With California's five MLB teams each a commute of four hours or more, the city of Visalia relies on their minor league team, known as the Rawhide, to give them their baseball fix.
Driving into Visalia, fans will quickly realize that "Rawhide" is a most appropriate nickname due to staggering amount of cattle in the region. Prior to 2009, the team was known as the Visalia Oaks and had seven other nicknames prior to that as it has been affiliated with over 10 MLB teams.
The Rawhide call Recreation Park its home and it is one of the senior citizens of minor league baseball. It was built back in 1946 and has undergone several extensive renovations. The capacity is one of the smallest in the minors at just 1,888 fans. The grass berm found in right field, allows the capacity to stretch to 2,468.
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The stadium offers two primary concession stands, each relatively close to first or third base. Some of the primary items include Nathan's 1/4 lb all beef hot dog ($4.50, add chili/cheese for $1.50, add kraut for $1), an Italian sausage sandwich with grilled onions and peppers ($6), grilled chicken sandwich ($6), and a 1/4 lb burger ($5, add cheese for $0.50, add chili/cheese for $1, add bacon/cheese for $1, or make it a double for $2 more). Veggie burgers are also available for $5. Some of the side items include French fries ($3 add chili/cheese for $1.50), chicken tenders and fries ($6), nachos ($5 add chili for $1), pretzel with cheese cup ($3), candy ($2-$3), and peanuts ($3). At every register, there was a "bucket of fun" which offered items such as Ritz Bitz, Chips Ahoy, sunflower seeds, or pretzels.
Probably the premier item at the park was the BBQ pulled pork sandwich from Sissy's BBQ. It seemed that every other fan in the stadium was giving one a try as it was piled up pork with barbeque sauce and jalapenos. The price of $7 was well worth it and fans could add a side of chili beans for $1 more.
The heat can sometimes be overwhelming in Visalia, so to cool fans down they offer snow cones for $3, $4, & $5, depending on size. Frozen snacks from drumsticks to ice cream cups are also available from $3 to $5.
The beverage options include Pepsi products for $3 (24 oz), Arizona iced tea ($4), and bottled water ($3). The mass beers were available for $6 (Miller, Coors, Pabst), while "premium" choices went for $7. The premium options included Blue Moon, Newcastle, and Sam Adams. Beer from the Sequoia Brewing Company (based in Fresno, CA) was also on-hand with interesting options such as the "General Sherman," "Tamarack Lager," and "Half Dome."
My first thought upon entering the small stadium was that I would experience a rather calm atmosphere. My suspicions were correct during the first few innings, but in the latter half of the game, all of the seats really began to fill up and the staff began running promotions that really got all fans involved rather than just a select few. The Little Caesar's "Scream for Pizza" and "Dance for Food Vouchers" promotions were two of the most effective as I've ever seen in baseball.
The team's mascot is named "Tipper the Holstein Bull" after the mythical sport of cow-tipping. Visalia is the world's leading dairy producer , so it's an appropriate nickname. With such a small stadium, fans can rest assure that they'll spot him at least once an inning. During the bottom of the 5th, he signs autographs at the General Store.
Visalia is known for its proximity to Kings Canyon and the Sequoia National Forest and millions of tourists pass through annually to visit some of the most impressive scenery in the world. The National park is home to the world's largest tree, the General Sherman, the Great Western Divide, Moro Rock, Crescent Meadow (what John Muir called the "gem of the Sierras"), and the Crystal Caves.
Visalia has all of the notable chain restaurants less than 10 minutes from the stadium, but the area does offer some other unique options as well. If you have an extra few dollars to spend, many of the local mentioned the The Vintage Press or Fugazzi's for some upscale dining.
Some other spots that may be more suitable to the average fan include Brewbaker's Brewing Company and the Depot. I particularly liked the Depot for their excellent appetizers including double smoked slab bacon, truffled parmesan fries, and chicken liver mousse.
Also, as hot dogs are synonymous with baseball, the region offers two notable hot dog establishments. First, in Visalia is the Taylor Brothers hot dog stand, a favorite of many locals. If you travel to nearby Tulare, CA, you can find Aero Dogs, which is a hot dog cafe; built inside of a 1951 T-29 Air Force training plane.
The lack of "true" suites really made the fans a lot more engaged as the "class system" was not in effect. All of the fans were packed in together and it really helped to facilitate the chants and cheers. To one's surprise, many of the fans were ringing cow bells throughout the contest.
The Rawhide have one of the better logos in minor league baseball, so several fans were sporting the team gear.
The fans really made the stadium come alive as there was a good balance in all portions of the venue. The stadium seemed to come alive with movement as there was a good sampling behind the fences, on the berm, in the grandstand, and in the beer garden. At no point did it seem that fans were more engaged in the novelty items than the game itself.
Visalia is located roughly four hours north of Los Angeles, four hours south of San Francisco, and six hours west of Las Vegas. Once you arrive in town, you'll find the stadium rather easy to locate.
Parking is free in a nearby lot, and even if the lot is at capacity, there is plenty of quiet street parking for fans to utilize. Fans could literally park on the street less than 25 feet away from the entrance to the stadium.
Upon entering the stadium, fans will find most seating between the first and third bases. The grandstand has a "200 level" that is really nothing more than a few steps up from the ground level. On the first base side, there is a grassy berm starting at the bag and wrapping around the foul pole.
The suites might give fans a bit of a laugh after as they are nothing more than approx 10' x 5' spaces with some aluminum chairs placed inside.
The stadium also has waitresses walking about the stadium (in cowboy boots), taking and delivering food orders to the fans, a large convenience.
The only negative surrounding the access is probably the nets surrounding most of the playing field. It is understood that this is a safety precaution with the fans so close to the action, but they are definitely a nuisance, obstructing some views.
A trip to Recreation Park is probably one of the best values in minor league baseball. I was thrilled with the free parking as I've witnessed many venues with a lot more space surrounding the ballpark charging much more. Upon arriving at the box office, all tickets are reasonably priced and provide fans an opportunity to get close enough to the players and coaches to even hear their conversations.
The pricing for the different seating sections are as follows: Coors light zone ($8), Saloon ($15 or $20 on Thursdays), Grandstand ($12 for 100 level and $10 for $200 level), lawn seating ($6), cowbell section ($10), bullpen family deck ($7). If you really want to spend your money, call ahead and see if you can get a spot in the Hall of Fame Club.
With such limited capacity, it's rather simple to manage your way around the stadium and try out different seats. Somehow the usher allowed me to get bumped from my seats to accommodate a family of nine, but I was still able to find a quality spot in a nearby location.
The outfield walls certainly offer some personality that fans will not find in most parks. First of all, the outfield walls are a bit higher than usual while the foul-poles seem a bit shorter than the norm. The right field fence is where things really get interesting. Closer to right-center field, a sizable red barn acts as part of the wall; a truly unique touch to the ballpark. If anyone ever told a player that he could not "hit the broad-side of a barn," Recreation Park would be a good measuring stick.
To the right (standing at home plate), is the "Bullpen Family Deck." All that separates fans from the playing field is a chain-link fence with plenty of seating and puts fans just inches from the visiting team bullpen. If the kids are along, this is just footsteps away from the children's play area, allowing parents to (almost) simultaneously watch the kids and check out the game.
Touching more on the outfield fence, the left side features two large circles signifying two of the franchise's California League championships, both with different nicknames than the current "Rawhide." In 1971, the team was known as the Visalia Mets and in 1978, the Visalia Oaks. While most minor league walls are scattered with advertisements (and this stadium does have its share), the Rawhide actually give up some of their marketing real-estate to honor some of their greats with banners that include an image of each player and the years with the team.
While the outfield offers some interesting scenery, the grandstand also has some compelling touches. On the first-base side, all of the banners from the division (black)/league (red) championships are painted on the concrete that supports on the grandstand. On the third-base side, baseballs with eyes, arms, and legs are sporting a cap of each of the major league affiliates of the franchise. Surprisingly, 11 MLB caps are shown that have been represented by Visalia. If you take a walk behind the grandstand, fans can find a surprisingly secluded/quiet area with trees (offering shade on hot days), chairs, and tables. There are also a few banners outlining the franchise history of each decade with some beautiful plant-life surrounding it.
If fans enter the stadium via the right-field entrance, they may spot a wooden directional sign. The sign points in the direction and lists the distance of places such as Cooperstown, Yakima, and Reno.
The temperatures are often in the 90's during baseball season in Visalia, so many fans are thankful for the beer garden (called the "Watering Hole"), complete with misters to keep fans cool.
The older generation of fans will surely appreciate a tradition that occurs annually at Recreation Park. If fans attend a game during the team's "turn back the clock" promotion, they will see the team sporting the Mudville Nine jerseys, honoring the well-known "Casey at the Bat."
Lastly, I must applaud the ballpark for keeping to its theme throughout. Beyond the red barn, the souvenir store is known as the "General Store." As previously mentioned, the mascot is a cow, appropriately named "Tipper." There is a "cowbell" section near first base, where fans get a free cowbell with ticket purchase. On the third base side, there is the "Saloon," complete with a sheriff building cutout and saddle to pose on for some photos.
This stadium defies the old "size matters" cliche. I know that too often stadium reviewers complement a venue's intimacy, but few offer vantage points truly this close to the action. The small capacity really prevents the "empty" feeling experienced at many stadiums, and all fans can feel part of the experience.
One of the best sights in America is the Sequoia National Park, so if you're in the area, be sure to check out the stadium for the theme of the stadium alone. It's rather simple to access the stadium and get tickets, so all sports fans should certainly give it a try.
Follow Drew's journeys through Southern California on Twitter @Big10Drew.
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216 N Willis St
Visalia, CA 93291
219 E Main St
Visalia, CA 93291
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