Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

On the Road: Back to the Basics in Batavia

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

This isn’t the first time that I’ve titled a blog post “Back to the Basics,” and it probably won’t be the last. By “basics” I mean a baseball environment largely free of the amenities and peripheral entertainment that have come to characterize the modern Minor League Baseball experience.  At a Batavia Muckdogs game, fans will not find a massive videoboard, blaring sound system, corporate suites, 360 degree concourse, a thriving mascot ecosystem and front office members espousing “living the brand” ideology. They will simply find a no-frills ballpark, one that houses a community-owned team whose roots stretch back to the founding of the league in which it still operates.

This is Dwyer Stadium, home of the Muckdogs.

020A closer look, sans arboreous enshroudment:

017Dwyer Stadium was built in 1996, replacing a structure on the same spot that had stood since 1937 (the playing field remained the same). The facility was called State Street Park when it first opened, with the name switching to MacArthur Stadium during WWII. (It’s too bad that it wasn’t called “MacArthur Park,” as then then the Muckdogs could sell “cake left out in the rain” as an historically apropos signature concession item.) The Dwyer moniker was adopted in 1973, in honor of team president Edward D. Dwyer and all he did for baseball in Batavia.

The facility is located in a residential neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown proper. There is a small (free!) parking lot adjacent to the first base side.

019I entered the stadium about an hour and a half before game time, talking to a few folks and getting the proverbial lay of the land. There is a covered grandstand, bleacher seating and a picnic area down the third base side, and a wooden porch group area down the first base side.

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Behind the ballpark lurks the concourse.

025The Muckdogs are now a Marlins affiliate, but from 1988-2006 they were with the Phillies. Ryan Howard is a former Muckdog, as indicated by this banner.

026Howard is one of 89 players who started his career in Batavia and subsequently made it to the Major Leagues. Did you know that Jeter also began his career here? It’s true!

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Pardon the glare

There are some interesting names on the above list. Many years prior to his (perhaps apocryphal) hallucinogenic no-hitter heroics, Doc Ellis was a member of the 1964 Batavia Pirates. That team posted a horrific 33-97 record, and Doc was the only player on the roster who went on to the Majors. As for me, I’m a Phillies fan, and as such I recognize a lot of these names from late ’90s excursions to a depressingly empty Veterans Stadium. For instance, I once saw Gary Bennett team up with Joel Bennett to form the only same last name battery in Phillies history and the first all-Bennett battery in Major League history. True story.

As I mentioned in a recent “New York State of Mind” post, what is now known as the New York-Penn League was conceived in a Batavia hotel during a concentrated burst of National Pastime passion. Here’s a plaque commemorating this circuit-creating tryst.

030The Jamestown Jammers are re-locating to Morgantown, West Virginia next season, which leaves Batavia as the NYPL’s sole remaining charter member. Along with the Auburn Doubledays, who are also community-owned and play in a ballpark nearly identical to Dwyer Stadium, the Muckdogs are the last bastions of the “old” New York-Penn League. Over the past two decades the league has changed dramatically, greatly expanding its footprint and putting a premium on new stadiums. This of course makes sense from an economic standpoint, but in the process the smaller Empire State locales that once formed the heart and soul of the league have been largely abandoned.

During the evening I was aware of a palpable sense of angst among the Muckdogs faithful that Batavia will be next on the NYPL chopping block. I’ll provide more detail on that, and the team’s unique ownership situation, in an upcoming MiLB.com piece. But, in a nutshell: the Muckdogs are community-owned, with an entity called the Genesee County Baseball Club (GCBC) holding legal title. The GCBC have a 25-person Board of Directors, but since 2008 the team has been operated by the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings (themselves a community owned team) who cover all expenses and receive all revenue. Thus, Batavia Muckdogs front office members — led by general manager Travis Sick — are in fact employees of the Red Wings organization. The Red Wings have lost money in this endeavor thus far, but each year that they operate the team the Red Wings receive an additional 5% stake in the MuckDogs ownership. This will be capped at 50%, after 10 years, with GCBC retaining a technical majority. The hope in Batavia is that, economic realities be damned, a new owner committed to keeping the team in Batavia will swoop in and insure a long-term baseball future. What seems more likely is that the team will eventually be sold and re-locate, with the Red Wings recouping their ongoing operational losses via their stake of the team’s ownership. The Muckdogs drew just 33, 376 fans in 2014, averaging 954 a game. The only team in the league with a lower total was the Jamestown Jamestown (24,246) who, of course, are now no longer.

Anyhow, let’s get back to the plaques.

This one details another significant bit of Batavia baseball history: in 1961, Gene Baker became the first black manager of an affiliated baseball team.

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The whole write-up is interesting, so I’ll include it in full in the hopes that you read it in full:

In June 1961, Batavia proudly played a role in baseball history when Gene Baker took the reins as manager of the Batavia Pirates. Baker, a native of Davenport, Iowa, thus became the first African-American manager of an affiliated professional baseball team. 

After beginning his playing career with the famed Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, Gene Baker joined the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Second-baseman Baker and shortstop Ernie Banks dazzled fans as part of the “Bingo-Bango” double-play combination. Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and won a World Series ring in 1960. 

The next year, the Pirates assigned Baker as player-manager of the struggling Batavia team, which was in seventh place when he was named skipper. Under Baker’s leadership and aided by the pitching of phenom Steve Blass, Batavia made the league playoffs, losing the championship series to Olean. Despite bad knees, manager Baker hit for a sizzling .387 batting average in 1961. 

In September 1963, while a coach with Pittsburgh, Baker managed the Pirates after Danny Murtaugh was ejected from a game, thereby becoming the first black man to manage a game in the major as well as the minor leagues. 

The popular Baker returned to manage Batavia in 1964, and he spent the next quarter century as a scout in the Pirates organization. Gene Baker died in 1999. He is buried in Rock Island, Illinois.

Plaque perusal is now complete, meaning that wandering shall re-commence.

The team store is a barn; the barn is a team store.

033A view of the seats, shortly after the gates opened.

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The Muckdogs’ promotion for the evening was that they were attempting to break Dwyer Stadium’s 75-year-old attendance record of 3000. (If they did so, one fan would win $3001). In the end only 1532 fans passed through the turnstiles, but in a stadium as intimate as this it still made for a nice crowd.

A quirk of Dwyer Stadium is that the sun sets in straightaway left field. We’re not talking Sam Lynn-levels of Bakersfield blindness here, but it’s still tough to see the playing field during the early stages of the evening.

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I summarily sought some shade at this scenic under-the-bleachers beverage emporium.

042Will wanders never cease?

044Another under-the-bleachers view, just because.

046As I was traversing back and forth, taking in the scene, I heard a rather grouchy-sounding voice over the PA:

“Ladies and gentleman, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers line-up has changed — significantly changed — so we’ll go through the whole thing again.”

Then, during this second spin through the line-up, I heard this:

“Batting seventh…I don’t know, I haven’t looked it up yet…catcher Martin Sevenka.”

I later learned that this rather put-upon sounding stickler for detail was Wayne Fuller, who plies his trade in a press box that has been named after him. He’s a legendary figure in Muckdogs baseball, and next time I visit Batavia (oh, there’ll be a next time) I’ll make sure to meet him and hopefully hear some stories.

Line-ups communicated, anthem complete, it was time to play ball.

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052With the game underway, I walked down to the porch area down the third base to meet Russ Salway. Here he is with his wife, Kellie.

055Russ and Kellie live, in Russ’s estimation, 20 houses away from the ballpark. He said that he first attended MuckDogs games as a convenient “getaway at the end of the night,” but this casual fandom has since blossomed into something else altogether. The Salways house ballplayers via the team’s host family program, and Russ is a member of the team’s board of directors. He runs a Facebook page called “Let’s Keep the Batavia Muckdogs in Batavia,” works to promote the team in the community, and occasionally does odd jobs around the stadium (staining the deck that he and Kellie are standing upon, for example). He also is an avid record collector, and recommended that I visit the Record Archive and Lakeshore Record Exchange in Rochester and Record Theater in Buffalo (I was unable to visit these establishments for reasons of varying legitimacy, but it it’s the thought that counts and these establishments will be on my radar during my next pass through the region).

But, perhaps most important to this narrative, Russ had volunteered to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). We thus began a journey, from the porch to the concession stand.

027A closer look at that which is available.

056I requested that Russ get the “Muckdog Chow,” which is an iteration of the regional specialty that is the “Garbage Plate” (which originated in nearby Rochester). “Muckdog Chow” is, per the above menu, “served with macaroni salad, homefries and your choice of Red or White Hot or Cheeseburger or burger topped with Muckdog Sauce.” A “white hot” is another regional specialty, described on Wikipedia as a variation on the hot dog found in the Upstate New York area.[1] It is composed of some combination of uncured and unsmoked pork, beef, and veal; the lack of smoking or curing allows the meat to retain a naturally white color. 

A “red hot,” meanwhile, refers to the more standard-issue frankfurters to which we have become accustomed at ballparks. The Muckdogs’ offerings are courtesy of Zweigles, a New York-based company long recognized as one of the pre-eminent purveyors of the white hot. (One thing I learned on this road trip: upstate New York is a hotbed of hot dog production, and people are very particular about their brand preferences.)

For something with “Garbage Plate” aspirations, Muckdog Chow looked a fairly orderly food combination.

057Russ, clearly a man who lives life on the edge, decorated his dinner with impressionistic condiment flair.

061Have at it, Russ.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these. What you’ve got to do is cut the meat and mix it all up,” said Russ, who in preparation for his designated eating assignment, had passed on eating a chicken and broccoli dish that Kellie had made. “There are several different flavors all at once.”

Kellie was giving Russ a hard time, saying that the dinner she had prepared was “much better” than a Garbage Plate. She then took him to task for improper food posing technique.

063“See, Russ? This is how you do it.”

064As this was happening, there was a young boy on the field with a net. Just thought you’d like to know.

066Also, Russ made me aware that this, far from a ballpark deficiency, is the result of blistering Ryan Howard foul ball.

“We should get a plaque or something,” said Russ.

038As the Clearwater Threshers could tell you, the proper way to commemorate Ryan Howard-related foul ball damage is to have him sign it. WOB = Watch out, bro:

034And for my third and final non sequitur, I’d like to note that, along with the Muckdog Chow, I also ordered “Loaded Fries” topped with bacon and cheese.

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The above item is the sort that I struggle with at ballparks — the ingredients should be gluten-free, but I didn’t know for sure and, in fact, didn’t want to know. They looked good, so I ate some. I realize I should show more restraint, and often do, but celiac disease is a tough road to navigate sometimes and we’re all going to die anyway.

Designated eating complete, Russ and I walked over to the bleachers so that he could introduce me to Bill Kauffman. Kauffman, a writer of some renown, is vice president of the Muckdogs’ board of directors.

067On Kaufmann’s Wikipedia page, his politics are described as “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist.”[4] He has also described himself as an “Independent. A Jeffersonian. An anarchist. A (cheerful!) enemy of the state, a reactionary Friend of the Library, a peace-loving football fan.”

Such leanings could make for all sorts of interesting conversations, but given that I am a baseball writer at a baseball game we talked about baseball.

“We’re the Green Bay Packers of Minor League Baseball, this was passed down to us and we hope to pass it on to the next generation,” said Kauffman, who proudly noted that Batavia is the smallest American city with both a symphony orchestra and a professional baseball team. “This is the soul of baseball, you don’t pay money to park, there are no TV timeouts, and you’re not patted down on the way into the stadium.”

I’ll have a few more quotes from Kaufmann in my previously threatened upcoming MiLB.com piece, but, for now, let me just note that he wrote a book about Batavia called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. I’m gonna have to get a copy.

Speaking of Muckdogs, I believe that this autograph-signing canine was named Homer.

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Behind Homer, you’ll can see the Wayne H. Fuller Pressbox (I find it weird that “pressbox” is just one word on the signage).

077I spent the eighth inning of the game talking to an autograph collector by the name of Ted Wasko, who was sitting in seats directly behind home plate. This is a great view, but as a believer in the curse of the Bambino my general preference when it comes to ballpark seating is “No, No, Nanette.”

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Speaking of the net, there was much speculation regarding whether this wayward foul ball would ever be extracted from its precarious elevated location.

084Continuing on with this photo tour of obfuscated views, here’s a look at the Muckdogs bullpen. The reason I’m sharing this photo is to point out the row of bikes lined up against the clubhouse. Virtually all of these guys live with local families, and many of them ride their bikes to and from the stadium each day. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock n’ roll.

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Bullpen, sans link:

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Zooming in for a closer look.

087In the ninth inning, with the Muckdogs down by a score of 2-1, I went back to the porch to visit Russ. He was waving his trusty Muckdogs rally flag, as he is wont to do.

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Russ was multi-tasking. In addition to waving his rally flag, he was also ringing his rally bell, drinking a beer and, between breaks in the action, using his hammer on non-compliant deck nails. All in a day’s work for an ardent supporter of a community-owned team.

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Russ’s rally efforts were for naught, as the Muckdogs fell in defeat to the Scrappers. A fireworks show followed, and while this is by no means a good photo it does make it appear that the town of Batavia was annihilated by a nuclear bomb.

IMG_0173And that, as they say, was that. I said goodbye to Russ, walked to the parking lot, and soon commenced the drive to Rochester.  While en route to my rental vehicle, I noticed that the Scrappers’ charter bus company is called Precious Cargo. Aw, that’s adorable, Scrappers. You guys are precious. Do your Mommies ride the bus with you and tuck you in and sing you lullabies?

101I’m just playing, Mahoning Valley Scrappers. You know I love you. I just couldn’t resist making muck ado about nothing.

That’s it as regards blogging from Batavia, but stay tuned for much, much more from this final road trip and, while you’re waiting, go ahead and tell your friends to read this blog as it is the most underrated entity in all of sports media.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: New York State of Mind, Part Four

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

Part one in this series detailed my non-ballpark explorations (or lack thereof) in Batavia, Rochester and Jamestown. Part two covered Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York. while part three began on August 27th in Syracuse and ended on the 29th as I left Syracuse for Troy (one of the three cities referenced in the Tri-City ValleyCats name).

And now, we’ve arrived at the (perhaps not-so) grand finale of this series of “New York State of Mind” blog posts: Part four.

You know the drill: Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 30 — Troy, New York (home of the Tri-City ValleyCats)

I attended August 29’s game between the ValleyCats and visiting Brooklyn Cyclones, and the following afternoon I had a little time to poke around the city of Troy, New York, before heading on to Hudson Valley.

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I had never been to Troy before, and was fortunate to have a Troy native for a tour guide: my girlfriend, Rebekah. Rebekah attended the previous night’s  ValleyCats game, along with her parents, whom I had never met. I made their acquaintance shortly after running in the team’s nightly Mayor Race (which pits the mayors of Troy, Albany, and Schenectady against one another).

Rebekah was adopted from Korea, and in this photo she’s posing in front of the courthouse where she was naturalized on St. Patrick’s Day 1983.

004We didn’t have a specific agenda while wandering around Troy, we just parked the car and started walking. One of the first things of interest that we came across was this, the original Bruegger’s Bagels. Apparently Bruegger’s is such a known commodity in Troy that having a tree block their front window signage is no problem at all.

Trees > Signs.

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Down the street from the Original Brueggers (the “OB,” for those in the know) is noted dive bar “The Ruck.” This place’s website is www.getrucked.com, which may or may not be regularly visited by people interested in learning more about General Electric’s fleet of delivery and maintenance vehicles.

Before taking this picture, I channeled the spirit of someone who had perhaps had a few too many beverages at the Ruck. Otherwise, including a poorly framed and blurry photo on this blog would be unthinkable.

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Fun fact: The Ruck used to be known as “Sutter’s,” where Jeff Vervlied, the first designated eater in Biz Blog history, used to work as a bouncer. How long will this blog be able to continue before it collapses upon itself?

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Before eating pork roll sandwiches in Trenton, this man worked at Sutters

Rebekah is a fan of many things, posing among them. Here, she poses in front of a statue of Emma Hart Willard, educator and founder of the school that now bears her name. This statue is located on the bucolic commons of Russel Sage College.

006The plaque beneath the statue reads “In honor of EMMA HART WILLARD who on this spot established AD 1821 the first permanent seminary in America for the advanced education of women….Her most enduring monument the gratitude of educated women.”

And here’s the entryway to Russell Sage College, a women’s college instituted by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage and named after her husband.

008 (2)Now, we approach River Street, where several commercial establishments are located.

009 (2)On River Street, one finds the River Street Beat Shop. Records are sold there.

011 (2)Even better, there was a free outdoor show taking place outside of the record store.

The band playing was Yoma, who were celebrating a split cassette release with We Are Oceans. I was digging it, and would have been happy to spend the entire afternoon at River Street Beat Shop. The proprietor, from whom I bought a copy of this, raved to me about a band that had played earlier in the afternoon. They were called Twin Speak, and he said that “he’d never heard anything like it.” I’m listening to Twin Speak now, and the first band that comes to mind for me, as a reference point, is SubArachnoid Space.

River Street leads right into Monument Square. This Soldiers and Sailors memorial pays tribute to area veterans who served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the Civil War.

013 (2)Did you know? Troy is the birthplace of Uncle Sam.

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Uncle Sam’s origin story is kind of murky, similar to the origins of baseball, in which fiction becomes fact simply as a result of it having been repeated so many times (incidentally, that’s how Ben’s Biz came to be known as the “greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time”).

Here’s the standard Uncle Sam explanation, per “The Straight Dope” website:

A widely held belief, reported as fact in supposedly reliable reference books, is that the original Uncle Sam was one Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy, New York, who supplied rations to the U.S. military during the War of 1812. Wilson was a subcontractor to one Elbert Anderson, and the letters “E.A. — U.S.” were stamped on all the pair’s army-bound grub. On being asked what the letters stood for (the abbreviation U.S. supposedly was unfamiliar at the time), one of Sam’s workers joshed that it stood for “Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam,” meaning the jovial Wilson himself.

The joke was quickly picked up by Wilson’s other employees. Many of these men later served in the army during the war, and the story spread from there. This tale appears to have first found its way into print in 1842.

The above statue is part of Troy’s “Uncle Sam Project,” in which 30 fiberglass Uncle Sam statues were installed around the town. But Uncle Sam imagery and references are everywhere in Troy. This, for instance, is the Uncle Sam Parking Garage. They want YOU to temporarily place your automobile within the confines of their establishment.

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Rebekah sez “Troy is visitor friendly!” (direct quote)

018 (2)And so the visit continued, with a pit stop at Market Block Books.

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Next up was The Grocery, which offers a well-curated selection of meats, cheese, beer and other such comestibles. Such a business would not be out of place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, though a proprietor in Park Slope would probably incorporate the unbearably pretentious word “provisions” somewhere on the signage.

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The Grocery is owned by the husband and wife team of Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine. Both used to work for the ValleyCats, and I used to be in frequent contact with Vic back when he was the team’s assistant general  manager. Here’s a picture of Vic during his baseball days:

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I would have loved to hang out here for a bit and catch up with Vic, but my arrival was unannounced and he wasn’t around and time was at a premium. So, next time.

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In the meantime, just look at this meat.

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Adjacent to The Grocery (and connected via a patio) is another business owned by Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine: The Lucas Confectionery. It was not yet open, early on this Saturday afternoon, but here’s the exterior. Folks on Yelp seem to love this place.

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Next up on this pedestrian (in both senses of the word?) journey was the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

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This mural, on the side of the venue, hints at the splendor that can be found therein.

029The venue’s 2014-15 concert season is definitely geared toward the Baby Boomer crowd. Anyone want to go see Bruce Hornsby on November 1? Just keep in mind that, like Derek Jeter during the back half of his career, he lacks The Range he used to have.

This is a frat house, inhabited by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) students. I was disappointed that they didn’t invite us in for tea and civilized discourse.

032 (2) And, finally, we have a picture of Jimmy’s Lunch. How can you not be charmed by an exterior like that?

034 (2)I am very well aware that, as with all of my city visits of this nature, I have barely scratched the surface. I mean, this post was about Troy but it didn’t even have any tiny hot dogs in it!

But time was up. I had to hit the road and move on toward Hudson Valley, the penultimate stop on 2014’s ultimate ballpark tour.

Cruisin USA, needing a shave

Cruisin USA, needing a shave

I attended August 30’s Renegades game at Dutchess Stadium, immediately driving to Scranton upon its conclusion. I spent that night in a Scranton Econo-Lodge — not the team hotel — whose hallways smelled like a pungent combination of excrement and marijuana. On the afternoon of August 31 I witnessed a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game and that, as they say, was that. On the night of August 31 I arrived back in NYC, where a couple of lazy jerks were waiting for me. I had missed these lazy jerks.

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And with that, this series of “New York State of Mind” posts have concluded. Next up on the blog: a full-to-bursting post dedicated to each of the 10 teams I visited on this trip: Batavia Muckdogs, Rochester Red Wings, Jamestown Jammers, Erie SeaWolves, Buffalo Bisons, Syracuse Chiefs, Auburn Doubledays, Tri-City ValleyCats, Hudson Valley Renegades and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

The content never ends, nor does my discontent regarding how much more I still have to write. Thanks for reading thus far, and stay tuned for much, much more.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: New York State of Mind, Part Three

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

Part one in this series detailed my non-ballpark explorations (or lack thereof) in Batavia, Rochester and Jamestown. Part two covered Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York. Part three, which you are reading now, begins on August 27th in Syracuse and ends on the 29th as I leave Syracuse for Troy (one of the “Tri-Cities” referenced in the Tri-City ValleyCats name).

But enough of this introductory babble: Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 27 — Syracuse, New York (home of the Chiefs)

After leaving Buffalo (where the last post left off), I arrived in Syracuse in the late afternoon and drove straight to the Chiefs’ home of NBT Ballpark. Here’s a sneak preview of what that looked like:

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I attended that evening’s game — some has been written regarding that experience, but much more remains to be written — and then checked into the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Syracuse. This was a fairly classy establishment, above average as Minor League team hotels go, but the most notable thing about it was the elevators. To use them, one would type in the desired floor on a console located in the lobby, and the console screen would then direct the user to one of three elevators. Inside the elevators there were no buttons (outside of those used for emergencies), since the elevator already “knew” where you wanted to go.

This might be superior to the traditional system, but I found it impossible to shake the habit of pushing a button once inside the elevator. Every time, there was that instinctual lunge toward where the buttons would be, followed by the realization of “Oh, right, it already knows what floor I want to go to.” Everyone I rode with seemed to have the same reaction, with the result that the elevators were always a topic of conversation when riding the elevators. In this regard, the unorthodox system served as a vehicle for increased social interaction within an environment usually permeated by stilted going-through-the-motions niceties and subsequent awkward silence.

August 28: A full day in Syracuse, but not much to report.

After a bout of late morning writing, I set out to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que for lunch. Dinosaur has become a mini BBQ empire here in the Northeast, but it all started at this location in downtown Syracuse.

095I got a brisket and ribs combination platter, and while no photographic evidence of this meal is available I can assure you that it was delicious. And BBQ is generally pretty easy to navigate on the gluten-free front — stay away from sandwiches (and in some cases, certain sauces) and you’re pretty much good to go. Here’s a picture of the brisket, unabashedly stolen from the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que home page:

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(As an aside, I recently went to Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in New York City. I was a bit wary of the place because it received a lot of hype and places in NYC often don’t live up to said hype, but this place served some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Not just in the northeast, but anywhere. The brisket and wings were particularly amazing. If you’re visiting NYC, make sure to get a meal there. Maybe I’ll join you.)

Anyhow, all I did after going to Dinosaur BBQ was go back to the hotel room, do some more writing, and then drive to Auburn to see that evening’s Doubledays game. Some has been written about that experience, and much more remains to be written. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend any time whatsoever in Auburn proper, which is regrettable. Auburn bills itself as “History’s Hometown,” and attractions include the Harriet Tubman Home and Fort Hill Cemetery (built on a site once used by Native Americans as a fortress). It was also the childhood home of apocryphal baseball inventor Abner Doubleday — hence the name of the local sporting nine.

Auburn -- home to Lil' Abner

Auburn — home to Lil’ Abner

August 28 — Syracuse, New York and Troy, New York (home of the ValleyCats).

After checking out of the Crowne Plaza and saying goodbye to the unorthodox elevators, I jumped (literally jumped!) into the car and headed to New Century Vietnamese Restaurant for lunch. Located on a block that was otherwise residential, this unassuming establishment really delivered the goods.

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And by “the goods,” I mean this. God bless Vietnamese food. It is consistently wonderful.

001Time was at a premium, as it always is, but before leaving Syracuse I decided to look up the address of a local record store, punch it into the GPS, and head over. This effort brought me to this area.

007And, specifically, to The Soundgarden. (Given this store’s name, you’d think it’d be located near Cornell as opposed to Syracuse University).

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The Soundgarden is the sort of store that used to be quite common in college towns, a something-for-everybody clearinghouse of cds, vinyl, posters, t-shirts, books, magazines, collectible toys and even incense. I like these kind of places.

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My big find here was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion “She’s On It/Jack the Ripper” 12″ that was released for Record Store Day. (The NYC stores had sold out of it quickly, and I never got a copy. My high school self would have been very disappointed at my lackadaisical efforts in obtaining this record, as back then a record featuring the Blues Explosion covering Beastie Boys would have made my head explode. (Oh, and fun fact: the first concert I ever saw was Beastie Boys at the Philadelphia Civic Center in May of 1995. Blues Explosion and the Roots opening.))

Anyhow, I also picked up three used cds: Neil Young “Road Rock,” Acid Mothers Family “Do Whatever You Want Don’t Do Whatever You Don’t Want” and “Weird Al” Yankovic “Poodle Hat.” (I coulda sworn I had this already, but a recent perusal of the stacks indicated otherwise. It is imperative to own all “Weird Al” recordings).

And that was it for Syracuse. I realize I didn’t have much but I stretched it out for all that it was worth and got a little more self-indulgent than usual in the process. I hope you don’t mind.

From Syracuse it was on to Troy, where I attended that evening’s Tri-City ValleyCats game. So far nothing has been written about that, but the blog post from that evening promises to be fairly epic. The next day I had some time to poke around the city of Troy, but I think I’m going to save that material for a fourth (and definitely final) “New York State of Mind” post.

Until then, I remain,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: New York State of Mind, Part One

My latest (and therefore greatest) road trip took place from August 22 through August 31st, consisting largely of teams based in the great state of New York. MiLB.com articles from this trip have been appearing on MiLB.com over the past 12 days, and will continue to appear this week and the week thereafter. To check out those stories, and many others, please bookmark this handy landing page for all of my 2014 road trip writings. I’ll be glad you did.

Once my MiLB.com articles are complete, I’ll write a corresponding blog post for each of the 10 ballparks I visited. The season may be over, but so much material is still to come! Some of that material shall be delivered to you now via this post, the first in a series covering all of my non-ballpark explorations during this most recent road trip. My 10 stadiums in 10 days itinerary didn’t allow much time for such explorations, but I will share everything that I can.

Starting now:

August 22: Batavia, New York (home of the Muckdogs)

I left New York City on the morning of August 22, immediately setting out for the western New York town of Batavia (population 15,645). Now that the Jamestown Jammers are no longer (moving to Morgantown, West Virginia in 2015), Batavia is the only remaining charter member of the New York-Penn League. This plaque, located at the Muckdogs’ home of Dwyer Stadium, explains Batavia’s role in NYPL history:

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I arrived in Batavia a little after four p.m., and had an hour or so to poke around before heading to Dwyer Stadium. I briefly considered heading to the nearby town of Elba, which, per Muckdogs general manager Travis Sick, is the epicenter of the region’s much-beloved muck:

Muck is a very dark brown soil, appearing black when moist. It is a fine, loose, fibrous form of peat that feels like sawdust when dry. Onions are the main “muck” crop because they are hardy and thrive in loose soil. Elba, a small town to 5 miles to the North of Batavia, claims to be the “Onion Capital of the World” due to the amount of onions that are grown in the muck lands.

Given my time constraints, and a desire to not make muck ado about nothing, I opted to spend my pre-game time in Batavia proper. There is a lot of history and charm in this old downtown, although the charm quotient is greatly reduced due to Main Street’s heavy traffic and pedestrian-unfriendly street crossings. Via some on-the-spot Google research, I was able to determine that the Hotel Richmond, where the New York-Penn League was conceived in a fit of National Pastime passion, once stood at the intersection of Main and Court Streets.

This is what the intersection of Main and Court Street looks like now. I wonder if the owner of this black SUV, while waiting at the stoplight, paused to consider just how close he or she was to Minor League Baseball history. My guess would be no.

IMG_0160While the four lanes of traffic cutting a wide swath through the center of Main Street diminishes Batavia’s charm, charm is nonetheless still in abundance. Fire hydrants, traditionally slaves to pragmatism, have style and pizzazz.

003This is the police station.

004And this is the courthouse. It goes without saying, but “Genesee Justice” would make for a really good reality TV show.

Update! This is not the courthouse. Per reader Doug Schneider:

What you have identified as the courthouse is the former sheriff’s office, now headquarters to an alternatives-to-incarceration program called Genesee Justice. The court house is at the big intersection (5 and 63) just east of there.

005Oliver’s “Own Make” Candies was one of the more notable businesses I encountered. (I went inside and bought some cayenne pepper-spiced caramel corn.)

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007Oliver’s Candies represented the zenith of my Main Street peregrinations, as after visiting I headed back toward my automobile. On my return route, I passed several points of historical interest.

Capt. Charles F. Rand was “a native Batavian….officially recognized by the Congress of the United States as the first person to answer President Lincoln’s appeal for volunteers in the Civil War.” More info on him can be found HERE.

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The War of 1812 Bicentennial Peace Garden.

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013Major General Emory Upton.

014I wish I had had more time to explore Batavia, in much the same way that I wished I had had more time to explore every American city that I have ever visited. But it was not to be, for duty called.

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August 23: Rochester, New York (home of the Red Wings)

Upon the conclusion of August 22’s Muckdogs game, I drove 36 miles northeast to Rochester and checked in at the Hyatt-Regency. It was one of the nicer hotels I stayed at this season — I generally stay in each city’s team hotel, where the visiting players stay –, and I was able to get a drink at the bar just before it closed (being on the road is all about small victories). I also noticed something which became a pattern on this trip: people in western New York pronounce the word “complimentary” as “complimen-tary. Can anyone back me up on this?

The jerks in the room next to mine at the Hyatt were extremely loud and kept me up later than I would have liked, but such is life. Looking for something to do in the absence of sleep, I took this photo out of the hotel room window at 2:30 a.m. A friend of mine told me that this photo reminded him of Man Ray and I hope that is true. Everybody loves Ray, Man.

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As for Rochester explorations, I regret to report that they were exceedingly minimal. I slept late the next morning, wrote for a nice chunk of the afternoon, and headed to the ballpark a little before three o’clock (the Red Wings were playing a doubleheader that evening, hence the early arrival). I did take a few photos on the way to the ballpark, however.

102Downtown Rochester was emanating saturnine vibes on this sleepy Saturday afternoon, but, nonetheless, it was easy to appreciate the architecture amid the malaise.

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25 East Main Street is an “historic site in journalism,” and deservedly so.

103The Post House is another building of historical note.

105Post Post House, I came upon the stadium and enjoyed a double dose of Rochester Red Wings baseball. After the game, I made it back to the Hyatt in time to get a drink at the bar just before closing. “You always come at this time,” said the bartender, which struck me as kind of comical since I had only checked in 24 hours before. As he got my drink, some tipsy ladies returning to the hotel from a bachelorette party sat at the bar and gave me a glow stick wristband. I said “Thank you,” took my wristband and drink up to my room, and did some writing in the Man Ray moonlight.

August 23: Jamestown, New York (home of the Jammers)

On August 23 I drove from Rochester straight to the Jamestown Jammers’ home of Russell Diethrick Stadium. After the game, I drove straight to Erie, Pennsylvania. I wish I had had the opportunity to explore Jamestown proper, but I did not. (If anyone wants to write a guest post on “Things to see and do in Jamestown” then you know where to get a hold of me.) There is very little I can tell you about Jamestown, but one thing I can tell you is that Jamestown is the birthplace of Lucille Ball and the town is now home to the “Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center.”

I can also tell you that I have plenty more material to share, and share it I will. But share it in this post, I won’t. Stay tuned for much more from the road.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Crooked Nuggets: August 2014

I have safely returned from my latest (and therefore greatest) ballpark road trip, and am now equipped with a seemingly insurmountable slag heap of material to share. But protocol must be followed, and protocol demands Crooked Nuggets.

“What’s Crooked Nuggets?” you ask. “Crooked Nuggets is what you’re reading now,” I answer. “I want a more substantial answer,” is your rejoinder. “Okay, I will provide you with one,” is my reply.

In much the same way that a beautiful butterfly emerges from a chrysalis, my words, as quoted above, will now emerge into action via the delivery of the following information:

Crooked Nuggets is the scrappy, succinct offshoot of my long-running, exceedingly awesome and insanely underrated Crooked Numbers column on MiLB.com. Crooked Numbers is a monthly round-up of the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. Crooked Nuggets contains EVEN MORE on-field weirdness!

So let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

crooked_nuggets_215x1601st of tha MonthBoise Hawks outfielder Charlie White made two pitching appearances this season, each on the first of the month and each resulting in a come-from-behind win. On August 1 the moonlighting position player  took the mound in the top of the ninth inning, with his Hawks losing to the Vancouver Canadians by a score of 10-6. White pitched a scoreless ninth, and then hit an RBI double and scored in the bottom of the frame as the Hawks rallied to tie the game 10-10. White then shut down the Canadians in the 10th and 11th, with the Hawks pushing across a run in the bottom of the 11th for an improbable 11-10 victory.

One month later, to the day, White was at it again in a game against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. He was called upon to pitch the top of the ninth inning, and allowed a run as the Volcanoes extended their lead to 5-2. No matter — the Hawks scored four runs in the bottom of the inning  en route to a 6-5 win. White contributed to the rally, walking and scoring a run as he earned his second victory in as many opportunities.

Titanium Sombrero —  On August 1, Chevy Clark of the Great Falls Voyagers struck out in the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, and 12th innings in a game against the Billings Mustangs. But six strikeouts were enough for the struggling  center fielder, as he laid down a sacrifice bunt in the 14th and, finally, grounded out to third base in the 16th. Great Falls lost the ballgame, 3-1, in 17 innings, putting a merciful end to what had been a horrific night at the ballpark. The two teams combined to go 2-for-33 with runners in scoring position.

NRISP — On the other end of the “batting with runners in scoring position” equation, we have August 2’s game between the Mississippi Braves and Mobile BayBears. The M-Braves won, 1-0, despite not recording a single at-bat with runners in scoring position during the ballgame. Mycal Jones’ ninth-inning sacrifice fly is what done won it.

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up — The Dunedin Blue Jays staged an ’80s Night promotion on August 9, featuring a post-game concert by the band Stormbringer. The band’s set was cut short, however, due to an oncoming storm.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Part. 2 — On August 4, the Bakersfield Blaze had to postpone their game against the San Jose Giants due to a transformer failure. The next afternoon, as part of a pre-existing promotion, all fans bringing electronic waste to the ballpark received free admission.

Then Again, Maybe You Can Make This Stuff Up — After the Blaze were forced to postpone August 4’s ballgame, they went ahead and staged a fake game on Twitter. Read all about it.

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Going the Extra Mile — To the best of my knowledge, the only pitcher to record two four-strikeout innings this season was Yankees farmhand Jacob Lindgren. The second-round draft pick accomplished the feat for Class A Charleston on July 12, upon which he was promoted to Class A Advanced Tampa. He then accomplished the feat for Tampa on August 3, upon which he was promoted to Double-A Trenton. On the season, Lindgren struck out 48 batters over 25 innings pitched. That’s a lot, but keep in mind that the maximum number of batters a pitcher could strike out over 25 innings is infinity.

Pitch Perfect, Hit Poorly — August 4’s game between the Dayton Dragons and Great Lakes Loons was notable due to — you guessed it — a snafu. MiLB.com’s Midwest League Notebook has more:

Dayton pitcher Nick Travieso batted three times Monday night in a 3-2 loss to Great Lakes. Manager Jose Nieves made a lineup card mistake, listing Avain Rachal as a designated hitter when Rachal was actually the Dragons’ third baseman. The Dragons lost the DH for the rest of the game, and the pitcher hit in the No. 5 spot. Travieso was 0-for-3 with a pop out and two strikeouts.

Big Easy, Pitching Hard — On August 9 against the Memphis Redbirds, three New Orleans Zephyrs pitchers combined to throw 197 pitches over just eight innings of work: Alex Sanabia (93 pitches, 4.1 innings), Rett Varner (53 pitches, 1 inning) and Donnie Joseph (51 pitches, 2.2 innings). The Redbirds won the game, 21-3. 

crooked_nuggets_215x160Productive Outs — Shawn O’Malley of the Salt Lake Bees tied his season high with three RBIs on August 9, despite not recording a single. Two of O’Malley’s RBIs in this contest against the El Paso Chihuahuas came via the ultra-rare two-run sacrifice fly. Watch and learn:

An Erie Occurrence (And I was there) — Erie SeaWolves’ right-hander Wilsen Palacios struggled mightily against the Bowie Baysox on August 25. He went through the entirety of the starting line-up without recording an out, en route to allowing seven runs on seven hits and two walks in the first inning alone. But then a funny thing happened — Palacios settled down and followed up his frightful first with four scoreless innings, and ended up earning the win as the SeaWolves rallied for a 10-7 victory. Baysox starter Branden Kline took the opposite approach, retiring the SeaWolves 1-2-3 in the first but ultimately taking the loss after allowing nine runs over 4 2/3 innings.

Photographic evidence, taken by yours truly (aka “Me”):

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Triple Trouble — The Oklahoma City RedHawks’ 10-2 win over the El Paso Chihuahuas on August 23 was highlighted by a most unlikely occurrence in the fifth inning. Three RedHawks players — Domingo Santana, Andrew Aplin, Carlos Perez — all hit triples in the frame, accounting for 60% of the triples that these players would combine to hit all season.

crooked_nuggets_215x160C-1B-2B-3B-SS-LF-CF-RF-P — Every year it seems that at least one Minor League player plays all nine positions in a game on Labor Day. This year, that player was Nate Orf of the Brevard County Manatees. Congrats, Nate.

Everybody Loses — The Yankees have two Gulf Coast League affiliates, creatively named “Yankees1″ and “Yankees2″, and this season both GCL Yankee entities won their respective division. Yankees1 then played Yankees2 in a sudden death semi-final, and Yankees1 won. There’s not much more 2 it.

Well, It’s My Birthday Too, Yeah — The Palm Beach Cardinals hosted the Bradenton Marauders on August 23. In that game, Bradenton’s Mason Katz, celebrating his 24th birthday, hit a home run off of Tyler Glasnow, celebrating his 21st.

crooked_nuggets_215x160And that’s it for this month of Crookedness. I’ll be back next month with more, so long as I have more. Meanwhile, a hearty thanks to the many people who helped make Crooked Number/Nuggets possible this month: Nate March, Alex Freedman, Nate Kurant, Mike Safford, Chris Kleinhaus-Schulz, Josh Jackson, Jon Laaser, Tim Hagerty, Dan Besbris and many others whom I am forgetting. Finally, I am still waiting for confirmation that at least one woman has read this column during any point of its existence. It’s got to happen eventually.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Another Sellout in Dayton

The seventh and final stop of my Midwest-based July road trip was Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dragons (Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).

I had never been to Dayton before; my first and still-strongest association with the city was via Randy Newman’s evocations of a turn-of-the-20th century lazy Sunday afternoon. But when I pulled into this parking lot, it was an early Thursday evening during a decidedly more dystopian-seeming epoch. There was no time for tea, and the missus was nowhere to be found.

009 To get to the Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field, one hooks a left at the far end of Mendelson Liquidation Outlet, crosses the street, and then walks down this narrow  alleyway. (Or at least that’s what I did.)

011Life, post alleyway, was considerably brighter. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but there was a group of bagpipe players kicking out summertime jams in front of the stadium. Apparently, Dayton was on the cusp of its annual Celtic Festival.

012Enter here.

013Chances are that, if you know anything whatsoever about the Dayton Dragons, you know this: the team currently boasts the longest sellout streak in the history of professional sports. They set the record with sellout number 814 in 2011, and this season they passed the 1000 sellout milestone. For a little perspective, I will now quote from a 2011 article written by an increasingly complacent yet  intermittently brilliant writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called “Rust Belt” cities — Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind — the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.

Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s).

So, yeah, the sellout streak is due to a combination of having a well-designed facility in a well-chosen location, playing in a baseball-friendly market with rooting attachments to the parent club, and consistent and conscientious ownership and front office staff. It’s a multi-laired situation.

Yeah, multi-“lair”ed. Because they’re the Dragons, see.

017I entered via the main office, where I was met by vice president Eric Deutsch so that he could lead me on a tour of the facility. We began in the main office, which is lined with photos of notable ballpark guests. For starters, did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson is a Dayton native? (Also, and unrelated: did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson has donated some $10 million to the Church of Scientology? For that kind of money, you could buy the Batavia Muckdogs twice over.)

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Magic Johnson, part of the team’s ownership group, once threw out a basketball first pitch. I mean, sure, why not? It’s kind of like that time that David Copperfield threw out an invisible first pitch because he had already made the ball disappear.

016Actually, Johnson no longer has a stake in the team, as Mandalay has recently sold the Dragons to Palisades Arcadia. The price was not disclosed, but it is somewhere in the $35-40 million dollar range — the most ever paid for a Minor League Baseball team. The sale was not yet official on the late July evening that I visited, however, and Deutsch was reticent to talk about it in any detail. But the front office will remain in place, so I wouldn’t expect any major changes to the way that the team does things.

Sorry, the pace of this post is already Dragon. (Before writing this post, I tested my Dragon jokes by doing a set at a local comedy club. They killed that Knight.)

018

Like Dayton Dragons? This guy is single.

Deutsch and I meandered through subterranean hallways for a bit, with one such hallway eventually leading us onto the field. The field was redone prior to the 2013 season, and the seven-story tall scoreboard features a dragon that shoots smoke out of its nostrils.

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021A sellout crowd would soon be watching the action on the field, of course. In the Dragons case, a sellout occurs once all 7230 fixed seats have been sold. (These seats all have theater-style cup holders, for what it’s worth.) Walk-up tickets are available for the lawn area on most evenings, resulting in an average crowd somewhere in the 8400 range.

Pretty suite, right?

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027Each season, approximately 25 Dragons games are shown on local TV. Hence, this backdrop, and hence a recent $1 million investment to redo the team’s control room.

029Hey, look, Willie Nelson played here once. (I might have an extra ticket to see Willie Nelson in Newark on September 20 so drop me a line if you want it.)

031Deutsch reported that the this is one of three party decks and that the party decks are always the first thing to sell out. (If I ran the Dragons I’d name this the “Baby Boomer” party deck because it sells out so easily. Oooh, take that parents!)

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The view from the right field party deck, this is.
036Given Fifth Third Field’s limited downtown footprint, the team had to build up as opposed to out. Hence, a six-row second-level seating area. Second-tier seating levels are very rare in Minor League Baseball. Fresno has one, and that’s the only team that immediately comes to (my) mind. There are no concession areas up here, but Deutsch said that an order-from-the-seats concession service was generally underutilized and therefore discontinued. People, they like to get up and mingle. Sitting is overrated.

037 The concourse runs in a predictable pattern: concession stand, portable stand, restroom, repeat. Among the portable stands, Dippin Dots are among the most popular. I was told that this perpetually futuristic avant-garde ice cream purveyor, based in relatively nearby Paducah, Kentucky, considers the Dragons to be among their top partners. (Daytonians love Dippin Dots, that’s all that I’m trying to get at here.)

038The 3100 square foot team store is called the Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of items for sale, one will not find goofy variations on the logo such as could be found in the likes of, say, Lexington (see previous post).

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Deutsch said that, when it comes to the logo, the team goes “narrow, rather than deep. We’re the Yankees, as opposed to the Diamondbacks.”

I got the impression that the above statement applies to the Dragons’ way of doing business, period. You can’t argue with success, but operationally speaking they feel like a Major League team trapped in a Minor League team’s body. I’ll be curious to see if the new ownership group experiments, at least just a little, with theme jerseys, bobblehead giveaways,  regionally specific and/or “crazy” concession items, and other hallmarks of the 21st century Minor League experience. At the very least, maybe they could use Twitter as a tool to interact with the fan base? (I’m not sure if @DragonsBaseball has replied to a tweet, ever.) All I’m saying is: even the best have room to improve.

In the time it took to read that half-formed editorializing digression, one could walk from the team store to the Dragon’s Lair group seating area. (I did the math.) There are 306 seats in the Dragon’s Lair, making it pretty sizable as lairs go.

042Next to the lair is the lawn.

044If one keeps moving, one finds this statue of mascot Heater.

045On this particular evening, Heater had company in the form of touring mascot Birdzerk. Birdzerk is a close personal friend of mine; we met in a subterranean tunnel and then I accompanied him to the concourse so that he could begin his first routine of the evening.

Go!

Birdzerk ran onto the field, coerced the visiting third baseman to dance, stole his glove, and tossed his glove into the stands. Vaudeville at the ballpark.

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052After Birdzerk disappeared into the netherworld from which he came, I journeyed back up to the press box. By the time I got there, Birdzerk had re-emerged and was now harassing an umpire.

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The next inning break was a more solemn affair, as the Dragons staged a “Home Run for Life” in which a recovering cancer patient took a lap around the bases. This bit of tearjerking ballpark pageantry, now common throughout Minor League Baseball, originated with the Dragons.

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In the press box I spoke with Wright State University assistant professor Scott Peterson. He and student Sam McClain (a Dragons intern) are working on a project regarding the changing nature of media coverage throughout the Midwest League.

059I contemplated writing an article on this project, as it is the kind of thing that interests me (and, perhaps, you). But Peterson and McClain are still in the relatively early stages of the project, so I’ll catch up with them a little later on down the line. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.

061Next up on the docket was to meet my designated eater for the evening: Mr. George Coleman.

064George grew up in Chicago, often taking the subway to go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

“Ernie Banks was the man and still is,” he said.

George now lives in Dayton, having retired from a 30-year career in the Air Force spent primarily in aircraft maintenance. (The beard was a long time coming — he wasn’t allowed to have one while in the Air Force, and said that it then took another 10 years to convince his wife.) He was motivated to volunteer as a Designated Eater simply because he is a fan of Minor League Baseball in general and my writing specifically.

“I like the same things you like, so anything you write gets priority in my inbox,” he said. “I’m 63 and the reference you have, some of them are aimed at my generation. I hope people get it….It’s a little slice of heaven to read your stuff.”

George and I headed over to the “Dragons Fire Grill” so that he could obtain a “Pit Boss Burger.”

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The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.

065Have at it, George.

“I love the crunchiness of the cole slaw, and the soft pretzel bun,” said George. “The burger’s the base of it, and while Ohio’s not known for its barbecue the pulled pork is done well. This makes the list of beard-worthy burgers.”

067I, meanwhile, snacked on a bag of Mikesell’s potato chips.

066These Ohio-based snack purveyors know what they are doing. Otherwise, why would they be doing it?

069Next up for George was some cake batter ice cream from Stone Cold Creamery, enjoyed amid the late-evening splendor of the lawn area. George said that the ice cream tasted like “cake in a cup,” which is probably its intended purpose.

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074Upon parting ways with George (Thanks, George!), the ballgame was in its eighth inning. My night in Dayton — and this entire road trip — was on the cusp of concluding. All that was left to do was get an autograph from my good pal Birdzerk.

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079“Ben — a smooth man with a blog!”

Put that on my tombstone, please!

Meanwhile, my next (and last) road trip of the season is already well underway. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch should you be motivated to do so. I will respond.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Legendary Night in Lexington

When one thinks of Lexington, Kentucky, and its surrounding environs, two things that quickly come to mind are bourbon…

053 and horses.

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Baseball, perhaps not so much.

052But professional baseball in Lexington is very much a thing. Welcome to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends (Class A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). The ballpark opened in 2001, marking the return of professional baseball to Lexington after a 47-year absence.

056In addition to the three murals seen above, one can find this giant ball outside of the ballpark. Reading the messages left me in stitches.

055I visited Lexington on July 23, and July 23 was no ordinary evening. It was “Star Wars Night.”

(Note: this woman would not stop fiddling with Darth’s midsection. Finally I just gave up and took the picture.)

058“Star Wars Night” has become a bona fide phenomenon in the world of Minor League Baseball promotions, and many teams consider it to be one of the cornerstones of the promotional schedule. The Legends’ iteration was a decidedly low-key affair, however.

“Tonight is the first time we’ve done it in several years,” said Sarah Bosso, Legends director of community relations. “We’re just getting our feet wet, doing it on a Wednesday and testing it out.”

059Here, mustachioed mascot Big L displays his rather tepid light saber technique.

060Out on the concourse, the atmosphere was decidedly more sedate.

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Following standard (but by no means mandatory) Ben’s Biz Blog operating procedure, I took to the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While there, I got my picture taken with my good friend Darth Vader.

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Soon after this photo was taken, Darth overheard Bosso and myself talking about the Legends’ concession options.

“Did you say ‘Hot Brown Dog?'” asked Darth, intrigued by a local culinary specialty. “Where can I get that? Can you maybe put it through a blender?”

There were three individuals throwing out a first pitch: Judge John Schrader (Fayette Family Court), myself, and Darth Vader. I later mentioned to the judge that it was funny that Schrader and Vader were both throwing out a first pitch. He responded with a blank stare.

Here’s Judge Schrader. Or, as I now call him, the Mirthless Magistrate.

065I was in fine form on this particular evening, if I do say so myself.

BenHill_FirstPitch_July23Finally, we have Darth, flanked by stormtroopers.

069Darth didn’t have a very good arm.

I’ve thrown dozens of first pitches through the years; perhaps I should begin taking note of each team’s first pitch procedure?

The Legends did two things that I had never seen before: the balls used were from the batting cages (and therefore scuffed up and dirty), and the speed of the pitch was displayed and announced to the crowd. For the record, Darth and the Mirthless Magistrate both clocked in at 38 miles an hour. I, meanwhile, threw a blistering 47.

How’s ’bout a buncha random ballpark photographs, provided by a writer with rudimentary photography skills? That writer would be me, and these would be the photos:

070 071The placement of the bullpens provide plenty of opportunity for fan interaction.

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

The Jim Beam distillery is located just outside of Lexington. Maybe the team could get Jim Beam to be the official sponsor of these massive concourse beams?

073A pair of Star Wars aficionados ponder their options.

074As you may be aware, the Legends re-branded themselves in a mustache-centric fashion prior to the 2013 season.  Therefore, plenty of mustache-centric gear can be obtained at the Legends Locker.

076Inside this humble space, things get pretty strange on the t-shirt front.

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Tag, this photo

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117Viewing these images may cause you to feel like you’re in a dream.

But this? This is no dream. This is real: a piece of officially licensed Minor League Baseball apparel that explicitly references the time-honored act of mustache riding.

IMG_0083After this exhilarating foray into the wilds of the team store, I journeyed to the stadium’s second level. This picture, as inelegant as it may be, portrays the area immediately surrounding Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A downtown facility, this isn’t.

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While visiting the press box, I was pleased to see my visage beaming back at me from the videoboard. Move over, Darth! I am the evening’s true guest of honor.

080This little joystick-like contraption has a special purpose.

081Flipping the switch causes flames to shoot out of the Candleberries situated atop the scoreboard. (Now that’s a sentence that I’ve definitely never written before.) This photo is unfortunately flameless.

082 A man named Ty Cobb gave me the opportunity to flick the switch that shoots off the flames. This is Ty Cobb.

084

Ty Cobb serves as the Legends creative marketing director and PA announcer, and I wrote a story about him that can be found HERE. During my time in the press box with Mr. Cobb, he reminded the crowd that if the Legends get 10 hits then they can redeem their ticket stubs for a free order of fried pickles at Hooters.

This dude, I bet that he likes fried pickles at Hooters.

087But Mr. Ball Head (not sure if that’s his real name) wasn’t the only interesting character wandering around on the concourse. I also ran into this guy.

088The above individual is Ryan Ferry, who had agreed to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Ryan, a Lexington native who says that he can see the Whitaker Bank Ballpark scoreboard from his backyard, was nine years old when the Legends played their first season. He used to be a batboy, and now occasionally mans the speed pitch booth as a game day employee. Among other claims to fame, he was waiting in line for kettle corn when Bryce Harper hit his first professional home run.

“I consider myself a fixture here,” said Ryan, a sports management major at Eastern Kentucky University.

He also collects hats and shoes. Check out these size 15 specimens.

092And now, on to the food.

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What you see above is the Hot Brown Dog, which Darth Vader wished to be pulverized so that it could be poured through the holes in his mask. The Hot Brown Dog is a ballpark variation of a Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky specialty described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown.  

Of course, the Hot Brown Dog substitutes a hot dog for the turkey. As a Pennsylvania native, it reminded me of a hot dog version of cream chipped beef on toast.

Hot Brown, goin’ down.

091“The saltiness is what sticks out, and the bacon also sticks out because it’s the king of all meats,” said Ryan. “It definitely lives up to the hot name, at least in temperature. The sauce is like gravy, and a little sweeter than I expected it to be. I hope that nobody from Kentucky comments on this, calling me out for not eating Hot Browns all that much.”

Next, Ferry suggested that he sample a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly donut called the “PBJD.” When we ordered it, the woman manning the concession counter gave us an annoyed stare, sighed, and said “Are you kidding me?”

Apparently, PBJDs are not ordered very often.

“It’s totally slept on,” said Ferry. “They really need to market it more.”

Indeed, the only mention of the PBJD that I could find was on this concession sign. Just four little letters; no picture, no explanation.

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Here it is, in all of its obscure glory.

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Ryan savors the moment:

098“They take the donut, cut it, and put on the PB&J,” said Ryan. “It’s doughy, but has a little bit of a crisp to it.”

And with that, Ryan’s work was done. We now return to the ball field. Notice the “stables” group area in the background.

100I would like to point out that this guy had a June bug on the back of his neck. I was told that they were all over the place this time of year. June, July, same difference.

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Next on my agenda was to compete against children in a between-inning game of “musical donkeys.” These three children, specifically:

105No video documentation exists of this effort, a sadly recurring theme of this trip. Here, I lurk around like a neanderthal while waiting for the music to stop.

106I made it through the first round, but was eliminated in the second. Ben’s Biz out.

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DSCN3237Another night, another career highlight, and veteran on-field emcee Mykraphone Mike was there to narrate it all. Yes, it’s spelled “mykraphone.”

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Things were beginning to wind down on this sleepy Star Wars night.

119Ty Cobb, on the PA, was adhering to the night’s theme by telling Star Wars jokes to the crowd.

“What do you call a potato that has gone to the dark side?” Cobb asked the crowd.

The crowd did not seem eager for an answer, but Cobb persisted.

“Darth Tater.”

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Ty Cobb, stand-up comic

The Legends ended up losing the game to the Charleston RiverDogs, by a score of 6-4. But that’s okay. It’s a long season, full of ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on grinding.

In other words: keep a stiff upper lip.

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Meanwhile, I’m on the road again! Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Knowing the Score in Louisville

Today’s dispatch finds us in Louisville, the home of the International League’s Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). This marked the second time I’d been in Louisville over the span of one year, as I visited this past October in order to attend the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. I wrote quite a bit about that visit, from the ballpark and otherwise; all of those posts are cataloged HERE.

So when I arrived at Louisville’s Galt Hotel, the same establishment that hosted the Promo Seminar, it was with a not inconsiderable sense of deja vu. I checked in, leaving my bags in the car, and immediately began the short walk to the Bats’  home of Louisville Slugger Field.

Hello, Louisville.

001Or at least it should have been a quick walk to the ballpark. A combination of  haste and misplaced confidence regarding my knowledge of downtown Louisville led to me walking right past E. Main Street, where the ballpark is located, and into parts unknown. Pro tip: if you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School. then something has gone horribly wrong.

002But I, like an ineffective constipation remedy, could not be de-turd. Eventually I got back on track and arrived at the ballpark.

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Pee-Wee Reese, Louisville native, is there to greet all comers.

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Pee-Wee played shortstop. Here’s the view from the hot corner.
005If Louisville Slugger Field looks like it has a unique ballpark exterior, that’s because it does. This building, in its previous incarnation, was a rail depot. Hence, an enclosed entrance way so wide that one could drive a train through it.

006This photo, also meant to convey a grand sense of spaciousness, was taken during my October visit to the ballpark.

042This, also taken during the Promo Seminar, illustrates how the converted depot area can be used as an offseason event Also, fans of foreshadowing should take note of this image. Depicted therein is an individual who will soon play a prominent role in this post…

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Here’s one final photo from the Promo Seminar, taken from the suite level. Louisville Slugger Field is located on the banks of the Ohio River.

We now return to the current narrative:

Upon arriving at the stadium and making my way to the press box, I learned that the Bats’ approach to my visit was of the hands-off variety. While there’s no right or wrong way to handle a Ben’s Biz intrusion, this caught me off-guard simply because my previous four ballpark visits had included participation in a World Record attempt, a karaoke battle against wrestling royalty, in-depth history-minded ballpark tours, two ceremonial first pitches and stints as a racing cow, hot dog, and bearded Sun King brewer. Full-to-bursting ballpark agendas had begun to feel like the new normal.

The cool reception was kind of a relief, as it was nice to know that I could take a break and set my own pace. So goodbye, Bats press box, I hardly knew ye. It was time to wander.

010I didn’t get very far in my wandering, at least initially. Sitting behind home plate was my friend “Stevo,” a Louisville native who describes himself as a “semi-retired punk-metal atavist.”

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kvlt

One of Stevo’s ballpark rituals is to purchase “mystery cards” from a concourse souvenir stand, for $2 a piece. One was enshrouded in pink, the other enshrouded in blue. “Which one do you want?” asked Stevo.

012 I chose pink, which is always the correct choice, and ended up with a 2008 Bowman Nick Adenhart card. Stevo, meanwhile, received Jared Burton.

014Receiving a Nick Adenhart card was bittersweet, to say the least, as he was killed in a car accident on April 9, 2009 at the age of 22. I wrote a news story about this tragedy later that day; speaking to his teammates just hours after they had heard the news was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a professional journalist.

(Deep breath)

Stevo had a good vantage point for that evening’s game against Columbus. This was the scene as we rose for our National Anthem.

016Stevo has a passion for scorekeeping; that’s what he was at the ballpark to do.

017Later in the evening I interviewed Stevo about his scorekeeping history, techniques and tips. I’d highly recommend reading it, which you can do so by clicking HERE.

Of course, one of the joys of scorekeeping is that its practitioners can indulge their idiosyncratic whims. In the below photo, the parenthetical “FLS” in the box next to Lindor’s name indicates a “Flying Louisville Slugger.” (As in, Lindor had lost control of his bat at some point during his at-bat against the Bats.)

019 I pointed out that a Francisco Lindor FLS was in fact an “FLFLS.” Clearly, a celebratory selfie was in order.

That accomplished, I took a lap around the ballpark. The shark fin-looking thing sticking out above the stadium is…a building. I forget what building it is, but it’s distinctive.

022This isn’t just some random corporate sponsorship. KFC is based in Louisville, and Louisville is home to the first, and thus far only, KFC Eleven.

023The presence of the sun in this photo reminds me that it was brutally hot on this particular evening. 116 degrees would be my guess.

026The weird looking building whose name I can’t recall is visible on the right.

027Bermanent Vacation:

029I call this one “Trash can, foul pole, vendor.”

031My lap around the stadium brought me right back to where I started, as laps tend to do. It also brought me into contact with these two women.

033That’s Stephanie Fish, on the left, and Shannon Siders, on the right. These women, independently of one another, contacted me about being the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). That’s not the only thing that Stephanie and Shannon have in common with one another, however, as they are both former Minor League Baseball front office employees who now work for a Louisville-based sports entity.

Stephanie, formerly of the Lexington Legends, now works in an administrative role with the SkillVille Group. The SkillVille Group’s roster of touring ballpark and arena performers  is highlighted by the Zooperstars!, meaning that a big part of Stephanie’s job is keeping the likes of Harry Canary in line. Shannon, formerly of the Reno Aces, now works in marketing and communications for Louisville Slugger. She does not have to deal with anthropomorphic inflatables on a daily basis.

Our tour guide for this portion of the evening was Jason Betts, concessions manager for Centerplate food service.  Betts can be seen in the below photo, looking pensive while ordering pork chop sandwiches from this center field kiosk.

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These sandwiches are made from pork tenderloin, marinated for three days in chef Jim Darr’s secret concoction of sauce and spices.
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Have at it, ladies.

“That’s a big piece of meat,” declared Stephanie, after careful deliberation.

“I don’t think I can follow that comment,” said Shannon. “It’s delicious. Better than salad.”

Next up was a visit to the “Nacho Cantina,” a concession stand so popular that it even has its own Facebook page.

“The nachos are all a la carte, so the lines can get pretty long,” said Jason. “People get up there like ‘Uhhhhhh…..'”

037Shannon, a self-proclaimed nachos fanatic, considers her choices.

038Service with a smile:

As opposed to tortilla chips, Shannon opted for the house-made potato chips. But, regardless, this dish is very much a nacho dish and this photo is suitable for framing.

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“Aside from $1 beer night, this is the happiest that I’ve ever been at Louisville Slugger Field,” said Shannon. “Does that make me an alcoholic?”

“I wish I had a napkin,” added Stephanie.

043After the nachos, a veggie wrap panini was bound to be a bit of a comedown. This was filled with red onion, spinach, hummus, squash and zucchini.

045 Both women praised the sauce, but I neglected to write down what this sauce consisted of. Ambrosia, probably.

“This is a salad in a wrap,” said Stephanie. “That’s my quote. That’ll work.”

Cheers.

047Because too much is never enough, next up was a Philly cheesesteak.

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Betts said that the team sells 150 cheesesteaks per ballgame, a number which can increase to 300 on weekends.

“I’m not sure why it’s on a bun, because you can’t pick it up,” he said. “There’s too much stuff on it.”

Stephanie and Shannon eventually came to the conclusion that this Vine video should be called “Two Girls, One Cheesesteak.”

Finally, mercifully, we have reached the dessert phase of the evening. Blue Bell brand ice cream — cake batter for Shannon and strawberry for Stephanie.

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Stephanie really liked the strawberry.

051Thanks to Jason Betts, whose rollicking culinary tour greatly enlivened what might have been an otherwise moribund night at the ballpark.

056And thanks to Stephanie and Shannon, of course. They didn’t go home hungry, that’s for sure.

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Upon parting ways with Stephanie and Shannon, I made a brief pit stop at an eerily desolate relief station.

Throughout all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

059Hours had passed since we last spoke, but Stevo was right where I had left him. To the casual observer, this had been a rather lackluster Tuesday night contest. But Stevo is no casual observer.

“I’m a Cubs and Royals fan, and to see an ex-Cub (Donnie Murphy) hit a home run off of an ex-Royal (Kyle Davies), that’s amazing,” said Stevo. “You never know when you’re going to see something like that.”

061The tricks of the trade. (Stevo: “These are all the implements I need. I’ve got everything but chewing gum.”

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The Columbus Clippers defeated the home nine, by a score of 8-5.

062But don’t take my word for it. Take Stevo’s.

064Good night from Louisville. 065

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in two days. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: The Past Comes Alive in Columbus

On Friday, July 18, I visited a Double-A team (the Akron Aeros). On Saturday, July 19, I visited a Class A team (the West Virginia Power). On Sunday, July 20, I visited a Triple-A team. That team was the Columbus Clippers, an International League entity affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

Welcome to Columbus.

006That’s not a particularly good photo, but it’s the first one I took upon beginning my walk to the ballpark after checking in to a downtown hotel. Getting in to Columbus proper was a struggle, as half of the city’s roads seemed to be closed. I felt like I was driving in increasingly smaller circles, yet never actually able to make it to my destination. (A metaphor for the futility of human existence? It just might be.)

Some of the roads were closed due to construction, but others had been cordoned off in order to accommodate that day’s Jazz and Rib Fest. The fest was taking place on an the expanse of greenery located beyond this archway.

007Transportation issues aside, there is a lot going on in downtown Columbus and I got the sense that it would be a good place to spend some time. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets play nearby, and there is a concentrated conglomeration of concert venues as well. In fact, as I was arriving at the stadium, people were lining up nearby for that evening’s Neutral Milk Hotel show at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion. That is a weird name for a band, and an even weirder name for a venue.

One does not need to travel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in order to reach Huntington Park, and one does not need to be Jeff Mangum, PI, in order to find it. It’s right here, in the heart of downtown.

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A view from the outside, as I made my way around the perimeter of the facility. The guys on the field were fantasy camp participants.

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I was met at the gate by Josh Samuels, the Clippers director of web communications, and he and I were joined by director of media relations Joe Santry. It was time for a tour.

There is plenty of room to move at Huntington Park, especially in the outfield portion of the concourse.

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There is so much room, that even this gargantuan sculpture doesn’t get in the way.

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This is the Victory Bell from the Clippers’ old home of Cooper Stadium, a facility that hosted more Minor League games than any other facility, ever. The bell was originally used by the Columbus fire department, during a time when fire wagons were still pulled by horses. “The horses were exercised daily outside of the fire station,” reads the plaque. “When a fire broke out, the bell was rung from the fire house tower to alert everyone to return with the horses to the fire station.” The bell was eventually donated to the Columbus Jets, who stationed it near the press box and rang it after each victory.

016The above tidbit is indicative of the Clippers’ commitment to preserving their history. Santry also serves as the team historian, and as a result of his tireless efforts Huntington Park is laden with interesting photos and exhibits related to the long history of baseball in Columbus. I wrote a story about this on MiLB.com, and I would exhort  — yes, exhort — you to read it.

Excuse the glare, but here is a picture of an upstairs display dedicated to Derek Jeter’s stint with the Clippers (he played there at the end of 1994 and the bulk of 1995).

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The display includes a looping video of Jeter’s first hit with Columbus, which occurred some two decades ago.

In the display case, one can also find a glove once worn by “Cotton Top” Terry Turner, the Indians’ all-time games-played leader and Nap Lajoie’s double play partner. Per his SABR bio:

“The quintessential utility player, the 5’8″, 149-pound Turner was, in the words of sportswriter Gordon Cobbledick, ‘a little rabbit of a man with the guts of a commando.'”

In this photo, his glove his being worn by an increasingly fat muskrat of a man with the guts of an insurance adjuster.

024“Rooster’s Roof,” featuring bleacher seating modeled after Wrigley Field, is a very cool spot to watch the game. Rooster’s is a local wing establishment, and on Wednesday’s the wings can be had for 50 cents each. This is a bargain comparable to Tuesday’s “Buck a Bone” rib deal, but not quite in the same pantheon as Monday’s “Dime a Dog” promotion.

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These are referred to as the “Tower Bleachers.”027

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The staircases are adorned with team portraits, which were done annually by the Columbus School of Art and Design. This team had a few memorable names. I mean, who can forget 6’7″ pitcher Dave Pavlas, who turned 52 this past Tuesday? Happy birthday, Dave Pavlas.

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A brief foray past the batting cages yielded this bit of info from Samuels: the logos of all 14 International League clubs are presented alphabetically by city…

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until they aren’t.

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Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, placed before Rochester

The journey through this subterranean labyrinth was fruitful, as it led us to the light. This is a really beautiful ballpark.

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A one-armed raccoon was there to greet us.

036As was Lou Seal…

037…who proudly brandished her his 2013 Mascot Mania championship belt.

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Lou Seal was unable to repeat as Mascot Mania champion, however. This time around, a shark is king. (Yes, just as in nature, a seal was defeated by a shark.) But how about this? Last season, Buster Douglas just happened to be at the game when Lou Seal received his championship belt. Photo op!

buster

While Lou Seal was gloating, I took the mound and delivered the worst ceremonial first pitch of my ceremonial first pitch career. Luckily, this seems to be the only photo evidence of my offering, which landed a couple feet in front of the plate and then burst into flames.

039I immediately ran up to the control room, in order to confiscate all of their video footage.

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As the game began, Santry stayed near the field in order to take pictures of rehabbing starting pitcher Justin Masterson. Samuels and I continued wandering. This concession area is called the “Grand Slam Station.”

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City Barbeque, a Columbus-area restaurant, has this in-stadium location.

043 A small army of Great Clips hair dressers were giving free haircuts at the Clippers game. That’s synergy.

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044A lonely Indianapolis Indian, as seen from this right field vantage point.

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The Indianapolis Indians and Columbus Clippers were exceedingly familiar with one another by this point, as July 20 marked the 10th consecutive game that the two teams had played against one another over a span of eight days (!!!) The first six games were played in Indianapolis (including a pair of doubleheaders), and the next four in Columbus. The teams ended up splitting this mega-series, 5-5.

After rejecting the opportunity to get a haircut, Samuels and I wandered to the press box. I’m often making hyperbolic statements on this blog, regarding the biggest this and the best that in Minor League Baseball. Well,  here’s a new one:

The Columbus Clippers have the quietest press box in Minor League Baseball.

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The vast majority of Minor League press boxes I have been to have been lively places, characterized by snarky, mile-a-minute gallows humor banter. But these guys were still, and solemn, and there was nary a sound to be heard. It was like a church. I was afraid to even speak.

And wouldn’t you know it? It was while I was in this soporific sanctum that one of the best defensive plays of the year occurred. I didn’t even see it happen, standing at the back of the press box. I, like you, only saw the replay:

That catch was amazing, one of the best to have ever occurred at a game at which I was in attendance. But not the best, which would be this. (Shout-out to my friend Ted, who missed it because he was waiting in line for a hot dog.)

Tony Barron turns 48 on Sunday, August 17. Happy Birthday, Tony Barron. I will never forget your name.

I will also always need food to survive. So how ’bout some City Barbecue ribs? Word on the street was that they were gluten-free. And who am I to doubt the street?

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Ribs, slaw and a decent vantage point. Can’t beat it.

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I really enjoyed these ribs, tender and a little crispy on the edges. I would definitely get them again.

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For the record:

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Also, for the record, the Clippers would like you to know the following information regarding their time at Huntington Park.

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Here’s something that you don’t see very often: the Clippers broadcast team of Scott Leo and Ryan Mitchell work in the open air. No booth needed.

058On the other side of the stadium sits the Rooftop Terrace. It’s $120 for a four-top, which includes a $60 food and beverage voucher.

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Food and beverage can be found in abundance here at the Hall of Fame Club. The bar includes a photo of nearly every player who ever played professional baseball in Columbus, in chronological order.

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Joe Santry had rejoined Samuels and I at this point, and he had great stories to tell regarding many of these photos. I wish I had time to relay these tales, but time is at a premium during these dog days of summer. All I can do is refer you to my aforementioned MiLB.com piece and move on. In the offseason, this is a topic I would be happy to re-visit.

But, hey, here are a few pictures presented without context. That’s better than nothing, right?

1884 Columbus Buckeyes:

1884 road uniforms

Ernie White:

Ernie White

Old Judge cigarette card of manager Jimmy Williams:

Jimmy_Williams_managerHere, we have memorabilia from the movie A Little Insidewhich was filmed at Cooper Stadium. Santry is not a fan of this movie. I doubt that I would be either.

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At the center field entrance, one finds this statue of long-time team owner Harold Cooper, who, per Santry, got his start in baseball by wiping the mold off of hot dogs with a vinegar-soaked rag.

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My esteemed hosts, Joe Santry and Josh Samuels.

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What happened next was like a dream. Samuels and Santry disappeared.

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I blinked, only to open my eyes and find myself in a dimly lit corridor…

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which led to the field. Oh, and did I mention that my body had been replaced with a hot dog?

080 As two other hot dogs tussled behind me, I ran with grace and ease toward a red stripe placed horizontally across the field.

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Victory was mine.

082Ring the bell!

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With the sounds of the bell echoing in my ears, I opened my eyes and found myself back in Biz Blogger mode. My camera was in my hand, and with it I took this photo.

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This is a cool way to display the speed of a pitch.

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A beautiful Sunday afternoon had turned into a beautiful Sunday evening. Funny how that works.

087Hey, look, a giant golf ball sitting atop a correspondingly oversized golf tee!

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I think I was feeling a little woozy by this point in the evening. At any rate, the Clippers lost to Indianapolis by a score of 7-5. The 10-game ultra-mega series between the two teams had finally, mercifully, ended.

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Maybe everyone was feeling a little woozy at this point, as a post-game run the bases degenerated into a post-game “just do whatever you feel like doing on the field.”

093Good night from Columbus, as this blog post has finally, mercifully, ended.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Great Day for Mankind in West Virginia

When I first posted the itinerary for this particular ballpark road trip, July 19 was listed as “TBA.” This was because I did not have a clear idea which ballpark I should visit, as most of the options were places that had already been graced with my ineffable presence. Several teams, or at least the fans of several teams, ended up making pitches as to why I should visit (Mahoning Valley, Toledo and Lake County among them). But the organization that won out was the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of your (or at least someone’s) Pittsburgh Pirates. After all, the Power are West Virginia’s only full-season Minor League Baseball team! Further investigation was needed.

The Power play in Charleston, but since there is another South Atlantic League team bearing the Charleston name (the RiverDogs of South Carolina) the Power went ahead and claimed the whole state. (Informally, Charleston, West Virginia, is referred to as “Charlie West.”) The Power compete at Appalachian Power Park, which is located in a rather desolate-feeling stretch of downtown amid modestly-sized high rise office buildings, labor union headquarters and dilapidated factory buildings. My hotel was within walking distance of the stadium, and what follows  are a few pictures I took during the walk.

In the biz, we call this “setting the scene.”

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This overpass leads to interstates 64, 77 and 79, which combine to form mega-interstate 220. (This is what I choose to believe, at least.) Walking underneath the overpass, one finds the stadium.

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Ah, yes, here we are:

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Upon entering Appalachian Power Park, I took 10 minutes or so and did my requisite lap around the concourse.

Again, more scene setting.

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Lap completed, I was escorted onto the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Joining me was the evening’s special guest, a man even more special than me: wrestling superstar Mick Foley (aka Mankind aka Dudelove aka Cactus Jack).

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mick. (I’m the guy on the left.)

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I took the mound and fired something resembling a strike.

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#emergingmanboobs

7.19.14 296The guy who delivered the second first pitch threw a scorching fastball right over the plate, and Mick Foley then hammed it up by recruiting that guy to throw out his first pitch for him. Which, for those keeping score at homes, means that the guy who threw out the second first pitch threw out the third first pitch as well. My first pitch was first.

Update: Commenter Mark Henderson adds the following info:

The guy who threw out the second and third pitches is Scott Robinson, a former batboy for the Charleston Wheelers. Scott has became somewhat of an inspirational local hero, due to his battle with a heart disease that resulted in him receiving a donor heart, going through the transplant just a year ago.

I am now realizing that I talked to Scott later in the evening. He is the guy that took the awesome Toastman pic that appears later in the post.

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Mick then joined the managers and umpires for a pre-game conference, presumably regarding whether metal folding chairs would be permitted in any on-field brawls that may occur.

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I don’t have any video of Mick Foley from this evening, but he now has a severe limp and moves like a man 30 years his senior (he is 49). It’s painful to watch, but that’s what happens when you sacrifice your body for your passion. I’ve never been much of a wrestling fan, but I have a genuine respect for Mick Foley as he is a smart, engaging individual who forged a unique career path.

While these pre-game shenanigans were taking place, fans were already queuing up for a chance to meet Mick.

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There was a significantly shorter line for the pepperoni rolls, a coal miner favorite and staple of West Virginia cuisine. You’ll also note that a 25-ounce beer could be had for just $3. Power assistant general manager Jeremy Taylor told me that the team sold out of the 25-ounce beers on Redneck Night, a stereotype-reveling theme night that has become a highlight of the team’s promotional schedule.

035With the game underway, I turned my attention to Rod Blackstone a.k.a. the Toastman. He is one of the most passionate, divisive and memorable fans one could ever hope to meet at a Minor League Baseball game, and I wrote a feature article about him HERE. Please read it, as I don’t want to repeat myself repeat myself.

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Okay, I’ll repeat myself just just a little. From my MiLB.com story::

Rod Blackstone is the “Toastman,” a West Virginia Power ballpark icon who can be found sitting in a front-row aisle seat in section 107 during each and every game. From this homeplate vantage point, he leads the section in cheers, displays homemade signs made in honor of each position player and, most memorably, throws pieces of toast to the crowd after every visiting batter strikes out.

The toast isn’t pre-made, either. Blackstone brings several loaves of bread to the game and toasts them on-site using a toaster set up on a small metal patio table. The electrical outlet he uses was installed by the team, specifically to accommodate his nightly toast-making needs.

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After spending an inning with the Toastman, I spent an inning in the broadcast booth with Power broadcaster Adam Marco. It was a pleasure talking to one of the finest blogging broadcasters in Minor League Baseball.

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From the dim press box environs, I soon transitioned…

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to the bright lights of a between-inning contest atop the dugout. Next up was a karaoke battle against one Mick Foley.
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My plan was to post the Power’s videoboard footage of this “battle,” but apparently there were technical difficulties. This is really too bad, as this was one of the most embarrassing/memorable moments of the season for me.

Before the game it had been decided that I would sing “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a choice I was fine with because I assumed that I’d only be singing the chorus. However, when it was played over the PA system to begin the contest, the song began during the first verse. After an awkward pause followed by some herky-jerky gesticulating, I began improvising lines such as “Please play the chorus, this is the verse. I only know the chorus, what are the words?”

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My efforts resulted in a round of boos, as the crowd clearly had no love for the most underrated entity in all of sports media. Mick Foley then got on the mic and crooned Hulk Hogan’s theme song “Real American.”

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So, yeah, I got to play the heel in a karaoke battle against Mick Foley. That’s definitely going on the resume.

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But there was no time to wallow in misery. I save that for the hotel room. Next up on the docket was meeting the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Hello, Mr. Mike Taylor.

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Mike, a former Power bat boy, works in the produce department of a Charleston-area grocery store. He said that, despite his slight frame, he had no problem eating large amounts of food. Well, okay then. Here’s a pepperoni roll. It’s basically pepperoni baked inside of a roll. That’s why they call it a pepperoni roll. I expect to soon see it on a menu in at a nouveau American Brooklyn bistro at a cost of $16, featuring nigella seed Ethiopian sourdough and artisan soppressata imported from an old world butcher operating in San Francisco’s North Bay neighborhood.

051Pepperoni rolls are served at the Appalachian Power Park thanks to Power food and beverage director Nate Michel.

“Pepperoni rolls are what West Virginia is known for,” he told me. “You can’t go into a convenience store without seeing them. Once we got them out here they sold like hot cakes.” (Note: hot cakes are not sold at the ballpark.)

Last season the pepperoni rolls were provided by local restaurateur Rocco Muriale. This year, they are being provided by a local pizzeria. Either way, Mike Taylor was psyched to be eating one.

“I’ve never had a pepperoni roll here before, but already I can tell that this will be the best pepperoni roll I’ve ever eaten,” he said. “The bread is buttery and real soft. I could probably eat two of these.”

That wouldn’t be a good idea, as Mike also had to contend with the Gunner Nachos, named after the Power’s nacho-loving on-field emcee. They are served in a full-size helmet, and topped with chicken tinga, pulled pork, beef brisket, cheese, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream.

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Thus far, no fatalities have been recorded as a result of eating this item. Have at it, Mike.

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So, to recap:

“These were two of the best things I’ve ever eaten here, and I’ve been coming here a long time,” said Mike. “I’m a skinny guy, but I can eat a lot.”

Hey, what do you know? While all of this was happening, there was a game going on.

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During the next inning break, I had the honor of running across the field while waving the team flag. Mascot Chuck (as in, short for Charles, as in Charleston) was with me, with a gaggle of children close behind.

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Throughout all of this, fans were patiently waiting in line so that they could meet Mick Foley.

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See that guy in the above photo, on the far right? That guy was an absolute dead ringer for Mick. This photo, stolen from Adam Marco’s aforementioned must-read blog, shows just how much of a dead ringer he was.

img_7403After checking in on Mick, I wandered over and spoke to the rambunctious, fun-loving group of fans that can be found in the “Rowdy Alley.”

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The Rowdy Alley are a loose-knit group. Some nights there are only four or five people sitting here, while on some nights (like Thirsty Thursday) there are a couple dozen. I plan on writing about the Rowdies in an upcoming MiLB.com feature.  They love their beer, have a pet monkey, and all their ducks are in a row.

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This guy was wearing a towel, fashioned into a cape. He seemed vaguely annoyed by my presence, like “Can’t a guy just wear a cape and keep score and occasionally blow into an old trumpet (not pictured) in peace?”

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This guy, meanwhile, was ready to face the elements.

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Immediately after I took this photo, the members of the Rowdy Alley broke into song. I wish I had it on video. Wishing I had things on video seems to have been a theme of the evening.

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I also spoke with legendary souvenir salesman Wheeler Bob. He, too, will be included in the upcoming MiLB.com feature that I previously alluded to.

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Meanwhile, the smell of smoke had begun to permeate the ballpark.

Culprit: the Toastman.

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Just another night at the ballpark in West Virginia.

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Photo credit: Scott Robinson

I did get some video of the Toastman in action.

The game ended shortly after the Toastman’s bread-based pyrotechnic display. But more pyrotechnics were soon to come, as it was a Friday Fireworks night. This season, the Power have taken the novel step of filming their fireworks with a remote controlled drone.

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This, showing the drones in action, is one of my favorite Vines of the year. Also, it conveys the extreme intensity of the Power’s fireworks display. I was a big fan.

When the fireworks were over, a squadron of vacuum-toting interns appeared on the field in order to clean up the pyrotechnic debris. Their appearance was a sure sign that the evening had come to an end. 082Good night from Charleston, West Virginia.  072

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location).

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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