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Appalachian Power Park


Warm and toasty in Charleston

Can you name a ballpark where the aroma of toast is pervasive through the stands behind home plate?

Ballpark Stats

First game:  April 14, 2005 -- a win over Hagerstown
Capacity:  4,474 seats; about 500 more are permitted for General Admission
Price: $23 million
Architects: HNTB
Home dugout: 1B side
Field points: East by northeast
Playing surface: grass
Betcha didn't know:  A produce warehouse built in 1913 was left in place and incorporated into the park's design

That would be Appalachian Power Park, the new home of the South Atlantic League West Virginia Power (called the Charleston Alley Cats through 2004). That's because there is a toaster plugged into a specially placed outlet at the base of the backstop in the new facility.

Why you ask? We'll get to that.

It took a number of years for the franchise to finalize a deal for a new stadium. Watt Powell Park, the home of pro baseball in the Kanawha Valley since 1949, was beyond being obsolete. A war was raging between "rusting" and "crumbling" at the old park, and the loser in the battle was the fan. It was a place that simply needed to be replaced, because it appeared to me during a visit last year that maintenance was a long forgotten concept there.

Was Appalachian Power Park -- often shorted to "The App" -- worth the wait? Let's a take a close look at the Power's new home, and I think you'll agree that it was.

On Deck -- The Setting

Locals consider The App's location to be in the "east end" of the city. It doesn't seem all that "east" to me, because the state capitol building is even farther east of downtown. As is often the case when a city wants to build a new stadium, they first think of shiny, desirable locations, then settle on a spot where abandoned buildings and run-down warehouses seem to be the norm. That's what happened in Baltimore, Denver, Houston and a number of other cities, and that's the case in Charleston, too.

The hope is that a new ballpark will breathe life into a long-neglected part of a city. It has worked better in some places than others, but it does appear to be the case in Charleston. Already there is talk of loft apartments and sports bars surrounding the field, and only two blocks away is the impressive Clay Center, a fantastic example of the new interactive museums that seem to be popping up in larger cities around the country.

The ballpark's location, and the way the field is oriented -- facing east by northeast -- means that most fans can enjoy the view of the close-by hills on the north side of the park (see the photo at the top of the page), and the usually gleaming state capitol dome about a mile to the east. I say "usually" because the capitol is in the midst of an 18-month renovation, and its tight-fitting covering keeps the gleaming gold-leaf paint from being visible. I won't relate how all of the locals refer to this light-colored, tight-fitting covering on the dome and spire (that's the capitol in the middle of the left side of the photo above), but you can use your imagination. It is a shame, though, that for the inaugural season of Appalachian Power Park, the normal beauty of the prettiest capitol in the U.S. isn't visible.

If you watch the game from the bleachers in right field or the seats in left, you can clearly see the downtown Charleston skyline -- such as it is -- behind home plate. The photo below shows that you can also see this view from outside the park, as a lot of the exterior fencing allows those outside to see some of the action inside.

Dave Weekley, whose career has included a great deal of sportscasting on a local and national level, told me before the game that he really likes the convenience of the location, which is only two blocks from the Capital Street/Leon Sullivan Way exit of I-64/77. "It takes me only seven minutes to get here from my house. Its convient location also means that people are coming to this part of town for the first time in a long time. Not only that, I find that I'm stopping by the (produce) market that is a block from here, which I never bothered to do before."

First base -- The Exterior

The exterior of Appalachian Power Park is, well, varied. Unlike, say, the new parks in Corpus Christi and Springfield, both of which have a gorgeous exterior, this is not the park's strength. The entryway behind home plate (left-hand photo below) is anything but pretentious, as it is not considered the main entrance because there are no ticket windows here. Those would be found at the gate near the right-field foul pole. Those windows, in fact, are located on the ground floor of the old building that was retained (see more on this in The Design section below).

This older building, along with the new construction for the concession stands and, above them, the luxury suites on the first-base side, dominate the exterior of the park on the south side. Around the outfield, the exterior is largely made up of a simple fence -- although it is noteworthy that you can see through the fence to the inside of the park. In this regard, it reminds me of the openings in the right-field wall at San Francisco's SBC Park.

The west, or third-base, side is partly obscured by an entrance ramp to the interstate. This view will change significantly when canopies are added over the third-base concourse in the near future.

Second base -- The Design

Like at Stockton, the elaborate design that was first publicized had to be scaled down when cost over-runs and budget constraints reared their ugly heads. Also like Banner Island Ballpark, the revisions involved removing an upper level from the structure behind home plate. The architects for Charleston's ballpark, HNTB, went about the revision differently than HKS did with Stockton. Instead of cutting back on the number of luxury suites and placing them right next to the press box at the rear of the main seating bowl, HNTB placed them on a second story over the concession stands on the first-base concourse. This reminds me of the minor-league parks in Montgomery, AL and Kannapolis, NC.

This created landings at the top of the stairs at each end of the second floor of this building, and these provide great vantage points for surveying the stadium.

This brings up a similarity with, believe it or not, Seattle's Safeco Field. The Mariners' park leads the sports world with the highest number of wonderful vantage points from which to see, and photograph, the field of play. The App was also designed with great unobstructed views of the action, and the open concourse adds to the effect.

Speaking of the concourse, not only is it open as you take a path that is parallel to the foul lines, it is also what I call a "360-degree concourse," meaning you can walk all the way the stadium, like at most big-league ballparks. This is a feature that I love.

But that's not my favorite aspect of this park. Like the Padres' and Orioles' baseball stadiums where old buildings were incorporated into the design, and at Corpus Christi where old cotton presses were left in place, new meets old in Charleston. A building was left in place that today holds not only the team's offices and ticket operation, but will soon include a restaurant and additional commercial space.

David Molgaard, the City Manager of Charleston, explained to me that this was an old produce warehouse that dates back to 1913 (which makes it only three years younger than the Western Metal Supply Building at Petco Park in San Diego). It was beautifully painted to restore its original look, and the name of the ballpark was painted on it in a style from many decades ago. Nicely done!

Before becoming City Manager, David was a Councilman in Charleston. He was a key proponent of building a new ballpark, and in his current role, he was very instrumental in overseeing its design and construction.

He pointed out to me the painstaking way in which various elements of the park were tied together. Since this was an industrial/commercial part of town, "we tried to incorporate an industrial theme throughout the park. That's why you see all of the corrugated steel used on walls and behind signs." Indeed, the steel provides a look that is quite different than at other sports facilities. It's a theme that is carried out well.

Another way in which "old meets new" at the App is found just beyond the outfield fence in left field. Here you'll find two rows of bright-gold seats (photo below). These were removed from the team's former home, Watt Powell Park, and placed here as a way of remembering the facility that was the home of pro baseball in Charleston dating back to 1949.

In addition to the "industrial" theme at the park, there are also constant reminders of the state's role in producing power. The mascots are one example of this (see The Essentials, below), and another involves the names given to areas like the concession and souvenir stands. For instance, the stand on the first base side is called "the Coal Car Cafe." On the third-base side, it's "the Mineshaft" (photo above). Souvenirs are sold at, appropriately enough, the "Power Outlet."

Molgaard also let me know that the look of the ballpark will change significantly when canopies are installed over part of the seats behind home plate and over the concourse behind third base. Many of the supports to hold them are already in place.

In my mind, this will complete the look of the park. With no covering whatsoever over any of the seats, Appalachian Power Park has somewhat of an unfinished look. I'm glad this is being rectified.

I also liked the color scheme of the park because it's quite different. Almost everywhere you go in pro baseball, dark green is the dominant color. That's because the seats are typically that color, and often the walls and trim follow suit. Well, the App didn't go with the flow. The seats and dugout tops are a light gray, and most other elements are done in natural, light colors. No dark green in the place, thankfully!

Third base -- The Essentials

So the city, team and architects did a ice job planning this park, particularly by incorporating an older building. But what does it cost to attend a game here, and what is the game-day experience like?

First, let me elaborate on the "toast" reference at the beginning of this review, because it has a great deal to do with the "experience" you'll have at a game here. In case you haven't heard, the Power has one of the most famous fans in all of minor-league baseball. Sometimes called the "Toast Man," Rod Blackstone is worth the price of admission -- maybe more -- just to watch his antics throughout West Virginia's home games.

He's called the Toast Man because he brings bread and a real toaster with him to games. The Power accommodated him by wiring an electrical outlet into the base of the backstop, right by his front-row seat. When a pitcher for the home team strikes out a batter (and believe me, when a hitter gets two strikes on him, the fans start buzzing in anticipation of this), he screams, "You are toast! T-O-A-S-T!!" Then he tosses slices of toast to eager fans in nearby sections.

This is only a small part of his routine. He brings with him quite a variety of signs to urge the home players on to greater accomplishments, and he leads the crowd in many clever cheers. And it's all rated "G". None of the drunken rantings that are sickeningly prevalent at sporting events these days.

So what does it cost to see the Toast Man -- I mean, the Power? Parking in the lots beyond right and center field is $3. If these are full, there is a parking garage belonging to a hospital behind first base, and a number of other lots within a couple of blocks.

Tickets are very reasonably priced. Most reserved seats are $7, with only the sections farthest down the lines costing $5. Unless that's all that's available, don't even think about the $5 seats. Pay $7 and ask to sit behind home so you can watch Toast Man.

Another reason to make sure you sit behind home plate involves your safety. Behind home, of course, the backstop screen catches any scorching foul balls. Once you are beyond that screen, though, you and your face are quite close to the action. In other words, it's the opposite of seeing a game from the front rows of McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, where fair territory is in a different zip code than your seat. At Appalachian Power Park, you are on top of the action, and foul balls can come fast and furious. In the week leading up to the game I attended in Charleston, two different fans were sent to the hospital after being struck by foul balls.

Programs are available for only $2, and they contain a lot of information ... but they are made of cheap newsprint (like newspapers are printed on) and are larger than standard "magazine" type programs. Therefore, if you catalog all of the scorecards from games you've attended (doesn't everyone do this?), the one from Charleston won't fit!

The "Power Outlet" souvenir shop is adequate, but they fail to carry any lapel pins. Since I collect them from the parks I visit, I was disappointed not to find any there. It was a delight, though, to find merchandise carrying the Charleston Charlies logo. The Charlies were the city's minor league team (Triple-A no less!) in the 1970s, and since I saw them play numerous times as a child, I still have a warm spot in my heart for them.

The concession stands serve standard ballpark fare at reasonable prices. I was disappointed in the lack of variety, though. I like to see food items that are local favorites in ballparks, and I don't think the Power offer any unusual, "signature" food items, although there are several that are tied into the names of the team's (numerous) mascots, which is clever.

I loved that there are quite a few picnic areas within the park -- both that can be rented by a group, and others where it's simply first-come first-served. These areas with picnic tables typically offer a great view of the field (see below).

There are certainly diversions for the kids. There are inflatable games behind the batter's eye in centerfield and a speed-pitch game behind home. The best diversions, though, are the mascots.

"Our team might be in last place right now, but we lead the league in mascots," one fan laughingly told me. That's because the West Virginia Power features five different mascots! Four of them are related to types of power (solar, coal, wind and hydro-electric) and the fifth is a throw-back to the city's Charleston Charlies days. For some reason, none of the five were on hand at the game I attended.

Speaking of the Charlies, the Power's ushers wear red suspenders and a top hat to pay homage to that look. You can see the back of one of these ushers in the photo below.

Sliding into home -- Summary

So Charleston's new Appalachian Power Park is warm and inviting, a huge upgrade from the aging Watt Powell Park. And, hey, where else can you find an entertaining fan tossing slices of toast your way?

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