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  • Matt Finnigan

UC Health Park – Rocky Mountain Vibes


Photos by Paul Baker and Matt Finnigan, Stadium Journey


Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.29

UC Health Park 4385 Tutt Blvd Colorado Springs, CO 80922


Year Opened: 1988 Capacity: 8,500

 

The Rocky Mountain Vibes Adapt and Succeed in the Pioneer League


Organized baseball in Colorado Springs has metamorphosed over the past eight years in a way that would have doomed many franchises to failure. In 2014, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox were in their 22nd season as the Colorado Rockies’ AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. This partnership made sense, as the parent club was only about an hour away. The altitude (6,531 feet above sea level) simulated the Coors Field experience for young pitchers.

Fans came to see prospects such as Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Carlos Gonzalez, and Nolan Arenado play before they became MLB stars. After the 2014 season, however, the Rockies elected not to renew their affiliation with the Sky Sox. The Milwaukee Brewers then affiliated with Colorado Springs, the team’s AAA farm club from 2015-2018. The Elmore Sports Group, which owned the Sky Sox, relocated the franchise to San Antonio after the 2018 season.

In the Sky Sox’s absence, Elmore relocated another of its franchises, the Pioneer Baseball League’s Helena Brewers, to Colorado Springs for the 2019 season. The team began to play in 2019 in short-season Class A and was rebranded as the Rocky Mountain Vibes. “We realized that we didn’t want to be a thing, didn’t want to be an animal,” said General Manager Chris Phillips, announcing the team’s new name. “Being an attitude, a feeling, an emotion, that allows us to do a million different things.

The possibilities are limitless. When you have that word, it means several different things to different people at different times of the day.” The Vibes’ mascot is an anthropomorphic s’more – perhaps the most important snack food at a campsite. Named “Toasty,” the mascot is a large marshmallow sandwiched by graham crackers with a tuft of flame atop his head in a small conflagration of “hair.”

The Vibes played in 2019 as a Brewers’ Class-A affiliate. Then came significant hurdles. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled both the 2020 season and the Vibes’ status as an MLB affiliate. Major League Baseball’s reorganization of its minor leagues after the 2020 season left the Pioneer League and its teams without MLB affiliation. Instead, the league would play as an independent “partner league” of MLB. Partner leagues collaborate with MLB on initiatives to provide organized baseball to communities throughout the United States and Canada to expand baseball’s geographic reach.

Turnover of franchise affiliations and then loss of those affiliations altogether in less than a decade, coupled with a 34-year-old ballpark oddly located in a suburban part of town might spell trouble for many franchises. Not the Vibes. With their new identity, Vibes merchandise has become some of the most sought-after in baseball. And the team’s front office has made noticeable changes around UC Health Park that highlight the Colorado lifestyle. Most impressively, the Vibes have converted the loss of MLB affiliation into a surprisingly enjoyable ballpark experience.

Food & Beverage 4

The Vibes have upheld their promise to extend the “Vibes” moniker beyond the foul lines and to the concession stands. Fans can purchase s’mores kits ($3) consisting of a large marshmallow, graham crackers, and chocolate, and then toast the marshmallow at one of the firepits on the ballpark’s west concourse. Keeping with the camping-themed bill of fare is a “walking taco” ($8): a small Doritos bag filled with chips, ground beef, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, and salsa. Not many teams can combine victuals and team identity like this.

The team also has a concession stand, “Healthy Vibes,” on the third-base concourse, with a gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian menu. A vegan dog sells for $7, a black bean burger sells for $12, and a gluten-free turkey sandwich sells for $9. Fans can also dine on turkey burgers ($12) and turkey avocado wraps ($9). This is a nice alternative to a deep-fried panoply of stadium food that enables fans with differing diets to eat while watching the Vibes.

Ballpark favorites can also be found. Foot-long corn dogs ($7), chicken tenders baskets ($11), hot dogs ($7/$4), Polish sausage ($9), and fries ($4) are available at concession stands along the first- and third-base concourses.

Beer lovers won’t be disappointed. Local favorites Pikes Peak Brewing (Elephant Rock IPA and Belgian Gold) and Red Leg Brewing (Blood Orange Double Hazy IPA) are on tap, along with Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. Canned beer (Anheuser-Busch, Pikes Peak Brewing, and Breckenridge beers), canned cocktails, and hard seltzer are also available. Premium drafts sell for $12 and domestic drafts are $10. Alternatively, fans can purchase a large, bat-shaped beer glass bearing the Vibes’ “Toasty” logo with either premium beer ($25) or domestic beer ($22).

UC Health Field has a more extensive concessions menu than most of its Pioneer League counterparts and the quality of food compares favorably to any other stadium in the league. The improved food at UC Health Field helps enhance the experience.

Atmosphere 4

The atmosphere is one of the best reasons to attend a Vibes game. The Vibes have combined Colorado’s outdoorsy sensibilities with baseball. This means that fans can make s’mores while watching the game, or while trying the team’s signature cocktail, the Springs Lemonade (pink lemonade and vodka) at the full-service bar that greets fans entering the stadium.

The ballpark’s grandstand spans from third base to first base, with party areas and suites in the right-field corner. Box seats are chairbacks, with metal bleachers in the sections above the field boxes. Wind can be an issue, with the stadium mostly open. There’s no seating beyond the outfield fences.

The best view in the ballpark is from the top of the grass berm, in the left-field corner. There, fans can watch the game with a nice view of Cheyenne Mountain beyond the ballpark.

The only scoreboard in the ballpark sits beyond the left field wall. It displays lineups, stats, and facts about players. The quality is good but UC Health Field has a major flaw: it’s very difficult to find the balls/strikes/outs on the scoreboard. They’re at the bottom of the scoreboard, next to the line score. This is the only place in the stadium where this important information is shown so the team might consider making it more conspicuous.

Neighborhood 3

UC Health Park, an oasis amid suburbia 10 miles northeast of downtown Colorado Springs, doesn’t have a “neighborhood.” The area around the stadium teems with housing developments, shopping centers, and chain restaurants. That’s not a bad thing, however, as a wide range of eating and drinking options are within a 5- or 10-minute drive from the ballpark. Those willing to drive a few minutes more can find In-n-Out and Whataburger.

Downtown Colorado Springs is an approximately 20-minute drive from UC Health Park and downtown Manitou Springs is a few minutes farther. Downtown Colorado Springs has many good restaurants, as well as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum. Manitou Springs sits at the base of Pikes Peak and serves as a terminus for the Broadmoor Manitou and Cog Railroad, which takes passengers to the 14,115-foot summit.

Fans 3

The Vibes draw well, particularly on weekends. The fans aren’t raucous, nor are they subdued. The crowd befits a team trying to convey a sense of chill.

Access 3

The Vibes have abandoned paper tickets in favor of electronic ones so plan accordingly. UC Health Park is not far from most points in Colorado Springs. Even from Denver, 70 miles to the north, it’s an easy drive down I-25 to Exit 153 (Interquest Parkway). Entering and exiting can be a challenge. The parking lines can back up onto Barnes Road, the east-west thoroughfare closest to the stadium. After games, the labyrinthine queue for egress can frustrate.

Fans have just one gate through which to enter but staff quickly checks tickets and bags. Once inside UC Health Park, access is good for the most part. The concourses are sufficiently wide and there’s room in the stands to spread out. Two large restrooms are on the concourse behind home plate.

Return on Investment 3

A Vibes game seems somewhat expensive for an independent team. Parking costs $10; tickets are subject to the much-derided “dynamic pricing” system, whereby the team adjusts ticket prices according to expected demand. Tickets to weekend ballgames and promotion nights tend to be more expensive, with mid-week games less so. For the August 2022, Saturday night game, tickets run from $2 (grass berm) to $30 (reserved seat in the first four rows). Fans aren’t allowed to bring their food or drink into the stadium.

However, the quality of the experience compensates for any marginal cost. Both food quality and variety are surprisingly good. All seats have clear sight lines and a berm is a popular option for those not wanting to splurge on box seats. Although the Vibes have abandoned the hot tub that once was UC Health Park’s most famous feature, they’ve created a fun and high-quality atmosphere for baseball. Is a Vibes game a bit pricier than its PBL counterparts? Yes, but it’s worth it.

Extras 3

The Vibes seem to permit dogs at UC Health Park, another manifestation of the Vibes’ vibe. Not only that, but the team has posted a pet refuse station along the first-base concourse for fans to get bags to clean up after their pups.

Another point to the Vibes for their merchandise. It’s exceptional. The graphic design and logos are as good as any in baseball. T-shirts styled after vintage National Park signage and fly fishing shirts bearing the Vibes’ logos extend the Colorado theme in the team store. The Vibes’ merchandise has been not just a local success story, but a national one. The Vibes have had the best-selling minor league cap in 2019 and 2020, with another top-five finish in 2021 and an expected top-five finish again in 2022.

This has enabled the Vibes to nearly triple their merchandise revenue from the Sky Sox’s final year, 2018. It also enables the Vibes to expand their retail space at UC Health Park, moving the team shop into vacant bar space on the third-base concourse. This new store doubled the team’s retail size and holds $200,000 more merchandise than its predecessor. The Vibes also opened a store that sells only the team’s hats, just inside the front gate.

Not only are s’mores available at Vibes games, but so too are specialty marshmallows designed to resemble Toasty, the mascot. Grammie’s Desserts sells these along the first-base concourse, along with other baked goods and – best of all – cake in a cup. Not many teams have a bakery, let alone a good one, in their ballpark. The Vibes do. Curative insulin shots are not included.

Final Thoughts

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and MLB’s reorganization, both in 2020, seemingly threatened the existence of not only the Vibes but also the Pioneer Baseball League itself. The Vibes have reemerged from those crises and reinvented themselves in a surprisingly effective way. Rather than institutionally bemoaning their loss of affiliation, the Vibes have based their success on thoughtfulness and creativity to produce an outstanding independent league experience.

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