There is no doubt that if you are a baseball fan you have heard of Coors Field
in Denver, home to the Colorado Rockies and famous for its mile high altitude. But did you know if you can't make it to Denver you can still get your mile high baseball fix in New Mexico, and at cheaper prices?
Isotopes Park, AKA The Lab, was built in the heart of the University of New Mexico campus at roughly 5,300 feet above sea level, which is more than high enough to be called "Mile High," and has its very own elevated charm.
Set against the truly picturesque backdrop of the Sandia Mountains, The Lab sits over 13,000 people in a stadium that fits the bill as both state of the art and contemporarily intimate.
Isotopes Park boasts many of the amenities that its super-sized Big Brothers enjoy, but scaled down to fit the community and the wallet of the American Southwest. Essentially you get your bang for your buck, but the bangs don't make you keep track of your bucks the way they would in a Major League ballpark.
The Lab had been home to the Florida Marlins AAA affiliate since 2003. But in 2009, after an eight year divorce, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the City of Albuquerque "remarried." Their previous partnership ran from 1972 to 2000 under the name Dukes.
Now, with the Dodgers once again the parent organization, the 'Topes not only have one of the best ballparks in the Minor Leagues, they have the community buzzing because what was once old is new again. After all, when the Dukes left in 2000 the aged Albuquerque Sports Stadium was in desperate need of an upgrade. In 2002, at a cost of $25 million, the city saw a refurbishment to not only the stadium, but to Albuquerque baseball. And a year later, on April 11th, the Isotopes made their debut. Baseball in the Duke City was back.
Though the Isotopes have been the baby brother to two different big league clubs during their existence, it's the Dodgers connection that is most notable. The Dodgers have had Triple-A ties to the Duke City since 1972, when the Dukes joined the Pacific Coast League. Future Dodger great, and baseball legend, Tommy Lasorda even managed the team for that inaugural season, which would be his ticket to Los Angeles. Fast forward 28 years and eight Pacific Coast League championships later and it was more than apparent that the initial pairing of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the City of Albuquerque was a successful one. However, what isn't known is how the Dodgers and the Isotopes will fare during their second go-round.
At the dawn of the 2009 PCL season numerous ushers and stadium attendants stated they were elated, almost giddy, with the notion of the Dodgers and Albuquerque sharing the bond of baseball again. Surely the Dodgers were more than eager to team up with the Isotopes, who play in a palace compared to the utilitarian Cashman Field in Vegas where the Dodgers AAA team had played for eight years as the Las Vegas 51s. And to be sure, The Lab is quite a baseball palace.
Immediately upon entering Isotopes Park, whether it be from the first or third base entrances, you are welcomed to a perfectly kept ballpark. Fans can roam with unencumbered access along a spacious concourse with unobstructed views of the field. The building is clean and you can see the pride the organization takes to keep it that way. Ushers are knowledgeable about the game and their park, and they are eager to answer questions. One stadium attendant even told me that he was required to keep a fact book on him at all times. Had I looked in that book I might have read the following:
For a Minor League team the 'Topes play in a pretty big park. The left and right field foul poles measure 340 feet from home plate and the concave center field fence measures 400 feet in dead center and a hefty 428 feet at its edges. But before you gasp, "Holy cow," remember baseball is being played at over 5,000 feet and the ball can travel great distances in the thin southwest air.
The seats couldn't be any better. In fact, they are as roomy and comfy as any I have sat in at Major League parks. They even feature one of my favorite amenities, angled seats that are slightly oriented towards the action when you get beyond the bases. After all, no one likes a stiff neck. And every seat has a cup holder.
But say you want a different experience. The Isotopes have you covered there, too. You can reserve the Picnic Pavilion in left field, party in the third level at the Fiesta Deck with stunning views of the field and the mountains, or you can throw down a blanket and catch the game from the Creamland Berm in right field. I am convinced that there is no better grass in New Mexico than the lush greenery on that berm.
Although I lean towards just watching the game, parents and families who wish to experience a little more can let their little ones roam wild in the "Fun Zone" on the summit of the right field berm. There the kids can jump around on moon bounces or play a variety of games that can win them prizes. There's even something for adults out there, too. For a few bucks you can putt for a chance to win rounds of golf at the Angel Fire Resort.
Back in the seats you may get hungry or thirsty. No problem. The Lab has ensured that you can't go 11 feet without food options. At the top of nearly every aisle there are beer stands, snack stands, even a frozen drink bar with fresh fruit. The concession stands have specialty foods like local restaurant Dion's (pizza and more), as well as Pecos River, The Sweet Spot and Black Angus. They even serve Bananas Foster. Eating healthy? You can get nuts and fruit, too. The food is plentiful and, compared to the big leagues, reasonably priced. One thing I didn't see was any hint of food vendors stalking the stands. It could be because it was cold on the night of my attendance or maybe they don't have them. There are pluses and minus to them anyway.
On the second and third levels you will find the 30 luxury box suites (15 per level). These mile high in the sky boxes are bought out for the year by various companies and a few individuals from the Albuquerque area. They are so popular that there is a waiting list that stretches 100 deep. Inside the suite you can have a nice party, catered by the ballpark, and entertain up to 20 people both inside and out. If you feel like it, you can even venture out to the bar on the third level that overlooks the field. And throughout the ballpark you can catch the game on closed circuit television wherever you walk. There's really no bad place to be in this park.
I tried hard to find something a fan could complain about at Isotopes Park. I tried, but the packed promotional schedule, the view, the award winning groundskeeper and a stadium repeatedly acknowledged as one of the game's best left me pleasantly disappointed with that quest. The large scoreboard in left-center is oriented in a way as not to be affected by the setting desert sun. Heck, even the men's rooms had a few of my favorite things: urinal dividers and auto flush and auto sinks. They thought of everything!
The Lab is a fun, clean, and exciting place to watch a baseball game. It is a place where you can catch tomorrow's stars before they get sucked up by the Scott Boras machine only to forget where they came from. It's a place where an opposing team member can pace back and forth in his flip flops while calling his sweetheart before the game and not be mauled by autograph seekers. Most importantly, it's a place where the home team is celebrated and loved by Little Leaguers with dreams of being ballplayers.
I think the best compliment I can give the Isotopes is that if I were to have a team and a stadium I would do everything the same way they are doing it. Isotopes Park is a grand slam, both as an entertainment venue and as the centerpiece of a well-run business.
Location and Parking
Isotopes Park is located at the corner of University and Avenida Cesar Chavez right off of I-25. The ballpark is open from April to early September for Isotopes games and is also used by the University of New Mexico for their home games.
Thanks to the adjacent University, parking is plentiful. The ballpark is close to the Lobos' basketball arena and football stadium. The large parking lot that services both of those venues is ideally situated for fans attending baseball games at Isotopes Park. While all spaces were complimentary there for a long time, free turned into fee in 2010, and there's now a $5 charge to park.