May 12, 2008

Take a seat in the minors

By Josh Pahigian, ESPN

1. Fifth Third Field, The Roost Seats (Toledo Mud Hens)

Four years after the Detroit Tigers opened Comerica Park, the Mud Hens cut the ribbon on their own new yard, which includes this nostalgic nod to old Tiger Stadium and its similar overhang section.

According to Mud Hens' spokesman Jason Griffin, local fans played an important role in the development of Fifth Third Field's blueprints and in envisioning its signature Roost.

"We had several fan forums during the design process," Griffin explained, "and they had a big say in how it turned out."

Since Fifth Third Field opened in 2002, about 40 home runs have touched down in the Roost, none more memorable than the pair of dingers hit by former Tigers prospect Eric Munson in the same inning of a game in the park's first season.

Some long strikes have found their way into the Roost, as well, since half of the section lies in fair territory and half in foul ground.

2. Bright House Field, The Tiki Seats (Clearwater Threshers)                                            

Following the lead set by many of the Cactus League parks built in the 1990s, Bright House 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 baseball haven 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 fence.

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 wend through the Allegheny Mountains west of downtown Altoona. Thus, the team's moniker, and its mascot, Steamer.

And even the ballpark's trademark seats offer a nod to the region's railroading history.

Each night a handful of fortunate fans on the left-field party deck get to be Rail Kings, sitting in a row of special 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 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, placing fans 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 original stadium construction plans in 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)

Fans sitting in any of the train shed's six luxury boxes enjoy sight-lines that rank right up there among the very best views in the minors.

"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)

Fans wishing to enjoy the doubly sublime experience of relaxing into the grips of a professional massage while enjoying a baseball game should set their compasses for St. Paul, where Sister Rosalind Gefre, a professional massage therapist who just happens to be an 80-year-old nun, works her magic.

"When you're getting a massage, your eyes are either closed or looking down at your feet, so for 15 minutes you're in another zone," said Saints spokeswoman Annie Huidekoper.

"It's a way to have a different sensory experience at a ballgame. You notice the sounds of the game and the smells of the game so much more. Usually about halfway through, I think, 'Wow, those hot dogs smell good tonight.'"

8. Recreation Park, The Fan Dugout (Visalia Oaks)

After a recent renovation, Visalia's cozy, little California League ballpark has a third dugout from which fans may 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 an atmosphere similar to 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.

Here, between home plate and the Rainiers' first-base dugout, 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.