Friday, April 7, 2017

How to Go to a Lakewood BlueClaws Game -- 2017 Edition

Last night, the Trenton Thunder of the Eastern League, the Class AA farm team of the Yankees, were supposed to open their season, away to the Erie Seawolves of Western Pennsylvania. But they were rained out.

New Jersey's other MLB-affiliated minor-league team, the Lakewood BlueClaws of the South Atlantic League, a Class A farm team of the Philadelphia Phillies, were a bit luckier: They opened their season win a 7-5 win away to the Kannapolis Intimidators, a team named for Kannapolis, North Carolina's favorite son, auto racer Dale Earnhardt.

Next Thursday night, first pitch scheduled for 6:35 PM, they play their home opener, against another North Carolina team, the Greensboro Grasshoppers. (Greensboro's team used to be called the Hornets. Grasshoppers is a big step down.)

Before You Go. Lakewood is about 70 miles from Manhattan. Whenever you go, the weather will not be substantially different from what it will be in New York City or for most of New Jersey. You won't need a passport, or to change your money, or to change your timepieces, as it's in the Eastern Time Zone.

Tickets. FirstEnergy Park officially seats 6,588, about the average for a minor-league ballpark in the Northeast Corridor. Early in the season is the time to go; when it gets warmer, seats go fast. All adult tickets are $13.

Just about every game features some kind of promotion. All Tuesday home games are Silver Sluggers Tuesdays. Senior citizens (age 60 and up, made possible by the many retirement communities in the area) can enroll in the BlueClaws' Silver Sluggers Club, and eat free. Plus, all fans are welcome to play Baseball Bingo throughout the night.

All Thursday home games are Thirsty Thursdays. Point Pleasant-based radio station WRAT, 95.9 FM ("The Rat Rocks!"), sponsors the Coors Light WRAT Trap, and, on Thursday nights, they sell $1.00 beers and sodas, and 50-cent wings from Quaker Steak & Lube. All Thursday home games are also Throwback Thursdays, in which the BlueClaws wear their original 2001-09 uniforms, featuring the "Pinchy" crab mascot logo.

All Friday home games are Fireworks Fridays. There will also be postgame fireworks on Sunday, May 28 (Memorial Day weekend); Monday, July 3 (since the Claws will be away on the 4th of July); and Sunday, September 3 (Labor Day weekend and the next-to-last home game of the season).

All Saturday home games will be Bark in the Park Days, with dogs welcome. All Sunday home games are Barks & Brews Days. Dogs are welcome, and people age 21 and up can buy Corona beers at the 1B Beach for just $2.00. Sunday games are also Kids Run the Bases Days, and the Claws are home on both Mother's Day (May 14) and Father's Day (June 18, featuring an on-field postgame father-child catch, and free barbecue aprons to the 1st 1,500 adult fans).

All April home games will feature giveaways of Magnet Schedules for the 1st 1,500 fans.

Friday, April 14, and Saturday, April 15 or Dollar Days, with all tickets on sale for $1.00. There will be Kids Eat Free Days, sponsored by ShopRite: Check in at the Kids Club Kiosk, and receive a voucher for a hot dog, a bag of chips, and a soda for a child age 12 and under. These games will be on April 17 and 30; May 14, 15, 22 and 28; June 18 and 26; July 2, 3, 16, 17 and 30; August 6, 20 and 21; and September 3 and 4.

Sunday, April 30 will be celebrated as "Buster's Birthday," in honor of their main mascot. There will be personal appearances at BlueClaws games by former Mets manager Bobby Valentine on Thursday, June 15; pro wrestling legend Jake "the Snake" Roberts on Thursday, June 29; and the Phillie Phanatic on Friday, July 14 and Tuesday, August 15.

The BlueClaws will be education-minded on Wednesday, May 10, with College Fair Night; Thursday, May 11, with their Sports & Entertainment Career Fair (Pre-Registration Required); Tuesday, May 23, with Most Valuable Teacher Day; Tuesday, June 13, with BlueClaws Graduation Ceremony Day; and on Friday, July 14, with Autism Awareness Night. And will be civic-minded on Thursday, May 25, with EMS Night; Thursday, June 15, with Military Appreciation Night & Troop Supply Drive; Saturday, August 19, with Battle of the Badges Night (contests between local police and firefighters); and Tuesday, August 29, with Summer Reading Night, sponsored by the Ocean County Library system.

Their Summer Concert Series will feature Ted Hammock & The Pickles on Saturday, May 27; Elvis Presley impersonator Kevin James on Elvis Night, Tuesday, June 27; Jimmy Buffett tribute band The Parrotbeach Band on Saturday, July 1; metal band After the Reign on Saturday, July 15; Bruce Springsteen tribute band The E-Street Shuffle on Bruce Springsteen Appreciation Night, Saturday, July 29; the Kilmaine Saints on Irish Heritage Night (also featuring Irish-themed caps, presumably green), Saturday, August 5; and The Impulsives on Saturday, August 19.

In addition to Irish Heritage Night on August 5, they'll have Italian Heritage Night on Friday, July 28. They'll have Home Improvement Nights on Thursday, July 8; and Thursday, August 17. They'll have Kids Expo on Sunday, July 30; Women's Expo on Thursday, August 3; and Wedding Expo on Thursday, August 31.

They'll have Harry Potter Night on Friday, May 26; Jurassic Ballpark Night on Wednesday, June 14; Let's Make a Deal Night on Friday, June 16; Christmas Story Night on Saturday, June 17 (don't worry, they're not giving out BB guns); and Pork Roll Fest on Friday, August 18.

Getting There. It's 69 miles from Times Square to FirstEnergy Park. Too close to fly. Passenger rail service is not available. Bus service is, but you'd have to take NJTransit's Bus 139 from Port Authority, and then, at either Freehold Center Terminal or Lakewood Bus Terminal, switch to Bus 67, taking that to N.J. Route 88 at New Hampshire Avenue, and walk a mile and a half south on New Hampshire Avenue to the ballpark. A better bet would be to take the 139 to Lakewood Terminal and then take a taxi -- but you'd have to call to get a taxi back. Round-trip bus fare is $38, probably about $50 once you add the taxis.

No, the best way is to drive. Take the New Jersey Turnpike South to Exit 11, then the Garden State Parkway South to Exit 89. Make a right on Airport Road, then a left on Cedar Bridge Avenue. The ballpark will be on your left shortly.

Once In the City. The BlueClaws unofficially serve the northern half of the Jersey Shore, Monmouth and Ocean Counties, with a combined population of about 1.2 million. The Township of Lakewood has about 93,000 people. Aside from a large Orthodox Jewish community, most residents are poor blacks and Hispanics.

The town is named for Lake Carasaljo, an artificial lake created when a mill and a dam were built by Joseph W. Brick, for whom next-door Brick Township (often incorrectly called "Bricktown" or "Brick Town") was named. It was named for his 3 daughters: Carrie, Sally and Jo. Legend has it that all 3 girls drowned in the lake, but records show that all 3 were still alive when the name was added.

Main Street (N.J. Route 88) divides streets and addresses into North and South. Madison Avenue (U.S. Route 9) divides them into East and West. A 1-zone bus ride on New Jersey Transit is $1.60, 2 zones is $2.55. The sales tax in New Jersey is 7 percent. The Asbury Park Press is the paper that covers the Shore (Monmouth & Ocean Counties) region.

ZIP Codes in North Jersey tend to begin with the digits 07, including 071 for Newark and environs, 072 for Elizabeth, 073 for Jersey City, and 075 for Paterson. Central and South Jersey got ZIP Codes starting with the digits 08, including 084 for Atlantic City, 086 and 086 for Trenton, and 089 for New Brunswick and environs.

New Jersey's original Area Code was 201. 609 was split off in 1958, 908 in 1991, 732 in 1997, and 856 in 1999. Now, they serve as follows: 201, with 551 overlaid in 2001, serves only Bergen and Hudson Counties (including the Meadowlands, and thus MetLife Stadium, and Harrison, and thus Red Bull Arena); 609 serves Mercer County (including the capital of Trenton and Princeton University) and the Southern Shore region (including Atlantic City); 732, with 848 overlaid, much of Central Jersey (including Rutgers University) and the Northern Shore region; 856, the Delaware River region that serves as suburbs of Philadelphia; 908, the Counties of Union, northern Somerset, Morris and Warren; and 973, with 862 overlaid, the Counties of Essex (including Newark, and thus the Prudential Center) and Passaic.

Going In. The BlueClaws (not to be confused with the similarly-named, later-formed Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the Atlantic League) are the farm team of the Philadelphia Phillies in the Class A South Atlantic League (SAL, or "Sally League"). They play at FirstEnergy Park, not to be confused with FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Phillies' team in the Class AA Eastern League, the Reading Fightin' Phils; or FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
This park opened in 2001, as GPU Energy Park, before GPU was bought out by FirstEnergy in 2014. It is at the southwest corner of New Hampshire Avenue (Ocean County Route 623) and Cedar Bridge Avenue (County Route 528). The official address is 2 Stadium Way. It is about 2 miles down Cedar Bridge from downtown. Parking costs $5.00.
Officially, it seats 6,588. However, a grass berm and a sidewalk around the outfield allow for a lot more people. Famously, on August 26, 2002, their home finale for that season, they got a crowd of 13,003. Never say it as "thirteen thousand"; always say it as "Thirteen thousand and three!" They beat the Hickory Crawdads of western North Carolina.
The field is real grass, and points northeast. The distances are 325 feet to the poles, 400 to center. I can find no record of who has hit the park's longest home run.
On September 29, 2004, "Empower NJ" was held, an expo for people with disabilities. Actor Christopher Reeve appeared and spoke. Just 11 days later, he was dead. (The paralyzed former movie Superman was a big baseball fan: In 2002, I saw him lowered out of his specially-equipped van and taken into Yankee Stadium for a Yanks-Mets game.)

Other events at FirstEnergy Park include concerts. In 2005, it hosted a show by Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson; 3 weeks later, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams. In 2012, due to being 8 miles inland and mostly protected from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the ballpark served as an aid-distribution center.

Like the Trenton Thunder, the other MLB-affiliated team in New Jersey, the BlueClaws are owned by a coalition that includes Joe Plumeri.

Food. The Coors Light Food Court and the Dr. Bernard's Kids Zone are in the left field corner. The Asbury Park Press Food Court, the Craft Brew House, Charlie's Pizza and Tuscan House, and Buster's Arcade (named for the mascot) are in the right field corner.

The Coors Light WRAT Trap, complete with a mock Easter Island Head, is in center field, on the sidewalk surrounding the outfield. It's a concrete sidewalk. A wooden boardwalk might have been too difficult to maintain. It advertises itself as a picnic area.

In addition, there are separate stands for specialty foods: Left field, funnel cakes; 3rd base, Dog House (hot dogs), ice cream, Kernel's Corner (popcorn), Italian ice, and a sausage stand; behind home plate, cheesesteaks and burgers; 1st base, Snack Hut (candy) and another sausage stand. And, fitting with the Shore image and the crabby name, they serve crab cakes.

Team History Displays. The BlueClaws have retired 2 numbers, both of whom were key cogs in the Phillies' 2007-11 quasi-dynasty: 19, pitcher Cole Hamels, Most Valuable Player of the Phils' 2008 World Series win; and 29, 1st baseman Ryan Howard, 2006 National League MVP. The numbers are displayed on the outfield wall. On September 1, 2004, Howard made his debut for the Phillies, and became the 1st former BlueClaw to reach the major leagues.
Hamels was honored first, during a rehab assignment.
It rained that day.

In their 1st 5 seasons, 2001 to 2005 the BlueClaws were mostly mediocre, and never made the Playoffs, but sold out nearly every home game. In 2006, the fans were rewarded with their 1st SAL Pennant. They won another in 2009, and another in 2010. So that's 3 Playoff appearances in their 1st 16 seasons, and each time they got in, they won the whole thing. Sort of like the Miami Marlins, except neither their uniforms nor their stadium is stupid. Those 3 Pennants fly from outfield flagpoles.
Stuff. The ClawsCove gift shop is located on the concourse, just to the 1st base side of home plate. There are no DVDs about the BlueClaws, and you would think they would have a DVD or a book about their Pennant seasons. Instead, the only book about them is Birth of the BlueClaws: 2001 Inaugural Season of the Phillies Class A Baseball Team in Lakewood, by the sports staff of the 
Asbury Park Press.

During the Game. It's minor-league baseball. It's a family atmosphere. And a lot of the fans are senior citizens living in retirement communities. They're not going to endanger your safety. However, since many of them are aging but still active World War II and Korean War veterans, they will remind you, if you have not already done so, to remove your hat as the National Anthem is begun. The team holds auditions for singers, rather than have a regular.

The main chant is the typical, "Let's, go, BlueClaws! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)" Although a crab named Pinchy has been the cartoon logo for the team from day one, having an actual guy in a 7-feet-tall crab costume might have scared kids, as the San Francisco Giants' Candlestick Crab proved in 1984. Instead, the mascot is Buster, a big furry yellow thing wearing BlueClaws jersey Number 00.
You know the Milwaukee Brewers Sausage Race? Well, many teams, major-league and minor-league alike, have variations based on food products. The BlueClaws have such a race, featuring the items in that classic New Jersey breakfast: Pork roll, egg and cheese race. I swear, I am not making that up.
I told you I wasn't making it up.

And let's end the debate right now. North Jersey tends to call the stuff "Taylor ham," while South Jersey calls it "pork roll." Well, I was born in North Jersey, but have lived my whole life in Central Jersey, and everybody here, from the Delaware River to Raritan Bay, calls it "pork roll." It was invented by the Taylor Provisions Company of Trenton in 1856. They sold it as "Taylor's Prepared Ham" until 1906, when the passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act set legal definitions of various meat products, and Taylor's product no longer fit the definition of "ham." Therefore, they changed it to "Taylor's Pork Roll," and they still sell it in supermarkets with that name. If the people who invented it and produce more of it than anybody else call it "pork roll," then it's "pork roll."

After the Game. Your personal safety, and that of your car, will not be in danger. Lakewood is not an especially crime-ridden town, and the ballpark is out in the boonies anyway. And, unlike Trenton's Arm & Hammer Park, traffic trying to get in and out isn't so bad.

Unfortunately, being out in the boonies works against you if you're looking for a postgame meal, or even just a snack. There's a Quik Chek on the opposite corner of New Hampshire & Cedar Bridge. But you may have to get closer to downtown Lakewood, or in the opposite direction to Brick, to get a sit-down meal.

Sidelights. FirstEnergy Park is 69 miles from Times Square, 65 from the Meadowlands, 80 from both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, 59 from the Prudential Center, 37 from Rutgers Stadium, 36 from the Princeton athletic complex, and 71 from the South Philadelphia sports complex.

It's a sports-mad area, and before the cable era, TV sets in northern Ocean and southern Monmouth Counties could get both New York and Philadelphia TV stations without fiddling with their antennae. Despite the Claws being a Phillies farm team, when it comes to local fandom, the Yankees have more fans in the area than the Mets, and each has more than the Phillies. In football, it's the same deal: The older New York team, the Giants, 1st; the newer New York team, the Jets, 2nd; and the Philadelphia team, the Eagles, 3rd. The Knicks are the most popular NBA team, with the Los Angeles Lakers, due to their long-term bandwagon status, 2nd, while the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers are far behind. In hockey, it's the Devils 1st, the Rangers 2nd, the Flyers 3rd, with the Islanders not even on the radar.

When Route 88 gets out of downtown Lakewood, its name changes from Main Street to Ocean Avenue. On its north side, about 2 miles north of the ballpark, is Ocean County Park, once an estate owned by oil baron John D. Rockefeller. (In his memory, the Ocean County section of N.J. Route 70 is known as the John Davison Rockefeller Memorial Highway.) He had baseball fields built on the site, and when World War II led to travel restrictions, to help save gasoline for the war effort, the New York Giants used the fields as their Spring Training facility in 1943, '44 and '45, rather than use up a lot of fuel going to Florida and back. 700 Ocean Avenue. NJT Bus 67.

There are 2 nearby colleges, but neither is anywhere near NCAA Division I. Georgian Court College is a small Catholic school in Lakewood, which was all-female before going co-ed in 2013. Its sports teams are in NAIA Division II -- in effect, the nation's 5th division. And Ocean County College is in Toms River, best known as the school out of which Bruce Springsteen dropped. He may have been right when he said he learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than he ever learned in school.

The closest thing to a real historic site in the area is Allaire State Park, in spreading over Howell and Wall Townships in Monmouth County, about 10 miles north of the ballpark. It includes Allaire Village, a "living history" museum built around James P. Allaire's Howell Works, which operated from 1822 to 1850, and that's the time period depicted there. The official address is 4252 Atlantic Avenue, in Wall. Don't even think about getting there without a car: It's 6 miles west of the Spring Lake Station on NJTransit's North Jersey Coast Line, and 9 miles east of NJT's Buses 67 and 139 going down Route 9.

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Unless you actually go to a boardwalk town, there really isn't much to do in the Lakewood area, outside of going to a BlueClaws game. But go to a BlueClaws game. It's probably the most family-friendly thing to do in the entire State of New Jersey.

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