TRAVELBLOGUE: Scranton, Reading, PA

Sorry for the delay on this folks …

Last week’s road trip took me (Lisa) up to two old favorite parks that I had not visited in awhile, with a Tuesday trip to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and a Wednesday trek to Reading.

SCRANTON/WILKES-BARRE: I don’t think any re-affiliation has gotten the attention that Scranton’s switch from the Phillies to the Yankees got in the nearly 20 years I’ve been covering the Minor Leagues.

The park and the club have always been favorites of mine, due in large part to the people who run the team. PR guru Mike Cummings has been with the club for 18 years and is one of the best in the business … and he’s certainly earned a raise this season (hint hint) with what he’s been handed with the affiliation shuffle.

We’d been expecting to get to see Yankees uber-prospect Phil Hughes pitch that Tuesday (against the Ottawa Lynx, which just happens to be the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate for 2007 before they move to nearby Allentown in ’08), but the announcement was made on Monday night that Hughes would be heading to the big leagues to start for the Yankees on Thursday.

When we got to the park, though, we discovered that a major press conference would be held IN THE DUGOUT two hours later where Hughes would meet with the media prior to heading to New York. NYC media types, along with the regular Scranton crew, were already en route.

Trust me, folks, when I tell you that press conferences of this magnitude don’t happen a lot in the Minors, not even at Triple-A. That told me even more than I already assumed about the new regime.

The new affiliation has been an absolute godsend for the folks in Scranton. Not that their 18 years with the Phillies had not been good. They had. But … well, the Yankees are the Yankees. And Pennsylvania postmark notwithstanding, Scranton is Yankees country (only about two hours from NYC).

The biggest change, of course, is the new field at PNC Field. Until this year, they’d played on Astroturf, to get rising Phillies ready for erstwhile Veteran Stadium. But as soon as the Yankees signed on, the turf got ripped up and now the stadium has a gorgeous new playing surface.

Couldn’t happen to a better group of folks. GM Jeremy Ruby is a homegrown Scranton kid, hailing from nearby Eynon, so he can truly appreciate how much the new affiliation has helped the community. And he’s also a guy who was born and bred with baseball in his blood — his dad, Gary, is the Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League pitching coordinator, a longtime guru and mentor to countless pitchers now in the Majors (with the Angels, Indians and Phillies before the Pirates) not to mention one of the absolutely nicest people I have ever met in my years covering this game.

One of the odder aspects of that evening was how the crowd was split between cheering for their new home team and the members of the Lynx, about two-thirds of whom had played at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre the previous season.

READING: Wednesday dawned … well, kind of crappy. Gray, drizzly and basically not baseball weather. But we forged ahead and caravaned across I-476 from Scranton to Reading in hopes that the skies would clear.

They didn’t.

But it was still fun to re-visit the park at Reading (and we would love to return there later this season when, hopefully, the weather will be better).

Reading is the perfect combination of the old and the new. Built originally in 1951, FirstEnergy Stadium underwent a major renovation a few years ago which entailed a sprucing up but still maintained its old-fashioned brick-based look … but now that "old-time baseball" mystique includes a multi-level swimming pool and party deck in the outfield. The park is also a gourmand’s delight, with a wonderful mini-mall enclosed area off of first base with several stands for all sorts of goodies. (Plus there is an awesome outlet mall right nearby … what more can you ask for?)

While we didn’t get to watch any baseball, since it was freezing and wet and just downright nasty, we did get to chat with Phillies third base prospect Mike Costanzo, and watch him record a birthday greeting for his mom to be played on the jumbotron in the outfield. Costanzo grew up an hour from the park and his parents come to every home game. Talk about a built-in fanbase!

With visiting Harrisburg in town, we also chatted with closer-heir-apparent for the Nationals Zech Zinicola, as well as Montreal Expos legend Tim Raines, now the hitting coach for the Senators. As a huge Expos fan myself back in the day, it was definitely a kick to get a chance to chat with Raines and an even bigger one to discover that he is truly a wonderful, thoughtful and insightful gentleman.

Because you can’t escape baseball talk … and, really, who would want to? … we grabbed some dinner that evening at the Macaroni Grill at a mall near the hotel (we stayed in Lancaster … no Marriotts in Reading!) and while chatting with our very personable waiter, found out that his dad had played semi-pro baseball in Malaysia. Now, we never even knew they HAD semi-pro baseball in Malaysia. Why are there no Minor Leaguers from there? But he said they had 24 teams in the league! One of my favorite things about this job … you truly do learn something new every day.

So my next road trip will be in Charleston and Myrtle Beach next week and I want to thank blog-reader Becca Hodges for her post cluing us into some restaurants to check out while we’re down there!

Meanwhile, our trip AFTER that will entail a few days in Jupiter, Fla., where we get to double-dip a pair of games at Roger Dean Stadium, catching a night game between the Jupiter Hammerheads and Brevard County Manatees, followed by a 10:30 a.m. game (yeah, you read that right) between the Palm Beach Cardinals and Vero Beach Dodgers. I am hoping to dip into my own pocket (don’t think per diem will cover this) to get some stone crab claws on that jaunt.

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