On the Road: Another Sellout in Dayton

The seventh and final stop of my Midwest-based July road trip was Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dragons (Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).

I had never been to Dayton before; my first and still-strongest association with the city was via Randy Newman’s evocations of a turn-of-the-20th century lazy Sunday afternoon. But when I pulled into this parking lot, it was an early Thursday evening during a decidedly more dystopian-seeming epoch. There was no time for tea, and the missus was nowhere to be found.

009 To get to the Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field, one hooks a left at the far end of Mendelson Liquidation Outlet, crosses the street, and then walks down this narrow  alleyway. (Or at least that’s what I did.)

011Life, post alleyway, was considerably brighter. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but there was a group of bagpipe players kicking out summertime jams in front of the stadium. Apparently, Dayton was on the cusp of its annual Celtic Festival.

012Enter here.

013Chances are that, if you know anything whatsoever about the Dayton Dragons, you know this: the team currently boasts the longest sellout streak in the history of professional sports. They set the record with sellout number 814 in 2011, and this season they passed the 1000 sellout milestone. For a little perspective, I will now quote from a 2011 article written by an increasingly complacent yet  intermittently brilliant writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called “Rust Belt” cities — Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind — the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.

Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s).

So, yeah, the sellout streak is due to a combination of having a well-designed facility in a well-chosen location, playing in a baseball-friendly market with rooting attachments to the parent club, and consistent and conscientious ownership and front office staff. It’s a multi-laired situation.

Yeah, multi-“lair”ed. Because they’re the Dragons, see.

017I entered via the main office, where I was met by vice president Eric Deutsch so that he could lead me on a tour of the facility. We began in the main office, which is lined with photos of notable ballpark guests. For starters, did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson is a Dayton native? (Also, and unrelated: did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson has donated some $10 million to the Church of Scientology? For that kind of money, you could buy the Batavia Muckdogs twice over.)

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Magic Johnson, part of the team’s ownership group, once threw out a basketball first pitch. I mean, sure, why not? It’s kind of like that time that David Copperfield threw out an invisible first pitch because he had already made the ball disappear.

016Actually, Johnson no longer has a stake in the team, as Mandalay has recently sold the Dragons to Palisades Arcadia. The price was not disclosed, but it is somewhere in the $35-40 million dollar range — the most ever paid for a Minor League Baseball team. The sale was not yet official on the late July evening that I visited, however, and Deutsch was reticent to talk about it in any detail. But the front office will remain in place, so I wouldn’t expect any major changes to the way that the team does things.

Sorry, the pace of this post is already Dragon. (Before writing this post, I tested my Dragon jokes by doing a set at a local comedy club. They killed that Knight.)

018

Like Dayton Dragons? This guy is single.

Deutsch and I meandered through subterranean hallways for a bit, with one such hallway eventually leading us onto the field. The field was redone prior to the 2013 season, and the seven-story tall scoreboard features a dragon that shoots smoke out of its nostrils.

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021A sellout crowd would soon be watching the action on the field, of course. In the Dragons case, a sellout occurs once all 7230 fixed seats have been sold. (These seats all have theater-style cup holders, for what it’s worth.) Walk-up tickets are available for the lawn area on most evenings, resulting in an average crowd somewhere in the 8400 range.

Pretty suite, right?

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027Each season, approximately 25 Dragons games are shown on local TV. Hence, this backdrop, and hence a recent $1 million investment to redo the team’s control room.

029Hey, look, Willie Nelson played here once. (I might have an extra ticket to see Willie Nelson in Newark on September 20 so drop me a line if you want it.)

031Deutsch reported that the this is one of three party decks and that the party decks are always the first thing to sell out. (If I ran the Dragons I’d name this the “Baby Boomer” party deck because it sells out so easily. Oooh, take that parents!)

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The view from the right field party deck, this is.
036Given Fifth Third Field’s limited downtown footprint, the team had to build up as opposed to out. Hence, a six-row second-level seating area. Second-tier seating levels are very rare in Minor League Baseball. Fresno has one, and that’s the only team that immediately comes to (my) mind. There are no concession areas up here, but Deutsch said that an order-from-the-seats concession service was generally underutilized and therefore discontinued. People, they like to get up and mingle. Sitting is overrated.

037 The concourse runs in a predictable pattern: concession stand, portable stand, restroom, repeat. Among the portable stands, Dippin Dots are among the most popular. I was told that this perpetually futuristic avant-garde ice cream purveyor, based in relatively nearby Paducah, Kentucky, considers the Dragons to be among their top partners. (Daytonians love Dippin Dots, that’s all that I’m trying to get at here.)

038The 3100 square foot team store is called the Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of items for sale, one will not find goofy variations on the logo such as could be found in the likes of, say, Lexington (see previous post).

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Deutsch said that, when it comes to the logo, the team goes “narrow, rather than deep. We’re the Yankees, as opposed to the Diamondbacks.”

I got the impression that the above statement applies to the Dragons’ way of doing business, period. You can’t argue with success, but operationally speaking they feel like a Major League team trapped in a Minor League team’s body. I’ll be curious to see if the new ownership group experiments, at least just a little, with theme jerseys, bobblehead giveaways,  regionally specific and/or “crazy” concession items, and other hallmarks of the 21st century Minor League experience. At the very least, maybe they could use Twitter as a tool to interact with the fan base? (I’m not sure if @DragonsBaseball has replied to a tweet, ever.) All I’m saying is: even the best have room to improve.

In the time it took to read that half-formed editorializing digression, one could walk from the team store to the Dragon’s Lair group seating area. (I did the math.) There are 306 seats in the Dragon’s Lair, making it pretty sizable as lairs go.

042Next to the lair is the lawn.

044If one keeps moving, one finds this statue of mascot Heater.

045On this particular evening, Heater had company in the form of touring mascot Birdzerk. Birdzerk is a close personal friend of mine; we met in a subterranean tunnel and then I accompanied him to the concourse so that he could begin his first routine of the evening.

Go!

Birdzerk ran onto the field, coerced the visiting third baseman to dance, stole his glove, and tossed his glove into the stands. Vaudeville at the ballpark.

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052After Birdzerk disappeared into the netherworld from which he came, I journeyed back up to the press box. By the time I got there, Birdzerk had re-emerged and was now harassing an umpire.

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The next inning break was a more solemn affair, as the Dragons staged a “Home Run for Life” in which a recovering cancer patient took a lap around the bases. This bit of tearjerking ballpark pageantry, now common throughout Minor League Baseball, originated with the Dragons.

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In the press box I spoke with Wright State University assistant professor Scott Peterson. He and student Sam McClain (a Dragons intern) are working on a project regarding the changing nature of media coverage throughout the Midwest League.

059I contemplated writing an article on this project, as it is the kind of thing that interests me (and, perhaps, you). But Peterson and McClain are still in the relatively early stages of the project, so I’ll catch up with them a little later on down the line. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.

061Next up on the docket was to meet my designated eater for the evening: Mr. George Coleman.

064George grew up in Chicago, often taking the subway to go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

“Ernie Banks was the man and still is,” he said.

George now lives in Dayton, having retired from a 30-year career in the Air Force spent primarily in aircraft maintenance. (The beard was a long time coming — he wasn’t allowed to have one while in the Air Force, and said that it then took another 10 years to convince his wife.) He was motivated to volunteer as a Designated Eater simply because he is a fan of Minor League Baseball in general and my writing specifically.

“I like the same things you like, so anything you write gets priority in my inbox,” he said. “I’m 63 and the reference you have, some of them are aimed at my generation. I hope people get it….It’s a little slice of heaven to read your stuff.”

George and I headed over to the “Dragons Fire Grill” so that he could obtain a “Pit Boss Burger.”

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The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.

065Have at it, George.

“I love the crunchiness of the cole slaw, and the soft pretzel bun,” said George. “The burger’s the base of it, and while Ohio’s not known for its barbecue the pulled pork is done well. This makes the list of beard-worthy burgers.”

067I, meanwhile, snacked on a bag of Mikesell’s potato chips.

066These Ohio-based snack purveyors know what they are doing. Otherwise, why would they be doing it?

069Next up for George was some cake batter ice cream from Stone Cold Creamery, enjoyed amid the late-evening splendor of the lawn area. George said that the ice cream tasted like “cake in a cup,” which is probably its intended purpose.

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074Upon parting ways with George (Thanks, George!), the ballgame was in its eighth inning. My night in Dayton — and this entire road trip — was on the cusp of concluding. All that was left to do was get an autograph from my good pal Birdzerk.

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079“Ben — a smooth man with a blog!”

Put that on my tombstone, please!

Meanwhile, my next (and last) road trip of the season is already well underway. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch should you be motivated to do so. I will respond.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Legendary Night in Lexington

When one thinks of Lexington, Kentucky, and its surrounding environs, two things that quickly come to mind are bourbon…

053 and horses.

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Baseball, perhaps not so much.

052But professional baseball in Lexington is very much a thing. Welcome to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends (Class A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). The ballpark opened in 2001, marking the return of professional baseball to Lexington after a 47-year absence.

056In addition to the three murals seen above, one can find this giant ball outside of the ballpark. Reading the messages left me in stitches.

055I visited Lexington on July 23, and July 23 was no ordinary evening. It was “Star Wars Night.”

(Note: this woman would not stop fiddling with Darth’s midsection. Finally I just gave up and took the picture.)

058“Star Wars Night” has become a bona fide phenomenon in the world of Minor League Baseball promotions, and many teams consider it to be one of the cornerstones of the promotional schedule. The Legends’ iteration was a decidedly low-key affair, however.

“Tonight is the first time we’ve done it in several years,” said Sarah Bosso, Legends director of community relations. “We’re just getting our feet wet, doing it on a Wednesday and testing it out.”

059Here, mustachioed mascot Big L displays his rather tepid light saber technique.

060Out on the concourse, the atmosphere was decidedly more sedate.

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Following standard (but by no means mandatory) Ben’s Biz Blog operating procedure, I took to the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While there, I got my picture taken with my good friend Darth Vader.

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Soon after this photo was taken, Darth overheard Bosso and myself talking about the Legends’ concession options.

“Did you say ‘Hot Brown Dog?'” asked Darth, intrigued by a local culinary specialty. “Where can I get that? Can you maybe put it through a blender?”

There were three individuals throwing out a first pitch: Judge John Schrader (Fayette Family Court), myself, and Darth Vader. I later mentioned to the judge that it was funny that Schrader and Vader were both throwing out a first pitch. He responded with a blank stare.

Here’s Judge Schrader. Or, as I now call him, the Mirthless Magistrate.

065I was in fine form on this particular evening, if I do say so myself.

BenHill_FirstPitch_July23Finally, we have Darth, flanked by stormtroopers.

069Darth didn’t have a very good arm.

I’ve thrown dozens of first pitches through the years; perhaps I should begin taking note of each team’s first pitch procedure?

The Legends did two things that I had never seen before: the balls used were from the batting cages (and therefore scuffed up and dirty), and the speed of the pitch was displayed and announced to the crowd. For the record, Darth and the Mirthless Magistrate both clocked in at 38 miles an hour. I, meanwhile, threw a blistering 47.

How’s ’bout a buncha random ballpark photographs, provided by a writer with rudimentary photography skills? That writer would be me, and these would be the photos:

070 071The placement of the bullpens provide plenty of opportunity for fan interaction.

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

The Jim Beam distillery is located just outside of Lexington. Maybe the team could get Jim Beam to be the official sponsor of these massive concourse beams?

073A pair of Star Wars aficionados ponder their options.

074As you may be aware, the Legends re-branded themselves in a mustache-centric fashion prior to the 2013 season.  Therefore, plenty of mustache-centric gear can be obtained at the Legends Locker.

076Inside this humble space, things get pretty strange on the t-shirt front.

077

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Tag, this photo

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117Viewing these images may cause you to feel like you’re in a dream.

But this? This is no dream. This is real: a piece of officially licensed Minor League Baseball apparel that explicitly references the time-honored act of mustache riding.

IMG_0083After this exhilarating foray into the wilds of the team store, I journeyed to the stadium’s second level. This picture, as inelegant as it may be, portrays the area immediately surrounding Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A downtown facility, this isn’t.

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While visiting the press box, I was pleased to see my visage beaming back at me from the videoboard. Move over, Darth! I am the evening’s true guest of honor.

080This little joystick-like contraption has a special purpose.

081Flipping the switch causes flames to shoot out of the Candleberries situated atop the scoreboard. (Now that’s a sentence that I’ve definitely never written before.) This photo is unfortunately flameless.

082 A man named Ty Cobb gave me the opportunity to flick the switch that shoots off the flames. This is Ty Cobb.

084

Ty Cobb serves as the Legends creative marketing director and PA announcer, and I wrote a story about him that can be found HERE. During my time in the press box with Mr. Cobb, he reminded the crowd that if the Legends get 10 hits then they can redeem their ticket stubs for a free order of fried pickles at Hooters.

This dude, I bet that he likes fried pickles at Hooters.

087But Mr. Ball Head (not sure if that’s his real name) wasn’t the only interesting character wandering around on the concourse. I also ran into this guy.

088The above individual is Ryan Ferry, who had agreed to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Ryan, a Lexington native who says that he can see the Whitaker Bank Ballpark scoreboard from his backyard, was nine years old when the Legends played their first season. He used to be a batboy, and now occasionally mans the speed pitch booth as a game day employee. Among other claims to fame, he was waiting in line for kettle corn when Bryce Harper hit his first professional home run.

“I consider myself a fixture here,” said Ryan, a sports management major at Eastern Kentucky University.

He also collects hats and shoes. Check out these size 15 specimens.

092And now, on to the food.

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What you see above is the Hot Brown Dog, which Darth Vader wished to be pulverized so that it could be poured through the holes in his mask. The Hot Brown Dog is a ballpark variation of a Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky specialty described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown.  

Of course, the Hot Brown Dog substitutes a hot dog for the turkey. As a Pennsylvania native, it reminded me of a hot dog version of cream chipped beef on toast.

Hot Brown, goin’ down.

091“The saltiness is what sticks out, and the bacon also sticks out because it’s the king of all meats,” said Ryan. “It definitely lives up to the hot name, at least in temperature. The sauce is like gravy, and a little sweeter than I expected it to be. I hope that nobody from Kentucky comments on this, calling me out for not eating Hot Browns all that much.”

Next, Ferry suggested that he sample a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly donut called the “PBJD.” When we ordered it, the woman manning the concession counter gave us an annoyed stare, sighed, and said “Are you kidding me?”

Apparently, PBJDs are not ordered very often.

“It’s totally slept on,” said Ferry. “They really need to market it more.”

Indeed, the only mention of the PBJD that I could find was on this concession sign. Just four little letters; no picture, no explanation.

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Here it is, in all of its obscure glory.

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Ryan savors the moment:

098“They take the donut, cut it, and put on the PB&J,” said Ryan. “It’s doughy, but has a little bit of a crisp to it.”

And with that, Ryan’s work was done. We now return to the ball field. Notice the “stables” group area in the background.

100I would like to point out that this guy had a June bug on the back of his neck. I was told that they were all over the place this time of year. June, July, same difference.

104

Next on my agenda was to compete against children in a between-inning game of “musical donkeys.” These three children, specifically:

105No video documentation exists of this effort, a sadly recurring theme of this trip. Here, I lurk around like a neanderthal while waiting for the music to stop.

106I made it through the first round, but was eliminated in the second. Ben’s Biz out.

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DSCN3237Another night, another career highlight, and veteran on-field emcee Mykraphone Mike was there to narrate it all. Yes, it’s spelled “mykraphone.”

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Things were beginning to wind down on this sleepy Star Wars night.

119Ty Cobb, on the PA, was adhering to the night’s theme by telling Star Wars jokes to the crowd.

“What do you call a potato that has gone to the dark side?” Cobb asked the crowd.

The crowd did not seem eager for an answer, but Cobb persisted.

“Darth Tater.”

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Ty Cobb, stand-up comic

The Legends ended up losing the game to the Charleston RiverDogs, by a score of 6-4. But that’s okay. It’s a long season, full of ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on grinding.

In other words: keep a stiff upper lip.

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Meanwhile, I’m on the road again! Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Knowing the Score in Louisville

Today’s dispatch finds us in Louisville, the home of the International League’s Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). This marked the second time I’d been in Louisville over the span of one year, as I visited this past October in order to attend the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. I wrote quite a bit about that visit, from the ballpark and otherwise; all of those posts are cataloged HERE.

So when I arrived at Louisville’s Galt Hotel, the same establishment that hosted the Promo Seminar, it was with a not inconsiderable sense of deja vu. I checked in, leaving my bags in the car, and immediately began the short walk to the Bats’  home of Louisville Slugger Field.

Hello, Louisville.

001Or at least it should have been a quick walk to the ballpark. A combination of  haste and misplaced confidence regarding my knowledge of downtown Louisville led to me walking right past E. Main Street, where the ballpark is located, and into parts unknown. Pro tip: if you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School. then something has gone horribly wrong.

002But I, like an ineffective constipation remedy, could not be de-turd. Eventually I got back on track and arrived at the ballpark.

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Pee-Wee Reese, Louisville native, is there to greet all comers.

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Pee-Wee played shortstop. Here’s the view from the hot corner.
005If Louisville Slugger Field looks like it has a unique ballpark exterior, that’s because it does. This building, in its previous incarnation, was a rail depot. Hence, an enclosed entrance way so wide that one could drive a train through it.

006This photo, also meant to convey a grand sense of spaciousness, was taken during my October visit to the ballpark.

042This, also taken during the Promo Seminar, illustrates how the converted depot area can be used as an offseason event Also, fans of foreshadowing should take note of this image. Depicted therein is an individual who will soon play a prominent role in this post…

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Here’s one final photo from the Promo Seminar, taken from the suite level. Louisville Slugger Field is located on the banks of the Ohio River.

We now return to the current narrative:

Upon arriving at the stadium and making my way to the press box, I learned that the Bats’ approach to my visit was of the hands-off variety. While there’s no right or wrong way to handle a Ben’s Biz intrusion, this caught me off-guard simply because my previous four ballpark visits had included participation in a World Record attempt, a karaoke battle against wrestling royalty, in-depth history-minded ballpark tours, two ceremonial first pitches and stints as a racing cow, hot dog, and bearded Sun King brewer. Full-to-bursting ballpark agendas had begun to feel like the new normal.

The cool reception was kind of a relief, as it was nice to know that I could take a break and set my own pace. So goodbye, Bats press box, I hardly knew ye. It was time to wander.

010I didn’t get very far in my wandering, at least initially. Sitting behind home plate was my friend “Stevo,” a Louisville native who describes himself as a “semi-retired punk-metal atavist.”

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kvlt

One of Stevo’s ballpark rituals is to purchase “mystery cards” from a concourse souvenir stand, for $2 a piece. One was enshrouded in pink, the other enshrouded in blue. “Which one do you want?” asked Stevo.

012 I chose pink, which is always the correct choice, and ended up with a 2008 Bowman Nick Adenhart card. Stevo, meanwhile, received Jared Burton.

014Receiving a Nick Adenhart card was bittersweet, to say the least, as he was killed in a car accident on April 9, 2009 at the age of 22. I wrote a news story about this tragedy later that day; speaking to his teammates just hours after they had heard the news was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a professional journalist.

(Deep breath)

Stevo had a good vantage point for that evening’s game against Columbus. This was the scene as we rose for our National Anthem.

016Stevo has a passion for scorekeeping; that’s what he was at the ballpark to do.

017Later in the evening I interviewed Stevo about his scorekeeping history, techniques and tips. I’d highly recommend reading it, which you can do so by clicking HERE.

Of course, one of the joys of scorekeeping is that its practitioners can indulge their idiosyncratic whims. In the below photo, the parenthetical “FLS” in the box next to Lindor’s name indicates a “Flying Louisville Slugger.” (As in, Lindor had lost control of his bat at some point during his at-bat against the Bats.)

019 I pointed out that a Francisco Lindor FLS was in fact an “FLFLS.” Clearly, a celebratory selfie was in order.

That accomplished, I took a lap around the ballpark. The shark fin-looking thing sticking out above the stadium is…a building. I forget what building it is, but it’s distinctive.

022This isn’t just some random corporate sponsorship. KFC is based in Louisville, and Louisville is home to the first, and thus far only, KFC Eleven.

023The presence of the sun in this photo reminds me that it was brutally hot on this particular evening. 116 degrees would be my guess.

026The weird looking building whose name I can’t recall is visible on the right.

027Bermanent Vacation:

029I call this one “Trash can, foul pole, vendor.”

031My lap around the stadium brought me right back to where I started, as laps tend to do. It also brought me into contact with these two women.

033That’s Stephanie Fish, on the left, and Shannon Siders, on the right. These women, independently of one another, contacted me about being the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). That’s not the only thing that Stephanie and Shannon have in common with one another, however, as they are both former Minor League Baseball front office employees who now work for a Louisville-based sports entity.

Stephanie, formerly of the Lexington Legends, now works in an administrative role with the SkillVille Group. The SkillVille Group’s roster of touring ballpark and arena performers  is highlighted by the Zooperstars!, meaning that a big part of Stephanie’s job is keeping the likes of Harry Canary in line. Shannon, formerly of the Reno Aces, now works in marketing and communications for Louisville Slugger. She does not have to deal with anthropomorphic inflatables on a daily basis.

Our tour guide for this portion of the evening was Jason Betts, concessions manager for Centerplate food service.  Betts can be seen in the below photo, looking pensive while ordering pork chop sandwiches from this center field kiosk.

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These sandwiches are made from pork tenderloin, marinated for three days in chef Jim Darr’s secret concoction of sauce and spices.
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Have at it, ladies.

“That’s a big piece of meat,” declared Stephanie, after careful deliberation.

“I don’t think I can follow that comment,” said Shannon. “It’s delicious. Better than salad.”

Next up was a visit to the “Nacho Cantina,” a concession stand so popular that it even has its own Facebook page.

“The nachos are all a la carte, so the lines can get pretty long,” said Jason. “People get up there like ‘Uhhhhhh…..'”

037Shannon, a self-proclaimed nachos fanatic, considers her choices.

038Service with a smile:

As opposed to tortilla chips, Shannon opted for the house-made potato chips. But, regardless, this dish is very much a nacho dish and this photo is suitable for framing.

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“Aside from $1 beer night, this is the happiest that I’ve ever been at Louisville Slugger Field,” said Shannon. “Does that make me an alcoholic?”

“I wish I had a napkin,” added Stephanie.

043After the nachos, a veggie wrap panini was bound to be a bit of a comedown. This was filled with red onion, spinach, hummus, squash and zucchini.

045 Both women praised the sauce, but I neglected to write down what this sauce consisted of. Ambrosia, probably.

“This is a salad in a wrap,” said Stephanie. “That’s my quote. That’ll work.”

Cheers.

047Because too much is never enough, next up was a Philly cheesesteak.

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Betts said that the team sells 150 cheesesteaks per ballgame, a number which can increase to 300 on weekends.

“I’m not sure why it’s on a bun, because you can’t pick it up,” he said. “There’s too much stuff on it.”

Stephanie and Shannon eventually came to the conclusion that this Vine video should be called “Two Girls, One Cheesesteak.”

Finally, mercifully, we have reached the dessert phase of the evening. Blue Bell brand ice cream — cake batter for Shannon and strawberry for Stephanie.

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Stephanie really liked the strawberry.

051Thanks to Jason Betts, whose rollicking culinary tour greatly enlivened what might have been an otherwise moribund night at the ballpark.

056And thanks to Stephanie and Shannon, of course. They didn’t go home hungry, that’s for sure.

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Upon parting ways with Stephanie and Shannon, I made a brief pit stop at an eerily desolate relief station.

Throughout all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

059Hours had passed since we last spoke, but Stevo was right where I had left him. To the casual observer, this had been a rather lackluster Tuesday night contest. But Stevo is no casual observer.

“I’m a Cubs and Royals fan, and to see an ex-Cub (Donnie Murphy) hit a home run off of an ex-Royal (Kyle Davies), that’s amazing,” said Stevo. “You never know when you’re going to see something like that.”

061The tricks of the trade. (Stevo: “These are all the implements I need. I’ve got everything but chewing gum.”

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The Columbus Clippers defeated the home nine, by a score of 8-5.

062But don’t take my word for it. Take Stevo’s.

064Good night from Louisville. 065

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in two days. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Hitting the Big Time in Indianapolis

The fourth stop on this, my penultimate road trip of the season, was Indianapolis. I had been to this city once before in a professional context, as Indianapolis was the site of the 2009 Winter Meetings. Weirdly enough, I didn’t visit the Indianapolis Indians’ home of Victory Field during the 2009 Winter Meetings. I did, however, take a tour of the Colts’ home of Lucas Oil Field. Man, this feels like a long time ago.

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After checking into the downtown La Quinta, I began the .75 mile walk to Victory Field. Along the way, I passed the home of the Indianapolis Pacers. It is called the “Bankers Life Fieldhouse,” because very few things are more exciting than the life of a banker.

002Seeing these tunnels brought back Winter Meetings memories. I was a young man then, traversing from building to building via enclosed heated aerial tunnels without a care in the world.

003Ah, yes, here we are: Victory Field, built in 1996 as the home of the Indianapolis Indians. Please note that the Indians are NOT an affiliate of the Indians, but the Pittsburgh Pirates. They and the Spokane Indians are the only two teams in Minor League Baseball to share a name with a Major League team while not being affiliated with the team in question. Do with that what you will.

004Victory Field is located within spitting distance of Lucas Oil Field, the NCAA Hall of Champions and the Indianapolis Zoo (among other points of cultural interest). It is also located within spitting distance of a steam plant.

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006Upon arriving at the stadium, I was met by Indians media relations manager Brian Bosma. He was a very gracious and accommodating host throughout the evening, which kicked off with a walking tour. We started at the uppermost tier of the ballpark, with me making an offhand remark that walking around at this level of elevation felt like “being on the roof.”

013This gave Bosma an idea. “Want to go up on the roof?”

We did, climbing an imposing steel ladder to get there, and here are the photos to prove it. That monolithic JW Marriot is a recent addition to the skyline; it was completed in 2011 and is part of a $450 million “Marriot Place” project consisting of five hotels that are all connected to the Indiana convention center.

Also, note that the Indiana state capitol building can be seen as well. It’s located beyond center field (shaded toward left), a green-ish dome dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it.

009The view to my right, meanwhile, included Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the steam plant.

011Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to meet Indy Indians president Max Schumacher, who began working for the team in 1957 as a ticket sales manager. He became president in 1969, and was instrumental in the conception and construction of Victory Field. The stadium opened in 1996, its name a reference to the team’s previous home of Bush Stadium, which itself bore the name of Victory Field from 1942-67. (Bush Stadium, incidentally, has since been turned into an apartment complex.)

Anyhow, I was talking about not having met Max Schumacher. But I did visit his suite. That framed uniform on the wall dates back to 1949. It belonged to the team’s bat boy, who eventually grew up to be a bat man.

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Each of these balls is from an Indianapolis Indians’ no-hitter, signed by the pitcher (or pitchers) who threw it.

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Below, you will be gazing upon framed ticket stubs from the last game at Bush Stadium (July 3, 1996) and first game at Victory Field (July 11). I can only imagine how hectic that season must have been, closing one ballpark and opening another in the span of a little more than a week.

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Down on the concourse, one can find many an illuminated placard dedicated to prominent Indy Indians alumni.

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Bosma told me a story about Randy Johnson during his time in Indianapolis, when he was so wild and intimidating that none of his teammates would stand in against him during batting practice. Razor Shines finally stepped up the challenge and immediately got drilled; thereupon everyone steered clear of Randy Johnson for good. Out of options, the team borrowed a mannequin from the nearby Indiana State museum and Johnson promptly threw a ball right through it.

I can only assume that this is true, but, even if it’s apocryphal its still a good story and who doesn’t love a good apocryphal story?

As for the presence of Razor Shines on the Indians’ roster, that can definitely be confirmed. He spent nine seasons in Indianapolis, retiring after the 1993 season at the age of 36.

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“Razor Shines, he was the mayor of Indy,” said Bosma. “If you talk to anyone here who’s in their late 30s or early 40s, they’ll say that Razor was their favorite player.”

Razor and Randy played in Indianapolis at a time when the Indians were affiliated with the Expos. These days, the Pirates are the parent club.

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This seating section is sponsored by the Hoosier Lottery. If an Indians player hits a home run off of the foul pole in the fifth inning, then one person in that section wins $1 million. This has yet to happen.

025Here’s another enticing home run target. A pre-selected fan wins this truck if a player hits it with a home run, but that fan needs to be in attendance to win it. While the truck has been hit on several occasions, no fan has ever been in the ballpark to claim it. Bosma reports that Tony Sanchez hit it once, and asked if he could win it instead. No deal, Tony. No deal.

028My previous post, on the Columbus Clippers, noted that that team has a Victory Bell. Well, so do the Indians. Specifically, it is the “Max Schumacher Victory Bell.” It was dedicated in 2011, and a fan gets to ring it after every victory. Max Schumacher does not ring it, because after it was dedicated the team lost their next seven games and he figured that he must have cursed it somehow.

026 This carnivalesque area goes by the decidedly un-carnivalesque name of “PNC Plaza.”

029 Beer in a wheelbarrow for sale.

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With the game about to begin, Bosma and I headed over to “The Cove.”

033We were given a seat with a view.

034Note the near-total lack of outfield signage. It’s all part of a larger organizational philosophy, to present the team as simply and professionally as possible. This is a Minor League stadium with a Major League kind of feel, as befits a team playing in a city that also hosts an NBA and NFL team.

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036Plenty of people were willing to pay $10 for berm seats, hauling in their own blankets and coolers. Or, even better for young fans, membership in the team’s Knothole Club costs just $16 and includes a season-ticket pass good for lawn or reserved seat admission. $16 for the whole season!

037But we weren’t in the Cove just so that I could randomly take a bunch of photos and make a bunch of observations. I can do that anywhere. We were in the Cove so that I could meet my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

This is Greg Hotopp, an Indianapolis resident (by way of Cincinnati) who works for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

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Walks will haunt!!!

This was definitely a first, and credit to Brian Bosma for doing it: Greg was given his own designated eating credential. Other teams, take note!

045Greg said that he enjoys attending Indians games with his wife, Tracie, and their three-year-old daughter (she was left at home with a sitter on this particular evening). He has no problem rooting for the home team, but as a fan of the Cincinnati Reds this can lead to conflicting emotions.

“It can be tough as a Reds fan,” he said. “Like, ‘McCutcheon is amazing!’ and then the realization ‘Oh, crap. That’s not going to bode well for the Reds.'”

But Greg wasn’t here to wax on the contradictory nature of the Minor League fan experience. He was here to eat, and eat he did.

Greg is eating a “Shish-Kadog,” which is a shish kabob on a hot dog bun. It stands to reason that this would be so. This is the chicken version, topped with onion, pineapple, peppers and teriyaki sauce.

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Greg was mildly pleased with this creation.

“It tastes pretty good, pretty much as advertised,” he said. “A little messy, but that’s okay. I’d never had pineapple at a ballpark before.”

The kadog was washed down with an Indians Lager, made specially for the team by Sun King brewery.

039“This isn’t just me trying to impress Ben Hill, I actually like it,” said Greg of the lager. “This is third on my list of favorite Sun King beers [behind Sunlight Cream Ale and Cowbell Porter]. I get growlers of this.”

Tracie couldn’t help chiming in here.

“All of a sudden he’s this craft beer guy,” she said. “He used to never drink it.”

Greg agreed that this was true. He was more of a whisky guy, with Kentucky Barrel Bourbon Ale serving as his gateway to the world of beer.

Beer definitely goes with nachos.

042BBQ Nachos, specifically, topped with pulled pork, cheese and jalapenos. Traiei had been content to stay behind the scenes — “Behind every designated eater is a good woman,” said Greg — but who can resist nachos?

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The couple that eats nachos together, stays together.

And with that, Greg’s duties were done.

“It was everything I could have wished for, and more,” he said.

Thank you for your service.

046While still in The Cove, I spoke with communications coordinator Chris Robinson about the team’s Twitter account. The Indians have more followers than any team in Minor League Baseball, and I wrote an article about the team’s Twitter strategy and style HERE.

Robinson, wishing to retain an air of mystique, posed for a photo with his face obscured. He may or may not be the same Chris Robinson who fronts the Black Crowes.

048At this juncture I was ushered down to a subterranean ballpark location. Rowdie was there.

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As Rowdie looked on, I made a top-secret transformation into a Chik-Fil-A Cow. A sign was draped around my neck exhorting the populace to consume the flesh of a chicken in lieu of consuming the flesh of a cow.

069Specifically, I had morphed into a superhero cow. Me and Rowdie and my new friend baseball cow then walked through the catacombs of Victory Field. It’s all a little hazy.

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Did an onfield race occur? Does documentation exist? These questions may never be answered. All that I can tell you is that transforming into a cow and then back into a human takes a lot out of a guy. I was exhausted.

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But there was no rest, for the weary or otherwise. Another metamorphosis led to a another new persona, this time as an overall, glove and goggle-wearing keg-toting bearded Sun King brewer.

082Yes, this was another on-field contest.

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My task was to carry a keg toward my teammate stationed in the outfield.

089I then had to take off my beard, goggles, gloves and overalls, so that my teammate could put them on and then run back with the keg.

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Finally, the opportunity to disrobe on the field. This is something that I constantly fantasize about doing.
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Good luck, and Godspeed.

095It was a valiant effort, but we lost. I drowned my sorrows with french fries from the team’s “Build-A-Fry” concession area. (One can also build their own burgers and nachos.) Yes, there are french fries in there somewhere.

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And, yes, that is a collector’s cup. I have not done a good job providing #cupdates this season, but here you go:

099And that’s all she wrote from Indianapolis, she being the muse that guides all creative endeavors. I spent the last inning of the game in fan mode, sitting in the Cove with Bosma, waxing nostalgic about childhood baseball memories. It was nice to get the chance to do this.

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But, alas, no victory bell could be heard at Victory Field that evening as the visiting Charlotte Knights emerged victorious. Maybe some other time, bell. Maybe some other time.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins later this week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: The Past Comes Alive in Columbus

On Friday, July 18, I visited a Double-A team (the Akron Aeros). On Saturday, July 19, I visited a Class A team (the West Virginia Power). On Sunday, July 20, I visited a Triple-A team. That team was the Columbus Clippers, an International League entity affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

Welcome to Columbus.

006That’s not a particularly good photo, but it’s the first one I took upon beginning my walk to the ballpark after checking in to a downtown hotel. Getting in to Columbus proper was a struggle, as half of the city’s roads seemed to be closed. I felt like I was driving in increasingly smaller circles, yet never actually able to make it to my destination. (A metaphor for the futility of human existence? It just might be.)

Some of the roads were closed due to construction, but others had been cordoned off in order to accommodate that day’s Jazz and Rib Fest. The fest was taking place on an the expanse of greenery located beyond this archway.

007Transportation issues aside, there is a lot going on in downtown Columbus and I got the sense that it would be a good place to spend some time. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets play nearby, and there is a concentrated conglomeration of concert venues as well. In fact, as I was arriving at the stadium, people were lining up nearby for that evening’s Neutral Milk Hotel show at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion. That is a weird name for a band, and an even weirder name for a venue.

One does not need to travel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in order to reach Huntington Park, and one does not need to be Jeff Mangum, PI, in order to find it. It’s right here, in the heart of downtown.

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A view from the outside, as I made my way around the perimeter of the facility. The guys on the field were fantasy camp participants.

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I was met at the gate by Josh Samuels, the Clippers director of web communications, and he and I were joined by director of media relations Joe Santry. It was time for a tour.

There is plenty of room to move at Huntington Park, especially in the outfield portion of the concourse.

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There is so much room, that even this gargantuan sculpture doesn’t get in the way.

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This is the Victory Bell from the Clippers’ old home of Cooper Stadium, a facility that hosted more Minor League games than any other facility, ever. The bell was originally used by the Columbus fire department, during a time when fire wagons were still pulled by horses. “The horses were exercised daily outside of the fire station,” reads the plaque. “When a fire broke out, the bell was rung from the fire house tower to alert everyone to return with the horses to the fire station.” The bell was eventually donated to the Columbus Jets, who stationed it near the press box and rang it after each victory.

016The above tidbit is indicative of the Clippers’ commitment to preserving their history. Santry also serves as the team historian, and as a result of his tireless efforts Huntington Park is laden with interesting photos and exhibits related to the long history of baseball in Columbus. I wrote a story about this on MiLB.com, and I would exhort  — yes, exhort — you to read it.

Excuse the glare, but here is a picture of an upstairs display dedicated to Derek Jeter’s stint with the Clippers (he played there at the end of 1994 and the bulk of 1995).

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The display includes a looping video of Jeter’s first hit with Columbus, which occurred some two decades ago.

In the display case, one can also find a glove once worn by “Cotton Top” Terry Turner, the Indians’ all-time games-played leader and Nap Lajoie’s double play partner. Per his SABR bio:

“The quintessential utility player, the 5’8″, 149-pound Turner was, in the words of sportswriter Gordon Cobbledick, ‘a little rabbit of a man with the guts of a commando.'”

In this photo, his glove his being worn by an increasingly fat muskrat of a man with the guts of an insurance adjuster.

024“Rooster’s Roof,” featuring bleacher seating modeled after Wrigley Field, is a very cool spot to watch the game. Rooster’s is a local wing establishment, and on Wednesday’s the wings can be had for 50 cents each. This is a bargain comparable to Tuesday’s “Buck a Bone” rib deal, but not quite in the same pantheon as Monday’s “Dime a Dog” promotion.

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These are referred to as the “Tower Bleachers.”027

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The staircases are adorned with team portraits, which were done annually by the Columbus School of Art and Design. This team had a few memorable names. I mean, who can forget 6’7″ pitcher Dave Pavlas, who turned 52 this past Tuesday? Happy birthday, Dave Pavlas.

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A brief foray past the batting cages yielded this bit of info from Samuels: the logos of all 14 International League clubs are presented alphabetically by city…

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until they aren’t.

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Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, placed before Rochester

The journey through this subterranean labyrinth was fruitful, as it led us to the light. This is a really beautiful ballpark.

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A one-armed raccoon was there to greet us.

036As was Lou Seal…

037…who proudly brandished her his 2013 Mascot Mania championship belt.

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Lou Seal was unable to repeat as Mascot Mania champion, however. This time around, a shark is king. (Yes, just as in nature, a seal was defeated by a shark.) But how about this? Last season, Buster Douglas just happened to be at the game when Lou Seal received his championship belt. Photo op!

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While Lou Seal was gloating, I took the mound and delivered the worst ceremonial first pitch of my ceremonial first pitch career. Luckily, this seems to be the only photo evidence of my offering, which landed a couple feet in front of the plate and then burst into flames.

039I immediately ran up to the control room, in order to confiscate all of their video footage.

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As the game began, Santry stayed near the field in order to take pictures of rehabbing starting pitcher Justin Masterson. Samuels and I continued wandering. This concession area is called the “Grand Slam Station.”

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City Barbeque, a Columbus-area restaurant, has this in-stadium location.

043 A small army of Great Clips hair dressers were giving free haircuts at the Clippers game. That’s synergy.

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044A lonely Indianapolis Indian, as seen from this right field vantage point.

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The Indianapolis Indians and Columbus Clippers were exceedingly familiar with one another by this point, as July 20 marked the 10th consecutive game that the two teams had played against one another over a span of eight days (!!!) The first six games were played in Indianapolis (including a pair of doubleheaders), and the next four in Columbus. The teams ended up splitting this mega-series, 5-5.

After rejecting the opportunity to get a haircut, Samuels and I wandered to the press box. I’m often making hyperbolic statements on this blog, regarding the biggest this and the best that in Minor League Baseball. Well,  here’s a new one:

The Columbus Clippers have the quietest press box in Minor League Baseball.

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The vast majority of Minor League press boxes I have been to have been lively places, characterized by snarky, mile-a-minute gallows humor banter. But these guys were still, and solemn, and there was nary a sound to be heard. It was like a church. I was afraid to even speak.

And wouldn’t you know it? It was while I was in this soporific sanctum that one of the best defensive plays of the year occurred. I didn’t even see it happen, standing at the back of the press box. I, like you, only saw the replay:

That catch was amazing, one of the best to have ever occurred at a game at which I was in attendance. But not the best, which would be this. (Shout-out to my friend Ted, who missed it because he was waiting in line for a hot dog.)

Tony Barron turns 48 on Sunday, August 17. Happy Birthday, Tony Barron. I will never forget your name.

I will also always need food to survive. So how ’bout some City Barbecue ribs? Word on the street was that they were gluten-free. And who am I to doubt the street?

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Ribs, slaw and a decent vantage point. Can’t beat it.

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I really enjoyed these ribs, tender and a little crispy on the edges. I would definitely get them again.

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For the record:

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Also, for the record, the Clippers would like you to know the following information regarding their time at Huntington Park.

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Here’s something that you don’t see very often: the Clippers broadcast team of Scott Leo and Ryan Mitchell work in the open air. No booth needed.

058On the other side of the stadium sits the Rooftop Terrace. It’s $120 for a four-top, which includes a $60 food and beverage voucher.

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Food and beverage can be found in abundance here at the Hall of Fame Club. The bar includes a photo of nearly every player who ever played professional baseball in Columbus, in chronological order.

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Joe Santry had rejoined Samuels and I at this point, and he had great stories to tell regarding many of these photos. I wish I had time to relay these tales, but time is at a premium during these dog days of summer. All I can do is refer you to my aforementioned MiLB.com piece and move on. In the offseason, this is a topic I would be happy to re-visit.

But, hey, here are a few pictures presented without context. That’s better than nothing, right?

1884 Columbus Buckeyes:

1884 road uniforms

Ernie White:

Ernie White

Old Judge cigarette card of manager Jimmy Williams:

Jimmy_Williams_managerHere, we have memorabilia from the movie A Little Insidewhich was filmed at Cooper Stadium. Santry is not a fan of this movie. I doubt that I would be either.

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At the center field entrance, one finds this statue of long-time team owner Harold Cooper, who, per Santry, got his start in baseball by wiping the mold off of hot dogs with a vinegar-soaked rag.

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My esteemed hosts, Joe Santry and Josh Samuels.

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What happened next was like a dream. Samuels and Santry disappeared.

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I blinked, only to open my eyes and find myself in a dimly lit corridor…

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which led to the field. Oh, and did I mention that my body had been replaced with a hot dog?

080 As two other hot dogs tussled behind me, I ran with grace and ease toward a red stripe placed horizontally across the field.

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Victory was mine.

082Ring the bell!

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With the sounds of the bell echoing in my ears, I opened my eyes and found myself back in Biz Blogger mode. My camera was in my hand, and with it I took this photo.

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This is a cool way to display the speed of a pitch.

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A beautiful Sunday afternoon had turned into a beautiful Sunday evening. Funny how that works.

087Hey, look, a giant golf ball sitting atop a correspondingly oversized golf tee!

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I think I was feeling a little woozy by this point in the evening. At any rate, the Clippers lost to Indianapolis by a score of 7-5. The 10-game ultra-mega series between the two teams had finally, mercifully, ended.

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Maybe everyone was feeling a little woozy at this point, as a post-game run the bases degenerated into a post-game “just do whatever you feel like doing on the field.”

093Good night from Columbus, as this blog post has finally, mercifully, ended.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Great Day for Mankind in West Virginia

When I first posted the itinerary for this particular ballpark road trip, July 19 was listed as “TBA.” This was because I did not have a clear idea which ballpark I should visit, as most of the options were places that had already been graced with my ineffable presence. Several teams, or at least the fans of several teams, ended up making pitches as to why I should visit (Mahoning Valley, Toledo and Lake County among them). But the organization that won out was the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of your (or at least someone’s) Pittsburgh Pirates. After all, the Power are West Virginia’s only full-season Minor League Baseball team! Further investigation was needed.

The Power play in Charleston, but since there is another South Atlantic League team bearing the Charleston name (the RiverDogs of South Carolina) the Power went ahead and claimed the whole state. (Informally, Charleston, West Virginia, is referred to as “Charlie West.”) The Power compete at Appalachian Power Park, which is located in a rather desolate-feeling stretch of downtown amid modestly-sized high rise office buildings, labor union headquarters and dilapidated factory buildings. My hotel was within walking distance of the stadium, and what follows  are a few pictures I took during the walk.

In the biz, we call this “setting the scene.”

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This overpass leads to interstates 64, 77 and 79, which combine to form mega-interstate 220. (This is what I choose to believe, at least.) Walking underneath the overpass, one finds the stadium.

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Ah, yes, here we are:

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Upon entering Appalachian Power Park, I took 10 minutes or so and did my requisite lap around the concourse.

Again, more scene setting.

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Lap completed, I was escorted onto the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Joining me was the evening’s special guest, a man even more special than me: wrestling superstar Mick Foley (aka Mankind aka Dudelove aka Cactus Jack).

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mick. (I’m the guy on the left.)

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I took the mound and fired something resembling a strike.

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#emergingmanboobs

7.19.14 296The guy who delivered the second first pitch threw a scorching fastball right over the plate, and Mick Foley then hammed it up by recruiting that guy to throw out his first pitch for him. Which, for those keeping score at homes, means that the guy who threw out the second first pitch threw out the third first pitch as well. My first pitch was first.

Update: Commenter Mark Henderson adds the following info:

The guy who threw out the second and third pitches is Scott Robinson, a former batboy for the Charleston Wheelers. Scott has became somewhat of an inspirational local hero, due to his battle with a heart disease that resulted in him receiving a donor heart, going through the transplant just a year ago.

I am now realizing that I talked to Scott later in the evening. He is the guy that took the awesome Toastman pic that appears later in the post.

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Mick then joined the managers and umpires for a pre-game conference, presumably regarding whether metal folding chairs would be permitted in any on-field brawls that may occur.

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I don’t have any video of Mick Foley from this evening, but he now has a severe limp and moves like a man 30 years his senior (he is 49). It’s painful to watch, but that’s what happens when you sacrifice your body for your passion. I’ve never been much of a wrestling fan, but I have a genuine respect for Mick Foley as he is a smart, engaging individual who forged a unique career path.

While these pre-game shenanigans were taking place, fans were already queuing up for a chance to meet Mick.

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There was a significantly shorter line for the pepperoni rolls, a coal miner favorite and staple of West Virginia cuisine. You’ll also note that a 25-ounce beer could be had for just $3. Power assistant general manager Jeremy Taylor told me that the team sold out of the 25-ounce beers on Redneck Night, a stereotype-reveling theme night that has become a highlight of the team’s promotional schedule.

035With the game underway, I turned my attention to Rod Blackstone a.k.a. the Toastman. He is one of the most passionate, divisive and memorable fans one could ever hope to meet at a Minor League Baseball game, and I wrote a feature article about him HERE. Please read it, as I don’t want to repeat myself repeat myself.

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Okay, I’ll repeat myself just just a little. From my MiLB.com story::

Rod Blackstone is the “Toastman,” a West Virginia Power ballpark icon who can be found sitting in a front-row aisle seat in section 107 during each and every game. From this homeplate vantage point, he leads the section in cheers, displays homemade signs made in honor of each position player and, most memorably, throws pieces of toast to the crowd after every visiting batter strikes out.

The toast isn’t pre-made, either. Blackstone brings several loaves of bread to the game and toasts them on-site using a toaster set up on a small metal patio table. The electrical outlet he uses was installed by the team, specifically to accommodate his nightly toast-making needs.

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After spending an inning with the Toastman, I spent an inning in the broadcast booth with Power broadcaster Adam Marco. It was a pleasure talking to one of the finest blogging broadcasters in Minor League Baseball.

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From the dim press box environs, I soon transitioned…

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to the bright lights of a between-inning contest atop the dugout. Next up was a karaoke battle against one Mick Foley.
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My plan was to post the Power’s videoboard footage of this “battle,” but apparently there were technical difficulties. This is really too bad, as this was one of the most embarrassing/memorable moments of the season for me.

Before the game it had been decided that I would sing “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a choice I was fine with because I assumed that I’d only be singing the chorus. However, when it was played over the PA system to begin the contest, the song began during the first verse. After an awkward pause followed by some herky-jerky gesticulating, I began improvising lines such as “Please play the chorus, this is the verse. I only know the chorus, what are the words?”

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My efforts resulted in a round of boos, as the crowd clearly had no love for the most underrated entity in all of sports media. Mick Foley then got on the mic and crooned Hulk Hogan’s theme song “Real American.”

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So, yeah, I got to play the heel in a karaoke battle against Mick Foley. That’s definitely going on the resume.

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But there was no time to wallow in misery. I save that for the hotel room. Next up on the docket was meeting the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Hello, Mr. Mike Taylor.

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Mike, a former Power bat boy, works in the produce department of a Charleston-area grocery store. He said that, despite his slight frame, he had no problem eating large amounts of food. Well, okay then. Here’s a pepperoni roll. It’s basically pepperoni baked inside of a roll. That’s why they call it a pepperoni roll. I expect to soon see it on a menu in at a nouveau American Brooklyn bistro at a cost of $16, featuring nigella seed Ethiopian sourdough and artisan soppressata imported from an old world butcher operating in San Francisco’s North Bay neighborhood.

051Pepperoni rolls are served at the Appalachian Power Park thanks to Power food and beverage director Nate Michel.

“Pepperoni rolls are what West Virginia is known for,” he told me. “You can’t go into a convenience store without seeing them. Once we got them out here they sold like hot cakes.” (Note: hot cakes are not sold at the ballpark.)

Last season the pepperoni rolls were provided by local restaurateur Rocco Muriale. This year, they are being provided by a local pizzeria. Either way, Mike Taylor was psyched to be eating one.

“I’ve never had a pepperoni roll here before, but already I can tell that this will be the best pepperoni roll I’ve ever eaten,” he said. “The bread is buttery and real soft. I could probably eat two of these.”

That wouldn’t be a good idea, as Mike also had to contend with the Gunner Nachos, named after the Power’s nacho-loving on-field emcee. They are served in a full-size helmet, and topped with chicken tinga, pulled pork, beef brisket, cheese, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream.

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Thus far, no fatalities have been recorded as a result of eating this item. Have at it, Mike.

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So, to recap:

“These were two of the best things I’ve ever eaten here, and I’ve been coming here a long time,” said Mike. “I’m a skinny guy, but I can eat a lot.”

Hey, what do you know? While all of this was happening, there was a game going on.

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During the next inning break, I had the honor of running across the field while waving the team flag. Mascot Chuck (as in, short for Charles, as in Charleston) was with me, with a gaggle of children close behind.

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Throughout all of this, fans were patiently waiting in line so that they could meet Mick Foley.

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See that guy in the above photo, on the far right? That guy was an absolute dead ringer for Mick. This photo, stolen from Adam Marco’s aforementioned must-read blog, shows just how much of a dead ringer he was.

img_7403After checking in on Mick, I wandered over and spoke to the rambunctious, fun-loving group of fans that can be found in the “Rowdy Alley.”

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The Rowdy Alley are a loose-knit group. Some nights there are only four or five people sitting here, while on some nights (like Thirsty Thursday) there are a couple dozen. I plan on writing about the Rowdies in an upcoming MiLB.com feature.  They love their beer, have a pet monkey, and all their ducks are in a row.

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This guy was wearing a towel, fashioned into a cape. He seemed vaguely annoyed by my presence, like “Can’t a guy just wear a cape and keep score and occasionally blow into an old trumpet (not pictured) in peace?”

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This guy, meanwhile, was ready to face the elements.

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Immediately after I took this photo, the members of the Rowdy Alley broke into song. I wish I had it on video. Wishing I had things on video seems to have been a theme of the evening.

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I also spoke with legendary souvenir salesman Wheeler Bob. He, too, will be included in the upcoming MiLB.com feature that I previously alluded to.

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Meanwhile, the smell of smoke had begun to permeate the ballpark.

Culprit: the Toastman.

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Just another night at the ballpark in West Virginia.

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Photo credit: Scott Robinson

I did get some video of the Toastman in action.

The game ended shortly after the Toastman’s bread-based pyrotechnic display. But more pyrotechnics were soon to come, as it was a Friday Fireworks night. This season, the Power have taken the novel step of filming their fireworks with a remote controlled drone.

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This, showing the drones in action, is one of my favorite Vines of the year. Also, it conveys the extreme intensity of the Power’s fireworks display. I was a big fan.

When the fireworks were over, a squadron of vacuum-toting interns appeared on the field in order to clean up the pyrotechnic debris. Their appearance was a sure sign that the evening had come to an end. 082Good night from Charleston, West Virginia.  072

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location).

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: RubberDuck Duck Goose in Akron

My previous “On the Road” blog post, focusing on the Kannapolis Intimidators, appeared on July 17. In the ensuing three and a half weeks I visited seven more ballparks and wrote six “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, four editions of “Promo Preview,”  the July edition of Crooked Numbers and Crooked Nuggets, two travel journal blog posts, and a three-part series detailing the planning of a Major League promotion. My next road trip begins on August 22, and much planning remains to be done regarding that 10-ballpark jaunt.

But, before I leave, I will be writing a series of blog posts devoted to the seven ballparks I visited from July 18-24. You are expecting this from me, and what you expect I deliver.

We begin this latest (and therefore greatest) “On the Road” blog series at Akron’s Canal Park, home of the recently re-branded RubberDucks. I arrived at the ballpark at game time on July 18, after an arduous and oft-delayed 10-hour drive from New York City, and one of the first things I saw was a man on stilts.

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The last time I was in Akron, I did not see any men on stilts.

As you may recall, I visited Canal Park in 2011. I enjoyed that visit quite a bit — I spent an inning in a dunk tank, and got pied atop the dugout — but that was a very different era. The team was still called the “Aeros” then, and overseen by owners (Mike and Greg Agganis) who were rarely spotted at the ballpark. Attendance had declined precipitously (barely over half of what it what it had been a decade before), and Canal Park was beginning to show its age.

2014, however, marks the second season under the leadership of new owner Ken Babby. The team has been re-branded, the ballpark has received numerous upgrades, and there is an energy at the ballpark that was palpably lacking in 2011.

The above two paragraphs grossly oversimplify a complex chain of events, but, hey, I’m just a blogger. Grossly oversimplifying complex chains of events is what I’m here to do.

Anyhow, I hope that the guy on stilts had already gotten his standing room only ticket. July 18’s game was sold out.

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In my official Ben’s Biz capacity, I had never arrived to the ballpark after the game had started. I was feeling kind of stressed out and didn’t really know where to begin, but, fortunately, this turned out to be a night in which things came to me. Almost immediately, one of the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) emerged on the concourse and introduced himself.

Hello, Joe Meadows.

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Joe lives in Cleveland, “right across the road” from the Indians’ home of Progressive Field. Nonetheless, he is more likely to attend RubberDucks games simply because he likes the Minor Leagues better. He works for the Progressive Insurance company, and was previously employed by the Cleveland Browns.

Soon afterwards, Designated Eater #2 emerged. This is Adam Ray, who I did not get a chance to photo until we were in this indoor location.

020Adam lives in Kent, Ohio, and is an employee of that city. His interest in the team during the Aeros era was minimal, but Adam is on board with the RubberDucks. In particular, he’s a fan of seeing games from the right field Tiki Terrace. (More on that later).

You’ll notice that, in the above photo, Adam is wearing a RubberDucks t-shirt. Such apparel can be found in abundance in the team store.

009Joe and Adam and I visited the store, along with RubberDucks assistant general manager Scott Riley, as a prelude to the designated eating that would soon commence. I’m just noticing now that the dude in the above photo, standing to the right of Adam, is wearing duck feet.

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Of course, not everyone is on board with the “RubberDucks” moniker. But what can you do? This may as well be the official motto of Minor League Baseball.

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I acquired this shirt for my friend’s three-year-old son. Webster is the “Poochiest” mascot in all of Minor League Baseball, which makes me a fan.

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Meanwhile, on the videoboard, RubberDucks promotions manager Christina Shisler was introducing one of that night’s promotions to the crowd: a “World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose” record attempt. I’m going to assume that that guy on her left is her personal secret service agent.

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In the above photo, below the scoreboard, a much smaller Shisler can be seen standing in the first row of right field seats. To her left is the fan who then began the game of Duck Duck Goose, with a simple, solemn declaration of “Duck.” The game was scheduled to last for the next several innings, slowly winding around the entire seating bowl and ending in the seats located down the left field line.

Duck…duck…duck…duck…duck…and so on, and so forth.

012With the world record attempt underway, Riley took me and my designated eaters on a little tour of the upstairs area. This past offseason, a local artist by the name of Mike Ayers was hired to paint Akron baseball-themed murals at several locations within the ballpark. He did a great job with it.

This painting can be seen at the staircase landing between the first and second levels. (Note that I did not say “betwixt” in the previous sentence. Real people, who use the English language in real life, never use that word.)

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At the top of the stairs, one encounters Ayers’ homage to the “Aeros” era (1997-2013). More like the Eros era, as there is a lot to love about this:

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This picture doesn’t really convey just how big the press box is. It’s beyond gargantuan, and only one adjective lies beyond gargantuan: Brobdingnagian.

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The team installed a new scoreboard prior to the 2013 campaign. That, too, is Brobdingnagian. It is operated by these shadowy figures…

018 who do what they can to bring pie-in-face action to as many people as possible.

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Shortly thereafter, this materialized. Hey, thanks! I’ll wear it with pride.

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New swag in hand, we were then ushered into a first floor conference room. Food and beverage manager Brian Manning was waiting for us amid an array of, yes, food and beverage. Allow him to explain, because he does it better than I could and I ain’t ’bout to transcribe.

Adam began with the Johnny Manziel Dog, while Joe had the TeriyAKRON pineapple Bowl.

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Adam!023

Joe!

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Adam and Joe!

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Unfortunately, my notes regarding Joe and Adam’s opinion of these items are largely indecipherable.

“Fine line between spicy and hot didn’t eat sine,” is what it says next to Adam’s name. “Good like the pineapple adds mix of goodness” is what it says next to Joe’s. The bottom line is that both guys liked both items, but both chose the Manziel Dog as the superior option.

I was off of my note-taking game, but the show must go on. Next up was the brand-new “Return of the King” burger, which was created in honor of my return to Canal Park (or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

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Maybe Brian Manning has a better explanation:

030Adam said that this burger made him “nervous,” but that it turned out to be good. Joe praised the Boursin cheese, saying that it blended well with the other flavors of the burger. No one really laughed when I said that the flavor of this burger, like LeBron, should ” lack Heat.”

There was also a sampling of this beer shake, with Adam comparing its texture to that of a root beer float.

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Joe then went ahead and spilled a Daisy Duck soda float all over his shorts, changing his name to Molly Ringwald immediately thereafter.

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Stained shorts or not, the designated eating experience garnered rave reviews.

“It was fantastic,” said Adam. “I got to go out of my comfort zone and I’m glad I did because there was some really good stuff that I don’t think I would have tried before. But I’ll definitely get it again.”

“At the end of the day, I’m refreshingly full and ready for baseball.” added Joe.

Thanks, guys. Your work here is done.

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But I had miles to go before I sleep. Riley and I took a little jaunt down the third base side of the stadium, where some 1800 seats had been removed in favor of the “Fowl Territory” picnic patio.

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Note the giant team banner plastered on to the side of the building on the right. This building used to be the prestigious Mayflower Hotel, where a veritable who’s who of early to mid-20th century celebrities once stayed. (Including — you guessed it — Frank Stallone.)
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In this photo, a giant turkey is walking off of the field. He had just lost a race against Coffee and Donut.

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Walking from Fowl Territory back toward home plate, we encountered Caitlyn the intern (her last name is not “the intern.” I just don’t know what her last name is).  She is wearing an orange shirt.

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Caitlyn had the unenviable task of going from section to section, explaining that the World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose was in progress and that now it was their turn to play. It was difficult for her to be heard over the near-constant din of the sound system, but she was indomitable in her quest to convey this information in a succint and cheerful manner. Being an intern is hard work, and no one even bothers to learn your last name.

I wasn’t yet able to participate in the game, however, for it was my job to be the goose. Being a diva at heart, I demanded assistance in getting into the goose costume.

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I’ll refrain from posting more pictures of the goose dressing process, as I don’t want to destroy the illusions of children who are still under the impression that that was an actual goose on the field.

060Because of course it was an actual goose on the field.

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Webster and the Goose didn’t come to the game. The game came to them.

History made, or at least attempted to be made, I morphed back into blogger form and encountered this top secret situation.

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That’s the take from the evening’s 50-50 raffle, with $789 going to the winner and — you guessed it — $789 going toward charity. I then followed the money with general manager Jim Pfander, dropping off the winning $789 at guest services and then making a pit stop at the world’s largest press box so that he could pick up the cash to be used for a post-game “Dash for Cash” promotion. (More on that later.)

See, it really is the world’s largest press box.

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And speaking of money….In this undisclosed ballpark location, the RubberDucks  have an RBG-300 “Intelligent Cash Recycler.”

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Pfander was very enthusiastic about this addition to the front office, which was acquired at the suggestion of team bookkeeper Leslie Wenzlawsh. Each evening the money collected at the ballpark is deposited into this machine, and the money is immediately credited to the team’s bank account. Then, the next morning, a Brinks truck collects the money and takes it to the bank.  Do other teams do this? If not, Pfander predicted that, after seeing this blog post, they’d strongly consider it.

Meanwhile, I was strongly considering the purchase of a RubberDucks wine glass.

084These are the sort of things available for sale in the suite-level team “store.” How the other half lives:

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Back among the hoi polloi, the aromas of Eddie’s Cheesesteaks was alluring.

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But at this late juncture of the evening, fans had dessert on their minds. At the Sock Hop, fans can obtain “Duck Floats” and then spill them all over their shorts. Ruggles ice cream is served here. Ohioans love Ruggles, I was told.

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And, look — the team store has a personalized t-shirt “to-go” window.

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Here’s the right field Tiki Terrace, frequented by Adam Ray of designated eating fame (on the left). The Tiki Terrace is a new addition to Canal Park.

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The bar is plastered with the baseball cards of former Akron players. Obviously, this picture was taken a long time ago.

096These seats in the Tiki Terrace, located where bleachers used to be, can be had for just $5. But not for long.

“It takes you a year to really figure out what you have, and then you can price accordingly,” said Pfander.

Accordingly, these seats will cost more in 2015.

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The seats themselves swivel 360 degrees. That might not be apparent from this photo, but, trust me, they do. I would never lie to you. 

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Beyond the Tiki Terrace sits “The Game Bar and Grill,” which also has an entrance on the outside of the stadium and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a year-round basis.

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And above “The Game” sits the Duck Club, “Akron’s newest private event space.”  This is the view of these establishments from outside of the stadium.

109In Da (Duck) Club:

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Mike Ayers, artist:

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The Game Bar and Grill’s kitchen is located on the second level, alongside the Duck Club.

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The food is sent down to the lower level via a dumbwaiter…

114…because only a dumb waiter would take the stairs.

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A brief stop in Pfander’s office yielded this photo, which includes all of the giveaways from this season’s “Rock n’ Bobblehead” series.

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But the night was not over yet.

Now, it was time to head back onto the field for the Cash Dash post-game promo. $1000 in singles was dumped upon the field, as well as one $50 bill. Then, 30 fans ran to the outfield in order to retrieve as much of it as they could.

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It was nice out there.

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This transitioned into a “Dave Matthews Band” fireworks display. (Personally, I’m not a fan. I would have preferred a Dave Matthews Banned fireworks display, in which his music wasn’t allowed.)

131However, there was some sort of delay related to the fireworks. So, to kill the time, fans were entertained by the “LeBron Powder Cam.”

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The best thing about the Powder Cam was that it didn’t really work all that well. Fans would appear on the screen and clap their hands, and then a “poof” of powder would emerge. However, there was often a delay of several seconds between the fans clapping and the powder graphic appearing, leading to awkward moments of expectation.

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Whatever snafu that had been delaying the fireworks was soon straightened out, and pyrotechnics lit up the night sky. This photo is awful.

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But it wasn’t time to go home because it’s never time to go home. Hey, kids, run the bases! I mean sure, why not? (But not just any kids could run the bases, these were group outing raffle winners.)

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And, that, finally, is all that she wrote from Akron. Or all that he wrote, I guess. He being me. At the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. It’s hard work being a goose.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins on August 22. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk means that a designated eater is still needed). If you’re one of the teams on the itinerary, feel free to get in touch. I am having trouble finding the time to coordinate all of the details, but the show will go on.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Planning the “Promo of the Year” — Part Three

In this, the third of a three part series, Lake County Captains assistant general manager Neil Stein offers a behind-the-scenes look at all that went in to planning August 1’s Cleveland Sports History Night and Major League movie tribute.

Part one is HERE.

Part two is HERE.

Part three, detailing the night of the promotion in question will commence as soon as you transition from this sentence to the next one.

The “Calm” Before the Storm – Planning the Promo of the Year (Part Three)

Jobu lines at gate

We want Jobu!

Friday, August 1

The day we’ve all be waiting for has finally arrived. My day begins with a 7:12 a.m. text message from our groundskeeper, Dan Stricko, telling me that the golf cart was there but that  it was too tall for the garage. He also informed me that the first person in line for the Jobu bobblehead arrived at 4:30 a.m.

At 8:30 I went to Bruce Custom Graphics and picked up a banner for our gate with the text “Welcome to Classic Park. One giveaway per person, not per ticket. No stadium exit until all giveaways are distributed.” I also picked up the 6’6” Skipper cutout with removable jersey. The cutout is reminiscent of the Indians owner from Major League, Rachel Phelps, and the cutout Indians Manager Lou Brown gets for the team. He tells the team that there are 32 pieces on the cutout, and he’ll remove one piece of her clothing for each win they get for the remainder of the season.

Skipper cutout

When I got into work I spoke with Dan Stricko about the golf cart, to see what we might be able to do as a backup plan. We thought about our options: removing the roof, backing it into the players entrance tunnel, leaving it in the corner of the bullpen and, finally, parking it behind the centerfield gate and driving it out from there. (The final option was the one we ended up deciding on.) I also spoke to Dan about the Brandon Weeden promotion we were planning, where we’d have someone in a Weeden jersey get stuck under the oversized American flag in centerfield just like Brandon Weeden did in his NFL debut for the Browns.

I then wrote up a summary of how the Skipper cutout promotion would work. It would cost $10 for a piece of his jersey; each purchase included an oversized Topps Jobu trading card and another prize. Other prizes included tickets to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, Ricky Vaughn Topps Cards, and Singing Skipper bobbleheads from 2013 which played part of the song “Burn On” from Randy Newman (the song played at the beginning of Major League).

Next I spoke with promotions manager Drew LaFollete about the in-game promotions and the prizes we’d be awarding. We had Ricky Vaughn bobbleheads (thank you Cleveland Indians) for the five fans who got the Red Tag under their seat, full packs of Topps Major League trading cards for in-game promotion winners, Bubba Q’s barbecue sauce for any RBI, and Bubba Q’s gift cards for home runs hit by a Captains player.

I returned to my desk to take care of a few last minute details. These included ticket requests from celebrities, finding graphics for the Bubba Q’s promotion and locating a logo for the Baker Vehicle pitching change promotion.

While doing this I was looking at the Crisco, Vaseline and Vagisil sitting on my desk and had an idea. Could we put all those substances, plus jalapenos, on a tray and offer them to Chelcie Ross when he threw out his first pitch? I found a serving tray and put together a platter of substances from which he could choose for his pitch.

By now, Billy Herron, a college student who has helped us a few times this year, showed up to assist with our celebrities and VIP event. I explained everything to him so that he’d be up to speed as he was helping get the celebrities into the ballpark and to the VIP tables.

It was now 4:45 p.m., so we started moving the bobbleheads out of storage to the gates. I took the boxes that we needed for the VIP event and the rest were to be placed evenly at the gates. We ordered extra giveaways (over and above the 1,500 at the gates) for our season ticket holders who have “guaranteed giveaways” as part of their package. Those boxes were set aside.

At 5 p.m. the gates opened for the 200 people who purchased a Jobu VIP package. I checked them in, as several members of our ownership group helped pass out the bobbleheads. After I got through the initial rush of fans, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be as many boxes at the gates as I was used to seeing. I asked an intern to watch the table for me while I checked storage. Sure enough I found 30 more boxes of bobbleheads that had not made their way to the gates. We only had 10 minutes before gates opened for season ticket holders so I made a plea over our radios for anyone available to get the boxes to the gates. In two minutes the task was done, but it was a panic attack nonetheless.

At 5:45 p.m. season ticket holders began entering and cleared out in about 10 minutes. A couple of last minute stragglers came through in the final five minutes before the gates opened to the public.

At 6 p.m. I wrapped up the VIP early entry and prepared to open gates to the public. The playing of “Burn On” by Randy Newman signaled the opening of the gates. A mere 15 minutes later, the 1500 bobbleheads were gone. In somewhat of a surprise, we didn’t have any issues at the gates with people trying to get more than one bobblehead. An always stressful moment during giveaway nights is when we’re down to the final box. One fan is ultimately going to be number 1,500 and get the giveaway, and the next person will be number 1,501 and kick themselves for not getting in line two minutes sooner. Stadium operations manager Josh Porter drew the short straw and had the final box of bobbleheads. Down to three bobbleheads, he literally held them over his head as fans were pouring in and the next three people who got to him went home with the final Jobu bobbleheads of the night.

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Two months earlier, when the national media first picked up on the Jobu giveaway, we knew the demand for Jobu was going to be at an all-time high. Fans were traveling to our ballpark from 23 states and Canada, so we came up with a plan for fans who really wanted a bobblehead but weren’t one of the first 1,500 through the gates. We put together a Jobu seven-game ticket package that would be good for any August game or April 2015 game. The plan was priced the same as our normal seven-game plan — $60 each — and fans who bought a package would get a free Jobu bobblehead at a later date. We planned on placing a re-order for these fans the following week. We had 3,000 postcards printed describing this offer and handed them out once the bobbleheads were gone. Fans wanting this package had to purchase them that night and our ticket department processed the orders on the spot. At the end of the night we had sold nearly 200 packages!

When the gates opened it also marked the start of our game-worn jersey auction and the first half of our celebrity autograph session. The Captains wore replica road jerseys of the 1989 Cleveland Indians – the year Major League was released. A bonus item included in the auction was an autographed Pete Vuckovich baseball. Baseball fans remember Vuckovich as the 1982 American League Cy Young winner with the Milwaukee Brewers but Major League fans know him as Yankees slugger Clu Haywood from the movie. Vuckovich is currently a special assistant in the Seattle Mariners organization and they were gracious enough to have him sign a baseball to include in our auction. Not only did he autograph the baseball, he also included the inscription “Clu Haywood,” which made it even better.

At 6:40 PM the first autograph session ended and our Cleveland sports celebrities were escorted to the field for their First Pitches.

CLE Celebrities

Celebrities included Arthur Chu (Jeopardy! Champion), Hector Marinaro (all-time leading scorer in Indoor Soccer History and former member of Cleveland Crunch and Force), Jock Callander (all-time leading scorer in IHL history), Jessica “Evil” Eye and Stipe Miocic (current top-10 ranked UFC fighters from NE Ohio), Al “Bubba” Baker (former Cleveland Brown), Jim Chones and Austin Carr (all-time great Cleveland Cavaliers) and finally Chelcie Ross, aka Eddie Harris. Ross got the biggest ovation and a huge laugh from the crowd when we presented him with the tray of Vagisil, Crisco, Vaseline and jalapenos to choose from before throwing his pitch. For those wondering, Ross went to the Crisco first followed up by a little Vaseline.

Chelcie Ross substances

After the first pitches the celebrities got to eat and relax in a suite before returning at 7:15 for the second autograph session. Autographs wrapped up at 8; some of the celebrities headed home for the night while others went back up to the suite to watch the game.

On-field host Andrew Grover and promotions manager Drew LaFollette handled the in-game promotions, along with our interns. Promotions included a rubber chicken launch, with the contestant catching the chickens in a deep fryer basket. In Major League Pedro Cerrano wants to sacrifice a live chicken before a game, but the team brings him a bucket of fried chicken instead. Working with our sponsor, Mr. Chicken, we passed out 20 boxes of chicken from Mr. Chicken and each box contained a certificate good for a free 15-piece dinner. The next promotion was called Vision Chart, as one contestant had to read letters on the video board just like Ricky Vaughn did in Manager Lou Brown’s office before determining he needed glasses. This was followed up by the Willie Mays Hays race. Then, my favorite: Guess the Substance. We blindfolded two contestants and had them feel what was in a bowl in front of them and guess the substance. The substances included Vagisil, Vaseline, Crisco and jalapenos in honor of Eddie Harris. Our final in-game promotion of the night was an Austin Carr impression, where fans tried to do their best impersonation of the current Cavs TV announcer. His signature calls include “Wham with the right hand!” and “Get that weak stuff outta here!”

The dust finally settled around 11 PM; the game was over and the Captains had won by a score of 8-1. Starting pitcher Mitch Brown, who played the role of Rick Vaughn in the Captains Major League spinoff videos, pitched five scoreless innings. Nellie Rodriguez, playing the role of Pedro Cerrano, went 2-for-3 with a double, home run and three RBIs.

Nellie "Pedro Cerrano" Rodriguez (left) and a "Wild Thing"-inspired fan

Nellie “Pedro Cerrano” Rodriguez (left) and a “Wild Thing”-inspired fan

The 9,069 fans who attended the game (one of the top five crowds in Classic Park history) and every person involved in the planning of the night —  from full and part-time staff to the Eastlake police and maintenance departments to our celebrity guests — contributed to making it an overwhelming success. The Captains’ “Cleveland Sports History Night and Major League 25th Anniversary featuring the Jobu bobblehead” was a grand slam for the organization and the highlight of my 15 seasons in Minor League Baseball.

Thanks to Neil Stein for taking the time to write this, and thanks to you for taking the time to read it. “On the Road” content resumes tomorrow. My next road trip begins on August 22 in Batavia. See you there? 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Guest Post: Planning the Promo of the Year — Part Two

The Lake County Captains staged a mammoth promotion on August 1, combining their annual “Cleveland Sports History” celebration  with a wide-ranging 25th anniversary tribute to the movie Major League.  The evening’s much-coveted giveaway was a Jobu bobblehead, with actor Chelcie Ross – who played junk-baller Eddie Harris in the film – throwing out a first pitch. Between-innings games and contests referenced Major League in a variety of ways, as a small army of Cleveland sports celebrities signed autographs on the concourse.

In order to shed light on the Minor League Baseball promotional planning process, Captains assistant general manager Neil Stein has written a series of journal entries detailing the work done by he and his staff in the week leading to August 1’s promotion. These journal entries are running in three segments. 

Part one can be found HERE, in the latest edition of my Farm’s Almanac column. Part two can be found below. Part three will run on Monday, here on the blog. 

The “Calm” Before the Storm – Planning the Promo of the Year (Part Two)

Skipper Cutout2Tuesday, July 29

Day off! Yes, a day off during the season. Nonetheless, some work still needed to be done. I got two phone calls at home about our pre-game VIP Meet-and-Greet package, including one person looking to purchase 15 packages. I took time in the afternoon to check my e-mail and respond to several people about the night, including a celebrity who was e-mailing me to potentially cancel his appearance.

That night I needed to run to Walgreens to return a Redbox movie so I thought I’d cross a few items off my list for the Major League promotion while I was there. What items did I need? Nothing out of the ordinary, just a tube of Vagisil, Vaseline and Crisco. In the movie there’s a well-known scene in which Eddie Harris (played by Chelcie Ross, who was coming to our game) and Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) are talking in the locker room after practice. Sheen looks at Harris, who is shirtless, and notices some substances on his chest. Vaughn asks what’s on his chest and Harris responds with “Crisco, Bardol, Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curveball.” With Eddie Harris himself coming to the game, we knew we had to incorporate this classic scene into the promotion. Hence, the need to purchase Vagisil and Crisco. Later in the movie there’s a reference to a “Vaseline ball” by the Indians’ radio announcer, played by Bob Uecker, so that’s the significance of the Vaseline. After picking up the items, I checked out, got an interesting look and comment from the woman at the cash register about purchasing Vagisil, and called it a night.

Wednesday, July 30

When I arrived at the ballpark and opened my office door I was greeted by Jobu himself, sitting proudly on the corner of my desk! The biggest stress item and question of the week — “Will the bobbleheads arrive in time?” — could now be crossed off of the list. Thank you Alexander Global for getting Jobu to us on time!

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I was then greeted by the Captains beat writer from The News-Herald, David Glasier. David was planning a story on the night and wanted to see Jobu. The News-Herald has been a long-time partner of the Captains and was the co-sponsor of Jobu along with our presenting sponsor Sysco. David and I staged a photo shoot in the office with Jobu and some other bobbleheads. I filled David in on some of the details for Friday, including the golf cart to bring our pitchers in from the bullpen and our plan for first baseman Nellie Rodriguez to play the role of Pedro Cerrano by using “hats for bats.” We also discussed one of our celebrities potentially backing out and brainstormed some potential last-minute replacements.

Then I walked through the concourse with stadium operations manager Josh Porter, so that we could finalize the placement of tables for autographs, sponsors, and the game-worn jersey auction. Josh has been helping with the logistics of the event, including police officers and crowd control for the night. Josh also put together Major League-inspired videos, with our Captains players assuming the roles of players in the movie.

During the afternoon it was time to pick up the phone and confirm more details. This included talking to the Browns to coordinate pickup of The Barge trophy, talking with Campy Russell to confirm Cavs guests, and, finally, at 6 PM, speaking with the representative for Stipe Miocic and Jessica “Evil” Eye (UFC fighters) to confirm t-shirt sales during the game.

That night, while lying in bed, I had a bunch of random thoughts go through my head about the night. This  included the possibility of closing the 1st base gate in favor of giving away all of the bobbleheads at the main gate. Also, what happened to the balls we sent to Corbin Bernsen for autographs?

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The Barge Trophy. It is actually a thing.

Thursday, July 31

It’s Jobu Eve at Classic Park. In the early morning I got an e-mail from one of our celebrity guests, former Browns and Lions defensive lineman Al “Bubba” Baker. He was inquiring about an in-game promotion involving his restaurant (Bubba Q’s), his barbecue sauce and his famous de-boned rib steaks, all of which were featured on the TV show Shark Tank. Previously we suggested giving out something for every Captains RBI (aka “ribby”) during the game. Bubba liked the idea and also wanted to give out a $50 gift card for every Captains home run.

After that I sat down with general manager Brad Seymour and stadium operations manager Josh Porter, to discuss the possibility of giving away all of the bobbleheads at the main gate. We determined that this would be best in terms of crowd control, and it would also make sure that one location didn’t run out before the other. I suggested routing everyone down the stairs and along the sidewalk in four lines, as we were anticipating long lines Friday night. After this Josh and I walked to the main gate to visualize how the lines would work. We made our best guess as to how long the lines might be and to see how we could safely route the fans along the side of the ballpark. Josh called the city of Eastlake to see if we could borrow traffic cones to help with this process.

In the office I checked the status of some final VIP orders to make sure they were fulfilled, so that there wouldn’t be any issues with this on Friday. (We sold out of VIP packages on Tuesday.) I talked to Josh Porter about our VIP event and how to keep season ticket holders out of the autograph area from 5:45 to 6:00 pm, when those two groups would be overlapping inside the stadium. We came up with a stanchion system that would divide the concourse, which be easy to remove at 6:00 pm.

I then went back to my to-do checklist. Items included working out the logistics of driving the golf cart onto the field, graphics for the video board, PA scripts and reads, and responding to e-mails from fans begging to buy Jobu bobbleheads.

Neil Stein at work

Neil Stein at work

During my lunch break I ran to Goodwill, Wal-Mart and Discount Drug Mart to get some props. We needed pajamas for our Willie Mays Hays in-game promotion, which was going to involve swinging a bat, doing 20 push-ups (like Willie Mays Hays every time he hit a popup during the movie), putting on pajamas and racing from home plate to first base (similar to when Hays was removed from the dorm during training camp, woke up late for practice and ran a 60-yard dash in his pajamas). At Wal-Mart I got red paper to make Red Tags to put under seats, signaling fans had won a prize (as opposed to in the movie, when a Red Tag in someone’s locker signified a player getting cut). Finally, I went to Discount Drug Mart to see if I could find a Pilot Flying J gift card at their Gift Card Center. Unfortunately, they didn’t have one. The plan was to allow anyone with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to register for a chance to win a $50 gift card, as retribution for the well-documented issues the company owned by Cleveland Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam, had with trucking companies over the past several years.

Our staff held a meeting at 3 pm, where we discussed all the games of the upcoming six-game homestand. (The first game was tomorrow’s Cleveland Sports History Night and Jobu bobblehead giveaway.) We spent 45 minutes discussing details and logistics for Friday night, so that our staff was aware of how things would run and be able to answer any questions. We also conducted a competition among the staff, guessing the time that the first person would arrive for the giveaway.

My guess: 5:30 PM Thursday night.

Following the staff meeting I left to pick up postcards and ticket vouchers for the ticket package we were going to offer to fans who didn’t get a Jobu bobblehead (more about this later). I was also going to pick up a banner for our main gate and a life-sized Skipper cutout, but they weren’t ready so I made arrangements to pick those up Friday.

Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of Neil Stein’s promotion planning journal! Will Eddie Harris opt for the Vagisil? What time will the first fan get in line for the Jobu bobblehead? Will the Skipper cardboard cutout ever arrive? All will be revealed! 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Crooked Nuggets: July 2014

Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the scrappy and succinct offshoot of my long-running , exceedingly awesome Crooked Numbers column on MiLB.com.

crooked_nuggets_215x160For the uninitiated, Crooked Numbers  is a monthly round-up of the the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. Jayson Stark does not know that the column exists, though he inspired it. The July 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com today — read it or die trying – and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness.

Brevity is key! Let’s get to it, lest it get to us.

WHAT A TAVAREZ-TY — The Salem Red Sox made five errors during July 7’s game against Frederick. Three of them were by right fielder Aneury Tavarez, and two of those were made on the same play. Tavarez has made 12 errors on the season, second-most in the Carolina League.

GAME NOTE OF THE MONTH — On July 4, the Charleston RiverDogs were set to face off against a “To Be Announced” Rome Braves pitcher. Who is “To Be Announced,” you ask? The RiverDogs ace media relations team took it upon themselves to provide an answer:

Today’s Starters:

ROM: LHP/RHP/SHP? — To Be Announced, often abbreviated as TBA, is a fixture in the sporting world. TBA usually shows up in lineup projections in various sports. Much like close relative To Be Determined or TBD, TBA has availability for any and every team as it is also scheduled to face Charleston on Monday with the Greenville Drive. Unfortunately, TBA has not made its debut in full game action although it has often been listed to make appearances for countless numbers of athletic outfits. TBA is of indeterminate age, gender, and virtually any other personal characteristic but is still expected to be seen throughout sports in years to come.

Last Outing: Not applicable (N/A, N/A) N/A IP, N/A H, N/A R, N/A BB, N/A K

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? — The Bakersfield Blaze played their last Thursday home game of the season on July 17; each of their six remaining Thursday games will be on the road. Seriously, I’m asking you — what are the odds? This seems to be highly improbable.

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WAIT, WHAT? — Entering July 16’s ballgame, Lancaster’s Danry Vasquez had hit one home run in 80 games. So, naturally, he went ahead and hit three home runs in one game. 

HEY NOW, YOU’RE AN ALL-STAR, YOU’VE BEEN TRADED, GO PLAY — On the morning of July 16, Omaha Storm Chasers reliever Spencer Patton was informed that he had been traded from the Kansas City Royals organization to the Texas Rangers. Effective immediately, he would be a member of the Round Rock Express. Patton managed to make one more appearance in a Storm Chasers uniform, however. The Triple-A All-Star Game was that night in Durham, and Patton represented Omaha even though he wasn’t technically a member of the team.

BLUE WAHISTORY — It took three seasons, but on July 25 Michael Lorenzen became the first player pitcher in Pensacola Blue Wahoos history to hit a home run. And not only did he hit a home run — he hit a grand slam against one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. 

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IT’S NOT HOW MANY HITS YOU HAVE. IT’S HOW YOU USE THEM — The Iowa Cubs handily defeated the New Orleans Zephyrs on July 24, winning 11-2. However, the Cubs were outhit in the game, 14-12.

ONE EVENING, TWICE TOSSED — On July 18, Oklahoma City RedHawks pitcher Alex White managed to get ejected in both games of a doubleheader against the Nashville Sounds. And, in both cases, he was ejected by the first base umpire. White, the starting pitcher in the first game, was ejected in the fourth inning by ump Ramon DeJesus after arguing that a ball ruled fair was, in fact, in his humble opinion, foul. In the first inning of the nightcap, White and manager Tony DeFrancesca were ejected from the dugout by umpire Adam Schwarz. Allegedly, the pair had been vocally expressing their disagreement with the umpiring crew’s arbitrating abilities.

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR AWAY — It is not unusual for a Double-A team to have a pair of first-round draft picks on the roster. But what is unusual is having a pair of first-round draft picks who were picked eight years apart from one another. That was the case in Akron for much of the season, as the RubberDucks’ roster included both Adam Miller (2003) and Francisco Lindor (2011). Miller, 29, is attempting to resurrect his career after a series of injuries. Lindor, 20, is considered one of the top prospects in baseball and was recently promoted to Triple-A Columbus.

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IT TAKES A VILLAGE — The Peoria Chiefs only mustered one hit against the Great Lakes Loons on July 28, but it wasn’t a typical one-hitter. From the MiLB.com recap:

The Great Lakes Loons needed a special effort to avoid a three-game sweep in Peoria Monday afternoon — from five (almost six) different pitchers.

After listed starter Jonathan Martinez was pulled from the game in the middle of the first inning, Great Lakes got a boost from its bullpen as five pitchers combined in a one-hit shutout of the host Chiefs, 4-0.

Martinez was healthy, said Jordan Hershiser, his last-minute replacement. His teammates surmised that, with the MLB trade deadline looming, perhaps Martinez was part of a deal or was being promoted, but nothing had been announced.

Martinez indeed had been traded. He was the Player to be Named “Later” in the deal that sent Darwin Barney to the Dodgers.

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INSIDE BASEBALL — John Drekker reports:

And wouldn’t you know it? As of this writing, Altoona (the Pirates Double-A affiliate) now leads the league in hit batters as well. Bristol (Rookie-level) is now one off the pace, however.

POSITION PLAYERS PITCHING, PART ONE — On July 20, Eric Sim pitched a perfect inning for the Augusta GreenJackets while Kale Sumner fired two perfect frames for the Charleston RiverDogs. Both Sim and Sumner are catchers.

POSITION PLAYERS PITCHING, PART TWO — July 30 was a banner day in the category of “moonlighting position players taking the mound and allowing an extra-inning grand slam in a game involving a Washington Nationals affiliate” The first occurrence was in Richmond, as Flying Squirrels leftfielder Ryan Lollis (relieving second baseman Skyler Stromsmoe) was taken deep in the 13th inning by Harrisburg’s Quincy Latimore. This was the Senators’ first grand slam since 2011.

The next instance took place in Potomac, as P-Nats third baseman Khayyan Norfolk yielded a 16th inning grand slam to  Myrtle Beach’s Lewis Brinson.

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YOUR ALEX FREEDMAN UPDATE OF THE MONTH — Those in the know know that Crooked content is never complete until we hear from Oklahoma City RedHawks broadcaster Alex Freedman.

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“There weren’t a whole lot of Crooked happenings with us throughout the July,” laments Alex. But here goes:

- Between June 21 and July 12, the RedHawks lost nine straight games when scoring first.
– From June 6 through the present day, the RedHawks have played one game that was scoreless through three full innings (July 22 vs. Round Rock). 

Of course, almost immediately after that email was sent, the RedHawks played a game (August 4) that was scoreless through three innings. That’s just the way things work within this Crooked Universe.

CU next time, and thanks for reading.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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