As you may be aware, I embark upon yet another Minor League road trip this Friday. While on the road I strive to have a set of established routines, so that my content remains consistent from location to location. Blog posts, MiLB.com stories, photo galleries, hotel room reviews, player interviews and Designated Eater Vine videos will be provided this next time around, but for one reader that’s not enough. This reader, he wants more.
And what does this reader want, specifically?
Cupdates — as in, information regarding the specifics of each team’s collectible plastic drinkwear accompanied by corresponding visuals.
This cup-besotted reader is Peter Golkin, last seen on this blog advocating for the “Universal Rain Check” (a guest post that resulted in a series of very thoughtful comments, though “the powers that be” didn’t see fit to respond). This time Golkin’s agitating is directed at me specifically, however, and I may accede to his demands if it is demonstrated that they do not occur in a vacuum. I now give this virtual floor over to Golkin, so that he may make his case.
With the new season well under way and Minor League Baseball still heatedly debating the concept of a transformational, good-at-any-park Universal Raincheck (OK, that idea was completely ignored), attention now shifts downward–under the seats amid the soggy post-game detritus.
What Minor League Baseball fans want to know is: Which teams will bring forth the great stadium soda cups of 2013?
Besides the potential jackpot from a killer cap, ballclubs have no more alluring canvas on which to paint their identities than the 16- or 24-ounce plastic vessel now given by architects its own seatside suspension system.
Beer cups tend to be clear and generic for the benefit of security. But an illustrated soda cup begs for a collectable’s afterlife. Perhaps a spot next to the backyard hammock or snug in the minivan’s console. Even as a dipper’s cuspidor, the ballpark cup suggests longevity like few souvenirs can.
So what is the state of the MiLB soda cup in 2013?
Are teams going with thin, delicate models with high centers of gravity and pastel logos like those from Churchill Container Co.? Or are they opting for the thick and litho-friendly Dynamic Drinkware tumbler, like Greensboro did last year with its memorable “Grasshopper Gone Big Time” series? (Yes, they still called Giancarlo Stanton “Mike” but that’s what his superimposed signature reads and the cup was a keeper nonetheless.)
And unlike with official team headwear, money does not have to be a factor in the preservation and study of stadium soda cups. All that’s needed are patience and a willingness to touch someone else’s moist refuse. That’s why ballparks have bathroom sinks and free napkins.
As Rougned Odor continues to make his way toward Arlington and Eastern League clubs keep adding rival logos to urinal strainers, let us also pay close attention to those graspable plastic works of sports art and history.
We want pictures and we want stats (capacity, price of cup with drink, manufacturer, ads/no ads, dishwasher-friendly? etc.) Perhaps this is why Twitter was invented.
Regardless of the ultimate format, a regular MiLB Cupdate is long overdue in this, our unprecedented Information Age.I’ll drink to that and to memories of the man once known as Mike Stanton, Big Grasshopper.
So what say YOU? Should “cupdates” become a regular part of my road trip coverage? If the people speak, I shall listen.
My next road trip starts exactly one week from today, and given the imminence of this latest round of wandering I thought that now would be a good time to (once again) post the itinerary:
June 21 and 22: Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
June 23: Beloit Snappers
June 24: travel day (might make it to Midland in time to do some Great Lakes Loons advance scouting)
June 25: Great Lakes Loons
June 26: Lansing Lugnuts
June 27: West Michigan Whitecaps
June 28: South Bend Silver Hawks
If you live in this area and might be able to make it out to a game while I’m in attendance, then please do! It will be my pleasure to say hello. But even if you’re not ballpark-bound, feel free to get in touch with any recommendations regarding things to do and places to eat around these areas.
And speaking of eating — as with my previous trip, I will have a “designated eater” at each stop who will sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet unfortunately prohibits. (A new trend has formed this time around, in that local radio DJs will be performing this task at three of my final four stops).
As always, these trips are a work in progress. On my previous trip I wrote an MiLB.com piece and (at least one) blog post from each ballpark I visited, and I expect that to continue. (The MiLB pieces generally focus on one specific topic, while the blogs provide a general overview.)
I began using Vine on the last trip, and that will continue in the form of random ballpark dispatches as well as “Road Trip Hotel Room Reviews” such as these:
Road trip hotel review day 3 https://t.co/dHnaHSkyXt
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 11, 2013
Road trip hotel review, Sleep Inn, Asheville. https://t.co/iMZJSkdqFK
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 12, 2013
Going forward, I plan on utilizing Vine in a greater capacity. Every designated eater will be the subject of a Vine video or two, such as this:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 12, 2013
And, finally, I’d like to start getting players involved as well via YOUR requests. If you want me to do a Vine interview with a player at one of the locations in the above itinerary, then email me the player’s name (of course) as well as the ONE question you want me to ask. No guarantees, but I will do my best to accommodate any and all requests.
There are certainly more road trip possibilities and tangents to explore, and over the next week I intend on doing so. Thanks for sticking with me (you are sticking with me, right?) as I improvise my way through yet another season, and please get in touch anytime with suggestions regarding what it is you’d like to see.
Hey, remember that thing I did yesterday? Where I wrote a bouillabaisse blog post that included a bunch of Minor League items thrown together in haphazard fashion? Well, that’s happening again, so buckle up the brain belt and drive right in!
After an extended liaison with the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2013 marks the State College Spikes’ return to being a Cardinals affiliate. And, wouldn’t you know it? The team now has a resident cardinal. (They’ve named him Ozzie, as in Smith.)
Minor League team stadium visitation by a species representing said team’s Major League affiliate are rare, though who among us can forget that time a crusty sailor took up residency at Clinton’s Ashford University Field after the LumberKings became a Mariners affiliate?
I’ll be visiting the West Michigan Whitecaps later this month — June 27th! — and if the ultra-spicy Squeeling Pig is available in gluten-free form then I’m definitely going to give it a try. Either way, it’s the only concession item I am aware of that requires a waiver.
In this video, some intrepid members of the team give it a try. No trips to the disabled list resulted.
I’ll also be visiting the Wisconsin Timber Rattler later this month — June 21 and 22! Think they’ll give me a ride in this sweet bullpen car?
I’ve written about Daytona super-fan Front Row Joe on several occasions, but little did I know that there is a Front Row Joe equivalent in good ol’ Curve PA. This Altoona Mirror article profiles Susan Mielnik, who has attended every Altoona Curve game since the franchise’s 1996 inception. Hats off to her!
I wrote about the Fort Wayne TinCaps rather brilliant Social Media Night jerseys in this week’s Promo Preview, which of course you read already. But that’s indicative of the team’s larger approach, as the TinCaps have been taking theme jerseys to new levels of transcendence all season. Just check out these 50′s Night duds:
TinCaps creative director Tony DesPlaines writes:
Designed in-house and produced by Wilson, these jerseys featured a beautiful green argyle design with a jukebox on one sleeve and the TinCaps logo on the opposite sleeve. The team thought they looked like golfers, but from the stands they looked great.
Speaking of theme jerseys, check out what the Omaha Storm Chasers wore during their Star Wars promo.
There’s more to this than meets the eye. Storm Chasers director of marketing and promotions Ben Hemmen explains:
May the FORCE be with you… The Omaha Force that is! It’s the second annual “What If… Night” presented by Autism Action Partnership featuring a unique Jersey auction…. Plus, it’s “Star Wars Night”! Dress up like your favorite Star Wars characters, help us find “Yoda” around the ballpark, hear Princess Leia sing the National Anthem, and meet Darth Vader. The force, Omaha & Jedi will definitely be strong at Werner Park Saturday night so it should not take a Jedi mind trick to tell you not to miss out on this special evening. What If… the Storm Chasers had been renamed the Omaha Force three years ago? Head out to Werner Park to find out!
More where all of this came from? Oh, you better believe it.
My first road trip of the season ended in Birmingham, and it ended in Birmingham for a reason: the Barons’ Regions Field is one of two new Minor League Baseball stadiums to open in 2013 (the other is in Hillsboro, Oregon, home of the brand-new Hops. I’ll be visiting on August 10).
Driving into Birmingham, I had a stadium’s address entered into my trusty GPS — 1137 2nd Ave. W . But this address wasn’t the one belonging to Regions Field. It brought me here instead:
Yes, 103-year-old Rickwood Field, home of the Barons from 1910-1986.
If you ever get the chance to visit Birmingham, then Rickwood is a must. It’s kept in great shape by the non-profit Friends of Rickwood organization, and is open to the public daily for self-guided tours. I visited in 2010 for the annual Rickwood Classic (in which the Barons return to their old home for a mid-week matinee), and coverage from that event can be read HERE and HERE.
But let’s move from the there and was to the here and now. As you may have noticed in this post’s second photo, there was a gathering of people on the field at the time I arrived. This wasn’t just any gathering of people — it was members of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, the first integrated sports team in the history of Alabama. They were in town for a reunion, which was inspired by the release of Larry Colton’s new book on the team: Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race.
As I arrived at Rickwood, the ’64 Barons were posing for pictures for a small assemblage of local media. Colton is third from the left (holding a copy of his book), while prominent alumnus Blue Moon Odom is fourth from the right.
I made it there just in time, as mere seconds after this photo was taken these old teammates dispersed and left Rickwood in order to travel to Regions Field for the evening’s ballgame. I lingered around for another 10 minutes or so, taking pictures all the while.
The locker rooms now serve as a makeshift museum and Friends of Rickwood office space.
All things considered, the showers are in good shape.
Even though I missed most of it I’d like to thank Friends of Rickwood member Joe DeLeonard for alerting me to the 1964 Barons Rickwood visit. At the very least, it gave me an excuse to visit this beautiful old ballpark.
This was my view from the Rickwood Field parking lot…
and approximately 10 minutes and two-point-something miles later my view was this:
This is the parking lot, or at least one of them, for Regions Field. Its ramshackle nature is indicative of the area as a whole, which is the midst of being – buzz word alert — revitalized! From this parking lot one can be driven to the stadium in style, but being a proud biped I chose to walk.
The short walk to the stadium exemplifies the current bedraggled state of the area surrounding Regions Field, as well as its promise. This is something that I wrote about more extensively in my MiLB.com piece on the stadium, which I hope you might take the time to check out.
Wide open spaces:
A team bus cozies up to its improbable best friend abandoned building. (I’m in the midst of writing a pilot script for a proposed sitcom entitled “The Adventures of Team Bus and Abandoned Building.” Let me know if you want to contribute to the Kickstarter.)
Relics of an industrial past.
After walking underneath this bridge (as a freight train rumbled overhead), the scenery changed quite dramatically.
For there, on the left, is Railroad Park. This public space opened in 2010, and is the literal centerpiece of these downtown revitalization efforts.
I’m no cartographer, but I believe that Regions Field abuts the north side of Railroad Park. You can’t miss it.
One thing I did miss, however, was a decent photo of the brick and steel facade that features “BIRMINGHAM” in huge letters. This aerial photo from the team’s website illustrates just what it is I’m talking about here.
A next level view:
I had proceeded to this elevated vantage point in order to see my old friends the 1964 Barons, who were conducting a pre-game press conference.
After a general Q and A session with local media, I had the chance to interview Colton and Odom about the groundbreaking ’64 campaign. You can read that – please! — over on MiLB.com.
Immediately after the interview concluded we descended to the level of Barons and Biscuits alike.
The 1964 Barons odyssey continued, as now they were gathering on the field for a ceremonial first pitch.
The purpose of this photo is two-fold — gaze upon Minor League Baseball’s newest videoboard whilst learning facts about Blue Moon.
Ceremonial first pitch chaos:
The Biscuit contingent had risen rapidly since the last time I had checked in on their visitor’s dugout environs.
So many ups and downs! For reasons I can’t quite recall, I was soon back up on the second floor. On the journey there I snapped this photo of the expansive bar and lounge area down below.
My destination was a bit more modest, however, as down this corridor lurked the press box.
It is from this location that I watched the game begin, with the Biscuits taking on the Barons in Minor League Baseball’s newest facility.
I’ve got quite a bit more to report from Regions Field, so I think the best course of action would be to make this a two-part post.
But since I’m still a bit under my self-imposed 1000 word minimum, a limerick:
There once was a team called the Barons
On the side of caution, they weren’t erring
Displaying operational agility
They moved to a new facility
And well they seem to be faring
What? I’m still not at a thousand words? This is crazy. Here’s a haiku:
I’m wasting my time/obsessive and compulsive/For word counts, care not
I am STILL not at 1000 words, but at the end of this completely gratuitous sentence I will be. Or at least I thought I would be. I do my best.
The Augusta GreenJackets were named after, yes, the green jackets that are awarded to the winner of the Masters Golf tournament held at Augusta National. But you don’t need a country club membership to see the team, which competes in the far more democratic environment of Lake Olmstead Stadium. (The facility came about its name honestly, as it is located on the grounds of Lake Olmstead Park.)
The stadium signage located out in front of Lake Olmstead Park might need a touch-up, but it gets the point across.
To get to the stadium one must walk or drive through Lake Olmstead Park, and you know what? It’s a really nice park.
There is easy access to its titular lake…
and overlooking the lake is this beautiful gazebo.
Perhaps best of all, there is a disc golf course that is as inclusive as Augusta’s more well-known golf entity is exclusive.
Speaking of Augusta National, I went there earlier in the day and let’s just say that — VINE ALERT — it didn’t go well. I’ll have more on all that in a future “Return to the Road” blog post (remember those?), but for now let’s keep the action situated here at Lake Olmstead Park. It’s a very relaxing place to be!
This photo was one of hundreds taken for a proposed “Sexiest Minor League Baseball Bloggers” calendar. I sat there posing for the better part of an hour, in various states of undress, enduring the catcalls of construction workers and disc golfers alike. But eventually I got up off of the dock and made my way from Olmstead the lake to Olmstead the stadium.
The front offices are, as their name would imply, located in front of the ballpark.
Prior to the ballpark’s construction this parking area was used by the DMV to conduct drivers tests, and I was later told that every year a few wayward souls inevitably show up at the ballpark looking to have their driving skills validated.
Lake Olmstead Park which opened in 1995, is in a bit of an awkward situation as it’s far too new to be old and far too old to be new. While still in good shape, structurally, its already an anomaly in that it lacks the amenities — open concourse, HD videoboard, suites, etc — that are increasingly the standard in Minor League Baseball. And while the ballpark’s location is certainly idyllic, it is isolated from downtown and therefore incapable of playing any sort of role in revitalizing/recontextualizing the area at large. The team’s desire for a new stadium is no secret, and the new ownership group (led by Jeff Eiseman, who used to be a VP of former ownership group Ripken Baseball) is currently working toward this goal.
But to return to more immediate concerns — on the day I was in Augusta it was that weekly celebration of unbridled gluttony that is Feed Your Face Monday! The first pitch was more than half an hour away, and already the concession stands were hopping.
Or buzzing, as it were.
I wrote all about “Feed Your Face Monday” for MiLB.com, and I really think you should read it. To briefly recap: a general admission ticket costs $11, which includes unlimited concessions from the time the gates open through the end of the sixth inning. The offerings were a bit unorthodox:
Outside of the popcorn, these offerings were off-limits to a celiac-afflicted individual such as myself. This means that it’s time for the introduction of the Designated Eater: Mr. Chad Walters.
(As you probably know by now, the Designated Eater is an individual recruited at each ballpark to consume the gluten-laced delicacies that I cannot.)
Walters, seen above brandishing a stray light fixture, has appeared on this blog before. At the 2011 Winter Meetings he was a participant at the first, and thus far only, Dipquest (the other Dipquest participant was one Steven Gold, who I also saw during this road trip as he is now a sales and marketing assistant with the Nashville Sounds. Small world).
Walters lives in Augusta and really went above and beyond, as in addition to assuming the role of Designated Eater he also gave me a short tour of the city prior to the game (again, more on that in a future post). He currently runs the consulting firm Lean Blitz, focusing on sports teams and small businesses — check it out.
Feed Your Face Monday is anything but a Lean Blitz, however. Here’s Chad after his first visit to the concession stands.
At the time Chad got this handful of food I was engaged with various other writerly duties, and missed out on documenting his Face Feeding experience. Fortunately, he was game for another round.
Corn Dog Nuggets!
“It could use ketchup, but I didn’t have any place to put it,” said Walters. “I detect notes of french fry grease.”
Realizing we were missing out on South Atlantic League action, we took the remaining items to the first base bleachers.
This is a strawberry churro.
Walters was nonplussed, saying that this creation was “undersweetened” and, ultimately, just “okay.” And then, as a final blow to his dignity, there was the pizza stick.
“Tasty and unusual,” said Walters, of the cheese and sauce-filled dough stick. “Tasty and unusual.”
And with that, the day’s Designated Eating duties were complete. Thanks to Chad Walters, Designated Eater #6 of the 2013 season.
And with that out of the way, let’s return to the stadium itself. The concourse is located along the exterior, with the team’s green and orange color scheme rather pronounced throughout.
As you can see from the above picture, Tim Wakefield is among Augusta’s distinguished alumni. But — fun fact! — when he played for Augusta in 1989 he was a struggling infielder. Realizing that he didn’t have a future as a hitter, he converted to the knuckleball later that season and made his Major League debut on the mound three years later.
This all brings up an issue for another day, which is the inherent absurdity of Minor League Hall of Fames/Wall of Champions/what have you. In this case the GreenJackets have chosen to immortalize Wakefield’s 11-game career with the Augusta Pirates, during which he batted .235 over 35 at-bats (striking out 14 times against one walk). But I can understand why they’d do that over, say, immortalizing a player who did great in Augusta but stalled out in Double-A.
But anyway, pictures:
While the souvenir store was mostly empty, the lone concession stand in operation was at maximum capacity and then some.
There was considerably more room to move out here in the seating area. Augusta GreenJackets vs. the Rome Braves on a cool spring night.
It is “.366″ to left center field, in honor of Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average.
A teenage Cobb began his career as a member of the South Atlantic League’s Augusta Tourists, who sold him to the Detroit Tigers near the end of the 1905 season. He ended up living in Augusta for 30 years, and for much of that time the city served as the Tigers’ Spring Training site as well.
From 1922-29, Augusta’s South Atlantic League entity was even known as the “Tygers.” As you can see, second-place did not interest them in 1924.
As the ballgame moved into its middle stages, the stadium atmosphere was sedate.
With this being the case, I returned to the now-manageable concession stand and plunked down $4.25 for a delicacy you can’t often find here in NYC.
Like cilantro or death metal, boiled peanuts tend to have a polarizing effect. People either love ‘em for the spicy/salty kick and unique texture, or hate ‘em because of, well, the unique texture. (They’re soft and kinda slimy).
I fall into the former camp. Boiled peanuts are great!
These bullpen denizens were a bunch of jokers, at one point expertly mimicking the “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Finding Nemo audio clip that is played when a foul ball is hit into the stands.
I wish I had made a Vine featuring the bullpen crew, but Vindsight is 20/20. Instead you’ll have to settle for this cultural observation, which my idiot youngest brother (who is far closer in age to the average Minor Leaguer) certainly disagrees with.
In the middle of the eighth inning, I witnessed what had to be the most bare bones between-inning game of all time. This young girl was the contestant, and her job was to catch a tennis ball thrown in the air. And, that’s it.
Who needs inflatable ponies, sumo suits, or hot dog costumes? A tennis ball will do!
I also liked this bit of colloquial signage.
With the game winding down I meandered down behind home plate, sitting in actual ballpark seats for the first time. Spacious and comfy!
The GreenJackets’ 11-2 lead entering the ninth inning was also spacious and comfy.
The Rome Braves scored six runs in the inning, however, at one point collecting seven straight hits!
Felix Marte came to the plate representing the winning run, but grounded out to finally, mercifully end the ballgame.
Goodnight from Lake Olmstead!
Pretty cool picture, right? I think one more will really allow this post to close on a crescentdo.
The previous missive in this low-stakes blogging odyssey ended in Asheville on a Saturday night, and my next order of business was to be in Savannah on a Sunday afternoon. As you can see from this road trip map (made by MiLB.com’s ace editorial team), I had a lot of driving to do in a very short amount of time.
I felt so rushed on Sunday morning that I almost forgot to do a road trip hotel room review on Vine (a new tradition), but after a coffee and cracklins-fueled journey I did indeed make it to Savannah’s Grayson Stadium in time for this Mother’s Day matinee. And let me tell you, when you’re in Savannah you definitely know you’re in Savannah. The landscape, it’s just different, and a lot of that has to do with the flora and fauna.
The Sand Gnats are a Mets affiliate. Or, should I say a Pal-Met-to affiliate?
These are the idyllic grounds of Savannah’s Daffin Park, of which Grayson Stadium is a part. The stadium is located across the street from this upbeat amateur facility.
I’d say that Grayson, despite being 87-years-old, has a fairly youthful and optimistic outlook as well. (For much more on my Grayson stadium experiences, please read my MiLB.com piece! My MiLB.com pieces are the hand-rolled cigars that perfectly complement the glasses of single-malt Scotch that are the blog posts).
As I walked to the stadium, I could hear Andrew W.K.’s “I Love New York City” playing from inside. This created a welcoming atmosphere for a Big Apple-dweller such as myself, even though the price of admission was far less than anything that would be found in NYC and the surrounding tri-state area.
Prior to my arrival, the Sand Gnats held a contest on Facebook to find my designated eater (you know, the fan who samples the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). It was a pretty cool looking contest:
Unfortunately the winner (one Joey Chiarello) wasn’t able to make it for whatever reason, so the team recruited an intern in his stead. Hank Garcia was his name, food and beverage was his game, and almost as soon as I walked through the gates he suggested that some eating should commence.
Who am I to argue? Our first stop was this unassuming concourse stand.
But the item that Mr. Garcia walked away with was anything but unassuming. The Godfather (list price $10) consists of Italian sausage, cheesesteak, pepper, onions and jalapenos. It is a huge mass of sandwich.
Garcia and the Godfather:
A closer look:
Garcia praised the Godfather, noting that the savory sausage was a perfect complement to the saltiness and spice of the cheesesteak and vegetables.
“It results in a plethora — wow, I just said plethora — of flavors,” he said. “Sorry, I just watched The Three Amigos.”
You’d think that Garcia would have been done after the Godfather, but no. Dessert was on the agenda as well!
“It’s Italian Panini bread with Nutella, marshmallow fluff, crushed up graham crackers and powdered sugar,” explained Garcia. “Then, after it’s warmed up in a Panini press, chocolate syrup is added on top.”
This six seconds of video, via Vine, is all you need.
If you thought this food and beverage tour was over, then think again! Like most old stadiums there is limited room for concessions at Grayson, but the team still found some room for the hard stuff.
Garcia ordered and off-menu specialty, and I’d suggest that if you’re of age and at a Sand Gnats game then you do the same. This drink consisted of Horchata (a sweet, rice-based Mexican drink) and Red Hot cinnamon whisky.
“It’s like a liquid Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” explained Garcia.
While I could not immediately ascertain whether or not this concoction was gluten-free, I went ahead and gave it a try (read: gulped it down). My verdict is, word-for-word, the same as Garcia’s on the S’mores Panini: Delicious! (You watched the Vine video, right?)
I chased down the “Liquid Cinnamon Toast Crunch” with a certifiably gluten-free offering: Michelob Ultra cider. That, too, was tasty (despite what my perpetually angst-ridden expression might lead you to believe).
A couple drinks to start my work day had me seeing things.
That fluorescent amphibian soon disappeared beneath a patch of foliage, leading me to believe that it was a hallucination with the power to later manifest itself within the realm of digital photography. I blinked, and it was gone.
This wall, located on the stadium’s third base side, has an interesting history. Read about it on MiLB.com! Less interesting but more scenic is this, the most beautiful front office in all of Minor League Baseball!
Inside, it’s perhaps not quite as beautiful. The master bedroom of this enshrouded shack has been transformed into the main office.
The bathroom (note the shower stall on the right) is now a storage area. No one ever said that working in Minor League Baseball is glamorous!
The front office is located behind a courtyard and picnic area, which provides views of the action from down the third base side.
It was while in this area that I spotted a real-life Sand Gnat.
That would be Gnate, who like a real G moves in silence like lasagna. A cartoonish and altogether more intimidating version of Gnate can be seen on Grayson’s brick facade.
And, yes, the team is named “Sand Gnats” for a reason. These six-legged nuisances are known to swarm over the stadium at night, although they made themselves scarce on the afternoon I was in attendance. THEY KNEW BETTER THAN TO OFFEND A BLOGGER.
But anyway, there was a game going on amidst all of this wandering. Really!
A rather sparse Mother’s Day crowd was taking in the action (Savannah is a church-going town, I was told, so Sunday has always been a difficult draw. The social demands of the holiday only seemed to exacerbate the problem).
I spent much of the afternoon with Sand Gnats director of sales Jonathan Mercier, seen here at the base of “Land Shark Landing” while radioing his co-workers that “the blogger is under control.”
Land Shark Landing, which opened on July 4, 2010, is certainly one of Grayson’s more modern-seeming elements.
Meanwhile, many of the fans chose to sit beneath one.
But no matter where you were sitting, or what you were doing, there was no doubt that it was a beautiful day in Savannah.
Up close and personal:
As you can discern somewhat in the above pic, Grayson boasts an interesting press box. While I’m no stranger to roof top press boxes (Hagerstown and Vancouver spring immediately to mind), this was more of a roof bottom press box.
I was intrigued, so Mercier and I headed up there. I took pictures at various stages of this arduous journey.
The path to the professionals:
I was pretending that these guys were the pilot and co-pilot of a flying stadium spaceship. Set coordinates for family-friendly entertainment!
This picture doesn’t do it justice, but the press box walls were recently re-painted in a rather striking light green hue (about the same color as the lizard featured at the beginning of this post).
Sand Gnats graphic designer Vince Caffiero was the man responsible for this interesting choice, and when I asked him about it he shook his head slowly from side to side.
“I’m getting a lot of flak,” he said in a deadpan tone. “So much flak. It’s not fair.”
As it turned out, the path from the press box was almost an exact approximation of what I have dreamed that the path to the afterlife will look like. (The fans, in my vision, are the people I’d have to leave behind within this earthly realm.)
It turned out, however, that there was to be another stage to our journey.
The roof! The roof! The roof is 100% free of any sign of fire!
I didn’t want to get too close to the edge, so I laid flat on my stomach, extended my arms out in front of me, and took the following shot.
Finally ready to retreat to the stands, I snapped a picture of this fan-friendly view.
Back at sea level, my ballpark tour continued. Mercier and I looped past the verdant batting cages and visitor’s bullpen en route to a truly exclusive view.
This is the rear end of a pig!
As aviator pig, if you want to be specific about it.
“From the stands it looks professional, but seen from below it’s definitely amateur hour,” said Mercier of his and his co-worker’s pig-mounting abilities.
View from the pig:
To the left of the pig one can find the manually-operated scoreboard.
For when things really get out of hand.
The view of what’s in front of the scoreboard is a little bit better than the view of what’s behind it.
With the game winding down, I headed to the seats — nay, benches — located behind home plate in order to watch the game like a normal person. While there I was photographed with a prop.
This bat — named “The Phoenix” — is the source of much mayhem and mirth within the Sand Gnats front office. To make a long story short — an argument erupted between Caffiero and ticketing manager Joe Shepard over the offseason, regarding just who it was that the bat belonged to. In response to this bickering the bat was hidden from both of them, and now both parties are being subjected to taunting photos such as the one seen above.
And so it goes.
And so it went. As I was posing with heavy lumber the game ended, with the visiting Rome Braves earning the win.
And even though it was Mother’s Day, the moms assumed picture-taking duties as their kids ran the bases.
But as for me? I’m a man done. A man done blogging. Over and out from Savannah.
Part one of this Asheville Tourists saga included ziplining onto the field from a hill overlooking the stadium, so I suppose you could say that it was a real cliffhanger. Today that cliffhanger concludes in stunning fashion, so long as your definition of “stunning” is more along the lines of “exactly what you would expect.”
Let’s get to it! When we last left off, the skies were clearing and this Saturday evening ballgame was finally ready to begin.
But as the ballgame was beginning, I was not in the seating area. Instead, I had taken advantage of the delay and met up with one Kelly Noble. Mrs. Noble, a mother of two boys who lives in nearby Hendersonville, had been chosen as the evening’s “designated eater” (for those new to the blog, the “designated eater,” or DE, consumes the ballpark delicacies which my gluten-free diet prohibits).
The team held a Facebook contest prior to my arrival to choose the designated eater, and she earned this honor by responding thusly:
Because I am a mom of 2 teenage boys who love baseball and so I usually end up with the last chip, fry, an empty cup. Plus I work full time and today’s lunch was a bagel I found in the fridge from last week. I would love a fresh hot dog and nachos I don’t have to share!!
Most of the available seating options were a bit damp after the recent rain storm, so Kelly and I sat on a circular brick wall in the concourse area. Tyler Holt, an intern with Professional Sports Catering (the Tourists’ food and beverage company), soon arrived bearing gifts.
Contained underneath was an order of pork nachos and, in keeping with the Asheville Tourists’ lunar theme, a deep-fried Moon Pie!
My designated eater was all for a dessert-first approach. Ladies and gentlemen, Kelly Noble!
I am always hesitant to take pictures that seem like they were simply meant to embarrass, but Kelly had a great attitude about the whole thing.
“I just want my boys to be able to laugh at me,” she said with a smile, while posing for a series of pictures such as the above. Kelly grew up with brothers and now has sons, and was clearly used to being in the minority, gender wise. I appreciated her great sense of humor and could relate somewhat — I am the oldest of three boys , and growing up my own mother took a similarly light-hearted and tolerant approach to our relentless competitions and bodily function-based comedic approach.
And you know what? Since this game actually occurred during Mother’s Day weekend I’d like to belatedly wish Kelly, my own mother Elaine Cooper and, well, all moms a belated “Happy Mother’s Day!”
But we were on the subject of Moon Pies.
“I’m trying to think of the best adjective to describe it. Wow…yeah…I don’t know! You’re the writer!” said Kelly, before finding the words. “It was delicious and filling!”
The Moon Pie was part of a smorgasbord that included the pork nachos, a “Wee-Heavyer” ale from Asheville’s French Broad brewing company and a gluten-free option in the form of chips and hummus (!)
But this being Asheville, it wasn’t just any hummus.
I hope you think this is funny, boys.
Speaking of, they soon showed up to check out what was going on.
Kelly’s sons are the two in the middle, 12-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Taylor. The friend on the right was turning his head because he was on a quest for phone numbers from young female fans and one must have been walking by. Even though he was 14 he seemed to think he had a shot with anyone up through age 20 or so. I admired the confidence.
And then, because too much is never enough, more food arrived. Pulled Pork Dog!
“The key is if the BBQ is good, and this is. It’s BBQ central down here,” said Kelly. “This is a great combination of flavors and…I don’t know. You’re the writer!”
Despite Kelly’s best efforts there was quite bit of food left over. “Time to use Mom skills,” she said, and within two minutes the entire smorgasbord had somehow been reduced to a neat stack that was easily taken back to the seats by her and the boys. And with that, Designated Eater #4 of the 2013 season had concluded her duties.
I’ve written about 1900 words over the course of these two Asheville-based blog posts, and yet still haven’t arrived at a point of time in which actual professional baseball was being played on an actual professional baseball field. Let’s rectify by taking a trip out there.
I loved this general admission seating area located down the first base line, which features plenty of room in which to spread out. Some fans bring their own chairs, and I was told that on hot days sunbathers are a common sight.
McCormick Field is 89 years old, and as such the amenities are sometimes in short supply. This converted office building located down the first base line is the only suite available.
In talking about McCormick, Tourists president Brian DeWine told me that “we’re as landlocked as landlocked can be.” This concourse photo gives an indication of just how constrained the team is in their operations.
Despite my previous concessions-based coverage, I never showed any pictures of the concession stands themselves. Again with the rectification:
Back in the seating area, I noticed that Mr. Moon’s attention was directed skyward.
He was checking out the rainbow!
Okay, Vine Time! Six seconds of brilliance, guaranteed.
And, finally, Mr. Moon was out there for more than just rainbow observance purposes. Would it surprise you to know that he can do the moonwalk, and is a great dancer in general?
As night fell, the already picturesque surroundings became even more picturesque. I will illustrate this with pictures.
Action in the home bullpen:
But for an even closer view of the action, try the dugout suites. $30 buys a catered meal from the fried chicken and biscuits juggernaut that is Bojangles (the seating area’s sponsor) and one of the closest views of the action one can find in professional baseball.
While sitting in this area, I made the following Vine. It is, truly, six seconds of brilliance.
I then retreated to the area behind home plate, in an attempt to document the perfect example of a 90 degree leg kick. I certainly took this picture at the right angle!
That young man on the mound, whoever he was, soon closed out the victory for Asheville. Good game, good game.
And good night from McCormick Field! I’ve been to a lot of ballparks over the last four seasons, but this one was an all-time favorite.
I arrived at McCormick Field at about 6 o’clock on a rainy Friday evening, and I must have been in a rush as it appears I didn’t take any shots of the stadium before entering. The saga begins, photographically, with this:
That’s none other than Mr. Moon, who was introduced as part of the Tourists’ re-branding campaign prior to the 2011 season. I wrote an article about it at the time, which included the following quote from (then) new president/ownership group member Brian DeWine.
“We had the desire to change and wanted something fun and exciting that told the history of baseball in Asheville,” said Tourists president Brian DeWine. “The original [professional] team in Asheville was called the Moonshiners, and that got us thinking about the moon and how many people have watched Tourists baseball under the moon through the years….Plus, we always joke that the moon is the ultimate Tourist destination.”
Good to know, but that begs the question: Why is this team called the “Tourists” in the first place? DeWine explained that one to me shortly after I arrived at the stadium:
“The name was first used in 1915….Everyone on the team was from out of town, so the locals said ‘Well, we’ll call them the Tourists, then.”
And here we are, 98 years later, and the team is STILL the Tourists. Meanwhile, they’re playing in a stadium that’s almost as old as the team name. McCormick opened in 1924, with Ty Cobb playing the outfield on Opening Day. By my reckoning that makes it the second-oldest Minor League stadium, behind only Vermont’s Centennial Field.
But anyway — I fear that this early influx of words has caused me to lose a sizable portion of my readership. Here’s a picture:
The above photo is by no means a good one, but it illustrates three things:
1) It was a pennant giveaway night, which is what Mr. Moon was brandishing in that first picture.
2) The main entrance is on a residential street. (Depending on one’s perspective, it would be either really cool or deeply annoying to live so close to a stadium.) This is indicative of the extent to which the field is tucked into its surroundings, with no room whatsoever to expand.
3. As a result of some long-ago architectural misfire, the ticket window is located inside the stadium. That leads to the rather awkward entrance set-up, in which fans pass under the archway, advance to the ticket window, and then proceed through a small opening in the improvised barricade.
The view on this overcast evening, immediately after passing through said barricade:
I soon made it on to the field and, uh, what’s this?
To answer a question I already knew the answer to: That is a zipline, extending from the backstop some 300+ feet all the way up to a hill overlooking left field. Before every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday contest the game ball is delivered by a fan via the zipline.
This endeavor is sponsored by Asheville Zipline and Canopy Adventures, one of the region’s many providers of outdoor entertainment. The company’s employees are on hand to set up and take down the zipline (DeWine boasts that it can be done in six minutes flat), and also accompany the chosen fan on the 300-foot journey homeward.
“The first year we did [the zipline] 70 times, but found that it got a little repetitive, so now we save it for the bigger games,” said DeWine. “On Boy Scout night, the kids will do it until midnight, when we finally have to curfew them.”
I went up there to check it out.
Soon enough, I was invited by the friendly zipline guides to give it a try for myself. All I had to do in exchange was sign my life away.
It was fun, although our combined weight was a little above optimal and we didn’t quite make it to the designated target laid out just to the right of home plate. (I am, as I type this, the fattest I’ve ever been in my life). Upon landing my guide and I looped back up to the top of the hill, and I am including this picture of our walk partially as a means to convey just how verdant McCormick’s surroundings are.
Upon arrival, I handed off the zipline reins to the fan who had been chosen (via a concourse raffle) to deliver the game ball. She was psyched. (I apologize that I do not have her name, nor the name of my zipline guide. My excuse was that it had started to rain by this time, and I didn’t want to get my notebook soaked.)
Want to see the zipline in action? Here’s my Vine video, which, like all Vine videos, is six seconds long.
Usually the game ball delivery signifies the start of the game, but the rain was coming down hard enough that its start was delayed. So, more pre-game wandering was destined to occur.
It may be a bit difficult to see, but here there are two things I’d like to point out.
1). The right field fence is only 297 feet away. This is certainly tempting for left-handed batters, but home runs are harder than they appear because what the fence lacks in distance it makes up for in height. At 36 feet, it is just a foot shorter than Fenway’s iconic Green Monster.
2). The scoreboard reads “Visitors” and “Tourists.” Never not funny.
This shot of the visitor’s dugout also provides a good view of the roof, which is held up with imposing concrete slabs that convey a sturdy masculinity.
McCormick was originally a largely wooden edifice, but has taken on a more concrete form after renovations in 1959 and (especially) 1992. Its old-time charm is completely intact, however, as I hope these pictures have shown and will continue to show.
This picnic area, located down the third base line, was pretty sedate on this drizzly evening.
If I had been at McCormick Field just one day earlier, however, it would have been a far different scene. For Asheville is the original home of the Thirsty Thursday promotion, and it remains the most popular night of the week. I wrote all about this in my aforementioned MiLB.com article; click HERE to read it.
Next to the picnic area is the visitor’s dugout, where coaches and players (and what appears to be a cop) were waiting out the rain delay.
That mural may look familiar, as it is featured in the movie Bull Durham. Crash Davis ends his career as a member of the Tourists, and a scene was shot at McCormick. WATCH!
Want an idea of just how long McCormick Field has been around? This photo hangs in DeWine’s office, taken during the 1924 season. As was standard practice in the South at the time, the seating areas were segregated. Behind home plate was for whites while black fans had to watch from down the third base line.
Meanwhile, here on a Friday evening in 2013, the skies had begun to clear.
Get out to the grandstand, Mr. Moon. It’s almost game time!
As you may have been able to guess, this post is going to be a two-parter. If Mr. Moon could talk, he’d surely tell you to check back soon for the riveting conclusion of this McCormick Field saga.
As you surely recall, my last post had a cliffhanger ending. I was at the Tennessee Smokies game, the National Anthem had concluded, and the game was about to start.
So what happened then? In this, part two of my Smokies blogging saga, all will be revealed.
In a shocking twist, the ballgame began very shortly after the anthem’s conclusion. At this juncture, I found myself in the right field berm area and my vantage point was as follows:
Thus began a lap around the stadium’s (almost) 360 degree concourse, heading plateward.
Well, it almost struck, at least. A member of the visiting Barons, I’m not sure who, flailed at a pitch, lost his grip, and sent his bat hurtling into the stands. This photo shows the immediate aftermath, as ushers and director of entertainment Ryan Cox (white cap, uber-stylish shirt) survey the scene as concerned Barons look on from the visiting dugout. The bat was retrieved by the long-haried gentleman at the back of the shot, some 12 rows deep.
All’s well that ends well, as no one was hurt. In the photo below GM Brian Cox (not be confused with Ryan Cox, sitting right next to him) is in the process of retrieving the bat from the fan. Following standard protocol, the fan was eventually given a different bat in return.
A choice quote:
[The bat] was clamped on my leg, so I swiped it off with my glove and it ended up on the ground opening and closing its mouth at me. I could see the fangs. It was super-creepy, worse than a spider or a rat, just nasty.
What an awesome tangent that was! I call this the “best Minor League Baseball blog of all time” because it is, and if someone could give me a “Best Blog” award along with, like, $750,000 in cash I’d really appreciate it.
But to return to the narrative at hand, all I can tell you was that the rest of my lap around the stadium perimeter wasn’t very eventful.
Although, I did witness an earnest conversation between Cox and the Statue of Liberty. He was gently trying to tell her that “Salute to Huddled Masses” night wasn’t a very good idea for a promotion, especially since Huddle House wasn’t interested in sponsoring.
I might have heard that conversation wrong, but my hearing was about to get a whole lot worse. For it was I who had been recruited to suit up as “Clucky Jacobsen” in the Smokies’ nightly Chicken Race, a costume that comes complete with a stiflingly hot, senses-obscuring rubber mask.
The Chicken Race, in which a group of kids chase Clucky across the outfield, is a long-standing Smokies tradition. The rules:
I wrote an MiLB.com article about my Chicken Run experience, and it turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written in a professional context. Click the link to read it — please — and then return here to the blog for the following supplementary pictures:
Mingling with the masses
Upon changing back into my civilian attire, I convened with my designated eater (for those new to this blog: I have recruited a “designated eater” at each ballpark I visit, to consume ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet does not allow).
Frederick Love, ladies and gentleman!
Love, who grew up in Seattle, is no stranger to the world of stiflingly hot ballpark costumes. After graduating from college, he went on to suit up as Louie for the Bowie Baysox and Hornsby for the Tulsa Drillers. His current mascot gig is as “Chilly” for the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL, and his sister, Baylor, works for the Smokies as a group sales representative.
In the above photo, Love is sitting outside the Double Play Cafe with a Buddy Bailey Burger (named after the Smokies’ alliterative manager) and an order of BBQ Pork Nachos.
The Buddy Bailey Burger — 1/2 pound beef patty, cheddar cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato — was the main event, and Love dug right in.
“It has a sweet smell, very appetizing, and I wanted to get the first bite in right away,” said Love of the Buddy Bailey Burger. “I threw a little ketchup and mayo on there, and it all mixes together well. The burger is well cooked, very juicy with a lot of flavor.”
As for the nachos, Love had had those before.
“They’re one of the best things they have here,” he said. “They’ve got a perfect smoky taste.”
As he spoke, various food products raced by on the field.
We had, at this juncture, entered into the latter third of the ballgame.
Both man and beast remained vigilant as the game entered its tense final inning. (WATCH on Vine)
Despite a late rally, the Smokies went down in defeat. This was their sixth loss in a row, part of an agonizing streak that had earlier included three straight shutouts followed by a 12-11 defeat. But win, lose, or draw, it doesn’t matter. It was Friday, and that meant fireworks were a comin’.
The pyrotechnics display was enjoyed by Soppets and non-Soppets alike.
It was past 10:30 at this point, but it’s Friday night and who cares about bedtime? The kids, they then ran the bases.
Being too old for such shenanigans, I instead went on a search for impromptu works of art. (WATCH)
All that was left to do now was take a walk back to my hotel room. The Hampton Inn and Suites, it beckoned me. (WATCH).
Good night from Sevierville!
Like their Southern League cohorts the Mississippi Braves, the Tennessee Smokies are that rare Minor League entity that identify themselves by state as opposed to city or region. But, unlike the Mississippi Braves, the “Smokies” team name actually denotes the region of the state in which they play. If teams throughout the Minors took this approach, it would result in entities such as the Pennsylvania Lehighs, the Arkansas Northwests, and the Florida Palm Beaches.
This is all a convoluted way of saying that the Smokies play in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain region (located in the far eastern portion of the state, Sevierville to be precise), and that their team name is unorthodox. So, yes, with that out of the way:
Welcome to Smokies Park, home of the Smokies, and, also, home of a Smoky Mountain visitor center!
I arrived at Smokies Park a bit later than I was aiming for, due to a GPS/common sense snafu in which I drove to a “Stadium Drive” in Knoxville instead of the one in Sevierville. It wasn’t until I made a turn onto “Peyton Manning Pass” that it occurred to me that I may have driven to the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium instead.
They don’t pay me the big bucks for nothing.
Within half an hour I was in the correct location, and totally psyched because the team hotel (WATCH) was located within walking distance from the stadium (the second-most important hotel amenity, behind a good internet connection). As I jauntily strolled through the parking lot in the fashion of R. Crumb’s “Keep On Truckin’” character, the first fans I passed were these guys.
“Hey, that’s the blogger,” said the cornholer in red to his cornholing companion. The cornholer in red turned out to be Frederick Love, who had volunteered to be the evening’s designated eater (the designated eater is an individual I recruit at every ballpark, to eat the concession foods that my gluten-free diet does not allow). Psyched to be recognized so quickly in the evening, my walk became even jauntier. Even what appeared to be copyright infringement couldn’t slow me down.
Expect a call from Fresno, Grainger band.
A nice crowd had gathered out front for this fireworks Friday, a gathering comprised of humans and bizarrely-colored bear alike.
I made a quick stop in the press box upon arrival.
To the right of these gentleman, taking up nearly an entire wall, is this cartoon tribute to late Smokies beat writer Nick Gates.
Gates covered the franchise from their 1972 inception as the Knoxville White Sox (Knox Sox!) all the way through the 2010 season, when health issues forced him to retire. He died in 2012 at the age of 62.
For a variety of reasons — the ailing state of the newspaper industry chief among them, as well as the team’s ability to easily disseminate information themselves — Minor League beat writers are an increasingly rare species these days. It was a great gesture by the Smokies to pay tribute to Gates and the nearly lost era of journalism that he represents.
Another touching tribute can be found behind home plate, as the team has installed a permanent seat in honor of POW/MIA American servicemen.
The POW/MIA seat came about as part of the club’s annual “Tribute to Heroes” promotion (the 2013 iteration of which took place Saturday, the day after I was in town). It pre-dates similar efforts not just in Minor League Baseball (Lowell, Mobile), but also the more heralded efforts of the New England Patriots as well.
All of this is to say: the Smokies were at the forefront of the POW/MIA empty ballpark seat trend, which is slowly gaining traction around the world of professional sports as a simple and eloquent way to honor those who are not with us.
A seat-based tribute of a different sort can be found in the right field section of the berm seating area.
These seats, rickety as a Pittsburgh rock n’ roll house party, are from the team’s former home of Bill Meyer Stadium in Knoxville. The Smokies played there from their 1972 inception as the Knoxville White Sox (Knox Sox!) through 1999, but the stadium itself opened in 1955. I hadn’t been familiar with Mr. Meyer, but he enjoyed a long career in baseball, most of it based in the Minors. He played one game as a member of the 1913 Cubs and, 39 years later, skippered the worst Pittsburgh Pirates team in franchise history.
Speaking of notable managerial campaigns…
As you may recall, Ryne Sandberg managed the Smokies in 2009, the second stop in a Cubs organization managerial journey that began in Peoria and later continued on to Triple-A Iowa. Having a Hall of Famer manage the club is a big deal, obviously, and “Sandberg Alley” is where the fans would line up for pre-game autographs.
As Smokies Director of Entertainment Ryan Cox explained to me, “This wasn’t [Sandberg's] first rodeo. He’d sign there in front of the dugout for 10-15 minutes before every game, and then it’d be ‘Okay, I’ve got to go.’”
“When the umps walked to home plate for the manager’s meeting, that was his cue to exit,” added team president Doug Kirchhofer. “If he didn’t do it that way, he’d be there all night. There’d be no end in sight. He would do it on the road, too, and throughout the season I heard from a lot of teams that they were very appreciative of that.”
You may recall my post on the Smokies’ Sandberg Alley, which included this picture of the ribbon-cutting ceremony:
The following season the Iowa Cubs adapted the “Sandberg Alley” idea. I was there. I took these pictures. I am omniscient.
One blog post, so many digressions! To return to the narrative at hand, I was a honored to be one of the guests on assistant general manager Jeff Shoaf’s pre-game show.
This interview was broadcast live over the stadium PA, and as usual I struggled a bit with hearing my words booming back at me. I guess you get used to it, but I do not like the sound of my voice unless it is rapping the Humpty Dance at a Koreatown karaoke joint.
You could say that hearing my voice is hard to “bear,” but you’d only say that in order to facilitate a lazy segue to a picture I don’t remember taking.
I do remember the National Anthem, however, as performed by the
Fresno Grainger Grizzlies band. The bombs bursting in air were punctuated by actual bomb-like air bursts.
Folks, my loquaciousness has gotten the best of me. This post is gonna have to be a two-parter.