I have now visited AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, on two occasions. On neither of those occasions did I see an actual Southern League baseball game. The first such occasion was in 2010, as a torrential downpour began just before game time and resulted in a rainout. I was still at the ballpark long enough to get a blog post out of it, which you can peruse HERE.
I visited AT&T Field again earlier this month, and this time there wasn’t even a hint of a game. The Lookouts had completed a homestand the day before, but — hey! — when in Rome. Why not stop in and say hello?
AT&T Field, which opened in 2000, is located in downtown Chattanooga. I parked my rented Volkswagen Bug on Chestnut Street, safeguarded all valuables, exited the car, began walking, and, soon enough, made a quick left on “Power Alley.” (This is a common feature of modern day Minor League ballparks, in that they are located on streets that have been re-christened with a baseball-themed name. This can wreak havoc if you are getting to the ballpark via GPS, which may not have been programmed to recognize “Home Run Drive” or “Fastboulevard” or “Respect the Game Lane” or what have you.)
Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.
Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.
Somewhat mysteriously, this trolley was idling in the parking lot unattended with its doors open. While I did not commandeer it for my own usage, I did hop aboard and take this world-exclusive picture of the interior.
Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.
As for the stadium itself, it’s a solid if unspectacular turn-of-the-century model. It’s efficient, reliable, and looks pretty good, but if it was hanging out with other Minor League ballparks at a Minor League ballpark social function it would blend in with the crowd pretty easily.
Once inside the ballpark, I met up with Dan Kopf (media relations manager) and Alex Tainsh (corporate sales). They insisted on being referred to as “esteemed tour guides.” Kopf is the guy on the right and, for the record, “Kopf and Tainsh” would be a good name for a basic cable show about crusading maverick lawyers.
It was a pretty sleepy afternoon at the ballpark, given that the Lookouts had concluded a homestand the day before. I was poking around for something to write about (as in, for an MiLB.com article), but that’s tough to do when very few people are around and not much is going on. However! My esteemed tour guides said that, should I ever actually do my job properly and see an actual Lookouts game, Wanda Goins would be a good person to write about.
Wanda is a veteran program vendor, so well known that on the rare occasions in which she cannot attend the team plays a recording of her. And, like any Minor League celebrity worth her salt, she has been the recipient of her own bobblehead. (Which reminds me, when am I going to be honored with my own bobblehead?)
Anyhow, if you want a Wanda Goins bobblehead (and cd!), it can be currently be had for the (not-so-low) price of $75 on eBay.
But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.
As you’ll see in the picture below, AT&T Field lacks an open concourse. For all I know, it may have been the last Minor League stadium to have been built without this feature (prove me wrong, readers. You always do.) In looking around for more info, I came across this Ballpark Digest tidbit about how the stadium was funded:
Frank Burke bought the Lookouts in the mid nineties but felt the team had to have a new stadium to stay in Chattanooga. In the fall of 1998, Burke announced that he and his ownership group would build a privately funded ballpark if the team could sell 1,800 season tickets. The 1800th ticket was sold on January 28, and construction of the park started in late March 1999. The Lookouts ended up selling over 2,200 season tickets.
Is that the only MiLB stadium to have been funded in such a manner? The only other completely privately-funded stadium I can think of, at least within the past two decades, is the West Michigan Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Ballpark. (Note: I have since been informed that the Lexington Legends privately funded their ballpark in 2001.)
Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.
My esteemed tour guides told me that there used to be a cannon positioned in the outfield, which would make loud exploding noises after home runs. However, the shells for this cannon are no longer commercially available. (I blame Obama.) There is a home run choo-choo train, however.
It hasn’t happened yet, but any Lookout batsman with the wherewithal to blast a ball through the crook of this angled dirt-scoop receives a cool $500.
My esteemed tour guides told me that this block of outfield seats did not have a name. I was surprised they weren’t called “The Lookout Seats” or “Lookout Landing” or something like that.
There is a “Lasorda’s Landing,” however. Tommy doesn’t have any deep personal connections to Chattanooga, but the Lookouts are a Dodgers affiliate so there you go.
And, well, that’s all I’ve got. Upon bidding adieu to my esteemed tour guides I trekked back down the hill to Chestnut Street, and noticed that there is a movie theater right there on the corner. Minor League Baseball teams are in a mortal war with movie theaters! Both want to procure as large a portion of your “family-friendly entertainment” expenditures as possible, and there’s only so much to go around.
Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece on Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, containing information NOT included in this blog post.
My latest (and therefore greatest) Minor League ballpark road trip kicked off in Chattanooga, home of the Lookouts. I did not see a Lookouts game, however, as they played an 11:05 contest on the day that I arrived and I was unable to make it to the ballpark on time. (My fault, as I had not noticed that anomalous game time when I booked my flight.) However, all was not lost. Far from it.
For being in Chattanooga means being able to visit Engel Stadium, which served as the home of the Lookouts from 1930-98. In the decade following the team’s departure — they now play at AT&T Park in downtown Chattanooga — Engel Stadium fell into a state of extreme disrepair. In 2009 a concerned group of community activists formed the Engel Foundation, with the quixotically noble goal of restoring this classic facility to its former glory.
I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, where I got to know Foundation president Janna Jahn and her ragtag group of supporters. I then wrote about Engel again in 2013, after the stadium stood in for Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42. And now, here I am writing about Engel again.
I drove to the stadium immediately after arriving in Chattanooga, marking my first excursion in the black Volkswagen Beetle that was assigned to me by fine folks at Avis. Jahn was already at the stadium waiting for me, and for the next hour or so we ambled through this historic facility as I got up to speed on the latest news.
From the outside of Engel Stadium, it’s hard to get a sense of the beauty that lurks therein.
But once you step inside, it’s a different story.
My MiLB.com piece detailed the specifics of the recent improvements to Engel, but what it boils down to is this: much has been done, and there is so much more to be done. To name one of many examples: Engel Stadium once had what was billed as “the world’s largest scoreboard,” seen in the photo below, and Jahn said that, long term, the Foundation would love to install a replica.
But one thing at a time. A more pressing concern at the time that I visited was removing the dead bird from the netting behind home plate.
A closer view.
The grandstand looked immaculate, and the press box had recently been restored to its ’30s-era parameters and bestowed with a brand-new instrument.
The view from the press box.
This office area, located down the third base line, is now referred to as “The 42 Room.” Some of the film’s locker room scenes were shot here, and it is now filled with production photos and paraphernalia.
From there, we took a nice stroll across the outfield.
I took this photo using the MiLB Instagram account. It was the first Instagram photo I ever took, and also the first time I used a filter of any kind.
Engel Stadium received a laser-graded infield, courtesy of the 42 production team. The outfield remains the same as it ever was.
For the filming of 42, the dugouts were modified to resemble those of Ebbets Field. Then, after the filming, they were changed back to their original state (more or less).
If you’ve never spent time in the bowels of an 80-something-year-old facility…well, this is what it looks like:
There’s a poignant scene in 42 in which Jackie finally loses his cool, going on a bat-smashing rampage in the tunnel leading onto the field. That tunnel, now inaccessible, was here:
Which stadium has the worst bathroom facilities? Engel Stadium, or Burlington Athletic Park (home of the Appy League Royals) circa 2011?
Have you staked out your position in this great American debate, and able to articulate it? Great. Then let’s continue.
A day or two before I visited Engel, the stadium had been vandalized (chalk it up to a security system malfunction).
It’s hassles like these that really give me a lot of respect for the Engel Foundation volunteers. They have full-time jobs and busy lives but nonetheless must repeatedly drop what they are doing in order to deal with hassles such as the above. As Engels’s 21st-century prominence continues to grow, it is my hope (and, I’m sure, theirs) that sufficient funds will become available to pay for a full-time facilities manager.
The vandalism seemed to be limited to the above graffiti as well as a smattering of smashed fluorescent light bulbs. I found it interesting, that in the midst of the all this juvenilia, there was what seemed to be a heartfelt nod to Jackie Robinson. Even vandals have respect for one of the all-time greats!
The damage was cleaned up promptly, as one week after I visited Engel Stadium hosted the Southern League Home Run Derby. This picture is from the Lookouts Facebook photo album.
But as for me, it was time to depart. Until next time, Engel:
Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the lovable offshoot of my long-running “Crooked Numbers” column on MiLB.com.
For the uninitiated, Crooked Numbers is a monthly round-up of the the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. It was inspired by my childhood infatuation with the writings of Jayson Stark, whose work then ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 2014 marks the sixth season of the column; it is also the sixth the season in which the column has gone unacknowledged by Stark.
The May 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com on June 4 — check it out! — and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!
Let Crooked Reign — A left fielder and right fielder getting charged with an error in the same game is a rare occurrence. But much rarer is a left fielder and right fielder making an error on the same play. Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto witnessed, and then wrote about, this freakish occurrence: “How can the LF and RF both make an error on the same batted ball? How could they even both touch the ball on the same play? The answer is: overthrows.” Click HERE to have Curto explain it all, as part of a blog post devoid of the Pavement references he is fond of making. All I can say is that this was certainly a play that did not “Brighten the Corners.” Both fielders should “Cut Their Errors.”
Stone is the Way of the Balk – On May 9 the Bowling Green Hot Rods clawed back from a 10-1 deficit against the Lake County Captains, scoring nine unanswered runs in the seventh and eight innings to tie the game 10-10. But this impressive comeback was all for naught. Stone Speer entered the game for the Hot Rods with one out and the bases loaded in the 11th inning, and promptly balked in the winning run. He did not throw a single pitch in the ballgame.
Sweetest City in Alabam’ — The Mobile BayBears beat the Birmingham Barons on May 2, in a 17-inning ballgame that took five hours and 25 minutes to complete. Time-wise, this was the longest game in the 129-year history of the Barons. The teams combined to use 16 pitchers in the ballgame, with 14 appearing over the course of the final 10 innings.
Speed King — The Birmingham Barons are the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Just one rung down the organizational ladder are the Winston-Salem Dash, who played their shortest-ever game this month. For more on this 108-minute tilt, hurry up and click HERE.
Stayin’ In — If you picked the Arkansas Travelers in your office’s “Last Minor League Team to Hit a Home Run in their Home Ballpark” pool, then congratulations! It took until May 10 for a Travs’ player knock one out of Dickey-Stephens Park, when Brian Hernandez accomplished the feat. As of this writing (June 18), the Travelers have hit just eight home runs at home. On the road, they have hit a comparatively Herculean but otherwise anemic 24.
Broken Home — The Travelers are one of four teams in the Texas League’s North Division, where no one seems to enjoy playing at home. All four clubs in the division finished the first half with a losing record at home. The winning percentage of all four teams was higher when playing on the road.
(note: I am not a fan of Papa Roach. They are one of the worst bands of all time.)
Celebrating our Smitherences — Per my MiLB.com colleague Tyler Maun:
While perusing the box scores [on May 16], I came upon this oddity: Hickory and Charleston played a DH, and three different Smiths recorded decisions.
Game 1:Save for Charleston’s Chris Smith
Game 2: Win for Hickory’s Tyler Smith, loss for Charleston’s Caleb
Your Josh Feldman Tweet of the Month — Feldman is the broadcaster for the Kannapolis Intimidators. Maybe this will be a recurring feature. Maybe it won’t be. But, anyway, check out Feldman’s observation regarding what Kannapolis pitcher Andrew Mitchell accomplished on May 18 against Hickory:
Weird stat from Sunday: In 7th, Andrew Mitchell threw 12 pitches (1 strike) and got out of the inning (C Jeremy Dowdy threw out 2 runners).
— Josh Feldman (@BigTexJosh) May 19, 2014
Movin’ On Up — During a late morning game on May 22, Addison Maruszak played right field for the Reading Fightin Phils. He was promoted later that day, and played third base for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs that night.
It’s So E-asy — On May 26, the Salem Red Sox committed seven errors and still managed to defeat the Potomac National by a nine-run margin. The next night the Red Sox made just one error against Myrtle Beach, but lost by six.
Whole Lotta LOB — May 27th was a tough night for Visalia Rawhide pitchers, as a half dozen hurlers combined to allow 19 hits and nine walks to the Bakersfield Blaze. Yet the Rawhide won the game, 11-9, largely due to the fact that the Blaze left a staggering 19 runners on base in the ballgame (at least one in every inning). Rawhide announcer “Devastating” Donny Baarns reports that:
“Only one Major League team has stranded more (Yankees, 20, in 1916). No MLB team has ever left 19 in a 9 inning game; 6 have left 18. The Cal League left on base record is 21 (5/17/95, San Jose vs. Rancho).”
Time After Time — From May 20-28, the Durham Bulls played eight games with eight different start times. On May 20th, they faced off at home against Louisville at 1:05. This was followed by a four game set in Columbus, with games beginning at 6:35, 7:15, 7:05 and 6:05. The Bulls then went on to Toledo, where the starting times for the first three games were 6:00, 6:30, and 10:30.
And that, folks, is all I’ve got for the month of May. Thanks for getting crooked with me, and, as always, get in touch if you are a witness to the weirdness:
Dispatch from Back Home. June 18, 12:47 p.m. — After a week of blog silence, I figured it would be prudent to provide an update for you, my presumably loyal and undoubtedly physically stunning reader.
I flew from Charlotte to New York City on the afternoon of June 11, marking the conclusion of this latest and greatest road trip. My last acts in Charlotte were to get some ultra-tended brisket at Bobbee -O’s BBQ and and visit Manifest Discs.
Bobbee-O’s is an unassuming spot nestled in a strip mall. My photo of the exterior is horrible, but the brisket was indeed exemplary.
As for Manifest Discs — wow. You don’t see too many places like this around anymore, a wall-to-wall emporium of physical media in a digital age.
I picked up three used CDs: Sparks “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins”, Nilsson “Schmilsson” and Toby Keith “Shock ‘n Y’all.” There’s a lot I could say about Sparks and Nilsson, but since Toby Keith is a bit of an outlier here I’ll explain: in 2004 I was at a record store in a mall near my Pennsylvania hometown. The only album they had on cassette in the entire store was “Shock’n Y’all”, and there was just one copy. I bought it because I thought it might be the last cassette ever sold in the history of this mall. There is no way for me to verify if this was indeed the case, but I bet it was and no one can tell me otherwise.
Well, even though I bought it as a joke I ended up really liking “Shock’n Y’all.” I listened to it all the time in 2004, a year that was largely spent as a third grade assistant teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. 2004 was a long time ago.
Anyhow, I’m back in NYC and have spent the past week cranking out articles for MiLB.com. For your edification, here’s everything that has appeared on the site since I hit the road on June 4. Please read and, if so moved, promote:
June 4 — “Crooked Numbers,” recapping Minor League Baseball’s strangest on-field occurrences in the month of May.
June 6 — “On the Road: Chattanooga,” about the ongoing efforts to restore and revive 84-year-old Engel Stadium. Engel was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts through the 1998 season.
June 9 — “On the Road: Huntsville” — The Huntsville Stars game was rained out, but I still landed an interview w/ PA announcer/stand-up comic Matt “Casio” Mitchell.
June 10 — “Promo Preview,” leading with the Inland Empire 66ers’ gory “Zombie Apocalypse” theme jerseys. For some reason, a photo of the jerseys was not included with the article. So here you go:
June 11 — “On the Road: Rome” I served as the “official Minor League witness” during a pre-game “Renew Your Vows” ceremony, and later interviewed one of the couples who took part.
June 16 — “On the Road: Gwinnett” — A behind-the-scenes look at the G-Braves nightly Can Race. Mayhem sometimes ensues, as seen in the video embedded within the piece.
June 17 — “Promo Preview” — This week’s edition leads with Charleston RiverDogs broadcaster Sean Houston, who will call the entirety of Thursday’s game while walking on a treadmill.
June 18 — “On the Road: Charlotte” — My attempt to explain the recent history of the Charlotte Knights via the experiences of veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell.
There is still one more “On the Road” article to come (Kannapolis!), and next week I will begin posting my “On the Road” blog posts. So, yeah, there is a LOT more road trip content to come. But — PLEASE — do not assume that inactivity on the blog means inactivity in general. I’m writing up a storm these days, trying to do a good job of it, and doing it all for you.
Oh, and I still have to do a “Crooked Nuggets” blog post for the month of May. I think I’ll write that this afternoon, and post it Thursday or Friday. I’m telling you, some of the facts contained therein will be Shock’n, Y’all.
Dispatch from the Road. June 11, 11:05 a.m. — Sorry that it’s been two days since I rapped at ya, but life is hectic on the road. I am currently at a Spring Hill Suites in Concord, NC, after attending the Kannapolis Intimidators game last night. Upon further review I should have just stayed two nights in Charlotte, as this hotel is only about 12 miles from the one in which I was in yesterday. Live and learn.
Anyhow, when we last left off in this narrative, it was a Monday morning in Hickory and I was soon to be on my way to Charlotte. I made a brief stop in downtown Hickory:
And then it was on to Charlotte. The first thing I did was stop at a record store. Lunchbox Records, to be exact.
This place was solid. I finally picked up the new Wovenhand lp (“Refractory Obdurate,” for those keeping score at home), and also got a Richard Bishop/Sun City Girls leftover Record Store Day Release as well as a used copy of the Fine Young Cannibals “The Raw and the Cooked.” (I’ll always have a soft spot for that album.) I got some others too, but you’re already bored with my self-indulgence.
My hotel in Charlotte was walking distance to the ballpark so, yes, I walked to the ballpark. BB&T Ballpark, despite its uninspiring name, is an inspiring ballpark.
The next day the Knights played at noon, so once again I headed to the ballpark.
It was “hot as fish grease” during this afternoon matinee, as I heard one of the security guys at the stadium remark. The game was also a blowout, with the Knights losing by a score of 14-2. The heat and lack of competitiveness made me wish for a merciful end to the ballgame, but I got some good perspective from a woman named Dorothy who was working one of the ballpark elevators:
“Everybody out there is wishing for the game to be over,” she said. “Doing that, you ain’t doing nothing but wishing your life away.”
I think about that a lot on these trips. I love doing them, but I get stressed out and wish for them to be over and romanticize my NYC home. But in doing this, all I am doing is removing myself from the present and speeding myself along on the road to death on which we all travel.
Speaking of death, after the Knights game I checked out their old home in nearby Fort Mill, SC. This place is in a state of decay, and will eventually be torn down.
And then it was on to Kannapolis for my third ballpark and second ballgame of the day. I’m really glad to have closed the trip here, as it was the most enjoyable place I’ve been to in a while and the sort of ballpark that I’d love to come back to strictly as a fan. New ballparks are great and all, as are ridiculous promos and on-field games, but an Intimidators game on a Tuesday night is a quintessential Minor League Baseball experience.
More on Kannapolis to come. More on EVERYTHING to come. But, for now, it’s time to travel back to NYC. One of my cats has been sick lately, but word is that she’s now on the mend and I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I missed you, Little.
Dispatch from the Road. June 9, 11:23 a.m. — I’m at the Crowne Suites in Hickory, which is kind of a weird place. It’s a large establishment and largely deserted, and as I sit here I’m imagining that I might be the only living person in the entire place. The others are actually spirits, fluctuating throughout different planes of reality and advancing an agenda that will not become clear to me until it’s too late.
No disrespect to the Crown Suites, though. I got a clean, comfortable room at an unbeatable price.
As for yesterday, there wasn’t much to it. The drive from Gwinnett to Hickory was four hours (including a stop for some Mexican food, the last refuge for the gluten-free), and the highlight of the drive was glimpsing a sign that said “F. Hugh Atkins Highway.” Really? What do they have against the Atkins Highway? Also, I heard Aerosmith’s “Big 10 Inch” on the radio, which isn’t as cool as when I heard “Round and Round” on my last trip, but, still, I’ll take it.
I made my way to L.P. Frans Stadium shortly after arriving in Hickory. Hello, Crawdads!
I once again threw out a first pitch while wearing my GoPro, and this time I think the footage came out alright. The evening then rolled right along until a massive thunderstorm descended upon in the ballpark in the sixth inning. As I scurried for shelter, I slipped on the slick concourse cement and ended up sliding into the Crawdads Cafe as if it was home plate. A lot of people saw it happen, and acted appropriately concerned, but I’m sure they all thought it was hilarious.
Anyhow, the game was called in the sixth inning. This hasn’t been the best trip, weather-wise, but still I persevere.
— Stephen Johnson (@_South_) June 9, 2014
And now it’s on to Charlotte. They’ve got a new ballpark there, I think.
Dispatch from the Road. June 8, 9:57 a.m. — I’ve got to keep this brief. I’m in Buford, Georgia right now (minutes away from the Gwinnett Braves) and have to get to Hickory, NC this afternoon. The Crawdads game is at 5 p.m., and factoring in a stop or two along the way it’s gonna take me 4+ hours to get there.
As for yesterday, I spent an hour or two in the early afternoon poking around downtown Rome. This was a very pleasant surprise, as until heading to Rome’s Broad Street my only impression of the town had been that it’s a huge strip of chain stores and restaurants.
Then it was on to Lawrenceville, Georgia, home of the Gwinnett Braves. Since I visited Gwinnett about four years ago, I took a different tact with my game coverage and more or less immersed myself with the promo crew. Lots of interesting/weird/funny stuff occurred, though I am a bit dismayed at the moment that my GoPro footage didn’t come out well. I was wearing the headstrap, and the camera must not have been mounted on tightly enough or something because the footage is very shaky. I wore it while throwing out the first pitch, which was a perfect strike. This is the future of media, if I can do it properly.
Either way I’ll keep fighting.
Got some Rhys Chatham and Neneh Cherry lined up for the car ride. See you in Hickory.
Dispatch from the Road. June 7, 12:15 p.m. — Currently writing from the lobby of a Country Inn and Suites in Rome, Georgia. But let’s take it back to yesterday…
The day began in Huntsville. The previous night’s Huntsville Stars game was rained out, so I had to move on without without seeing this esteemed Southern League franchise in their final season. Sadness was lodged in my bosom, alleviated somewhat with an early afternoon stop at the Lowe Mill. This once-dilapidated industrial setting has been converted in a thriving complex of stores and artist studios.
I was there to specifically to, yes, visit a record store. Vertical Records!
After picking up a copy of Lou Reed’s “Mistrial” for $6, I moved on towards Rome, Georgia. It rained the entire drive, and I was wary of yet another postponement. But the skies cleared (for good, as it turned out) around 5 p.m., and the game went on without a hitch.
The Rome Braves are a lot of fun! I served as the official witness at a Renew Your Vows wedding ceremony, and later got to ride around the field in the “Redneck Rummage Sale” trailer. Hey, when in Rome!
Dispatch from the Road. June 6, 10:38 a.m. — Greetings from Huntsville, Alabama. Regrettably, last night’s Stars game was rained out. The forecast doesn’t look much better for today, so it is with a heavy heart that I’ll be moving on to Georgia (for a Rome Braves game, though the weather isn’t looking too great there, either).
Yesterday began in Chattanooga. After a quick lunch at “Sticky Fingers BBQ” (not to be confused with Sticky Fingaz of Onyx fame), I made a brief cameo at the Lookouts current home of AT&T Field.
I’ll have more on that visit in a future blog post. It was then on to Huntsville, but on the way I called an audible and drove to the top of Lookout Mountain. It turned out to be in Georgia; it is very easy to cross state lines in this part of the country. Here’s the view from the observation deck of the Lookout Mountain incline (billed as the steepest in the world).
More on that later, hopefully. I made it to Huntsville later in the afternoon, and when I arrived rain wasn’t on my mind at all. But just as I was about to leave — BOOM!
On second thought… https://t.co/OEt7dFPG8a
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 5, 2014
I still made my way to the stadium, but about five minutes after I arrived the game was called.
Back in the hotel room, I wrote this MiLB.com story about the ongoing Engel Stadium restoration efforts in Chattanooga. This is the third time in four years that I’ve written about Engel, because it is an IMPORTANT STORY THAT DESERVES RECOGNITION WITHIN SPORTS MEDIA AT LARGE. Look, I know my niche is rather obscure, but it gets a little frustrating when pieces gain no traction outside of this insular universe. I know the audience is there. I just know it. It’s like God — you can’t prove it, but you never lose the faith.
Shortly I’ll be on to Rome. Hopefully I can make a quick stop at Huntsville’s Vertical Records before rambling on. Today’s goal, music wise, is to listen to the new Sun Kil Moon, “Benji” all the way through without crying. I don’t think it can be done; this song is just one of MANY tearjerkers.
Dispatch from the Road. June 5, 9:15 a.m. — Trip #2 of the season is now in full effect. I arrived in Chattanooga yesterday evening, and immediately paid a visit to historic Engel Stadium.
The Engel Foundation, who I have written about in the past, are doing great work to preserve and promote historic Engel Stadium. They’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I’ll be writing a MiLB.com piece on their efforts, and the stadium in general, in short order.
Last night I stayed at The Crash Pad in Chattanooga, a quirky, clean and efficient) hostel. Usually I stay at team hotels on these trips, so this was a nice change of pace. Several great bars and restaurants were nearby, and there was a feeling of energy and renewal throughout the area. It’s kinds of beautiful, the juxtaposition of 21st century creations such as the Crash Pad with decaying structures from a previous era of the city’s history.
The nearby Choo Choo Hotel, which, of course, used to be a train station.
I’d recommend visiting Chattanooga. I really would. Today I’ll stop by the Chattanooga Lookouts’ current home of AT&T Field for a brief tour, and then drive on to Huntsville for an evening with the Stars. Wish me luck.
June 3: If you are reading this, then I am back on the road. Or, more accurately, the road is back on me. Things are slowly coming into focus.
Here’s the itinerary this time around:
June 4: Chattanooga*
June 5: Huntsville Stars
June 6: Rome Braves
June 7: Gwinnett Braves
June 8: Hickory Crawdads
June 9: Charlotte Knights
June 10: Kannapolis Intimidators
*due to a scheduling snafu, I won’t be there in Chattanooga in time for that morning’s 11:05 a.m. Lookouts game. I will be visiting the Lookouts’ former home of Engel Stadium, however.
I will be up to my usual antics on this trip, hustling from place to place and writing, shooting, and tweeting along the way. As with my previous trip this season, I will not be writing blog posts until I return home. I will, however, update this post with information on my current location as well as links to whatever MiLB.com articles that may have appeared.
As always, get in touch with suggestions regarding things to do/people to talk to while on this trip. I am always open to your suggestions. And, if someone is interested in being a designated eater in Huntsville, Hickory, or Kannapolis, then let me know. (Designated eater = individual who eats the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)
Finally, here’s a map from my last road trip. Click on it, and you will be re-directed to an article that includes a version of this map that will link to all articles and blog posts from that trip. It is your duty to read every one of them. Or at least skim one or two.
Thanks for your continued support, and hope to see you on the road. Get in touch anytime.
My sixth and final stop on this, my first road trip of the 2014 season, was Round Rock, Texas. The Express, Triple-A affiliate of your Texas Rangers, are one of Round Rock’s (and the greater Austin area’s) top attractions.
The Express play at the Dell Diamond, which was built by legendary train robber Sam Bass in 1877 for use as a hideout from the law (either that, or I have misread the Wikipedia entry). These days, the trains are safe from the likes of Mr. Bass. This one sped past as I was entering the stadium, unencumbered from the constant threat of a hostile takeover.
As for the team’s name of “Express,” that’s a nod to the nickname of team co-owner Nolan Ryan. ( It costs $8 to park at Dell Diamond, a rather high rate by MiLB standards, and the comparative exorbitance of that fee is particularly striking in light of the fact that Ryan issued a Major League-record 2,795 free passes during his career.)
Upon entering the stadium I was greeted by Express director of communications Jill Cacic, who immediately led me and my guest for the evening (you’ll meet him later) on a tour of Dell Diamond.
Upon further investigation, it appears that Dell Diamond opened not in 1877 but in 2000. For the first five seasons of the Express’s existence they played in the Double-A Texas League. That team relocated to Corpus Christi in 2005, becoming the Hooks and staying under the Ryan-Sanders ownership mantle, while the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League relocated to Round Rock and assumed the identity of the Express. Make sense? It’s kinda like that time that the Carolina League Kinston Indians re-located to Zebulon and assumed the identity of the Carolina Mudcats, while the Double-A team that had been the Mudcats relocated to Pensacola and became the Blue Wahoos. That’s the sort of comparison that everyone knows and relates to and can understand right away with no confusion whatsoever.
Anyhow, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know is this: there are a lot of Golden Chicks in the Dell Diamond dugout.
A cool quirk — or a #cooquirk, to use the internet parlance of the day — of the Dell Diamond is that the players enter and exit the field via this staircase located down the left field line. The purpose of this is to promote fan interaction with the players; like it or not, they’re gonna have to mingle with the hoi polloi. (The Corpus Christi Hooks’ home of Whataburger Field utilizes a similar strategy, except that the player entrance is located amid the third base stands as opposed to straightaway left field.)
At the top of the stairs one finds the entrance to the clubhouse. And, yes, players interacting with fans.
The view from the player’s entrance. It’s a long way to the Golden Chicks.
After going up the stairs we went right back down the stairs. Such is life. The purpose of our descent was so that I could be interviewed on the field by Express director of entertainment Ballpark Rob Runnels.
So we meet again, Ballpark Rob. My appearance has degenerated since the last time that I saw you.
Rob and I spoke about life, love, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept, pre-code Hollywood, DIY pickling techniques, the deleterious effects of clickbait on social discourse, maintaining a connection with God amid an increasingly secular society, and Minor League Baseball.
My time on the videoboard, and on the field, continued beyond the interview. Next up was a ceremonial first pitch. The pictures tell the story.
Fortunately, there weren’t too many people who witnessed my bounced first pitch. It was a Monday evening, and as the game started the crowd was rather sparse.
Nonetheless, the Express are averaging 7,985 fans per game this season, best in the Pacific Coast League. It is a fact of life that I always visit teams on off nights, and they always make sure to tell me so.
It’s not the size of the crowd that matters anyway, it’s how you use it. Spike, he always does his best to entertain.
Speaking of Spike, one Spike Owen is on the Express coaching staff and Steve Buechele is the manager. As someone who collected baseball cards between the years 1986-1992, I am very familiar with these names. You probably are too.
With the game underway, I did what I do best: not watching the game. Instead, our ballpark tour resumed. Later, guys.
All of the Express’s food and beverage options are now handled in-house, via the newly-created Ryan-Sanders Sports Services (RS3 for short). I’ll have more on that later, but, for now:
This is the “Brew @ The Rock” bar, which features 16 beers on tap.
Those pieces of wood affixed to the bar are used as serving containers for “beer flights” ($8 for four four-ounce glasses), and they’re made out of baseball bats. I’m not sure when, but it’s a guarantee: other teams will steal this idea.
Teams will not, however, use this sign as a template. There’s a semi-colon where the comma should be, which completely changes the sign’s intended meaning.
Triple-A rosters are often comprised of veteran guys, who are for more likely to have wives and families than any other level of the Minors (guys at other levels of the Minors are far more likely to have video game systems, a dozen pairs of flip-flops, and the Tinder app on their phones). Hence this room, reserved for the families of the players.
There are plenty of other places in which to lounge at the Dell Diamond. These rocking chairs are available to anyone with a berm ticket, for an additional cost of $5 (first come, first served).
The members of the Express bullpen like to put their feet up as well.
As do the grounds crew.
RS3 also offers sports turf services throughout Texas, so this storage area has room for equipment above and beyond what is need to maintain their field. (When I post pictures such as these, I imagine MiLB groundskeepers in less lavish environments pounding their fist on the desk, spitting coffee onto the computer monitor, and yelling obscenities).
Looping around the stadium’s exterior, we soon came upon the player’s parking lot. You can generally tell which cars belong to players; there’s all sorts of overcompensation going on.
The owner of this vehicle possesses what very well may be the most bird poop-splattered Mercedes in all of Minor League Baseball. Get in touch if you are aware of any competition in this category.
The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.
All of the above apply to Ben’s Biz Blog, which, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time as well as most underrated entity in all of sports media. You know this. Tell a friend.
You don’t see this at most ballparks.
Earlier on this trip, I visited the Midland RockHounds and made a note of the huge rock sitting just outside of the stadium. Flipping the script, the Express have a huge rock inside of the stadium. Fitting, as they are one of the boulder teams in Minor League Baseball.
If you’re not into sitting in front of a big rock, you can go swimming instead. I’m not sure if one can stand in this swimming pool or not. Guess that deep ends.
Our lap of the stadium complete, it was once again time to return to field level. Hola, Spike.
I was back on the field in order to compete in a between-inning shirt shag, in which I was tasked with catching t-shirts (launched from a slingshot) with a net.
I missed the first one due to lack of skill, as it clanked off the side of the net. I caught the second.
The third one was a soft launch, and I had to hustle for it. This photo makes it appear as if I might catch up to it, but I didn’t.
And what’s this? STOP THE PRESSES — full video documentation.
Okay, fine, whatever. Another on-field failure. But there’s no crying in Minor League Baseball blogging, a fact of life when you’re born with defective tear ducts.
Time to eat! My designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was Austin resident Phil Boyd.
Phil and I were friends (and, for three years, roommates) at the University of Pittsburgh. We initially bonded over a shared love of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his band Shockwave Riderz had just gotten off of a tour in which they opened for the Blues Explosion. Check out these Shockwave Riderz oscillations, and then cop some music here! It’s an In the Red Silver Apples synthscuzz Suicide attempt, like Dirty Beaches once the sleeping pills wear off.
Round Rock turned out to be a very good location in which to be a designated eater. As mentioned before, the team is now doing all of its concessions in-house, and executive chef Ed Ebert and food and beverage director Jay Kudla were psyched to show off their new creations.
What’s up, guys?
I wrote a MiLB.com feature about the concessions, and will try my best not to be overly redundant here. Each concession area is now a standalone, separately-branded entity, and there are a ton of options. Our first stop was the Metro Deli, which has three sandwiches named after Texas icons.
You’ll also notice the words “gluten-free market” on the above sign. The Express cater to gluten-free diets whenever possible, and the staff is fully trained as regards food handling procedures as well as the specific ingredients in each item. They’re doing it right.
While my photo documentation is poor (by this point my camera batteries had died and I was fumbling around with an iPhone), Phil ended up with a McConaughey.
My notes regarding Phil’s opinion of this sandwich were much like McConaughey himself: kinda hard to comprehend. In a nutshell, he liked it but wasn’t blown away.
Meanwhile, I was trying my hand at the Big Kahuna Dog — a quarter-pound Nolan Ryan beef hot dog topped with mango salsa, pineapple mustard and avocado and served (for me) on a gluten-free bun. On the side are house-made sea salt and pepper chips (when the Express say that everything is made on-site, they really mean it. There are no bagged chips to be found, and homemade is MUCH better).
The gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately (such is life, gluten is a binding agent) but this is a great dog and indicative of the Express’s attention to detail. Ebert and Kudla can (and will!) explain every component of every item in exacting detail. The result of this approach is food items that are uniformly fresh and flavorful.
Also available from the 50’s diner-themed “Fairlane’s” concession stand (or “storefronts,” as the team now calls them) is the James Dean hot dog. It’s topped with bleu cheese slaw and Frank’s Red Hot:
“This is a classic Buffalo wing flavor, and the bleu cheese slaw is great,” said Phil. “This is a good dog, man.”
Also named after a 50’s icon, but far less traditional, is “The Elvis.” Banana and peanut butter on a bun, drizzled with honey.
The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.
“The cool thing about it is that’s dessert, but not that unhealthy,” said Phil. “It’s so cool to have a dessert that’s not, like, a ton of ice cream.”
And then there’s this: the Grilled Cheese Dog. No explanation required.
Man, I wish I could have tried this one. But this garlic fries on the side are EXCEPTIONAL. Much crisper than your usual garlic fries, and seasoned to perfection.
Here’s Phil watching the game with the Grilled Cheese Dog, his steadily growing array of food items laid out in front of him.
“The dog is the first thing you notice, but it’s followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor,” said Phil. “It’s a fun idea.’
Hey! Remember back in 2010, when “Rojo Johnson” made a relief appearance at a Round Rock game? If not:
Rojo is now back at the ballpark, in the form of “Rojo’s Southwestern Hideaway.”
Lots of great gluten-free options here, such as this “Taco Flight” — pork carnitas and chicken verde with shredded romaine, cotija cheese, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.
In lieu of a written opinion, a picture:
Even better were the nachos, which are some of the best to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball. Red, white and blue tortilla chips, pork, “Queso Rojo,” jalapeno, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Things like this represent the best kind of gluten-free ballpark options, in that they are naturally gluten-free as opposed to a compromised consolation prize.
Next up for Phil was the beer shake, available at the Frozensational Tiki Bar. This is a Convict Hill oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream.
“You’re gonna want a straw with that,” said either Ebert or Kudla (my notes are unclear). “This is not a beer with milk in it, it’s a milkshake with a shot of beer.”
And — yes! — a gluten-free beershake was concocted for me using Redbridge. Cute hair, bro:
By this points most of the concession stands (or, sorry, “storefronts”) were shutting down. But we weren’t done yet. Here, Phil “The Bottomless Pit” Boyd poses with a brisket BBQ plate from the South Side Market (a third party vendor that has a restaurant in Elgin, Texas).
Once again, a picture says more than words ever could.
RS3 has come very strongly out of the gate, and the long-term plan is, as Kudla said “to make it salable and take it elsewhere.” Could the Grilled Cheese Dog be coming soon to a ballpark near you?
This extensive food tour brought us right through to the end of the game, but it was worth it. The only thing I regret is that Phil and I missed seeing this:
That dude clearly put a little too much herb mayo on his Willie Sandwich.
In keeping with the theme of this Texas-sized road trip, I arrived in Corpus Christi shortly before the game began and didn’t really have any time to get the lay of the land. But my first impression of Corpus Christi was that it was a pretty swanky place, at least in the waterfront area where my hotel was located. On these trips I am used to staying in nondescript establishments located within homogeneous swaths of depressingly generic chain establishments. But the Corpus Christi Holiday Inn was 20-something stories tall and located right on the water, definitely not a typical Minor League hotel!
The view from my room:
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to access the balcony. How’s this for some strangely-worded hotel room signage?
“We would like to make you aware”?
This grandiose sense of scale carried over to the ballpark itself, which opened in 2005. Welcome to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.
This statue, sporting the disappointingly generic title of “For the Love of the Game,” is 22 feet tall. Is it the biggest statue in all of Minor League Baseball? I don’t know, you tell me.
I wrote about this statue, and many other aspects of the Hooks experience, over at MiLB.com. Please read it, as I am going to do my best not to be redundant when it comes to what I cover here in this blog post.
As you’ll see in this photo, and throughout the post, the landscape surrounding Whataburger Field is rather cluttered. There are cranes, ships, bridges, train tracks, wind turbines (and more). Much of this industrial activity is affiliated with the Port of Corpus Christi, which, per Wikipedia, is the sixth largest port in the United States as regards cargo volume.
The wood beams incorporated into the stadium’s facade (as well as the corrugated steel paneling along the upper suite level) are architectural nods to the cotton warehouses that used to permeate the region.
During the days when cotton reigned, baseball in Corpus Christi was more apt to resemble this.
The AutoNation Club group seating area features this view of Harbor Bridge (it’s much prettier at night, as you shall soon see).
There are a lot of Minor League groundskeepers out there would will kill (with their bare hands, if necessary) for storage space like this.
Another perk of groundskeeping in Corpus Christi, as detailed in my MiLB.com piece:
Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn’t receive much rainfall, but what Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers calls “an incredibly effective drainage system” plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel.
Tanks, a lot:
Cotton presses, still standing in their original location, flank each side of the (brand-new) scoreboard. The “Bam Bam” sign below the window commemorates a batting practice home run hit by Hunter “Bam Bam” Pence while he was with the Hooks.
The boilers that once drove the presses now serve as the backdrop for an outfield basketball court.
Beyond the boilers one finds this youth field, which has games taking place at 5:45 most days of the week. On the day I attended, the Challenger League was in action.
And here we have a rock wall, which has not yet achieved sentience.
The view from the 407 Club, so named because it sits just beyond the deepest part of the ballpark.
Even deeper, but not part of the ballpark proper:
The Hooks’ Splash Zone is a bit more modest than the water park seen above.
The view from the right field entrance.
After taking this lap of the surroundings (thanks to Matt Rogers for the tour), I went down to the playing field for a pre-game interview with Hooks broadcaster Chris Blake.
No pictures of this interview exist, but rest assured that I was charming and witty and incredibly knowledgeable. That’s Chris there on the left, and that guy on the right is wearing a poncho in celebration of Cinco De Mayo. This photo also provides a good view of the cotton press as well as the team’s new scoreboard.
The dugouts are sponsored by the Downtown Marina Holiday Inn, who would like to make you aware that the balconies are not accessible.
A pre-game autograph session featuring both players and mascots.
And, yes, that is an anthropomorphic hook wearing a poncho. I don’t think that I had ever seen that before.
As the game began, I was in a storage area among “Only in Minor League Baseball” accoutrements such as a super-sized order of Whataburger Fries.
Greetings from Corpus Christi https://t.co/0GERpnzXH6
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I started off strong, but at some point during the race my foot slipped off of the pedal and I never regained my speed. I finished in second (of three).
Many of our adventures together throughout the evening were chronicled on the videboard, but the video I obtained lacked audio and I have decided not to use it. Hopefully these pictures will suffice, please send any complaints regarding my subpar content to email@example.com
Ballpark Chuck and I then adjourned to the outfield for the “Whataburger Fry Shuffle” contest. (Similar to a cap shuffle or what have you). For participating in this contest, I received an oversized Whataburger t-shirt. Please, pay no attention to my emerging manboobs.
Our ballpark journeys now segued into a now common segment of the Ben’s Biz Blog “On the Road” experience. It was time to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Say hello to Javi Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach in Corpus Christi. Javi was at the ballpark with his wife, Megan (also a teacher), father Jaime and son James (that James and Jaime in the background).
“I just love Minor League Baseball, and reading the different blogs,” said Javi. As for his designated eating duties, he remarked that “My wife couldn’t believe it, but she said ‘If if it’s going to be anyone, I guess that it’d be you.”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
Yes, “The Babe.” Created last season in response to MiLB.com’s “Food Fight” competition, “The Babe” is cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger wrapped in bacon.
“The cheddarwurst makes it so it’s not as dry as you would think,” said Javi. “And anything wrapped in bacon is a can’t miss. This is Texas, so when you put those meats together it’s good stuff.”
Next up was the Taco Dog — a hot dog in a crispy corn taco shell in a soft flour tortilla, topped with ground beef and pico de gallo.
Javi simply remarked that this was a “good doubledecker, there’s a lot going on.” We then moved on to the mac and cheese dog, which I failed to take a good picture of.
“This is good, but it could use a little ketchup,” said Javi. “Some people say that’s sacrilegious, to put ketchup on a hot dog.
At one point Javi attempted to enlist 14-month-old James as a designated eater, which would have made him the youngest designated eater in the history of designated eating. James was having none of it, though.
Thanks to Javi and his family for taking the time to do some designated eating! When I asked if it was embarrassing to sit at a table and have someone take pictures of him eating, he said “Nah, I’m a teacher. You have to embarrass yourself in the classroom every day.”
That’s the spirit!
For the record, Whataburger Field has its own Whataburger (which the locals pronounce “Waterburger.”) The fast food franchise began in Corpus Christi, and still has its headquarters there.
Enshrouded in the shadows, one can also find Nolan Ryan’s “Smoke 5714″ BBQ stand. (The Hooks were originally owned by Ryan-Sanders. Nolan Ryan struck out 5714 batters over the course of his 63-season career.)
And don’t forget. There was a game going on! There is always a game going on.
As alluded to previously, the Harbor Bridge is beautiful at night.
Ballpark Chuck and I had made our way back down to the playing field so that I could emcee a “Finish the Lyrics” competition. Madalee and McKayla ably finished the lyrics (of a pop song I can no longer recall); fun was had by all.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I then emceed a Dizzy Bat Race, because why not? I wish I had proper video of this, as my comedic chops were on point for a change.
Taking a phone call while the contestants spin.
After the Dizzy Bat Race, I interviewed Hooks super-fan Tammy Tucker about the myriad ways in which she supports the team. You can read that interview HERE.
You don’t need a fancy lens to get a good picture of Harbor Bridge.
With the game just about over, I made a pit stop at the press box. Like seemingly everywhere else at Whataburger Field, there is plenty of room to move.
The Hooks do not acknowledge the existence of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
A unique aspect of Whataburger Field is this radio studio, located on the ground floor of the stadium and visible to fans. Here, outfielder Mark Wik does a post game interview with Chris Blake after homering in his Corpus Christi debut. I’m not sure of the machinations that led to Wik being in Corpus Christi, but he came straight from extended Spring Training, played two games with the Hooks, and then went to Class A Advanced Lancaster and played two games there. He is now back in extended Spring Training (I think), and will most likely appear again with Class A Short Season Tri-Cities once their season begins. What a life.
As I observed this interview, a man I had met previously in the evening, one Douglas Calhoun, tapped on the window and waved a ball and pen at me. I assumed he wanted me to get Wik to autograph the ball, but he wanted my autograph (!!!) I was happy to oblige.
If you would like me to sign an autograph for you, then get in touch. I am a very accessible celebrity.
Fun fact: Although just 20 years of age, San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the eight-team Texas League.
Funner Fact: For the first eight seasons of its existence, Wolff Stadium was the newest ballpark in the Texas League. Its descent from “newest” to “oldest” occurred over a span of just nine seasons; Midland (2002), Arkansas (2007) and Tulsa (2010) built new ballparks for previously existing teams, while Frisco (2003), Corpus Christi (2005), Springfield (2005), and Northwest Arkansas (2008) began play in new facilities after re-locating from elsewhere.
The Texas League, where change is the only constant!
I arrived at Wolff Stadium after a long drive from Midland, during which I got caught in rush hour traffic. I arrived at the ballpark around 6 p.m. (much later than originally intended), changed clothes in the parking lot, and then snapped this shot of the ballpark’s exterior.
Welcome to the Wolff, man:
Wolff Stadium is located across the street (more or less) from Lackland Air Force base. This base serves as the sole location for Air Force basic training, meaning that impossibly fresh-faced recruits are a common sight at Missions games. The sounds of planes flying overhead has also led some (or at least one) to dub it “The Shea Stadium of Minor League Baseball.” (At Shea Stadium, planes flying in and out of LaGuardia airport lent the ballpark a certain acoustical ambiance.)
I was joined on this evening by one Jon Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist who recently completed a piece in which I am depicted blogging sans shirt.
Jon and I went to high school together (Wissahickon Class of ’97, for those keeping score at home). He was last seen on this blog at a Modesto Nuts game, eating meat-stuffed pretzels. Here he is upon entering Wolff Stadium, brandishing a brobdingnagian team-logo mug that was the evening’s giveaway item. (I now allow myself one use of the word “brobdingnagian” per season. Look forward to seeing the word again in 2015.)
Some stadium views, captured upon arrival. Though it was a Friday, the Missions drew a lackluster crowd due to the fact that the Spurs had a Game 7 playoff game that evening. When you’re a Double-A baseball team, it’s kind of hard to compete with a championship-caliber NBA team in the same market. But what can you do?
The National Anthem was adorable. For maximum enjoyment, listen to this at least 145 times in a row. I did!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
I taped that anthem snippet in the press box, a domain occupied by shadowy figures.
And while in the press box, I got my first glimpse of iconic Missions mascot Ballapeno. For more on Ballapeno and his arch-rival, Puffy Taco, read my MiLB.com article on the subject. I COMMAND YOU.
I also got my first glimpse of Alex Vispoli, broadcaster for the visiting Frisco RoughRiders. If broadcasters were ranked as MLB prospects in the same manner that players are, Vispoli would be high on the list. (Actually, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? But what methodology would be used? It’s a hard thing to quantify.)
My interaction with Vispoli was brief, for the game was ready to begin.
Following standard protocol, I did not settle in to watch the game. I commenced to wandering.
And in the course of that wandering, I soon ran into my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
That’s Darren Smith, who drove in from Austin for the occasion. “I just wanted to see a new ballpark and shoot the [shoot] about baseball,” he told me. Smith currently works for an Austin-area summer camp that specializes in outdoor education, but in a previous life he worked for the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton as well as the Bradenton Marauders during their nascent years of existence.
After talking with the team, it was decided that Darren would sample the “Nacho Dog.” It’s nacho dog, it’s Darren’s.
Have at it, Darren.
Darren was less than enthused with the Missions’ culinary concoction.
“The chili’s not great, the cheese is okay, but the bread is the worst,” he said. “It’s rock hard and cold. [Ballpark sponsor] Mrs. Baird’s is a Texas brand and you’d think they’d use that. The only thing that makes this a nacho dog is the chips, otherwise it’s a chili-cheese dog.”
We then stopped by Tony T’s Ballpark Treats, a third-party vendor, and got their signature Ribbon Fries.
Darren was a fan of these, lauding their look, crispness, and overall flavor.
I loved these (gluten-free!) creations as well. Tony T’s is a winner.
Fischer took the above photo, and he took this one as well. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of my professional career that one can find.
Finally, we stopped by another third-party vendor: Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse.
Darren, an expert when it comes to the Austin-area BBQ scene, opted for the brisket sandwich. He said that “In Texas, you know a place has good BBQ if they have a good brisket.”
Oh, and a Frito Pie was involved somehow.
Have at it, guys.
In case you prefer your images of 30-something white men eating to be of the moving variety:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
“I’m pretty sure that the bread here is Mrs. Baird’s,” said Darren. “By Texas brisket standards, this is at the level of a Dickey’s [a BBQ restaurant chain]. It’s pretty commercial, there’s no burnt stuff or smoke lines.”
And with that we bid adieu to Darren Smith, a tough but fair designated eater. I then re-commenced wandering.
Some two decades into its existence, Wolff Stadium is in need of a little TLC. This metal fence could use a touch-up, for example.
And this isolated area, located behind the berm, was just a dump.
But for the most part, Wolff Stadium gets the job done. It is neither old nor young, just plugging along and maintaining its status as a San Antonio summertime entertainment staple.
Of course, the aforementioned Ballapeno and Henry the Puffy Taco are a big part of the ballpark experience. Here, a gaggle of children chase Ballapeno across the field.
I really wish I had been able to properly capture this moment. Ballapeno, in the act of waving to a young fan, accidentally slapped her in the face instead. The girl, more shocked than hurt, began to cry. In the below photo, Ballapeno is attempting to apologize, but, you know, it’s hard to apologize when you can’t talk.
But don’t worry about it, Ballapeno, as it was clearly unintentional. Get in touch if you need me to provide a statement exonerating you of any wrongdoing.
I was back up in the press box during Henry the Puffy Taco’s nightly humiliation. Not only does he lose every base path race, but the victor then stands upon him and gloats. Once again, my attempt to capture the action was subpar. (Everybody has their off nights, no matter what the job, and I had a blogging off night here in San Antonio).
Humiliated or not, Henry the Puffy Taco still loves to dance.
The game was moving rapidly, leading me to a sort of existential crisis. I’d been out and about and on my feet throughout, but what had I done? Anything? It didn’t feel like much, kind of like those recurring dreams I have where I’m at a ballpark in order to write about it but instead remain stuck in one place. (I really and truly have these dreams on a regular basis.)
But I wasn’t stuck, it was time to move. I had to get to the illuminated truth of this multi-tiered conundrum.
But all I found was that the game was over, and fans were now attempting to throw tennis balls into a chimney. Typical.
This was one case where people actually wanted to come down with the flue, but it was not to be. “Oh my God that was so close. Oh! Oh!”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
On this trip, my travel schedule was pretty grueling: ballpark, write, sleep, drive, repeat. Texas-sized travel itineraries didn’t leave any time for idle explorations.
Therefore, upon arriving at Midland’s Sleep Inn, I was relieved to see that the RockHounds’ home — Security Bank Ballpark — was right across the street. No more driving for me that evening, from there on out I was gonna be a walking man!
So walk I did. Over the course of this arduous five-minute journey, I noticed that Security Bank Ballpark is located adjacent to another facility.
In true Texas fashion, this is a high school football stadium (the town of Odessa, where Friday Night Lights took place, is next to Midland). It hosts two local teams, and was built at the same time as the RockHounds stadium.
But on this overcast and windy evening, the only game in town was Minor League Baseball.
Midland RockHounds Minor League Baseball.
Built in 2002, Security Bank Ballpark is a pleasant and serviceable albeit rather generic facility. A bit later in the evening I posted the following tweet, and responses ranged from Arizona Spring Training facilities to Gwinnett County, Georgia to Colorado Springs. Given its lack of distinctive design elements and its location in a rather barren (but growing) part of town, this is one of the more anonymous facilities in Minor League Baseball.
Where am I? pic.twitter.com/46NsWbWUzX
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
But Security Bank Ballpark has accomplished everything it needed to and then some. It easily meets professional standards, provides the front office with plenty of room in which to create new entertainment features and group areas, and is on the verge of being paid off some 14 years ahead of schedule (more on that, and Midland’s currently booming oil-based economy in general, can be found in this MiLB.com piece).
And did you know that a “RockHound” is a slang word for a geologist (usually of the amateur variety)? Since they’re the RockHounds and all, the team has its own lucky rock located outside of the stadium.
(Did you hear the one about the foul-smelling RockHound? He ran out of geoderant.)
I touched the rock on the way in, and, for the record, I have had nothing but fun and good times since then. I water-skied to work this morning.
Soon after arriving at the stadium I met with RockHounds assistant general manager Greg Berman, and we took a lap of the facility. This batting cage just opened this season, and, in addition to being used by the players for their batting cage needs, it is also used for ballpark events such as autograph sessions.
Beyond that is the weight room, which I would deem fair to Midland.
At one point during our wanderings I was able to snap this candid shot of Rocky RockHound in conversation with Juice the Moose. Is it just me, or does Rocky look like he has a face on the back of his head? I was told that they were simply spots.
Here we are at the ProPetro Diamond Club, open to season ticket and suite holders. No hoi polloi allowed.
If you don’t have a season ticket or a suite, you can walk up to these friendly folks and buy a ticket.
And if it’s a Thursday, the first order of business is for of-age fans to prove that they are of age. You can’t quench your booze thirst without a wristband!
At this point Bergman had left in order to perform his actual job duties, and I commenced to solo wandering.
The Coors Light Playground?
If you are walking on the concourse, you should, oh, I don’t know: WATCH FOR FOUL BALLS.
A new addition to the stadium this season is this concourse train.
This ain’t no sedentary train, either.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
If you want sedentary, then head on over to the Rocky Town Tavern.
I don’t drink on the job (much), but I was definitely planning on eating a meal. I didn’t have a designated eater at this particular stop (as in, an individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits), so I just wandered around and pondered my options.
This stand had walking tacos and Frito pie, among other delicacies that I can no longer discern.
And this place had a whole bunch of stuff. If only I had written down what!
Eating gluten-free at a ballpark can be tough. I had a craving for some nachos, which are sometimes gluten-free and sometimes not. I therefore commenced to crack the case of “Are the Midland RockHounds nachos gluten free?”
A cardboard box on a cart next to the concession kiosk listed the ingredients of the chips, which did turn out to be gluten-free. Then I noticed the cheese was from Ortega, and internet research revealed that their nacho cheese is gluten-free.
So I took the plunge and ordered up some chicken macho na–
TRAIN COMING THROUGH
Here’s something you don’t see every day, a trio of Tabasco dispensers.
I ate my nachos as the sun went down on Midland. That’s not just the name of an iconic country song; for a couple of minutes it was my reality.
Still visible, to my immediate left, was the gargantuan high school football stadium mentinoed before. This facility is run by the RockHounds staff and also hosts the Midland/Odessa Sockers of the USL Premier Development League.
I don’t have a video clip, but let it be known that RockHounds third baseman Miles Head uses Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” as his walk-up song. That’s a rather fatalistic outlook for a 23-year-old, but also an apt metaphor for life in the Minors (in which “God” = “Baseball”). That song applies to all of us, really. We’re all gonna get knocked down, hoi polloi and former presidents alike.
Speaking of which: While 21 of the RockHounds’ 22 suites are named after baseball players, this one is named after prez-turned-painter George W. Bush.
My wanderings, they bring me everywhere, and in this particular instance they brought me to the concourse area near the right field foul pole. One dude with a fake beard and a bazooka and one kid attempting to don a fake beard were on their way to shoot hot dogs at the crowd with said bazooka.
Next, I visited RockHounds groundskeeper Eric Campbell in his groundskeeping lair. Our resulting conversation became the basis of an entertaining MiLB.com article that touched on dust, fire, tarantulas, and owl vomit.
After bidding adieu to Campbell and crew, I came upon Rocky and Juice riding a bicycle together. Juice fell off.
Throughout the evening, I had tried to capture the frightening sound effects that are played over the loudspeaker every time a visiting batter strikes out. Finally, in the ninth inning, I nailed it. The more you listen to this Vine, the better it gets.
Post-strikeout sound effects, take 2 https://t.co/R2futPNDta
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
And, hey, look, the home team won! (The visiting team was Corpus Christi, for the record.)
I haven’t been doing #cupdates much on this trip, but I came across this collectible item among the post-game detritus.
Post-game launch-a-ball! Every team does it a little bit differently; in Midland the primary target is a car on the pitcher’s mound.
And that’ll do it from Midland. I hope that RockHounds were satisfied with my reportage, both here and on MiLB.com. If not, I’m sure I’ll hear about it via the issuance of a scathing press release.
My previous post on the Chihuahuas ended mid-narrative, but I had a good reason for ending it when I did. I didn’t want to bury the lede, and the lede is this:
The El Paso Chihuahuas have really, really good ballpark food. Like, really good, easily within the top five of the 110 or so ballparks that I’ve visited over the past five seasons. I learned this first-hand on April 29, the Chihuahuas second-ever home game, when Jeff Hanauer, general manager of Ovations food service at Southwest University Park, gave me a whirlwind tour of the team’s many concession offerings.
It’s all kind of a blur, but I’ll do my best to share with you what I remember….
Prior to meeting up with Hanauer, I’d snapped a few stray food-related shots. In keeping with the team’s “living the brand” philosophy, this concession stand is called the Rio Gr-r-r-r-r-rande Grill.
The thing to do with Chihuarrines is tear open the bag and douse with hot sauce (That’s what I was told, at least. The first ingredient was wheat flour, making it a no can do for a celiac such as myself).
Pre-packaged snack food aside, the Chihuahuas have adopted an “everything’s fresh” concessions philosophy. Items throughout the ballpark are made to order on the premises. “You’ll never see a pre-wrapped hot dog here,” Hanauer told me.
There are a series of food kiosks located along the third base concourse (many of them offering food from local vendors), and Hanauer and I began with a seafood taco stop. $10 is a bit pricey for a taco platter, but it’s a lot of food. (And gluten-free!)
One shrimp, one tilapia. I preferred the shrimp.
Hanauer told me that, in a market like El Paso, it would be foolhardy for the team to offer its own, quite possibly inauthentic, Mexican food. Why not just go straight to the source? The Chihuahuas have therefore partnered with Leo’s, a famous restaurant with several locations in the area. Here are the folks at Leo’s, doing their thing.
And that thing, in a word, is meat. Meat that has been cooked slowly throughout the day, for hours and hours and hours, so that by the time its served its exceedingly tender. The burritos are minimalist affairs — maybe a little sauce is added, but its pretty much just meat.
But these pork carnitas nachos were the star of the show, just amazingly good. The meat was so tender, yet crisp on the edges, and tasted amazing on its own along with the chips and queso. With all apologies to places in which I’ve had exemplary ballpark nachos (Memphis, Northwest Arkansas, Round Rock), these just might be the best.
Hanauer, watching me tear into these things, mentioned that he didn’t think they were gluten-free (as in, the chips had wheat flour). I should have asked about this right off the bat, but when these things appeared in front of me that part of my brain went off. I just started eating as if there was no tomorrow. (And who knows? There might not be.) In this particular instance I am at peace with my transgression. These nachos were just that good.
Anyhow, this is a picture of a margarita.
Why is this significant? Because the margarita was prepared using the Bottoms Up dispenser, in which the cup fills from the bottom. Bottoms Up took the industry by storm a few years back, but I had never seen it used for anything other than beer. (Unfortunately, my video of the margarita being filled up was plagued by technical glitches, so this is just one more thing that you’ll have to trust me on).
Speaking of technical glitches, this is one poorly lit photograph.
That there is the Flamethrower, a half-pound burger with ghost peppers, deep-fried jalapenos and jack cheese. Ghost peppers are the hottest peppers in the world, so they’re incorporated into the mix pretty sparingly — LEST SOMEONE DIES. Still, this thing packs some serious heat and just might be the spiciest hamburger in Minor League Baseball. Tell me it isn’t.
Here’s the Frito Pie, served up in a dog bowl. Absolutely fantastic, and gluten-free! I went at this one pretty hard for a minute.
I’m not sure if the Frito Pie is always served in a dog bowl, but these steak nachos definitely are. And these things did not skimp on the steak, as big tender chunks are distributed throughout.
Here we have a foot long hot dog with chili con carne:
Healthy options. They exist.
I don’t know exactly where I was at this point, except for “in the stadium.”
Men were at work.
And — what’s this? — eggs were on the grill.
Eggs are a key component of the Huevos Rancheros burger, a variation of the Mexican breakfast staple.
The burger is topped with egg, cheese and salsa verde, and if you stick a fork in it the egg yolk oozes out as a sort of bonus condiment. (I had one of these, sans bun, and it was probably better that way. I plan on making these at home.)
And then there was the Juarez dog, a variation of the Mexican street food classic.
That is an applewood bacon-wrapped beef hot dog topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, cole slaw and chicharrones. Think about that mix of flavors and textures for a second, it really is extraordinary.
Juarez dogs on the grill:
This one was firmly in the “look but don’t touch” category for me: Buffalo Chicken and Waffles:
Dessert Nachos, because too much is never enough.
But speaking of dessert — the Chihuahuas offer what is now MY FAVORITE DESSERT IN ALL OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
Here’s what I wrote over at MiLB.com: Quite simply the best dessert I’ve ever had at a Minor League ballpark. You could compare Raspas to a snow cone, but that would be like comparing Leo’s to Taco Bell. Shaved ice is topped with one of six fruit flavors, and a variety of condiments can be added to provide an additional kick of sweet, sour and/or spicy flavor.
The Raspas stand is run by local concessionaire Elizabeth Triejo, who has a true passion for this traditional Mexican dessert. I stopped by the next day and got another one.
There are two key elements that make Raspas so good. One is that all of the fruit flavors are made in small batches by Elizabeth, so everything is all natural and tastes that way. And then there are the condiments, such as Chamoy and Tajin, that deliver a customized mix of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.
So, yeah, if you’re ever at an El Paso Chihuahuas game then get a raspa. My adjectival accolade abilities are failing me, but they are almost certainly better than any ballpark dessert you’ve had before.
My itinerary on this particular road trip began in Albuquerque and ended in Austin, my primary motivation for traveling to this area in the first place was so that I could visit El Paso. For it is in El Paso that one will find the biggest story of the 2014 Minor League season, the El Paso Chihuahuas. This Pacific Coast League entity played its first-ever home game on April 28 (after opening the season in their old home of Tucson), but I spent that evening in Albuquerque. I was on hand for the second-ever Chihuahuas game, however, as on April 29 I arrived in the city and quickly made my way to Southwest University Park in order to see what all the fuss was about.
And believe you me, there was a fuss. Upon entering my hotel room, I found a limited-edition Chihuahuas-themed can of Pepsi:
The newspaper coverage during the days that I was in town was extremely enthusiastic.
And the one time I turned on the radio while driving in El Paso, I happened to hear a morning talk show in which one of the co-hosts was being lambasted for wearing a Chihuahuas hat after having initially bashed the team name and all it stood for. In short, the Chihuahuas aren’t just the biggest sports story in El Paso, they’re the biggest story in El Paso. Period.
I have already written a long MiLB.com story about the Chihuahuas and their home of Southwest University Park, which provides far more context regarding how and why the team came to be. The Chihuahuas are going to be an interesting team to follow for quite some time, on several levels, but this post is gonna keep it simple. This post will simply walk you through (a portion of) my night at the park.
My hotel, a Holiday Inn, was on Missouri Avenue in downtown El Paso. From there it was just a short walk to the stadium.
And then — bam! — the ballpark.
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t ever spent time in a town that borders Mexico. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by just how close Mexico was to El Paso — what was I expecting? — but seeing signs such as the above just felt surreal to me. (This says more about my northeastern upbringing and perspective than it does about anything having to do with El Paso and Juarez.)
The gates hadn’t yet opened at the time I arrived, but anticipation was high. People were lined up on all sides of the ballpark, hundreds deep. I had never seen so many people waiting to get into a Minor League stadium, ever.
Once I got inside, I took this photo of the field itself. Those are the Franklin Mountains looming beyond left-center field, and later on during my stay I learned that the Rocky Mountains extend to El Paso as well.
Taking a cue from the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Chihuahuas’ logo features a prominent set of eyes. Here’s an eyes-olated view, which I snapped on the staircase.
Quite unexpectedly, just prior to the game I received an invite to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While this was the second game of the season, there was still an Opening Day-level of excitement. Politicians, media personalities, pop singers, youth baseball players and military members were all gathered in this little “room” adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. Being from out of town, I kind of felt like an interloper amid this display of local pride.
As for my first pitch — it was a strike, but no evidence seems to exist. Or, if there is evidence, I don’t have it. Hey, does anybody out there have any evidence? Chico?
I know you can hear me, Chico! Don’t walk away from me!
Eh, nevermind. I have no idea what I’m talking about anyway. After throwing my first pitch, I returned to the concourse and embarked on a solo walk around the facility. A pictorial tour, or, as I like to call it, a pic-tour-ial, will now commence.
See that brick structure out in right field? Keep that in mind, we’ll visit that later.
Berm seating is $5.
The Splash Zone, which remained splashless on this pleasant Spring evening.
The Chihuahuas bullpen is ensconced in a little alcove located down the third base line, while the visitor’s are caged within the bottom floor of this outfield structure.
As I mentioned previously, the Mexican city of Juarez is located directly behind the ballpark. Juarez is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua (hence the team name), and residents of the city represent, at least potentially, a sizable portion of the of the fan base.
Turning inward, and then outward again.
That picture was taken through a window, as I was standing in a hallway located outside of the suite area. This area is decorated with a surprisingly diverse array of artwork.
This is Tom Lea’s The 2,000 Yard Stare, a famous portrait of post traumatic stress disorder and the visual equivalent of a punch in the gut.
This Warholian expression of team pride was created by a local non-profit called “Creative Kids.”
Around this point in the evening I ran into Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor, and he led me on the so-called “nickel tour” of the ballpark. Specifically, he wanted to show me the aforementioned three-story brick structure that sits just beyond the right field fence. It is called “The Big Dog House,” and the first level houses the City Hall Grill.
This establishment got its name because it stands where El Paso City Hall once stood. City Hall, as you may recall, was imploded in order to make room for the ballpark. Was this an example of visionary leadership, or a wasteful, hubristic and ultimately self-defeating folly? That question that has been hotly debated in El Paso (and elsewhere) over the past year, leading to some criticism that “City Hall Grill” is a disrespectful name. (Somewhat akin to clearing a forest to make room for a housing development, and then naming all of the streets in the development after trees.)
This plaque is currently displayed in the City Hall Grill.
Taylor brushed off this controversy, saying that “Once [those critical of the City Hall Grill] realized that we had no intent to mock them, I think they understood our vision. We’re just paying tribute to those who preceded us.”
We then walked up one floor, to the Sun Kings Saloon.
The Sun King Saloon is named after one of El Paso’s former Minor League entities (the Sun Kings were not blown up in order to make room for the Chihuahuas, however). The walls of the saloon are decorated with El Paso baseball memorabilia, often with a Chihuahuas twist.
This advertisement is interesting, in that it lauds the Sun Kings as a Minor League Baseball success story as a result of almost drawing 100,000 fans in their debut 1962 season. It’s comparing apples and oranges, but I’d be surprised if the Chihuahuas draw less than 600,000 in 2014.
Finally, at the top of the building, one finds the “Wooftop Deck.” It was largely empty on the night I visited, but this would be a great place to watch the game!
From the Woof Top Deck, one can see the side profile of El Paso’s famous “Mountain Star.”
Another view from the Woof Top:
From there we made a brief stop the WestStar Bank Club, located on the second level behind home plate, an appealing place to get a drink despite its less-than-appealing name. (The next afternoon, I saw people chugging beer from a dog bowl at the bar.)
Somehow my next picture is from the far left field corner of the stadium. I guess we walked over there.
The seats out here, they swiveled! Swiveled, I tell you!
You know, it’s like that old gypsy woman once told me: “Once the seats start swiveling, the blog post must end.”
Part Two of this El Paso Chihuahuas saga shall appear on Monday, then. It’s gonna have a lot of pictures of food.