"If you are smoking, you're either on fire or you need to step down the stairs to our designated smoking area" read the sign in front of the main gates at Classic Park, seemingly there to let people know that while they have rules, it's not a stuffy place to watch a ballgame.
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I'm quite fond of Ohio. Besides being home during my college years and a place where several close friends still live, it's a "beer-and-red-meat" state. Many ballparks like to add non-traditional ballpark cuisine that fits with the region (fish 'n chips in Seattle, pierogies in Cleveland, fish tacos in San Diego), but it's hard to go wrong with the traditional ballpark staples of red meat (preferably encased) and cold beer.
Classic Park keeps this simple formula in mind, adding flourishes while keeping it affordable. Your standard concessions windows offer your basic hot dog, nachos, Bud and Bud Light on tap, Coca-Cola products, perfect if you just want a beer and something your child is going to eat half of while screaming at players for a ball between bites. The food and soft drinks here are $5 or less, going along with the MiLB-wide mantra of "family affordable entertainment."
If you're fine with Bud, Bud Light and Labatt's, they're available at most places around the park, $6 for a 20 oz. draft. But if you want a more complex beer (or perhaps something stronger), you can check out Castaway's Bar down the third base line in the left field corner. Not only do they have six craft beers on tap and around thirty kinds of craft and imported, they offer liquor and stay open until the game is over, and sometimes even later during special nights. A 20 oz. draft is going to run $7 (though they still have domestic drafts here for the going rate) and bottles are $5.
Along the first base line there is an unassuming window with a sign above reading simply "Beers of the World" offering a selection of over 50 bottles of craft and imported beer in addition to a few taps at the standard prices.
Across from the windows, down each line are stands selling lemonade, stuffed pretzels, candy, ice cream and Dippin' Dots - 1997's ice cream of the future. The condiment stands offer your standard chopped and shredded hot dog toppings and an assortment of Heinz squirtables, as well as Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard, as this is the Tribe's territory.
The crown jewel of Classic Park's various food stations is Grillworks behind home plate which offers several different types of burgers ($6.50) and sausage ($4). I recommend their version of the Big Mac, the "Captains Big Boy" - two all-beef patties, CRUISIN' sauce, lettuce, cheese, etc...
The Captains keep it simple and they maintain a good balance between focusing on the game and all the goofy peripherals that people have come to expect from a minor league ballgame. "Tuesdays are usually slow," according to Neil Stein, the Assistant GM. To compensate, every Tuesday is "Dog Night" where you can bring your pooch for an extra $5 and hang out on the right and left field berms.
Still, the stadium was only at about 30% capacity which took away from the Captains' 13-3 drubbing of Fort Wayne that night, as when Lake County scores a run, everybody is encouraged (via scoreboard screen) to "Do The Tony Dance!" The Tony Dance is named for "Captain Tony," a man you'll see around the park dressed as a sea captain. It involves alternating fist-pumps to techno music, and it would be more impressive to see 7,000 people Tony-dancing as opposed to 2,000 scattered fans.
Skipper the mascot is a bulbous green furball who is well-trained in the mascot arts. A good mascot always adds to the fun of a ballgame by interacting without distracting. Skipper hits the nail on the head here - even though he is another one to suspiciously lose a race around the bases, this time with a dachsund instead of a child.
The between-inning hubbub is limited - there are your typical races, tosses, trivia questions and freebies, but the Captains don't overdo it by feeling the need to throw something in at every half-inning.
Eastlake, Ohio is a suburb of Cleveland and the stadium is in an area zoned for commercial use, so Classic Park isn't nestled in a setting reminiscent of the "gee-pop-ain't-this-swell" days when Cracker Jack used to actually have peanuts in it.
But it does have some options. There are several bars and restaurants (as well as a donuts-and-pizza joint) within walking distance, with The Captains Club being the perfect spot for pre- and post-gamers. It's right next to the ballpark's parking lot and has some of the coldest beer I've had anywhere. You get a freshly frosted glass every time, and if you let it sit for a minute, you can watch the beer at the bottom turn into slush and float to the top like a lava lamp. They have a decent-sized menu specializing in sandwiches, sports on several televisions and somehow manage to pull off the family-friendly dive bar atmosphere.
In a vacuum, the parent club should have little bearing on a local baseball fan embracing his hometown minor league team. The Cleveland Indians understand that rational thought is at a premium few can afford and have responded by signing player development contracts with several teams in Ohio. That is a very savvy move that benefits the front offices of the farm teams as well as the parent team, by making more butts readily available for seats and giving the Indians several close options for rehabbing injured stars.
The Indians have great fans and all four of Cleveland's affiliates in Ohio reflect this. Classic Park is not an exception.
I expected the worst when I got off the Lakeland Freeway. A quarter mile of the 4-lane Som Center Road stretched out before me between the exit and the ballpark, and as I approached I noticed a sign that told me the parking for the game was across the street. Traffic is pretty heavy on Som Center, but once you get your $5 parking spot you can just amble across the walkway over the traffic and the flight of stairs on the other side puts you right at the front gate and ticket windows.
It's hard to complain about a comfortable seat and a good line of sight from anywhere that costs as much as their chicken finger basket. No basic ticket is more than $10 and the various food and drink combinations range from anywhere between $8-$15, so for $25 you're making out like a bandit.
For a glimpse into the history of the franchise, check out the Captains walk of fame behind the scoreboard in right field. At the end of it you'll find yourself standing in the right field corner, and with your back to home plate, you can watch the players from both teams trickle out of their clubhouses on their way to pregame warm-ups. This is a good spot for autograph hounds and bright-eyed children, and the sound of spikes marching to battle on concrete isn't as unpleasant as you might think.
*Follow the epic travels of Tug Haines at Casual Fan.
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