baseball

Baseball Stadiums: Fifth Third Bank Ballpark

Springtime means a handful of things for me, but the one consistency that helps fuel this blog is the AAG Annual Meeting.  This year’s meeting was in Chicago, Ill., so when the Minor League Baseball schedule came out last fall, I investigated to see what games I could attend while in the Windy City.  There are multiple baseball teams in Chicago, but besides the Cubs and White Sox the only team playing games in late-April is the Kane County Cougars.

Over the past year as I’ve gotten more into blogging about my visits to baseball stadiums, I’ve started following other bloggers on Twitter and interacting with them.  So when I saw that Kane County was playing at home during my visit, I asked Craig Wieczorkiewicz if he wanted to attend a game with me.  He replied that he would try to plan around it.

For those who don’t use Twitter or aren’t familiar with Craig, he runs a site called The Midwest League Traveler.  He does a great job of taking photos and keeping tabs on former MWL players through his Twitter account.

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After arriving in Chicago and getting a rental car to drive out to Geneva, I got to the stadium incredibly early.  I used that time to take some photos of the signage outside the stadium.

Signage on Strikers Fox Valley Soccer Club‘s facility showing the most notable former Cougars.

Main signage with the night’s matchup.

As fans started to arrive, I took some photos of the main entrances.  With a capacity of over 10,000, the stadium has multiple entrances to accommodate the significantly larger summertime crowds.

Most fans entered via Gate 1, which is the closest entry point to the expansive parking lot.

While standing around Gate 1 waiting for Craig, I started talking with the man operating the free-standing booth when he asked why I was wearing an Alabama Crimson Tide cap.  It turns out that the Cougars’ ticketing director, Michael Patterson, had worked in Atlanta with the Hawks and new some of my former bosses from an internship I did there years after he had left.  It was also great learning that he had a bachelor’s degree in geography, so we swapped business cards and I’m hopeful that he will be able to talk with my sports geography course next year via Skype.

The Cougars Den souvenir shop was not open prior to the game.

Yet another ticket window, this time by the front office entrance.

Before entering the park it’s important to note that this is one of four Minor League Baseball stadiums with a naming rights deal with Fifth Third Bank, so if you thought you were in Toledo or Dayton or Grand Rapids you’re mistaken.  Toledo and Dayton are both home to Fifth Third Field and Grand Rapids (technically Comstock Park) is home to Fifth Third Ballpark.  Geneva’s stadium is the only one that has “bank” in its name.

Finally when Craig arrived after his drive from Wisconsin, I got to enter the stadium.  We quickly found the starting lineups posted near home plate.

Starting lineups for LumberKings vs. Cougars on April 21 plus the Midwest League standings.

I explored the stadium a bit before settling down to watch the first pitch.  So as usual, I made sure to capture the first pitch before settling in for the game.

Kane County Cougars starting pitcher Jefferson Mejia after delivering the first pitch
to Clinton LumberKings center fielder Chantz Mack.

Although I often watch a game from behind home plate that location does not work well for getting unobstructed photographs of players, and so I sat along the third base line because Craig takes a TON of photos for his web site.  It was a chilly and windy April night, so there were a lot of available seats, and I took a few of my own pictures from our vantage point at the end of the dugout.

Kane County Cougars starting pitcher Jefferson Mejia delivers a pitch
with Clinton LumberKings center fielder Chantz Mack on first.

Some people ogle over watching top-rated prospects play, and while I enjoy watching top-tier players I’ve never been one to get caught up in the excitement.  However, I can thank Craig for pointing out that the Seattle Mariners’ No. 1 prospect was playing for the LumberKings (read more here).  So I made sure to snap a picture of Alex Jackson, who was all sorts of bundled up on the very chilly and windy night.

Clinton LumberKings left fielder Alex Jackson is the Seattle Mariners No. 1 ranked prospect.

Another thing I learned from following Craig and his blog is that the Cougars installed a new video board, and we had a great view of it, too.  I can’t compare it to the old video board, but the one I saw looks really spiffy.

The Cougars new video board with the old scoreboard in left field.

I’ve been a baseball fan for a long time, and one thing has recently started to happen that shows my age and my age as a baseball fan.  I now see numerous former Major League players managing in the Minor Leagues, and this night I saw Mark Grudzielanek managing the Cougars.

Kane County Cougars manager Mark Grudzielanek (#15) watching
Clinton LumberKings starting pitcher Tyler Herb get set to deliver a pitch.

After finishing my Raging Cougar Ale, a beer specially brewed for the Cougars by Two Brothers Brewing Company, I heard an announcement about the grill along the first base line closing.  I was surprised to hear the announcement in only the 3rd or 4th inning, but I guess fan turnout and chilly conditions led to the earlier-than-usual closing.  So I headed there hoping to try either the BBQ pork chop sandwich or another of the Cougars’ signature sandwich items, but unfortunately the grill was closed by the time I arrived.  So I missed out on having a specialty food item, and instead explored the concession stands lining the concourse.

Bobak’s sausage stand, where I got an Ozzie Dog.

I enjoy encased meat, so it seemed only natural I ended up getting a sausage of some variety.  I could’ve had a Polish sausage or bratwurst, but felt like the appropriate selection was the foot-long Ozzie Dog served with grilled onions.

Foot-long Ozzie Dog with yellow mustard.

While the Ozzie Dog is not a standard Chicago-style hot dog, I felt awkward putting ketchup or other condiments on it.  So I kept it basic and paid respect to the locals by just using yellow mustard.  It was a good dog, and very filling.  However, I had really hoped for something off the grill.  If I get back to Kane County, I will be sure to come hungry and get something hot off the grill after I walk through the gate.

After finishing the hot dog, I sat along the first base line and talked with Craig about baseball and our mutual interests.  It was a great way to enjoy a baseball game, and recommend that anybody who visits stadiums to reach out to local people to watch a game with them.  I don’t follow the Midwest League, and learned a lot about it and the teams by talking to Craig.

While talking and watching the game we saw Kane County catcher Stryker Trahan crush a ball to right field in the 6th inning that put the home team ahead for good.  It’s a shame more people didn’t see it, but it highlighted his performance that earned him Player of the Game honors in a 5-2 Cougars victory.

The video board featuring Stryker Trahan as the Player of the Game after going 3-for-5 with a two-run home run.

My visit was not quite what I expected, but it was definitely worth it.  The weather was chilly and windy, which made me happy that I had brought gloves on my trip despite my teeth chattering a few times during the game.  I didn’t get my usual photo with the mascot.  I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on sampling a signature item from the grill, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and had a great time taking in the game with a very knowledgeable fan.  I’m thankful for Craig’s willingness to make the trek to attend the game, and hope that I’ll get to see the Cougars play in some warmer weather next time and that I’ll be able to return the hospitality Craig extended to me.

Anybody who visits Minor League ballparks should definitely put Kane County on their list.  It may be a trek from downtown Chicago, but the beer is good, the food is delicious, and the atmosphere is fun even on a chilly April night.

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Categories: baseball, Illinois, MiLB

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