Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

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.”

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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

On the Road: Not Much of a Goodbye in Huntsville

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Huntsville, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

One of my most anticipated stops on this, my latest and therefore greatest ballpark road trip, was Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium. The Stars are currently playing their final season, as the franchise will move to Biloxi in 2015 and compete as either the Black Jacks, Mullets, Schooners, Shrimpers, Shuckers or Beacon (these are the finalists in the ongoing “Name the Team” contest).

Joe Davis is undoubtedly a dump, but dumps have character and I have always enjoyed visiting. In fact, Huntsville was one of the first places I ever visited in my “traveling ballpark writer” capacity. I went there in 2009 in order to participate in and write about the team’s attempt to play the longest game of Wiffle Ball of all time.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

That game of Wiffle Ball never happened, due to a rainout. (But I did get to see an on-field sword swallowing demonstration, because obviously a sword swallower should be on the premises during a Wiffle Ball world record attempt.)

And, five years later, on June 5, 2014, the game in which I was supposed to attend didn’t happen either. While the weather had been pleasant during my drive from Chattanooga to Huntsville, things took a turn for the worse shortly after I checked in to my hotel.

My concern was justified. After the torrential downpour and frightening lightning subsided, I dutifully drove over to the ballpark. You know, just in case. There were a smattering of cars in the parking lot, and tickets were still being sold.

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The women at the ticket window were very welcoming — after all, this was to be my special night! Huntsville Stars GM Buck Rogers had declared June 5 to be “Ben Hill Day” at Joe Davis Stadium, with free admission to any fans residing in Ben Hill County, Georgia. Ben Hill is about six hours away from Huntsville, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anyone to take the Stars up on the offer, but with the weather being what it was it was now a virtual guarantee that the good people of Ben Hill had stayed home. I just hope they did so of their own free will, and not because they were in jail.

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

Also nowhere to be found was Buck Rogers himself. Buck has been named general manager for the new team in Biloxi, so he’s splitting the remainder of this season between there and Huntsville. He, his wife Babs (an essential Stars staffer as well) and several other front office members were in Biloxi, making an already quiet Joe Davis Stadium that much more quiet. (For those who don’t know Buck, he’s a very loquacious guy.)

On the Road: Mingling With the Stars in Huntsville

Buck Rogers in his office, taken during my 2010 visit to Huntsville

Rogers and crew had picked a good night to be out of town. Within three minutes after I arrived at Joe Davis Stadium, word filtered in via the omnipresent staff walkie-talkies that the game had been “banged” (industry slang for “postponed”).

Come back tomorrow, Huntsville Stars fans.

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But for me, there would be no tomorrow. At least not in Huntsville. While I briefly considered modifying my itinerary and sticking around for the following day’s doubleheader, the weather wasn’t looking good for that one either. With a heavy heart, I made the executive decision to proceed to the next day to Rome, Georgia, as I had originally planned.

The game wasn’t happening,  but that didn’t mean that I had to leave Joe Davis Stadium. “Why not wander around and get a few final photos?” I said to no one in particular.

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The Stars are called the Stars because of Huntsville’s rich aeronautic past and present. The fact that the GM is named “Buck Rogers” is just a coincidence, however.

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What isn’t a coincidence is that the signage around the stadium is in a NASA-style font.

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If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign next to “Stars Radio” declares this section of the ballpark to be a “horn-free zone.” Casio, the team’s PA announcer, told me that he had never heard a horn in the stadium before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Yes, when I was wandering around Joe Davis Stadium I ran into a guy named “Casio” (given name: Matt Mitchell), and ended up writing a story about him. Rainout or not, this is something I had been planning on doing anyway. Casio is a local celebrity!

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The view from the press box.

031Up in the pressbox, I was reminded of a Tweet that had been directed at me the previous week. The guys at Cespedes Family BBQ were on a road trip with a somewhat similar itinerary to mine, and had been in Huntsville several days before.

Found it!

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Thanks guys. I held on to the card, filing it in my Rolodex under sub-category “individuals who have never invited me on their podcast even though I am the greatest Minor League blogger of all time and most underrated sports media entity of the last five years.” This is the second-biggest sub-category in my Rolodex, right behind “sports media professionals who never respond to me on Twitter even though that joke I tweeted at them was really clever and funny and clearly the best use of my time.”

If it sounds like I have a chip on my shoulder, it’s because I do!

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Sorry, I’ve been a bit obsessed with wordplay lately. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to M&M.

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That M&M is a bibliophile because he’s, well, red. He does most of his reading in the bathroom, but didn’t think it was funny when I nicknamed him “John Candy.” (Also, I’m going to file an expense report for the $2.50 I spent on the chips and M&Ms. Clearly it was a justifiable business expenditure.)

Anyway, I was writing about Huntsville. The game was rained out, Casio had been talked to, business cards had been found, and there was nothing left for me to do but go back to the hotel room and sulk in a desultory manner. (Is there any other way to sulk?)

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to provide more on the Huntsville Stars in this, their final season, but at least I’ve written about them plenty in the past. Click ‘em all!

Blog post from my 2009 visit 

Blog post from my 2010 visit 

Article on Buck Rogers from my 2010 visit

Article on Huntsville Stars as they entered their 2014 swan song

Guest blog post from former Stars employee Gillian Richard, on why she loves the team. 

I too, will miss Joe Davis Stadium, and this is the one moment I will never forget.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Lonely Weekday Matinee in Chattanooga

I have now visited AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, on two occasions. On neither of those occasions did I see an actual Southern League baseball game. The first such occasion was in 2010, as a torrential downpour began just before game time and resulted in a rainout. I was still at the ballpark long enough to get a blog post out of it, which you can peruse HERE.

I visited AT&T Field again earlier this month, and this time there wasn’t even a hint of a game. The Lookouts had completed a homestand the day before, but — hey! — when in Rome. Why not stop in and say hello?

AT&T Field, which opened in 2000, is located in downtown Chattanooga. I parked my rented Volkswagen Bug on Chestnut Street, safeguarded all valuables, exited the car, began walking, and, soon enough, made a quick left on “Power Alley.” (This is a common feature of modern day Minor League ballparks, in that they are located on streets that have been re-christened with a baseball-themed name. This can wreak havoc if you are getting to the ballpark via GPS, which may not have been programmed to recognize “Home Run Drive” or “Fastboulevard” or “Respect the Game Lane” or what have you.)

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Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.

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Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.

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Somewhat mysteriously, this trolley was idling in the parking lot unattended with its doors open. While I did not commandeer it for my own usage, I did hop aboard and take this world-exclusive picture of the interior.

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Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.

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As for the stadium itself, it’s a solid if unspectacular turn-of-the-century model. It’s efficient, reliable, and looks pretty good, but if it was hanging out with other Minor League ballparks at a Minor League ballpark social function it would blend in with the crowd pretty easily.

004Once inside the ballpark, I met up with Dan Kopf (media relations manager) and Alex Tainsh (corporate sales). They insisted on being referred to as “esteemed tour guides.” Kopf is the guy on the right and, for the record, “Kopf and Tainsh” would be a good name for a basic cable show about crusading maverick lawyers.

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It was a pretty sleepy afternoon at the ballpark, given that the Lookouts had concluded a homestand the day before. I was poking around for something to write about (as in, for an MiLB.com article), but that’s tough to do when very few people are around and not much is going on. However! My esteemed tour guides said that, should I ever actually do my job properly and see an actual Lookouts game, Wanda Goins would be a good person to write about.

Wanda is a veteran program vendor, so well known that on the rare occasions in which she cannot attend the team plays a recording of her. And, like any Minor League celebrity worth her salt, she has been the recipient of her own bobblehead. (Which reminds me, when am I going to be honored with my own bobblehead?)

Anyhow, if you want a Wanda Goins bobblehead (and cd!), it can be currently be had for the (not-so-low) price of $75 on eBay. 

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But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.

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As you’ll see in the picture below, AT&T Field lacks an open concourse. For all I know, it may have been the last Minor League stadium to have been built without this feature (prove me wrong, readers. You always do.) In looking around for more info, I came across this Ballpark Digest tidbit about how the stadium was funded:

Frank Burke bought the Lookouts in the mid nineties but felt the team had to have a new stadium to stay in Chattanooga. In the fall of 1998, Burke announced that he and his ownership group would build a privately funded ballpark if the team could sell 1,800 season tickets. The 1800th ticket was sold on January 28, and construction of the park started in late March 1999. The Lookouts ended up selling over 2,200 season tickets.

Is that the only MiLB stadium to have been funded in such a manner? The only other completely privately-funded stadium I can think of, at least within the past two decades, is the West Michigan Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Ballpark. (Note: I have since been informed that the Lexington Legends privately funded their ballpark in 2001.)

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Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that there used to be a cannon positioned in the outfield, which would make loud exploding noises after home runs. However, the shells for this cannon are no longer commercially available. (I blame Obama.) There is a home run choo-choo train, however.

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It hasn’t happened yet, but any Lookout batsman with the wherewithal to blast a ball through the crook of this angled dirt-scoop receives  a cool $500.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that this block of outfield seats did not have a name. I was surprised they weren’t called “The Lookout Seats” or “Lookout Landing” or something like that.

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There is a “Lasorda’s Landing,” however. Tommy doesn’t have any deep personal connections to Chattanooga, but the Lookouts are a Dodgers affiliate so there you go.

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And, well, that’s all I’ve got. Upon bidding adieu to my esteemed tour guides I trekked back down the hill to Chestnut Street, and noticed that there is a movie theater right there on the corner. Minor League Baseball teams are in a mortal war with movie theaters! Both want to procure as large a portion of your “family-friendly entertainment” expenditures as possible, and there’s only so much to go around.

IMG_1489I have now written two posts about this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, and neither have taken place during an actual game. Third time’s the charm?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Re-visiting a Classic in Chattanooga

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece on Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

My latest (and therefore greatest) Minor League ballpark road trip kicked off in Chattanooga, home of the Lookouts. I did not see a Lookouts game, however, as they played an 11:05 contest on the day that I arrived and I was unable to make it to the ballpark on time. (My fault, as I had not noticed that anomalous game time when I booked my flight.) However, all was not lost. Far from it.

For being in Chattanooga means being able to visit Engel Stadium, which served as the home of the Lookouts from 1930-98. In the decade following the team’s departure — they now play at AT&T Park in downtown Chattanooga — Engel Stadium fell into a state of extreme disrepair. In 2009 a concerned group of community activists formed the Engel Foundation, with the quixotically noble goal of restoring this classic facility to its former glory.

I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, where I got to know Foundation president Janna Jahn and her ragtag group of supporters. I then wrote about Engel again in 2013, after the stadium stood in for Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42. And now, here I am writing about Engel again.

I drove to the stadium immediately after arriving in Chattanooga, marking my first excursion in the black Volkswagen Beetle that was assigned to me by fine folks at Avis. Jahn was already at the stadium waiting for me, and for the next hour or so we ambled through this historic facility as I got up to speed on the latest news.

From the outside of Engel Stadium, it’s hard to get a sense of the beauty that lurks therein.

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But once you step inside, it’s a different story.

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My MiLB.com piece detailed the specifics of the recent improvements to Engel, but what it boils down to is this: much has been done, and there is so much more to be done. To name one of many examples: Engel Stadium once had what was billed as “the world’s largest scoreboard,” seen in the photo below, and Jahn said that, long term, the Foundation would love to install a replica.

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But one thing at a time. A more pressing concern at the time that I visited was removing the dead bird from the netting behind home plate.

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A closer view.

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The grandstand looked immaculate, and the press box had recently been restored to its ’30s-era parameters and bestowed with a brand-new instrument.

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The view from the press box.

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This office area, located down the third base line, is now referred to as “The 42 Room.” Some of the film’s locker room scenes were shot here, and it is now filled with production photos and paraphernalia.

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From there, we took a nice stroll across the outfield.

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I took this photo using the MiLB Instagram account. It was the first Instagram photo I ever took, and also the first time I used a filter of any kind.

Hey, man. Nice shot! 

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That Filter reference I just made was exquisite

Engel Stadium received a laser-graded infield, courtesy of the 42 production team. The outfield remains the same as it ever was.

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For the filming of 42, the dugouts were modified to resemble those of Ebbets Field. Then, after the filming, they were changed back to their original state (more or less).

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If you’ve never spent time in the bowels of an 80-something-year-old facility…well, this is what it looks like:

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There’s a poignant scene in 42 in which Jackie finally loses his cool, going on a bat-smashing rampage in the tunnel leading onto the field. That tunnel, now inaccessible, was here:

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Which stadium has the worst bathroom facilities? Engel Stadium, or Burlington Athletic Park (home of the Appy League Royals) circa 2011?

Engel:

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Burlington:

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Have you staked out your position in this great American debate, and able to articulate it? Great. Then let’s continue.

A day or two before I visited Engel, the stadium had been vandalized (chalk it up to a security system malfunction).

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It’s hassles like these that really give me a lot of respect for the Engel Foundation volunteers. They have full-time jobs and busy lives but nonetheless must repeatedly drop what they are doing in order to deal with hassles such as the above. As Engels’s 21st-century prominence continues to grow, it is my hope (and, I’m sure, theirs) that sufficient funds will become available to pay for a full-time facilities manager.

The vandalism seemed to be limited to the above graffiti as well as a smattering of smashed fluorescent light bulbs.  I found it interesting, that in the midst of the all this juvenilia, there was what seemed to be a heartfelt nod to Jackie Robinson. Even vandals have respect for one of the all-time greats!

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The damage was cleaned up promptly, as one week after I visited Engel Stadium hosted the Southern League Home Run Derby. This picture is from the Lookouts Facebook photo album.

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But as for me, it was time to depart. Until next time, Engel:

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No filter.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Crooked Nuggets: May 2014

Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the lovable 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. It was inspired by my childhood infatuation with the writings of Jayson Stark, whose work then ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 2014 marks the sixth season of the column; it is also the sixth the season in which the column has gone unacknowledged by Stark.

The May 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com on June 4 — check it out! — and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

Let Crooked Reign — A left fielder and right fielder getting charged with an error in the same game is a rare occurrence. But much rarer is a left fielder and right fielder making an error on the same play. Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto witnessed, and then wrote about, this freakish occurrence:  “How can the LF and RF both make an error on the same batted ball? How could they even both touch the ball on the same play? The answer is: overthrows.” Click HERE to have Curto explain it all, as part of a blog post devoid of the Pavement references he is fond of making. All I can say is that this was certainly a play that did not “Brighten the Corners.” Both fielders should “Cut Their Errors.”

Stone is the Way of the Balk   On May 9 the Bowling Green Hot Rods clawed back from a 10-1 deficit against the Lake County Captains, scoring nine unanswered runs in the seventh and eight innings to tie the game 10-10. But this impressive comeback was all for naught. Stone Speer entered the game for the Hot Rods with one out and the bases loaded in the 11th inning, and promptly balked in the winning run. He did not throw a single pitch in the ballgame.

Sweetest City in Alabam’ — The Mobile BayBears beat the Birmingham Barons on May 2, in a 17-inning ballgame that took five hours and 25 minutes to complete. Time-wise, this was the longest game in the 129-year history of the Barons. The teams combined to use 16 pitchers in the ballgame, with 14 appearing over the course of the final 10 innings.

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Speed King —  The Birmingham Barons are the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Just one rung down the organizational ladder are the Winston-Salem Dash, who played their shortest-ever game this month. For more on this 108-minute tilt, hurry up and click HERE.

Stayin’ In — If you picked the Arkansas Travelers in your office’s “Last Minor League Team to Hit a Home Run in their Home Ballpark” pool, then congratulations! It took until May 10 for a Travs’ player knock one out of Dickey-Stephens Park, when Brian Hernandez accomplished the feat. As of this writing (June 18), the Travelers have hit just eight home runs at home. On the road, they have hit a comparatively Herculean but otherwise anemic 24.

Broken Home — The Travelers are one of four teams in the Texas League’s North Division, where no one seems to enjoy playing at home. All four clubs in the division finished the first half with a losing record at home. The winning percentage of all four teams was higher when playing on the road.

(note: I am not a fan of Papa Roach. They are one of the worst bands of all time.)

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Celebrating our Smitherences — Per my MiLB.com colleague Tyler Maun:

While perusing the box scores [on May 16], I came upon this oddity: Hickory and Charleston played a DH, and three different Smiths recorded decisions.

Game 1:Save for Charleston’s Chris Smith

Game 2: Win for Hickory’s Tyler Smith, loss for Charleston’s Caleb

Your Josh Feldman Tweet of the Month — Feldman is the broadcaster for the Kannapolis Intimidators. Maybe this will be a recurring feature. Maybe it won’t be. But, anyway, check out Feldman’s observation regarding what Kannapolis pitcher Andrew Mitchell accomplished on May 18 against Hickory:

Movin’ On Up — During a late morning game on May 22, Addison Maruszak played right field for the Reading Fightin Phils. He was promoted later that day, and played third base for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs that night.

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It’s So E-asy — On May 26, the Salem Red Sox committed seven errors and still managed to defeat the Potomac National by a nine-run margin. The next night the Red Sox made just one error against Myrtle Beach, but lost by six.

Whole Lotta LOB — May 27th was a tough night for Visalia Rawhide pitchers, as a half dozen hurlers combined to allow 19 hits and nine walks to the Bakersfield Blaze. Yet the Rawhide won the game, 11-9, largely due to the fact that the Blaze left a staggering 19 runners on base in the ballgame (at least one in every inning). Rawhide announcer “Devastating” Donny Baarns reports that:

“Only one Major League team has stranded more (Yankees, 20, in 1916). No MLB team has ever left 19 in a 9 inning game; 6 have left 18. The Cal League left on base record is 21 (5/17/95, San Jose vs. Rancho).”

Time After Time — From May 20-28, the Durham Bulls played eight games with eight different start times. On May 20th, they faced off at home against Louisville at 1:05. This was followed by a four game set in Columbus, with games beginning at 6:35, 7:15, 7:05 and 6:05. The Bulls then went on to Toledo, where the starting times for the first three games were 6:00, 6:30, and 10:30.

And that, folks, is all I’ve got for the month of May. Thanks for getting crooked with me, and, as always, get in touch if you are a witness to the weirdness:

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road Again — 6/18 Update

Dispatch from Back Home. June 18, 12:47 p.m. — After a week of blog silence, I figured it would be prudent to provide an update for you, my presumably loyal and undoubtedly physically stunning reader.

I flew from Charlotte to New York City on the afternoon of June 11, marking the conclusion of this latest and greatest road trip. My last acts in Charlotte were to get some ultra-tended brisket at Bobbee -O’s BBQ and and visit Manifest Discs.

Bobbee-O’s is an unassuming spot nestled in a strip mall. My photo of the exterior is horrible, but the brisket was indeed exemplary.

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As for Manifest Discs — wow. You don’t see too many places like this around anymore, a wall-to-wall emporium of physical media in a digital age.

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I picked up three used CDs: Sparks “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins”, Nilsson “Schmilsson” and Toby Keith “Shock ‘n Y’all.” There’s a lot I could say about Sparks and Nilsson, but since Toby Keith is a bit of an outlier here I’ll explain: in 2004 I was at a record store in a mall near my Pennsylvania hometown. The only album they had on cassette in the entire store was “Shock’n Y’all”, and there was just one copy. I bought it because I thought it might be the last cassette ever sold in the history of this mall. There is no way for me to verify if this was indeed the case, but I bet it was and no one can tell me otherwise.

Well, even though I bought it as a joke I ended up really liking “Shock’n Y’all.” I listened to it all the time in 2004, a year that was largely spent as a third grade assistant teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. 2004 was a long time ago.

Anyhow, I’m back in NYC and have spent the past week cranking out articles for MiLB.com. For your edification, here’s everything that has appeared on the site since I hit the road on June 4. Please read and, if so moved, promote:

June 4 — Crooked Numbers,” recapping Minor League Baseball’s strangest on-field occurrences in the month of May.

June 6 — “On the Road: Chattanooga,” about the ongoing efforts to restore and revive 84-year-old Engel Stadium. Engel was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts through the 1998 season.

June 9 — On the Road: Huntsville” — The Huntsville Stars game was rained out, but I still landed an interview w/ PA announcer/stand-up comic Matt “Casio” Mitchell.

June 10 — Promo Preview,” leading with the Inland Empire 66ers’ gory “Zombie Apocalypse” theme jerseys. For some reason, a photo of the jerseys was not included with the article. So here you go:

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June 11 — On the Road: Rome” I served as the “official Minor League witness” during a pre-game “Renew Your Vows” ceremony, and later interviewed one of the couples who took part.

June 13 — On the Road: Hickory” A thorough account of one fan’s attempt to eat the “CLAWlossal” within the span of six outs.

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June 16 — On the Road: Gwinnett” —  A behind-the-scenes look at the G-Braves nightly Can Race. Mayhem sometimes ensues, as seen in the video embedded within the piece.

June 17 — “Promo Preview” — This week’s edition leads with Charleston RiverDogs broadcaster Sean Houston, who will call the entirety of Thursday’s game while walking on a treadmill.

June 18 — On the Road: Charlotte” — My attempt to explain the recent history of the Charlotte Knights via the experiences of veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell.

There is still one more “On the Road” article to come (Kannapolis!), and next week I will begin posting my “On the Road” blog posts. So, yeah, there is a LOT more road trip content to come. But — PLEASE — do not assume that inactivity on the blog means inactivity in general. I’m writing up a storm these days, trying to do a good job of it, and doing it all for you.

Oh, and I still have to do a “Crooked Nuggets” blog post for the month of May. I think I’ll write that this afternoon, and post it Thursday or Friday. I’m telling you, some of the facts contained therein will be Shock’n, Y’all.

Dispatch from the Road. June 11, 11:05 a.m. — Sorry that it’s been two days since I rapped at ya, but life is hectic on the road. I am currently at a Spring Hill Suites in Concord, NC, after attending the Kannapolis Intimidators game last night. Upon further review I should have just stayed two nights in Charlotte, as this hotel is only about 12 miles from the one in which I was in yesterday. Live and learn.

Anyhow, when we last left off in this narrative, it was a Monday morning in Hickory and I was soon to be on my way to Charlotte. I made a brief stop in downtown Hickory:

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And then it was on to Charlotte. The first thing I did was stop at a record store. Lunchbox Records, to be exact.

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This place was solid. I finally picked up the new Wovenhand lp (“Refractory Obdurate,” for those keeping score at home), and also got a Richard Bishop/Sun City Girls leftover Record Store Day Release as well as a used copy of the Fine Young Cannibals “The Raw and the Cooked.” (I’ll always have a soft spot for that album.) I got some others too, but you’re already bored with my self-indulgence.

My hotel in Charlotte was walking distance to the ballpark so, yes, I walked to the ballpark. BB&T Ballpark, despite its uninspiring name, is an inspiring ballpark.

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The next day the Knights played at noon, so once again I headed to the ballpark.

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It was “hot as fish grease” during this afternoon matinee, as I heard one of the security guys at the stadium remark. The game was also a blowout, with the Knights losing by a score of 14-2. The heat and lack of competitiveness made me wish for a merciful end to the ballgame, but I got some good perspective from a woman named Dorothy who was working one of the ballpark elevators:

“Everybody out there is wishing for the game to be over,” she said. “Doing that, you ain’t doing nothing but wishing your life away.”

I think about that a lot on these trips. I love doing them, but I get stressed out and wish for them to be over and romanticize my NYC home. But in doing this, all I am doing is removing myself from the present and speeding myself along on the road to death on which we all travel.

Speaking of death, after the Knights game I checked out their old home in nearby Fort Mill, SC. This place is in a state of decay, and will eventually be torn down.

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And then it was on to Kannapolis for my third ballpark and second ballgame of the day. I’m really glad to have closed the trip here, as it was the most enjoyable place I’ve been to in a while and the sort of ballpark that I’d love to come back to strictly as a fan. New ballparks are great and all, as are ridiculous promos and on-field games, but an Intimidators game on a Tuesday night is a quintessential Minor League Baseball experience.

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More on Kannapolis to come. More on EVERYTHING to come. But, for now, it’s time to travel back to NYC. One of my cats has been sick lately, but word is that she’s now on the mend and I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I missed you, Little.

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Dispatch from the Road. June 9, 11:23 a.m. — I’m at the Crowne Suites in Hickory, which is kind of a weird place. It’s a large establishment and largely deserted, and as I sit here I’m imagining that I might be the only living person in the entire place. The others are actually spirits, fluctuating throughout different planes of reality and advancing an agenda that will not become clear to me until it’s too late.

No disrespect to the Crown Suites, though. I got a clean, comfortable room at an unbeatable price.

As for yesterday, there wasn’t much to it. The drive from Gwinnett to Hickory was four hours (including a stop for some Mexican food, the last refuge for the gluten-free), and the highlight of the drive was glimpsing a sign that said “F. Hugh Atkins Highway.” Really? What do they have against the Atkins Highway? Also, I heard Aerosmith’s “Big 10 Inch” on the radio, which isn’t as cool as when I heard “Round and Round” on my last trip, but, still, I’ll take it.

I made my way to L.P. Frans Stadium shortly after arriving in Hickory. Hello, Crawdads!

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I once again threw out a first pitch while wearing my GoPro, and this time I think the footage came out alright. The evening then rolled right along until a massive thunderstorm descended upon in the ballpark in the sixth inning. As I scurried for shelter, I slipped on the slick concourse cement and ended up sliding into the Crawdads Cafe as if it was home plate. A lot of people saw it happen, and acted appropriately concerned, but I’m sure they all thought it was hilarious.

Anyhow, the game was called in the sixth inning. This hasn’t been the best trip, weather-wise, but still I persevere.

And now it’s on to Charlotte. They’ve got a new ballpark there, I think.

Dispatch from the Road. June 8, 9:57 a.m. — I’ve got to keep this brief. I’m in Buford, Georgia right now (minutes away from the Gwinnett Braves) and have to get to Hickory, NC this afternoon. The Crawdads game is at 5 p.m., and factoring in a stop or two along the way it’s gonna take me 4+ hours to get there.

As for yesterday, I spent an hour or two in the early afternoon poking around downtown Rome. This was a very pleasant surprise, as until heading to Rome’s Broad Street my only impression of the town had been that it’s a huge strip of chain stores and restaurants.

But, no!

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Then it was on to Lawrenceville, Georgia, home of the Gwinnett Braves. Since I visited Gwinnett about four years ago, I took a different tact with my game coverage and more or less immersed myself with the promo crew. Lots of interesting/weird/funny stuff occurred, though I am a bit dismayed at the moment that my GoPro footage didn’t come out well. I was wearing the headstrap, and the camera must not have been mounted on tightly enough or something because the footage is very shaky. I wore it while throwing out the first pitch, which was a perfect strike. This is the future of media, if I can do it properly.

Either way I’ll keep fighting.

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Got some Rhys Chatham and Neneh Cherry lined up for the car ride. See you in Hickory.

Dispatch from the Road. June 7, 12:15 p.m. — Currently writing from the lobby of a Country Inn and Suites in Rome, Georgia. But let’s take it back to yesterday…

The day began in Huntsville. The previous night’s Huntsville Stars game was rained out,  so I had to move on without without seeing this esteemed Southern League franchise in their final season. Sadness was lodged in my bosom, alleviated somewhat with an early afternoon stop at the Lowe Mill. This once-dilapidated industrial setting has been converted in a thriving complex of stores and artist studios.

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I was there to specifically to, yes, visit a record store. Vertical Records!

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After picking up a copy of Lou Reed’s “Mistrial” for $6, I moved on towards Rome, Georgia. It rained the entire drive, and I was wary of yet another postponement. But the skies cleared (for good, as it turned out) around 5 p.m., and the game went on without a hitch.

The Rome Braves are a lot of fun! I served as the official witness at a Renew Your Vows wedding ceremony, and later got to ride around the field in the “Redneck Rummage Sale” trailer. Hey, when in Rome!

052 And now, without further ado, I’m moving on to Gwinnett. Wish me luck.

Dispatch from the Road. June 6, 10:38 a.m. — Greetings from Huntsville, Alabama. Regrettably, last night’s Stars game was rained out. The forecast doesn’t look much better for today, so it is with a heavy heart that I’ll be moving on to Georgia (for a Rome Braves game, though the weather isn’t looking too great there, either).

Yesterday began in Chattanooga. After a quick lunch at “Sticky Fingers BBQ” (not to be confused with Sticky Fingaz of Onyx fame), I made a brief cameo at the Lookouts current home of AT&T Field.

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I’ll have more on that visit in a future blog post. It was then on to Huntsville, but on the way I called an audible and drove to the top of Lookout Mountain. It turned out to be in Georgia; it is very easy to cross state lines in this part of the country. Here’s the view from the observation deck of the Lookout Mountain incline (billed as the steepest in the world).

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More on that later, hopefully. I made it to Huntsville later in the afternoon, and when I arrived rain wasn’t on my mind at all. But just as I was about to leave — BOOM!

I still made my way to the stadium, but about five minutes after I arrived the game was called.

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Back in the hotel room, I wrote this MiLB.com story about the ongoing Engel Stadium restoration efforts in Chattanooga. This is the third time in four years that I’ve written about Engel, because it is an IMPORTANT STORY THAT DESERVES RECOGNITION WITHIN SPORTS MEDIA AT LARGE. Look, I know my niche is rather obscure, but it gets a little frustrating when pieces gain no traction outside of this insular universe. I know the audience is there. I just know it. It’s like God — you can’t prove it, but you never lose the faith.

Shortly I’ll be on to Rome. Hopefully I can make a quick stop at Huntsville’s Vertical Records before rambling on. Today’s goal, music wise, is to listen to the new Sun Kil Moon, “Benji” all the way through without crying. I don’t think it can be done; this song is just one of MANY tearjerkers.

Dispatch from the Road. June 5, 9:15 a.m. —  Trip #2 of the season is now in full effect. I arrived in Chattanooga yesterday evening, and immediately paid a visit to historic Engel Stadium.

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The Engel Foundation, who I have written about in the past, are doing great work to preserve and promote historic Engel Stadium. They’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I’ll be writing a MiLB.com piece on their efforts, and the stadium in general, in short order.

Last night I stayed at The Crash Pad in Chattanooga, a quirky, clean and efficient) hostel. Usually I stay at team hotels on these trips, so this was a nice change of pace. Several great bars and restaurants were nearby, and there was a feeling of energy and renewal throughout the area. It’s kinds of beautiful, the juxtaposition of 21st century creations such as the Crash Pad with decaying structures from a previous era of the city’s history.

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The nearby Choo Choo Hotel, which, of course, used to be a train station.

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I’d recommend visiting Chattanooga. I really would. Today I’ll stop by the Chattanooga Lookouts’ current home of AT&T Field for a brief tour, and then drive on to Huntsville for an evening with the Stars. Wish me luck.

June 3: If you are reading this, then I am back on the road. Or, more accurately, the road is back on me. Things are slowly coming into focus.

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Here’s the itinerary this time around:

June 4: Chattanooga*

June 5: Huntsville Stars

June 6: Rome Braves

June 7: Gwinnett Braves

June 8: Hickory Crawdads

June 9: Charlotte Knights

June 10: Kannapolis Intimidators

*due to a scheduling snafu, I won’t be there in Chattanooga in time for that morning’s 11:05 a.m. Lookouts game. I will be visiting the Lookouts’ former home of  Engel Stadium, however.

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I will be up to my usual antics on this trip, hustling from place to place and writing, shooting, and tweeting along the way. As with my previous trip this season, I will not be writing blog posts until I return home. I will, however, update this post with information on my current location as well as links to whatever MiLB.com articles that may have appeared.

As always, get in touch with suggestions regarding things to do/people to talk to while on this trip. I am always open to your suggestions. And, if someone is interested in being a designated eater in Huntsville, Hickory, or Kannapolis, then let me know. (Designated eater = individual who eats the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)

Finally, here’s a map from my last road trip. Click on it, and you will be re-directed to an article that includes a version of this map that will link to all articles and blog posts from that trip. It is your duty to read every one of them. Or at least skim one or two.

Road Trip Content

Thanks for your continued support, and hope to see you on the road. Get in touch anytime.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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