On the Road: Taking a Peek at the Valleys in West Virginia
To see all posts from my June 30, 2015 visit to the West Virginia Black Bears (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.
2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!
The reason that I dubbed this road trip “Virginias 2015” — as opposed to “Virginia 2015 — was because it did indeed contain multiple Virginias. But the singular did not become multiple until the very last day of the trip, when I crossed the state line from Virginia into Maryland and then into the other Virginia.
This was a scenic journey, full of steep hills and Maryland woodland and convenience stores that sell beet eggs (marking the first time I’d had a beet egg since visiting the Hagerstown Suns back in 2011). But I’m not here to write about beet eggs. I’m done with that, it’s ovum. I’m here to write about the West Virginia Black Bears, the newest entrant into the increasingly inaccurately named New York-Penn League. Actually, I already have written about the Black Bears, over on MiLB.com, and I’m going to borrow from that article a few times in this blog post. Starting now:
Over the last two decades, the New York-Penn League has expanded far beyond the two states in its name. The Class A Short Season circuit currently has franchises in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and, as of last month, West Virginia.
The NYPL’s first Mountain State entrant, which relocated from Jamestown, New York, has dubbed itself the West Virginia Black Bears. Specifically, the Black Bears represent the north-central metropolis of Morgantown and the surrounding community. Monongalia County Stadium, the team’s brand-new facility, is shared with West Virginia University’s Big 12 baseball program. The Black Bears, a Pirates affiliate, played their first game there on June 19.
The stadium is located on “Gyorko Drive,” named after local-baseball-hero-turned-San Diego Padre-Jedd Gyorko. “Gyorko Drive” isn’t on any maps yet and will probably not appear in your GPS device of choice. Your best bet is to set your coordinates for the Wal-Mart on University Town Centre Drive (in Granville, not Morgantown) and then just keep on driving right past the Wal-Mart (as it is always best to do). Eventually, you’ll make it to Monongalia County Stadium.
This was my first view of the stadium. Many superior views were to follow, but you never forget your first.
Monongalia County Ballpark is located not in Morgantown but to the northwest in the comparatively miniscule town of Granville (pop. 2,508). The area in which the ballpark is located used to be coal mining country. It is currently surrounded by, well, not much.
Change is imminent. Granville’s University Town Centre — a sprawling assemblage of chain stores, restaurants and hotels — is located en route to the ballpark, and similar development is planned in the area surrounding the park. Black Bears assistant general manager John Pogorzelski said that there will soon be a new Route 79 off-ramp close to the stadium to accommodate the traffic generated by the new hotels, stores and, of course, baseball fans.
Pogorzelski and Black Bears general manager Matt Drayer both relocated with the franchise from Jamestown, New York, where they held the same positions with the Jammers. To say that West Virginia and Jamestown are two entirely different baseball atmospheres would be an understatement. It would also be correct. Here’s a picture of the Jammers’ home of Russell E. Diethrick Park, from when I visited late last August:
Pogorzelski — whom I will henceforth call “John” — gave me a tour of the facility. We began by entering the external structure located beyond right field (to the left of Gate C). The smell of paint permeated the area, resulting in a visceral reminder that this ballpark is still very, very new. Here’s the home clubhouse, which is pretty small for a new stadium. Nonetheless, when we walked by, there was some ping pong-table acquisition chatter going on inside. There’s always room for ping-pong.
The vast majority of the ballpark’s Black Bear population was out on the field, vigorously exercising thigh muscle.
As you may have inferred from the above photo (but probably didn’t) the entire field (save for the clay pitcher’s mound) is artificial turf.
The berm area is real grass, but the berm area (on both sides of the ballpark) is not yet open to fans because the hills are so steep. This is a very Hill-y ballpark, even on days in which I am not there.
The Black Bears might compete on artificial turf, but they nonetheless have (and need) a groundskeeper. His name is Craig McIntosh.
I wrote a short MiLB.com article about Craig and how he does his job, which can be found HERE. It is the first story that I have ever written that includes the term “mound fetish.” Craig also talked about how a big part of his job his job involves picking debris off of the artificial turf. Hence, rules:
Monongalia County Ballpark has only 2500 fixed seats. There are no arm rests, at least for now, with John explaining that the initial choice was between arm rests and cup holders.
“We figured that people would need a place to hold their beer,” he said.
The unique topography of Monongalia County Ballpark makes for a somewhat awkward layout, but any minor inconveniences are made up for — and then some — by what is one of the best views in Minor League Baseball.
The ballpark faces to the southeast. That’s downtown Morgantown beyond left field (in both foul and fair territory), which gives way to the smaller town of Westover and, most prominently, the natural beauty which lays beyond the winding Monongahela River (not visible from the ballpark). There’s a reason that WVU’s sports teams are called “Mountaineers,” and, of course, within those mountains one can find black bears.
There’s a lot of room in the press box — especially by New York-Penn League standards — and this is because the ballpark needs to accommodate the oft-larger WVU Big 12 baseball media contingent. (There are three radio booths — home, visitor and student — though the student booth isn’t used during Black Bears games.)
Behind the ballpark, on the first base side, is a WVU-affiliated medical facility. I guess, if you really wanted to, you could watch the game from here for free. You could also take a terrifying tumble into the abyss, if you’re not careful.
At the time that I visited, the Black Bears front office had not yet moved into what will be their office. Like the player locker rooms, I was surprised at the relative smallness of the offices. Generally, new ballparks are more expansive.
The home plate side of Monogalia County Ballpark is built up against a hill, and as such there is no home plate entry into the ballpark. This leads to a unique feature in that the main entrance, Gate A, is located in left-center field. Fans entering through the gate then embark on (what should be) a leisurely walk down the third base concourse to the seating area behind home plate.
The evening’s ballgame, featuring the Black Bears taking on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, was not destined to start on time. The skies were threatening. Look closely and you can see that the tarp was on the field. (It’s better to have a mound fetish than the mound wettish.)
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 30, 2015
Speaking of “life on the road,” I am writing this post from an undisclosed location in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Yep – a new road trip has already begun, and here I am still writing about the last one. Stay tuned for more from West Virginia, as well as what is sure to be a whole heck of a lot from this late July/early August jaunt through the Deep South.