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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
It is said of many parks – usually in a derogatory fashion - that they could be picked up and placed in any other city. Burlington Athletic Stadium is one of the few parks in history that actually WAS picked up and placed in another city. Originally built in Danville, Virginia, the stadium was trucked 50 miles or so to the south for its 1958 “rebirth” in Burlington. The city fielded a Carolina League affiliate on the premises from 1965-1972 as a Senators (later Rangers) farm club, following the first stint of the Burlington Indians. Though now the home of the rookie-level Appalachian League Royals, stars such as Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia and Luis Tiant all traveled through Burlington as part of their rise to Cleveland.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are sections on the boards at the concession stands for Entrees, Snacks and Beverages, but the offerings are not as fancy as they sound. The entrees are Chick-fil-A sandwiches ($3.75, and not available on Sunday, of course), hot dogs ($2.25, $2.75 with chili or cheese), hamburgers ($2.50), cheeseburgers ($3, $3.50 with chili), Papa John's pizza ($2.25 with pepperoni or cheese) and soft pretzels ($2, $2.50 with cheese). The snack options are a bit more plentiful, with nachos, popcorn and peanuts all for $2.50 each, regular or barbecue chips for $1, Cracker Jacks, sunflower seeds and cotton candy for $2 and chocolate (regular and peanut M&M's, Reese's and Snickers) for $1.50. Pepsi is the bottler for the park, offering bottled water for $2 and Gatorade or bottled sodas for $2.50.
There are two other ancillary stands. One of the stands offers ice cream and frozen treats, and the other is a beer garden down the first-base line. Small drafts are $2.50, with large drafts at $3.50, cans of beer $3, Mike's Hard Lemonade and Cranberry $3.50 and Monster energy drinks and peanuts $2.50. Budweiser, Bud Light Lime, Natural Light, Michelob Ultra, Michelob Light, Corona and Modelo are available for those who desire a brew with their baseball.
For those who like their baseball with a side of between-innings frivolity, this facility will suit you. Most of the promotions are the ones you can see in any other park in America (the mascot race, the dizzy bat race and the like), but there is one that is somewhat unique. The club has two combatants going at it in a game of Hillbilly Horseshoes. In case the name does not immediately give away what takes place, the game is played by throwing toilet seats.
There are no wacky walk-up songs for the visiting team's players, goofy breaking glass sound effects or other unwelcome intrusions. Baseball at the rookie level is often focused on the development taking place on the field and the loyal locals who follow their players. Burlington perfectly fits this expectation. There is a mascot named Bingo, but even he took some time during the game to just sit in the front row with the fans and hang out.
The park itself is surrounded by businesses, plants and homes, so one should not count on being surrounded by a plethora of nightlife and dining options. There are, however, numerous options available on Church Street (US 70) within a short drive. Though Burlington is not a large city itself, there are Mexican (La Cocina is VERY popular with a lot of locals and has several locations in central North Carolina), Asian, old-style (the Graham Soda Shop and Grill is located in nearby Graham) and chain options on every block. The Blue Ribbon Diner is a bit further down on Church near Huffman Mill Road and Holly Hill Mall, and it features food for every taste at reasonable prices in a "retro" atmosphere.
There are a number of options near the mall, and Elon University (this correspondent's former stomping grounds) is also just a few miles away from the park in the town of Elon. Elon combines numerous chain dining options and big-box stores with a vibrant university community that has a walkable main street with several additional shops.
Burlington traditionally draws quite well, rating as one of the top performers in the circuit. The fans are not the loudest group a baseball stadium has ever heard, but they are certainly involved in the game throughout. There are no waves, coordinated cheers led by sound effects or anything of the sort. The fans sitting next to you in the stands are very smart and often very nice.
There are a couple of "superfans" in the front row behind the plate, and they occasionally yell at the umpires (complete with the requisite eye chart), cheer on the Royals and chant as the opposing pitching coach or manager takes each step toward the mound. Everything is good-natured, though, and very reminiscent of the older days of minor league baseball.
The fans understandably bailed out a little early on the night I attended, as their Royals lost to Pulaski 16-4. Those who stayed for the entire game were involved until the final pitch. There was a brief funny moment when the Pulaski team cast an amused glance into the stands at the superfans, to which one said, "we're losing 16-4, what else do we have to cheer about?"
The location of the park presents a few interesting challenges. Most of the roads into and out of the park are residential in nature, so traffic can back up as cars are exiting and entering the parking lot. The lot appears spacious at first glance, but it quickly fills, sending some fans onto nearby streets to park their vehicles. The lot is also gravel, with no clear lines or arrows. Even on nights when the stadium is not full, it is a bit tough to find a defined place for your car.
The bathrooms are on the main concourse behind the seating bowl, and they are reasonably easy to find. The men's bathroom is very spartan, with three troughs on the wall, two stalls and two sinks. There is also very little room to move around, so things can get a bit crowded during busy times.
The concourse is certainly large enough to allow for free movement, but there is no way of seeing the game from the concourse. The souvenirs, concessions and bathrooms are essentially under the seating bowl. There are very steep ramps going up to the seating area, however, and these ramps are quite tough to navigate when dry. If there is rain in the area, it is recommended to use extreme caution when going up and down the ramps.
Tickets to a Royals game are about on par with most of the rest of the classification, with box seats at $8 and general admission at $6. There are no discounted box seats, but a senior or child general admission seat is $4. The box seats offer the typical nice close-up view of the action, despite a net that stretches from the backstop to the roof. The general admission seating is covered by the roof (except for the bleachers on each base line), so hot days are less of a problem.
The concessions are about what one would expect from a park, in terms of price. The portions can be a bit small, depending on the item. The popcorn is served in a small bag, and the slices of pizza are not the largest. The free parking is a nice perk, however, and as long as you manage your expectations before you attend, it is pretty easy to get out of Burlington Athletic Stadium without spending a fortune.
Medical service provider LabCorp has a large presence in Burlington, and the night I attended was LabCorp employee night. Fans were given LabCorp logo backpacks as they passed through the turnstiles. Backpacks seem to be a common giveaway as the time to go back to school approaches, and while you may not get a free backpack on the night you attend, the team often has unannounced giveaways.
The team has inflatable toys for the kids along the main concourse, including a bounce house. It only costs $1 per turn for kids to use the toys, and if your kids are not interested in the game action or hanging out down the base lines chasing after (and begging for) foul balls, this is a good place for them.
There is also a balloon artist near the inflatables, which seemed to be a preferred spot for the children. Having a balloon artist around is a tremendous idea - that is, of course, until the balloons inevitably start popping. I often heard the all-too-familiar "pop", followed shortly by a crying child.
Burlington Athletic Stadium is the ultimate in no-frills baseball. You get to take your seats among players' parents and families, Little League teams, blue-collar locals and real baseball fans. This makes for a really pure baseball experience, and one that is certainly worth the brief detour if you are in North Carolina to see any other affiliated team. In an era of downtown ballparks, corporate suites and brand-new amenities, this is a welcome return to the game you grew to love as a child - no matter your age.
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22 NE Court Sq
Graham, NC 27253
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