Thus far, this ongoing “Return to the Road” series has highlighted outside-of-the-ballpark trip highlights from Appleton, WI to Beloit, WI (but barely) to Midland, MI. Midland is where we are going to remain, as we begin today’s fourth and final post in the series.
I awoke in Midland on Wednesday, June 26, and had a little bit of time to explore after checking out of the hotel. After all, that evening’s destination of Lansing (home of the Lugnuts) was just a short drive away. My partner in these explorations was writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me during this trip as part of a book he is writing on Minor League Baseball. We began in downtown Midland, which included the periodic table-influenced “H Hotel” and its attendant eateries “Table restaurant” and the “Zinc Cafe.”
The heart of downtown Midland, and certainly its most recognizable landmark, is “The Tridge,”
The Tridge, built in 1981, is what its name implies: a three-way bridge (built at the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Chippewa Rivers). A Farmer’s Market is located nearby (it wasn’t open on the day I visited), and a variety of cultural events are held in and around this area as well. It’s all very scenic and well-maintained, and we were fortunate enough to have visited on a beautiful day.
This statue, simply title “Couple,” features its titular individuals gazing upon the Tridge in perpetuity.
After a little bit of wandering, we came upon the similarly-titled “Family.”
Unfortunately, a certain subset of Midland’s public statue-viewing public can’t keep their hands to themselves.
A little bit of local history, courtesy of a rock.
These idyllic early afternoon wandering were much enjoyed, but soon enough it was time to depart not just the Tridge but Midland itself. Farewell county courthouse, I hardly knew ye!
From here on out, my outside-of-the-ballpark content from this week-long Midwest League excursion is exceedingly minimal. As previously mentioned, I attended that night’s Lansing Lugnuts game (and wrote about it HERE and HERE and HERE). Unfortunately, there was no time to explore Lansing proper, as I had to get up bright and early the next morning in order to appear on Grand Rapids radio. That was the first act in what turned out to be a full-to-bursting West Michigan Whitecaps experience, which was chronicled HERE and HERE and, yes, even HERE. My time with the Whitecaps turned out to be so full-to-bursting that I didn’t get any real chance to explore Grand Rapids, either, although on the way out of the city Matt LaWell and I stopped at an eatery recommended by then-Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster Slavko Bekovic.
This eatery was called “The Winchester.” As a Brooklyn resident, I am quite familiar with this sort of establishment: a locally-sourced nouveau American bistro with self-consciously hip sensibilities.
Here’s a picture of Matt LaWell at the bar. I only wish his well-manicured mustache was visible, as well-manicured mustaches are just the sort of thing one would expect to see at such an establishment.
If you’ve got $40 to spend on a hamburger, then you’re everything that is wrong with America. But if this is wrong, maybe you don’t want to be right….
All in all the Winchester had a very impressive menu, and “GF” designations are always much appreciated by celiac disease-afflicted individuals such as myself.
An order of chicken wings and polenta fries turned out to be way more food that I bargained for.
Sorry for the anti-climax, but this is all I’ve got and my Midwest League 2013 content well is now officially dry. (From Grand Rapids it was on to South Bend and my time visiting the Silver Hawks was chronicled HERE and HERE. Unfortunately, time constraints were such that no explorations of South Bend proper were able to take place.)
Therefore, this particular “Return to the Road” series is going to end with a picture of chicken wings and polenta fries. Isn’t that always the case?
In any case — I’ll “Return to the Road” again before the offseason is through, in order to cover August’s trip to the West Coast. Gotta milk the material for all it’s worth!
It’s time for another installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I, yes, return to the road in order to further elaborate on that which was experienced during my 2013 Minor League road trips. Part one of this episodic adventure covered Appleton, WI, part two covered Beloit, WI (however fleetingly), and today will cover Midland, MI (home of the Great Lakes Loons).
I spend the entirety of Tuesday, June 24 in Midland, giving me plenty of time to explore the city before attending that evening’s Loons game. Often when I find myself in this type of situation, I look up the location of a local record store and orient my wanderings from there. But this time was different, as Loons vice president of marketing Chris Mudhenk had magnanimously set up an afternoon itinerary of local cultural destinations.
I wrote a story on all of this for MiLB.com, but in the interest of redundancy and copious photo-dumping I will recap it here as well. First up was the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio.
From the MiLB.com piece:
In many ways, Midland is synonymous with Dow Chemical, as Herbert Henry Dow established the company there in the late 19th century, and its headquarters have remained there ever since.
Herbert’s son Alden was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright who went on to enjoy a distinguished architectural career, and for the last 50 years of his life he lived and worked in a whimsical yet geometrically precise house — constructed largely with one-foot square “Unit Blocks” recycled from the chemical company — that has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Pictures weren’t allowed inside the house, but these outdoor images help to illustrate the spirit of pragmatic whimsy which infused Dow’s work.
Next up was the Midland Center of the Arts, beginning with a stop at the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art. Again, from the MiLB.com piece:
The Midland Center for the Arts is a cultural consortium, a one-stop humanities shop in which “art, science, history, music, theatre, dance, films, camps, classes and professional world-class entertainers live under one roof.” The building housing these complementary entities was designed by none other than Alden B. Dow and is anchored by the four-story Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art.
Assistant marketing director Kristen Wuerfel gave me a brief after-hours tour of the facility, passing by attractions such as a mastodon skeleton, an interactive periodic table of the elements and a full-size farm tractor en route to a fourth floor “Icons of the Sky” exhibit featuring the Lego architecture of Adam Reed Tucker.
Next door to the museum is the Dow Gardens. For the last time, an excerpt from my MiLB.com piece:
This 110-acre sanctuary was developed by Herbert [Dow], expanded upon by Alden, and now maintained via the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Amid the impeccably maintained expanses of grass, curved pathways and idyllic waterways are a variety of sculptures, many of which are installed temporarily. Dow Gardens assistant director Elizabeth Lumbert explained, “Our visitors might not like everything they see, but the art helps people see the landscape in a fresh way.”
Dow Gardens [then featured] an exhibit titled “Zimsculpt,” which highlights work done by Zimbabwean artists.
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon; those considering visiting Midland in order to see the Loons should know that they’ll have plenty to do beforehand. My evening was spent at the Loons game, of course, and you can read about that experience HERE. But if I had to sum it all up in one photo, then that photo is this.
There will be one more “Return to the Road” post next week. After that, other topics will be explored. I’m just not sure what, so let me know if you any suggestions or perhaps want to write a guest post. Like a produce stand sold out of everything except corn, I’m all ears.
My previous “Return to the Road” post, dedicated to all that was seen and done during an afternoon in Appleton, was a bit of an anomaly. Appleton was the only city on this late June Midwest League road trip in which I attended two ballgames, and therefore I had more time to explore. For the remainder of the trip time was much more of an issue, so I was unfortunately unable to immerse myself in the local sights and sounds to the extent that I did in Appleton.
But do not despair, banal rhyming fans, as I’ve still got more to share! I woke up on Sunday, June 22, in Appleton, and my last order of business in that fine city was to post a Road Trip Hotel Room Review on Vine. It was then time to drive south to Beloit, so that I could attend that afternoon’s Snappers game at Pohlman Field.
My post on the Beloit Snappers experience can be read HERE, and over on MiLB.com I wrote an article on centenarian mainstay Grace Phillips as well as one on the incredible phenomenon that was the “Whitewall Ninja” (part two of my shoulda-been-award-winning “Bullpen Trilogy,” which began with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and later continued on the Lansing Lugnuts).
I spent Sunday evening across the state line, in South Beloit, Illinois, but traversed back into Wisconsin on Monday afternoon in order to visit Midwest League headquarters in downtown Beloit. Long-time president George Spelius works out of a nondescript office located next door to a local insurance provider, across the street from the flower shop that he runs with his wife and daughter. (I wrote a story about the Speliuses, which can be read HERE.)
After my brief visit with the Spelius clan I drove over to the Rodeway Inn, which I had been told is one of the more “colorful” team hotels in the Midwest League. While I didn’t get to stay there this time around, I paid my respects and got a meal at the attached “Road Dawg” restaurant.
This seemed to be the sort of thing one orders while dining at such an establishment:
Adjacent to the Rodeway Inn was the Cornellier Superstore, the sort of roadside tourist trap that I can never resist visiting.
It was now time to make the long drive to Midland, MI, but not before one final attempt at documenting parking lot quirkiness.
Goodbye, Beloit — I hardly knew ye!
The rest of this pleasant summer Monday in late June was spent driving to Midland, a drive made more enjoyable once I was able to pick up the broadcast of that evening’s West Michigan Whitecaps game. Once in Midland I met up with writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me for the rest of the trip as part of his book on the sexiest individuals working in Minor League Baseball (or at least that’s what I hope the book is about). We watched the tail-end of the Stanley Cup finals, got a late dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings (plenty of gluten-free options!) and made plans to meet early the next afternoon so that we could tour the city of Midland.
And, yes, that’s what the next post in this rollicking saga will be about. It will be a fair to Midland effort.
With that recent spate of bouillabaisse posts now complete, I can now return with an unencumbered mind to my favorite of all blogging topics: the road.
I went on three Minor League Baseball road trips during the 2013 season, during which I documented the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I was able. But, of course, the beauty of a Minor League Baseball road trip is that it gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark, but the city itself. And that’s simply what these “Return to the Road” posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark.
In November I wrote three “Return to the Road” posts, covering May’s “Southern Swing’ trip. The next series of posts will cover late June’s Midwest League meanderings, which began on June 21 in Appleton, Wis. and ended one week later in South Bend.
On Friday, June 21, I attended a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game and wrote about it profusely in a two-part blog post (Part One) (Part Two) as well as an indispensable MiLB.com piece that turned out to be part one of the much-lauded “Bullpen Trilogy.” I spend the entirety of Saturday, June 22, in Appleton as well, meaning that I had plenty of time to explore the city before heading back to what is now “Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.”
As everyone knows, the best way to explore a new city is with the assistance of a trusted local. For me, that individual was Brew Crew Ball proprietor Kyle Lobner, who picked me up at the hotel bright and early (by my standards) Saturday morning. First up was a visit to Appleton’s weekly Farm Market. The Farm Market runs from June through October, and gray skies did not deter our journey.
“In Wisconsin you eat fresh while you can, because the growing season is not very long,” said Loebner, who, in addition to writing about the Brewers, serves as an alderman.
As many of you know, a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis forced me to convert to a gluten-free diet. Well, one thing I learned during this meandering Saturday is that Appleton accommodates gluten-free diets to a degree rarely seen in Minor League markets. Gluten-free or not I’m generally not one for sweets, but when in Rome…
Lobner was a strong proponent of the Kangaroostaurant, a “cookery on wheels.” In addition to being popular with Milwaukee-centric baseball bloggers such as Lobner, the Kangaroostaurant is also patronized by pregnant women and young outdoorsy beardos.
Downtown Appleton was a pleasant place to be, and after getting breakfast Lobner and I strolled around for a bit. While I don’t have a picture of Appleton City Hall, I was informed that it is located in the top floor of an old department store building. That’s not quite as cool as Appleton’s History Museum, which is located in a castle.
And this is not just any castle-cum-history museum, mind you. It is a non-perishable castle-cum-history museum.
Some random items from my notebook, most likely gleaned through conversations with Lobner but possibly the result of gluten-free breakfast sandwich fever dreams:
– Appleton was the first city with hydroelectric power.
– Fox River is the largest north-flowing river in the United States.
– Former MLB reliever Jack Taschner is now a member of the Appleton police force.
And, for the records, downtown Appleton now boasts a store specializing in vinyl. It’s called Top Spins, and at the time I visited it had only been open for about a month.
I went ahead and picked up a couple LPs, including one featuring Pete Seeger. (RIP) I was inspired to buy the Bobby Bare record after greatly enjoying his double LP of Shel Silverstein-penned compositions. (Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe is one of my favorite songs ever.)
Lobner and I then made a brief detour to Goodland Field, home of the Appleton Foxes from 1958-1994 (the team moved to its current home the following season and changed its name to the Timber Rattlers). Goodland Field is now run by the Appleton School District, and while it is a perfectly acceptable amateur facility I found it hard to believe that just 20 years ago it hosted Class A professional baseball. It now hosts TERROR BASEBALL.
A few more peeks through the chain link:
On the way back to the hotel there were a few photo opportunities to be found, because when aren’t there?
The Lawrence University campus is situated along the Fox River…
The Appleton-area paper industry is not nearly as robust as it once was — at one point, the city’s Minor League team was called “The Papermakers” — and this particular mills have been re-purposed for residential uses.
Rocky Bleier, a wounded Vietnam veteran who overcame his injuries and won four Super Bowl rings as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was born in Appleton.
Many thanks to Lobner for taking the time to show me around (as well as serving as my “Designated Eater” the night before). He dropped me back off at the hotel in the early afternoon, but I barely had time to catch my breath before my next social engagement. This one requires a little bit of backstory…
Back in the summer of 2012, in the wake of my aforementioned celiac disease diagnosis, I received an email from Timber Rattlers production assistant Peter DeRuyter. He mentioned that his sister, Nicole, had a gluten intolerance and soon enough Nicole got in touch with a wealth of information and advice for the newly gluten free. That was kind enough as it was, but she followed that up by sending me a “Welcome to Gluten Freedom” package of various GF foods. It was great!
So, anyway, now that I was in Appleton I finally had the chance to meet Nicole and Peter!
Yes, we got lunch, but let’s back up a bit in this narrative (you’re all riveted, right?) Upon departing from the hotel, Nicole informed me of the following:
“Alright, here’s the game plan. We’re going to get dessert first. Happy Belly’s, and it’s aptly named. It’s gonna feel like I’m taking you to the back room of some place, because I am taking you to the back room of some place.”
Awesome! I’ve always loved the back rooms of some places. We returned to the by-now-kind-of-familiar streets of downtown Appleton, which were remarkably deserted considering that the Farm Market had taken place a few short hours ago.
The front entrance of this place was adorned with a complimentary bath tub.
And, yes, here’s the back room gluten-free friendly bake shop. See, this is why it’s always good to hang out with the locals!
I got some cupcakes, because, again: When in Rome.
Back outside, I happened to notice this sign. In Appleton, even the sub shops are gluten-free!
The DeRuyters and I then took a scenic walk to a nearby restaurant because, clearly, what was needed at this juncture was more food. One of the views along the way:
Our destination was the Stone Cellar Brewpub.
Which, of course, had a gluten-free menu.
This being Wisconsin and all, a cheese plate was mandatory.
This was followed by a Reuben, which comes in at #1 on my list of “things I miss ordering at a diner in the wake of being diagnosed with celiac disease.”
Once again, Nicole and Peter DeRuyter. Their generosity on this idyllic Saturday afternoon was much appreciated.
Even more Appleton vantage points, taken during the walk back to downtown proper.
I can say, without hyperbole, that this is the best-named business of all time.
Oh, and in addition to castle-cum-history museums, Appleton now boasts the Houdini Plaza in honor of one of its most well-known native sons. But, when I was there, it was under construction.
Finally, some wise words from former president Benjamin Harrison (a man preceded and followed in office by Grover Cleveland).
After all that, I attended Saturday evening’s Timber Rattler game — “Salute to Outdoors Night”! — and wrote about that HERE. Thanks for everything, Appleton! No Minor League city has ever provided me with so much to write about.
I like doing things in threes — if only because it gives me a semi-legit reason to use the word “triumvirate” — but sometimes three just isn’t enough. And sometimes, sometimes is now. That’s the case now, as in right now, as in right now you are reading this not-at-all gratuitous, unnecessary and insufferably self-satisfied intro to, yes, an unprecedented fourth consecutive bouillabaisse blog.
Get ready for yet another cavalcade of new and/or notable items from around the seemingly inexhaustible world of Minor League Baseball! No segue!
If you’ve been following the NFL playoffs over the past several weeks, then you’re aware that Peyton Manning often yells “Omaha!” prior to having the ball snapped to him. This inspired the Omaha Storm Chasers to call a promotional audible:
— Omaha Storm Chasers (@OMAStormChasers) January 21, 2014
I’ll quote from the press release, if only because it is more existential in nature than most press releases of its kind:
This upcoming Sunday will be the first without football since last September 1 and after the Super Bowl on February 2, sports fans will have a Sunday void until the next NFL season begins. To help occupy this opening, the Omaha Storm Chasers are offering specialty “Omaha! Omaha!” Plans that will feature a majority of Sunday home games throughout the 2014 season for only $31 or $55.
Inspired by the 31 “Omaha” audibles by Peyton Manning in the Denver Broncos AFC Championship win over the New England Patriots on January 19, the Storm Chasers are offering Box Seat Tickets to 9 Sunday Games for $31 (or about $3.43 per game).
Omaha Storm Chasers Baseball: Occupying the Void since 2011!
Regular readers of this never-faltering blogging empire are aware that I am a big fan of absurdist avant-garde interpretations of Minor League Baseball All-Star Game Home Run Derbies. (See Quad Cities River Bandits, Reading Phillies, Charleston RiverDogs, and Altoona Curve). On Thursday, the Wilmington Blue Rocks — hosts of this year’s Carolina League/California League All-Star Game — announced that they will be getting in on the act as well.
[The Blue Rocks will be] the first Minor League baseball club to host a Home Run Derby where players bat from the outfield and try to hit the ball into the stands behind where home plate normally resides. That is the highlight of the Hitting Challenge that will open the California League/Carolina League All-Star Game festivities….on Monday, June 16.
The hitting challenge will feature some of the best young prospects in baseball from both the Carolina League and California League competing in two events. First there will be a hitting contest featuring targets that players will have to hit in order to earn points. Then there will be a home run derby. Fans will have the opportunity to catch any dingers off of these sluggers’ bats as the Blue Rocks will flip the field at Frawley Stadium. A new batting cage will be installed in center field and derby contestants will be awarded homeruns by hitting balls into the seating area.
Last month I received an email from WordPress, service provider for the entire MLBlogs network, regarding my 2013 “Year in Blogging.” For what it’s worth, I wrote 128 posts in 2013, to bring the grand total to 1,026. This was less than in year’s past (the blog began in October of 2007), but I’d like to think what I lacked in quantity I made up for in quality? Maybe?
Not surprisingly, food-related posts brought in the most traffic. March’s write-up on the Charleston RiverDogs’ new food additions was this year’s most widely “read” post, followed by a similar post on West Michigan. And coming in at number three was a post that is now almost four years old, on the RiverDogs’ “Pickle Dog”! (I think this is because a picture from that post has been widely circulated on Pinterest.) Number four was the post that detailed my 2013 road trip itinerary — I think people actually read that one, rather than just looking at the pictures — and at number five was yet ANOTHER post featuring a Charleston RiverDogs food item.
I think the lesson here is that I should write more about the RiverDogs, but at the moment I have no new culinary information to share. So how about this video from the team’s annual holiday party, in which co-owner Bill Murray delivers his “State of the Team” address.
For more Charleston RiverDogs’ content (Bill Murray-related and otherwise), check out Josh Handler’s “Baseball from the Box Office” blog. Handler, a “rising front office professional” spent last season as a RiverDogs intern and I met him at the Winter Meetings.
Okay, I’ll stop with the gratuitous RiverDogs mentions. But for how long? Let’s return to the 2013 Year-End Blogging Report, which included the following information regarding the search terms that led people to visit Ben’s Biz.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for canadian tuxedo, ben’s biz blog,bens biz blog, skateboard, and brett favre.
The lesson here is that a picture of Brett Favre in an all-denim outfit riding a skateboard would be blog traffic gold. Can someone doctor one up for me?
Finally, a big thanks to those who have read this blog through thick and thin, especially 2013′s top 5 commenters. Take a bow Minoring in Baseball, Possum187, Dom Latkovski (Zooperstars! founder), Jordan (who may or may not be related to me) and the Charlie & Dave Army.
Okay, I’m officially out of material. Bouillabaisse mission complete!
Each of the last two posts on this blog were full-to-bursting bouillabaisse blasts, but those who thought that I was out of Minor League news and notes to share THOUGHT WRONG. A final scouring of my myriad notebooks and spreadsheets has brought even more items to light, and thus it is now my duty to shine this light unto the world.
Let’s begin by re-stating a proven fact, and that is that Ben’s Biz Blog is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time. While this should be common knowledge, I nevertheless work tirelessly to disseminate this message to all corners of the known universe. Enter the Hickory Crawdads, who last week issued a press release in which they welcomed fans to leave a message on their office walls prior to renovation:
Renovations are already underway at Crawdads Stadium, but fans can visit the ‘Dads old front office one last time this week and leave a personalized message on the walls. Join Conrad and the rest of the front office staff by inscribing a favorite memory, a goodbye, or simply well wishes, and have your message shared on the Crawdads Facebook page.
I humbly asked the team, via Twitter, to please make note of my blogging supremacy and, happily, they assented. If it’s written on a South Atlantic League front office wall, then you KNOW it’s true!
— Hickory Crawdads (@HickoryCrawdads) January 17, 2014
In perhaps slightly more meaningful Minor League indoor art news, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are staging an innovative mural painting contest. An excerpt from the press release:
[The RailRiders] and Lackawanna County are sponsoring an indoor mural competition for the entrance of the Mohegan Sun Club at PNC Field. The mural will be unveiled on Wednesday, April 2 at the annual “Meet the RailRiders” event. Experienced mural artists are invited to submit designs capturing the essence of baseball, community and Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Three finalists will be chosen by a selection committee before the public votes on the winning design from Feb. 14-24. The winning artist(s) will paint the mural during the month of March. All supplies and materials will be provided, including scaffolding. The winning artist will receive a cash award of $5,000 to paint the mural and two RailRiders 2014 season tickets.
Rest assured that I will be following this contest as it develops, but in the meantime: What other Minor League Baseball stadiums feature murals? I, like a painter who has lost his inspiration, am drawing a blank.
“This post is going to the dogs” sounds like something that I’d write if I was completely and totally devoid of inspiration. But I’m not, at least not yet, so instead just let me inform you that some canine content is imminent. Did you know that the El Paso Chihuahuas have sold merchandise in all 50 states, in advance of ever playing a game? Team-produced infographics, like sleeping dogs, don’t lie!
In other news, the Chihuahuas are now selling “pawtial” season ticket plans. I am apparently alone in thinking they should have found a way to utilize the phrase “season yip-ets.”
And then there are the Trenton Thunder, who have welcomed a new bat dog into the fold. This puppy, son of Derby and grandson of Chase (R.I.P.), needs a name and in this matter your assistance is requested.
I voted for Mo.
My readership is largely comprised of Los Angeles culinary scenesters with Midwestern roots, so I apologize that many of you are familiar with the following bit of news:
Restaurateur Susan Feniger has opened the Mud Hen Tavern, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, is “a neighborhood bar with ‘gourmet pub and comfort food’ inspired by the chef’s memories of going to Mud Hens baseball games in Toledo, Ohio.” The menu looks great, and it’s immediately apparent that the chef attended Mud Hens’ games during that brief period (’75-’77) when tuna ceviche and pumpkin ravioli were available at the concession stand.
Fans of the Quad Cities River Bandits can own a piece of history with a commemorative 2013 Midwest League Championship ring in a limited-time sale. Until Feb. 1, fans may purchase rings that match the ones earned by the team’s players and staff, and each fan may personalize the championship hardware with his or her last name on the side of the ring.
For $295, it can be yours! That would be a good investment for those looking to impress women, because nothing (and I mean nothing) impresses the fairer sex like a Midwest League Championship ring. I am speaking from experience.
Or am I?
Over the last four months there has been plenty of content on this ol’ blog, from road trip retrospectives to Promo Seminar and Winter Meetings recaps to Job Seeker Journals to personal numerical milestones to re-branding round-ups to guest posts on attendance, Google stadium tours, and theoretical sports leagues. Just scroll through the archives! That, and much more, is all there for the (re)visiting.
But while I’ve continued to deliver the varied and indispensable content that one would expect from the Greatest Minor League Baseball Blog of All-Time (TM), one word has been missing from the conversation for nearly four months now. It is a word that is very dear to me, seeing as how it connotates an endlessly malleable approach to both topic and presentation.
Yep, today’s post is gonna be a bouillabaisse, a hodgepodge of Minor League news and notes that have been simmering together for quite some time on the pilot light that is my “blog topics” notebook page. As always, let’s hope that the sum is greater than its parts and, more importantly, that the remainder of this post (#1034 in Ben’s Biz history, for those keeping track at home) is less meandering and inconsequential than the intro. Not likely!
Let’s start at the top of the alphabet, as the always-reliable Altoona Curve have become the latest team to turn the oft-lackluster slugfest that is the All-Star Game Home Run Derby into something else entirely (see Quad Cities River Bandits, Reading Phillies, Charleston RiverDogs). Last month, the team announced “The Ghost Man Games Challenge.”
Ask almost anyone from any generation about a “ghost man” and it will conjure up childhood memories of playing baseball with imaginary base runners. The Altoona Curve (AA, Pirates) plan on bringing those ghost men to life as part of the 2014Eastern League All-Star Stop in Curve, Pa. on Tuesday, July 15. “The Curve, Pa. Ghost Man Games and Hitting Challenge” will cap an evening’s worth of activities at Peoples Natural Gas Field the day before the league’s annual All-Star Game.
Each division (Eastern vs. Western) will receive six ghost men and have the opportunity to earn up to 15 extra ghost men in five games leading up to the hitting challenge. The games include: Bubble Gum Blowing Challenge, Closest-to-the-Pin Flying Disc Toss, Mascot Mouth Accuracy Challenge, T-Shirt Cannon Catch, and Mascot Dodgeball Challenge. Each game will have three ghost men up for grabs.
Following the five, fast-paced games, three hitters for each division will take their hacks trying to hit home runs and doubles (anything that reaches the warning track on the fly). The trick will be how each division employs their ghost men ahead of home runs or doubles hit by the sluggers in order to score the most runs. Each hitter will get five outs before their turn or “inning” is finished. The divisions will take turns and play a three-inning contest.
You know what the above picture means? No segue!
Let’s move straight to the next item, which is this: the Nashville Sounds are playing their final season at Greer Stadium in 2014, and are commemorating it with this nifty logo:
It should read “37 seasons of hits,” if you want to get technical about it, but still: a cool logo. (And, with any luck, I’m hoping that 1978-2014 are not the dates that end up on my tombstone. Fingers crossed).
Meanwhile, on the other end of the birth-death continuum upon which we all reside, 2014 marks the Charlotte Knights’ first season in a brand-new downtown facility. This, too, has been commemorated in logo form, and it looks great. Joust great.
The Omaha Storm Chasers already have three mascots, a fact that, in the past, has been known to rile up ornery snarkhounds. Well, those of the curmudgeonly persuasion are going to go full-bore apoplectic once they hear of the team’s latest endeavor, as the Storm Chasers are adding three more mascots to the fold for 2014. These mascots are currently only identified via their silhouettes, such as this guy (who, if you read his character description, is clearly a piece of corn).
Each of these three characters needs a name, so click on the above link if you want to register your opinion. My three choices are Kernel Cobb, Cap-Tin, and Tony Bone.
A number of Minor League entities have dance teams that perform routines between innings, but this is even better: in 2014, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are going to have a drumline. It’s about time!
This 15-member drumline will be a featured act at 15 home games throughout the season. The Designated Hitters will welcome crowds in the parking lot at Coca-Cola Park before games, participate in player introductions and perform Drum Battles atop the dugouts after select innings later this season.
And for an example of even more unorthodox between-inning entertainment, please consider this from the IronPigs’ fellow PA denizens the Erie SeaWolves:
It might be cold out, but the Retirement Village People always keep it hot! Coming to a dugout top near you soon! pic.twitter.com/APcnk5U6Ck
— Erie SeaWolves (@erie_seawolves) January 6, 2014
Last Friday I composed an MiLB.com feature focusing on the annual Minor League attendance report written by David Kronheim (aka “The Number Tamer”).
The information contained in the feature, while copious, was a proverbial drop in the bucket when compared to the statistical largesse one can find in the full report. Therefore, I asked Kronheim if he would be willing to write a guest post in which he further expostulated upon MiLB attendance trends as well as the methods behind his numerical madness. He graciously obliged, and now my only hope is that you will be so gracious as to read it.
FOLLOW-UP ON THE 2013 MINOR LEAGUE ATTENDANCE ANALYSIS ARTICLE
By David Kronheim, Numbertamer.com
Benjamin Hill provided a very good overview of my 2013 Minor League Baseball Attendance Analysis in his article on the Minor League Baseball website. He has asked me for my thoughts on the main points of the report, as well as information regarding how I compiled all of this data.
OVERALL ATTENDANCE GROWTH
Minor League Baseball is a great example of how a business that was dying in the 1950s and 1960s rebuilt itself very successfully. Its growth goes beyond ticket sales. Food and merchandise revenue has hugely increased, as have other income sources, along with the value of teams. The days of being able to buy a Minor League team by just assuming its debts are long gone.
The Minor Leagues had a big attendance boost following World War II, but then suffered a very rapid decline. Attendance went from nearly 40 million in the late 1940s to less than 10 million by the early 1960s, with most lower level leagues and teams going out of business. Run-down ballparks, home air conditioning, and easier access for many fans to Major League ballparks were among the causes of this drop in attendance. But the introduction of television was by far the biggest factor.
The Pacific Coast League was good example of this. That league had the highest caliber of Minor League players, good ballparks, and large markets. Between 1946 and 1949, the teams in this league had an average attendance of 475,006 per team, per season. Just a few years later, from 1954 through 1957, Pacific Coast League teams averaged only 212,226 per team, per season, a 55.3% decline. Major League attendance was down 16.9%, when comparing these same 4 year periods.
The PCL still had teams in the biggest markets on the West Coast before the Dodgers and Giants moved to California in 1958. The closest Major League teams were over a thousand miles away, in St. Louis and Kansas City, yet P.C.L. attendance plunged, mainly due to the availability of television.
Now, Major League Baseball attendance is at near-record-high levels, with teams all over the mainland United States, plus a team in Canada. Baseball and other sports are available on television and other devices every day. Yet Minor League Baseball attendance, with far fewer teams than 65 years ago, has been approaching 50 million fans a year (including the independent leagues). The basic causes of this attendance growth are simple: new ballparks and effective marketing.
Many of the newer Minor League ballparks offer the same comforts, conveniences, and amenities as a Major League park, just on a smaller scale. Re-branding of teams and gameday promotions certainly helped grow attendance. More importantly, Minor League Baseball has promoted itself as low cost, fan-friendly, family fun in a safe and pleasant environment. It works! Just look at how many kids you see at the games.
MINOR LEAGUE ATTENDANCE IN MAJOR LEAGUE MARKETS
The return of Minor League Baseball to some of the largest markets in the U.S. is one of the more striking changes in this industry.
For years it was thought that a Minor League team located near a Major League team could not survive. In 1976, only 4 Minor League teams were located with 60 miles of a Major League team. In 2013, there were 60 Minor League teams (including the independent leagues) located in the same TV market as a Major League team. Or, if they were in a different TV market, they still were within 60 miles of an MLB team.
20 years ago there were no Minor League teams in the New York TV market. In 2013 there were 10, including two (Brooklyn, Staten Island) within the borders of New York City itself. Some Minor League Baseball teams draw quite well even in this market, which has nine teams in the four major sports leagues.
Near Philadelphia, the Reading Fightin’ Phils were drawing under 85,000 per season as recently as the mid-1980’s. Now they have topped 420,000 for 16 years in a row, despite playing in an older ballpark and being just 60 miles from Citizen’s Bank Park (home of the Philadelphia Phillies). Plus, there are now Minor League teams in much newer ballparks, in nearby cities such as Trenton, Allentown, Lancaster, and Harrisburg. They all draw well, and even more competition in Reading comes from a modern indoor arena that is home to a minor league hockey team. Yet none of this has hurt the Fightin’ Phils at the gate.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, there are the Dayton Dragons. This Midwest League club, located 60 miles from Cincinnati, have had 983 playing dates in their 14 year history and have officially sold out every single one of them!
MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL ATTENDANCE GROWTH COMPARED TO GROWTH IN OTHER LEAGUES
My research found that, over the past four decades, Minor League Baseball attendance has increased at a much faster pace than almost all other leagues. Comparing 2013 to 1999, the only U.S. pro sports league that has grown faster than Minor League Baseball is Major League Soccer.
I looked at total and average attendance per team for 2013 vs. 1999, 1989, 1979, and 1969, and compared the growth rates in those categories for Minor League Baseball (affiliated leagues only) and for MLB and other sports.
The 2013 vs. 1999 comparison covered MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, WNBA, MLS, and Minor League Hockey. Minor League Baseball average attendance per team (up 18.1%) increased by at least double the pace of any of these leagues except for Major League Soccer, which was up 38.3%.
For 1989, 1979, and 1969, the comparisons were made with MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. In 2013, the Minor League Baseball average attendance per team was 67.6% higher than in 1989. The NHL, up 21.6%, had the next best growth.
Comparing the 2013 vs. 1979 growth rate shows that Minor League Baseball’s average per team attendance rose 119.6%, more than double the pace of any other sport. The 2013 vs. 1969 increase was 250% for the Minors. The next best increase was 191.5% for the combined NBA and the old American Basketball Association. (If you look at NBA teams only, their average per team rose 129.2%.)
HOW THIS DATA IS COMPILED
I also compile and write a report covering Major League Baseball attendance. Both analyses can be found on the ‘Baseball Reports’ page of numbertamer.com.
I have no inside information, and I’ve never been employed by any sports league or team. I began to keep track of sports attendance when I was a radio sportscaster in college, because I knew that teams often made personnel decisions based, in part, on attendance. I also worked on sports-related accounts in my advertising career, so I had to keep up with the business side of sports. These reports are part marketing analysis and part journalism. Most of the news regarding Minor League attendance is positive. But I also make sure to report on those teams that don’t draw well.
All of my data comes from sources that are available to the public and to the media. The charts and tables in both reports were all originally done by me; often, quite a few calculations were needed to create them. But the raw data I used can be found by anyone.
In addition to what you see in my reports, I have created huge databases of both Major and Minor League Baseball attendance information. For example, I have listings of each current Minor League city’s yearly attendance going back to at least 1947. My Major League data goes back to 1900 and has each team’s yearly total attendance, their yearly average attendance per date, and much more.
It would be far too cumbersome to publish all of this data, but I’m always willing to share it for free. All I ask is that you list my name or numbertamer.com as the source of this information if you use it.
My major sources for Minor League data have been the Sporting News Baseball Guides (no longer published), the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (edited by Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff), independent league websites, and the office of Minor League Baseball (with special thanks to Steve Densa, their Executive Director of Communications.)
For the Major League report, my main sources of information for recent years are the Major League Baseball Information System which reports all Major League statistics, and the team media guides. Much historic data is from Total Baseball and from the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, both edited by Pete Palmer (among others). Retrosheet.org is a very valuable source, especially when it comes to determining how many home dates each Major League team played every year. I have many other sources of information, and they are listed near the front of the Major League Analysis.
If you are a baseball fan who cares about attendance records and statistics, I hope you find my reports interesting. After all, attendance is the only sports statistic created by the fans.
Thanks to David Kronheim for taking the time to compile these reports every season, they are an invaluable source of information for fans and the industry alike. At least one more post will appear on this blog before the week is out, and all I can tell you is that it will contain considerably less information than this one. That’s a guarantee.
During last month’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla, I got the chance to interview Bull Durham director Ron Shelton regarding the adaptation of that film into a musical. My article on that can be read HERE, but in today’s post I’d like to focus on one of the interview “outtakes.”
As my final question, I asked Shelton the following:
Considering the success of Bull Durham, have you ever considered re-visiting Minor League Baseball in the 21st century? Are there any new stories to tell?
It’s gone so corporate that it’s sort of become uninteresting. It’s great still for the players; it’s as unromantic and shaggy dog if you’re living in that world now. But the front offices of the Minor Leagues used to be as shaggy as the game on the field, but now that’s very different. It’s here [the Baseball Winter Meetings]. You can see it.
I remember a team that was owned by a guy who owned a local bread company in Stockton. That was the year we did 10,000 [fans] for the season. He only invested a few grand and lost every nickel of it, and was looking for someone to bail him out. That was the way it used to be.
Now it’s part of a big thing, but if you go to the games, it’s the same. Players, they don’t make any money, the dreams, trying to get dates with the local girls and not get in trouble if the local girl’s dad was the cop. That is exactly the same. And the fear factor, you know – you’re a star and you sign out of high school or [junior college] or college, then get to the Minor Leagues and realize it’s a nasty, brutal, tough world. An injury, or one bad season, and the number one pick, even if he’s just as good as you, he’s going to be given five years to fail while you’ve got one.
All that has not changed and never will, which is glorious.
I think that Shelton’s take on the current state of the industry is indicative of a larger issue, in that success is generally not very interesting from a story-telling perspective. And to a large extent, I share that perspective when it comes to my own writing. (For example, exploring the ramshackle absurdity of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium is far more interesting to me than wandering around the gleaming concourse of Birmingham’s $64 million downtown ballpark amid long lines of screaming kids).
But Shelton is also romanticizing a failed business model, as well as his own memories of competing in the Minor Leagues (he played in the Orioles farm system from 1967-71, including several seasons with the bread company-backed Stockton team referenced in the interview). I believe that the Minor Leagues’ gradual rise from 1960′s obsolescence is a story worth telling, and even within today’s more “corporate” front office environs there are “shaggy dog” stories aplenty. The aforementioned Bakersfield Blaze, sure, but also everything from volunteer-run Appy League teams to down-on-their-luck Triple-A franchises to lame duck Southern League entities. Not to mention the irreverent promotional strategies that are still employed at all levels of the Minors, with various levels of enthusiasm and results.
Shelton could very well be right that the Minor League front offices of today aren’t as compelling or quirky as those that could be found some 40 or 50 years ago. But if that’s the price you’ve gotta pay for success, then so be it. If teams were still run by a motley collection of in-debt-to-their-eyeballs local merchants, then I wouldn’t have a job. And, if you work in baseball, chances are that you wouldn’t either. As many a team exec has told me: “If we only marketed to the purists, then we’d be out of business.”
One thing that Shelton made clear is that, regardless of shifts in industry operating methods, there will always be worthwhile Minor League stories to tell. At its core it always has been and always will be a brutally competitive world. Most of its participants will fall short of their goals, and the constant threat of failure makes for a compelling story.
What are your thoughts on this apropos of nothing mid-January discussion topic? Feel free to contact me via Twitter or through my corporate email address.
The viciously cold temperatures that accompanied this week’s much-ballyhooed “Polar Vortex” aren’t exactly compatible with ideal Minor League Baseball conditions, but that didn’t stop the Potomac Nationals from having a little frigid fun at the ballpark. On Tuesday and Wednesday the team held its first-ever “Polar Plunge.”
The P-Nats described the event thusly, while also noting that EMT personnel and warming blankets would be on hand (in my opinion, it’s not a true promo unless EMT are on the premises):
While temperatures plummet in Northern Virginia and around the country, the Potomac Nationals encourage fans to participate in the first annual two-day P-Nats Polar Plunge at Pfitzner Stadium on Tuesday, January 7th and Wednesday, January 8th from 1:00pm to 3:00pm each day.
Nationals fans will have the opportunity to win full general admission season tickets to the upcoming 2014 season if they stay submerged for a total of five seconds inside the home clubhouse ice bath tub which will be wheeled into the first base dugout.
The first 20 people to arrive for the P-Nats Polar Plunge will be eligible to enter the frosty ice bath.
Northern Virginians with hardy souls, including team vice-president Josh Olerud, took the plunge.
Among the photographic highlights were these. My only question is “Where you at, ladies?”
Via email, P-Nats media relations director Bryan Holland offered his thoughts on his team’s sub-freezing shenanigans:
The first annual P-Nats Polar Plunge allowed us to bring some levity to the sweeping arctic temperatures, and also connect with our fan base in a fun way amidst the winter season while reminding them that baseball is right around the corner.
After a terrific turnout for the inaugural plunge, we intend on hosting this event annually and perhaps we will up the ante next year on the prize, but also the length of submersion.
And please disregard my previous “Where the ladies at?” comment. As I was putting this post together Holland sent over this video, which proves that ladies plunged into the icy abyss with equal levels of enthusiasm.
For the record, I am a longtime participant in Coney Island’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. In order to finally put an end to the deluge of requests I receive via email and Twitter to “please post a topless photo of yourself,” here’s a picture of me welcoming 2014 in style.
That photo is sure to result in a spike in traffic. Speaking of which, the State College Spikes also capitalized on this week’s spate of cold weather. On Monday, an email including the text excerpted below landed in my inbox:
If you can’t beat the Arctic Blast predicted for Central Pennsylvania, then why not embrace it?
That’s the attitude the State College Spikes and local partner DQ Grill & Chill are bringing to area residents who will be dealing with some of the coldest weather to visit the region in decades on Tuesday.
With high temperatures predicted to be in the low single digits and wind chills forecast to be as low as 32 degrees below zero, the Spikes have announced that the club will be handing out complimentary slices of DQ’s famously-refreshing ice cream cake between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Those brave enough to endure the elements for a cool treat on Tuesday can claim their free slice of DQ ice cream cake by visiting the front door of the “Off the Rack Outfitters” Team Store….anyone who visits will receive 30-percent off any one Spikes merchandise item.
A healthy smattering of fans did indeed endure the elements, as the tweet ably proves.
— State College Spikes (@SCSpikes) January 7, 2014
In non-cold weather news, I believe that a lot of this blog’s regular readers will enjoy my most recent feature on 2013 Minor League attendance. Within the article one can find a link to David Kronheim’s annual report, a cornucopia of ballpark facts and figures worthy of some serious study. Read it over the weekend, and get back to me.
Oh! And for what it’s worth: let it be known that the P-Nats, in addition to staging this offseason’s best cold-weather promotion, also possess Minor League Baseball’s best-named manager.