Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

On the Road: All Shucks, No Jive in Cedar Rapids

To see all of my posts from my May 27, 2015 visit to the Cedar Rapids Kernels (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

When the previous post in this series had concluded, a ballgame had just begun in Cedar Rapids. Mr. Shucks, Kernels mascot extraordinaire, was overjoyed at the sight of players on the field. He always is.

042A fairly decent crowd had filed in, by Wednesday in May standards, to watch the Kernels take on the fearsome Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

040I spent the first several innings of the game with one Tim Mullin, who served as my “designated eater.” We’ll get to Tim in a separate post, but here’s a sneak peak of who we’ll be dealing with.

037After parting ways with Mr. Mullin, I was led down to a clandestine field-level area with an interesting view of the action.

052While in this area, I came face to face with the immortal Mr. Shucks.

054Meeting Mr. Shucks provided me with the opportunity to work on my “I, too, am a mascot” face.

055But I wasn’t in this ballpark location for mascot shenanigans alone. Of course not. That would be ridiculous. For I was to be a contestant in the nightly “Fish Fling” contest.

051The Fish Fling is pretty simple. I, as the contestant, would hold the net, and the fish would then be “flung” in my general direction via a slingshot. I was told that if I caught three fish in a row I’d become the inaugural member of the Fish Fling Hall of Fame, and that no one had yet earned these aquatic accolades because this game is harder than it looks. The fish, when in the air, vacillate wildly like the fish out of water that they are. Their aerial path from slingshot to net is unpredictable at best.

My camera and phone were handed off to members of the Kernel promo team, who amused themselves accordingly.

057 Mr. Shucks gave me some last minute pointers.

060And then it was time to meet my Fish Fling destiny.

062This might sound ridiculous, but I really (really, really) wanted to get into the Fish Fling Hall of Fame and I took my participation in this contest very seriously.

The first shot….

065…was a success!

064And things only got more intense from there. Let’s go to the tape.

So close, and yet so far. When the contest began I could smell, however faintly, the sweet notes of success wafting through the air. But in the end, I was yet again overwhelmed with the pungent funk of failure. (Or maybe that was just the fish?)

A defeated man in a wrinkled shirt, making the best of a deeply disappointing situation.

067Alright, enough with the self-aggrandizement cloaked in a disingenuous shroud of humility. Let’s move on.

My next stop was the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ clubhouse, which is inhabited (literally) by legendary 71-year-old clubhouse manager Ron “Roady” Plein. Here’s Roady standing in front of his in-stadium apartment, which is located directly next to the laundry room.

072And here’s Roady’s bulletin board, at the end of the hallway, showcasing many of his career highlights.

068For the full-lowdown on Roady, please refer to my MiLB.com story. This story also includes the perspective of Roady’s “protege,” 56-year-old clubhouse managing rookie Eric Oliver.

075While I was in the home clubhouse, each of the two Kernels players who passed through immediately identified me as “The Fish Guy” and remarked how entertaining my on-field failure had been to those in the dugout. Guess that’s gotta count for something.

Anyhow, after exiting the clubhouse the first thing that I saw was the Tooth Fairy. Just another night in Minor League Baseball.

076Taking inspiration from the Tooth Fairy, I then fluttered up to the press box and did an interview with Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk. Welcome to the Hawk’s Nest.

IMG_1314While in the Hawk’s Nest, I came face to face with the “Roady” bobblehead. Roady’s on the right, while on the left is a bobblehead honoring long-time bat boy “Jon-Jon” Teig.

IMG_1315In the press box, the Kernels honor their Major League alumni in just about the coolest way I’ve ever seen: with framed jumbo-sized baseball cards.

078Fun fact: While playing in Cedar Rapids, Trevor Hoffman made the decision to convert from infielder to pitcher. That ended up working out pretty well for him.

079While I was in the press box area documenting these photos, someone (I don’t know who) popped out of the control room and said “You came all this way and dropped the third fish? C’mon!”

It was that kind of night. Nothing much left to do but make a groundbreaking and subversive joke.

Further hallway explorations revealed this “Kernels Quilt,” designed by JoAnn Nelson (wife of former general manager Doug Nelson) and stitched by Jeannie Ellers of Guttenberg, Iowa.

085Time, it does not stop when I’m the midst of these baseball wanderings. A game was going on and in fact had been going on the whole time.

087But not for long, as the Kernels won by a score of 7-3. After securing victory, they mocked the visiting Timber Rattlers by forming a snake-like handshake line back into the dugout.

091And then, just like that, everybody disappeared.

093That it was it for the evening.

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But, really, there’s no need to thank me. It was my pleasure.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Prelude to a Perfect Game in Cedar Rapids

To see all of my posts from my May 27,  2015 visit to the Cedar Rapids Kernels (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The penultimate stop of my second road trip of the season was Cedar Rapids, home of the Kernels. The Kernels play at an awkwardly-named facility by  the name of “Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium,” which opened in 2002 in the same location as the “old” Veterans Memorial Stadium (which opened in 1949). The ballpark is located just off of “Kurt Warner Way,” named in honor of the Cedar Rapids high school graduate turned Super Bowl MVP.

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I had never been to Cedar Rapids before — in fact, this was the last Midwest League team I had yet to visit — and I really didn’t have too much of an idea regarding what to expect. I guess, if anything, I was expecting a more sedate Midwest League atmosphere. More Clinton, say, than West Michigan. But the Kernels’ experience is fairly riotous — a blaring sound system, many theme night promos, and colorful, chaotic concourse signage.

007It was “Free Money Wednesday” on the evening that I visited, sponsored by a local credit union. It’s simple — upon entering the ballpark, fans are handed an envelope that contains anywhere from $1 (likely) to $100 (unlikely).

Here’s what my envelope contained:

The view from the concourse behind home plate featured blue sky aplenty. This was a recurring aspect of this particular trip. Maybe I got lucky as regards the time of year that I visited, but the early evening sky in these Iowa baseball locales was consistently beautiful.

008 As opposed to a simple “Road to the Show” wall, the concourse is bedecked with stars honoring alumni who have gone on to the Major Leagues. Like this guy, who you may have heard of.

010For the record, the Kernels are one of the only teams to offer “shots” as part of of the ballpark drink menu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen shots available on the concourse before, as these concentrated blasts of hard alcohol are usually only available in private group areas with a standalone bar. (And, no, I don’t know what a “Monster” is either.)

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And speaking of hard liquor: Prior to the game, I was delighted to hear an announcement to the effect of “Fans, while the pitcher is warming up in the bullpen, let us remind you to warm up with Cedar Ridge Iowa bourbon whisky.” If I hadn’t been on the job, I most definitely would have taken them up on this offer.

Some ballpark views, before the game began:

014 IMG_1306Beyond the ballpark lies an industrial facility of some kind. I neglected to find out what said facility is dedicated to the production of.

012In the midst of these idle pre-game wanderings, I came across the “Cedar Rapids Pro Baseball Hall of Fame.” It is located within an annex of the team store.

016As the above image illustrates, the Hall of Fame was not in a particularly photogenic mood on this evening.

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This didn’t come out either, but it was what I found to be the most interesting thing in the Hall of Fame: a 1940 letter from a local radio station requesting permission to broadcast Cedar Rapids Raiders games from within the ballpark. The belief at the time was that radio broadcasts would hurt ticket sales, so the team wouldn’t allow broadcaster Bert Puckett to call games from inside. Instead, Puckett called the action from a nearby rooftop.

020Here’s the team store, to which the Hall of Fame is attached.

024Broken bats will set you back a Jackson.

026I almost never buy items in team stores, as I have too much random swag as it is. But I made an exception on this evening, purchasing this shirt featuring the logos of all Midwest League teams. Why? Because, now that I was in Cedar Rapids, I had successfully visited all 16 Midwest League clubs. Career milestone!

025Did I mention that Kernels concourse signage is rather riotous? Check out these concession stand photos featuring piece-of-corn mascot Mr. Shucks.

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032At this point in the evening, the game was ready to begin. It’s funny how that happens.

034I think my favorite National Anthem performances are those sung by local youth choirs.

And with that it was time to, yes, play ball.

041When it comes to my Cedar Rapids experience, there are many more morsels, nuggets and, of course, Kernels to report. Stay tuned.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Chips, Burgers and Beer in Peoria

To see all of my posts from my May 26, 2015 visit to the Peoria Chiefs (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The Peoria Chiefs, who played their first season in 1983, were named in honor of the Peoria Indian tribe. But, in these more culturally aware times, the team has shifted its iconography and marketing to more firefighter-oriented themes. You know, like “Fire Chiefs.”

Peoria_ChiefsThe Dozer Park concession areas follow this incendiary theme, with stands like these:

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007My designated eater on this evening — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits — had no interest in visiting either of the above two locales. This individual, one Thomas Doran, was in fact saddened at the suggestion that we do so.

031Only one thing could turn Thomas’s frown upside down . He was a big fan of Mexican cuisine, and therefore wanted to stop at a concession stand with the alliterative name of Cantina Caliente.

So that’s what we did. Pulled Pork Nachos put Thomas in much better spirits.

034Before we learn about Thomas’s food opinions, let’s learn about Thomas. He’s a 22-year-old Peoria native, and a huge fan of both the Chiefs and their parent St. Louis Cardinals. He graduated from nearby Ridgewood High School, where he managed the baseball team, and then went on to Bradley University. Thomas graduated from Bradley with a bachelor’s degree in history — “Because I’m a baseball history buff” — and he is now looking for employment at either a museum or a library. While at Bradley, Thomas remained involved with baseball as the school’s play-by-play transcriber.

In my notes it says that Thomas is a “fountain of local baseball knowledge.” Several weeks after meeting him, this is what I most remember. Throughout our various conversations his eyes would light up and his speech would quicken, in his excitement to convey various baseball facts and figures. He has a true passion for what he loves.

Thomas gave high marks to the nachos overall, due to the fact that they “pack in a lot of stuff.”

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“The chips could be stronger,” he added. “So they don’t fall apart when you scoop them.”

Thomas also enjoyed some tacos.

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He said that these were “spicy and dripping” and that he would get them again. And if you happen to be in Peoria and have a craving for Mexican food, take note: Thomas reports that the best such restaurant in town is Blue Margaritas.

036Thomas and I were soon joined by the first “designated drinker” in Ben’s Biz history, the appropriately-named Eric Cupp.
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Eric, an active-duty guard who lives in Paragould, Arkansas, is a big fan of the Cardinals and all Cardinals affiliates (particularly the Memphis Redbirds). He and his wife were in town celebrating their 15th anniversary, as part of a baseball-centric vacation that also included a Cardinals game in St. Louis as well as what would be his first game at Wrigley Field.

Eric was tasked with drinking the Chiefs’ new “Squeeze Play Ale,” created especially for the team by the Peoria Brewing Company. Strictly from a logo-perspective, this is the best team beer in Minor League Baseball.

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Eric gets to work.

“It’s smooth, but has a little bit of a bite,” said Eric. “It’s refreshing, and smooth going down. A very good beer. There’s just the right amount of flavor, to let you know that you’re still drinking a beer. It’s a shame you can’t try it, but I’m glad that you can’t.”

I can’t eat burgers either. Next, and last, up for Thomas was a “Beer Cheese Burger” from the Chiefs’ Burgertopia kiosk. I don’t think this picture really does it justice, but here you go.

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Thomas was a man of few words: “The bun’s a little soft.”

Nonetheless, he only had good things to say about his designated eating experience.

“I did it because I wanted to be on the blog,” he said. “It’s great. I get free food, that’s the best part.”

Thanks to Thomas (and Eric) for acing their “designated” responsibilities. I enjoyed getting to know them.

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On the Road: A Norm-Al Night in Peoria

To see all of my posts from my May 26, 2015 visit to the Peoria Chiefs (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

On May 25th in Clinton, I watched as Chris Mariscal’s RBI single gave the LumberKings a walk-off win over Burlington. The next day I was in Peoria, and so were the LumberKings. In the top of the 1st inning, Mariscal’s two-run homer gave them an early lead over the Chiefs.

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Home run trot

But actually watching the baseball game wasn’t my top priority. It never is. It never can be. When Ben’s Biz is at the ballpark (as opposed to his alter-ego, mild-mannered fan Ben Hill), then wandering is the order of the day.

First things first, I hid my ceremonial first pitch baseball so that someone else might find it.

Okay, maybe this wasn’t the best-phrased tweet. I ended up getting a lot of responses like this. Everybody’s a comedian.

As mentioned in the previous post, Caterpillar HQ is located in Peoria. In fact, it’s visible from the ballpark, which is called “Dozer Park,” because Caterpillar makes Dozers.  023Here, on the concourse, is a relatively new Dozer specimen.  020And here, on the other side of the concourse, is a old Dozer specimen. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.  054In between the Dozers is, yes, the best translucent playground view in all of Minor League Baseball. I did my research, and feel confident in making this assertion.

The non-translucent views are pretty good as well.

022Especially when they are in the service of welcoming a bonafide celebrity to the ballpark. Thanks, Chiefs, for the evening-long hospitality!

028Homer was most hospitable as well. At one point, he tracked me down and handed me an autographed baseball card. What a doll.

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A doll-mation, that is

After several pleasant innings spent with the evening’s “designated eater” — this will be documented in a separate post — I joined general manager Brendan Kelly for a pleasant stroll within the inside and upper levels of Dozer Park (which, by the way, is one of the few privately owned stadiums in Minor League Baseball).

Here is a conference suite, converted from what had been a largely unused section of the press box. The team rents it out on non-gamedays as well, to companies looking to conduct their business in a more-memorable-than-usual atmosphere.

042Across the hallway, one can enjoy the best translucent aerial team store view in Minor League Baseball. (Once again, I feel comfortable in making this assertion.)

043Down the hallway one can find the “Pete’s Perch” suite, named in honor of late, legendary Chiefs owner Pete Vonachen. Vonachen purchased the team in 1983, and was a Peoria Minor League Baseball fixture until his death in 2013 at the age of 87. His son, Rocky, now serves as team president.

050“Pete’s Perch” offers a great view of the game, of course.

052But perhaps even better is the memorabilia which can be found therein.

044Vonachen and Harry Caray were good friends, to the extent that Vonachen eulogized Caray at his funeral. Clearly, they had some good times and got in some trouble — to the extent that apologies and promises sometimes had to be made.

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A perhaps more heartfelt piece of Vonachen correspondence is this, from current Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. (But, c’mon Mr. Madden, you spelled Vonachen’s name wrong in the penultimate paragraph.)

046Vonachen is further immortalized on the Dozer Park concourse, via this statue depicting him in the act of benevolent ball bestowment.

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068My next stop was this outfield location, so that I could meet a pair of notable ballpark occupants….

055 …Norm and Al, a couple of ears of corn who dance on the warning track in the wake of each and every Chiefs run.

056It’s kind of a funny story, how Norm and Al came to be. When the independent Frontier League Normal CornBelters team began play in 2009, they represented a direct excursion into the Peoria baseball market. The Chiefs’ response was, essentially, “Why go to Normal to see professional baseball? We’ve got “Norm” and “Al” corn right here!”

Norm and Al (no one really seemed to know which was which) also dance during the seventh-inning stretch. I was asked if I’d like to don the ear and do some dancing, and my answer to this query was “Yup!”

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But the best dance moves at Dozer Park do not belong to Norm and Al. Not by a long shot. No one can compete with usher “Crazy Steve”, mild-mannered truck driver by day and shimmying ballpark savant by night.

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Even more alarming than all these sweet dance moves is the fact the Chiefs have their very own ballpark fire truck, a decommissioned city vehicle that the team purchased via auction. It is still functional, and the Chiefs use it for parades, community events and the like.

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Fire “Chiefs”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs had just trucked their way to a victory over the Clinton LumberKings. An early deficit, the result of Chris Mariscal’s first-inning home run for Clinton, had been overcome.

073Many of the fans stuck around after the game, clustering by the home dugout.

074Their mission was to procure an autograph from rehabbing St. Louis Cardinal outfielder John Jay.

075Jay, to his credit, stuck around until each and every fan had been accommodated. But a Major Leaguer’s work is never done, as outside the ballpark a small group of fans was sticking around for more.

IMG_1288Nor is a beleaguered Minor League blogger’s work ever done. It wasn’t until after the game that I realized that I had neglected to a “Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day.” This is the best I could do.

I hope that’s enough, because that’s all I’ve got.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: How It Plays in Peoria

To see all of my posts from my May 26, 2015 visit to the Peoria Chiefs (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Last year I visited the Rome Braves, which afforded me the opportunity to use the obvious but irresistible “When in Rome” headline. And now, one year later, I have the pleasure of utilizing another no-brainer blog headline.

On May 26 I attended a Chiefs game at Dozer Park. Yep! That meant that it was now time to see how it plays in Peoria. (The little things in life. They bring me such pleasure.) Just like in Clinton the day before, the sky was huge and blue when I arrived at the stadium.

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002Dozer Park opened in 2002 with the name of “O’Brien Field.” The “Dozer” name is the result of a naming rights deal with Caterpillar, the Peoria-based machinery and construction corporation that makes “Dozer” bulldozers.

Dozer Park is pretty on the inside.

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And, once you look past the construction barriers, the outside views of downtown are pretty nice as well.

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In the early days of my “On the Road” coverage, players interviews were done quite frequently. In recent years, however, they have been more or less an afterthought. Don’t take it personally, players, it’s just that I already have way too much to keep track of on these increasingly action-packed stadium visits.

But in Peoria, I made an exception. Prior to the ballgame, I spoke with “athlete-scholar” Nick Thompson and soon wrote a feature on him for MiLB.com. (Specifically, this feature was written in an Omaha-area hotel room two nights later with Littleman playing on mute.)

Dennis Sievers/Peoria Chiefs

Dennis Sievers/Peoria Chiefs

Thompson wasn’t in the starting line-up on this evening, at least in part because rehabbing St. Louis Cardinal John Jay was. As I walked around the stadium prior to the ballgame, I noticed that Cardinals fans were everywhere.

006And many of them were desirous of an autograph from Mr. Jay.

015These Chiefs, lacking autographs to sign, instead engaged in an elaborate game of charades.

010The view from out there:

011But out there I could not remain, for I was scheduled to be a guest on the Chiefs’ on-field pregame show, hosted by Midwest League broadcasting legend Nathan Baliva. Along the way I stopped to use the restroom, which I am mentioning because of this:

IMG_1272The Chiefs have flat-screen video ads above each urinal. The future has arrived in Pee-oria! They’re #1!

After a thorough hand-washing (I am nothing if not hygenic), I arrived on the field.

Cue the Monkees: “And then I saw his face. He’s Nathan Baliva.”
012After interviewing shortstop Oscar Mercado, Baliva turned his attention to me.

Homer enjoyed the interview. Really, that’s all that mattered to me.

013I then threw out a ceremonial first pitch, my second in as many days. It was, of course, a perfect strike. (If anyone has evidence to the contrary, then please get in touch.)

Oh say can you see?

016And then, of course, it was time to “Play Ball!” This young fan receives high marks in her “Play Ball” declaration efforts, largely for her committed effort to run away from the mic as quickly as she possibly can.

The scene, consider it set. The next post in this Peoria series will Chief-ly be concerned with what took place during the game itself. We’re going to keep on playing in Peoria.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Weather Changes Moods in Quad Cities

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Quad Cities River Bandits (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

On Sunday, May 24, I visited the Quad Cities River Bandits’ home of Modern Woodmen Park. I spent several hours at the stadium, enjoying many experiences, but one experience I did not experience was the experience of experiencing an actual ballgame. Instead, I experienced a rainout. C’est la vie, sure, but nonetheless my failure to have experienced an actual Midwest League baseball game at Modern Woodmen Park really stuck in my craw.

The following afternoon, I took in a 1 p.m. doubleheader in Clinton between the LumberKings and Burlington Bees. You might think that two games and 14 innings of Midwest League Baseball is enough for one day, but if you thought that then you thought wrong. Upon the conclusion of the Clinton twinbill I drove to Modern Woodmen Park, where the River Bandits were taking on the Peoria Chiefs in a doubleheader of their own (start time: 4 p.m.).

I arrived at Modern Woodmen Park just as the second game begun, meaning that I would be able to witness River Bandits baseball after all. Immediately, my craw became unstuck.

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The players were playing, the Ferris Wheel was spinning. The Centennial Bridge was spanning its usual distance betwixt Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. All was right with the world.

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Well, not all the players were playing. Some were just sitting around like a bunch of lazy jerks.

056The Ferris Wheel is the most prominent of the River Bandits’ ballpark amusements, but there are also zipline rides, the Drop ‘N Twist and Space Camp. Although I would’ve loved it when I was younger, I could not bring myself to attend Space Camp.

But the Ferris Wheel? Of course I’ll ride the Ferris Wheel, in all of its 105 feet of glory. This was to be my second Modern Woodmen Park Ferris Wheel ride in as many days.

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You say you want a revolution?

Along for the ride was none other than River Bandits owner Dave Heller, the man responsible for the Ferris Wheel’s purchase and installation.

IMG_1261The Ferris Wheel is open during all ballgames, as well as Friday and Saturday evenings, weekend mornings (in conjunction with a nearby Farmer’s Market) and special events.

“It’s a different way to think about the ballpark,” said Heller. “This is a wonderful way to maximize our gorgeous venue all Spring and Summer long and well into the Fall.”

This, clearly, was the view to the west.

IMG_1260Downtown Davenport:

IMG_1263Meanwhile, back on the ground, the views can still hold their own. Check out these two guys, staring intently into the back of the batter’s eye.

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Vantage point from the right field deck.

061This scoreboard is also a relatively new addition to the ballpark. I took a picture of it because Blake Drake was up to bat at the time. You’ve to got to love Blake Drake.

063As mentioned in my previous River Bandits post, one of the next major projects for the team is to expand the concourse outward and on to this rooftop area.

“We never stop improving,” said Heller, who is among the most passionate team owners I have ever met. “Every year, there’s something new.”

067Day’s transition into night was accompanied by lights.

In this photo, the River Bandits outfielder is not fielding a batted ball. Rather, it is between pitches and he has rushed over to the warning track in order to retrieve a ball that kids had dropped onto the field from the berm. These kids were really sloppy in their catching and throwing habits. I was kinda hoping, all Grinch-like, that they wouldn’t get their ball back.

071With the ballgame in its waning moments, I hurriedly delivered my groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the evening.

The seventh inning began with the River Bandits holding a 3-2 lead, just three outs from victory. But victory was not to be theirs, as the Chiefs scored four runs in the top of the frame and went on to win by a score of 6-3.

This disappointing conclusion to the ballgame was followed by the ceremonial throwing of tennis balls onto the field. (And, yes, that is a washing machine stationed just past the second base bag.)
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The Ferris Wheel lights were then shut off for the evening, a symbolic conclusion to a day in which I had seen three games totaling 21 innings at two Midwest League stadiums. (I then drove right on over to another Midwest League city, Peoria, as I would be seeing the Chiefs the next day.)

076Good night from Modern Woodmen Park. I’m glad that I was able to see a game here, after all. Everything works out in the end.

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On the Road: Deep-fried Everything in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

As you can see, the Clinton LumberKings offer a fairly extensive concession menu.

037Upon close inspection, however, there’s one item that stands out above the rest.

The Garbage Pail.

At $8.50 this is the most expensive item on the menu, and the only one that explicitly warns that substitutions are not allowed. Per LumberKings concession manager Kathleen Ward, it generally contains “mini-tacos, chicken strips, french fries, onion rings, cheese balls, corn nuggets, poppers, corn dogs and sometimes beef sticks.”

I don’t think beef sticks were in this one, but everything else was and then some. This is the Garbage Pail, in all its glory.

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Ward is one of the creators of the Garbage Pail, the original iteration of which dates back to over a decade ago.

“We always had fried food left over,” she told me. “So we finally went to [general manager] Ted [Tornow] and said, ‘Can we just put it all together and call it the Garbage Pail?’ He said, ‘I have no problem with that.'”

She continued, “At that time it was super-small and it was, like, three bucks. … It was literally the leftovers. Cook’s choice. [Fans] didn’t get to pick, and they knew it. But they loved it, and now it’s grown to eight different things. A family of four could eat a Garbage Pail now and be very happy. And men drinking a lot of beer eat one by themselves.”

My designated eater (the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was not a man drinking a lot of beer. Rather, my designated eater was — shocker! — a woman.  She wasn’t drinking beer, but she was nonetheless amenable to having a large heap of fried food placed in front of her.

Meet Amanda Cady.

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Amanda was at the LumberKings game along with her husband, Cory, and son, Alex.

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The Cadys were a fun family to get to know, however briefly. Cory, a machinist by trade, has amassed a collection of some 110 hats. In the above photo, he’s sporting a Fourth of July edition LumberKings cap.

“It’s a little ridiculous,” said Amanda. “The guys at Lids know him by name.”

Alex, meanwhile, is sporting a Round Rock Express cap because he loves trains. Alex, who Amanda said is a “local celebrity” at the ballpark, has autism. Amanda and Cory are heavily involved with a local organization, Strides for Clinton County Autism, raising money for special-needs teachers and other such educational initiatives.

“We just want Alex to have the same opportunities that everyone else has,” said Amanda.

Here’s a closer look at the shirt she was wearing.

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Amanda grew up in Clinton and has been going to ballgames at the Midwest League ballpark now known as Ashford University Field all her life. Her uncle, Brian Eggers, served as LumberKings assistant general manager from 1987 through 1994. Among many memories from that time, she recalled going to afternoon dinners at her grandmother’s house and playing ball in the street with members of the team.

As for the Garbage Pail, Amanda said she’s “been eating it ever since they had it.” (I wonder if, back then, she was a Garbage Pail Kid.)

The Garbage Pail is a bit monochromatic, and it can be difficult to discern exactly what lurks beneath the deep-fried breading. Amanda said she challenges herself to identify and then eat one specimen of every item before repeating herself. It’s a noble strategy.

Here, Amanda breaks down that which lurks therein. She’s a Garbage Pail expert.

You’ll notice that some of these items differ from those listed at the top of this post, but Amanda said that minor deviations are common. When it comes to the Garbage Pail, there’s always “some kind of surprise.”

Amanda’s favorite item in the Garbage Pail pantheon would be the corn nuggets.

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Yeah, corn nuggets.

And, jeez, I’m just now realizing that that’s all I’ve got from this Garbage Pail-centric portion of my afternoon with the LumberKings. Thanks to Amanda for  being a good sport and knowledgeable fried food consumer. Hopefully her appearance in this post helps spread the word that women can be designated eaters too. It need not be the male-dominated sphere that it has been thus far.

Yours in equality,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Two for the Price of One in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Greetings once again from Ashford University Field in Clinton, Iowa. A Memorial Day doubleheader between the LumberKings and fellow small-market Iowans the Burlington Bees had just begun.

042I spent a good portion of the first game of the doubleheader sitting on a picnic bench located down the left field line.

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From this vantage point, I documented the “Garbage Pail” exploits of that afternoon’s Designated Eater (this will be written about in a separate post). Next, I spoke with ballpark mainstay Ray Gimenez.

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Gimenez has a unique story, so much so that I’ve already written an article about him on MiLB.com. In a nutshell, he was born in Cuba, raised in the Bronx and first spent time in Clinton as a member of the 1973 Clinton Pilots (who were managed by Jim Leyland). Gimenez stayed in Clinton after his playing career ended, raising a family and attending theological school. He now runs a homeless shelter in the city, and also assists Hispanic players as they learn the English language and American culture in general.

“There’s a closeness and an interaction that I’ve always loved about the Clinton stadium,” said Gimenez. “I do a lot of preaching and a lot of traveling, but I’m so glad that God allows me time to be with the game I love. I love it, man. I just love it.”

Seven-inning games move by pretty quickly when you’re immersed in conversation and/or preoccupied with concession documentation. The LumberKings won the first game by a score of 5-1.

Time for a National Anthem redux, and then on to the nightcap.

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Via a subsequent lap around the concourse, I discovered that the LumberKings are (perhaps the) only team to have an on-site lending library. I can’t say I was too impressed by the current selection, which included Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2, Titanic Survivor and Cats (“16 full-color pages inside”).

044I soon decided that chicken soup for my soul would involve actually sitting down and watching baseball. I really like how this in-game snippet turned out.

But whenever I’m in Ben’s Biz-mode, I can’t settle in and watch baseball for long. I’m always distracting myself with tasks large and small, such as the need to come up with that day’s “Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke.”

Inspiration came in the form of this sign.

045Okay, not my best work, but whatever:

Back to watching baseball, then.

046But, you know, not for long. In the fifth inning, my vantage point changed once again.

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My destination was the press box, a most foreboding press box indeed. This sign, simplified, can be interpreted as: “Scram, fans”.

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But I was no mere fan. I was an esteemed member of the national media, there to do an inning on the radio.

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The LumberKings broadcast booth was an amusing environment. and I think the above photo sums it up. #2 broadcaster Greg Mroz was on the air, and throughout his play-by-play he would throw in random asides regarding United States towns that share the same name with notable foreign cities (i.e. Moscow, Idaho). Many of  these town names were texted to him by PA announcer Brad Seward, who resides in the booth next door.

When I went on the air the following half-inning, some sort of technical difficulty ensued and we quickly went off the air. That’s life in Minor League Baseball, particularly when working in a stadium built in 1937. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor, and these guys definitely did.

With the score tied 1-1, I returned to the grandstand to watch the seventh inning. In the bottom of the frame, Taylor Zeutenhorst drew a walk, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Chris Mariscal’s single to right field. The LumberKings had swept the doubleheader.

And thus ended my 14-inning afternoon at Ashford University Field. I’ll let Brad Seward send you all on home.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Small Market Under a Big Sky in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Day Three of my 2015 road trip through the Midwest had me in Clinton, Iowa, for a Memorial Day doubleheader between the LumberKings and visiting Burlington Bees. It seems to be a matter of debate whether Clinton or Burlington is the smallest market in full-season Minor League Baseball. Regardless, there’s no debate that both teams are distinct anomalies within a league (and industry) increasingly populated by shiny amenity-drenched ballparks located within downtown city centers.

The LumberKings play at Ashford University Field, which opened in 1937 as Riverview Stadium. It has been renovated several times through the decades, most recently in 2006, but retains a timeless, old-fashioned feel.

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When I arrived at the ballpark, loiterers were nowhere to be found. Parking lot signage works! And here’s a rhetorical question for you: How great is a sign that says “Warning: Baseball Games Played Here”?

IMG_1243Clouds don’t obey signage, even if it is issued by a Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Many of them were loitering above the stadium, accentuating the beauty of the radiant blue sky.

007After executing a successful 180 degree rotation of my body, I took a photo of the surrounding area. This is small-town Minor League Baseball, to be sure.

009I entered the ballpark via the front office, which is identified by a sign that looks like it was made by a moonlighting park ranger.

008Apropos of nothing, but one of the first individuals I was introduced to was a visiting clubhouse manager who bears a more than a passing resemblance to Mario Batali. This celebrity chef doppelganger is named Andy, though I failed to note his last name. It’s not like I’m a professional journalist or anything.

011I also made an acquaintance with a PA booth possum.

012The PA booth is the domain of Brad Seward who, when not at the ballpark, works as director of operations for the Clinton County Area Solid Waste Agency.

014Fans were beginning to filter in at this point, however slowly. Due to a rainout the night before, that day’s start time had been moved up an hour in order to accommodate what would now be a pair of seven-inning games.

016The LumberKings are a community-owned team, and throughout the afternoon I spent a lot of time speaking with members of the board who devote significant time and energy to keeping the franchise healthy and viable amid a rapidly-changing Minor League landscape. These interviews, largely arranged via LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow, will be the focus of an upcoming piece on MiLB.com.

Some snapshots of the ballpark stalwarts who will be featured in the piece.

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038But, again, I’ll save that deeper dive into the LumberKings for an MiLB.com piece. Here on the blog, I’ll simply offer a lackadaisical chronicle of what, again, was a beautiful day for baseball in Clinton, Iowa.

019But before the professionals took the field, an amateur did. That amateur was a weirdo niche baseball writer by the name of: Me!

Another day, another city, another ceremonial first pitch perfect strike.

Thanks to Daniel Foley, a fellow baseball traveler who I crossed path with several times on this trip, for documenting this pitch on social media. (Note, also, mascot Louie the Lumberking poking his head out beyond the fence.) My ceremonial first pitch catcher was second baseman Nelson Ward, who has since been promoted to Class A Advanced Bakersfield. Let this be a message to players across the Minors — catch one of my ceremonial first pitches, and good things will happen to you.

Note, also, that the Midwest League is now using Richard A. Nussbaum-autographed baseballs. This past offseason, Nussbaum took over for longtime MWL president George Spelius. (I visited Spelius in his Beloit, Wisconsin, league office in 2013.)

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Play ball!

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The game(s) had begun, but this post has ended. Stay tuned for part two of this Clinton blog series, which, truth be told, will be very similar to part one. Why mess with a good thing?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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