse
Sterling's Seafood Steakhouse
407 N. Virginia St.
Reno, NV 89501
775-325-7573 | Web site
Inside the nearby Silver Legacy Casino, this ten-time Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner offers all the gourmet options diners would expect.

Cheap eats
Daughters Cafe
97 Bell St.
Reno, NV 89503
775-324-3447 | Web site
Family-owned and -operated, this converted home offers a quaint locale for breakfast or brunch.

Sports bar
Sierra Tap House
253 W. 1st St.
Reno, NV 89555
775-322-7678 | Web site
Six different microbrews from the Sierra Nevada Brewery highlight the beer menu. (But there are also 2-for-1 Coors Lights if you bring in your Aces ticket stub.)

Rick Paulas is a freelance writer based in Southern California who has written for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Page 2, McSweeney's and Radar Magazine. For more information, visit www.rickpaulas.com.

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