Reading's Ballpark Is A Diamond In The Rough
The recent ballpark boom across the minor leagues has given the sport plenty of new gems. BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte and Spirit Communications Park in Columbia, S.C., consistently draw rave reviews, and Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford was well-received in its first year in the Eastern League.
But those are new parks. They’re expected to be shiny and new and equipped with all the latest bells and whistles. Dig a little deeper in the minors and you’ll find there are more than a few aged treasures.
The best example is Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium, which stands as an oasis in the middle of one of the most impoverished cities in America. Built in 1951 at a cost of roughly $657,000, the park has stood the test of time.
But the story of Reading is about more than a park.
It’s about an experience that is widely regarded by fans and scouts alike as one of the very best in the minor leagues.
Of course, it’s not just the ballpark that makes Reading stand out. It’s how it became a rallying point in the community. Nearly every member of the Reading front office is from the Berks County, Pa., area, which helps them keep a keen sense of what will work and what might not.
Part of that philosophy comes from what Chuck Domino, Reading’s general manager from 1987 through 2006, learned at his previous stops in the minors. Domino interned in Oklahoma, then landed paying gigs in Eugene, Ore., and Pocatello, Idaho, before being named GM in Reading.
“What that background gave me was the personal engagement with the fans. I didn’t come from a Triple-A team that was drawing 7,000 fans a game,” Domino said. “I was coming from areas where 2,500 was a good crowd, and you got to know every single game-staff employee, you got to know every single season ticket holder. Really, as a general manager, you were personally engaged with every one of your clients.”
And during his tenure as Reading’s GM, Domino made sure to impress upon his staff the importance of that sense of community. He did that in two ways: by hiring local and stressing the need for accountability.
“The beautiful thing about Reading is we have a full-time staff of about 24,” Domino said. “I believe 20 of those 24 started there as interns, and it’s been the only job they’ve ever had. I think there are 15 of the current front office staff that have been there for 15-plus years, so the culture just perpetuates itself.”
Part of the allure of minor league baseball are the off-the-wall ideas generated by promotional departments. Zanier is always better, which leads to teams consistently trying to one-up each other.
All it takes is one night at FirstEnergy Stadium to see that Reading is among the most creative clubs. Just wait until the second inning, when the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor makes his nightly appearance.
“We had a sponsorship with our hot dog company, and they wanted to do something unique,” Domino said. “So I came up with the idea of, let’s have a guy dressed up like a hot dog vendor and he goes up and down the stands . . . just randomly throwing free hot dogs to the crowd every so often.”
But that wasn’t enough. He was just an eccentric hot dog vendor at that point. They needed something to make him truly crazy.
“I said, ‘Find a costume and let’s make a go of it,’ ” Domino said, “and (current Reading GM Scott Hunsicker) came back a couple of days later and said, ‘We’ve got a better idea. We want to put this guy on an ostrich, one of those self-riding ostriches, and we want to put him on the field and have him throw hot dogs from the field in between innings.’ ”
And that’s exactly what happened. Since the mid-2000s, Matt Jackson, formerly the team’s graphic art designer and a Reading native, has donned the ostrich costume, loaded his satchel of hot dogs and taken to the warning track to fling his wares to eager fans.
More than that, the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor is an integral part of Reading’s franchise. The team has worn jerseys in his honor. He took swings during the hitting challenge prior to the 2011 Eastern League all-star game. His likeness appears on versions of Fightin Phils hats. For a couple of seasons, the team even rented a pair of ostriches named Ruth and Judy and let them roam in the grass beyond the center field wall.
Minor league games are the place to catch a glimpse of baseball’s future. But the biggest talents aren’t always found on the field. In Aug. 2000, a local 10-year-old’s father convinced the team to let his daughter sing the National Anthem.
That 10-year-old was Taylor Swift, the music megastar and 10-time Grammy Award winner. She and her family were raised in the Reading area, and her father Scott was on the team’s advisory board with Domino.
“He kept asking and he kept asking, and he said, ‘She’s pretty good,’ so I said, ‘Yeah, jeez, let’s let her do it one time and get this over with, because he’s never going to stop asking me,’” Domino said.
Years later, Domino and Hunsicker were the promoters of Swift’s first concert, held in downtown Reading. To this day, visitors to the FirstEnergy Stadium box office can find a piece of history: A signed copy of Swift’s first gold record hangs on the wall.
Fans aren’t the only ones drawn to Reading. Those in the game also consistently name FirstEnergy Stadium among their favorites. In our poll of scouts and broadcasters, it was named on as many ballots as newer parks in Durham, Fort Wayne and Memphis.
“Reading is my favorite minor league park,” one scout said. “From the hot dogs to the fans to the quality baseball and the community at large, I’m a big Reading fan.”
That sentiment goes for players, too.
“You hear it in spring training,” said a former player who didn’t want to be named because he still works in baseball. “As a Phillie coming up, we were in Clearwater the year before, and you don’t draw any fans in the Florida State League. It’s hot and it’s miserable and there’s really not a following.
“I met with my manager and he’s telling us how much we’re going to enjoy Reading and how it’s a great place as far as the atmosphere. The front office treats you tremendously, there’s a lot of opportunities to help out in the community with schools and camps and stuff like that, and I said ‘C’mon, man, it’s just another minor league town,’ but we get up there, and it’s everything that he said.”
Part of the atmosphere surrounding Reading is borne out of the passion of Philadelphia fans. Reading’s players are Phillies prospects, the ballpark is roughly an hour from Philadelphia, and the two clubs have been affiliated since 1967.
So when one goes from Clearwater to Reading, which always ranks first or second in the Eastern League in attendance, the fans’ shift in intensity is instantly striking.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on there,” said former Reading manager Steve Roadcap, who now scouts for the Reds, “but they always made it fun for the fans and the players.”
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Oldies But Goodies
Plenty of newer minor league ballparks garner acclaim from fans, broadcasters and scouts, but these five older facilities rank among the gems of the minor leagues.
Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver (Northwest)
One scout calls the Canadians’ home “a gorgeous park in a major league-caliber city. Legends of the past, like Babe Ruth, have played there, making it a vacation-worthy destination for baseball.”
McCormick Stadium, Asheville (South Atlantic)
Tucked into the hillside in the western part of North Carolina, this field draws raves for its dimensions and the surrounding area. In the words of another scout: “It’s a tremendous spot for microbrew lovers, hikers and anyone preferring an overall laid-back style. There’s a kicker too. The combination of altitude and stadium configurations guarantee a high-octane affair.”
Grainger Stadium, Down East (Carolina)
Recently reanimated with the Carolina League expansion of 2017, this Kinston, N.C., park earned votes for its vintage charm. “When you were at Kinston, it felt like you were visiting family,” one broadcaster said. “. . . Such an authentic, true minor league experience meshing what minor league baseball was and is now. Pristine!”
Bowen Field, Bluefield (Appalachian)
“It’s a beautiful, small ballpark in the valley,” one broadcaster said, “and the GM was mowing the grass the first time I got there. How Appy League is that?”
Modern Woodmen Park, Quad Cities (Midwest)
One broadcaster picked Charlotte as his favorite ballpark, but only narrowly. “I do love Quad Cities. The bridge in right field leading to Illinois, the Mississippi River just floating by the outfield,” he wrote. “It’s an unknown gem of a ballpark, and a close second for me.”