Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

On the Road: RubberDuck Duck Goose in Akron

My previous “On the Road” blog post, focusing on the Kannapolis Intimidators, appeared on July 17. In the ensuing three and a half weeks I visited seven more ballparks and wrote six “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, four editions of “Promo Preview,”  the July edition of Crooked Numbers and Crooked Nuggets, two travel journal blog posts, and a three-part series detailing the planning of a Major League promotion. My next road trip begins on August 22, and much planning remains to be done regarding that 10-ballpark jaunt.

But, before I leave, I will be writing a series of blog posts devoted to the seven ballparks I visited from July 18-24. You are expecting this from me, and what you expect I deliver.

We begin this latest (and therefore greatest) “On the Road” blog series at Akron’s Canal Park, home of the recently re-branded RubberDucks. I arrived at the ballpark at game time on July 18, after an arduous and oft-delayed 10-hour drive from New York City, and one of the first things I saw was a man on stilts.

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The last time I was in Akron, I did not see any men on stilts.

As you may recall, I visited Canal Park in 2011. I enjoyed that visit quite a bit — I spent an inning in a dunk tank, and got pied atop the dugout — but that was a very different era. The team was still called the “Aeros” then, and overseen by owners (Mike and Greg Agganis) who were rarely spotted at the ballpark. Attendance had declined precipitously (barely over half of what it what it had been a decade before), and Canal Park was beginning to show its age.

2014, however, marks the second season under the leadership of new owner Ken Babby. The team has been re-branded, the ballpark has received numerous upgrades, and there is an energy at the ballpark that was palpably lacking in 2011.

The above two paragraphs grossly oversimplify a complex chain of events, but, hey, I’m just a blogger. Grossly oversimplifying complex chains of events is what I’m here to do.

Anyhow, I hope that the guy on stilts had already gotten his standing room only ticket. July 18’s game was sold out.

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In my official Ben’s Biz capacity, I had never arrived to the ballpark after the game had started. I was feeling kind of stressed out and didn’t really know where to begin, but, fortunately, this turned out to be a night in which things came to me. Almost immediately, one of the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) emerged on the concourse and introduced himself.

Hello, Joe Meadows.

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Joe lives in Cleveland, “right across the road” from the Indians’ home of Progressive Field. Nonetheless, he is more likely to attend RubberDucks games simply because he likes the Minor Leagues better. He works for the Progressive Insurance company, and was previously employed by the Cleveland Browns.

Soon afterwards, Designated Eater #2 emerged. This is Adam Ray, who I did not get a chance to photo until we were in this indoor location.

020Adam lives in Kent, Ohio, and is an employee of that city. His interest in the team during the Aeros era was minimal, but Adam is on board with the RubberDucks. In particular, he’s a fan of seeing games from the right field Tiki Terrace. (More on that later).

You’ll notice that, in the above photo, Adam is wearing a RubberDucks t-shirt. Such apparel can be found in abundance in the team store.

009Joe and Adam and I visited the store, along with RubberDucks assistant general manager Scott Riley, as a prelude to the designated eating that would soon commence. I’m just noticing now that the dude in the above photo, standing to the right of Adam, is wearing duck feet.

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Of course, not everyone is on board with the “RubberDucks” moniker. But what can you do? This may as well be the official motto of Minor League Baseball.

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I acquired this shirt for my friend’s three-year-old son. Webster is the “Poochiest” mascot in all of Minor League Baseball, which makes me a fan.

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Meanwhile, on the videoboard, RubberDucks promotions manager Christina Shisler was introducing one of that night’s promotions to the crowd: a “World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose” record attempt. I’m going to assume that that guy on her left is her personal secret service agent.

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In the above photo, below the scoreboard, a much smaller Shisler can be seen standing in the first row of right field seats. To her left is the fan who then began the game of Duck Duck Goose, with a simple, solemn declaration of “Duck.” The game was scheduled to last for the next several innings, slowly winding around the entire seating bowl and ending in the seats located down the left field line.

Duck…duck…duck…duck…duck…and so on, and so forth.

012With the world record attempt underway, Riley took me and my designated eaters on a little tour of the upstairs area. This past offseason, a local artist by the name of Mike Ayers was hired to paint Akron baseball-themed murals at several locations within the ballpark. He did a great job with it.

This painting can be seen at the staircase landing between the first and second levels. (Note that I did not say “betwixt” in the previous sentence. Real people, who use the English language in real life, never use that word.)

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At the top of the stairs, one encounters Ayers’ homage to the “Aeros” era (1997-2013). More like the Eros era, as there is a lot to love about this:

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This picture doesn’t really convey just how big the press box is. It’s beyond gargantuan, and only one adjective lies beyond gargantuan: Brobdingnagian.

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The team installed a new scoreboard prior to the 2013 campaign. That, too, is Brobdingnagian. It is operated by these shadowy figures…

018 who do what they can to bring pie-in-face action to as many people as possible.

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Shortly thereafter, this materialized. Hey, thanks! I’ll wear it with pride.

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New swag in hand, we were then ushered into a first floor conference room. Food and beverage manager Brian Manning was waiting for us amid an array of, yes, food and beverage. Allow him to explain, because he does it better than I could and I ain’t ’bout to transcribe.

Adam began with the Johnny Manziel Dog, while Joe had the TeriyAKRON pineapple Bowl.

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Adam!023

Joe!

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Adam and Joe!

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Unfortunately, my notes regarding Joe and Adam’s opinion of these items are largely indecipherable.

“Fine line between spicy and hot didn’t eat sine,” is what it says next to Adam’s name. “Good like the pineapple adds mix of goodness” is what it says next to Joe’s. The bottom line is that both guys liked both items, but both chose the Manziel Dog as the superior option.

I was off of my note-taking game, but the show must go on. Next up was the brand-new “Return of the King” burger, which was created in honor of my return to Canal Park (or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

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Maybe Brian Manning has a better explanation:

030Adam said that this burger made him “nervous,” but that it turned out to be good. Joe praised the Boursin cheese, saying that it blended well with the other flavors of the burger. No one really laughed when I said that the flavor of this burger, like LeBron, should ” lack Heat.”

There was also a sampling of this beer shake, with Adam comparing its texture to that of a root beer float.

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Joe then went ahead and spilled a Daisy Duck soda float all over his shorts, changing his name to Molly Ringwald immediately thereafter.

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Stained shorts or not, the designated eating experience garnered rave reviews.

“It was fantastic,” said Adam. “I got to go out of my comfort zone and I’m glad I did because there was some really good stuff that I don’t think I would have tried before. But I’ll definitely get it again.”

“At the end of the day, I’m refreshingly full and ready for baseball.” added Joe.

Thanks, guys. Your work here is done.

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But I had miles to go before I sleep. Riley and I took a little jaunt down the third base side of the stadium, where some 1800 seats had been removed in favor of the “Fowl Territory” picnic patio.

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Note the giant team banner plastered on to the side of the building on the right. This building used to be the prestigious Mayflower Hotel, where a veritable who’s who of early to mid-20th century celebrities once stayed. (Including — you guessed it — Frank Stallone.)
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In this photo, a giant turkey is walking off of the field. He had just lost a race against Coffee and Donut.

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Walking from Fowl Territory back toward home plate, we encountered Caitlyn the intern (her last name is not “the intern.” I just don’t know what her last name is).  She is wearing an orange shirt.

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Caitlyn had the unenviable task of going from section to section, explaining that the World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose was in progress and that now it was their turn to play. It was difficult for her to be heard over the near-constant din of the sound system, but she was indomitable in her quest to convey this information in a succint and cheerful manner. Being an intern is hard work, and no one even bothers to learn your last name.

I wasn’t yet able to participate in the game, however, for it was my job to be the goose. Being a diva at heart, I demanded assistance in getting into the goose costume.

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I’ll refrain from posting more pictures of the goose dressing process, as I don’t want to destroy the illusions of children who are still under the impression that that was an actual goose on the field.

060Because of course it was an actual goose on the field.

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Webster and the Goose didn’t come to the game. The game came to them.

History made, or at least attempted to be made, I morphed back into blogger form and encountered this top secret situation.

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That’s the take from the evening’s 50-50 raffle, with $789 going to the winner and — you guessed it — $789 going toward charity. I then followed the money with general manager Jim Pfander, dropping off the winning $789 at guest services and then making a pit stop at the world’s largest press box so that he could pick up the cash to be used for a post-game “Dash for Cash” promotion. (More on that later.)

See, it really is the world’s largest press box.

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And speaking of money….In this undisclosed ballpark location, the RubberDucks  have an RBG-300 “Intelligent Cash Recycler.”

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Pfander was very enthusiastic about this addition to the front office, which was acquired at the suggestion of team bookkeeper Leslie Wenzlawsh. Each evening the money collected at the ballpark is deposited into this machine, and the money is immediately credited to the team’s bank account. Then, the next morning, a Brinks truck collects the money and takes it to the bank.  Do other teams do this? If not, Pfander predicted that, after seeing this blog post, they’d strongly consider it.

Meanwhile, I was strongly considering the purchase of a RubberDucks wine glass.

084These are the sort of things available for sale in the suite-level team “store.” How the other half lives:

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Back among the hoi polloi, the aromas of Eddie’s Cheesesteaks was alluring.

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But at this late juncture of the evening, fans had dessert on their minds. At the Sock Hop, fans can obtain “Duck Floats” and then spill them all over their shorts. Ruggles ice cream is served here. Ohioans love Ruggles, I was told.

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And, look — the team store has a personalized t-shirt “to-go” window.

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Here’s the right field Tiki Terrace, frequented by Adam Ray of designated eating fame (on the left). The Tiki Terrace is a new addition to Canal Park.

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The bar is plastered with the baseball cards of former Akron players. Obviously, this picture was taken a long time ago.

096These seats in the Tiki Terrace, located where bleachers used to be, can be had for just $5. But not for long.

“It takes you a year to really figure out what you have, and then you can price accordingly,” said Pfander.

Accordingly, these seats will cost more in 2015.

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The seats themselves swivel 360 degrees. That might not be apparent from this photo, but, trust me, they do. I would never lie to you.

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Beyond the Tiki Terrace sits “The Game Bar and Grill,” which also has an entrance on the outside of the stadium and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a year-round basis.

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And above “The Game” sits the Duck Club, “Akron’s newest private event space.”  This is the view of these establishments from outside of the stadium.

109In Da (Duck) Club:

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Mike Ayers, artist:

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The Game Bar and Grill’s kitchen is located on the second level, alongside the Duck Club.

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The food is sent down to the lower level via a dumbwaiter…

114…because only a dumb waiter would take the stairs.

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A brief stop in Pfander’s office yielded this photo, which includes all of the giveaways from this season’s “Rock n’ Bobblehead” series.

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But the night was not over yet.

Now, it was time to head back onto the field for the Cash Dash post-game promo. $1000 in singles was dumped upon the field, as well as one $50 bill. Then, 30 fans ran to the outfield in order to retrieve as much of it as they could.

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It was nice out there.

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This transitioned into a “Dave Matthews Band” fireworks display. (Personally, I’m not a fan. I would have preferred a Dave Matthews Banned fireworks display, in which his music wasn’t allowed.)

131However, there was some sort of delay related to the fireworks. So, to kill the time, fans were entertained by the “LeBron Powder Cam.”

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The best thing about the Powder Cam was that it didn’t really work all that well. Fans would appear on the screen and clap their hands, and then a “poof” of powder would emerge. However, there was often a delay of several seconds between the fans clapping and the powder graphic appearing, leading to awkward moments of expectation.

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Whatever snafu that had been delaying the fireworks was soon straightened out, and pyrotechnics lit up the night sky. This photo is awful.

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But it wasn’t time to go home because it’s never time to go home. Hey, kids, run the bases! I mean sure, why not? (But not just any kids could run the bases, these were group outing raffle winners.)

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And, that, finally, is all that she wrote from Akron. Or all that he wrote, I guess. He being me. At the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. It’s hard work being a goose.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins on August 22. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk means that a designated eater is still needed). If you’re one of the teams on the itinerary, feel free to get in touch. I am having trouble finding the time to coordinate all of the details, but the show will go on.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Planning the “Promo of the Year” — Part Three

In this, the third of a three part series, Lake County Captains assistant general manager Neil Stein offers a behind-the-scenes look at all that went in to planning August 1’s Cleveland Sports History Night and Major League movie tribute.

Part one is HERE.

Part two is HERE.

Part three, detailing the night of the promotion in question will commence as soon as you transition from this sentence to the next one.

The “Calm” Before the Storm – Planning the Promo of the Year (Part Three)

Jobu lines at gate

We want Jobu!

Friday, August 1

The day we’ve all be waiting for has finally arrived. My day begins with a 7:12 a.m. text message from our groundskeeper, Dan Stricko, telling me that the golf cart was there but that  it was too tall for the garage. He also informed me that the first person in line for the Jobu bobblehead arrived at 4:30 a.m.

At 8:30 I went to Bruce Custom Graphics and picked up a banner for our gate with the text “Welcome to Classic Park. One giveaway per person, not per ticket. No stadium exit until all giveaways are distributed.” I also picked up the 6’6” Skipper cutout with removable jersey. The cutout is reminiscent of the Indians owner from Major League, Rachel Phelps, and the cutout Indians Manager Lou Brown gets for the team. He tells the team that there are 32 pieces on the cutout, and he’ll remove one piece of her clothing for each win they get for the remainder of the season.

Skipper cutout

When I got into work I spoke with Dan Stricko about the golf cart, to see what we might be able to do as a backup plan. We thought about our options: removing the roof, backing it into the players entrance tunnel, leaving it in the corner of the bullpen and, finally, parking it behind the centerfield gate and driving it out from there. (The final option was the one we ended up deciding on.) I also spoke to Dan about the Brandon Weeden promotion we were planning, where we’d have someone in a Weeden jersey get stuck under the oversized American flag in centerfield just like Brandon Weeden did in his NFL debut for the Browns.

I then wrote up a summary of how the Skipper cutout promotion would work. It would cost $10 for a piece of his jersey; each purchase included an oversized Topps Jobu trading card and another prize. Other prizes included tickets to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, Ricky Vaughn Topps Cards, and Singing Skipper bobbleheads from 2013 which played part of the song “Burn On” from Randy Newman (the song played at the beginning of Major League).

Next I spoke with promotions manager Drew LaFollete about the in-game promotions and the prizes we’d be awarding. We had Ricky Vaughn bobbleheads (thank you Cleveland Indians) for the five fans who got the Red Tag under their seat, full packs of Topps Major League trading cards for in-game promotion winners, Bubba Q’s barbecue sauce for any RBI, and Bubba Q’s gift cards for home runs hit by a Captains player.

I returned to my desk to take care of a few last minute details. These included ticket requests from celebrities, finding graphics for the Bubba Q’s promotion and locating a logo for the Baker Vehicle pitching change promotion.

While doing this I was looking at the Crisco, Vaseline and Vagisil sitting on my desk and had an idea. Could we put all those substances, plus jalapenos, on a tray and offer them to Chelcie Ross when he threw out his first pitch? I found a serving tray and put together a platter of substances from which he could choose for his pitch.

By now, Billy Herron, a college student who has helped us a few times this year, showed up to assist with our celebrities and VIP event. I explained everything to him so that he’d be up to speed as he was helping get the celebrities into the ballpark and to the VIP tables.

It was now 4:45 p.m., so we started moving the bobbleheads out of storage to the gates. I took the boxes that we needed for the VIP event and the rest were to be placed evenly at the gates. We ordered extra giveaways (over and above the 1,500 at the gates) for our season ticket holders who have “guaranteed giveaways” as part of their package. Those boxes were set aside.

At 5 p.m. the gates opened for the 200 people who purchased a Jobu VIP package. I checked them in, as several members of our ownership group helped pass out the bobbleheads. After I got through the initial rush of fans, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be as many boxes at the gates as I was used to seeing. I asked an intern to watch the table for me while I checked storage. Sure enough I found 30 more boxes of bobbleheads that had not made their way to the gates. We only had 10 minutes before gates opened for season ticket holders so I made a plea over our radios for anyone available to get the boxes to the gates. In two minutes the task was done, but it was a panic attack nonetheless.

At 5:45 p.m. season ticket holders began entering and cleared out in about 10 minutes. A couple of last minute stragglers came through in the final five minutes before the gates opened to the public.

At 6 p.m. I wrapped up the VIP early entry and prepared to open gates to the public. The playing of “Burn On” by Randy Newman signaled the opening of the gates. A mere 15 minutes later, the 1500 bobbleheads were gone. In somewhat of a surprise, we didn’t have any issues at the gates with people trying to get more than one bobblehead. An always stressful moment during giveaway nights is when we’re down to the final box. One fan is ultimately going to be number 1,500 and get the giveaway, and the next person will be number 1,501 and kick themselves for not getting in line two minutes sooner. Stadium operations manager Josh Porter drew the short straw and had the final box of bobbleheads. Down to three bobbleheads, he literally held them over his head as fans were pouring in and the next three people who got to him went home with the final Jobu bobbleheads of the night.

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Two months earlier, when the national media first picked up on the Jobu giveaway, we knew the demand for Jobu was going to be at an all-time high. Fans were traveling to our ballpark from 23 states and Canada, so we came up with a plan for fans who really wanted a bobblehead but weren’t one of the first 1,500 through the gates. We put together a Jobu seven-game ticket package that would be good for any August game or April 2015 game. The plan was priced the same as our normal seven-game plan — $60 each — and fans who bought a package would get a free Jobu bobblehead at a later date. We planned on placing a re-order for these fans the following week. We had 3,000 postcards printed describing this offer and handed them out once the bobbleheads were gone. Fans wanting this package had to purchase them that night and our ticket department processed the orders on the spot. At the end of the night we had sold nearly 200 packages!

When the gates opened it also marked the start of our game-worn jersey auction and the first half of our celebrity autograph session. The Captains wore replica road jerseys of the 1989 Cleveland Indians – the year Major League was released. A bonus item included in the auction was an autographed Pete Vuckovich baseball. Baseball fans remember Vuckovich as the 1982 American League Cy Young winner with the Milwaukee Brewers but Major League fans know him as Yankees slugger Clu Haywood from the movie. Vuckovich is currently a special assistant in the Seattle Mariners organization and they were gracious enough to have him sign a baseball to include in our auction. Not only did he autograph the baseball, he also included the inscription “Clu Haywood,” which made it even better.

At 6:40 PM the first autograph session ended and our Cleveland sports celebrities were escorted to the field for their First Pitches.

CLE Celebrities

Celebrities included Arthur Chu (Jeopardy! Champion), Hector Marinaro (all-time leading scorer in Indoor Soccer History and former member of Cleveland Crunch and Force), Jock Callander (all-time leading scorer in IHL history), Jessica “Evil” Eye and Stipe Miocic (current top-10 ranked UFC fighters from NE Ohio), Al “Bubba” Baker (former Cleveland Brown), Jim Chones and Austin Carr (all-time great Cleveland Cavaliers) and finally Chelcie Ross, aka Eddie Harris. Ross got the biggest ovation and a huge laugh from the crowd when we presented him with the tray of Vagisil, Crisco, Vaseline and jalapenos to choose from before throwing his pitch. For those wondering, Ross went to the Crisco first followed up by a little Vaseline.

Chelcie Ross substances

After the first pitches the celebrities got to eat and relax in a suite before returning at 7:15 for the second autograph session. Autographs wrapped up at 8; some of the celebrities headed home for the night while others went back up to the suite to watch the game.

On-field host Andrew Grover and promotions manager Drew LaFollette handled the in-game promotions, along with our interns. Promotions included a rubber chicken launch, with the contestant catching the chickens in a deep fryer basket. In Major League Pedro Cerrano wants to sacrifice a live chicken before a game, but the team brings him a bucket of fried chicken instead. Working with our sponsor, Mr. Chicken, we passed out 20 boxes of chicken from Mr. Chicken and each box contained a certificate good for a free 15-piece dinner. The next promotion was called Vision Chart, as one contestant had to read letters on the video board just like Ricky Vaughn did in Manager Lou Brown’s office before determining he needed glasses. This was followed up by the Willie Mays Hays race. Then, my favorite: Guess the Substance. We blindfolded two contestants and had them feel what was in a bowl in front of them and guess the substance. The substances included Vagisil, Vaseline, Crisco and jalapenos in honor of Eddie Harris. Our final in-game promotion of the night was an Austin Carr impression, where fans tried to do their best impersonation of the current Cavs TV announcer. His signature calls include “Wham with the right hand!” and “Get that weak stuff outta here!”

The dust finally settled around 11 PM; the game was over and the Captains had won by a score of 8-1. Starting pitcher Mitch Brown, who played the role of Rick Vaughn in the Captains Major League spinoff videos, pitched five scoreless innings. Nellie Rodriguez, playing the role of Pedro Cerrano, went 2-for-3 with a double, home run and three RBIs.

Nellie "Pedro Cerrano" Rodriguez (left) and a "Wild Thing"-inspired fan

Nellie “Pedro Cerrano” Rodriguez (left) and a “Wild Thing”-inspired fan

The 9,069 fans who attended the game (one of the top five crowds in Classic Park history) and every person involved in the planning of the night —  from full and part-time staff to the Eastlake police and maintenance departments to our celebrity guests — contributed to making it an overwhelming success. The Captains’ “Cleveland Sports History Night and Major League 25th Anniversary featuring the Jobu bobblehead” was a grand slam for the organization and the highlight of my 15 seasons in Minor League Baseball.

Thanks to Neil Stein for taking the time to write this, and thanks to you for taking the time to read it. “On the Road” content resumes tomorrow. My next road trip begins on August 22 in Batavia. See you there? 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Planning the Promo of the Year — Part Two

The Lake County Captains staged a mammoth promotion on August 1, combining their annual “Cleveland Sports History” celebration  with a wide-ranging 25th anniversary tribute to the movie Major League.  The evening’s much-coveted giveaway was a Jobu bobblehead, with actor Chelcie Ross – who played junk-baller Eddie Harris in the film – throwing out a first pitch. Between-innings games and contests referenced Major League in a variety of ways, as a small army of Cleveland sports celebrities signed autographs on the concourse.

In order to shed light on the Minor League Baseball promotional planning process, Captains assistant general manager Neil Stein has written a series of journal entries detailing the work done by he and his staff in the week leading to August 1’s promotion. These journal entries are running in three segments. 

Part one can be found HERE, in the latest edition of my Farm’s Almanac column. Part two can be found below. Part three will run on Monday, here on the blog. 

The “Calm” Before the Storm – Planning the Promo of the Year (Part Two)

Skipper Cutout2Tuesday, July 29

Day off! Yes, a day off during the season. Nonetheless, some work still needed to be done. I got two phone calls at home about our pre-game VIP Meet-and-Greet package, including one person looking to purchase 15 packages. I took time in the afternoon to check my e-mail and respond to several people about the night, including a celebrity who was e-mailing me to potentially cancel his appearance.

That night I needed to run to Walgreens to return a Redbox movie so I thought I’d cross a few items off my list for the Major League promotion while I was there. What items did I need? Nothing out of the ordinary, just a tube of Vagisil, Vaseline and Crisco. In the movie there’s a well-known scene in which Eddie Harris (played by Chelcie Ross, who was coming to our game) and Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) are talking in the locker room after practice. Sheen looks at Harris, who is shirtless, and notices some substances on his chest. Vaughn asks what’s on his chest and Harris responds with “Crisco, Bardol, Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curveball.” With Eddie Harris himself coming to the game, we knew we had to incorporate this classic scene into the promotion. Hence, the need to purchase Vagisil and Crisco. Later in the movie there’s a reference to a “Vaseline ball” by the Indians’ radio announcer, played by Bob Uecker, so that’s the significance of the Vaseline. After picking up the items, I checked out, got an interesting look and comment from the woman at the cash register about purchasing Vagisil, and called it a night.

Wednesday, July 30

When I arrived at the ballpark and opened my office door I was greeted by Jobu himself, sitting proudly on the corner of my desk! The biggest stress item and question of the week — “Will the bobbleheads arrive in time?” — could now be crossed off of the list. Thank you Alexander Global for getting Jobu to us on time!

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I was then greeted by the Captains beat writer from The News-Herald, David Glasier. David was planning a story on the night and wanted to see Jobu. The News-Herald has been a long-time partner of the Captains and was the co-sponsor of Jobu along with our presenting sponsor Sysco. David and I staged a photo shoot in the office with Jobu and some other bobbleheads. I filled David in on some of the details for Friday, including the golf cart to bring our pitchers in from the bullpen and our plan for first baseman Nellie Rodriguez to play the role of Pedro Cerrano by using “hats for bats.” We also discussed one of our celebrities potentially backing out and brainstormed some potential last-minute replacements.

Then I walked through the concourse with stadium operations manager Josh Porter, so that we could finalize the placement of tables for autographs, sponsors, and the game-worn jersey auction. Josh has been helping with the logistics of the event, including police officers and crowd control for the night. Josh also put together Major League-inspired videos, with our Captains players assuming the roles of players in the movie.

During the afternoon it was time to pick up the phone and confirm more details. This included talking to the Browns to coordinate pickup of The Barge trophy, talking with Campy Russell to confirm Cavs guests, and, finally, at 6 PM, speaking with the representative for Stipe Miocic and Jessica “Evil” Eye (UFC fighters) to confirm t-shirt sales during the game.

That night, while lying in bed, I had a bunch of random thoughts go through my head about the night. This  included the possibility of closing the 1st base gate in favor of giving away all of the bobbleheads at the main gate. Also, what happened to the balls we sent to Corbin Bernsen for autographs?

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The Barge Trophy. It is actually a thing.

Thursday, July 31

It’s Jobu Eve at Classic Park. In the early morning I got an e-mail from one of our celebrity guests, former Browns and Lions defensive lineman Al “Bubba” Baker. He was inquiring about an in-game promotion involving his restaurant (Bubba Q’s), his barbecue sauce and his famous de-boned rib steaks, all of which were featured on the TV show Shark Tank. Previously we suggested giving out something for every Captains RBI (aka “ribby”) during the game. Bubba liked the idea and also wanted to give out a $50 gift card for every Captains home run.

After that I sat down with general manager Brad Seymour and stadium operations manager Josh Porter, to discuss the possibility of giving away all of the bobbleheads at the main gate. We determined that this would be best in terms of crowd control, and it would also make sure that one location didn’t run out before the other. I suggested routing everyone down the stairs and along the sidewalk in four lines, as we were anticipating long lines Friday night. After this Josh and I walked to the main gate to visualize how the lines would work. We made our best guess as to how long the lines might be and to see how we could safely route the fans along the side of the ballpark. Josh called the city of Eastlake to see if we could borrow traffic cones to help with this process.

In the office I checked the status of some final VIP orders to make sure they were fulfilled, so that there wouldn’t be any issues with this on Friday. (We sold out of VIP packages on Tuesday.) I talked to Josh Porter about our VIP event and how to keep season ticket holders out of the autograph area from 5:45 to 6:00 pm, when those two groups would be overlapping inside the stadium. We came up with a stanchion system that would divide the concourse, which be easy to remove at 6:00 pm.

I then went back to my to-do checklist. Items included working out the logistics of driving the golf cart onto the field, graphics for the video board, PA scripts and reads, and responding to e-mails from fans begging to buy Jobu bobbleheads.

Neil Stein at work

Neil Stein at work

During my lunch break I ran to Goodwill, Wal-Mart and Discount Drug Mart to get some props. We needed pajamas for our Willie Mays Hays in-game promotion, which was going to involve swinging a bat, doing 20 push-ups (like Willie Mays Hays every time he hit a popup during the movie), putting on pajamas and racing from home plate to first base (similar to when Hays was removed from the dorm during training camp, woke up late for practice and ran a 60-yard dash in his pajamas). At Wal-Mart I got red paper to make Red Tags to put under seats, signaling fans had won a prize (as opposed to in the movie, when a Red Tag in someone’s locker signified a player getting cut). Finally, I went to Discount Drug Mart to see if I could find a Pilot Flying J gift card at their Gift Card Center. Unfortunately, they didn’t have one. The plan was to allow anyone with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to register for a chance to win a $50 gift card, as retribution for the well-documented issues the company owned by Cleveland Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam, had with trucking companies over the past several years.

Our staff held a meeting at 3 pm, where we discussed all the games of the upcoming six-game homestand. (The first game was tomorrow’s Cleveland Sports History Night and Jobu bobblehead giveaway.) We spent 45 minutes discussing details and logistics for Friday night, so that our staff was aware of how things would run and be able to answer any questions. We also conducted a competition among the staff, guessing the time that the first person would arrive for the giveaway.

My guess: 5:30 PM Thursday night.

Following the staff meeting I left to pick up postcards and ticket vouchers for the ticket package we were going to offer to fans who didn’t get a Jobu bobblehead (more about this later). I was also going to pick up a banner for our main gate and a life-sized Skipper cutout, but they weren’t ready so I made arrangements to pick those up Friday.

Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of Neil Stein’s promotion planning journal! Will Eddie Harris opt for the Vagisil? What time will the first fan get in line for the Jobu bobblehead? Will the Skipper cardboard cutout ever arrive? All will be revealed! 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road — July 31 Update

The last time that I had the chance to update this blog, it was July 22 and I was in a La Quinta lobby in downtown Indianapolis. I am currently back home in New York City, steadily cranking out “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, Promo Preview, and, soon, Crooked Numbers. (Hat tip to Bowling Green Hot Rods announcer Andrew Kappes, who just sent me a detailed recap of a recent 2-3-5-4-1-7 putout at home plate.)

Read now or die trying:

On the Road: Akron RubberDucks (the Return of the King and Duck Duck Goose) 

On the Road: West Virginia Power (the Toastman)

On the Road: Columbus Clippers (team historian Joe Santry)

On the Road: Indianapolis Indians and the most popular team Twitter account in the Minors.

On the Road: Louisville Bats and the Art of Keeping Score

But for right now, I’m here to answer the question that no one’s asking: What did you do after leaving the La Quinta on the early afternoon of July 22? Why, I’m glad you didn’t ask! Here’s the answer:

July 22: I drove from Indianapolis to Louisville’s sprawling Galt House Hotel, where I stayed during last September’s Minor League Baseball promo seminar.

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September 2013 file photo

I was in Louisville to attend a Bats game, of course, and the Bats’ home of Louisville Slugger Field is quite close to the hotel. However, while walking to the ballpark in a distracted state (my de facto road trip existence) , I shot right past W. Main Street (where it is located) and walked north about 25 minutes in the wrong direction. These are just the sort of things I seem to do on these road trips.

If you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt House Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School, then something has gone wrong.

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And, jeez, it was so hot outside — just about the hottest that I have ever been while on one of these trips. I took a walking selfie in an attempt to convey the extent of the heat-related misery.

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I arrived at Louisville Slugger Field much later than intended (a running theme on this trip), but no harm, no foul. Awareness of and interest in my visit was minimal within the Bats front office, and this gave me time to just take a minute and get my bearings. I ended up having a good night for what it was, and, of course, you’ll read all about it here soon enough. Or at least I hope you will.

July 23: I do enjoy staying at the Galt House Hotel. This was the view the next morning from the 21st floor.

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IMG_0077The next day in Louisville was hectic, and I’ll write about it in a separate blog post. But, long story short, I visited both the Louisville Slugger Museum and Skillville Group HQ (home of the Zooperstars! and crew).

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Posing in the bat vault with what I believe was a Chuck Klein model

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I wish I had had time to visit Dan Simon (of logo-designing Studio Simon fame) in Louisville as well. Between him and Louisville Slugger and Skillville and punk-metal atavist Stevo (he’ll appear in a story in the near future), I’ve got a lot of contacts there.

But, yikes, all of this cavorting once again put me in a time crunch. From Louisville it was on to Lexington. Lexington is home of the Legends.

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All will soon be revealed regarding my evening with the Legends. I stayed at the Ramada Inn that night, which kinda seemed stuck in a mid-late ’70s time vortex. The vending machines didn’t have a slot for dollar bills, and the likes of Seals and Crofts were playing in the lobby the next morning.

But, as for that vending machine, I did grip some Grippo’s. As you’ll notice, Grippo is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s….on and on until infinity, except there is no such thing as “until” infinity. Only “toward.”

IMG_0084July 24 — After the requisite frantic late morning/early afternoon writing session in the hotel lobby, it was on to Dayton. But first, I stopped for lunch at a Lexington BBQ spot called “Willie’s Locally Known.” This was on the recommendation of West Virginia Power broadcaster Adam Marco, who has been known to blog about such things.

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As you probably know, I have celiac disease and must maintain a gluten-free diet. Therefore, ordering a sandwich was off limits. But the burnt ends — succulent cubes of brisket — they seemed like it would be gluten free (Yes, seemed. I did not have the heart to verify whether or not they were gluten-free, because I really wanted to eat them. It’s hard out there for a celiac, and I try to maintain my self-discipline, but sometimes I error on the side of incaution when it comes to potential gluten in sauces and seasonings and what not.)

Anyway, just look at these things. The best ones were those that had some fat on them, which had the buttery almost bone marrow-like consistency.

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I patronized Willie’s during an early weekday afternoon, and it was empty and quiet. But I got the sense that good things are happening there, as friendly people and good food and live music makes for a great combination. Plus, it was recommended by Adam Marco. One must follow Adam Marco’s recommendations.

After lunch I stopped at a funky shopping center on Leesman Road, in order to make a cameo at Pop’s Re-Sale.

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Pops Resale is a ramshackle palace of used records, old video game systems, DVDs, VHS, vintage clothing, stereo equipment and all sorts of odds and ends. It is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

005 I considered buying this, so that Grippo could ride it on his journey toward infinity.

IMG_0085I did actually buy this, as it fits my drinking philosophy.

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Whipped Cream, Other Delights.

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If you’re in Lexington, I’d definitely recommend checking out this stretch of stores on Leesman Road. I had actually been here in 2004, during my pre-MiLB existence, and bought an awesome dark green work jacket at the Goodwill seen in the below photo. I wish I had had the time to visit there again, as well as Wild Fig. Next time.

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But, per usual, I was running late. Dayton awaited! Dayton is the home of the Dragons.

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That’s the view from a privately-run downtown lot, where I paid $5 to park my rental car. The Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field is located just beyond and to the right of that warehouse.  (Dayton’s Fifth Third is one of three Fifth Third ballparks in Minor League Baseball. Three Fifth Thirds equal five, for those keeping score at home.)

I spent a total of four hours in Dayton, as immediately after the game ended I drove to Pittsburgh. There were reasons for this. One, I wanted to break up the drive to New York City as opposed to doing it from Dayton in a straight shot, and, two, I always enjoy visiting Pittsburgh. I went to Pitt and, therefore, lived in Pittsburgh from 1997-2002 (in 2001-02 I did a stint in AmeriCorps). Pittsburgh is a great city.

July 25 —  One of Pittsburgh’s best eateries is Dee’s Six Pack and Dogs in Regent Square. Down that hallway lurks a massive walk-in beer cooler, which I occasionally used to visit in my gluten-free days.

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I appreciate that Dee’s is now friendly to the gluten free. This hot dog (topped with Sriracha slaw and sweet potato fries) came wrapped in two corn tortillas. I found this to be better than gluten-free buns, which, like a house of cards, fall apart upon contact.

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Oh, and I visited record stores. Back in my college days, this fine establishment was called Paul’s CDs. One year I was music director at WPTS 92.1, Pitt’s college station, and in that role I was able to spend $35 a week on music to add to rotation. That was awesome.

The eponymous Paul sold the store a few years back, and it is now owned by Karl Hendricks (of the Karl Hendricks Trio) and called Sound Cat. It’s in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, and I suggest that you go there. I picked up some Michael Hurley and some Nilsson.

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From there it was on Mind Cure in Polish Hill, which opened well after I left Pittsburgh for the less-green pastures of NYC. Seen entering the store is one Mike Rensland, a guy who wore a sleeveless death metal t-shirt to his own wedding reception.

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IMG_0096At Mind Cure I picked up a used Ultrabunny LP as well as a Folkways label curiosity: a dramatization of  the 1855 Murder Trial of William Palmer, Surgeon. Let me know if you want to come over, have a couple drinks, and listen to it.

I wasn’t in town Saturday night, unfortunately, but if you live in Pittsburgh you know that this show has essentially been taking place three times a year for the past 15 years.

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Finally, we have the king of all record stores: Jerry’s. This place is a national treasure. Go there immediately.

IMG_0106 This ground-floor dollar bin alcove is bigger than most proper record stores.

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But upstairs, that’s where the magic happens. Pictures don’t do it justice. There are multiple rooms beyond the main room (include “Whistlin’ Willies” 78 Shop), and those boxes stacked in the back are all 45s.

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That dude on the right in the blue shirt (in conversation with much loved/much hated concert promoter Manny Theiner) is Mike Prosser. Prosser knows more about music, books, and movies than anyone I know. Guys like Prosser tend to live in cities like Pittsburgh.

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I bought a small selection of primo used LPs from Jerry’s, but even cooler is that I finally took home this 100-year-old Victor Talking Machine that I bought there three years ago (I didn’t have a car on that visit, and ended up storing it at a friend’s house). Check it out, this thing is now in my living room!

Anyhow, “On the Road” blog posts — one from each stop on the road trip detailed above and in the previous post — will resume in early August. In the meantime, here’s the itinerary for my fourth and final trip of the season. As always, get in touch with any and all article/cultural suggestions. An asterisk next to the team name means that a designated eater is still needed at that particular location.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road Again — July 22 Update

Hello from the main lobby of a La Quinta hotel in downtown Indianapolis. I am in the midst of my latest and therefore greatest road trip, and have somehow already visited four ballparks (with three to go). Each trip takes its own tone, and this one has been particularly manic.

The tone was set on Friday, when I drove from New York City to Akron in order to see the RubberDucks game that evening. Most of the drive was on interstate 80, and this road is kind of a mess to drive on — congested, narrow and, during some stretches, there are more trucks than cars. I got pulled over for speeding almost immediately, but the New Jersey state trooper who did so let me off with a warning and I was most appreciative. I wasn’t so fortunate later in the trip, when, somewhere in the Pennsylvania Wilds, traffic came to a total standstill for over an hour.

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I ended up talking to a trucker for a while as we sat on the guardrail, and he said that there was a motorcycle fatality at mile marker 139 (we were at 144). He seemed like a nice guy, but I guess when you’re on the road for a living gallows humor becomes the norm.

“The only reason they’d close both lanes is because somebody got squished,” he said. “The coroner’s gonna do what he needs to do and then they’ll let us go.”

So, yeah, getting to a Minor League Baseball game on time suddenly didn’t seem so important. The seven-hour drive ended up taking 10, and I arrived in Akron as the game was starting. Late arrival or not, I still got a sneak preview of the “Return of the King” burger (read about it HERE) and then suited up as the Goose in a Duck Duck Goose world record attempt.

The next day I had very little time to explore Akron, but I did what I always try to do: I visited a record store.

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Square Records was a quality establishment, good mix between new and used offerings and plenty of under-the-radar stuff to peruse. I ended up getting the Heavy Blanket/Earthless live record as well as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid/M.A.A.d. City” on vinyl. I had only had that on iTunes previously, but it is a stone-cold classic and very respectful of the album format. Therefore, I wanted to have it as an album, something to put on late at night in the living room.

As you can see from the above photo, Square Records is next to a movie theater. And not only were they showing “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but a real-life sports drama as well. “Welcome Home, LeBron,” in other words.

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This was a cool neighborhood, wherever I was. Surely, this dive bar would be a great place to catch a show.

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From there, I filled up the satanic gas tank and moved on to Charleston, West Virginia.

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Downtown Charleston was largely deserted on Sunday, but I enjoyed the atmosphere.

002Capitol Street was the place to be, it seemed.

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On Capitol Street, I visited Taylor Books. This establishment had a coffee shop on the premises and a great selection of books and magazines. Long may it live.

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Following standard operating road trip procedure, I picked up a couple of zines while at Taylor. One was a public transit diary, the other a history of Iran-Contra. If you’re lucky enough to have a book or record store that sells zines in the area where you live, then please buy them.

West Virginia complete, it was then back to the Buckeye State.

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I wish I had something to share from my time in Columbus, as regards the city itself, but I was under the weather on Sunday and well into the next day. It was really touch and go there for a while. But I’ll persevere, all the way up until the time when I don’t. Gotta keep moving.

I’m in Indy now, as mentioned, and will soon be in Louisville (Tuesday, as in TONIGHT) —  Lexington (Wednesday) and Dayton (Thursday) will follow. Oh, and over the last two nights I cobbled a new edition of Promo Preview together, you can read that HERE. (And then tell your friends to do the same.)

I’ll update this post with more if and when time allows. In the meantime, please know that Mick Foley is now a close and personal friend of mine. This photo was taken at Saturday’s West Virginia Power game, which was a great day for Mankind.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Keeping It Simple In Kannapolis

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Kannapolis. 

The Kannapolis Intimidators play 25 miles northeast of Charlotte, a major metropolitan area that is expanding to the point to where it may just swallow Kannapolis whole. But despite the proximity of Kannapolis to Charlotte, the Minor League Baseball atmosphere to be found in the two cities could not be any more different.

The Charlotte Knights — Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox — play in a beautiful new uptown stadium featuring the bells and whistles one would expect from a top-level Minor League team playing in a top-level Minor League market. (Click HERE for my blog entry on the Knights.) The Kannapolis Intimidators — Class A affiliate of those same Chicago White Sox — are something else entirely. CMC-Northeast Stadium is a wonderful place to take in a game, charmingly intimate and comparatively quiet. You can hear yourself think here. And while the crowds might be relatively small (especially on the rainy Tuesday evening in which I attended), there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and quirkiness that makes it a quintessential Minor League experience.

Simply put, I enjoyed seeing a game in Kannapolis more than I’ve enjoyed seeing a game in any other stadium during this, the 2014 season.

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Unlike many Minor League parks, CMC Northeast Stadium is not located on a street which reflects the presence of a ballpark. No “Curveball Court” or “Home Run Avenue” or “Defensive Indifference Boulevard” to be found here. Rather,  the 20-year-old facility resides on Moose Road. Once I turned onto Moose Road, I became convinced that I had entered the wrong address into my GPS. It was a most unassuming road, surrounded by trees and devoid of any commercial establishments.

But then — bam — there it was. A huge parking lot, leading to a not-so huge stadium.

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The Intimidators franchise relocated to Kannapolis in 1995 from Spartanburg, South Carolina, beginning life as the Piedmont Phillies. They changed their name to the Boll Weevils the following season (Boll Weevils are an insect possessing an insatiable appetite for cotton, once a major problem in textile towns such as Kannapolis). NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, a Kannapolis native, purchased a share of the team in 2000 and this precipitated a name change to the Kannapolis Intimidators.

Dale Earnhardt was known as “The Intimidator,” of course, but he never got to see the Intimidators play. He was killed in a racing accident in February of 2001, but the Intimidators name still lives on.

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My first view from inside the stadium:

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A penthouse perspective:

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The Intimidators have retired three numbers, only one of which is in honor of a baseball player. #50 is retired throughout the South Atlantic League in honor of John Henry Moss, who served as league president for 50 years. #42 is retired throughout the entirety of professional baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. And #3 is, or course, Dale Earnhardt.

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One can obtain booze under a canopy.

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The food options are pretty basic, but we’ll get to that later.

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At this juncture of the evening it was probably a pretty good idea to be standing under a nearby canopy. For, once again, I was witness to a pre-game rain delay. (In fact, the only game I saw on this trip that wasn’t affected in any way by rain was the Rome Braves.)

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This certainly wasn’t the first time that the Intimidators front office pulled tarp this season. So, you want to work in Minor League Baseball?

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During the rain delay I hung out in the press box with Intimidators broadcaster Josh Feldman and PA announcer Sean Fox. In Fox’s bio on the team website, it says “Sean has been the primary PA Announcer for Intimidators games since 2010. He wanted to be listed on the website. It was either this, or he’d have fans boo the website the same way he encourages you to boo BINGO numbers on Tuesday nights.”

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It was indeed “BINGO Night” on the night I attended, and booing is indeed a tradition. We’ll get to that later. But first, here’s an exclusive look at Sean’s go-to sound effects. Baseball anthropologists should file this picture away, as it captures the Minor League zeitgeist. 

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And if you’re wondering, the “visitor home run” audio (F8) is Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

I also spent time perusing through the team’s cd collection, which is no longer used. With a few exceptions, the music on this particular mix is just awful.

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With not much else to do, I simply gazed upon the wonder that is the Intimidators’ eternal press box. These windows go on forever, each one depicting a small glance into an increasingly out of focus alternate Minor League Baseball reality.

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Sean utilized his time in a more productive way. Namely, by initiating an impromptu rain delay BINGO game. The prize was a baseball autographed by the 2012 Charleston RiverDogs, which Feldman happened to have sitting on a nearby shelf.

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And here’s Mr. Josh Feldman, the Intimidators announcer. Feldman’s path to his profession is an odd one. After being cut from the USC volleyball team he began calling the team’s games, mostly out of frustration with the fact that no one else seemed to know anything about volleyball. This led to an interest in broadcasting, which led to a stint with an Indy League team which led to his current gig with the Intimidators. You should listen to the dude, he’s erudite.

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The rain, like bull riding or sumo wrestling, was intense but brief. While waiting for the game to begin, I did a little wandering.

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But my wanderings were cut short, as Feldman tracked me down and said that since I was a ceremonial first pitch throwing professional I should throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

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It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to strap on my recently-acquired GoPro camera.

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I threw a strike. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And while I neglected to take a picture, the Intimidators give all ceremonial first pitch throwers a team-signed baseball. I gave mine away, but how cool is that? I’d never seen such a thing before.

With the game underway, I spent an inning or two with Debby and Marshall Smith. They are members of the Intimidators Booster Club, and very passionate when it comes to supporting the players (who are mostly in their early 20s and in some cases away from home for the first time).

065My feature on the Smiths and their work with the Intimidators Booster Club can be found HERE.

The Smiths sit in second-row seats located down the third base line, but those seeking more rustic accommodations can certainly find them.

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Walking on the concourse, toward home plate, I stopped and chatted briefly with a couple named Heather and Mike. Mike started following me on Twitter on the spot, which Heather said is an honor because he hardly follows anyone on Twitter. I said that I’d give them a shout-out on the blog, so here you go: Hello, Heather. Hello, Mike.

And hello, Paul Buchanan!

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At the ballpark, very few people know this gentleman as Paul Buchanan. He is the “Uh-Huh Guy,” and he is a real character. I wrote a feature on him, which I’d ask that you take the time to read. If not, here’s an introductory excerpt:

The Uh-Huh Guy wears an “Uh-Huh” hat and an “Uh-Huh” T-shirt (both custom made), and punctuates his ear-splitting ballpark cheers and jeers with his signature phrase of — you guessed it — “Uh-huh!” And throughout the ballgame, it’s not just the Uh-Huh Guy’s voice that travels. He always wears a glove and is always on the move, pacing the concourse in a constant pursuit of foul balls. 

Kannapolis call and response.

After interviewing the Uh-Huh Guy (which,  let me assure you, is no easy task), I was approached by “Raider Rock.”

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Raider Rock wrestles for $5 Wrestling, an organization with the tagline “Wrestling So Bad It’s Good.”  You don’t want to mess with Raider Rock.

Seriously.

Raider Rock could generally be found in close proximity to the Uh-Huh Guy, making for one of the most eccentric ballpark duos I’ve ever seen. I heard him yelling his “Dominate, Terminate and Exterminate” tagline throughout the evening, but to me he said “I’ve heard good things about you, Ben, and if I’ve heard good things you know it’s good.”

Thanks, Raider Rock. Keep doing what you’re doing!

Anyway, time to play some BINGO.

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I even called a few numbers myself, with the help of promotions director Amber Sersen (who has since moved on to a position with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers . A lot can happen in a month). My selections were indeed met with a smattering of boos, but the crowd seemed to go pretty easy on me.

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The balls I grabbed were white. Here’s a look at the board at the end of the half-inning break.

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I really liked BINGO Night, which  suited the quiet Tuesday night atmosphere. As opposed to frenetic blasts of activity every half-inning, this was a fun, low-key contest that kept the fans engaged throughout the game. Kannapolis was the seventh city (and ninth ballpark) I’d visited in the last seven days, so I was feeling a little burned out and grateful for the change of pace.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same…

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That shadowy figure is Matt Campbell, reprising his role as designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). The previous night in Charlotte, Matt l had enjoyed Queen City Cue and a Carolina Dog. Today, he had the Colossal Dog to contend with.

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“It’s a half-pound monster,” said Matt. “The team used to have a stand called Hot Dog Hut, where you could get a wide variety of toppings. But I’d order this again, even if its naked and I have to squeeze the condiments from out of a dispenser.”

Okay! Moving on, we have something a little more unique.

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This is a “Dale’s Mater Sandwich” — tomato, mayo and pepper on white bread. It was a childhood favorite of Dale Earnhardt (hence the name), and, as it turns out, it was a childhood favorite of Matt’s as well.

“I was raised on these,” said Matt. “Like on a Sunday afternoon, you’re with your cousins at the pool and you have a tomato sandwich. This one is pretty good. The tomatoes appear to be relatively fresh.”

And, at $2, this is one of the cheapest sandwich options in Minor League Baseball.

As Matt finished up with his Dale’s Mater, I checked in on Feldman and company in the press box.

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In fact, I even took a little video of Feldman at work. I recorded it in improper vertical fashion, but nonetheless I think this is worth watching. It gives a nice sense of the Kannapolis atmosphere, in which everybody seems to know everybody.

Speaking of everybody knowing everybody — soon after I left the press box I heard a voice behind me. “Hey, Ben.”

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That’s Charlotte Knights general manager Scott Brown. The Knights had played a day game (which I had attended), and Scotty took advantage of his free evening by driving out to Kannapolis.

“I just like to come here, sit down, throw my peanut shells down on the ground, and relax,” he told me. “This is what it’s all about.”

This inspired me. When was the last time that I had actually sat down and watched the game? When had I thrown some peanut shells on the ground?

The time was now.

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South Atlantic League baseball, Tuesday night after a rain delay edition.

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I watched the final two innings with Matt, his father-in-law, and step-daughter. There was some mild ribbing of this guy’s hair.

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And a debate regarding whether anyone could spell this guy’s name correctly on the first attempt.

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The game ended in a frustrating fashion, as an Inimidators rally was snuffed out after an extremely delayed third strike call. It was definitely a deer-in-the-headlights “rookie moment” for the umpire, and helped clinch the first-half division championship (it became official the next day).

To add insult to injury, the tarp was then put on the field as a precaution. Feldman tried to convince me to join in the fun, but I bailed due to a lack of proper tarp-pulling clothing. But, next time, this excuse isn’t going to fly. I have since been informed that the Intimidators have a bin full of so-called “tarp shoes,” ready and waiting for reluctant tarp-pullers such as myself.

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Next time, guys. Next time.

That’ll do it for posts related to my second road trip of the season, but trip number three starts now! Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

(team is recruiting)

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Movin’ On Uptown in Charlotte

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Charlotte. 

Usually, when I go on one of these road trips, there is a “hook” that motivates me to visit the region in question. My first trip of 2014, which took place in late April and early May, brought me to the Southwest (and, later, Texas) because it seemed imperative to visit the El Paso Chihuahuas in this, their inaugural season. 2014’s second trip, which you are reading about now, was motivated by the desire to see the Huntsville Stars’ final season and the Charlotte Knights in their new ballpark.

This post will be devoted to the latter attraction. Welcome to Charlotte.

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The above photo was taken from just outside of the Knights’ new home of BB&T Ballpark (No, I don’t like these generic corporate names either, but money talks. Sometimes I have fantasies about being super-rich and buying ballpark naming rights, which I’d then let the fans christen via an online “Name the Stadium” contest.)

BB&T Ballpark has all the bells and whistles one would expect from a gleaming new downtown (or, in this case, uptown) facility, but its most memorable feature isn’t part of the ballpark. It’s simply the fact that the Knights are once again in Charlotte, surrounded by what is almost certainly the best urban ballpark view in all of Minor League Baseball. After a quarter century in which the Knights competed across the state line (in Fort Mill, South Carolina), they are once again Charlotte’s team.

I walked to BB&T Ballpark from a nearby hotel, and my first view of the facility was this.

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But I did not utilize this left field line entryway. My media pass was to be found closer to home plate, so further on I trekked. Along the way, I took note of these murals depicting Charlotte’s ballpark history.

During my long journey to another entrance, I made note of the fact that the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play just across the way. Surely, this photo will earn me some sort of award.

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And, what do you know? Most of the Carolina Panthers were right there on the field, taking batting practice.

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Some guys were more into it than others.

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Hitting stances varied…

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But the undisputed star of the show was long snapper J.J. Jansen. He handily won the “home run derby” that was taking place (my notes are a little unclear, but the only other guy who I saw hit one was quarterback Joe Webb).

Jansen in action. 024 I don’t know who this is, but my notes say “worst hitter, yellow shirt.” 026 Some views from the playing field. 028 030 Meanwhile, Jensen was reaping the spoils of victory. I felt happy for the guy, as his “day job” is one that gets no recognition whatsoever. The only time people give a second thought to the long snapper is when he messes up,  kind of like driving a pace car or being an umpire. 031 I flirted with the idea of interviewing some Carolina Panthers, but writing an article with the topic of “football players take batting practice” didn’t seem very appealing. Instead, I just soaked in the atmosphere. IMG_1533 By the time I emerged on the concourse, there were already a lot of people roaming the concourse. When it comes to this ballpark, Charlotte fans are definitely still in the honeymoon period. (In fact, the Knights have already established a new attendance record.)034 I’ll write about some of the food offerings a bit later, but for now I’d just like to note that Dave & Frans (a popular Charlotte restaurant) sold pork rinds, boiled peanuts and sweet tea. These are three of my favorite things in the world. 036 Moving on to the outfield — more vantage points! 038 039 041 042 043 046 I had never seen a NEOS Wall at a ballpark before. In fact, I had never seen a NEOS Wall, period. But it was really cool, kind of like a Nintendo Power Pad for a new generation. Video games combined with exercise. 040 But enough about NEOS. Pourin’ it was out there and, like soothing ointment on a flesh wound, the front office was putting the tarp on the field. This marked the fourth time on this trip in which I witnessed a rain delay. The weather, it was just not on my side.

BB&T Ballpark is equipped to handle many things, but it’s not quite equipped to comfortably accommodate a near-capacity crowd on the concourse. I’m not sure if many (or any) ballparks are.

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The hoi polloi were packed in like sardines, but those with access to the upper club level (suite holders and such) had plenty of room to move.

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A brief detour to the press box resulted in an impromptu meeting with Ernesto Hurtado, who produces the Knights’ Spanish language radio broadcasts. I wrote a story about that HERE.

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After a brief rain delay, that evening’s scheduled contest between the Knights and Rochester Red Wings was ready to begin. What a beautiful ballpark atmosphere.

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With the game underway, Knights media relations director Tommy Viola (one of the hardest working men in Minor League Baseball) took me on a little tour of the facility.

 

We started in the outfield.

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On the whole, the Knights have taken a “fresh and local” approach to their concessions. One notable exception is that the team chose Buffalo-based Sahlen’s as the official hot dog provider. Tommy said that the front office taste-tested dozens of varieties, and simply decided that Sahlen’s was the superior product.

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Some fans get their hot dog fix before the game, however, as 88-year-old Green’s Lunch is located across the street from the stadium. This iconic establishment has extended its hours in conjunction with the Knights’ home schedule.

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In perusing Green’s menu, I noticed that they serve “livermush” as one of their breakfast side dishes. I had never heard of livermush, but it’s the scrapple of the south! Pig liver, head parts and cornmeal never looked so good. I would eat it, so long as it’s gluten free, and it just might be!

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There’s no way to properly segue from livermush, so I won’t even bother. Moving on…

This is the “Home Run Porch,” a $10 standing room only area that has proven to be very popular in the early going (especially with the younger, Thirsty Thursday kind of crowd).

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Cornhole

The Home Run Porch is a great place to watch the Charlotte sunset.

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Turning in the other direction, one finds Romare Bearden Park. Named after the celebrated artist, this picturesque public space opened last year.

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One can also see new apartment complexes, such as The Vue.

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While on the Home Run Porch, I spoke for a few minutes with Knights vice-president Dan Rajkowski. He said that buildings such as The Vue are becoming commonplace in uptown Charlotte, and he expect to see another 1500 units built within the next year. The Knights plan to capitalize on their existence within this booming part of town by staging outside sporting events, festivals and concerts. There are also plans to develop a portion of what is now a massive berm seating area, adding a hotel and office buildings.

From the Home Run Porch, we made our way back to the press box. I can’t remember why we went to the press box, but while there I poked my head into the Knights’ control room. It takes a lot of manpower to run the widest scoreboard in Minor League Baseball!

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Tommy and I then made a cameo at the Dugout Suites, a group area that is closer to home plate than the pitcher is.

Homer quickly became a good friend of mine.

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The Dugout Suites offer remarkable access to the dugouts themselves.

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This picture, I just like it.

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I had to leave the Dugout Suites, as an indistinct yet unavoidable destiny awaited.

091In the nightly “Royalty Race,” I was to be the Queen (Charlotte is the Queen city, after all). My opponents were Jerry the Jester and King Meck.

093It can be hard to get into these costumes.

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We had some downtime before the race was to begin, and I wanted to delay my entry into that MRI-like costume for as long as possible. Tommy and I wandered down the hall, so that I could interview veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell. He’s been with the Knights since the 1980s, and my story on him is HERE.

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After wrapping things up with Eddie, I maneuvered my way into the Queen outfit and triumphantly ran to victory. (Is there any other way to run to victory?) However, the photos from this riveting competition are momentarily unavailable. We’ll just have to move on without them. Again, just know that I won.

Next thing I knew, I was staring at a plate of Queen City Cue pulled pork and mac and cheese. Queen City Cue is a Charlotte-based BBQ restaurant, one of several local eateries who have partnered with the Knights. Eric Hassey, general manager of Ovations concessions. told me bringing in the locals was “what we tried to do, and what we’re most proud of.”

100I, too, had brought in a local.

Meet Matt Campbell, the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Matt’s been a loyal reader of this blog for many years, which I greatly appreciate.

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If Matt looks familiar, it’s because he’s been on this blog before (or maybe because you’re married to him). In 2011 he and his family visited me when I was in Winston-Salem to see the Dash.

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2011 file photo

But at this juncture of this particular evening, Matt was solo. He was enthusiastic about the Queen City Cue, saying that it was legit Carolinas-style BBQ and his meal of choice prior to attending Charlotte Checkers games.

“You can watch shows on who has the best BBQ, but we have the best,” he said. “We do it better than anyone in the country.”

(I know that there are a several regional variants within the Carolinas, and if anyone wants to provide their opinions on this matter then leave a comment or get in touch via your preferred forum.)

While Matt was pontificating about BBQ supremacy, Tommy and I ducked into the on-site Fuzzy Peach (frozen yogurt) store. There is an entrance from the street, and this place is open whether the Knights are playing or not.

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No matter what flavor of frozen yogurt you go for, make sure to top it with a Gummi frog.

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Don’t forget, there was a game going on through all of this.

106But I had to check on Matt, who now had a hot dog in his hand.

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Not just any dog, but the Carolina Dog. It was topped with chili and cole slaw.

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Go ahead, Matt.

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Matt, ever the Carolina loyalist, said that the slaw was not a traditional Carolina variety because “it’s not mayo-based at all.”

“But this is good, it’s tasty,” he continued. “I’ve had too many beers to now be eating a hot dog, but even though this is not your typical slaw it has a crisp, fresh flavor.”

And that’s all I’ve got from Matt. Tommy and I continued on to the team store, were one can buy a foam helmet if one so desires. These are popular with the Thirsty Thursday crowd.

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We then stepped outside to check out the commemorative bricks, which are still available for purchase. (For $90 or $150, depending on the size).

“There are so many stories in these bricks,” said Tommy.

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RIP Drungo.118

And who can ever forget this guy?

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Hey, look! The Knights won! I saw about two and a half minutes of the ballgame, at three-to-five second intervals throughout the evening.

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I actually attended the next afternoon’s game as well, and also made a pit stop at the team’s old home of Knights Stadium. But I might not have time to get to that, at least not in the immediate future. Just remind me that I owe you guys and gals (women read this, right?) another post from Charlotte.

Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Reversal of Fortune in Hickory

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read about a distinct “highlight” from Hickory. 

Six of the seven cities I visited on my latest (and therefore greatest) ballpark road trip started with one of the first 11 letters of the alphabet. What are the odds? Coming in fourth alphabetically and fifth chronologically was Hickory, North Carolina.

I think I need to work on my ledes. In the meantime, here’s a picture.

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Hickory is the home of the Crawdads, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox  Texas Rangers. The team plays in city-owned L.P. Frans Stadium, named after a local Pepsi bottler who funded a portion of the stadium’s construction (there’s no truth to the rumor that L.P. stands for “Loves Pepsi”). I arrived at L.P. Frans Stadium on a recent Sunday afternoon, amid beautiful weather and correspondingly buoyant spirits.

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L.P. Frans Stadium is 21 years old, having been built in 1993 for $4.5 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this comes to approximately $7.4 million dollars, and this begs the question: why are stadiums so much more expensive to build these days? There is no chance whatsoever that, in our present economic climate, a Class A facility could be constructed for $7.4 million. Three times that, maybe, and even that would be a relatively conservative estimate. What is going on here?

But tangents can wait. The subject here is L.P. Frans Stadium, which underwent extensive renovations this past offseason in advance of the Crawdads hosting the 2014 South Atlantic League All-Star Game. One new addition are these Party Patios, located down the third base line.

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My view from this particular location, at this particular moment in space and time, was this:

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To the left was the home clubhouse. Note the immaculately manicured bullpen area, on the right.

006 I then walked round (and round) to this carousel, located next to covertly-branded playground equipment. It’s certainly not the best playground of all time, but it’ll do in a pinch.

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Is you a Crawlady, or is you a Crawdude? (Actually, the sign on the women’s room says “Crawdudettes,” but I don’t like taking pictures of women’s rooms because I don’t want anyone to get the mistaken impression that the kindly traveling Minor League Baseball writer is some sort of lecher.)

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As you can tell by the above photo and the one below, there is a significant amount of brickwork incorporated into L.P. Frans Stadium. That just means that there is mortar love.

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And what are these contraptions hanging from wall-mounted half-baseballs? Anyone? I forget to ask, and clearly it would be too labor intensive to send an email.

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Like the Party Patio, the Picnic Pavilion is another p-based alliterative addition to the stadium. This area used to be bleacher seating.

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It’s a little tough to see, but the stadium has protective netting all the way up the base lines. This is a good thing, safety-wise, but a bad thing, sight-line wise.

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Speaking of Crawdudes and Crawdudettes, here are Candy and Conrad.

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I was on the field at this juncture in order to — you guessed it — throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my GoPro, strapped to my skull, and this time the footage was somewhat acceptable. That’s really all I’m aiming for in life — to be somewhat acceptable.

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Here’s the footage, followed by a portion of the afternoon that I’ll contextualize a bit later on. You can hold off on watching that second portion, for now.

A bit high, but I’d rather be a bit high than in the dirt. At any rate, no one was impressed.

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Guys on the bench are — wait for it — reserve Claws.

The pre-game introductions were pretty cool, and involved not one but two youth teams. Upon having their name announced, the players ran through a high-five line (yellow team) and then joined with a kid from the black team as they made their way to their respective positions.

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For what it’s worth, the Crawdads’ catcher is one Joe Jackson. His great-great-great uncle was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, so, yeah, you could say baseball runs in the family.

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I requested an interview with Jackson prior to the game, but for whatever reason he wasn’t available. Maybe because he’s tired of always answering questions about his great-great-great uncle? It’s a nice twist that he’s playing in the same league as the Greenville Drive, however, as Greenville is his hometown and it was where “Shoeless” lived as well.

As the game began, Crawdads community relations director Megan Meade gave me a brief tour of the ballpark. The press box and surrounding areas were almost comically crowded. To an extent, this cramped environment is a result of not having much storage space elsewhere in the ballpark.

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But there was plenty of room to move on the concourse, where this gentleman was enjoying one of the Crawdads’ expanded beer selections.

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The Crawdad Cafe, located down the third base line and also featuring an indoor seating area, is another new edition. It lies across the concourse from the so-called VIP seating area.

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For VIPs only

For VIPs only

One component of the renovations was the expansion of the front office, by a cool one thousand square feet. According to Meade, “It felt like 200,000.”

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Oh, hey, it’s Conrad.

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Conrad was psyched, as he was on the cusp of witnessing what would be the main event of the afternoon. The tour could wait, as it was now time for Alex Ward to take “The Clawlossal Challenge.”

This, friends, is the Clawlossal. The challenge is to eat it within the span of six outs or less.

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For the record, the “Clawlossal” is a foot-long chili-cheese dog, pub chips, a half-pound burger, a pulled pork sandwich, a corn dog, five onion rings, two jalapeño poppers and two pickle spears. Also for the record: I’ve already written an entire article (with videos) about how the whole absurd spectacle went down.  Therefore, what follows are simply a few photo highlights.

Alex, all smiles at the outset:

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Should Alex complete the challenge, he’d win a t-shirt that would make him the envy of all.

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Alex alternated between the Clawlossal’s myriad food items with finesse and aplomb. Chews Your Own Adventure:

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In the homestretch, with plenty of time still remaining.

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A crowd gathers, hoping to witness an historic occasion. That kid in the orange shirt is 11 going on 37. He just got hired as an assistant AD at a Division II college.

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The finish line was in reach, but the finish line was not reached. Instead, disaster struck.

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Those in the biz call this a “reversal of fortune.”

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So close, but yet so far.

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Better luck next time, Alex!

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Okay, time to resume our little tour of the stadium. Here’s the Party Patio, once again. This time with people!

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Meade and I then walked down to the bullpen, which is a most picaresque locale.

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Meet “The CrawFathers”

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As is often the case with bullpens, there was a lot of clever banter taking place. Much of it was unprintable, but at one point there was an extended riff about taking Aleve.

“We call these I-B-Throwins. Take 6-8 of these and you’re good to go.”

We didn’t hang around in the bullpen for very long — there was a game going on, after all — but I was reminded of the fact that I like to do stories about bullpen games/rituals/pranks, etc. I got some great material last year in that regard (if you don’t know, Google “Whitewall Ninja”), and am hoping for more before this year is out. If you’ve got any leads, call me.

But anyway, we left the bullpen and came upon this scene.

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These young fans were waiting for their opportunity to chase Conrad across the field, in much the same way that I was chased across the field last season in Tennessee while wearing a chicken suit. It’s a pretty standard Minor League promotion, and I got some great video of it, but because I was born yesterday I shot the video in improper vertical fashion and the MiLB.com Quality Control Department deemed it unusable.

See that red haired kid, front and center? I asked him why he was so excited to chase Conrad and he told me “I’m gonna punch him in the head! He steals hats, he creeps me out.”

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Never underestimate a child’s desire to physically assault a Minor League mascot.

After watching Conrad escape the clutches of his would-be tormentors, I rendezvoused with Crawdads promotions assistant Brice Ballentine. I was to be a contestant in the team’s version of “Cash Cab,’ answering trivia questions while being driven around the perimeter of the field in a golf cart.

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Remember the video I posted earlier, with the first pitch footage? That video also includes my time in the Cash Cab. Ballentine is to be commended for writing a series of questions specific to my job, and I am to be commended for knowing the answers (though, toward the end, I got by with a little help from the fans).

As you can probably see from the above video, the weather was beginning to take a turn for the ominous.

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The skies soon opened up, and the crowd began to disperse. Through it all, Ballentine, dressed as a base-cleaning tooth fairy, stoically stood beside the first base dugout.

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Ballentine was waiting for an inning break that never came, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the vague sense of longing that is a chief component of the human psychological condition.

What came instead was a torrential downpour, and then came the tarp. Fortune, it had been reversed yet again.

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As you can see in the above picture, the rain absolutely soaked the playing field. Puddles were all over the outfield, and the game was subsequently called with the Crawdads defeating visiting West Virginia, 4-2, in an abbreviated six inning contest.

Time to go home, folks, nothing more to see here.

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That concourse concrete doesn’t just look slick, it is slick! Once the rains came, Alex (of Clawlossal eating challenge fame) and I sought refuge in the Crawdads Cafe. He entered before me and held open the door, just in time for me to take a comical pratfall. I slipped, landed on my posterior, and slid into the interior of the cafe as if it was third base. There were a bunch of people already inside, who politely stifled the urge to laugh until finding out that I was indeed okay (I was save for a couple of minor scrapes and, of course, a bruised ego).

Moral of the story: Don’t run on a wet concourse, especially if the concourse in question is at L.P. Frans Stadium. That thing is slippier than an eel lathered in sunscreen taking a nap atop a banana peel.

This guy was more equipped for the wet concourse than I, and for good reason: he’s a baseball lifer. Meet Crawdads group sales representative Stephen “South” Johnson.

075South got his nickname because his father is none other than North Johnson, a veteran Minor League exec who currently serves as the general manager of the Gwinnett Braves (who I had visited the day before).

“I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work in Minor League Baseball. I grew up in a ballpark. I was in one for the first time when I was four days old,” said South, whose family moved from Kinston to Rancho Cucamonga to Myrtle Beach to Gwinnett. “It’s kind of like being a military brat.”

As it turned out, South did a far better job than I did in documenting the storm that postponed the game.

That marked the second time on this trip in which I saw the tarp, and it would not be the last. But, regardless, the game must go on.

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Meanwhile, my next ballpark road trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch! I’ve had some cancellations recently, plenty of spots still available!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Can-Do Spirit in Gwinnett

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my rollicking report from Gwinnett. 

While traveling this country each summer, it is generally my intent to not visit ballparks in which I have already set foot. I don’t like redundancy as redundancy is something I don’t like, particularly when there are still a couple of dozen ballparks that I have yet to visit once.

But there are exceptions to every rule. I first visited the Gwinnett Braves in 2010 — getting termites in my pants and eating Knucksie sandwiches — and last month I visited them again. It’s just how the schedule worked out, and I make no apologies (primarily because no one has asked for one).

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

2010 file photo of termite entering pants

And, redundant or not, I was happy to visit Gwinnett again. I’ve always respected the operating skills of general manager North Johnson (and not just because he has the best front office name in all of baseball), and this season Brandon Apter had joined on as the director of promotions. I had been in touch with Brandon on a regular basis during his previous stint with the Frederick Keys, and knew that he would do his best to make my evening in Gwinnett a spirited one.

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

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Some quick facts:

– The Gwinnett Braves are the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

– The Atlanta Braves own the Gwinnett Braves.

– Gwinnett County is a suburb of Atlanta.

Given the above three circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the G-Braves’ home of Coolray Field is heavy on big league Braves iconography. The banners in the above photo feature Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox and….is that Dale Murphy? It’s kind of hard for me to tell. Let’s just say Dale Murphy.

It’s not hard to find a parking space, as Coolray Field has vast swaths of asphalt that are ready and waiting for the sweet, soft tread of your automobile.

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The hoi polloi was lined up early on this particular Saturday, as Mike Minor bobbleheads were on the giveaway docket.

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The view from the concourse as the gates were opened.

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The view of the field as the gates were opened. It was a beautiful day, the clouds billowy as all get out.

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I don’t have any pictures of the Mike Minor bobbleheads that were given away, but I do have a photo of an oversized Rochester Red Wings hat. This was to be used as part of a villain’s outfit in the next day’s Superhero promotion.

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I knew that I would be busy during the game itself, so I used this little window of time to take a quick lap around Coolray Field.

Here’s Niekro’s, named after legendary Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and serving a sandwich named after Niekro’s signature pitch.

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The knuckleball was the signature pitch and the “Knucksie” is the signature sandwich. Here’s my 2010 file photo of the Knucksie, which is described as “House smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw, and served on a toasted corn muffin.”

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

I’ll seize this brief window of opportunity to gratuitously mention that, in 1979, 40-year-old Niekro went 21-20 over 44 starts for the Braves. He threw 344 innings and tossed 23 complete games, just one of which was a shutout. 1979 was the third of three consecutive seasons in which Niekro pitched 330 innings or more.

Of course, pitching that frequently, Niekro would get shelled on occasion. Please allow that observation to serve as your segue into this photo of a peanut kiosk.

026 Seeking shade in the picnic area.

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In this photo inflatable Chopper looks likes an unworthy supplicant, beseeching God.

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It has taken longer than originally planned, but a large-scale development project is soon set to kick off at Coolray Field. The Views would be a good place to live, so long as you’re really into Braves-affiliated Triple-A baseball.

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The views in the other direction are pretty good as well.

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Hey, it’s Chopper, taking the time to pose with his favorite obscure sportswriter.

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With the game about to begin, I headed down to the playing field. This groundskeeper was in a staring contest with third base, entering its third hour.

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But more interesting to me was seeing my old friends Baldy, Shades, and Martinez. Here’s hoping that TNT picks up their show for a second season.

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I was on the field because I had been invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my newly acquired GoPro headstrap while doing so, but the resultant footage was too shaky to use (I’m learning, slowly but surely. Basically, the camera was affixed to the base of my skull too loosely).

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My pitch was a perfect strike. And even sans-GoPro footage, I have proof! Just hit play…

I’ll reference a few other elements of that video a bit later on. But, for now, I’d like to mention that the G-Braves players were wearing specialty Doctor-theme jerseys on this evening. The jerseys were auctioned off via a silent auction during the game, with proceeds benefiting the Gwinnett Medical Center.

038 Yes, that is a stethoscope.

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I had made a plan to spend most of the game with Brandon Apter and his promo team, more or less embedding myself as a promo intern of sorts. Here’s Brandon. He and I both grew up in the Philly suburbs. (I went to Wissahickon, he went to neighboring Upper Dublin. Wissahickon is notable in that its 1992 seventh-grade baseball team went undefeated, led by the leadoff efforts of diminutive on-base machine Ben “Future Obscure Baseball Writer” Hill.)

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Wissahickon > Upper Dublin

I started off by shooting the t-shirt gun into the crowd, a task that always gives me anxiety because I am perennially fearful of disappointing people. (For the Ben’s Biz completists out theee, the t-shirt gun shooting begins at the :12 second mark in the above video.)

With the game underway…

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Brandon and I then took a leisurely stroll through the tunnel located down the first base line. Cans awaited.

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More specifically, the above three upside down individuals compete in the SATA (Southern Aerosol Technical Association) Can Race. The contestants are Stubs (shaving cream), Sunny (sunscreen), and Bugs (insect repellent). The purpose of the race is to raise awareness of both aerosol recycling options and inhalation abuse. A side benefit is that the cans often get to beat the crap out of each other.

I prepared for battle, slowly transforming myself into the guise of Stubs.

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As is often the case when I run a mascot race, I simply hung back and let the carnage happen elsewhere. This photo shows Stubs (me) just after he won the race, after Sunny and Bugs (bottom left corner) had been knocked out of the running.

As for how that happened, watch the video. The Can Race intro bit starts at 1:12, but pay particular attention to what happens at the 2:00 mark.

Bugs, aka promo intern Taylor Boone, took a shovel to the head! Chopper was the culprit; Chopper is a Jerk. For you, Chopper:

These Can Races are downright Cronenbergian, in that they have a History of Violence. I wrote about this in far more detail over on MiLB.com, the official website of Missing Letters Bureau Minor League Baseball. That article also contains this video, of a can race that had taken place the previous month.

Jessie the promo intern gets clobbered at the finish, but she lived to tell the tale. This is a must-watch.

Chopper’s shovel of death, hanging demurely in the so-called “Area of Refuge.”

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I’m not exactly sure what that room is a refuge from. Maybe the pervasive litter in the visitor’s dugout?

057  Hey Rahl! Hey Rohlfing! Learn how to use a trashcan why dontcha?

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Rahl and Rohlfing soon had a front row seat for this wing-eating contest.

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The dude in the camo shorts ended the contest with the wing-eating equivalent of dropping the mic.

My next failed attempt at gathering GoPro footage occurred at the end of the fourth inning.

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I ran around the basepaths, putting two identical pieces of a baseball uniform on each base. This was the set-up for the “Dress Around the Basepaths” contest, in which a couple of kids race each other around the basepaths. Of course, they have to stop and put on an article of clothing at each base.

After witnessing this spectacle, I was inspired to go upstairs and put on a new article of clothing myself.

Gwinnett Braves Doctor’s Jersey, as worn by Ben’s Biz. Let’s start the bidding at $1.29.

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Modeling stint complete, I returned to the field in time to witness a car washing contest.

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The kid on the left had a far better technique.

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The above contest took place at the end of the fifth inning. Three outs later, it was time for the Dave & Buster’s “Eat, Drink, and Play” competition. Eat a hot dog, drink a cup of water, do the dizzy bat and then sink a basketball shot. Good job out there, kids. I can’t remember which of you won.

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Finally, it was time for a game of “Guess the Pizza Topping” atop the dugout roof.

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I find this to be one of the more hypnotic entries in my Vine catalog.

“Is it raisins?”

And that was about it for the various between-innings hi-jinx and tomfoolery. Apter, like myself, is a Phillies fan by upbringing. His tomahawk chop was strictly perfunctory, and, most likely, damaging to his soul.

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These kids, they were cheering after their Dad won a Price is Right-inspired “Hi-Lo” game.

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Shortly after this moment of triumph, the game resumed.

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And shortly after this resumption, it was complete. The G-Braves lost by a score of 3-2, and then had to remain on the field while they were matched up with the individual who had bid for their Doctor-theme jersey.

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Nothing left to do now but throw some tennis balls into a plastic pool. You know how we do.

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Most of these attempts were unsuccessful.

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The G-Braves generally have high production values, but this goodbye message isn’t exactly racking up any points in the style department.

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I hope to come back soon. I already miss my pal Stubs.

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Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Tim Mullin

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Crooked Nuggets: June 2014

Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the scrappy, more succinct, offshoot of my long-running “Crooked Numbers” column on MiLB.com.

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For the uninitiated, Crooked Numbers  is a monthly round-up of the the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. The June 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com today — read it or die trying– and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness.

Brevity is key! Let’s get to it.

Ownership — Brad Golder, broadcaster for the Great Lakes Loons, recently got in touch to let us know that South Bend’s Daniel Palka has gone 4-for-4 this season against Great Lake’s Victor Arano — with four home runs! Arano has allowed as many home runs to Palka as he has to the rest of the Midwest League combined.

Out and Not Proud — Speaking of the Loons, the team’s Josmar Cordero had a night to forget against Lansing on June 7. For Cordero was thrown out at the plate not once, not twice, but thrice! In the third inning Cordero pounded a one-out double, but was thrown out after attempting to score on Spencer Navin’s double to right field. In the seventh, Cordero singled, advanced to second on a single, and then was thrown out attempting to score on Brandon Trinkwon’s single to right field. Then, in the ninth, Cordero was out at home on a 2-1 putout, after attempting to score from second on a wild pitch. That would have given the Loons a 10-9 lead, but no matter. Cordero was one of three Loons batters to score in the 11th (he scored on a bases-loaded walk, so it was impossible for him to get thrown out), and the Loons held on for a 12-10 win.

A Conundrum — Cordero might want to follow the base running strategies that Lansing Lugnuts employed on June 30. Team broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, a cerebral and loquacious man, presents us with the following headscratcher:

The Lugnuts doubled three times in the fourth inning of June 30th’s game against Great Lakes, had no one tagged out on the bases, and scored one run.

Apparently, this is because Lugnuts baserunners are only able to advance one base on a double. From the game recap:

Mitch Nay doubles (16) on a fly ball to center fielder Malcolm Holland.

Derrick Loveless flies out to left fielder Jacob Scavuzzo.

Dawel Lugo doubles (11) on a fly ball to center fielder Malcolm Holland. Mitch Nay to 3rd.

Dickie Joe Thon doubles (12) on a fly ball to right fielder Alex Santana. Mitch Nay scores. Dawel Lugo to 3rd.

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Rapid Misfire — The Modesto Nuts made three errors during June 24’s 14-3 loss to San Jose, and they made them all on the same play! While I’m a little unclear as to the exact sequence of events, some clues can be ascertained via the MiLB.com game recap. Runners were on first and third when the ball was hit, and then:

Ben Turner reaches on a fielding error by pitcher Devin Burke. Brian Ragira scores. Elliott Blair scores. Ben Turner to 3rd. Throwing error by pitcher Devin Burke. Throwing error by left fielder Matt Wessinger. 

A bit more crookedness occurred later in the game as well. In the bottom of the sixth, San Jose’s Trevor Brown had a three-run home run transformed into a two-run single, after he was called out for passing a runner on the bases during his home run trot.

A rip in the space-time continuum — John Dreker of PiratesProspects.com recently contributed the following bit of information. See if you can follow:

Altoona played a doubleheader on [June 20], completing a suspended game from June 11th before their regularly scheduled game. The first game had an odd occurrence, made even more odd by what happened in the second game. On [June 18] Alen Hanson went 0-for-4, breaking his 12 game hit streak. On [June 20], he extended that hit streak to 13 games by collecting two hits in the suspended game. Since the stats count towards June 11th, the streak that was snapped two days earlier, got one game longer. Hanson had two hits in the nightcap, but those stats counted towards June 20th. 

One Fish, Two Fish — Via Twitter, I recently was informed of the following:

For what it’s worth, the next day Great Falls batted Zach Fisher fifth and Zach Fish sixth.

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Putting It Down — In the 10th inning of June 6th’s game between Buffalo and Syracuse, Andy LaRoche laid down a sacrifice bunt. This was his first sacrifice bunt in the Minor Leagues since 2004, a period in which LaRoche played some 700 games and logged over 2500 at-bats. In that 2004 season, LaRoche laid down two sacrifice bunts for the Columbus Catfish and two more for the Vero Beach Dodgers. Both of those franchises are now defunct.

Your Alex Freedman Email of the Month — Those in the know know that Crooked content is never complete until we hear from Oklahoma City RedHawks broadcaster Alex Freedman.

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So take it away, Alex! (And be aware that this first item of his is a stone-cold Crooked classic.)

– On June 13, the RedHawks were trailing Las Vegas 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Austin Wates led off the inning with a pinch-hit single. He would advance to second, third, and eventually scored on three wild pitches…by three different pitchers! (Miguel Socolovich, Scott Rice, and John Church) The RedHawks would go on to win 6-5 in 12 innings.

– Speaking of that win on the 13th, the game ended with a walk-off home run by Gregorio Petit. It was the team’s first walk-off home run in nearly two years (July 3, 2012). Naturally it didn’t take quite that long for the team’s next walk-off homer. Domingo Santana hit a three-run shot to beat Omaha 8-5 on June 27—a span of five home games. Each of the last three fireworks nights at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark have resulted in walk-off wins.

 -The RedHawks and Tacoma Rainiers played three consecutive extra-inning games June 21-23. It was just the second time in RedHawks team history this had occurred, and the first time since the team’s inaugural season in 1998. Tacoma won all three games by one run. 

Thanks, Alex, and thanks to all who contributed to the column over the last month. Regularly-scheduled road trip content will resume next week, with dispatches from Rome, Hickory, Charlotte and Hickory still to come! Then, on July 18th, I hit the road again. Get ready, Akron!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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