On the Road: Incandescent Insects in Columbia

To see all my posts from my May 12 visit to the Columbia Fireflies, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of 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).

North and South Carolina are both great states for Minor League Baseball. It’s a region I would highly recommend visiting, regardless of circumstance. But my May trip to the Carolinas was motivated by a specific circumstance, and that circumstance was this: a new stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.

That stadium is Spirit Communications Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies (who formerly existed in the form of the Savannah Sand Gnats). The ballpark is located on the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital, and the Fireflies are the focal point of a development project that aims to turn this area into a massive “live-work-play” downtown destination.

I arrived more than three hours before the game, at a moment in time when the sky was ominous. The spirits communicating above the park must’ve been in a bad mood.

This auspicious structure, located beyond right field, was once the main building of South Carolina’s state mental hospital. The brand-new building to the left, which recently welcomed its first tenants, features views of the field from its opposite side.

001This is the area leading up to the ballpark’s front entrance. Clearly, there is much left to develop.

004I’ve already written a sprawling MiLB.com article detailing my visit to Spirit Communications Park. In the interest of not being redundant, repeating myself or being redundant, the remainder of this post will be short on information that can be found within the article.

With Fireflies president John Katz as my guide, I took a lap around the stadium.

005

This is the view from behind the ballpark. I repeat: There is much left to develop. The ballpark is in the middle of the 150-acre former mental hospital campus.

011Spirit Communication Park is fairly straightforward in its overall layout and design. One of the most noticeable quirks are the wild juts and severe jags of the outfield fence.

021Some 90 minutes until game time, the skies opened up and there was a mad rush to put the tarp on the field. It was a passing storm, however, and while it may have affected the walk-up sales it did not delay the start of the ballgame.

IMG_1344Once the rains came, Katz had to suspend our tour in order to help out with the tarp-pulling process. He left his walkie-talkie in my possession, which led to me discovering that within the Fireflies hierarchy he is “El Jefe.”  025With the tarp secured, I reunited with “El Jefe” in the front office. Amid the general pregame hubbub, it was discovered that a scheduled English class for Latin American Fireflies players had no place to meet. Katz told them to go ahead and use his office. A great Minor League Baseball moment.

027Upstairs, there is a 7000 square foot Club Lounge, used year-round for all manner of events.

033The view from the top.

034I parted ways with Katz shortly after the gates opened, and just kept wandering. Back on the concourse, I snapped a picture of the team’s recently-procured firetruck (they are the “Fire”flies, after all). This will be utilized at community appearances and parades and whatnot. The Fireflies join at least one other Minor League team — the Peoria Chiefs — in firetruck ownership.

039Most of the early arriving crowd were Thirsty Thursday imbibers, congregating around the Budweiser Bow Tie Bar.

042Lawn Pong — a.k.a. Jumbo Beer Pong — was being played on the grassy area behind the bar.

On the outfield concourse I ran into Matt “Possum” Campbell, a long-time friend of this blog and two-time designated eater (with the Charlotte Knights and Kannapolis Intimidators). Matt, ever-thoughtful, had brought me a gift: a Weird Al Simpsons figurine. Two of my all-time favorite things, combined!

IMG_1346With Weird Al stowed safely in my pocket, I made my way behind home plate for the start of the ballgame. The Fireflies players had just been introduced to the strains of “Light ‘Em Up”.

047Mason, the most luminescent mascot in Minor League Baseball, was there to greet me as the game began.

048I spent the first several innings of the game with my designated eater. This, of course, will be documented in the next post. At one point I had to briefly abscond from these duties in order to participate in a karaoke contest atop the dugout. This, right here, was an all-time career highlight.

The rest of the evening was a blur. All I can say is that it was a beautiful night…

IMG_1350…and that at one point a bunch of humans ensconced within inflatable orbs were running all over the field.

059I’m pretty sure I took this picture just because I love how this dude spells his first name.

077The “best shoes of the night” award, which I have never before bestowed, goes to Fireflies director of facilities Edward Keen.

IMG_1362As the ballgame ended, I wandered past a large pile of deflated plastics. This was my cue to exit. Nothing left to see here.

IMG_1365

All that was left to do was write and disseminate a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

And with that, it was time for me to glow back to the hotel. Get it? Because fireflies “glow”? It’s always good to end on a high note.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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