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Thursday, Sep 18th

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Dell Diamond / Round Rock Express

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ll you really need to know about the Dell Diamond is this: it feels like it’s in the middle of a former pasture. Whether the site was a pasture in the past or not is fairly irrelevant; the more important point is that the home of the Round Rock Express benefits from a bucolic setting. Yes, it’s located next to a four-lane highway, but it’s also located next to a large park. Though it’s probably inevitable the area surrounding the ballpark will be developed in the next 10 years -– Round Rock is growing and there’s already a big-ass Wal-Mart down the highway –- it’s also probably inevitable the ballpark setting will always retain a country feel.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: 2000
Capacity: 8,616 fixed seats; additional berm seating
Architect: HKS
Dimensions: 330L, 375LC, 400C, 375RC, 325R
Playing Surface: Grass
Website: roundrockexpress.com
Phone: 512/255-BALL
Ticket Prices (2009): Box Seats, $12; Home Run Porch Seats, $7; Berm/Lawn Seats (General Admission), $6; children 2 and under, free. Add $1 for walk-up sales.
League: Pacific Coast League
Parent: Houston Astros
Parking: There are 2,500 parking spots in the adjoining parking lots. You're not going to avoid the parking fee unless you want an extremely long hike to the ballpark.
Directions: 3400 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock. Take I-35 north to exit 253 (Hwy. 79/Taylor); take a right and go east 3.5 miles. The Dell Diamond will be located on your left.

The Dell Diamond has been around since 2000, as the Round Rock Express played first in the Texas League and then moved up to the Class AAA Pacific Coat League. Throughout the franchise was owned by Ryan-Sanders Baseball (Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and investment banker Don Sanders, managed by Reid Ryan). The former Round Rock Express (Class AA; Texas League) franchise is now the Corpus Christi Hooks.

When the Express moved up to Triple-A, improvements to the Dell Diamond were made, including a new covered seating section in left field. The new section is valuable for another reason: it provides some sorely needed shade in a ballpark that lacks much of it. There really is only one way to evaluate a Texas ballpark, I’ve discovered: figuring out how well the ballpark lets in the breezes, mitigating the discomfort posed by the high summer sun. The addition of the outfield seating changed the wind patterns to bring in a little more breeze into the ballpark, particularly in the left-field corner. The outfield bleachers are shaded, as is a row of Adirondack-style lounge rockers in front of the section. These seats rent for $5 in addition to the price of a general-admission ticket and must be reserved, but they’re worth the money: with a breeze at your back and the game in front of you, they really are the best seats in the house.

Not that there are many bad ones. All seats are angled to face the diamond, including the corner seats. It is a cozy ballpark, as the first row of seats behind home plate is only 60 feet from home plate, and there’s only nine feet of foul space down each line. The curve of the grandstand is accentuated by the curved dugouts. The ballpark’s design follows a familiar model: the playing area is below grade, a grandstand curls from foul pole to foul pole, berm seating is available in the outfield, and a concourse rings the entire playing area. The requisite suites, press box and group picnic area comprises the second deck.

Like most ballparks built in the last 10 years, the Dell Diamond features plenty of diversions to entertain fans who can’t sustain interest in baseball for nine innings, including kids’ play areas, a pool and extensive concessions. The interesting thing is how the Express management balances all of this without being in your face with promotions and advertisements. During the game you get your normal range of between-innings ads (though the promotions seemed scaled back – a blessing for most hardcore fans) and there is certainly signage at the ballpark (the building used for the batter’s eye featuring advertising that appears only between innings), but none of it is overwhelming.

Most families will end up spending time in the right-field area, the ballpark’s entertainment center. For older kids, there’s a climbing wall (the three fastest climbers to the top get their names and times on the scoreboard), a speed gun and a basketball court; for younger kids there’s a video arcade and playground area. The entire area is supervised, with its own concession stand. For Sunday games there are inflatable play areas outside the ballpark.

In addition, right field is home to a pool, spa and volleyball court. This is a group area and sure to invoke the most envy from other fans. The Express media guide describes a railroad theme to the ballpark, but to be honest there’s not a lot of it really apparent. The arch over the main entrance behind home plate was designed to evoke the entrance to a train station, the other entrance has more of a traditional Texas feel. Limestone is used as an accent throughout the park, as shown in the entrance above.

The Dell Diamond perfectly embodies the Austin ethos: it’s professional without being too overwhelming, about as laid-back as you’ll find in Class AAA baseball. And for the Texas baseball fan, that’s enough: give them a good game, a good beer and a comfortable seat, and they’ll be happy. Oh, and don't forget to bring a radio to the game -- the Express’s radio announcer is Mike Capps is one of the best in the business.

CONCESSIONS
The best concession offerings can be found not in the grandstand but in the outfield concession stand, where local chain Texadelphia offers its cheesesteak sandwiches and queso and chips. Yeah, it sounds a little unnatural to recommend a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at a Texas ballpark, but they’re pretty tasty. And if you’re not from the area, try the queso and chips with some extra jalapeno.

If you want something of a more traditional Texas nature – i.e., beef – head behind the concourse to the Nolan Ryan’s Tender Age Beef Grill Stand, where burgers are grilled fresh, or to the Pok-e-Jo’s stand, where beef BBQ is on the menu.

Also worth checking out: the shaved ice stations (kids can apply their own toppings, which probably ends up in some disgustingly sweet mixes), freshly prepared caramel corn, Chicago Red Hots, chili cheese fries and frozen margaritas. For those who really do eat at Hooter’s for the food and not for the talent there are the chain’s wings and fries.

Otherwise, the remaining concessions are pretty standard: Dippin’ Dots, ice cream, corn dogs beer, pop, lemonade, hot dogs, cotton candy and the like. Yes, you can find Shiner Bock on tap, as well as a large selection of mainstream and microbrewed (Fat Tire) beers.

What to Do Before/After the Game
Round Rock is basically a suburb of Austin, the Texas state capitol and all-around cool place. While Round Rock does have some things to recommend it – it’s the headquarters of computer giant Dell – it does not have an abundance of ambiance or nightlife. And as there’s nothing within walking distance of the ballpark except for more pasture land, there’s really no reason to stay close to it, either.

That’s why you’ll want to spend your time away from the ballpark in Austin. There’s really no other place like Austin on the planet, though college towns like Madison and Berkeley come close. People in Austin tend to do things at their own pace and in their own way, frequently with a countercultural bent. There’s a strong music scene – Willie Nelson lives nearby, while alt-county and modern swing both have deep roots in the area – and the local restaurant and literary scenes are lively. While most of Texas is conservative and pro-business, Austin is liberal, colorful, artsy and wholly unique.

It’s fairly hard to find a bad meal in Austin, but there are some restaurants worth checking out. Elsi’s Restaurant (6601 Burnet Rd., Austin) serves up great Tex-Mex and Southwestern food; we’d recommend the tacos ahorgados and the chicken breast in mole sauce. Downtown Austin features the Scholz Garten (1607 San Jacinto), a German beer garden dating back to 1866. The menu is a mixture of German specialties (German potato salad, Jaeger schnitzel) and Texas barbeque. The Z’Tejas chain (1603 West 5th Street), now up to 11 locations in five states, originated in Austin, and the original location remains one of the prettiest restaurants in town. North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery (10010 Capital of TX Hwy. N) combines fresh microbrewed beer with a solid menu.

Above we mentioned Texadelphia and Pok-e-Jo’s. If you don’t get a cheesesteak at the ballpark, get one in the chain’s original location (2422 Guadalupe Street) near the University of Texas-Austin campus. Similarly, the downtown Pok-e-Jo’s (1603 West 5th St.) is worth a visit for Texas beef and pork BBQ.

These listings don’t come close to scratching the surface of the lively restaurant scene in Austin. Quite honestly, you can find great food anywhere, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Even the takeout at the Whole Foods Market (525 N. Lamar) is outstanding.

With such an active nightlife, it’s pretty much mandatory you spend the evening out after the game. Nightlife comes in all categories in Austin, ranging from bar-boned bars in downtown Austin (the action centers on West 6th Street, between Brazos and Sabine) to upscale bars and eateries in southwest Austin.

However, with great live music throughout the area, you should begin your nightlife search at one of the established clubs. The Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Av.) is an Austin legend, beginning life as a hotspot for hipsters in 1957 and turning into a burlesque club before becoming a live-music hotspot in the late 1970s, where the likes of Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Kinky Friedman made their starts. Local legends Heybale still performs there, as do the likes of Dale Watson and the reconstituted Hot Club of Cowtown. Antone’s (213 W 5th St.) is Austin’s preeminent blues joint featuring local and national acts. Stubb’s (801 Red River) mixes great BBQ and real Southern sides (okra, black-eyed peas) with live music. The thing to remember about looking for live music in Austin: don’t be afraid to see an act you’ve never heard of.

Where to Stay
If you want to be close to funky Austin, stay at the Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Av.; 512/441.1157). Located across the street from the Continental Club in a charming neighborhood, the Austin Motel was built In 1938 but the rooms have been overhauled in recent years. We’re talking funky here – futon couches in the suites, mismatched furniture everywhere – but you can get a single for under $100.

Downtown Austin features more dignified historic hotels. The history of The Driskill (604 Brazos St.; 800-252-9367) is fully intertwined with Texas history; it dates back to 1886 and served as a second home for Texas political leaders when in Austin. Lyndon Baines Johnson and his future wife, Lady Bird, had their first date at the Driskill, and LBJ always held big events there. The Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin (701 Congress Avenue; 512/457-8800) opened in 1924 and similarly served as a political gathering ground before being extensively remodeled and reopened in 2000.

If an historic hotel is a little rich for your blood, there are plenty of other national chains with downtown locations: Radisson, Hilton, Four Seasons, Hyatt, Hampton Inn, Doubletree and Omni all have outposts there. There are also a slew of lower-priced hotels near the UTA campus, located north of downtown Austin.

Otherwise, there is an abundance of chain hotels close to the Austin airport.