On the Road: Miraculous Encounters in Fort Myers

After spending Friday evening at the Clearwater Threshers game, I awoke early on Saturday morning to meet Dave Deas (a.k.a. “Phinley”) for breakfast at the legendary Lenny’s. I then drove two hours south on 75 to Lee County, within which Fort Myers resides. After a relatively brief tour of JetBlue Park, new Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox, I checked into La Quinta Inn (apparently one of the preferred hotels of the Florida State League) and geared myself up for the evening’s main event.

The Fort Myers Miracle.

The above baseball palace is Hammond Stadium, which in addition to hosting the Miracle serves as the Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins. It really is quite beautiful:

I arrived at the ballpark at 4 o’clock, just in time for an unprecedented commitment in my professional career: speaking to a Cub Scout troop. The invitation to do so came courtesy of loyal reader/former Miracle blogger Ed Pelegrino, cubmaster of Troop 110. I didn’t have prepared remarks or anything, I just spoke about my background, what it is I do and what brought me to this current reality. The underlying message was that there are ways to make a living in baseball above and beyond being a player.

My spellbound audience:

This next pic will probably always put a smile on my face. Thanks, pack 110!

I then went in search of Miracle staff members, to be like, “Hey, I’m here. What indignities shall I suffer in the name of Minor League Baseball tonight?” The offices were largely deserted, but I did notice this hilarious piece of communication on the office door of promotions director Gary Sharp.

I caught up with Sharp and crew on the concourse, and soon departed in the clubhouse to interview Miracle manager Jake “Yes, Joe’s Brother” Mauer. (A nicer guy, both within and without of the world of baseball, would be hard to find. Look for a video as soon as I am in possession of an internet signal strong enough to allow me to upload one.)

Back on the concourse, I signed up as an “event seeker” as part of the Miracle’s “Be Your Own Fan” initiative. (There are eight categories of fan, and those who sign up receive special offers tailored to their specific category.) In this picture I think I’m explaining that I wish I wasn’t as old as I actually am.

And after talking with Sharp, I found out that he did indeed have many adventures planned for me. One look at the guy and you could tell he meant business.

Clearly, ample sustenance was needed before dealing with the likes of that guy. So I scanned the concession menu, and settled on the “Miracle Dog.” This is a DIY sort of a item, some assembly required.

This…

becomes this:

That’s bacon, nacho cheese, and peppers. I put on the nacho cheese first, so that it would serve as a bacon adhesive. Then, for the coup de grace, I dumped on the peppers. An extremely well-thought out strategy, one that resulted in the masterpiece you see above. Confidence bolstered, I made my way down to the field to throw out one of the evening’s ceremonial first pitches.

Miss-A-Miracle was glad to see me, but then again she’s glad to see everyone.

The scene on the field was a colorful one, what with the orange and pink t-shirts, the Miracle’s yellow and teal throwback uniforms (they are worn every Friday and Saturday home game this season), and the green grass. It was like a rainbow down there, I tell ya. A rainbow.

The orange shirts were worn by individuals involved with the Dave Clark Foundation, which had staged a remarkable event that morning. The entire Miracle team and coaching staff joined 24 disabled children on the field, giving them one-on-one instruction and helping to stage a game. I interviewed Clark later in the evening, and his story is absolutely remarkable (he had polio as a child, and went on to pitch professionally while on crutches). I’m going to postpone my story on him and his Foundation and their work with the Miracle until after I return from the road, so that I can give it the full attention that it deserves.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of Dave Clark (sans five).

My story is far less inspiring, but it’s all I’ve got: my first first pitch of the season was a strike! Right down the middle! Take my word for it, while admiring the form:

With the game underway, my first task was to take on these two young gentleman in an onfield inflatable pony race. You’re going down, kids!

I may have been a bit older and larger than the my opponents, leading to a bit of resentment from the crowd. I did my best to embrace my temporary villain role…

 …and with that, it was off to the races.

It was a close-fought contest, in which I honed the techniques I learned in Lake County last season, but in the end I lost. I usually do. Congratuations, kid #1.

Next up on the agenda was to use a slingshot to launch a beanbag onto a target placed on the outfield grass.( If memory serves, this was indeed the actual name of the game.) Would you believe that I was unsuccessful?

I prefer to do things in threes, and this certainly includes failed endeavors. So I wandered over to the speed pitch to try my hand at the Miracle’s latest (and therefore greatest) promotion:

The Miracle announced this last week, and it generated a lot of media attention. Here’s how: they tweeted the idea, I re-tweeted it, and a Baseball Prospectus writer saw my tweet and brought it to the attention of a Yahoo! blogger. Yahoo! did a blog post on it, which in turn led to a FoxSports article which in turn was basically re-written by USA Today. And so on and so forth.

The moral of the story is that I am the greatest of all time. And, also, that my fastball is apparently 44 miles an hour.

MLB.com’s Adam Berry happened to be visiting in order to write an article on the Miracle’s Moyer phenomenon (which, in actuality, amounts to two goofy flyers taped to an inflatable speed pitch game). Here he is throwing about as “fast” as I did, and his story can be found HERE. 

My final on-field appearance was atop the third base dugout, as part of a “sing-off” against the third base side. Basically, it amounted to me singing “Born to be wiiiilllllld” at an appropriate moment.

Looking sharp!

After the Miracle Dog, did I need more food? No, I did not. But a stop at the Char Bar happened nonetheless.

There was no way I’d of been able to handle the “Richard Simmons Burger” at that point, but out of a sense of obligation to you, my reader(s), I went with the next strangest:

The mac and cheese burger (which tasted exactly like macaroni and cheese atop a hamburger) accompanied me to the press box. The next order of business was to serve as the official scorer for the top of the sixth inning. The usual guy, Scott Pedersen, was more than happy to oblige. “I like it up here, but I sure could do without the scorekeeping,” he said. “I don’t breathe until each team gets a hit every night.”

Scott Pedersen, official scorer, is the man in the middle.

My “decisions” were as follows: F7, K, K. No fuss, no muss.! Slightly dicier was handling PA announcing duties, as nearly every batter I announced was of Latin origin and therefore possessing a name with silent letters and, to me, unknown syllabic emphasis. But I got through it alright, and even aced a Wells Fargo ad read during a pitching change.

My copy: together we'll go far

PA native

Finally, I joined announcer Brice Zimmerman in the announcing booth for a long and exceedingly sloppy seventh inning. He let me attempt play-by-play on several occasions, and it was pretty brutal. This was an inning with rundowns, errors, suicide squeezes and more – a lot of crazy stuff happening in a short period. I was reduced to descriptions like “The ball is hit. Uh-oh! (long pause) Wow!” Stay tuned for the audio.

But I did enjoy speaking with Zimmerman: explaining what it is I do, the specifics of this current road trip, and how dignity is optional when I’m at the ballpark. Thanks for having me on!

There wasn’t much left for me to do at this point, so I reverted to taking pictures while inside the men’s room. I thought it was funny how, instead of mirrors, the team installed framed pictures of orange bricks.

Oh, and how could I forget? It was during this late juncture that I interviewed Dave Clark (again, I’ll write a feature on him upon my hopefully triumphant return to NYC. And, again, it’s a great story). Here he is with daughter Elecia:

Soon after I was done speaking with Clark, the visiting St. Lucie Mets emerged triumphant in the ballgame. That left one thing left to do, and one thing only: Launch-A-Ball!

Goodnight, Fort Myers, and thanks for the hospitality.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

12 Comments

Awesome! Can’t wait to read about the next stop. And the term “bacon adhesive” is simply outstanding. Thanks for sharing!
- Malcolm

http://theballparkguide.mlblogs.com/

loved this story can’t wait to read more about the trip i think you need to do a northeast/central ohio trip and hit all the indians minor league affiliates around this area

Terrific! A great story. What baseball is all about or used to be all about!
Thank You for writing it!

Wow…the Richard Simmons Burger looks amazing…must have one. Seems like you met some very nice people on this trip, and what a nice stadium, too!
–Mike

Whether or not your first pitch is a strike or a ball, one consistent aspect is the Ben Hill lean-to-the-left-side-with-a-straight-right-leg form.

Absolutely love the reports Ben! This is my favorite site on the entire ‘net. Great stuff.

Great goodwill stop on your trip!

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