On the Road: A Winning Oscar Performance in Bluefield

To see all posts from my July 1 visit to the Bluefield Blue Jays, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

If you want to get some food at a Bluefield Blue Jays game — and who wouldn’t? — then this is the place to get it.

img_0012As for where to eat it, you’ve got options. One strong contender is this beer garden, which was added to the ballpark three years ago. Alcohol at Appalachian League games is, at most locales, a relatively recent phenomenon (two teams, Elizabethton and Princeton, still do not serve it).

img_0011On this pleasant Friday evening, I made the acquaintance of longtime Bluefield baseball supporter Oscar Miller. Oscar was my designated eater for the evening, tasked with consuming the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

img_0026Oscar grew up in nearby Bramwell, West Virginia, where he played basketball as a member of his high school’s “Bramwell Millionaires” basketball team. That team is famed for its undefeated 1967 season, which marked the first campaign in which white and black players played together. Oscar told me that, the year previous, neither the all-white or all-black Millionaires team won a game.

As for why this team was called the “Millionaires” in the first place, Oscar explained that, at one point, Bramwell had more millionaires per capita than any town in the United States. This was due to the rapid rise of the coal industry.

Oscar is a veteran of the Vietnam war who went on to serve 11 years in the Air Force, five in the Navy and then, finally, three more “at home” while in the National Guard. After his military career he became what he calls a “jack of all trades,” working all sorts of jobs at locales around the country. At one point he even took care of an elephant.

“I was in Charleston, West Virginia, and I was looking for a job,” he said. “This guy said, ‘Well, do you want to go on the road?’ You just have to feed [the elephant], buy him grain, care for it. The hardest thing was water. You can’t imagine how much water an elephant can drink. Just about a barrel full. But you could put 18 kids on an elephant, and it was two minutes a ride. If you’ve got an elephant, then you’re making money.”

Through it all, Oscar has always been a baseball fan. He called the sport his “first love”, and went on to play right field and, occasionally, pitch as a youth player. His biggest baseball hero is Hank Aaron, and he is a huge fan of the Cleveland Indians. He’s a member of the Bluefield Blue Jays Booster Club, and attends just about every game at Bowen Field.

Tonight, Oscar’s ballpark meal would be a chili dog along with a “Big Whiskey Barbecue Sandwich,” a new offering courtesy of a partnership with Bluefield’s Big Whiskey BBQ.

img_0023Oscar began with the Big Whiskey, which he had never had before.

“I’m surprised, it’s got a bourbon-like taste to it,” said Oscar, whose favorite local barbecue meal is ribs at The Railyard. “There’s a little bit of honey to it and it’s hot. It’s spicy. I’d get it again.”

img_0024Next up was the Chili Dog, an item that Oscar has enjoyed on hundreds (thousands?) of occasions.

img_0025“The chili dogs are delicious, I get ’em every night. And usually a popcorn, water and Gatorade,” he said. “The meat is real beef, and that helps. I don’t want to eat a hot dog if there’s any suspicion that it’s pork. Just beef.”

During the intervals of our time together when his mouth wasn’t full, I enjoyed hearing about Oscar’s various talents and life experiences. He plays the melodica and, on occasion, writes poetry. He proudly showed me his poem, Your World, which originally appeared in the Bramwell Aristocrat newspaper.

img_0028As Oscar and I spoke, I sipped on a soda. And, yes, this soda was in a souvenir cup that I duly photographed for all you #Cupdate aficionados out there.

img_0030As our time together was winding down, Oscar bought a sizable amount of 50-50 raffle tickets.

“You want an arm’s length,” he said.

img_0029“I enjoyed talking to you,” said Oscar, as we parted ways. “[Bowen Field has] got a really good atmosphere, going on for quite some time. It’s always been a place I want to be. It’s a part of life here, I guess you could say.”

img_1789***

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On the Road: Singing, Shouting, Shelled and Shot Off in Bluefield

To see all posts from my July 1 visit to the Bluefield Blue Jays, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

Welcome to the second installment of this Bluefield Blue Jays blog series, which is part of my larger Appalachian League blog series, which is part of my larger “On the Road” series. Everything is connected.

As the previous post ended, the evening’s ballgame between the Blue Jays and visiting Kingsport Mets was set to commence.

Shortly after the game began, I visited ultra-vocal Bluefield superfan Henry “Double Out” Belcher. I had interviewed Henry prior to the ballgame, but now I wanted to see him in action. Henry did not disappoint. This was one of my most widely-viewed Vine posts of the season, and almost certainly the one I have watched the most times.

I misidentified Henry as “Double Loud” Belcher in the above tweet (as opposed to “Double Out”). But you can see why such a mistake would have been made. He is (more than) twice as loud as any other fan in the vicinity.

I also spent some time speaking with Bluefield baseball mainstay George McGonagle, who served as the team’s general manager through the 2007 season. He was named “King of Baseball” at the 2012 Winter Meetings, and currently holds the position of Bluefield’s team president. He’s a Minor League Baseball icon, and central to Bluefield’s long history of Appy League Baseball.

img_0034As nighttime crept in, the verdant scenery surrounding Bowen Field assumed a muted tone.

img_0035Kingsport reliever Kurtis Horne came on to pitch the fifth, inheriting the always-tricky bases loaded, no out situation.

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I had met Kurtis’ older brother, Kyle, and father, Rocky, earlier in the week. They traveled from Canada’s west coast to see Kurtis pitch, and were extremely invested in his performance. With this as the backdrop, I couldn’t help but root for Kurtis myself. But it wasn’t meant to be on this evening, as Kurtis allowed how three inherited runners to score and then five more of his own. He was relieved with two outs in the frame, his ERA having skyrocketed into the double digits.

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My second-hand sorrow soon gave way to first-hand ecstasy, as I participated in a between-inning “Price is Right”-style contest. Here, mascot Birdie Jay displays the item I would be attempting to discern the price of.

img_0040My discernment, aided by fan feedback, was correct. I suddenly found myself the recipient of Suddenly Salad as well as a gift card to the local Grant’s supermarket chain. (Like a modern-day Robin Hood, I redistributed my winnings in the greater Bluefield area before leaving the region.)

img_0041 My next stop was the cheap seats. But, really, all the seats are cheap in the Appy League. That is one of the circuit’s many charms.

img_1793With the game winding down, general manager Jeff Gray and I paid a visit to the clubhouse. As mentioned in the previous post, the decorative skills of manager Dennis Holmberg make this a particularly unique environment.

img_1794The walls are lined with flags representing the myriad countries from which Holmberg’s charges have hailed.

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img_1797Still other walls are adorned with movie posters signed by members of each season’s team, as well as pop culture-referencing oddities such as this.

img_1801This display commemorates Holmberg’s most impressive accomplishment during his previous managerial stint, with the Auburn Doubledays.

img_1802From the clubhouse, Jeff and I made our way out of the ballpark. The postgame fireworks show was about to begin, and I had been invited to join the pyro crew.

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img_0049I wish I had more to write about the experience, but it all happened so fast and safety gloves precluded note-taking. What I can say is that everyone was very friendly and welcoming (particularly the woman in the first photo, who I believe was named Susan), and that it was was exhilarating and terrifying to be tasked with lighting a fuse. I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of fireworks shows over the last decade and it was a nice change of pace to experience it from the “inside.”

Never had I experienced fireworks so intimately and intensely.

I am now the proud owner of a “Pyro Crew” t-shirt.

img_5829Once the smoke had cleared…
img_1809…the lights went back on, revealing a field strewn with pyro detritus.

img_1811The Blue Jays would be on the road the next day, so clean-up wasn’t an immediate concern. What was a more immediate concern, however, is that I hadn’t yet written and disseminated my Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day.

In the Blue Jays’ office, Jeff turned to the internet for inspiration.

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just-one-liners.com

But it was no use. This was a battle that I knew I would have to face by myself, so I went to the parking lot and meditated until, finally, the following joke emerged from the darkness.

Goodnight, Bluefield.

***

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On the Road: State Lines and Sight Lines in Bluefield

To see all posts from my July 1 visit to the Bluefield Blue Jays, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

The Bluefield Blue Jays play at Bowen Field. I drove to Bowen Field from my hotel in Bluefield, West Virginia. Along the way I passed a “Welcome to Virginia” sign, a “Welcome to West Virginia” sign and, finally, a sign welcoming me to “Bluefield, Virginia.” By the time I arrived at the ballpark I was in a state, all right. A state of confusion!

img_0002Bowen Field is in Virginia, as it turns out. But it’s located within a public park encompassing both states, and this park is operated by the city of Bluefield, West Virginia. So, as with many things in life: It’s complicated.

My initial reaction to Bowen Field was a simple one, however: I love this place. It’s an appealingly rustic throwback, surrounded by natural beauty.

img_0003Prior to the game I went on a little walking tour with Blue Jays general manager Jeff Gray. Along the way we met some interesting people. Vlad, Jr., on the right, is all of 17 years old. Jesus Severino, who turned 19 just before the Appy League season began, is an old man in comparison.

Dennis Holmberg, the Blue Jays manager, is a baseball lifer. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1969 and, embarked on a coaching career immediately upon retiring as a player in 1977. 2016 marked his fifth in Bluefield, and in that time he has really put his personal stamp on the place. His office, and the clubhouses, are adorned with dozens of photos, flags, souvenirs, memorabilia, tchotkes and ephemera. It’s a like a MAD magazine drawing come to life, the professional baseball equivalent of the cover of Weird Al’s eponymous debutI’ll return to the land of Holmberg — Holmbergia? — in the next post.

img_0006It was now approximately 30 minutes before game time, and the grandstand seats were slowly filling in.

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Bowen Field dates back to 1939, but the original structure was largely destroyed by fire in 1975 (I was told by one fan that the fire was set by fans in nearby Princeton, who were “upset that they didn’t have a team.”) The orange seats are cast-offs from the Angels’ Anaheim Stadium.

This plaque commemorates the opening of the “new” Bowen Field in 1975. The “highly successful” relationship with Baltimore ended up running through the 2010 season, at which point it was the longest continuous affiliation in Minor League Baseball. After Baltimore decided to forgo having an Appy League team, the Blue Jays swooped. Bowen Field remains with the birds.

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On this evening, the visitor’s dugout would be occupied by the Kingsport Mets.

img_0010The view from the grandstand:

img_0013While in the stands I interviewed Bluefield super-fan Henry “Double Out” Belcher. He had arrived for this seven o’clock game early in the afternoon, simply because there’s no place he’d rather be.

img_0015My story on Henry can be found HERE. Click on the link to learn why he’s “the loudest man in Bluefield.” We’ll see him again in the next post.

Further wanderings led me to Kyle and Rocky Horne, the older brother and father of Kingsport pitcher Kurtis Horne. I had met Rocky and Kyle the previous week in Kingsport, writing an article about how they made the long trip from the west coast of Canada to watch him pitch.

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I think I might have thrown out a first pitch prior to the ballgame, but a couple of months have passed and my brain is addled and I cannot say for certain. At any rate, I was on the field just prior to the start of the game.

As is customary, the players were accompanied to their positions by local youth.

img_0020Patriotic rituals were then duly observed. 
img_1785There is still more to come from Bluefield, but I’ll cover that in the next post. Like the morning sun said to the grass, “I now bid you ‘a dew.'”

***

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On the Road: A Talking Rooster and Tossing Chickens in Princeton

To see all posts from my June 30 visit to the Princeton Rays, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

H.P. Hunnicutt Field, home of the Princeton Rays, was my first stop in the Appalachian League’s East Division. Princeton, population 6500, is located in southern West Virginia and borders the state of Virginia.

img_1738H.P. Hunnicutt Field is owned by the local school district, and the Rays share the facility with the the middle and high school baseball teams (a football field is located adjacent.). It opened in 1988 and has hosted an Appy League team throughout the entirety of its existence. The ongoing affiliation with Tampa Bay began in 1996.

Renovated in 1999, H.P. Hunnicutt Field lacks the timeless charm of other Appy League locales (Bristol, Elizabethton, Bluefield and Burlington spring immediately to mind). Most of the seating is comprised of uncovered metal bleachers, and the general architectural style is chain link chic.

img_0232 img_0235The press box can only accomodate one radio broadcast. Visiting game-callers need to improvise.

The entire seating area of H.P Hunnicutt Field is situated 10 feet above the ground, though un-elevated vantage points can be found in this humble picnic and party area.
img_0237The picnic area is bordered by the Roscoe’s Grill concession stand, which also has a window facing out onto the main concourse. There is no beer sold at Hunnicutt Field, as it is owned by the local board of education and the local board of education can not sanction such a thing on its premises.

img_0240The “Roscoe” in question is the Rays’ rooster mascot, who has his own t-shirt in the “Ray’s Cove” team store.

img_0242I met Roscoe out on the concourse, and, boy oh boy, was I in for a surprise.

img_1739Roscoe talks!

The above video was included in my MiLB.com article on Roscoe. In the story, you can also read more about Roscoe’s side gig as a local wrestler. The Cuban Assassin is no match for Roscoe!

princeton_roscoe_a_6rqfzy9k_8hlbaf3nAfter talking with Roscoe, I was not particularly surprised to find that a ballgame was ready to begin. The Rays were hosting the Greeneville Astros.

img_0247Play ball!

img_1743As ball was played, I continued my wanderings. At one point I briefly sat in front of two older gentleman, who were engaged in a small game discussion that had nothing to do with the action on the field.

“I used to split ’em, skin ’em and pull those guts out,” said one man of his rabbit dressing technique.

“I know a guy, he’d sneak into the city park and kill all them squirrels,” replied his companion.

I’m not sure how to segue from that conversational snippet.

Are these the best seats in the house?

img_1745

img_0249The Rays, owned as a corporation by the Princeton Baseball Association, are a small operation. Dedicated volunteers, such as the late Lefty Guard, have been crucial to the franchise’s continued existence.

img_0250“Lefty Guard helped set everything up, him and Junior Billings,” said Princeton general manager Nick Carey. “They were the go-to guys those first few years. Junior Billings still buys Lefty Guard’s tickets each year, and leaves the seat open.”

As for Nick Carey, I did not envy his position. 2016 was his first season as general manager; he is only 23 and the only full-time employee on staff. His predecessor, Jim Holland, had been with the team for longer than Nick and been alive.

Nick pretty much has to do it all. For example, he and Caitlyn, his lone intern, handled all the between-inning contests during the game. In this particular contest, beanbags were thrown at an eye.

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Here, Nick emcees a “Price is Right”-style contest. A bottle of barbecue sauce was the prize.

img_1748After awarding the young contestant the bottle of barbecue sauce, Roscoe told me that “I gave that kid Rooster suntan lotion.”

A few innings later, I was given the opportunity to participate in a rubber chicken tossing contest. I did not disappoint.

For my efforts I won a Bojangles gift pack, which I didn’t open until later that night.

I watched the final inning of the ballgame from the first base bleachers, appreciating the immensity of the Wendy’s sign all the while.

img_1753The Rays defeated Greeneville, 7-1, their fifth of what would be 38 victories in 2016.

Goodnight, Princeton, and good night Nick Carey. Congrats on making it through your first season.

img_1763I’ll let Roscoe have the last word.

***

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On the Road: Loving the Bologna in Elizabethton

To see all posts from my June 29 visit to the Elizabethton Twins, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

As befits a Rookie-level team working out of a small, city-owned ballpark, the Elizabethton Twins offer a fairly limited range of concessions. But what they do, they do well. I learned this during the evening I spent at the team’s Joe O’Brien Field, where the food offerings are served out of “Miss Jane’s Hardball Cafe.”

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I did not sample the food offerings myself, of course. That task fell to Mr. Daniel Buck, my designated eater for the evening. It would be Daniel’s task to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

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Daniel, who lives in Elizabethton, is a truck driver. He runs the same route each day, working from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., driving from Elizabethton to Roanoke, Virginia and back. He delivers tires while putting significant wear on his own, traveling approximately 1850 miles a week. His route includes stops in locales such as Marion, Chilihowie and Saltville (which, as he pointed out, was “the salt capital of the Confederacy“). Daniel was at the ballgame with his wife, Jennifer, and two and a half-month old grandbaby, Nariah. Yes, grandbaby. (Daniel is the same age as me, and he has a granddaughter. For me to attain grandfather status, I’d have to have some kids first.)

Food and beverage director Bruce Miller presented Daniel with two E-Twins specialties: the Fried Crown Bologna sandwich ($3) and a bratwrust ($4).

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Daniel began with the bologna.

Bruce, who’s been the food and beverage director for seven years, explained that he prioritizes “good stuff and good products” and that the bologna is no exception.

“I get it from a meat company, you can’t buy it like this,” he said, while declining to name the company in question. “They make it for me, cuts that are as big as a hamburger. There’s five or six ounces of bolognan[in each sandwich], and I put a little butter on the bread.”

Daniel was an instantaneous fan of the bologna.

“Well, it was gone fast,” he said, after polishing it off in a matter of minutes. “It wasn’t overcooked, and cut thick. I can’t make ’em like that. I’m breaking out in a sweat, it was so good. That was a Carter County steak, right there.”

Next up was the bratwurst.

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“It’s what you’d expect from a good ol’ ballpark bratwurst,” said Daniel. “It’s got a kick to it. I still love the bologna a little better and that’s saying something.”

img_0203This was all washed down with eastern Tennessee’s “energy drink” of choice, Dr. Enuf. If you’re in the region, you really owe it to yourself to get a Dr. Enuf. It’s got less distribution than Cheerwine, but beloved by those in the know.

img_1708Daniel wasn’t quite done yet. Dessert was deep-fried Oreos topped with vanilla ice cream.

img_0207Are you jealous?

As the above six seconds of video documentation makes clear, Daniel was a fan of the Oreos. More broadly, he was a big fan of all that was served to him during his time in this Joe O’Brien Field “Sky Box.”

“The food’s awesome,” is how he summed it up.

For that, we have Bruce to thank. I caught up with him later in the day and took this picture:

img_1725Thanks, Bruce! And thanks, Daniel.

***

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On the Road: Free Admission in Elizabethton

To see all posts from my June 29 visit to the Elizabethton Twins, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

As mentioned previously, I spent the first five nights of my Appalachian League trip in Johnson City (the home of the Cardinals). The other four teams in the league’s West Division are all located nearby, but no team is located closer to Johnson City than the Elizabethton (pronounced Eliza-BETH-ton) Twins. Joe O’Brien Field was a mere 10 miles from my hotel, but I still had some trouble finding it

I needed to make a left hand turn onto the downward-sloping road seen in the above photo, but missed it on my first three attempts. It’s a rather unobtrusive road.

img_0182And Joe O’Brien Field is a rather unobtrusive ballpark, gently enveloped by towering hillside trees. The Watauga River runs behind the third base side.

img_0183I arrived just as the gates opened, and was immediately confused. Fans were just walking in; no one was checking tickets. But as it turned out, this was not only the home opener but also one of the team’s “Free Admission Nights.” The Twins, run by Elizabethton’s parks and recreation department, are a community-oriented team and do their best to make a night at the ballpark an affordable outing.

I’m not sure that any team has ticket prices lower than this:

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Upon arriving I spent some time with Twins general manager Mike Mains, whose role with the team is an extension of his position as Elizabethton’s parks and recreations director. My conversations with him formed the basis of this MiLB.com article, which explains more about the team and how it operates. The game at which I was in attendance marked the start of Elizabethon’s 43rd consecutive season as a Minnesota affiliate. There’s lots of history here at Joe O’Brien Field, and it’s a beautiful place to spend an evening.
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img_1702Even though it was Opening Day, the pregame festivities were minimal. As part of a league-wide initiative, pitcher Austin Tribby was interviewed on the dangers of dip. “Don’t even consider it,” said Tribby.

Both teams lined up for on-field introductions prior to the game. In the below photo, Twins manager Ray Smith is trotting out toward home plate. Smith is an Elizabethton icon, as 2016 marked his 30th season on the Twins’ coaching staff. Not only that, but he began his playing career in Elizabethton as a member of the 1977 squad.

img_0195Once both teams were identified and accounted for, it was time for a rousing rendition of our National Anthem.

Soon after the ballgame began, I met with my designated eater. Following standard operating procedure, that will be featured in a separate post. The designated eating took place in the stadium “Skybox,” which offers as elevated a vantage point as one is going to get in an Appy League ballpark. The mountains in the background are part of the Appalachian chain.

img_0204While in the skybox I interviewed Dave McQueen, known throughout the ballpark as “Big Dave.”

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Big Dave has worked with the team for decades, primarily as head of groundskeeping and clubhouse operations. I didn’t quite have the time to put together a story on Big Dave before leaving on my next trip, but he’s a very energetic and colorful individual. Here’s a snippet of the interview. There’s more where that came from, so get in touch if you want to hear more.

And here’s another Sky Box view. There are banners throughout the seating area honoring prominent Elizabethton alumni, such as Kirby Puckett. Puckett made his debut as a member of the 1982 team, hitting a robust .382.

img_0211The Sky Box stairs are not for the faint of heart.

img_0213Back on level ground, I commenced to wandering.

img_0214On the concourse, the atmosphere was sedate.

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While there, I enjoyed this bit of wall art.

img_0217The whole atmosphere was sedate, really. The season had just started, and the fans didn’t seem to be in peak form. They are known for bringing cowbells to the games (Elizabethton is dairy country), and I had been warned that the cowbells can be maddening, but on this Wednesday evening they were used sparingly.

The response to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, meanwhile, was virtually non-existent. Maybe this Dr. John-style rendition just doesn’t resonate in Tennessee.

Regardless of the energy in the park — or lack thereof — I remained smitten with the Joe O’Brien Field experience.

After a brief stop in the press box…

img_0222…I exited the stadium at the third base side and spent some quiet moments along the banks of the Watauga.

The view looking back toward the ballpark:

img_1722The Elizabethton batters looked good in the on-deck circle.

img_1723But they couldn’t get much going at the plate. Final score: Pulaski, 6 Elizabethton 1

img_0226Before heading on my way I wrote and disseminated a Groundbreak and Subversive Ballpark Joke.

After that, I headed back into the wilderness. Good night from Elizabethton.

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***

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On the Road: Simple, Cheap and Nostalgic in Bristol

To see all posts from my June 28 visit to the Bristol Pirates, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

As one would expect from a Rookie-level ballpark operated by volunteers, the concession stand offerings at Bristol’s Boyce Cox Field are fairly limited. The “Fred and Brenda Scott” concession stand is located below the press box, facing outwards toward the field, and staffed by members of community organizations who receive a portion of the evening’s proceeds.

img_0156The view from the concession stand is a good one.

img_0157On this evening my designated eater was a man by the name of Todd Hare. (“Just like a rabbit,” he said of his last name.) It would be his job to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

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Todd, an Episcopalian priest and father of four, has been in the ministry for the past 21 years. For the past three years he has been based in Johnson City, working with the congregation of the Holy Trinity Church. This has been a homecoming of sorts for Todd, as he grew up in Bristol. And, growing up in Bristol, he was a regular attendee of ballgames at Boyce Cox Field.

“I would come to a lot of games as a kid, when they were [a Detroit Tigers affiliate],” said Todd. “I saw guys like Lance Parrish, Jim Leyland, Darryl Strawberry and Terry Pendleton. I grew up just beyond left field and used to sit behind the fence. These games are sentimental for me.”

Todd and I spent a whopping $6 at the concession stand, which netted us a Frito pie-like “Crow’s Nest” ($3), Chili Dog ($2) and a bottled water ($1). We then convened to the beer garden located down the third base line, a relatively new addition to Boyce Cox Field (which, like most Appy League ballparks, didn’t start selling beer until recently).

img_0160Todd began with the chili dog.

“The chili here comes from the meat market that’s been here since my childhood,” said Todd. “Malcolm’s Meat Market. I grew up knowing the family that owned it, played baseball with their kids in Little League.”

He continued, “It’s spicy, has a little heat but not overpowering. It’s very, very similar to the hot dogs served at the Little League right by the field here, and same as the [adjacent] stadium where I played high school football. It’s a very familiar hot dog.”

Todd finishes up his "very familiar" chili dog.

Todd finishes up his “very familiar” chili dog.

My attempts to find out why the “Crow’s Nest” was named as such were unsuccessful. But it’s a great $3 snack — Fritos topped with salsa, sour cream, shredded cheese, chili and jalapenos.

img_0162“I haven’t had one here, but I’m a really big fan,” said Todd. “There’s just the right amount of cheese and chili.”

Of course, Todd’s brief culinary excursion was highlighted by being within one of his all-time favorite environments.

img_0164“I love the simplicity of a hot dog, mustard and relish, or a chili dog,” he said. “There’s something about hot dogs, peanuts, Cracker Jacks and cold beer or a Coca-Cola that takes me back to childhood and all the smells associated with growing up around this park. It’s real nostalgic.”

***

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On the Road: Pirates in Bristol

To see all posts from my June 28 visit to the Bristol Pirates, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

Continuing on with this Bristol Pirates narrative, it was now game time.

Boyce Cox Field is about as no-frills as Minor League stadiums get. Reserved seats are $8, while a bleacher ticket will run you $5. Many fans bring chairs and blankets and watch from the grassy hill behind home plate. It all has the feel of an amateur environment, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Just that it’s so small and low-key.

Shortly after the game began, I ran into a real-life pirate.

img_1679This self-styled buccaneer is a man by the name of Dewayne Woods, who recently retired from the army. He said that he came to a few games last year and told himself, “Hey, I want to be a mascot.”

“I wanted to give back,” Dewayne told me. “I give out gold coins and candy from the concession stand.”

Dewayne has previous experience as a Civil War re-enactor, and parts of his pirate outfit were repurposed from his Civil War regalia. The gun, meanwhile, was obtained from a Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop at Disney World.

Later in the ballgame, after meeting with my designated eater, I “Mose”yed  on in to the press box.

img_0165I spent a couple of innings on the radio with Pirates broadcasters Dillon Hutton (left) and Rob Christian.

img_0166After that, I was back to my wandering ways.  img_0168

img_1688As the game wore on, the action on the field got more and more ridiculous. The visiting Greeneville Astros scored six runs over the first two innings, but Bristol tied the game with six of their own in the bottom of the seventh. These six runs scored via a bases-loaded walk, wild pitch, ground out, wild pitch, wild pitch and wild pitch.

This, right here, is Appalachian League Baseball at its finest.

capture

And it just got finer. Greeneville took the lead in the eighth after Spencer Johnson was hit by a pitch, advanced to third after a pair of wild pitches and scored on an error by the center fielder. Not to be outdone, the Pirates scored two in the bottom of the eighth, with both runs scoring on an error by the center fielder.

My notes also indicate that, in the top of the eighth, there was a delay due to a pitcher’s two-tone glove (allegedly) obscuring the ball.

Final score: Bristol 8, Greeneville 7. The Pirates won despite collecting just two RBIs on the evening, with the rest of the runs coming via errors and wild pitches.

So maybe the baseball wasn’t of the highest caliber, but it was a beautiful summer evening and the people were friendly and the ballpark was charming. I was totally smitten with the environment and would therefore recommend a trip to Boyce Cox Field should you be able to do so.

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As in Kingsport two days previously, I left the ballpark without having written and disseminated a Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke. Back at the hotel that night, I did my best to rectify the situation.

Sometimes, I’m not sure if my best is good enough.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Baseball in its Purest Form in Bristol

To see all posts from my June 28 visit to the Bristol Pirates, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

Before visiting the Appy League, quite a few people got in touch with me via email and social media to extol the circuit’s rustic, old-fashioned, down-to-earth locales. “This is baseball how it used to be,” was a common refrain.

If “how it used to be” = “simplicity, access and intimacy” then the Bristol Pirates’ home of Boyce Cox Field is a prime example of such. The Pirates are run as a non-profit, and don’t have a single full-time employee. For nearly everyone involved with this franchise, working at the ballpark is a labor of love.

Boyce Cox Field is located in Virginia, although there is also a “sister city” of Bristol, Tennessee (the state line runs down the middle of downtown’s State Street).

img_0131The tree-lined pathway seen above sets the tone for the kind of environment that exists here. From the entrance to the sloping grass berm to the wood-paneled press box, Boyce Cox Field felt like less like a professional ballpark and more like a well-maintained summer camp athletics area. But this is nonetheless a professional environment. Boyce Cox Field has hosted Appalachian League baseball since 1969, and Minor League Baseball in the region dates back further than that.

This plaque, located beyond a rightward bend in the aforementioned pathway, commemorates what is certainly the most famous occurrence in Bristol’s Minor League Baseball history: Ron Necciai’s 27-strikeout nine-inning no-hitter.

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Necciai, who appeared at a Bristol game in 2012 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his accomplishment, made his Major League debut with Pittsburgh during the 1952 season but didn’t pitch in the bigs at any point thereafter.

Lucas Hobbs, a local lawyer who moonlights as Bristol’s VP of marketing, was my pregame tour guide. He noted that there is a typo in the plaque: Necciai struck out 27 Welch Miners. Not Welsh Miners. Though they may have been Welsh, for all I know.

Beyond the plaque is the press box.

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The press box is more than a press box, as it also comprises office and storage area. As I entered, the game-day staff were in preparation mode.

img_0138Meanwhile, to the left, stood the foreboding entrance to the GM’s office.

img_0137Behind the door was Mahlon Luttrell, who let me in even though I did not know the secret knock.

img_0139I spoke with Mahlon and Lucas for a good 20 minutes about the Pirates and how they operate, which formed the basis for this story. To learn more about Bristol Baseball, just ignore my shadow and check out this banner.

img_0149One important element of the Bristol experience that is not illuminated in the signage is this: Boyce Cox Field has urinal troughs! Urinal troughs are a dying breed, and I will document their existence whenever I am able to do so.

img_1667As scenic as the men’s rest room was, it was even more scenic on the field.

img_1669While on the field I snapped a pic of Lucas and his daughter, Savannah, who was serving as the Pirates’ bat girl on this beautiful Tuesday evening.

img_1670I also got the chance to witness Dingbat’s dance moves.

This season, Dingbat was joined by a new addition to the mascot line-up: Captain Buc.

img_1675As Dingbat looked on, I took the mound for a ceremonial first pitch and, of course, threw a perfect strike.

img_0151Afterwards, my perfect form was used a teaching moment for these impressionable Rookie-level players. “Do what Ben’s Biz does” was, I’m sure, the lesson being imparted here.

img_0152Prior to the National Anthem, a local chaplain led the fans and players in a brief prayer. I had not experienced this pregame element before.

img_0155Once the religious and patriotic rituals had concluded, there was nothing left to do but Play Ball.

There will, of course, be more where this came from. Stay tuned for additional dispatched from Bristol, Virginia.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Raining Champs in Johnson City

To see all posts from my June 27 visit to the Johnson City Cardinals, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

My 2016 trip through the Appalachian League was greatly aided and abetted by the Johnson City Cardinals. General manager Tyler Parsons and exquisitely bearded assistant general manager Zac Clark had politely harassed me for years to come visit and when I finally committed to doing so they helped devise my league-wide itinerary. I spent the first five nights of the trip in Johnson City, which served as my home base as I visited the five teams in the Appy League’s West Division.

So, after all that, the lone rainout I experienced throughout the entirety of my 2016 travels occurred in Johnson City. Of course it did.

img_0128

Thwarted

That’s not to say I don’t have anything to write about. I always have something to write about, which is probably why I’m always writing. So let’s start at the beginning.

I spent the daytime portion of June 27 with Jenna Moore of the Johnson City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Our wanderings — documented HERE — included a brief daytime stop at the Cardinals’ TVA Credit Union Ballpark. The weather, at this mid-afternoon juncture, was beautiful.

img_1614

img_1616The ballpark, which underwent over $400,000 in renovations prior to the season, was looking pretty spiffy on this Monday afternoon. The below photo shows the view from the new party deck and beer garden.

img_1621But this is still the Appy League, after all, where less-than-luxe accommodations have long been the norm. This is the mascot dressing room, where Jay Cee unwinds between antics.

img_1624

By comparison, the recently-remodeled umpire dressing room looks like a five-star hotel.
img_1625Back outside, I was thrilled to see a large outfield billboard advertising Dr. Enuf (a regional “energy drink” I had been introduced to just several hours before.) I was also thrilled to see such a big cloud, which I named “Puff Daddy” in my mind before deciding that it’s really stupid to name clouds and that I should never do so again.

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By the time I returned to the ballpark several hours later, for my regularly scheduled visit, Puff Daddy had dissipated and the sky had turned a more foreboding gray hue. For those hoping to watch baseball on this Monday evening, it was not an azure-ing sight.

Nonetheless, a healthy crowd of optimistic early arrivers were on hand to partake in a variety of “Buck Monday” concession specials.

img_0120I, as always, was doing my best to ignore the foreboding sense of doom.

Mascot selfie time! What’s up, Jay Cee?! You should probably get that tongue laceration checked out when you get the chance.
img_1644

The foreboding sense of doom soon gave way to doom.

img_1646Most of the fans sought solace in the bleachers.

img_1649I, being a very important figure, sought solace in the press box. Exquisitely-bearded assistant general manager Zac Clark was there to welcome me.

At 6:40 the rains became truly torrential and cries of “Unplug everything!” were heard in the press box. The evening’s ballgame was not going to be played.

Though there would be no ballgame, I was in no rush to go anywhere because I didn’t have anywhere to go. While still in the press box, I interviewed 18-year-old Cardinals broadcaster Joey Liberatore. My story on Joey and his accelerated career path can be found HERE.

img_0127

By the time I was done talking to Joey, the rain had totally stopped and an idyllic calm had taken over the ballpark. The scene was serene.

img_0128But won’t somebody think of the pretzels?

img_1651The previous afternoon in Kingsport, I had failed to write and disseminate my Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day.

I was determined not to let this happen again, so it did not happen again. With an assist from exquisitely-bearded assistant general manager Zac Clark, a new comedy masterwork was soon created.

However disappointing it may have been at the time, the team recovered nicely from this Monday evening “Ben’s Biz in the ballpark” rainout. Buoyed by ballpark improvements, new ownership and a motivated front office staff, the Cardinals set an all-time attendance record in 2016 (51,855). Oh, and they won the Appalachian League championship.

Enuf’s enuf, guys!

img_1653Enuff Z’Nuff!

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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