Friday, May 23, 2008

Lehigh Valley exceeds the hype

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Praise for Lehigh Valley's new ballpark reached The Dugout's ears well before tonight. But people almost always speak well of new parks. How good could Coca-Cola Park really be?

It's even better than reported (top photo).

Fans, many of whom cast aside the unseasonably cool – actually cold – temperatures to don their IronPigs gear, were into the game all night, nearly packing the park on a Thursday Night. And there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat.

Players, for the most part, rave about the field conditions and couldn’t be more comfortable in their clubhouse. In the first few games fielders were having trouble picking up the ball off the bat, losing them in the white stones behind home plate. The front office helped them by painting the stones green.

Among the ballpark niceties are indoor field-level “sky” boxes that allow fans to eat and schmooze inside, then walk outside to seats behind home plate (middle photo). There are multiple video boards and scoreboards, and a dancing grounds crew that stops to perform the zombie dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” while dragging the infield.

Even the bottle of Coke that sits atop the main scoreboard is functional. The red top pops open to allow fireworks to shoot out following big plays. It was only supposed to fire after IronPig homeruns, but there have been so few of those that the ballpark must be overstocked with explosives. Everything Must Blow!!!

The Dugout wasn’t a big fan of the IronPigs logo when it was unveiled, figuring Lehigh Valley planned to play up the “iron” portion of the name. That’s not the case. There are pigs and pig references throughout the park, and different – read: better – variations on the logo are scattered among the hats and shirts worn by fans, staffers and even players.

Lehigh Valley is the only minor league club that produces television broadcasts for all of is home games. The whole experience is pretty close to the major league feel. In fact, it’s better than many big league parks.

The $50-million ballpark felt even more big league tonight thanks to an appearance from the Philly Phanatic (bottom photo), who sat on fans, threw popcorn and “made friendly” with the Iron Pigs female mascot.

The Iron Pigs, who started the season losing their first 11 games, jumped to a 5-0 lead tonight en route to a 7-2 victory over Charlotte, pushing their record to 14-34. They are pulling away from St. Lucie, which lost 9-1 on Thursday to fall to 9-38, in the battle to avoid the worst record in affiliated baseball.

Look for a story comparing the two teams on the main site in the coming weeks.

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