On the Road: Three Times the Fun in Tri-City

August 28th was the last Friday of the regular season in Minor League Baseball, representing one of the final opportunities to pull out all of the promotional stops in the service of a celebratory evening of end-of-summer National Pastime action. That was certainly the Tri-City ValleyCats’ approach on this evening, an approach that extended to the imminent arrival of esteemed Minor League Baseball scene chronicler and gratuitous third-person referrer Benjamin Hill.

In a nod to my gluten-free diet (the result of a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis), the team released this video in advance of my arrival. No glutes!

I arrived at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in the mid-afternoon to ensure that I’d have enough time to fully experience everything that the ValleyCats had planned for me on this glutes-free evening. “The Joe,” as it as referred to colloquially, opened in 2002. Not coincidentally, 2002 was also the first season of the ValleyCats’ existence after the franchise relocated from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of the ValleyCats, the last Minor League team to have played in the Tri-City (Albany, Troy, Schenectady) region was the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League. That team re-located to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1995 and now plays in Richmond as the Flying Squirrels.

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The Joe is located on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, an institution of higher learning affectionately (or would that be derisively?) known as “Harvard on the Hill.” This was not my first time attending a ValleyCats game, but it had definitely been a while. In 2008 myself and a contingent of MiLB.com staffers visited The Joe to see the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, and while there I wrote a “fan experience” article that served as a precursor to the “On the Road” material that now dominates my professional existence.

This time around I was met at the entrance by Ben Whitehead, the account executive who appears in the “glutes” video posted above at the two-minute mark. Whitehead gave me a tour of the facility, which began in the ticket office (the exterior of which you can see in the above photo.)

009From there, it was on to the team store. Note the signage, which elucidates the region’s professional baseball history. The Schenectady Frog Alleys are not included in this regional round-up, but Tim Hagerty’s much-recommended Root for the Home Team: Minor League’s Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Tean Names and the Stories Behind Them includes a page dedicated to this oddly-named squad.

“The city of Schenectady is where the Hudson River and Mohawk River converge, leaving plenty of opportunities for reptiles and frog alleys,” writes Hagerty in the book.

011In the team store, one can buy jars of Helmbold’s hot dog sauce. New York state is home to many regional frankfurter purveyors, as I learned on this trip, and Troy in particular is known for its unique take on the hot dog.

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Shelf, shadows, sauce

The ValleyCats won the New York-Penn League championship in 2013. This season, the trophy was displayed in the team store for all to admire.

012Championship trophy selfie! Or, as I like to call it, a selphy:

013On the day I visited, the ValleyCats had already clinched the NYPL’s Stedler Division. A playoff ticket sale campaign had been launched with the tagline #unomas, but this drive for “one more” championship was thwarted in the best-of-3 finals series by the State College Spikes. In 2015, the trophy seen above will reside there.

017Ben and I then swung by the promo supply room, which, for those keeping score at home, contains a bongo.

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I really got lucky with the weather on this trip. Once again, it was a beautiful day for Minor League Baseball in the Empire State.

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During every game this season the ValleyCats ran “sixth-inning selfie” photos on the videoboard, submitted to the team via MiLB.com’s Inside the Park app. I posed for a photo and ended up looking like a silent movie villain.

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028Also on the concourse is Food’s on First, perhaps the only concession stand in Minor League Baseball to be named after a comedy routine. (The concession stand on the opposite side is called the “Hot Corner,” but “I Don’t Know” what it should be called.)

030Brown’s Brewing Company, a Troy-based brewery, sells its beers at this location (including a team-specific “ValleyCats Ale”). Apparently this is also a pre-game hangout spot for silver-haired game-day employees.

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The pre-game silver-haired hangout scene was slightly less robust at Vamos Tacos (a play on the team slogan of “Vamos Gatos,” which is Spanish for “Go Cats”).

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Buddy’s Grill serves the upstate New York specialty of salt potatoes (also available at Minor League stadiums in Buffalo and Syracuse), as well as the Binghamton-based treat that is the spiedie (marinated cubes of meat, served on bread).

033This is the view from “The Porch,” a seating area added in 2009 in place of the grandstand seating that had previously existed there.

036While in the Porch, I took the opportunity to get a little writing done. (Seriously, there is a line in my notebook which reads “I am working hard in the Porch. Seating area down RF line.)

037I had no problem gaining access to these special stadium seating areas, for the team had given me this (I haven’t taken it off since).

“We almost called it ‘Benjamin’s Button,'” said Ben.

035To my right stood one of the steepest berms in all of Minor League Baseball. Note that the right field foul pole is sponsored by DDperks.com, which is not to be confused with the Auburn Doubledays’ “Double D Booster Club.”

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On the other side of the concourse, there is a general admission Tiki Bar.

043 As batting practice took place on the field, ValleyCats pitcher Joe Musgrove could be found running on the stadium stairs.

041Musgrove wasn’t the only individual at The Joe exuding a profound passion for improvement. ValleyCats chef Jason Lecuyer, seen in the glutes-adverse video that leads this post, has overseen many additions to the ValleyCats’ culinary scene.

“Our goal it to create a dining experience,” he told me. “We use fresh ingredients as much as possible, because as an organization we want to be known for our food. We think we have the best food in the New York-Penn League. We want to take it to another level.”

One way in which Lecuyer has “taken it to another level” is via the addition of a brick pizza oven on the concourse. The oven was procured prior to this season from “a guy in Vermont,” and the team sometimes brings it to local food festivals and community events so that attendees can enjoy a “taste of the Joe.”

045I can’t eat pizza these days (on account of the glutes), but I can make it. First I donned some rubber gloves, utilizing the technique I had learned from my pal Dr. Peter Lund the previous Monday in Erie.

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Checking the temperature (the oven can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but it is generally in the 700 degree range).

046Adding the sauce. (Not pictured: adding the cheese.)

053Ready to bring the heat.

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055Several minutes later.

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The finished product, boxed and sliced.

059I could not eat the finished product, of course. That’s what I have a designated eater for! (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

This evening’s designated eater was a gentleman by the name of Kyle Wirtz. He lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and works as a personal trainer. He attends ValleyCats games on a semi-regular basis, however, as his in-laws live in nearby Watervliet, New York.

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“I’m a trainer by trade, so I’m really going to have to work this one off,” said Kyle, a long-time reader, first-time designated eater. “My buddies will bust my chops. ‘You know what you do for a living, right?'”

Too late to turn back now, Kyle.

061“I’m coming from Connecticut, where New Haven is known as the pizza capital,” said Kyle. “But this is pretty good. You guys did a nice job.”

Kyle would end up accompanying me throughout the majority of the evening, and in this way he became more of a “designated fan” than simply a “designated eater.” This gave me an idea for the 2015 season: When visiting teams who have devised a full slate of activities for me, I may just recruit a “designated fan” to come along and participate in the entire experience.

Ben, Kyle and I traveled down the third base concourse to visit the “Top of the Hill Bar and Grill” in left field. Ben told me that, in honor of my visit, it had been unofficially renamed “Top of the Benjamin Hill Bar and Grill.” Okay, sure, I’ll take any ego boosts that I can get. It serves as fuel for the long, cold offseason.

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067The view of the playing field, from seats located directly beneath the scoreboard.

066In the above picture, you may have noticed that there is a TV installed into the back of the scoreboard. A closer look:

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Long-time Ben’s Biz Blog readers may recognize the individual shown on the screen above. That’s ValleyCats broadcaster Sam Sigal, who, in 2012, while working as an intern for the Trenton Thunder, picked me up at the Trenton train station while wearing a hot dog suit. It was raining at the time, making this image all the more memorable.

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While hanging out in the Top of the Hill area, Kyle and I enjoyed some Nine Pin cider. Nine Pin is a local company that uses New York apples. The resulting cider is crisp and tart, free of the cloying sweetness that can make ciders unappealing. I give it an enthusiastic bottoms up.

071The pregame festivities were about to get underway, so Kyle and I hopped into a Jeep and rode to the field in style.

072Riding in this vehicle, Kyle and I had a great view of Southpaw’s feet, as well as his oversized championship ring.

080 075Just look straight ahead, Kyle. Everything will be fine.

077Views from the road:

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Joe Tuschak smiles for the camera

After extricating ourselves from the vehicle, Kyle and I wandered around the playing field. A pig was there to greet us.

086I love this dude in the sunglasses and bucket hat, who seems to approach autograph collecting as if it were a furtive back alley transaction. As Zach Davis puts pen to paper, this dude is keeping both eyes peeled for the fuzz.

088An absurd number of ceremonial first pitches were thrown out on this balmy summer evening, most of them by purple-clad members of various University of Albany sports teams. Most, but not all.

Ben Hill 1st Pitch (2)Biz Blog history was then made, as Kyle became the first designated eater to ever throw out a first pitch. (It was a great year for designated eater milestones. The previous month Greg Hotopp became the first designated eater to receive his own media credential, courtesy of the Indianapolis Indians.)

DE 1st PitchKyle’s first pitch was expertly delivered, befitting his status as a former pitcher for Manhattan College. In 2005, he led the Manhattan Jaspers with 22 appearances, picking up one of his wins against my Dad’s alma mater of Lafayette.

Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf

Kyle Wirtz, some eight years before achieving designated eating glory. (Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf)

Kyle’s career didn’t progress beyond the collegiate ranks, but his roommate was former Minor League (and current indy ball) pitcher Chris Cody. His Jasper teammates also included future Cardinal farmhands Nick Derba and Mike Parisi (who pitched briefly in the Majors).

“I was the mediocre one of my group,” said Kyle. (He was also, through no fault of his own, the Wirtz one of the group.)

There were 14 ceremonial first pitches overall, a new ValleyCats record. Oh, the glory of it all!

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Some merely witness history. Others shape it.

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ValleyCats players were then introduced one-by-one as they took the field. Unlike Southpaw, this is not a team that runs out to battle with its tail between its legs.

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With the players in position, it was time to “Play Ball!” Take it away, tentative young girl!

More than three hours after I arrived at the ballpark — and, now, more than 2,000 words after I began this blog post — the game was underway.

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I said it once and I’ll say it again: It was a beautiful night. Not just for baseball, but for being alive.

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First pitch duties complete, Kyle resumed his designated eating duties. Here, after obtaining some Vamos Nachos, he formally introduces himself.

The nachos, ready for their close-up:

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“These are some of the better nachos I’ve had at a ballpark,” said Kyle, who preferred eating nachos to giving his opinion on nachos.

I agreed with him — all of the ingredients were fresh, and there was no artificially-processed cheese product goop to be found. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nachos are naturally gluten-free if you use the right chips and cheese, and they are delicious. BETTER NACHOS EQUAL A BETTER MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE.

That nacho soapbox is mine. I’ll get it off it now, so that this overstuffed narrative can move on. Up in the press box, I joined erstwhile rained-upon hot dog Sam Sigal for an inning on the radio broadcast.

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I also spent some time operating the team’s scoreboard, which, at 17″ by 36″ is the largest primary scoreboard in the New York-Penn League. Apparently, this cow is some sort of control room mascot.

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A near-sellout crowd had filtered into The Joe by this point.

111 Kyle and I soon returned to ground level, so that Ben Whitehead could assemble yet another round of concession stand offerings for us. A panoramic view from our picnic bench location:

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Ben soon returned with this smorgasbord: salt potatoes, apple nachos (apple slices topped with peanut butter, Craisins and chocolate chips), chicken Spiedies (sans bread) and a  Mexican-inspired salad that I unfortunately forget the name of.

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Both the salad and the apple nachos had been obtained at “The Healthy Zone.”

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Kyle praised the salt potatoes, saying that this upstate New York specialty was something that his Mom made every week.

“It’s a quality side,” he said. “A real staple for me when I was a kid.”

The spiedies and salad received high marks from both Kyle and me, but Kyle was most enthusiastic about the apple nachos.

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“I don’t know, maybe I’m straight edge,” said Kyle. “But these are really, really good. It can be tough to eat right in the summer, but these are outstanding. So simple, yet so good.”

119As Kyle enjoyed a heaping plate of apple nachos, a fine mist was wafting through the playing field. These two occurrences were not related.

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One aspect of the ValleyCats’ experience that is not to be mist is the nightly mascot pitting the mayors of Troy, Albany and Schenectady against one another. I was assigned the role of Schenectady city boss Gary R. McCarthy, and in this photo I’m standing alongside my bespectacled colleague mayor Lou Rosamilia of Troy.

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The two of us, along with Albany head honcho Kathy Sheehan, concluded our back room dealings and headed out into the New York night in order to mingle with our constituents.

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I just signed this baseball as “The Mayor,” reminding me of the time I was in Inland Empire dressed as a molar and signed baseballs as “Tooth.”

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I’m a large-craniumed representation of Gary R. McCarthy, and I approve this message.

132Here’s how the race went down. That whole “digging in the dirt” sequence is not a Peter Gabriel reference, but a nod to the Diamond Dig that was to be one of the evening’s post-game festivities.

The race was followed by even more mingling with the hoi polloi. At this point I was feeling kind of light-headed and out of breath, yet another reminder that if I’m going to continue to do this mascot racing stuff into middle age (and beyond?) then I really need to exercise more during the offseason.

140After changing out of my mayoral duds, Kyle (who had been hanging out with me ever since I made him a pre-game pizza) and I ran into Ben Whitehead in the office. He was dressed as his “Big Tex” alter-ego.

142The Big Tex origin story, in the words of Ben:

As an Astros affiliate, we thought it’d be a nice tribute to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after our 7th inning stretch. Being that I have family in Texas and my wife is from the Houston area, I had all the necessities – Texas flag, cowboy hat, boots, “Everything is BIGGER in Texas shirt” and other Astros gear — so I decided to jump on top of the dugout dressed to the nines and sing. Instantly, it became a thing.

143Unfortunately I missed Ben’s routine. After he left the office I parted ways with Kyle as well, who had to leave due to familial obligations. Thanks, Kyle, for your exemplary work as not just a designated eater but a designated fan. We’ll always have the memories!

Changing the pace considerably, my next task was to head back out into the stands meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It would have been awkward to document this portion of the evening, but it was nice to meet them! They live in Troy, where my girlfriend, Rebekah, grew up, and more detail on the personal-professional confluence can be found in this blog post featuring my city of Troy-based explorations.

So, yeah, in a nutshell: This was turning out to be a very long night in the midst of a very long road trip, and at this late juncture I was beginning to lose a little steam. Like, what’s even going on here? A hot dog on a bike is being pursued by a hot dog in a car? It’s all a bit blurry.

147I went back to the Top of the (Benjamin) Hill Grill to collect my thoughts.

153No thanks, guys, this time a ride will not be necessary. I’ll walk.

148I spent the final inning of the ballgame with the “Vamos Gatos” fan group, a contingent of enthusiastic ValleyCats supporters located behind home plate (the “Vamos Gatos” crew includes none other than Santa Claus, who apparently spends his summers in upstate New York). Follow them on Twitter @VamosGatosCrew.

The Vamos Gatos crew had much to cheer about, as the home team emerged with a 3-2 win.

156But a night at the ballpark does not conclude with the cessation of on-field play. That’s just not how it works in the world of Minor League Baseball, especially on a Friday night. Next up was a post-game Diamond Dig, in which female fans were given wooden spoons and invited onto the field so that they could hunt for a valuable piece of dirt-submerged jewelry.

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And they’re off!

159Try as I might, my Diamond Dig photographic efforts paled in comparison to my 2012 efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, still, these are always fun to watch. Several minutes (and many increasingly obvious emcee clues) later, this woman emerged with the diamond.

162An acceptance speech soon followed.

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Launch-A-Ball was the next item on the agenda. A popular pastime among the front office staff gathered on the field was to pelt tennis balls at this hapless inflatable referee.

165Meanwhile, I logged some quality time with Chef Lupos, New York’s preeminent spiedie marinade purveyor.

167Finally, there were fireworks. Or, if my photos are to be believed, intimations of fireworks.

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Racing to fertilize the egg?

Finally, after this action-packed slate of post-game programming had concluded, I got the chance to meet with fellow baseball writer Steven Cook.

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Steven writes the Greatest 21 Days blog, an ongoing attempt to profile all of the Minor League players featured in the 1990 CMC card set. It’s a quirky, obsessive and illuminating writing project, and I recommend it. Steven took photos of Brooklyn Cyclones coach Tom Gamboa during the ballgame, in preparation for an interview that occurred the next month. (The full list players he has interviewed can be found along the right side of the blog.)

Upon saying goodbye to Steven, I headed out of the ballpark (some seven hours after I had entered it). Thanks to the ValleyCats for their prodigious hospitality, as this was a truly memorable evening.

That’s all folks! Pig out.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

3 Comments

In the second paragraph, shouldn’t it be “ensure” as opposed to “insure”?

Awesome post! That part just bothered the OCD English Major aspect of my typical blog enjoyment.

The fix has been made, in order to ensure an OCD-free blog reading experience.

As a former resident of Utica into the 70s baseball was a zero unless one went to Syracuse. It is good to see people in the Capital District enjoying TEXAS STYLE???
As a Yankee fan I would be in the stands for Staten Island if I weren’t in L.A. Nice piece.

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