It's a testament to how much there is to soak in at FirstEnergy Park that we arrived at the stadium in plenty of time for first pitch, but didn't actually take our seats until the bottom of the third. This is a stadium that encourages wandering and exploring, checking out the view from multiple locations, surveying the food options, and contributing to the terrific atmosphere. But can it overtake our current leader, Coney Island's MCU Park? On to the scoring!
Venue: FirstEnergy Park, Lakewood, New Jersey
Team: Lakewood BlueClaws
Ticket Price: $11, for Row 15 behind home plate
Facilities: Whereas most minor-league stadiums cater to the kids/family market, FirstEnergy Park makes certain that adults have their needs met, as well. Don't get us wrong: They don't show porn or anything. (Whew.) But this is a place of fun for grown-ups, with four DIFFERENT places to get a flame-broiled cheeseburger and, most memorably, a tiki bar in center field. (The drinks aren't potent, but they're tasty.) A lot of the doodads and distractions that would annoy us at a major-league stadium — because hey, just watch the game already — aren't nearly as niggling here; it's a minor-league game, and if you miss an inning or two, no big deal. Also: FirstEnergy Park did something we wouldn't have thought possible: They made us wish we grew up spending our summers on the Jersey Shore. Teenagers can loll around in the grass just beyond the outfield fence and even sit in lifeguard chairs built for two, rolling away the summer while a baseball game lazes in the distance. This is absolutely where we would have kissed our first girl. Grade: 8/10.
Quality of Play: This is probably the top level of competition we'll see this season. It's single-A full-season baseball, which is a step above Brooklyn/Staten Island and with motivated, young, hungry players, unlike some of the independent teams. The BlueClaws are a Phillies affiliate, and the big club has some legitimate prospects with Lakewood. The players on both sides were raw, but there's obvious talent here, around the board. Most of these guys won't make it to the majors, but they're almost all people who at least have a chance. We bet we saw at least five future major leaguers last night, and we're certain we won't be able to say that at any other stop. That said: The Grasshoppers made four errors in the first three innings, which merits mention. Grade: 6/10.
Promotions: We enjoyed the all-you-can-eat beer tasting going on beyond the left-field fence ($34.95 got you a ticket, brats, ribs, and tastings from twenty different kinds of beers), and the team is exceptional at branding itself, with the best team store we've seen yet. (It somehow sells Yankees, Mets, AND Phillies gear, which should win it some sort of peace prize.) But many of their promotions are derivative: San Diego Chicken, ZOOperstars, appearances by local "celebrities" like some lady who was once on American Idol. (A couple of noteworthy dates this season: the requisite Springsteen night, and a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Goonies, complete with an appearance by Chunk himself.) We did love that, by one night, we missed Miles Austin Bobblehead Night. (He went to nearby Monmouth.) Grade: 5/10.
Adorability: FirstEnergy Park differs from a couple of the other stadiums we've really enjoyed — Brooklyn and Staten Island, in particular — in that its charm comes less from the in-game events or from the particular night's theme than from the stadium itself. There are a couple between-innings games — one notable race pitted competitors dressed as a pork roll, an egg, and a hunk of cheese — but for the most part, the BlueClaws can just open the gates and let fans run wild. As we said earlier, plenty of things aren't necessarily geared toward kids. But there's a playground — albeit one you have to pay a dollar to enter — and an arcade, plus lots of open space to toss a ball around or play keep-away with some poor kid's baseball cap. (Both of these seemed to be popular activities last night.) Grade: 5/10.
Miscellaneous: A couple of things we appreciated: Inside the team store, there's a display serving as a mini-museum of sorts, with championship trophies and keepsakes like the ball used for the first pitch of Lakewood's inaugural season back in 2001, balls from no-hitters, etc. There are tables and ledges to set down a drink all over the concourse, which runs all the way around the field. And the BlueClaws offer a nifty iPhone app with scores, a stadium guide, and the standings of the aforementioned pork roll, egg, and cheese race. Worth noting: Of the stadiums we've had to drive to — the stadium's located right near the Garden State Parkway — it's the first one that has charged for parking. Grade: 4/10.
Total: 28. FirstEnergy Park finishes a point behind Staten Island, good for third on our leader board. With two parks remaining, Brooklyn remains atop the standings. Next up: Yogi Berra Stadium, home of the New Jersey Jackals, this Saturday.