Hi everybody. Ben’s Biz here. I hope that you had a great offseason.
How was mine?
Thanks for asking. I kept busy. I enjoyed some vacation time in San Francisco and Montreal, lost money at the racetrack on a couple of lazy Sunday afternoons, volunteered on a regular basis, determined that Isaan Thai cuisine is the world’s finest, put one of my cats to sleep, thought a lot about the music Mark Sandman would have made had he not died at such a young age, broke up with my girlfriend and finally surpassed the halfway mark in my ongoing effort to watch all 325 episodes of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. Just life, is all.
Of course, I wrote about Minor League Baseball throughout, covering all of the offseason developments that are fit to print (or post, or tweet, or whatever). But, for everyone in baseball, life takes quite a drastic turn once the season starts. Instead of being merely involved with baseball, one becomes consumed by it. For me, that means traveling the country visiting Minor League ballparks.
Therefore, I’d like to let it be known that my 2015 trip itineraries will be revealed on…drum roll please…April 3.
So, yeah. Get excited. Did you hear me? GET EXCITED. At this point I’m not sure if I’m talking more to you, the presumably loyal reader, or myself. But, regardless: This season, like every season, my goal is to provide the best “On the Road” content I possibly can. From the start it’s been a learn-by-doing kind of thing. There’s certainly no established template for it, and your feedback (yes, yours) regarding what works, what doesn’t and what it is that you’d like to see has been crucial. So, please, keep getting in touch.
And, please, keep spreading the word that I’m doing this is in the first place. Readers, tell your like-minded friends. Teams, tell your fans. New Yorker “Talk of the Town” writers, please consider profiling me.
Finally, as I count down the days until the unveiling of my road trip itinerary, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite #BensRoadTrip memories from seasons past:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 24, 2015
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 25, 2015
Thanks for your continued support.
Harbingers of baseball season are everywhere these days. It will soon consume us entirely; we are the Jonah to its whale. One of today’s most prominent harbingers involves that which will be soon be consumed. The West Michigan Whitecaps, perpetual culinary innovators, have unveiled their new 2015 concession items.
Leading the list of additions is the winner of this season’s Food Contest, as voted on by the fans. Among a field of 10 items, the “Hot-to-Tot” nabbed 17% of the votes en route to victory.
Hot-to-Tot, which I assume is a reference to the best movie within the “stock market-savvy talking horse” genre, is described as “Buffalo tater tots with pulled chicken topped with blue cheese.”
Hot-to-Tot was an exercise in democracy, but the Whitecaps acted unilaterally as well. The following items will also be added to their array of 2015 concession items:
Nutella Poppers: “Nutella-stuffed sweet dough fried to a golden brown and rolled in sugar.”
Oreo Churros: “Oreo cookie pieces made into a churro served with Oreo frosting.” In my opinion, the team should have named these Choreos.
Pretzel-Breaded Italian Sausage: (Self-explanatory)
Beer-A-Misu: “Tiramisu gelato with local stout beer.”
Chicken and steak quesadillas will also be served at the Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Field in 2015, but I do not believe that photos of this item will excite the masses and therefore I will not post it.
Getting back to the “Hot-to-Tot,” the Whitecaps note that “previous winners of the food contest include the Auger Dogger (2014), Baco (2013), Westside Po’ Boy (2012), Chicks with Sticks (2011), the Cudighi Yooper Sandwich and the Declaration of Independence (both 2010). All have now been retired from the menu.”
It was a good run while it lasted, Baco. I got to enjoy one of those when I visited the Whitecaps in 2013.
The “Fifth Third Burger,” which is 5/3rds of a pound, lives on. Think you can eat one in one sitting?
Finally, I would like to commend myself for continuing to celebrate the ballpark food items that I cannot eat due to my 2012 celiac disease diagnosis. Yeah, I suffer for my art. Don’t we all?
If you read this blog, then of course you also read all of the articles I write for MiLB.com. It goes without saying. But, nonetheless, I feel compelled to share with you my latest (and therefore greatest) “Minoring in Business” feature, which provides an in-depth look at the theme jersey phenomenon that has swept the Minor League landscape.
The article begins thusly:
Not long ago, Minor League Baseball theme jerseys were almost exclusively based upon a small array of pre-existing options. Pink, patriotic and camo were the three most common offerings, with pop culture references virtually non-existent. But now?
“Now it’s just a free-for-all.”
That’s how Elaine Gastineau of OT Sports describes Minor League Baseball’s current theme jersey landscape. OT Sports, based in Burlington, North Carolina, is a leading theme jersey manufacturer, and Gastineau is their factory sales representative specializing in Minor League Baseball. Over the last decade she’s done her part to facilitate an industry-wide theme jersey phenomenon, with teams attempting to outdo one another in the ever-competitive category of “Who can be the most outlandish?”
If early returns are any indication, then 2015 will be the most outlandish year yet.
Read the rest HERE.
Of course, the big news story in Minor League Baseball this week was the announcement that Hartford’s baseball team will be known as the Yard Goats. The Yard Goats will make their debut in 2016, after relocating from nearby New Britain (where they are known as the Rock Cats).
I wrote a story about this, of course. A relevant excerpt, which truly illuminates my ability to quote from a press release:
So what is a Yard Goat, and why is it the name of a Minor League Baseball franchise? As the team explained on its HartfordPlaysBall2016 website, Yard Goats “honors Hartford’s rich railroad history.” It is a slang term for “an engine that switches a train to get it ready for another locomotive to take over.”
A press release issued by the Rock Cats on Wednesday afternoon provided further detail.
“A Minor League Baseball player is like that humble Yard Goat,” it reads. “Not a glamorous job but working day in and day out away from the big city lights to assure that the Major League affiliate is kept on track.”
Said story was accompanied by this image, which shows the winner of the “Name the Team” contest attempting to keep a couple of live goats in line.
Rock Cats/Yard Goats general manager Tim Restall seems to think the situation is under control. He’s on the right, probably checking to see what @bensbiz was writing about the team name on Twitter.
Hartford Yard Goats! Let the “this is an embarrassment and I will never attend a game” commentary commence!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 18, 2015
Thanks for playing along, Brandon.
@bensbiz this is an embarrassment and i surely dont plan on attending. what team is intimidated by a yard goat?
— Brandon Apter (@ApterShock) March 18, 2015
My favorite Twitter reaction to the Yard Goats name came from New Britain mayor Erin Stewart.
— Mayor Erin Stewart (@stewartfornb) March 18, 2015
There is no love lost between the city of New Britain and the Rock Cats/Yard Goats ownership, as negotiations to relocate the team were done in secret. When the news of the proposed move first broke, it was news to New Britain as well. Suffice to say, I do not think Mayor Stewart will be attending any Yard Goats games in 2016.
Finally, I hit a major professional milestone this week, via the issuance of my 20,000th tweet. Here’s how it went down:
This is my 19,998th tweet. Any suggestions for 20,000? It should, in a pithy way, encompass the entirety of who I am and what I stand for.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 18, 2015
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 18, 2015
I’m not that stupid RT @sbanks_: *attempts to get Ben to respond to this tweet so I can effectively be his 20,000th tweet*
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 18, 2015
Here’s to 20,000 more. I mean, why not?
Bill Valentine, legendary Arkansas Travelers executive and former American League umpire, was named”King of Baseball” at the 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego. The day after his crowning ceremony, I sat down with Valentine, now in his 80s, for a wide-ranging interview. This chat has already resulted in one MiLB.com feature, but , as I noted at the time, there was PLENTY more where that came from.
During the course of our very long conversation – if you know Bill Valentine, then you know that he likes to tell stories – I asked him if, as King, he had any advice for his “subjects” now working in the industry. His advice, in so many words, could be summarized as “Keep it simple, stupid.” But I’ll let him tell it. The floor is now ceded to the King, so that he may enlighten the next generation of Minor League Baseball executives on a variety of topics.
Finally, it would be a good idea to listen to this classic Valentine voicemail message before reading the remainder of this post. It really helps to have a sense of his distinct (and often hilarious) manner of speaking.
(Note: This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Minor League Baseball industry newsletter The Dugout.)
Bill Valentine on ballpark food
People don’t know this, but when Bobby Bragan was the president of the Minor Leagues I started the Freitas Seminar [a Minor League business seminar held during the Winter Meetings]. It wasn’t called that then, I just had a seminar. I brought the general managers in to speak, but we talked about soft drinks, we talked about food, we talked about promotions, we talked about ticket sales, we talked about the souvenir stand.
You know what people want when they come to the ballpark? Peanuts, popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, a cold beer and a soft drink. They can get a brisket sandwich for lunch or anywhere else. But when they come to the ballpark, even if they’re in $40,000 suites, they want ballpark food. I found that out. And it’s true to this day. You can’t make a hamburger better than Five Guys. There ain’t no way you’re going to do those type of things better than the local guys. You can’t do barbeque better than some guy who owns a barbeque place. But hardly anybody in town is doing peanuts, popcorn, nachos and hot dogs.
You got high profit in it. And I tell people, no one ever said “Hey, let’s go to [the Travelers home of] Dickey-Stephens Park tonight. They’ve got great sushi.” Stick with the basics. Put your emphasis on what I just told you. Keep the popcorn hot, make sure you’ve got an all-meat fantastic hot dog, and the beer should be the coldest of anywhere in town. Seriously, [slapping hands for emphasis] that will make you a lot of money.
On team merchandise
My idea of souvenirs was to have my logo in the community. I wanted everyone to have Traveler ballcaps. I wanted the kids to have Traveler wristbands. I wanted them in a Travelers t-shirt…..So, a $10 t-shirt. They don’t blink. But a $22 t-shirt? Jeez.
The team cap, one size fits all? Maybe $10, $11. The one that’s a real team hat? In the $20s, maybe. Then have a lot of things, like a logo baseballs. You get the damn things for a dollar and a half. Sell it for four. Sell all that stuff, get a nice little margin but try to push it out the by the barrelful.
On customer service
I really think that, every game, there should be someone at the entrances with a club hat on welcoming people. And at the end of the game, same people, saying “Hope you come back.” And I think people enjoy that, they say, “You know, they were really nice.” I think that can go a long way. Just saying thank you.
Every night I would send out ‘mystery people’ to the concession stands. One had a $20 bill, and the other had a $10 bill. And they would go to the stands and buy something, and if the person selling said “Thank you” then the mystery person would give them the money. It really turned them around. Our employees were saying “thank you.” It’s just a nice courtesy. I had everyone around the ballpark saying “thank you.” I did it by passing out some money.
On the primary importance of the women’s restroom
I had never seen a line at the men’s restroom. So when we built [Dickey-Stephens] ballpark I said “We’re going to take half the men’s restrooms and add them to the ladies’ room.” They told me I couldn’t do it, because of federal things. I said, “I get to build this ballpark. The mayor gave it to me and it’s my ballpark.” So I made the ladies restroom twice as big as the men’s room. The ladies restrooms probably had 30 commodes in them. I mean, really.
Opening night, a guy came over from the television station and said “Okay, Mr. Promoter. What’s the one thing tonight you think people are going to notice?” I said “I’m going to tell you something. The first time a woman goes to the women’s restroom, if I’m nearby they’re going to come out and hug my neck and say to me that it is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever seen.”
Well, when Opening Night came and the gates opened [the TV reporter] put me at the exit of the ladies restroom. The first lady came out, ran over, hugged my neck and said “That was the most fantastic bathroom I have ever seen in my life.” And [the reporter], he just threw his hands up and said “You SOB.”
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently looking at Minor League Baseball promotional schedules, as it is imperative that I know what’s going on once the season is underway. And if there’s one that I can say about Minor League Baseball promotional schedules, it’s this: They are not created equal. This post is dedicated to sharing the highlights off of some of the best 2015 promotional schedules I have perused thus far.
Fresno’s Pacific Coast League club, entering the first season of its “Growlifornia” marketing campaign, is calling this “the most comprehensive and diverse promotional schedule in the history of the club.” The Grizzly details:
Highlights include the Fresno Philharmonic Brass Quintet playing Star Wars music on Star Wars Night, the social experiment that is “Pay What You Want Night” and, most crucially, a Biz Markie “Sing-A-Long” during which the eccentric hip hop icon will lead the crowd in a stadium-wide rendition of “Just A Friend.” (Here’s hoping there will also be time for the Biz to do his version of “Bennie and the Jets.” Because I need to prove how cool I am, I’d like to note that I have a Biz Markie “Bennie and the Jets” flexi-disc 7″ that was included within the second issue of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine.)
And as if all of the above wasn’t enough — and isn’t it? — on Monday the Grizzlies unveiled their March Madness-style “Fresno Famous” bobblehead tourney. This is a great initiative, and clearly a lot of work was involved in order to make this a “thing.”
After careful perusal of the bracket, I have decided to endorse the “Waving Lady on 41″ as my choice for the Fresno Famous bobblehead. Read all about her.
Remember last season when Myrtle Beach Pelicans general manager Andy Milovich sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while undergoing a prostate exam?
Milovich’s stunt garnered national attention and kickstarted an “Ice Bucket Challenge”-style in-game prostate exam trend within the industry. And now, on June 21st, the Pelicans are giving away this Father’s Day “Bobblefinger.” Note the sponsor:
Perhaps the Lehigh Valley IronPigs should be credited with an assist on this one, as the club has already established a tradition of giving away foam fingers on “Prostate Exam Awareness Night.”
Another highlight of the Pelicans’ promo schedule is July 26’s “Christmas Vacation in July.” The first 1000 fans receive a “Cousin Eddie-style alpine hat,” and the team will be wearing these Griswold-inspired jerseys.
Hey, Pelicans, you play in a tourism-centric town. As part of this promo, you should offer special discounts to fans visiting from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Meanwhile, in Altoona, the always-innovative Curve have unleashed an array of superbly creative bobbleheads modeled after some of their most distinguished recent alumni.
Tony “Elementary” Watson:
.@AltoonaCurve promo sked also includes Punxatawney Phil bobblehead, complete w/ rare non-Groundhog’s Day appearance by the creature himself
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) February 23, 2015
Yeah, yeah. I know:
I spelled “Punxsutawney” wrong in my last tweet. I seem to do that over and over again, as if trapped within an endlessly repeating reality.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) February 23, 2015
While individual visuals are not available, I would also like to nod in the general direction of the Potomac Nationals. Their promo schedule is spectacular:
The P-Nats’ exceedingly verbose press release includes this passage on bobbleheads:
[Giveaways include] a Steven Souza Jr. “The Catch” figurine commemorating his no-hitter clinching web gem behind Washington Nationals RHP Jordan Zimmermann on the final day of the 2014 regular season (Saturday, June 13th), a Michael Taylor “Flattop” Major League Debut bobblehead with faux hair (Saturday, June 20th), a Wilson Ramos hybrid half-man, half-buffalo “Buff-A-rine” (Sunday, July 5th), The Goonies 30th Anniversary “One-Eyed Willie” bobblehead (Saturday, August 1st).
That Goonies promo is sure to be one of the most ballyhooed theme nights of the year. As you can see in the top left corner of the above graphic, Corey Feldman (who has probably aged a bit since that photo was taken) will be in attendance. There will also be the aforementioned “One-Eyed Willie” bobblehead, as well as theme jerseys and a post-game screening of the film.
And, not to be lost in the (truffle) shuffle, there’s this:
The P-Nats will also be hosting tentative “body improvement” nights including Hair Removal Night, Tattoo Appreciation Night, and Skin Tag Removal Night.
I’ll end this post with a Trigger warning: On June 18, the Round Rock Express are giving away this awesome bobblehead featuring Willie Nelson and his guitar:
Over on MiLB.com you can read my round-up of the 2014-15 Minor League re-branding season, featuring 11 new team names and/or logos. In conjunction with this, my latest journalistic masterwork, I decided to take a look around the Minor League landscape in order to subjectively determine the team from each league that is most in need of a makeover.
We’ll start at the top of the Minor League ladder and work our way down. Perhaps, come this time next year, some of these clubs will have opted to update their iconography. Whether you agree, disagree or couldn’t care less, feel free to tell me so in the comments or on Twitter (@bensbiz).
International League: Louisville Bats (current logo in use since 2002)
This logo is a little too reminiscent of Batman, so maybe it’s time that Louisville Gotham selves another one.
Pacific Coast League: Fresno Grizzlies (current logo in use since 2008)
The Grizzlies are actively embracing their post-San Francisco identity, but the orange and black color scheme still screams “Giants affiliation!”
Eastern League: Portland Sea Dogs (current logo in use since 2003)
Southern League: Mississippi Braves (current logo in use since 2005)
Texas League: Midland RockHounds (current logo in use since 1999)
California League: High Desert Mavericks (current logo in use since 1991)
Carolina League: Carolina Mudcats (current logo in use since 1991)
Florida State League: Tampa Yankees (current logo in use since 1994)
Midwest League: Lansing Lugnuts (current logo in use since 1996)
As was pointed out to me when I visited Lansing: That’s not a lugnut. It’s a bolt.
South Atlantic League: Kannapolis Intimidators (current logo in use since 2001)
New York-Penn League: Brooklyn Cyclones (current logo in use since 2001)
The Cyclones seem to do everything right, so I may as well give them a hard time for not updating the logo they came into existence with.
Northwest League: Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (current logo in use since 1997)
Appalachian League: Johnson City Cardinals (current logo in use since 1995)
Pioneer League: Helena Brewers (current logo in use since 2011)
In closing, I’d like to offer a tip of the cap to Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.net. It’s a great source of info.
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Brittany Callahan, who has spent countless hours at the Mobile BayBears’ home of Hank Aaron Stadium. Her father, Mike, spent 13 seasons as the team’s assistant general manager.
(All photos from the Ben’s Biz collection, unless otherwise noted)
Why I Love the Mobile BayBears, by Brittany Callahan
What is your first thought when I mention the city of Mobile, Alabama? The home of Mardi Gras? Maybe. White sand beaches? Possibly. College football dominance? Probably. Baseball, most likely, is absent from your list. But what is surprising to many, however, is that Mobile has played a huge role in baseball history. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, Mobile claims more Hall of Famers (five) than any other city in America. Those Hall of Famers — Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams — play a large role in making Mobile one of the most storied cities for baseball in the country.
Mobile’s rich baseball history can be seen before you even enter Hank Aaron Stadium, which the Baybears — Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks — have called home for eighteen years. In the shadows of the stadium sits Hank Aaron’s Childhood Home and Museum. Yes, you read that correctly. Partnering with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Major League Baseball, a few select BayBears staffers relocated the home that Mr. Aaron and his siblings grew up in, from its original location just a few miles away to the stadium grounds. Upon relocating, it was transformed into a museum which houses artifacts from the Aaron family as well as mementos from Hank’s journey from childhood to Home Run King. For those who want to see this remarkable piece of Mobile baseball history, tours are available before and during games as well as in the offseason.
The BayBears continue Mobile’s tradition of excellence by being perennial playoff contenders, with many of their alumni making an impact in the Major Leagues. The BayBears were originally the Double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres and, during that time, they won two Southern League championships. They also sent players such as Jake Peavy (who calls Mobile home), Josh Barfield, Jason Bay and Adam Eaton to “The Show.” In 2007, the BayBears switched their affiliation to the Arizona Diamondbacks, going on to to win back-to-back Southern League championships in 2011 and 2012. They advanced to the championship series again in 2013, attempting to earn a three-peat (something that had only been done once before in the league) but ultimately lost in the decisive fifth game. Some recognizable BayBears to have debuted in the Majors since 2007 include Max Scherzer, Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez, Gerrardo Parra, Mark Reynolds and Paul Goldschmidt.
With the recent addition of baseball legends such as Tony LaRussa, Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks staff, it is not uncommon to see these famous faces walking the concourse of Hank Aaron Stadium to scout their players and coaches. Mr. Hank Aaron has even sat within his namesake stadium to take in a few ballgames while visiting his hometown.
Mobile has been a hotbed for baseball, and notable baseball players, for decades. Now, the BayBears have taken the reigns in leading the sport into the 21st century. I would be hard pressed to think of another Minor League stadium in the country where you can catch future Major League standouts in the hunt for another championship while bumping into Hall of Famers and (in my opinion) a man who can still claim to be the all-time Home Run King. Go BayBears!
Thanks to Brittany for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2010 article on the opening of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum.
In 2014, as Opening Day approached, I abandoned my long-time policy of reviewing the books I received in a timely manner. Timeliness is always a priority, of course, but I can’t get them to all while also maintaining my even longer-time policy of reading books that aren’t about baseball.
That said, I still make a dedicated attempt to read the books that are sent to me — it just might take a little while. Case in point: last month’s “Ben’s Bookshelf” MiLB.com article, in which I belatedly reviewed three exemplary MiLB-themed books. Further case in point: this blog post, which is dedicated to my thoughts on James Bailey’s 2014 novel Nine Bucks A Pound. (An article about Bailey’s Durham Bulls-focused debut, The Greatest Show on Dirt, can be found HERE.)
“[The lies] came so fast and furious lately they passed through his lips like carbon dioxide…Too many to count. If each one were a brick, the walls would be so high he’d have to tilt his head back to see the sky.”
The above passage, which closes out a chapter late in James Bailey’s second novel Nine Bucks a Pound, speaks to the heart of the predicament faced by protagonist Del Tanner. Most individuals who find themselves in such situations are sociopaths; a knack for distortion, obfuscation and untruth being a defining characteristic. But Del Tanner is no such individual. He is simply a Minnesota Twins farmhand who possesses marginal, by professional standards, talent. In order to keep his baseball dream from flickering out in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, the Washington state-bred first baseman — a “contact player at a power position” — resorts to steroid use. (The “nine bucks a pound” of the book’s title is a reference to the benefits of Propionate, as Del’s first $180 injection cycle nets him 20 pounds of pure muscle.)
Del is joined in this endeavor by his gleefully immature teammate/roommate Ryan Edsell, their efforts aided and abetted by agent Ian Wicker. Wicker’s motivations are similar to those of his clients, as his professional legitimacy is wholly dependent on having one of them make it to “The Show.” These are quietly desperate people playing a quietly desperate game.
Nine Bucks a Pound follows Del’s career from 2003 through 2010, as he transitions from Minor League roster filler to top prospect to Major League success story. Steroid use plays no small role in his unexpected ascension, but throughout the book the question lingers: Was it worth it? His lies, and the paranoia that accompanies them, place a dark cloud over all that he has accomplished.
Bailey ably handles the above scenario, working to humanize a subset of the baseball community that has been generally been treated with a dismissive scorn. Steroid users may be cheats, frauds, disgraces to the game, or [insert your preferred epithet here], but their detour into chemical enhancement is most likely motivated by the same fears and insecurities that haunt all of us: Fear of failure, fear of being left behind, fear of losing that which defines them. Could it be that they are worthy of our pity? Of our forgiveness? Bailey does not shove these questions down the reader’s throat; they arise simply and organically as the story unfolds.
As a former Baseball America correspondent (and book reviewer), Bailey is well-qualified to tell such a story. He is familiar with the Minor League locales through which Del ascends, as well as the various personalities — agents, scouts, host families, coaches, players and assorted hangers-on — that populate the landscape. Additionally, Bailey did his research, speaking to (unnamed) former players about the drug testing process and to trainers about workout regimens. Nine Bucks A Pound, though a work of fiction, seems real.
Bailey’s emphasis on Del’s personal life — including his somewhat unorthodox parental relationship with dad, Milo, and mom, Gwen — illustrates the psychological cost of living a full-time lie. But my primary criticism of Nine Bucks A Pound is that such a large portion of the narrative is dedicated to Del’s oft-tumultuous relationship with his high school sweetheart, Dana. Bailey is adept at describing the difficulties of maintaining a romantic partnership while living according to the rigorous demands of the baseball schedule, but I never took to Dana as a character. She, in my view, was selfish and materialistic, and I found her and Del’s relationship to be rooted in immaturity and the fear that often results from such an emotional state. I never found myself rooting for them to succeed, because part of life’s growing-up process is the realization that (in most cases) your first love is not equipped to be your life’s love. The lack of an emotional investment in this key plot element resulted in a detraction from my overall enjoyment of the book.
Requisite penultimate paragraph griping aside, Nine Bucks A Pound is well worth purchasing. In providing the perspective of a steroid user, Bailey humanizes the demonized. Yet, he also illustrates the severe consequences, both professional and personal, of their transgressions. As Del Tanner learns, the choice to play dirty is a comparatively easy one. The hard part is coming clean.
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Paul Worley, a long-time supporter of the “abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club.”
Why I Love the Charleston RiverDogs, by Paul Worley
(All photos by Paul Worley, unless otherwise noted)
Despite what the tourist brochures may tell you, Charleston, South Carolina, is largely a screen for the projection of history. Little could be said to still happen there. The city has stepped outside of the flow of time, as intentionally anachronistic horse-and-carriages echo down streets that are hardly large enough to accommodate the late-model sports cars owned by the men and women who fly back twice a year to take in a bit of salt air from meticulously reproduced antebellum verandas.
As someone who left Charleston to go to school in the mid-’90s, I return home to find that others have moved in, knocked out the walls and rearranged the furniture. Everywhere, that is, with the exception of the ballpark. Bill Murray (yes, THAT Bill Murray, a.k.a. the RiverDogs’ Director of Fun) and the rest of the Goldklang Group brought changes to the team, but as much as possible they have really left things the same. That’s why I love the RiverDogs.
The narrator of Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s 1979 short story about Charleston baseball in the 1930s spends his time in-between innings observing a little train over the outfield fence at College Park, one of the oldest Minor League parks in the country and the RiverDogs’ original home. He tries to catch it coming or going, but never can. He looks up and it’s there, or looks up and it’s gone. The train is either at the station or it isn’t. The train never moves or changes, but it does. It’s an apt metaphor for the team.
In my lifetime, the abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club has had several names: Patriots, Pirates, Royals, Rainbows and RiverDogs. Before that, the club was known as the Rebels, the Palmettos and the Quakers. Pro baseball in the city was founded in 1886 by two teams: a member of the Southern League of Colored Baseballists called the Fultons; and a Southern Association team known as the Seagulls. Unlike most teams then, the genealogy of the Riverdogs doesn’t lead us back to a single man or single team, but to the segregated legacy of the Jim Crow South that, through baseball, results in a kind of unity. White and black, they’re all founding fathers of Charleston baseball.
The RiverDogs play at Joe Riley Park, shortened by most fans to “The Joe.” Built in 1997, it’s among the new wave of parks whose architects, taking a cue from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, wove the park into the city. From the backside you can look out over the marsh leading onto the Ashley River with Citadel faculty housing tucked beneath a few oak trees on the shore off to the right. The outfield fence is lined with trees hiding the river just beyond with a tall building or two finishing out a modest skyline.
While the RiverDogs go to great lengths to capture the attention of the casual fan, the team has etched South Carolina’s baseball history into the park itself. Camden’s own Larry Doby has his number 14 retired out on the centerfield wall, the forlorn hero of Pickens County, Shoeless Joe Jackson, has a small beach named for him just beyond the right field foul line and there is a “Scouts Hall of Fame” located along the main concourse. Every year, during “Larry Doby Heritage Weekend,” the team hosts members of the Cannon Street All-Stars, an all-African-American Little League team from Charleston who, in 1955, were denied the opportunity to play in the Little League World Series because they’d won all of their games in the segregated South by forfeit.
Before they were a Yankees affiliate, the RiverDogs were one of the original franchises associated with my favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays, which means I cheer for certain “Yankees as Riverdogs” while still hoping that New York’s American League baseballers finish somewhere north of 100 losses. After all, while they come and go and by definition are trying to get somewhere else, it’s the players who make the Charleston experience meaningful.
Hall of Famers, all-time greats and MVPs have played with the Charleston club, and their names are easy enough to find. I’m a big fan of former RiverDogs catcher Francisco Arcia, who, during a “kids day at the (water)park” a few summers ago, walked around the bullpen area with a Super Soaker hosing down everything within 100 feet of him.
Dante Bichette, Jr. once impressed me with his knowledge of vintage minor league uniforms (I was sporting a Durham Bulls jersey from the mid-1990s signed by former RiverDog and Bull Elliot Johnson). I particularly enjoy talking smack to players in Spanish, and I’ll forever remember the pitcher (name withheld) who turned around to me in the middle of a game and asked me bluntly, “Y tú, ¿quién eres?” My scorecard from that game notes that this conversation lasted from two outs in the top of the fourth until the seventh inning stretch. My favorite Charleston ballplayer of all-time is the late Tom Saffell. His best memory of playing in Charleston occurred during the 1946 season, while running from first base to second on a routine ground ball. The shortstop, having made the pivot and overanxious to get the runner going to first, drilled Saffell, who was trying to break up the double play in the usual way, square in the head. This happened twice in the same game. There should be a plaque somewhere in the park to honor Saffell and the bungled routines that make life memorable.
Players present constantly intersect with players past, and you get the impression that if you could read them correctly, 30-year-old scorecards and discarded tidbits from the news would reveal tomorrow’s starting lineup. Walt “No Neck” Williams managed the Rainbows, so it’s unsurprising that Mason Williams, his nephew, would one day turn up in the RiverDogs outfield. Rob Refsynder had a few choice words for University of South Carolina fans after his Arizona team defeated USC in the 2012 College World Series, so naturally Charleston was his first stop after the Yankees drafted him. If L.J. Mazzilli is starting for the visiting Sand Gnats, expect Lee Mazzilli to materialize in the park. When Dante Bichette, Jr. was with the team, you could look up during the inevitable late August thunderstorm rain delays and find Dante Bichette, Sr. seated two rows up from you, eating a hot dog, drinking a Diet Coke and waiting out the rain with the rest of us who never played an inning beyond Little League.
During the South Atlantic League All-Star Game festivities that were held in Charleston in 2012, I had a chance to speak with the Director of Fun himself. He told me that slip-and-sliding on a tarped field during a rain delay is the best thing in the world, and that if I ever got the chance I should go for it. In honor of Rubin, Saffell, and Arcia, and Cannon Street, and the Fultons and the Seagulls, the next time I’m in Charleston I’ll take him up on it, if only to tell the cops who arrest me, “With God as my witness, Bill Murray told me it was all good.” Because it’s better than good, and it’ll always be home. That’s why I love the Charleston RiverDogs.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Charleston RiverDogs experience.