Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

On the Road: Getting Some Bang for the Buck in St. Lucie

To see all of my posts from this visit to the St. Lucie Mets (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

We’ve reached the final installment of this St. Lucie trilogy, which could mean a lot of things, but in this case only means one thing: It’s Designated Eater Time!

You know the drill by now, but if not: The Designated Eater is an individual I recruit at each ballpark I visit, and this individual is tasked with eating the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

In St. Lucie, this individual was Jay Meyer.

045Jay, originally from New York, moved to Boca Raton when he was 5 years old. He’s been a Minor League Baseball fan for over 20 years, going back to the days of the Fort Lauderdale Red Sox, but the St. Lucie Mets have long been his favorite squad. As you can see from his shirt, he has St. Lucie team pride.

Jay graduated from Florida State University medical school and is doing his residency at West Virginia University in Morgantown. His ultimate goal is to be a pediatrician. He said that he had been “going through baseball withdrawal” in Morgantown, a situation that should be alleviated next month when the New York-Penn League’s Morgantown Black Bears begin their inaugural season. Nonetheless, Jay says that the Sunshine State is where his heart is.

“Eventually, I want to come back home to Florida,” said Jay. “It’s what I know.”

OK, time to set the culinary scene with my evocative words and even more evocative pictures. Jay began his designated eating journey here, near the Tiki Bar.

027Just around the corner from the Tiki Bar, there is this concession stand.

046It was Buck Night — or was it Dollar Night? — at Tradition Field. Jay took full advantage.

Yep: Five hot dogs, five bucks. Jay was pleased with this arrangement.

038Specifically, these are Nathan’s Hot Dogs.

“They’re good. They’re Nathan’s,” said Jay. “It’s not the same as the [original] New York Nathan’s [in Coney Island], but for $1 you can’t lose. But it doesn’t have the same texture, the same skin, as the original Nathan’s. But it’s still good.”

Jay also enjoyed, or at least tolerated, an order of Nathan’s fries (he can be seen holding one such fry at the top of this post). My attempt at a closeup didn’t work so well, but here you go:

050“The fries are not as good as [the original] Nathan’s,” said Jay. “I like ’em more crunchy and hard.”

While Jay was indulging in his hot dogs and fries, I went and procured myself a Taco in a Helmet. At $6, the Taco in a Helmet is kind of a hard sell on dollar night, but dollar-night promos rarely include a decent gluten-free option and that’s what I was looking for.

Tortilla chips topped with ground beef, salsa, jalapenos, sour cream, lettuce and shredded cheese, modeled by a 30-something baseball writer who is — yes, ladies — single once again.

037Taco in a Helmet — ready for its closeup.

041When you’re done, turn it around and  — Bam! — souvenir.

044Speaking of souvenirs, here’s a #cupdate for all you cup-collecting fiends who will otherwise hound me day and night with your cup-related requests.

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043Finally, dessert! I don’t think I’d ever seen this at a Minor League ballpark before.

049The above photo depicts “Dirt in a Hat” — chocolate pudding with Oreo crumbles and Gummy worms.

051“I like it. It’s good, a perfect way to end the game,” said Jay. “It’s a good combo, the Oreos and the pudding are crunchy and creamy and then there’s the sweetness of the worms. It’s a win-win.”

And that’s when Jay and I parted ways, as he was enjoying the sweetness of the worms.

053Thanks for everything, Jay. You performed your designated eating duties with aplomb and verve.

And thanks for everything, St. Lucie. I really enjoyed my evening at Tradition Field.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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On the Road: Meeting the Mets in St. Lucie

To see all of my posts from this visit to the St. Lucie Mets (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Stop number six on my season-opening Florida road trip was Tradition Field, home of the St. Lucie Mets. Like most Florida State League ballparks, Tradition Field doubles as the Spring Training home of the parent club.

Therefore, it is big. Very, very big.

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Tradition Field opened in 1988; it has since been extensively renovated. The facility has been known as Tradition Field on two non-consecutive occasions, making it the Grover Cleveland of Minor League ballparks. The Tradition Field moniker was first used from 2004-09, the result of a naming rights deal with the 8200-acre master planned community known as Tradition, Florida. This was followed by a three year-stint in which the stadium was known by the far clunkier name of Digital Domain Park, but prior to the 2013 season Tradition, Florida re-assumed the name.

Maybe it was all part of their master plan?

My master plan was to get to the ballpark early enough to do a few clubhouse interviews, related to the previous night’s Jackie Robinson Celebration Game in Vero Beach (which featured St. Lucie as the “home” team).

This was my view as I lurked awkwardly outside of the clubhouse while waiting for media relations manager/team broadcaster Adam MacDonald to corral my victims subjects.

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One of the individuals with whom I spoke was St. Lucie Mets pitching coach Phil Regan. Regan, 78, made his professional baseball debut as a member of the 1956 Jamestown Falcons. (That season, he pitched 229 innings. Can you imagine a 19-year-old prospect handling that kind of workload in today’s game?)

I ended up turning my conversation with Regan into a standalone MiLB.com feature, as this is a guy who has many, many stories to tell. I barely scratched the surface.

dodgertown_960_bjt7w58s_mmz7l2s3Conversations complete, MacDonald and I took a stroll around the area.

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On the Road: Visiting an Historic Destination in Vero Beach

To see all of my posts from this visit to Historic Dodgertown (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The fifth stop on this, my first Minor League ballpark road trip of the season, was Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Historic Dodgertown, which opened in 1948 without the “Historic” designation, is a former naval barracks converted by Branch Rickey into the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Spring Training home. Its creation was largely motivated by the desire to provide the team with a racially integrated training site.

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The sprawling grounds of Dodgertown — words which should be a refrain in a Bruce Springsteen song — include Holman Stadium.

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This facility hasn’t hosted a Minor League Baseball team since 2008 (RIP Vero Beach Devil Rays), but it comes alive each April 15 for the annual Jackie Robinson Celebration Game. The 2015 iteration of this game was to feature the Brevard County Manatees and St. Lucie Mets. This is what I was in Vero Beach to witness.

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On the Road: Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson in Vero Beach

To see all of my posts from this visit to Historic Dodgertown (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

I visited eight ballparks on my April 2015 Florida road trip. Of these eight ballparks, 62-year-old Holman Stadium was the most memorable.

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Holman Stadium hasn’t hosted a Minor League team since 2008. The annual Jackie Robinson Celebration Game, first implemented in 2014 and on track to be a recurring event for years to come, represents the only chance to witness a professional baseball played at this facility. I wrote all about the Jackie Robinson game over on MiLB.com. A relevant excerpt follows, though I’d ask that you please read the whole thing if time and attention span allow.

Dodgertown, located in Vero Beach, Florida, served as the Dodgers’ Spring Training home from 1948 through 2008. The 80-acre facility, now officially known as “Historic Dodgertown” has since found a second life as a multi-sport training and tournament venue. But, once a year, Dodgertown returns to its professional baseball roots with the Florida State League’s Jackie Robinson Celebration Game.

The 2015 Jackie Robinson Celebration Game took place on Wednesday, April 15, a day on which Robinson’s legacy is celebrated throughout professional baseball. The game’s participants were the Brevard County Manatees and St. Lucie Mets — the Florida State League teams located nearest Vero Beach — and a near-capacity crowd of 5,915 was on hand at Dodgertown’s Holman Stadium to witness it. Holman Stadium, which last hosted a Minor League Baseball team in the form of the FSL’s Vero Beach Devil Rays in 2008, was built on the Dodgertown grounds in 1953. The first player to hit a home run in the stadium was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson is truly a man worth celebrating…

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…and it was a beautiful day for a ballgame.

016This was my first time in Vero Beach, but I’ve been on this beat long enough that I occasionally used to cover the promotions staged by the Vero Beach Devil Rays (the last team to play at Holman Stadium and, also, the last team to use the “Devil Rays” name).

Here, for example, is a guy using a urine cup (distributed as part of an “Anti-Doping Night” promotion) to hold his beer.

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And here, mascot Squeeze forces the British to surrender during “Revolutionary War Night.

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There would be no such shenanigans on this evening, of course. The Jackie Robinson Celebration Game is a decidedly more straightforward affair.

I arrived before the gates opened, giving me the opportunity to photograph the seats before they were occupied. And what an opportunity it was.

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On the Road: Dining at the Dean in Jupiter

To see all of my posts from this visit to Roger Dean Stadium (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Florida State League food options are generally quite spartan. While many teams in the industry are known for their overstuffed culinary bombast, those in the FSL often adhere to an austere minimalism. The league is a Terry Riley in a sea of King Crimsons.

But enough with the alienating and indulgent references. I’m here to write — and you’re hear to read — about the food offerings at Roger Dean Stadium (home of both the Jupiter Hammerheads and Palm Beach Cardinals). Once Major League Spring Training is in the rear view, the facility tones downs its concession offerings considerably. This makes sense, because a typical Florida State League crowd is approximately 1/8th the size of those who flock to the stadium to watch the big leaguers play exhibition games in March.

On the night I was in attendance — April 14, for those keeping score at home — the Jupiter Hammerheads were in town. And my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was a young go-getter by the name of Stephen Goldsmith.

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Stephen, a native of Princeton, New Jersey, is a senior at Boca Raton’s Lynn University. In fact, he’ll be graduating on Saturday (May 16) with a degree in sports management. (Lynn’s sports management program is run by professor Ted Curtis, a hands-on individual who annually brings groups of students to the Winter Meetings so that they may experience the machinations and maneuverings of the baseball industry firsthand. In this capacity, he and his students regularly makes appearances on this blog.)

This marked Stephen’s second game at Roger Dean Stadium. He said that he signed up to be a designated eater simply for the “chance to do something new when attending the ballgame.” Stephen will soon be garnering plenty of new baseball experiences, however, as upon graduating he’ll move to Ohio in order to begin an internship with the New York-Penn League’s Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

Our journey began in the quiet concourse of Roger Dean Stadium.

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The Island Grill was the only game in town, concessions-wise.

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The sky was the limit for Stephen, who was the beneficiary of this bit of front office largesse. When Ben Hill is in town, he gets “whatever he wants, all night long.” It says so in my rider.

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We simply ordered everything that was on the menu: a “Dean Dog,” brat, “Super Nachos” and Italian sausage.

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Have at it, Stephen:

Stephen was able to masticate so unselfconsciously because we were in a secluded area of the ballpark. The only people around were some kids having a catch.

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Oh, and a couple of his friends were on hand as well. That’s Morgan Goldstein on the left and Zachary Umanski on the right, both of whom, like Stephen, attend Lynn University.

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Umanski, for the record, has now made two appearances on this blog. I’m sure he’ll be putting this on his resume.

IMG_0547 Okay, Stephen. What did you think about the bounty that had been laid before you?

“I’m a big sausage fan. I’ve had a lot of sausage,” he said. “I think this one was cooked really well. The brat was really good, too, especially in the middle portion. Just a smooth taste, and the addition of the mustard makes it that much better. The Dean Dog, it was a regular hot dog. Usually I have a hot dog with mustard but I wanted to try it with ketchup. It tasted fine.”

As for the “Super Nachos”?

“Eh, they’re just nachos.”

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Oh, and there was Carly’s Italian Ice for dessert — which I, for one, greatly enjoyed.

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I’m not sure that Stephen enjoyed the Italian ice, however. He seemed to be in a state of deep regret.

“It was good, and very filling,” he said. “I would have liked my taste buds to have been more challenged, though, because I can get a hot dog on the street.”

048Nearly a month has passed, so I hope Stephen is feeling a little better these days. And keep an eye out for him at the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ home of Eastwood Field this season. His opinions on sausage are worth listening to.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Earth People, I Saw a Game in Jupiter

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jupiter Hammerheads (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

I guess I should take a moment to find out why the town of Jupiter, Florida — where Roger Dean Stadium is located — came to be called “Jupiter.” That’s a pretty strange name for a town. I don’t think I’d ever spent time in a place named after a planet in our solar system (keep your jokes to yourself).

And, wow, this is an interesting explanation. Per Wikipedia:

The area where the town now sits was originally named for the Hobe Indian tribe which lived at the mouth of the Loxahatchee River, and whose name is also preserved in the name of nearby Hobe Sound. A mapmaker misunderstood the Spanish spelling “Jobe” of the Indian name “Hobe” and recorded it as “Jove”. Subsequent mapmakers further misunderstood this to be the Latin translation of the god Jupiter, and they anglicized the name from Jove to “Jupiter”.

Too bad. “Hobe Hammerheads” would’ve had a nice ring to it. So, here we are in Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium. While the first post in this series explored the backfields and clubhouses, now we’re in the stadium itself.

Welcome.

027The above picture was taken from a camera well, from which Major League Spring Training games are filmed and then disseminated to the exhibition game-crazed masses. On the Tuesday evening I was in attendance, the media presence was sparse. Non-existent, even.

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The press box gets packed during Spring Training, however. Especially when the Marlins were the home team, as approximately 30 reporters followed Ichiro’s every move.

I, however, am a reporter who follows no man. The only person I follow is whoever’s showing me the way to the mound so that I can throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Just like in Dunedin the night before, I threw a perfect strike.

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The player who caught my first pitch was outfielder Harold Riggins.

“Nice toss,” he told me. “I see you’ve been working.”

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I’m now a Harold Riggins fan. He has the smiling-est headshot in Minor League Baseball.

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It was now almost game time. Riggins and his cronies took the field for the singing of our National Anthem.

034They were joined by local youth.

035The game was underway, the atmosphere pleasant but a little lacking in energy.

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Especially on the concourse:

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It was soon time for my to take my nightly RMS (requisite mascot shot). This one didn’t come out all that well. But please know that this is a shark. A shark named Hamilton R. Head.

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Usually I’m the one pestering people at the ballpark. It’s basically my job. But tonight the tables were turned. Tuesdays are “Knothole Gang Kids Club” nights at Roger Dean Stadium, and one of the recurring features of such a night is a “Knothole Gang Scavenger Hunt.”

Thus, I became the hunted.

IMG_0941It was funny — and flattering — to be approached by random kids asking to take their pictures with me. They had no idea who I am, but that’s okay. Neither does anyone else.

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While not posing for selfies with local youth, I interviewed Roger Dean general manager Mike Bauer about what it’s like to transition from Major League Spring Training to the Florida State League. Some relevant excerpts from the ensuing MiLB.com story, which helps put the sleepy Tuesday night that I am currently documenting in context.

“It’s truly a challenge within the Florida State League, having two teams, because 140 games is a lot of games. You lose a sense of ‘Hey, catch ’em all’ because we’re here every day. But during the Minor League season we have a chance to let our hair down a little bit, do Kids Club activities and promotions like barbecue festivals and ‘Star Wars Night’ and all those things that the families enjoy. Whereas Spring Training is a little more black and white. It’s about baseball and the food. That’s what it is.”

“[In the Florida State League] we don’t market an equal number of Palm Beach and Hammerheads games. We market the weekends and we market the holidays however they fall, because the arrangement is that, although they’re two separate teams, financially it’s all one pot. [The Marlins and Cardinals] go in together and split everything down the middle.”

After talking with Bauer I met with my designated eater for the evening, but we’ll save that for the next post. Once that had concluded, night had fallen. How dramatic.

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Lottery tickets were awarded to lucky fans atop the dugout.

052And, of course, jokes were told.

I then visited the broadcast booth, witnessing Paul Heinzkill on the play-by-play.

053When I expressed confusion re: Paul’s last name, he told me “It’s ketchup [Heinz] and kill. Yeah, I’ve got mustard on my shirt but it’s ketchup.” Heinzkill then vacated the booth, and I did an inning on the radio with broadcaster Lisa Pride. Thanks, Lisa.

The view from the top:

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Toward the end of the ballgame, I start to get a little loopy.

Finally, I stopped by the team store.

054Merchandise manager Linda Hanson told me that this store did $1.1 million of revenue during Spring Training, with the number one selling item being a “red, adjustable, Spring Training-themed St. Louis Cardinals hat.” Approximately 8,000 of these were sold.

“We’d have a line 40-50 deep of people just waiting to get in the store,” said Hanson, adding that the merchandise could quickly be “flipped” depending on whether the home team was the Cardinals or the Marlins.

When I was talking to Hanson, the game ended. The Threshers won, 6-1, in a game that took two hours and 44 minutes to play in front of a crowd of 927.

Finally, some urinal ads for you to enjoy from the Roger Dean men’s room. Sorry that I don’t have streaming video.

IMG_0946New blog posts will keep trickling in as well. Stay tuned.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

 

On the Road: Journeying Far Afield in Jupiter

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jupiter Hammerheads (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Roger Dean Stadium is located in Jupiter, Florida. More specifically, it is located in Abacoa, a planned community within Jupiter that includes both residential and commercial districts as well as ample public outdoor space.

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I barely had the chance to explore Abacoa, but my initial impression was that it was beautiful but also disconcerting. It seemed surreal to me, choosing to live within such a controlled, self-contained environment. I’m saying this as a nouveau Brooklynite who once got turned away from my local laundromat because an episode of Girls was filming there. What is real, anyway?

Let’s go check out a Minor League Baseball stadium.

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Walking down this idyllic paved road leads one to an idyllic stadium exterior. Welcome to Roger Dean Stadium.

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Roger Dean Stadium: it’s a busy place! This facility, which opened in 1998, is the Spring Training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. Then, during the season, it is the home of both the Cardinals and Marlins’ Florida State League affiliates (the Palm Beach Cardinals and Jupiter Hammerheads, respectively). It also hosts the rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliates of both organizations — who play on the backfields — as well as a wide variety of youth, high school and collegiate baseball tournaments. Between Spring Training and the Florida State League, the main field hosts some 170 professional baseball games a year.

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In February of 2014, I wrote a story about all of this activity. A relevant excerpt:

Roger Dean Stadium was built in 1998 with the specific intent of accommodating two teams, and therefore each tenant has its own clubhouse, practice fields and training facilities. During its first six seasons of existence, the ballpark hosted the Cardinals and Montreal Expos, but after the latter team dissolved, a series of transactions resulted in the Marlins organization taking their place.

“What we have is a partnership between the two teams called Jupiter Stadium Limited, and I’m the general manager of that partnership,” said Roger Dean general manager Mike Bauer, going on to explain that the “Roger Dean” moniker is the result of a naming rights deal with a local car dealership.

There’s a lot of ground to cover at a place like this. Almost as soon as I arrived at the ballpark, assistant general manager Alex Inman and marketing and promotions manager Jeffrey Draluck gave me a golf cart-assisted tour of the ample back fields. Both the Cardinals and the Marlins have their own quad, as well as an additional half-field, three sets of batting cages and three bullpen mounds.

It all adds up to 110 acres of baseball-centric land. This panorama is the only photo I got that remotely comes close to conveying the vastness.

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Here we are on the Marlins side of the action. The half-field there on the right side is named “The Bone Yard,” after Marlins infield coach Perry “Bone” Hill. (Not to be confused with me, Ben “Bone” Hill.)

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Bone is widely regarded as one the best — if not the best — infield coaches in baseball. Here’s a short video of him in action, filmed during 2015 Spring Training. As you’ll notice, these back fields are open to the public, giving fans a chance to see the players hone their skills in an intimate environment.

Next up was to check out the clubhouses. Specifically, the Cardinals clubhouse, as the Marlins’ clubhouse was in use by the Jupiter Hammerheads (the home team on the evening I was in town).

This locker room is used by the big league Cardinals in Spring Training. During the season, the Palm Beach Cardinals take over. Pretty nice accommodations for the Class A Advanced level, eh?

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The clubhouse snack offerings include Grinds. I once wrote a story about Grinds.

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In the hallway, we passed cubbyholes stacked with fan mail for the Cardinals players. The big stack there on the left was mail addressed to Michael Wacha. Hopefully it’ll make its way to St. Louis at some point soon.

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Also in the hallway — banners celebrating Minor League championships won by Cardinal affiliates.

It is important to note, however, that during Spring Training the clubhouses are strictly segregated by class. I was told that, one year, Cardinals Major League players (jokingly?) put up stanchions to keep Minor Leaguers from entering their hallowed ground.

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The Minor League Spring Training clubhouse looks like this. Once the season starts it is used by guys in Extended Spring Training and, later, the Gulf Coast League.

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All players have access to the weight room, but class distinctions remain.

IMG_0934The training room…

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…complete with the requisite accoutrements.

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If a refresher course on the human anatomy is needed, then Yadier’s got you covered.

023 I didn’t get to visit the Marlins clubhouse — there were Hammerheads in there — but I was told that it’s pretty much the same as the Cardinals (minus the signage).

026 I, meanwhile, welcome you to read the next post in this Roger Dean blogging series. It will cover that evening’s ballgame, between the Hammerheads and visiting Clearwater Threshers.

Shark fight!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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The Best Seat in the House: My View

What Minor League team offers the best ballpark views?

That’s the question that MiLB.com’s “Best Seat in the House” contest is currently seeking to determine, via an online vote among 66 MiLB teams. Vote now; the winners will be announced on May 21.

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In my now-established role as wandering MiLB ballpark minstrel, I’ve visited 24 of the top 30 ballparks in the current voting. Though I may not have sat in the exact seats or section highlighted in the Best Seat in the House contest, I can speak to the spectacular nature to the ballpark views found in these stadiums. What follows is my personal Top 10, presented alphabetically by stadium name (it’s already hard enough to choose 10, ranking them in a specific order would be too much for my fragile psyche to bear).

As an added bonus, each team name is linked to my corresponding blog post describing my visit:

AutoZone Park (Memphis Redbirds) — A downtown stadium should always have downtown views.

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BB&T Ballpark (Charlotte Knights) — The city skyline threatens to swallow the ballpark whole.

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Dell Diamond (Round Rock Express) — Okay, so this is a view of those enjoying the views. But it doesn’t get much better than watching a game from an outfield concourse rocking chair.

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Modern Woodmen Park (Quad Cities River Bandits) — Centennial Bridge backdrop (the bridge crosses the Mississippi River, connecting Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois):

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Pensacola Bayfront Stadium (Pensacola Blue Wahoos) — The Pensacola Bay lies beyond right field, and beyond the bay lies the Gulf of Mexico.

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PNC Field (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders) — The outfield concourse incorporates the stadium’s natural surroundings very nicely.

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Richmond County Bank Ballpark (Staten Island Yankees) — This is not the best representation, as this photo is from a foggy night. But the lower Manhattan skyline is visible from across the water. It is, as always, an awe-inspiring sight.

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Southwest University Park (El Paso Chihuahuas) — The Franklin Mountains loom beyond left-center field. (Meanwhile, behind the ballpark, Juarez, Mexico, is clearly visible.)

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Victory Field (Indianapolis Indians) — Technically, no one is allowed to sit up here. But the view from the roof is awesome.

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Whataburger Field (Corpus Christi Hooks) — Harbor Bridge beckons.

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Once again, you can vote in the Best Seat in the House contest HERE. Do you agree with my Top 10 picks? Who are you voting for, and why? Per usual, I’m amenable to having a conversation about this and all Minor League-related matters. Feel free to get in touch anytime.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: An All-Access Pass in Dunedin

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my posts from this visit to the Dunedin Blue Jays (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The Dunedin Blue Jays are the lowest-attended team in full-season Minor League Baseball’s lowest-attended league. I attended a game there on a Monday — Minor League Baseball’s lowest-attended day.

Therefore, I was really psyched to be there!

019 No, really, I was — and not just because it was “Ben Hill Night.”

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I was psyched to attend this game because I truly love these sort of environments, as teams operating on the margins of the industry are prone to be more creative with their promotions and, in general, a loose anything-goes sort of vibe prevails. Sparsely attended games within older stadiums in smaller markets are, strangely enough, when the ballpark atmosphere seems most alive to me. Eccentric characters are easier to find; connections are easier to make.

So, yeah: While it’s always great to visit shiny new ballparks with all the amenities — your Charlottes, your Nashvilles, your El Pasos — it is perhaps even greater to  spend time in the lesser-known locales as well. I don’t just feel obligated to visit the likes of Bakersfield, Kannapolis, Beloit and Dunedin. I genuinely want to.

As for the D-Jays’ home Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, built in 1990, you have no excuse not to visit. Last season, the team became the first in Minor League Baseball to offer the Universal Rain Check (an initiative first advocated for within this blog).

I wrote an article about the Universal Rain Check for MiLB.com; below please find a relevant excerpt:

Baseball history was made in Dunedin, Florida on July 19, 2014, as the first Universal Rain Check was redeemed.

A “Universal Rain Check” might initially sound like a strange concept, but it is just what its name implies: Fans may redeem a ticket from any rained-out Minor League Baseball game for a game at the Dunedin Blue Jays’ home of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Whether that ticket is from the Vancouver Canadians (located some 3,200 miles away) or the nearby Clearwater Threshers, the fan in possession of it is assured of complimentary admission.

The Universal Rain Check is the brainchild of D-Jays director of marketing and social media Nate Kurant, who was inspired to implement the program after going on a Minor League road trip with a friend.

“In 2013, we went from Charleston to Savannah to Jacksonville; we went north and then came back south,” said Kurant. “And every day there was about a 70 percent chance of rain. And like most traveling Minor League fans — if it rains and that’s your day in the city, that’s it. I came back, and the idea met opportunity here in Dunedin. We have a few seats available.”

Okay, maybe not this many seats available, but let’s just say that sellouts are few and far between.

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Still confused by how the Universal Rain Check works? Don’t dismay — I, along with D-Jays director of marketing and social media Nate Kurant, filmed a dramatic re-enactment. (You might have to turn the volume up a little bit, as my voice didn’t project all that well through the plexi-glass.)

Bibliophiles visiting the Dunedin Blue Jays should make sure to strike up conversation with box office employee Jack Whitaker, who is an English major. When not selling tickets, he’s reading books such as Foucault’s Discipline  and Punish.

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I wish that I had had more time to explore the town of Dunedin, as by all accounts it is a very picturesque location. But that was my Foucault, as I had had to rush to the ballpark after visiting Minor League Baseball headquarters in St. Petersburg earlier in the afternoon. That visit, among other things, produced this brilliant Vine video filmed under the patient direction of Minor League Baseball director of communications Jeff Lantz

Anyhow, my “exploration” of the area surrounding Florida Auto Exchange Stadium was limited to taking a picture of the VFW across the street.

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This is indicative of the of the extent to which the stadium is sandwiched within a quiet, almost entirely residential area. An elementary school is located beyond the left field fence, while a library can be found beyond right.

And just beyond these trees, approximately 600 feet from the stadium, lies a saltwater beach. (Or at least that’s what I was told.)

026Within the stadium, there’s a wide open concourse.

023And, because anything less would be uncivilized, a wide-open field.

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Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, which I prefer to refer to as Sunshine State Car Swap Field, is also the Spring Training home of the Toronto Blue Jays. (“Last month this place was crawling with Canadians,” Kurant told me). Signifiers of this recurring March residency can be found everywhere.

028 The likes of president Paul Beeston and general manager Alex Anthopoulos have their own offices here.

034But with none of the bigwigs on hand to cramp my style, I pretty much had free reign of the place.

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My free reign continued throughout the evening, and a most enjoyable evening it was. Stay tuned for part two of this Dunedin Blue Jays saga, in which I throw out a stellar first pitch, witness a kid insult his grandfather, fail at making a deal and much, much more.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: Dealing in Dunedin

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my posts from this visit to the Dunedin Blue Jays (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

As mentioned in Part One of this ongoing saga, I had the good fortune of visiting the Dunedin Blue Jays on “Ben Hill Night.”

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And when it’s Ben Hill Night, you can bet your top, middle and bottom dollar on the fact that Ben Hill will throw out a first pitch. I’d say that this was one of my better efforts, but I always put in a good effort. It’s just the results that tend to differ.

It’s pretty much impossible to see, but I’d like to note that the scoreboard announced my presence with the graphic “Huge Celebrity Ben Hill.” It’s either that or “manic calamity,” which might be more accurate.

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After my first pitch came the National Anthem. Note, in this photo, the D-Jays’ version of the CN Tower located just past the third base line. They don’t call Dunedin “Lil Toronto” for nothing.

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It’s a long road from Lil Toronto to Big Toronto, but some hardy souls have made it. Many others have perished, as if they were unwilling Cormac McCarthy protagonists.

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For reasons I can’t quite recall, my own road soon led to the team’s promo room.

“I’ve been here for four years, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of this stuff used,” said D-Jays director of marketing and social media Nate Kurant. “Maybe we shot the rubber chicken at something long ago.”

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I also had the privilege of trying on a pair of “drunk goggles,” which make everything appear blurred and distorted. (Wearing them is akin to the sensation produced by watching Fox News.) These goggles, in conjunction with a dizzy bat race, would be lethal. It makes me sick just thinking about it.

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Maybe they sell team logo drunk goggles in the team store? I neglected to check, although I appreciated the thoughtful placement of a full-length dressing mirror from afar. Also, I hope that whoever left their beer outside remembered to pick it up on the way out. Or maybe they were Dundrinkin?

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There was a somnambulant aura throughout the ballpark on this evening. Maybe the denizens of Lil Toronto were at home watching the Blue Jays home opener? (As shown on the TV above the concession stand.)

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Or maybe we don’t look need to look any further than the fact that it was a weekday game. The worst kind of weekday game, in fact.

038DJ says “Who loves ya, baby?”

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It was a sleepy atmosphere, but an exceedingly pleasant one. Fun Fact! The fans depicted in this photo are none other than Florida State League president Ken Carson and his wife, Lillian. The Carsons are based in Dunedin — he was the Blue Jays’ director of Florida operations from 1986 through 2006 — but we ended up crossing paths again in both Vero Beach and St. Lucie as they did their own league tour.

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For some reason I decided to film a between-inning trivia contest emceed by Nate. I’m glad that I did because this kid, he has issues with his grandfather’s living habits. I also like that DJ just happens to be in the background, posing for pictures, just winging it.

That wasn’t the end of the between-inning hijinks, as Nate asked me to be a contestant in a “Let’s Make A Deal” competition behind the dugout. But who would I compete against? He soon decided to ask this young woman, who was sitting by herself behind home plate.

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Success! (They had just high-fived, she wasn’t shooing him away.)

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While we were waiting for our moment in the spotlight, a foul ball was hit behind us and then bounced down to the aisle. No one — literally, no one — made a move for it so I reluctantly got up and grabbed it. (I mean, usually I’d be all about getting a ball, but in when I’m in Ben’s Biz mode it seems kind of tacky).

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be-opponent was probably counting down the seconds until she could return to her baseball-watching solitude. Her name was Ashley; a California resident in town to visit a friend.

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Finally, it was showtime. Ashley was presented with a strip of 10 Florida lottery tickets and given the option: Did she want to keep them, or opt to choose a mystery prize from one of three bags?

059 Ashley, being a cautious sort, opted to keep the tickets. I now had the option to choose from one of three bags.

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Since some dude was yelling “Two!” really loudly, I figured that would be the best choice. That dude — and by extension, me — was wrong. In said bag was this:

Bag on head, I walked off dejectedly (man, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve written that sentence).

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But wait! I was soon handed a consolation strip of five lotto tickets, which quickly made me into something in life that I’ve always aspired to be: A winner. A gosh danged winner.

UPDATE! Yeah, I got that paper:

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Anyhow, there was now nothing left to do but soak in a little bit more of that soothing “Monday night in Lil Toronto” atmosphere.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” says Nate. “I’m unprepared.”

I passed the time by writing down snippets of overheard dialogue, including but not limited to:

“I met a woman last night. She hated birds and she hated black toilets.”

“Human faces should be faces and they should not be morphed.”

Unfortunately, Salute to Human Faces Night is not part of the team’s promo schedule. I checked:

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And, hey — look! Number 11 is at bat with a 1-1 count and one out. SCOREBOARD YAHTZEE

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Finally, I conducted an interview with 10 year old “ball rat” Dylan Snyder, a regular presence at the ballpark who has become quite skilled at snagging the leather spheroid.

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In this exclusive audio segment, Dylan discusses his policy as regards giving his baseballs to other fans. It’s hilarious. LISTEN:

That’ll do it from Dunedin, at least until part three of this series appears shortly. And, yes, before anyone complains, I know that Dunedin is not actually referred to as “Lil Toronto.” Thanks for reading this far, and apologies for not taking the time to visit the nearby Wal-Mart where Daniel Norris used to camp out in his RV. Such an effort would no doubt have landed me my first Pulitzer, but I opted for dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings instead. I usually do.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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