Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

On the Road: Pork, Pork, Pork and More Pork in Norfolk

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

This, here, is the unassuming facade of ballpark restaurant Hits at the Park.

036Located far down the right field line at the Norfolk Tides’ home of Harbor Park, Hits at the Park is a full-service eatery open to all fans during all home games. An “all-you-can-eat” dinner buffet, featuring a rotating menu, costs $18.95.

That’d be the sensible option when it comes to dining at Hits at the Park. There is also, however, an insensible option: The “Salute to Pork” Challenge.

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The above platter consists of four BBQ pork sliders, four 4-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages, 12 pork wings (the equivalent of a full rack of ribs) and bacon and chili cheese tots. It’s five pounds of food altogether, and the challenge is to eat it in one hour or less. Those who do so receive the meal for free (a $60 value), as well as a celebratory “I Kicked the Big Pig” t-shirt and four tickets to an upcoming ballgame. Most importantly, successful pork-eaters attain enshrinement on the “Big Pig Wall-O-Fame” (located just inside the restaurant entrance).

Only three individuals have ever completed the challenge successfully.

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Yep, that dude on the bottom completed the challenge with just 30 seconds to spare. That must have been one of the greatest moments in Hits at the Park history.

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The “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame” has far more occupants. Whereas three have succeeded, several dozen had failed.

009Prior to visiting Harbor Park, I made sure to recruit a designated eater willing to take on the Salute to Pork Challenge. That individual was Andrew Lind, a writer for the local Tidewater News who covers, as he put it, “a little bit of everything.”

041Andrew volunteered to be the designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) after his college buddy Josh Samuels told him about it. Samuels, the director of social media for the Columbus Clippers, served as my ballpark tour guide when I visited the Clippers last season. (Lind and Samuels are also pals with 2014 Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journal-writer Darius Thigpen, now with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Minor League Baseball is a small world sometimes.)

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Josh Samuels: Pork Challenge Instigator

“He’s never been a good influence on my life,” said Andrew, of Josh.

A good rule of thumb: If signing a waiver is a meal prerequisite, then it’s probably a meal you don’t want to have in the first place.

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But Andrew was up for it, regardless. He said that he hadn’t made any specific preparations for the Salute to Pork Challenge, other than to arrive at the ballpark on an empty stomach. His strategy was simply to “put the tater tots off for last” and to not touch the coleslaw.

As it turned out, Andrew would not be undertaking this challenge alone. On the left is one Tyler Rosso, a video intern for a local television station. (And yes, that garbage can is placed between them just in case a so-called “reversal of fortune” occurs.)

044Tyler’s late entry into that evening’s Salute to Pork Challenge was, quite frankly, the most baffling moment of the season for me. He just plopped down and took a seat, and since he had media pass I assumed he was one of Andrew’s Tidewater News cronies. Andrew, meanwhile, thought he was somebody I knew. After a few awkward moments, it was revealed that Tyler didn’t know either of us and had simply decided to participate after overhearing a conversation about it in the press box.

I was like “Well, okay, but you do realize that I’ll be documenting this entire event and you’ll be a part of it no matter what happens?”

Tyler assented with an affable shrug, like “Whatever you need to do, dude. I’m just here to eat some pork.”

Well, okay. The more the merrier.

The Pork Challenge platters were brought to our dimly-lit corner location with great fanfare.

IMG_1483In the below video, executive chef Steve Gillette, the mastermind behind the challenge, takes the mic and lays out the rules for everyone in the restaurant. This surreal situation now seemed even more surreal. Tyler isn’t even sitting at the table in the video. Was he a figment of my imagination? He sure seemed like it at the time.

Meanwhile, Andrew’s girlfriend Kayla can be seen sitting next to him. As soon as the Pork Challenge began, however, she went AWOL. (Probably a good decision.)

“I feel bad for him,” said Kayla. “It’s going to be a rough night if he finishes.”

Chef Gillette was expecting this to be an entertaining disaster. You can just see it in his eyes.

IMG_1479Andrew, meanwhile, seemed to be appealing to a higher power. I’d love to see this picture turned into a stained glass panel.

046The Pork Challenge officially began at 7:42 p.m. Alright, guys. Have at it.

Now underway, Andrew displayed a momentary burst of confidence.

“The sad thing is, after all this I’ll probably go home and want a snack,” he said.

Cory Evans of Ovations Food Services, seen on the left in the below photo, was the first person to attempt the “Salute to Pork Challenge” after it was devised by Chef Gillette.

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“I didn’t tap out, I just ran out of time,” said Cory of his attempt, before turning his attention to the evening’s competitors. “A helpful hint: Don’t drink too much water. Just sip it.”

“It’s the potatoes that get you,” added a nearby waitress, speaking in an emphatic Southern drawl.

But despite such helpful hints and overall moral support, this was a fundamentally lonely endeavor. It is times like these that try men’s souls.

047The game going on outside seemed a million miles away.

052“15 minutes into the Pork Challenge, Andrew has eaten all 12 wings. Still much meat to go.”

At 8 p.m., Andrew requested ranch dressing.

“It might be heavy, but it will give flavor when you need it,” he explained.

“I’d recommend a little piece of the kale,” countered Tyler. “There’s a lightness to it.”

12 minutes later, Andrew again chimed in.

“The worst part is the chewing,” he said. “The only way to cut down on that is to swallow bigger pieces, but that’s not gonna help you at all.”

We had now reached the half-way point. Andrew’s platter had congealed into a monolithic pork mess.

Both competitors, in it for the long haul, decided to stand up and stretch.

“I wish that I had gotten super-drunk before I did this,” said Andrew. “Then it’d go down easy.”

“This would be a good challenge for a stoner,” added Cory.

Chef Gillette stopped by again as well, telling the competitors to ‘Just close your eyes and throw down. Don’t stop. Don’t even listen to what I’m saying.”

053Good advice, but before re-engaging Andrew engaged in some light calisthenics. Gotta get the blood flowing.

055Cory, a Pork Challenge veteran, now assessed the scene.

“You’re looking pretty good for the halfway point,” he said of Tyler.

Andrew, however, was a different story.

“I’m worried about you. But you’ll both sleep very, very good tonight. I can tell you that much.”

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Despite Cory’s positive assessment, Tyler had reached his limit. With no warning whatsoever, he quickly reached over and made good use of the trash can. I snapped a picture of this, nothing graphic, but Tyler has gotten in touch with me to ask that I not use it. Okay, but there’s a lesson here:

If you don’t want anyone to take a picture of you vomiting, then don’t jump unannounced into an eating challenge taking place in a public location and, furthermore, being documented in detail by a member of the media.

Tyler, eliminated.

“I think it was the sausage that got me,” he said.

057This was all too much for Andrew, who immediately got up and moved to the next table lest he be the next to evacuate.

“Oh, I gotta move,” he said. “If I see it, then I’ll be the next one to do it.”

IMG_1490We were now in the homestretch.

Tyler, ever an enigma, declined to take his leftovers and quietly went back upstairs to resume working. Once again, I found myself wondering if he had ever been there at all.

“He don’t want no memories of that,” said a Hits at the Park waitress as she removed the remains of Tyler’s plate.

Andrew, meanwhile, had hit a wall.

“I’m seeing stars, and it threw me off when he threw up,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the same thing.”

But yet, he carried on, moving on to the tater tots because he “couldn’t deal with the meat anymore.”

058It was all for naught, however. Andrew simply could not finish in time. Good effort, though, as he made it about three quarters of the way through and had some pork sliders to take home and enjoy later.

So that’s how it all went down (and, in one instance, came back up). Congratulations to Andrew Lind, a proud member of the “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame.”

“Never again,” were Andrew’s final words on the topic. But also: “No regrets.”

(Click HERE to read Andrew’s first-hand account of the experience.)

059And congratulations as well to the mysterious Tyler Rosso. You made the night more interesting, Tyler, and I’m glad you stopped by.

061benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Having Cake, Eating it Too in Norfolk

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

So what does Norfolk’s Harbor Park look like on a Friday evening in late June? I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you. Telling you would take descriptive writing skills that, quite frankly, I don’t have.

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Then above photo depicts the Harbor Park scene on Friday, June 26th, sometime during the middle innings. Truthfully, I didn’t have much to do at this juncture of the evening. My interview with Dave Rosenfield had lasted until sometime in the second inning, at which point I hightailed it down to the “Hits at the Park” restaurant in order to document my designated eater attempt the “Pork Challenge.” This will be documented in the next post.

I feel uncomfortable when I don’t have much to write about, but here we are. Um…here’s an alternate view of the nighttime action. Pretty big stadium, huh? As mentioned in the last post, Harbor Park has a capacity of nearly 12,000. The announced crowd for this contest against the Mud Hens of Toledo was 5,069, slightly below the team’s 5200 average (weird, as, again, this was a Friday night. A bunch of people probably got stuck in Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel traffic and gave up on going to the game).
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During my unfocused wanderings, I ran into mascot Rip Tide. Mascots are strange, by default, but I posit that Rip Tide is strange even by mascot standards. I’ve heard of a bulbous nose, but I’d never before seen a basebulbous nose. It doesn’t make scents to me.

067As for what Rip Tide is, I don’t know. He’s vaguely aquatic. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with dry land is what led to this infamous 2012 blooper, an absolute classic by any standard.

Rip Tide wasn’t the only costumed character lurking about.

069That’s Reggy the Purple Party Dude, a touring entertainer who may or may not have a large order of fries emerging from his skull. This photo was taken shortly after Reggy delivered a cake to an usher who was celebrating his birthday. Thing is, Reggy tripped and ended up smashing the cake into this guy’s face instead.

IMG_1497Being the enterprising journalist I am, a modern-day Damon Runyon by any standard, I landed an exclusive interview with the dude who got smashed in the face with a cake.

Truth be told, because it’s not gonna tell itself: the dude who got caked is Christopher Bruce, who usually performs as Reggy. His recent leg injury, referenced in the below video, has relegated him to bit player status in his own act. But — hey! — the show must go on. Reggy stops for no dude.

As Reggy signed autographs for his fans, I decided that it would be a good time to actually pay attention to the ballgame. Or, at the very least, make a painfully obvious joke about it.

The game stayed tied through the ninth, so extra innings it would be. This picture, taken in the top of the 10th inning, is not of a very good quality. But it is notable, at least to me, in that Toledo’s Mike Hessman was up to bat.

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Hessman, 37, is the all-time International League home run leader and has hit 429 total while in the Minor Leagues. Trust me, I’m on top of such things: IMG_1607 By virtue of his longevity alone, Hessman is my favorite player in the Minor Leagues. Also, he’s one of a small handful of MiLB players who is older than I am. (When Hessman retires, I’m going to have to re-evaluate my own long-term career goals, because right now my overriding philosophy is “Mike Hessman’s still out there doing what he’s doing, so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing.”)

Hessman popped out in this 10th-inning at-bat, but the Mud Hens had taken a 4-3 lead thanks to Jefry Marte’s home run to lead off the frame. The Tides did not go quietly in the bottom of the 10th, however. Rey Navarro singled to start the inning and then scored on Christian Walker’s double.

“They better [misspelled expletive deleted] win this,” I wrote in my notebook at this time. “Man on second, no out.”

After Derrik Gibson popped out on a bunt attempt, Steve Clevenger was walked intentionally. (Pantera’s “Walk” was his musical accompaniment as he made his way to first base.) Sean Halton then drew an unintentional walk to load the bases, bringing up Michael Almanzar with a chance to win the game. He did.

“Strange walk-off,” I wrote in my notebook. “Shortstop made a diving stop, but doesn’t throw home because he had no shot. Tides celebration was initially stilted and delayed, like ‘Wait, we won?'”

That was my recollection, at least. In the game log, it says that Almanzar grounded into a 6-5 force out as Walker came around to score the winning run. This makes no sense to me. One, I don’t remember seeing the shortstop throw to third base. Why throw to third in that situation? There was no shot at a double play, and a force out at third base was as good as a hit as far as the Tides were concerned. Something’s fishy here, which I guess is a common occurrence when your stadium is on the banks of a river.

Anyhow, the Tides won.

It was then time for Launch-A-Ball, everyone’s favorite skill-based post-game tennis ball-tossing endeavor.

073“Balls thrown from suites barely cleared the dugout,” I wrote in my notebook. “Some bounced on the dugout, some missed and then were recovered by fans in front rows.”

Wow, my notebook is a great source of information! I should look at it more often.

Kids then ran the bases as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama I’m Coming Home” played over the PA. Nice choice, guys.

074It was now 10:30 p.m. Do you know where your children are? Or, barring that, do you know where the nearest mermaid statue is?

This, entitled “Sandy Tide” (maybe she’s related to Rip Tide?) was designed by local artist Georgia Mason. It made its debut at the ballpark on April 18, 2015. It looks good at night.

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I guess I had enough to write about after all.

Fin.

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On the Road: It’s Always a Tides Ballgame in Norfolk

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

The drive from Richmond to Norfolk seemed like it would be simple enough — an approximately 90-mile excursion largely spent traveling eastbound on Route 64. I departed in the early afternoon, thinking I would have time to check into my hotel before heading out to the Norfolk Tides’ home of Harbor Park.

Instead the drive turned into a grim endurance test, due to the fact that access to Norfolk is gained after traveling through the Hampton Roads — Bridge Tunnel (HRBT). With just two lanes going in each direction, the HRBT,  built in the late ’50s, simply can’t accommodate the traffic it now receives. An estimated four o’clock arrival turned to 5 which turned to 6, at which point I skipped hotel check-in plans in favor of changing clothes in the stadium parking lot. (This is becoming routine. If you ever, for some reason, have the desire to see me shirtless then simply hang out in a media lot 60-90 minutes before game time.)

The photos I took outside of Harbor Park pain me to post, as they bring back memories regarding just how badly I had to pee upon arriving in Norfolk.

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It’s tough to see in the above photo, but “The Tide” light rail has a stop directly in front of the ballpark. This is a far more amenable transportation option than driving through the HRBT.

Harbor Park was built in 1993, and at that time it was considered one of the crown jewels of Minor League Baseball. It is certainly one of the larger ballparks that I’ve ever been to, reminding me of Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field on the outside and Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium within.

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From the team website:

Harbor Park features almost 9,000 lower deck seats, 2,800 upper deck seats, and 400 seats in 24 luxury skyboxes leased to area corporations. The park also features a 225-seat restaurant known as “Hits at the Park” which offers a full view of the playing field. Overlooking left field is a 300-person tiered picnic area. Total capacity for Harbor Park is 11,856. 

Shortly after arriving I rendezvoused with Tides director of media relations Ian Locke, who pointed me toward the nearest restroom. My night got so much better from there.

The gates had just opened, but fortunately Locke had just enough time to lead me on a brief tour around the stadium. For whatever reason, the first picture I took is of this “Boathouse BBQ” stand. You’d think a boathouse would serve seafood, but in this case you’d be wrong.

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Perhaps a better sense of the concourse can be obtained via this photo featuring the sovereign entity that is Hot Dog Nation. (Perhaps its capital city is Frankfurt.)

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Craft beer is blowing up across the country, figuratively in most cases. This trend has made its way into Harbor Park.

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There are 10 beers on tap here, and among the offerings here is a Harbor Park exclusive: Walkoff Kolsch, created by the local O’Connor Brewing Company.

The team store, meanwhile, must’ve been named by a coalition of Hallmark-figurine collecting grandmothers.

062Among the treasures that can be found therein are Star Wars-themed Tides merchandise.

006While the Tides currently do not offer any Fro-Yoda desserts, Flamingo Joe’s has you covered on the deep-fried front:

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A perhaps more nuanced dining experience can be found at “Hits at the Park,” a full-service restaurant open during every home game and year-round for events. The final post in this series will take place entirely within Hits at the Park, as two intrepid souls attempt the “Pork Challenge.”

008Back outside, in the right field corner, is the Shock Top Party Deck.

016From here, one has views of the field (I mean, of course).

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As well as the bullpens.

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The party deck also has views of the Elizabeth River, the proximity of which gives the stadium its “Harbor Park” name. The area beyond the ballpark has been designated an “environmentally protected wasteland,” which seems paradoxical to me. Perhaps my Dad the hydro-geologist can offer an explanation, in much the same way he once filled us in on karst topography in Bowling Green.

014Meanwhile, back behind home plate, a crowd had gathered. Team-logo flip-flops — perhaps not the best apparel for exploring environmentally protected wasteland — were being given away. I couldn’t decide if I wanted a pair or not, and kept going back and forth on the matter.

018Ian and I then headed upstairs to the second level, which provides a striking view of the Elizabeth River.

019Up here, as the press box gives way to suites, there is plenty of room in which to move. Once again, I had a flashback to being in the Buffalo Bisons’ home of Coca-Cola Field. 

024My wandering impulse, strong (and as obsessive-compulsive) as ever, then brought me down to left field. Life is but a picnic down there.

029I also happened upon a mascot doing karaoke on the field. One doesn’t see this every day.

One also doesn’t often see a concession stand named in honor of a long-time executive. .

033Rosie is 86-year-old Dave Rosenfield, who served as the Tides’ general manager from their 1963 inception through 2011. He still comes to the ballpark every day, in an “executive vice president role”, handling the team travel, calling three innings on the radio and, most impressively, devising the International League schedule by hand.

If you’re now thinking to yourself that Rosenfield sounds like a guy worth talking to, then you and I are on a similar wavelength. I went back upstairs and did just that.

039My interview with Rosenfield, which specifically dealt with how he creates the IL schedule each season, can be found here. It’s a really good read, if I do say so myself (and, of course, I just did).

“I’ve been in love with baseball since 1938,” Rosenfield told me during the end of our conversation. “That’s one helluva long time.”

The helluva long time in baseball has resulted in “One Helluva Life,” Rosenfield’s memoir about his time in the game. Among many career highlights, he got name-dropped in The Simpsons. 

Daverosenfield

I’d recommend reading Rosenfield’s memoir, and, less ambitiously, I’d also recommend reading Part Two of this Norfolk Tides blog series. It’ll appear shortly, and I hope you’ll reappear here to read it.

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On the Road: Mounds of Pork and Stacks of Cheese in Richmond

To see all of posts from my June 25, 2015 visit to the Richmond Flying Squirrels (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

There are few things more American than a father and son enjoying a baseball game together, especially if said father and son supplement their ballpark experience by eating a bunch of food together in a windowless room while a traveling niche blogger takes pictures of them. This was the situation at Richmond’s The Diamond on June 25th, when my designated eaters (you know, the individuals who consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) were the father-son tandem of Stuart (on the right) and Turner Jordan.

045A windowless office within the bowels of The Diamond is probably not the most ideal place to have a ballpark meal, but under the circumstances, it was a pretty good option. It was raining outside, the game was in a delay and The Diamond concourse was packed with people who easily could’ve impeded on our operation.

Stuart, somewhere north of 30, and Turner, 15, live in the Richmond suburbs of Henrico County. Dad is a software analyst for Advanced Auto Parts. Son is a rising junior who is on the cross country and track-and-field teams. The Jordans are baseball fans, attending several Flying Squirrels games a year. Sometimes it’s a whole family affair, but Stuart said that his wife and daughter usually opt not to attend and the outing thus becomes “a man thing.”

“I hope they get a new stadium, because right now they’re putting band-aids on it,” said Stuart of The Diamond. “It’s such a cool thing, to bring your kid and watch some ball.”

As for why he wanted to be the Designated Eater, Stuart said “I saw your blog pop up and thought ‘Ah, that’s pretty cool.'” He is a regular visitor to MiLB.com, becoming more invested in the Minors after his nephew, Daniel Bowman, was drafted by the D-backs and spent some time in their system. (Daniel is now an assistant coach at East Tennessee State).

We began our sedentary food tour, graciously overseen by Flying Squirrels food and beverage manager Michael Caddell, with the Boss Hog.

047The Boss Hog features a rare south of the Mason-Dixon line appearance by pork roll, which is most closely associated with the great state of New Jersey. The pork roll is topped with pepperoni, American cheese and a fried egg and served on a pretzel bun. A closer look:

043Meanwhile, Turner was ready to try the Grilled Cheese Cheeseburger, which is fairly self-explanatory. All told, there are six or seven pieces of cheese residing within this thing. It’s cheese on cheese on cheese.

046The Grilled Cheese Cheeseburger, ready for its close-up:

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Have at it, Jordans.

“I’m not a big fried egg fan, but this is pretty good,” said Stuart of the Boss Hog. “I like cheese and pepperoni, and the roll’s good. It’s nice and soft. It’s a good roll.”

“This is awesome, really good,” said Turner of the Grilled Cheese Cheeseburger. “I love the meat. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just really good.”

Next up was the BBQ Pork Fries, in which the team’s Cajun-seasoned Squirrely  Fries are loaded up with a North Carolina-style vinegar-based barbecue sauce, pulled pork and jalapeno nacho cheese sauce. (Not pictured: a side of cole slaw.) Sporks are usually required.

049 Father, son, food:

050The only quote I have from Stuart regarding this item is that “I like the crunch of the fries, and the texture change with the pulled pork.” But this is maybe because he was too busy eating. He was an immediate convert to the BBQ Pork Fries, love at first bite. He just wished it had had some bacon, is all. (Stuart Jordan wanted it to be known that, for the record, he loves bacon.)

Turner, however, was not much of a fan.

“That’s spicy. It burns my mouth so easily,” he said. “I just cannot handle it.”

What Turner can, and did handle, was this Deep-Fried PB&J.

048This is, quite simply, a Smuckers Uncrustable dipped in funnel cake batter.

051“It’s good,” said Turner, a rising junior of few words.

“It’s really good, and you could stick some bacon in the middle of that,” said Stuart, who now had bacon firmly on the brain.

In addition to bacon, Stuart is also a proponent of beer. This, at least according to Turner.

“That’s what you do every day,” said Turner to his dad. “Come home from work, play with the dog, and drink beer.”

“See, never bring a son with you,” replied Stuart. “He’ll rat you out.”

Nothing wrong with having a beer after work, and nothing wrong with having a beer at the ballpark. It was time for us to depart this office lair, so that Stuart could enjoy the Flying Squirrels’ signature “Chin Music” amber lager, brewed by Center of the Universe (a local brewery co-owned by former Major League hurler Chris Ray).

IMG_1442Note, in the above photo, how the tap handles are made from Louisville Sluggers. Note, also, that Stuart was happy to be drinking a beer.

“If it’s cold and in the house, I’ll drink it,” said Stuart of his overriding beer philosophy. “I am not a connoisseur.”

He gave high marks to the Chin Music, remarking that “There’s a little bitterness. It’s hoppy, but it’s drinkable.”

And thus, we say goodbye to the Jordans. The weather had cleared by this point, and it was time for them to watch some baseball.

“I thought it was cool to try something different,” said Stuart of the designated eating experience. “Usually I stick to the basics. Like, eh, I’ll get a cheeseburger.”

IMG_1443

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About Saturday Night: Vermont Lake Monsters, July 11, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

July 11, 2015: Centennial Field, home of the Vermont Lake Monsters 

Opponent: West Virginia Black Bears, 6:05 p.m. game time.

Centennial Field, from the outside:

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Centennial Field, from within: 

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Culinary Creation: Foot-long “Monster Dog”

031At Random: Oh say can you see that this unfortunate Lake Monster was the last relief pitcher to have surrendered a home run?

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Ballpark Character: Champ, named after the monster that allegedly resides in Lake Champlain, is a hero in these parts.
054Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: In the spirit of this message, emblazoned on a house located directly across from the main entrance to Centennial Field, I cut this recurring feature from today’s blog post.

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On the Road: The Diamond on a Rough Night in Richmond

To see all of posts from my June 25, 2015 visit to the Richmond Flying Squirrels (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

June 25th’s Richmond Flying Squirrels game, at which I was in attendance, did not begin on time. Just prior to the scheduled 6:35 p.m. start, the tarp was put on the field. It wasn’t raining at the time that the tarp was administered, but the forecast was grim and preparation is key.

026 With the tarp on the field, I had (even) more time to wander the concourse. Or concourses, in the case of the multi-level The Diamond.

(Note: The name of the the ballpark is The Diamond. It is awkward to write about a facility with “The” in the name, but I will persevere.)

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Scenes like this give me flashbacks to my Philadelphia-area youth, when I attended many a game at Veterans Stadium. This is my original conception of what a concourse was, and could only be: a dim concrete bunker.

032 And, actually, no, it was my first time visiting this particular men’s room. You must have confused me with someone else.

035The view from the top.

040While traversing these elevated environs, I made the acquaintance of usher Tom Taylor.

039Taylor, as befits an usher and as the above photo illustrates, is a gregarious fellow. He brings bags of leftover promo souvenirs to every game — koozies and t-shirts and whatnot — so that he can distribute them to the fans in the section. He dances during the seventh-inning stretch and, yes, even uses his megaphone during a rain delay.

After parting ways with Taylor, it was time for a rendezvous with my designated eater, Stuart Jordan, who was joined by his son, Turner. We’ll get to know them in the next post.

045By the time I parted ways with the Jordans, the tarp was off the field and the game had begun. Having had enough of the concourse, I returned to field level and ran smack dab into this guy.

IMG_1444That’s the Wacky Hot Dog Vendor, riding Flingo the Flamingo. This, of course, is a blatant rip-off of homage to Reading’s Crazy Hot Dog Vendor (who rides an ostrich).

As mentioned in the previous post, this evening’s promo was “The Many Faces of Robin Williams” and the team was wearing Jumanji theme jerseys. Here’s mine, safe and sound in the hotel room later that night:

IMG_1475Unfortunately, I missed (or failed at documenting) most of the between-inning promos dedicated to the Robin Williams/Jumanji theme. According to a game script that I obtained, this included a “Three Magic Wishes” contest (Aladdin), Flubber dunk, Jumanji dice roll, and a Lost Boys vs. Hook race.

Here’s on-field emcee Murph, getting ready to announce the Lost Boys vs. Hook race (the Lost Boys were the young contestants, Hook was played by the team’s pirate mascot Captain Ahrr-VA).

IMG_1458While I didn’t get any decent photos of the race itself, I did get some photos of other people watching the race. This, right here, is classic Minor League Baseball: a gaggle of spectators (family members of the race participants) standing right next to the visiting bullpen. It’s like these two classes of ballpark denizens are in two separate worlds, despite the overwhelmingly close proximity.

IMG_1457To the right of the spectators is the bullpen itself.

IMG_1460I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention a recurring aspect of the Flying Squirrels’ gameday entertainment, which is the mid-5th inning appearance of Parker the Rally Pig.

It’s pretty simple, really. Parker is wheeled out onto the field in a custom-made chariot, by a lucky intern wearing a pig nose. Running behind him are two or three fans, also wearing pig noses. The appearance of Parker on the field is, as his name would imply, meant to spark a Flying Squirrels rally.

This is surely the only sponsored Rally Pig chariot in Minor League Baseball. Whoever negotiated this deal with Call Federal should get a raise.

IMG_1451It had been a long day, and I was off my documentation game. Instead of positioning myself on the third base side of the stadium, at the end of Parker’s route, I instead ran behind his entourage. Blurriness ensued (plus, I nearly got beaned by a wayward pitch while running behind the mound).

IMG_1454Anyhow, it was all fairly uneventful. Not at all like this:

It was now the sixth inning. Their had already been a rain delay to start the ballgame, and now the weather forecast was calling for this:

IMG_1450It was clear that the rains were gonna come monsooner or later, so I sought safety in the press box.

IMG_1462Within minutes, this was the scene.

IMG_1463Looking for something to do, I paid a visit to Flying Squirrels lead broadcaster Jon Laaser. Laaser is in his waning days with the Squirrels, as he recently accepted a job with Virginia Tech as the “Voice of the Hokies.”

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Laaser actually played a key role in my first-ever “On the Road” excursion, when I visited the Altoona Curve in 2007 for “Awful Night.” From my article:

Vic Buttler’s RBI single with two outs in the ninth inning lifts the Curve to a 3-2 victory, a decidedly non-awful conclusion to the evening’s contest. However, the Curve have some post-game entertainment planned — A “Laaser Show,” to be exact. The vast majority of the 4,007 fans in attendance remain in their seats, eager to witness a Minor League first. Most of them will soon regret this decision.

The lights go dim, and the dramatic strains of “The Final Countdown” fill the stadium. With the tension mounting, front-office employee Jon Laaser appears on the field. Glow sticks are attached to his body. Laaser then entrances the crowd with his slinky, seductive dance moves, until the music is mercifully cut off, and the lights go back on. Awful Night V has finally concluded.

It’s safe to say that Laaser’s “Light Show” days are behind him, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to reference it one last time. (I am having trouble locating the video — which does exist — but that’s probably best for all involved.)

Meanwhile, the rain kept on coming.

IMG_1470

Laaser’s first headline draft was “Squirrels Lose as World Ends,” 3-0.

IMG_1465Seeking a more visceral experience, I headed back down to the main concourse. The below Vine was no mere hyperbole — this really was the hardest I’d ever seen it rain at a ballpark in my life. One long-time Ben’s Biz reader, on Twitter, was moved to call this storm a “Frog Strangler.”

While waiting out the deluge, I recorded by Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day (patent pending).

After the game was called, I spent an hour or so at “Parney’s Pub,” a makeshift front office gathering space created by (and presided over) by team VP Todd “Parney” Parnell. Cheap domestics are the order of the day — but the more discerning consumers made sure that the team’s own “Chin Music” beer was available as well. (As for me, my gluten-free needs were accommodated by a local cider; it was sharp and crisp and not too sweet but, alas, the name escapes me).

IMG_1473It was a fun, inclusive scene at “Parney’s Pub.” When I left, Parney could be found outside of the clubhouse playing just-promoted reliever Josh Osich in one last game of Golden Tee. But I had (approximately 15) miles to go before I slept, and headed out to the rental car.

Good night, The Diamond. And fare thee well.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Passing Through the Squirrely Gates in Richmond

To see all of posts from my June 25, 2015 visit to the Richmond Flying Squirrels (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

I don’t really want to get into it, “it” being the seemingly eternal stadium debate that surrounds Richmond’s The Diamond. The facility, a massive concrete slab conveniently located just off Interstate 95, opened in 1985 and hosted the Triple-A Richmond Braves from that season through 2008.

The Braves departure was largely due to their dissatisfaction with The Diamond’s increasingly dilapidated condition. The Flying Squirrels came to town two years later (having relocated from Norwich, Connecticut),  wanting to take advantage of the robust Richmond market but also making it clear that the construction of a new ballpark was a prerequisite of the relocation.

But here we are, in the year of our Lord 2015, and The Diamond is still going strong. Or, at the very least, it’s still going. This is one resilient slab of concrete. (As for the new stadium, it’ll happen eventually. The ups and downs and twists and turns of that saga could fill a book and one day might. The Flying Squirrels’ habit of leading the league in attendance has, paradoxically, hurt the cause. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” say proponents of the status quo.)

When I visited The Diamond, it was not with the intent of adding to (or detracting from) the ballpark debate. I simply wanted to see it for myself. And as regards that unambitious goal: Mission Accomplished!

002As you can see, The Diamond resembles a gigantic spaceship. But most spaceships don’t have oversized inflatable Flying Squirrels — that’s Nutzy to you — displayed in close proximity to them. Furthermore, spaceships are almost always devoid of whimsical entrance signage such as the “Squirrely Gates” seen in the above photo.

Whimsical signage abounds, in fact.

001Perhaps Brickman Complete Tree Care has something to do with the stadium’s well-manicured exterior.

008The impeccable landscaping efforts continue down this walkway…

003 …where one finds a succinct visual rundown of the costumed characters that can be found within.

004The above stable of characters — three of whom I would go on to meet later in the evening — are overseen by this character:

009That’s Todd “Parney” Parnell, Flying Squirrels vice-president and well-known industry raconteur. He’s one of those Bill Veeck kind of characters — always upbeat and boisterous, apt to be the first one at the ballpark even if he was the last one at the bar the night before. The “office” seen above is really a re-purposed storage room (or something of that nature), located directly across from the home clubhouse. If you know Parney, then you will not be surprised whatsoever that a makeshift bar is part of the set-up.

Thanks to Parney’s largess, the home clubhouse has a Golden Tee arcade game sitting just outside its doors.
029

This subterranean locale also doubles as a parking lot, for the players as well as for various team-owned vehicles. That’s one sweet Kubota, is it not?

027

Oh, and a pig lives down here. Parker the Rally Pig, specifically.

011

Parker has an outdoor home as well. We’ll see more of him elsewhere within this blogging saga.

013

Remember, like, five photos ago? When I posted an image of Parney? In that photo he is wearing that night’s “Jumanji” theme jersey, the centerpiece of a “Many Faces of Robin Williams” promotion.

You know who else was wearing one? Me, as in Ben’s Biz, as in that niche blogger extraordinaire.

jumanjiAs the time that photo was taken, the gates had not yet opened. The Diamond, like a nihilistic interpretation of existence, was a vast sea of emptiness. (The sponsored banners laid across the uppermost sections have reduced seating capacity, which still stands at a spacious 9500.)

014

Out on the concourse, it should be noted that carnival games are named in honor of the team’s top brass (Chucky, in this case, is chief executive manager Chuck Domino). More teams should follow the Flying Squirrels lead in this regard, because kids love Minor League executives and always pester their parents for money whenever they see any kind of entertainment option that features Minor League executives.

015The team store used to be a restaurant. Noted.

016The main concourse of The Diamond is located on the stadium’s second level (field level consists of storage areas, the clubhouses, batting cages, Parker’s pigpen, Parney’s pigpen, front offices, etc.) There is also a third-level upper concourse, accessible via staircases such as the above.

018

The press box is accessible via the upper level concourse. Most of its denizens had already enjoyed a pregame meal courtesy of Bojangles fried chicken and biscuits.

019

Jay Burnham, Flying Squirrels media relations director and soon-to-be lead broadcaster (current lead Jon Laaser recently accepted a job as voice of the Hokies) was feverishly preparing for what would surely be another stellar broadcast.

020Not wishing to disturb a broadcasting professional, I tiptoed back down to field level.

021This time around, the field was less deserted. First of all, I made the acquaintance of on-field emcee Mike Murphy, better known simply as “Murph”. Murph, decked out in his finest Jumanji regalia, had a microphone in his pocket and seemed happy to see me.

023And, hey, look, it’s Nutzy, just back from the gym. No theme night attire needed for this guy.

025

For Nutzy, it was time to fly off to parts unknown. For me, it was time to descend into the dugout and conduct an interview with Flying Squirrels reliever Phil McCormick.

024

I usually don’t interview players for normal reasons, and this was no exception.

Earlier, when I was in the press box, Burnham had tipped me off to the existence of a recently created Flying Squirrels music video entitled “Biagini in a Bottle.” The song, a parody of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” is a tribute to pitcher Joe Biagini sung by McCormick as writhes around in a purple onesie.

After speaking with McCormick I interviewed Biagini, the man himself. I then emerged onto the field just in time to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I had been on a ceremonial first pitch hot streak this season, firing perfect strike after perfect strike, but all good things must come to an end.

My first pitch was so bad, in fact, that the weather turned awful as soon as I threw it. God sees all, and He was displeased.

026

And so, to start the evening, a rain delay it would be. Would this be the end of my Richmond Flying Squirrels experience? Or will I somehow milk two more posts out of it? Only time will tell.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: West Virginia Black Bears, June 30, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

June 30, 2015: Monongalia County Ballpark, home of the West Virginia Black Bears (Class A Short-Season Affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates) 

Opponent: Hudson Valley Renegades, 8:25 p.m. start time (game delayed 80 minutes due to rain)

Monongalia County Ballpark, from the outside: 

002

Monongalia County Ballpark, from within:

023Culinary Creation: Loaded Pepperoni Roll

041At Random: If you really wanted to, you could watch the ballgame from here.

026

Ballpark Characters: Pepperoni Roll racers Hot Pepper Hank, Double-Stuffed Dave and Pepperoni and Cheese Patty

077

Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: My apologies

And that’ll do it for this trip. Next up is a one-off visit to the Vermont Lake Monsters on July 11th. And then, this:

July 28: New Orleans Zephyrs

July 29, 30: Biloxi Shuckers

July 31: Mobile BayBears

August 1: Montgomery Biscuits

August 2: Mississippi Braves 

August 3: Jackson Generals

August 4: Off (drive to Nashville, recuperate physically, emotionally and spirtually)

August 5: Nashville Sounds

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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instagram.com/thebensbiz

About Last Night: Potomac Nationals, June 29, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

June 28, 2015: G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, home of the Potomac Nationals 

Opponent: Carolina Mudcats, 7:05 p.m. game time.

G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, from the outside: 

003G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, from within: 

027Culinary Creation: The American Burger — pub burger, two slices of American cheese (one white, one yellow), hot dog on the top, fries as the base:

049At Random: A few of the competitors in the “Intern Olympics”

020Ballpark Character: A few of the “Ken’s Place” regulars, hanging out down the third first base line

062Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Next Up: 

6/30: West Virginia Black Bears

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

About Last Night: Salem Red Sox, June 28, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

June 28, 2015: LewisGale Field, home of the Salem Red Sox (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Boston Red Sox)

Opponent: Lynchburg Hillcats, 4:05 p.m. game time.

LewisGale Field, from the outside:

004LewisGale Field, from within: 

041Culinary Creation: Hawaiian Dawg (all-beef hot dog, sub roll, Chandler’s Dixie Pig BBQ, pineapple ring, teryaki sauce)

032At Random: A “Mullet Night” promo had been staged the day before. I, too, am sorry I missed it.

046Ballpark Character: Misty gets up close and personal

051Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Next Up: 

6/29: Potomac Nationals

6/30: West Virginia Black Bears

—-

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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