Right-field berm at Hodgetown provides a unique spectator experience at Sod Poodles games

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The right field berm at Hodgetown provides fans a unique viewing experience during Amarillo Sod Poodles games. [John Moore/ Press Pass Sports]

At Hodgetown, the grass is always greener in right field, or more accurately, just beyond it.

That’s the way people who chose to watch an Amarillo Sod Poodles game from the right field berm tend to feel about it at least.

In contrast to the concrete surface, metal tables and adult reverie surrounding Bar 352 in left field, where a $7.50 beer could possibly be knocked over by a signature Hodgetown homer (with or without the wind), the berm in right field has a more innocent appeal. Blankets in the grass, kids rolling down the hill and proximity to the action are the attractions to hanging out in the grass.

Of course, anyone who’s been to Hodgetown can tell you everything depends on the way the wind blows. Some games are better to watch from the berm than others.

Michael Moore, a Sod Poodles half-season ticket holder, has his own idea of what games those are.

“When it’s cool,” said Moore one moderately warm Wednesday evening in May. “You have to be on the right side of the sun.”

And if you want to get a home run ball, you have to be in the right direction of the wind, which is more rare. Prevailing winds out of the south mean that balls hit in the air to left field are more likely to go out than those hit out to right field.

That means fans who choose to sit in right field have a good chance to not sniff a homer or even a foul ball over nine innings. But getting a live game souvenir isn’t the entire point of enjoying a game from a seatless location.

“Today’s fans like to be a little bit more mobile and Hodgetown was built with that social mobility in mind,” Sod Poodles president and general manager Tony Ensor said. “The grass berm or lawn seats as we call them is just a great place for people who want to come out and enjoy the sun, sit in the grass and bring blankets out there. They just get to come out and relax and enjoy a great game of baseball.”

Which is the whole point of attending a baseball game, after all. Considering that lawn seat tickets, as they’re officially called, go for only $8, that’s the best bargain in the park this side of Wiener Wednesday or Thirsty Thursday.

With that kind of deal, you get all kinds during any given game on the berm, from regulars to out of towners to novices to kids who just want that home run ball.

There for a good time

Word has gotten out beyond Amarillo about the berm since the Sod Poodles inaugural 2019 season. It naturally draws the biggest crowds during the weekends, which start with Fireworks Friday.

Before the final out is recorded and the explosions in the sky begin, there’s the matter of baseball, or at least the things which accompany it. The berm is the appropriate place to experience all that.

That’s what drew in Mike Lemon and his three kids all the way from Lubbock on a Friday in May.

“It’s just fun,” Lemon said of sitting on the berm. “The kids can run around and might catch a home run or get a ball thrown to them, so it’s more of a baseball experience for them. When we were here before we saw a bunch of families out here and said ‘Wow, that looks like a bunch of fun, we think we should try that.’”

Lemon’s oldest child, 9-year old Charlie, wanted one thing out of his visit.

“I’m actually just here to try to catch a ball,” Charlie said. “The only time I ever heard about it was when my mom and dad announced we were going to a Sod Poodle game. I don’t really think there’s a good chance (of getting a ball).”

Charlie thought if a ball was hit his way, having to go against older kids to get it wasn’t in his favor. On this particular night, Charlie (and anybody else who sat on the berm) never got a chance, as no balls were hit out of the park to right field.

While families like the Lemons may have been on the berm entirely by choice, on that night, Luke Brottlund and his family were on the grass by necessity. Brottlund, who lives in Canyon, had never been to a Sod Poodles game before, wanted to celebrate his daughter Madison’s 15th birthday in a unique fashion.

He ended up on the berm.

“I needed seven seats and there were no seats available when I looked,” said Brottlund, who bought the lawn seats instead. “It’s kind of nice. You get to run around and roll in the grass. I feel like this is a better place to be when you have kids.”

Beyond the berm and well into right field foul territory is the playground, where youngsters who haven’t yet developed an interest in baseball can burn off some energy. It’s another selling point for parents who want to hang out on the berm.

“Adjacent to that is the Fun Zone,” said Ensor, invoking Hodgetown’s official label for the playground. “(Kids) can come back and play there or they can stay on the berm. It allows mom and dad to relax and know their kids are safe over there.”

Unless, of course, there’s action on the berm.

Those fickle winds

If your heart is set on getting a souvenir home run ball, odds are dicey at best when it comes to sitting on the berm. That has a lot to do with the wind.

Homer-happy Hodgetown is bound to produce a few long balls on an average night. During a two-game span with series involving the Midland RockHounds in May, 11 roundtrippers left the yard.

However, only two of those went to right field. That’s no real surprise considering that winds far more favor balls hit to left field.

Nonetheless, Saturday nights are the busiest ones on the berm, regardless of which way the winds blow. The first Saturday in May there were plenty of chances to grab a home run ball, as the Sod Poodles hosted the Midland RockHounds in a 12-11 slugfest won by Midland, in which eight homers were hit.

Three of them went out to right, including a three-run shot by Eduardo Diaz. That ball was caught by 13-year-old Izayah Trujillo of Dalhart two days after his birthday.

“This is the first professional game I’ve been to. I’m excited,” said Trujillo, who plays Little League in Dalhart. “I just like it because I love baseball. None of my friends have really been out here before. I would love to come back.

“It’s way different (on the berm). You can catch home run balls.”

Izayah’s mother Valerie bought lawn seats exclusively for the game. She was sitting on a stool behind a long counter overlooking the berm as she watched Izayah come away with a souvenir.

Valerie realized the benefits of being around the berm as opposed to a regular seat.

“Over here they get to run and try to catch balls instead of keeping them in their seat,” Valerie said.” I can look and see (where the kids) are at and continue watching the game. We’re ready to come again and bring our other kids.”

On any given weekend, the berm is a mix of newcomers and regulars varying in age from pre-grade school children to their parents. That could lead to mixed levels of behavior among the lawn seat crowd, but it’s generally not been a problem.

“it’s very family-oriented,” said Mark Stuller, who was a season ticket holder during the inaugural 2019 season and has been the berm usher for the last two Sod Poodles seasons. “About 95 percent of the time people are really, really nice. On some games they give everybody a ball to start the game and my job is to keep them from not playing ball out here. If the ball goes on the field (the Sod Poodles) are fined by Major League Baseball.”

Stuller has to keep his eye on the game and the crowd and says his biggest responsibility is watching for batted balls which might injure people. Generally, he hasn’t had to mediate disputes over who might get ownership of a home run ball.

Some nights (or days) it pays to stay alert from the start. In a Saturday game with the Tulsa Drillers, Sod Poodles starter Bryce Jarvis gave up a homer to James Outman on the second pitch of the game, which flew out to right field where Ryan See caught it.

“I wanted to have the kids come out and enjoy the day and it was pretty cool to have the ball come out this way,” said See, who was attending his first Sod Poodles game of the year and his first ever on the berm. “There’s a bunch of kids running around and it’s good time for everybody. It’s a good family atmosphere.”

See said he would enjoy coming back to a game on the berm with his kids, and he’s not alone.

Word gets around

When See caught his homer, it was the first of four balls in play which ended up on the berm that night. There were two other homers and a ground rule double which jumped over the short fence.

In the fifth inning, the Sod Poodles Jorge Barrosa hit a two-run homer to right and Mike Loya made what might have been one of the most memorable fan catches of the year when he caught the ball on a bounce while practically lying on his back. It’s unlikely many people came from further to see the game than Loya, who lives in Odessa.

“I’ve always preferred sitting in the seats but this is my first time in the grass and I’m enjoying it,” said Loya, who was in Amarillo watching his son Brody playing in a tournament for the West Texas Bandits. “It’s just totally luck I guess. We picked this spot and all of a sudden the ball’s just coming to us. If it had the right bounce I thought I was going to be able to get it.”

Brody had an explanation for how the ball got to his dad.

“It hit off my friend’s glove,” said Brody, who himself brought a glove to the game.

Oren Welps did the same thing the next day, only he caught the ball. Welps, 11, who lives in Nazareth, caught a home run ball to right on the fly hit by Tulsa’s Jeren Kendall.

Welps said he and his family try to make the drive north every Sunday the Soddies are at Hodgetown and he makes it a habit to sit on the berm. His catch, though, was his first home run ball.

“I felt awesome,” Welps said. “I thought I was going to get one. It was probably an easier chance to get it on a Sunday. It’s always fun to come out and watch the Sod Poodles.”

That seems to be the goal of anybody who comes to sit on the berm, whether it’s for the whole game or a few innings, or to get a home run ball or just chill. It’s close to the action that’s related to the game and which runs in conjunction with it.

“That’s what we love about the right field area, it’s got that short porch,” Ensor said. “It’s still the distance of a home run like everywhere else with 325 down the line. It’s a great place for kids to hang out and get those home run balls.

“Not only that, they get to roll down the hill when they want to and they all high five Ruckus when he comes by. It’s a little area which they get to enjoy.”

For baseball regulars like Moore, that’s the point. A former Tascosa outfielder in the late 1990s, Moore grew up in baseball and routinely brings his two daughters to the game, and they’ve both gotten home run balls.

Moore doesn’t think it’s that hard to get a souvenir, if someone’s looking for it.

“I was an outfielder so I can read the ball pretty well I still think even at 41 years old,” Moore said. “Just be patient as a kid. In between innings some of our right fielders will toss the ball out here. It’s good for them to just hang around and stay in tune with the game.”

It can even be educational.

School’s in session

To open a six-game homestand against Tulsa on a Tuesday in mid-May, the Sod Poodles played a rare weekday matinee with an 11 a.m. start. On this day the berm was full, as elementary school students from across the Panhandle got to enjoy a professional baseball game.

In the bottom of the third inning, the Sod Poodles TiQuan Forbes hit an opposite field homer over the right field fence, and amidst the crowd of youngsters, Diever Gemes, an 8-year old second grader at Eastridge Elementary, came away with the ball. It was his first Sod Poodles game, and of course, his first home run ball.

“Our teacher told us we were going to sit on the grass,” said Gemes. “I did not feel like I was going to catch a ball. When it went over my head I tried to run into it through the crowd. Someone tried to grab it, but I grabbed it before them.”

The teacher, Mariah Vallejo, had been to a few Sod Poodles games before and likes to come on Fireworks Friday. She usually sits in the regular seats, but thought having her class sit on the grass would add to the baseball experience.

“I think it gave them a little bit more leeway so they could get some energy out,” Vallejo said. “I didn’t think about (a home run ball) but we’re super excited about it. I like this over here. I have a 7-year old brother and I might bring him to sit on the grassy area.”

Fans may get a home run ball on the berm, or they may not. They may get a ball thrown to them after warmups by someone like former Sod Poodles right fielder Dominic Fletcher, who’s now at Class AAA Reno and could well be promoted to the Soddies parent big league club Arizona Diamondbacks.

Whatever happens during the game, fans on the berm are closer to the action than anybody else in Hodgetown who isn’t actually participating in the game. That might explain why some on the berm might still try to retrieve a homer that’s hit over their heads and the iron fence and into the players parking lot.

“People are jumping over the six-foot metal fence and they’re not supposed to be out there,” Stuller said. “That’s kind of a challenge.”

But for the most part, it’s about enjoying what’s on the field. There might even be a cameo on Sports Center’s Top 10 plays of the day, which Fletcher earned a spot on last season.

“Dominic Fletcher made an amazing catch right over the wall and the kids who were out there, I saw pure joy, because they got to witness what’s a future big leaguer just a couple of feet away from them make that catch,” Ensor said. “It’s that type of experience that our lawn seats provide. It’s just a very special place.”

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