On the Road: Strawberries and Bologna at a Fun Place in Jackson
The town of Jackson, TN is sandwiched between Memphis and Nashville along I-40, and boasts a modest population of 65,000. It’s not the most obvious Minor League market, given its small size and close proximity to glitzier locales, but has nonetheless been a proud host of Southern League baseball since the late 20th century.
1998, to be exact, a time of presidential perjury trials, overlooked Mudhoney albums, and the release of Free Willy back into the wild. And ever since those halcyon days, the team has called Pringles Park home.
And, yes, the team is called Pringles Park because the iconic potato snack product is manufactured in Jackson. (Proctor and Gamble sprung for the naming rights). And even though Pringles are potato “crisps” as opposed to chips, the stadium is still colloquially referred to as “The Big Chip.”
Right out in front of the stadium, whose address is the unforgettable “4 Fun Place, one finds this touching tribute to “the children of Tennessee’s Fallen Warriors.”
But let’s not enter the stadium just yet. Pringles Park underwent a $1 million improvement project this past offseason — and all of the improvement occurred outside of the facility. 40,000 cars pass by daily on I-40, and in the past the stadium view on offer was obscured by what Generals GM Jason Compton describes as “kudzu and piles of sand.” That distressing situation is now in the past, thanks to a little bit of land acquisition and a whole lotta landscaping.
“The best billboard is the park itself,” Compton told me, and it’s clear that he and his organization take a lot of pride in these exterior improvements.
Look, a fountain!
I was out in this area with media relations assistant Bradley Field, who reported that “there have been no splashdowns yet.” I then suggested that the team needs a name for the fountain, and Field responded with “Pringles Pond.” That’s a good start, but this is the kind of thing that can only be decided via the power of social media (well, either that or a half-drunken brainstorming session).
The Generals certainly leave no doubt as to their affiliation. Behold this phenomenal tourist attraction: the biggest Seattle Mariners billboard east of the Wasatch mountains. (Also note the new videoboard, coquettishly peeking out from beyond center field).
The team also advertises the affiliation of its opponent, via this sign:
As you can infer, on this evening the Generals were playing the Dodgers-affiliated Chattanooga Lookouts. There were no Lookouts to be found once I returned to the stadium’s interior, but there were myriad Generals in the midst of their pre-game preparations.
During this portion of the evening I interviewed Taijuan Walker and then Nick Franklin from a picnic bench beyond the left field fence. Franklin, who I also spoke with in High Desert last season, has since been promoted to Triple-A Tacoma along with ace pitcher Danny Hultzen. Walker, just 19, might not be far behind.
Basically, the Generals are stacked. They handily won the first-half North Division title (look for Friday’s MiLB.com piece about the improbable manner in which that all went down), and it could be argued that they’re the best team in all of Double-A. Broadcaster Chris Harris told me that there has been more media interest (local and national) in this team than in his previous three years combined.
After the interviews, I adjourned to the dizzying heights of the press box…
and interviewed team bus driver Thomas “Double T” Tansil about what it was like to be part of the team’s recent clinching celebration in Jacksonville (again, more on that over at MiLB.com, soon). Tansil radiated contentment and seemed to like everything about his job, saying “it’s all been good, I wouldn’t trade nothing for it.”
The game began soon afterward, with the since-promoted Hultzen on the mound in front of a rather sparse midweek crowd.
As for the crowd — it was a Wednesday evening and as anyone who works in Minor League Baseball knows, that’s just how it is sometimes. The Generals attendance is up this season, however, thanks to factors such as the ballpark improvements and on-field success and recent re-branding (they switched to “Generals” in 2011, after being known as the “West Tenn Diamond Jaxx”).
And there’s certainly room for further growth. Compton, a West Tennessee native who has been with the club since 2001, is in his first season as GM. He’s working on enlivening the entertainment and promotions, and efforts in that regard have been fruitful (that’s a play on words, as you’ll see soon enough).
At any rate, it was time for me to wander. That’s just what I do.
It was behind home plate that I first saw Sarge. He was playing a game called “stand like a statue while I gently caress the back of your hand.”
Down the third base line, manager Jim Pankovits was doing his best to keep the field clear of wayward bat shards.
My lone fish-eye indulgence of the evening.
As I made it back toward home plate, I was able to watch Sarge lead a crowd of young fans in the Chicken Dance.
I couldn’t participate in these fowl activities, however, as I had my own agenda. The nightly Fruit Race was coming up soon, and I had been recruited to participate.
When I asked Compton “Why a fruit race?” his response was one that I have heard many times over when traveling through the Minor Leagues: “Why not?”
The fruit race costumes were lovingly kept in a storage area behind the left field fence (close to my picnic bench interview spot). I chose Strawberry.
And here, things get a little weird. I handed off my camera so that the race could be documented by members of the promo team, and the first photo taken looks like this:
And then, there were eight consecutive “file not found” images before, finally, this shot showing the conclusion of the race (I came in second).
I really have no idea what happened — maybe some wrong buttons were pushed, or the camera was dropped. But it started working as soon as it was handed back to me, so my explanation is this: My camera loves me, and me only, and was probably dismayed to see me demeaning myself at a Minor League ballpark yet again. Its malfunction was a protest of sorts, motivated by a desire to only document me at my best.
I love you too, camera. I love you too.
I also love being on the radio, and after shedding my Strawberry skin and once again donning my wandering blogger outfit I went up to join Harris for an inning on the air. These digs are nicely appointed…sunset, headphones, ketchup — what more could you want?
Nothing works up an appetite like being on the radio (I mean, why not? Just go with me on this one). A grill behind home plate provided a fair number of options:
The “Ricoh Burger” listed above was created by — who else? — Ricoh. He’s the man manning the grill, and has been doing so for nearly the entirety of the team’s existence.
Ricoh told me what was in the Ricoh burger, but I neglected to write it down and have now, unfortunately, forgotten. It was definitely one of those “little bit of everything” creations, and seemed a bit too much for me to handle at the moment. So I went with the bologna sandwich, and stand by this choice:
I’d only had one other bologna sandwich in my Minor League travels, and with all due respect to the Danville Braves Ricoh’s version was far superior. After receiving the sandwich I went to a concession stand down the third base line, with one item in mind. Try to guess which one:
But I was denied! There were no fried green tomatoes at this portion of the evening, so that particular ballpark experience is going to have to come another day. Or not.
I instead bought a Yuengling (which had a personal significance that I’ll explain at a later date), and then did something I rarely do on these road trips: sat in one place, as a fan, for two innings straight!
From this vantage point, I watched the Generals win the ballgame.
A few players stopped to sign autographs on their way back to the clubhouse and, really, that was that.
After the game I was thoughtfully given a nice array of Generals merchandise, which will soon be given away, by me, on Twitter. Stay tuned! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fit this hat in my carry-on luggage.
On my way out of the stadium, a skunk crossed right in front of my car. I probably should have immediately gone in the opposite direction, but instead tried to document the moment for posterity. It didn’t turn out that well, so I have helpfully enhanced the photo so that you may see what I saw. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day you see a skunk in a Minor League parking lot. It was a moment to cherish.
And that’ll do it for me, from Jackson. I wrote this post in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and was going to link to this song but then got overwhelmed by how great it is so here ya go. (And kudos to the Generals for playing the Johnny Cash/June Carter version over the PA after the game.)