During next week’s Baseball Winter Meetings in San Diego, California, four intrepid attendees of the annual PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) Job Fair will chronicle their employment-seeking experiences in a series of guest posts. Meet them all HERE. This marks the third season in which I have hosted “Job Seeker Journals” on this blog, and in advance of next week’s posts I thought that now would be a good time to hear from those who have trod down this road before. This post features career (and life) updates from three of 2012’s Job-Seeker Journal writers; click on their names to see all of the posts that they have written.
Meanwhile, a post featuring 2013’s writers can be found HERE.
Alright, buckle up: Here comes your annual installment of “Where is Clint Belau now?” In 2014, my second year with the Albuquerque Isotopes, I transitioned from stadium operations to field operations. Yes, I DO still take a moment or two (or considerably more) out of each day to stop and smell the proverbial roses. If I’m allowed to throw in a boastful moment, I am the assistant to the unanimously-selected “2014 Pacific Coast League Sports Turf Manager of the Year” Casey Griffin, so I am literally learning from the best. It was a different kind of pride that I felt this year, being able to prepare a field that players, managers and umpires considered the best, and one that left me feeling more fulfilled. It was a “just when you think things couldn’t possibly get better…” season, and it certainly has. I am living my dream on a daily basis.
As for the significance of the Job Fair? I would not be where I am without it, for real. The Job Fair is where I interviewed for my Isotopes internship. It’s where I listened to seasoned veterans of the business say things that made me question if I was making the right choice by getting into baseball as a career. It’s where I immediately answered those questions with “Absolutely!” It’s where my network of baseball people first began developing. It’s where I built momentum, gained valuable knowledge, and got my baseball nerd on for four days straight. It’s the first time a career in this incredible game felt like a real possibility to me. It was a chance that I definitely had to take. If you are hoping for a career in baseball, then I strongly recommend that you do the same.
I took a year-round internship with the Indianapolis Indians after the 2012 Winter Meetings, as a web design assistant.
My time with the Indians was the best career decision that I have ever made. I got to spend every day within what is my opinion the best Minor League Baseball organization in the country. On top of an amazing facility, I was fortunate enough to learn a lot, meet some people who are now my best friends and, perhaps most importantly, establish my acting career.
I left my internship with the Indians a few weeks early because I accepted a full-time position with the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League. I spent the 2013-14 season with the Phantoms as their director of game operations & marketing, overseeing their game presentation, promotions, graphic design and other marketing duties. I left the baseball season and had about a two-week “off season” before the hockey season started.
When I went to Nashville for the Job Fair, I had already secured an internship with the Indians and had several interviews lined up for other positions. So, it could be said that the Winter Meetings did not benefit me much. However, physically being there I think allowed me to make the already difficult decisions easier. Being in a room and having access to hundreds of front office employees is a huge benefit that you can’t get unless you’re physically there.
I enjoyed my time so much in Indianapolis that I wanted to get back to the city. I recently left the sports industry to take a marketing specialist position with Elements Financial. Although I took a step away from the sports world, I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the Winter Meetings.
I had a great experience at the 2012 Job Fair. But, looking back, it feels like a missed opportunity. My fumbles and feelings on the event were well documented, but I didn’t leave empty-handed. A short time thereafter I was offered a seasonal sales position with a team in California, but decided to turn it down to take a marketing position with an advertising firm located back in Buffalo. Two years later, I’m no longer there and have a better perspective on my career and where I’d like to go with it.
The key, though, is staying in the game however you can. I’m in my second season with the Buffalo Bills, spending 2013 as a game day service representative in the ticket office before getting moved to premium services this season. I spend game days helping guests, answering questions and addressing issues in the premium club areas.
I’ve also helped co-found the Buffalo Soccer Council, an advocacy group dedicated to growing soccer in Western New York, with the goal of helping bring a professional soccer team to Buffalo. It’s been a great learning experience, starting a company and building it from the ground up.
But I really do miss Minor League Baseball, and I’m still looking for an opportunity that can be sustainable. I’m not sure that this year’s PBEO Job Fair would’ve been worth the trip as far as job seeking goes (seems more like resume collecting for teams), but each Winter Meetings provides at least a very memorable week. I’m hoping to catch on somewhere that will give me the opportunity to go back, as a professional instead of as a job seeker. If not, there’s always next year.
Thanks to Clint, Chris and Erik for sharing their perspectives. Stay tuned on Monday for the first installments from the 2014’s crop of Winter Meetings job seeking journal writers.
During the 2012 season, the Orem Owlz became the first Minor League team to welcome Larry “Soup Nazi” Thomas to the ballpark for a promotional appearance.
Then, the following season, the Owlz gave away 5000 pairs of team-logo sunglasses as part of a “most people wearing sunglasses at night” world record attempt. (The blue balls were part of a different promotion. Please ignore the blue balls).
These two promotional endeavors, different as they may seem, have one thing in common. This:
108 Stitches is a low-budget baseball comedy, executive produced by Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky and produced and co-written by his son, Jake. A raunchy and ramshackle underdog sports comedy (think Major League or Animal House), 108 Stitches involves the exploits of a fictional Orem-based collegiate baseball team. The players wear the uniforms of the real-life Orem Owlz (Class A Short Season affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels), and the baseball scenes are shot at the so-called “Home of the Owlz,” located on the campus of Utah Valley University.
The above fictional squad is coached by one Scott Deshields (esteemed character actor Bruce Davison); meanwhile, assistant coach Kassem Bosco is played by — wait for it — Larry “Soup Nazi” Thomas. So that’s why he was in Orem in the first place!
The movie also features cameos from Owlz mascots Hootz and Holly, but unfortunately does not reference Holly’s 2012 pregnancy announcement.
Speaking of procreation, Roger Clemens has declared, somewhat incomprehensibly, that “If Animal House, Bull Durham and Major League had a threesome, 108 Stitches would be its kid.” Also, somewhat incomprehensibly, Clemens has a cameo late in the film. Here’s the trailer, which features Clemens, Hootz, Holly, the Soup Nazi, 3D Glasses and, of course, more:
If you’re interested in checking out the film, it it available for streaming via virtually every streaming platform known to man. Click HERE.
If you are desirous of even more Minor League “cinema,” then click HERE to see Lake Elsinore Storm mascot Thunder riding a dirtbike. Or, hey, how about this: Fresno Grizzlies mascot Parker provides the mascot perspective on a hot-button social issue.
Or if lip-syncing front-office members are more your thing, then how about this video courtesy of the Tulsa Drillers?
In the Academy Awards of my mind, which take place biannually for some reason, these are all statuette-worthy efforts.
Baseball Miracles is a 501c3 foundation, headed by White Sox scout John Tumminia, that describes itself as follows:
[We are] a team of baseball and softball instructors who join together to teach boys and girls with economic and environmental disadvantages throughout the world. We strive to reach out, especially to youth who have never played the game. At no cost, we provide instruction, gloves, bats, hats, shirts and memories. In reaching these objectives we receive no financial compensation but we do seek and search out sponsorship to get us to our destinations. Our mission is to serve others with joy by having fun, like when seeing a child hit and catch a ball for the first time.
I’ve written about Baseball Miracles several times in the past, most notably in this 2013 MiLB.com feature story. That piece mentioned Baseball Miracles’ excursions to the Dominican Republic and South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian reservations, and since then the organization has only grown more global in scope. At the end of October, representatives from the organization — including Minor League pitchers Mike McCarthy and Virgil Vazquez — traveled to South Africa and worked with young orphans at the Stinkwater Nursery:
McCarthy gives a gum-chewing demo:
Vazquez and his pupils:
Tumminia and friend:
The bottom line, as I hope the above text and pictures have made clear, is that Baseball Miracles is an organization well worth supporting. Baseball equipment (in general) and gloves (in particular) are needed for the children who participate in these camps, and Tumminia emphasizes that monetary donations are greatly appreciated as well. If interested in donating money or equipment please email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next up for Baseball Miracles is a 2015 trip to Comayagua, Honduras. On the cusp of Thanksgiving — and the holiday season at large — why not lend a hand to a cause that should appeal to those who work in baseball as well as those who simply love the game?
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and mine and everyone. I’ll be back in the office on Monday, ready for a week filled with re-branding unveils and Winter Meeting preparations. And, of course, if you’re going to be in San Diego for the Winter Meetings then let me know. I’ll be happy to make your acquaintance.
During the season I write a column called “Crooked Numbers,” which recaps the most absurd and improbable events to have taken place on a Minor League Baseball field over the past month. I enjoy writing it, as it allows me to indulge the quirkier and more obsessive side of my baseball-writing personality. This, in turn, encourages others to get in touch so that they may share their own quirky and obsessive baseball observations.
Which leads me to today’s post, which concerns an email I received from veteran sports announcer Jarrod Wronski in late April but didn’t have the chance to share until now. These emails used the occasion of Albert Pujols’ 500th Major League home run as a launching pad into all sorts of Minor League Baseball ephemera. I think baseball fans possessing a robust quirky and obsessive side — of which there are many — will enjoy this.
With Albert Pujols hitting his 500th home run on April 22, here are some interesting notes in regards to the home run:
Pujols becomes the second Potomac/Prince William franchise player to hit 500 Major League home runs; he did it against the Washington Nationals who are now the affiliate for Potomac. Pujols, who played for Potomac in 2000, joins Barry Bonds (’85) as the other former player to call Woodbridge home before heading to the bigs to hit 500 career home runs.
Bonds/Pujols become just the second pair of Carolina League organization mates to each hit 500 home runs in their Major League career. Jim Thome (1990) and Manny Ramirez (1992) are the others; they played for the Kinston Indians. Now, here’s where it gets interesting: Kinston moved to Zebulon, North Carolina, where the Mudcats began as a Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is the same organization that moved to Woodbridge, becoming the Prince William Pirates, whom Bonds played for.
The only other Class A Advanced team to have more than one former player with 500 or more career home runs is Modesto: Reggie Jackson (1966) and Mark McGwire (1984-85).
Another interesting note regarding these three Class A Advanced teams is that someone actually worked for all three organizations, and did so in consecutive years. That person worked for Modesto in 2002, Carolina in 2003 and Potomac in 2004. All three of those teams went to the playoffs, with Carolina winning the Southern League championship. That person? Me. I was the P. A. announcer/music person/game producer and worked in the front office for Modesto, worked in the front office, emceed and did fill-in P. A. work for Carolina, and worked gameday as the P. A. announcer/music person for Potomac.
Tacoma has had three former players hit 500 or more career home runs: McGwire (1986), Alex Rodriguez (1995 -’96) and Willie McCovey (1960). The Pacific Coast League has had nine different players “start” their careers here and go on to reach the 500 home run milestone.
Here’s a list of other Minor League teams who had more than one player go on to hit 500 Major League home runs:
Minneapolis Millers (American Association): Ted Williams (1938), Willie Mays (1951)
Burlington Indians (Appalachian League): Jim Thome (1990), Manny Ramirez (1991)
Canton-Akron Indians (Eastern League): Jim Thome (1991-’92), Manny Ramirez (1993)
Charlotte Knights (International League): Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez (1993). This marked the ONLY time in Minor League history that two players to hit 500 or more home runs in the Major Leagues played on the same team.
Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League) Raphael Palmeiro (1985) and Albert Pujols (2000)
Tulsa Drillers (Texas League) Frank Robinson (1954) and Sammy Sosa (1989)
Keep in mind that during this research— with the help of Baseball Reference — I used only teams these players played for before gaining two full years of experience in Major League Baseball. The Pujols/Bonds connection is memorable because Bonds played in the first Minor League game that my dad ever took me to. My dad told me about his dad, Bobby Bonds, and we wound up moving close to the field near the end of the game so that I could see Bonds play close up. Then, in 2000, I saw Pujols play for Potomac during a weekend visit to Myrtle Beach. My parents were there on vacation, and the team I was working for at the time (the St. Petersburg Devil Rays) were in a lame-duck season so I used it as a chance to interview with the Pelicans.
So there you have it. Thanks to Wronski for sharing this fascinating information. It’s a little dense, to be sure, but if there’s one thing I know about my readers it’s that they, too, are a little dense. We’re all in this together, so get in touch anytime.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
(Also: I will be on vacation through Monday, November 17. Please take this opportunity to get caught up on all of my 2014 in-season content. And if you have suggestions regarding offseason topics that I may wish to pursue, then please get in touch. Your feedback is always appreciated.)
The first Minor League game that I ever went to was in 1989, when I saw the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons play at Lackawanna County Stadium. The Red Barons were a Philadelphia affiliate, and as a fanatical young Phillies fan, I loved seeing players in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre whom I might one day see play in Philadelphia. I also thought it was really cool that Lackawanna County Stadium was designed as a mini-Veterans Stadium, so that players who got the call-up to the Phillies would already have a good sense of the field layout as well as the unforgiving nature of the artificial playing surface.
I attended Red Barons games on a semi-regular basis over the next half decade or so, one of the primary perks of my grandparents having bought a house in nearby Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania. I remember cheering on the likes of Greg Legg, Steve Scarsone and Jeff Grotewold, and occasionally seeing rehabbing Major Leaguers such as Darren Daulton and, on one memorable day, Darryl Strawberry (suiting up as a member of the visiting Columbus Clippers). These are my first, and still some of my best, Minor League Baseball memories.
Some two decades later, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre still has a Triple-A team. This much has remained constant. But the franchise has switched affiliations (from the Phillies to the Yankees in 2007) and rebranded itself twice (becoming the Yankees in conjunction with the 2007 affiliation switch and then adopting the “RailRiders” name prior to the 2013 season). Furthermore, the team is playing in what is essentially a new ballpark. Renovations to Lackawanna County Field (now called PNC Field) were so extensive that the team was forced to spend the entirety of the 2012 season on the road. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball experience of my youth is no longer. The franchise is now ensconced with a whole new epoch and on Sunday, August 31, I finally got the chance to see it for myself.
* * *
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was the 10th and final stop of my fourth and final road trip of the 2014 season. Finally, the end was in sight, and it seemed fitting that my travels would end with the franchise where my relationship with Minor League Baseball began. I arrived at the ballpark in the late morning, and was greeted not by a parking attendant but by a “Director of First Impressions.”
“Director of First Impressions” and other whimsical approaches to customer service can be attributed to team president Rob Crain, who came aboard in 2012 and oversaw the stadium renovation and rebranding efforts that occurred prior to the 2013 season. He had experience with that sort of thing, having previously been a part of similar endeavors in Omaha (during the 2010-11 offseason, the Omaha Royals moved to a new ballpark and named themselves the “Storm Chasers”).
It was approximately two hours until the start of the game, meaning that I had the parking lot practically to myself.
I wasn’t the first one to arrive, however. These fans were already in line, presumably so they could obtain one of the team-logo toothbrush holders that were to be given away.
Which, by the way, looked like this. (I’m not sure where the toothbrush is supposed to go, but whatever. I’m sure those in the know will bristle at my ignorance.)
I met Rob Crain outside of the ballpark, and he gave me a tour of the facility. Let’s begin.
* * *
This mural depicting Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history and culture, was painted by local artist Evan Hughes. (His was the winning design in a contest staged by the RailRiders prior to this season.) The mural runs alongside the steps that lead to PNC Field’s Mohegan Sun Club, a private second-level club and suite area.
Outside the entrance to the Mohegan Sun Club, I happened upon this curious sight.
The RailRiders were set to play the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and in response the team was roasting a pig and selling the resulting “IronPig Sandwich” for $7.50.
The RailRiders had already lost the “IronRail” head-to-head season series with Lehigh Valley, and both teams had long been eliminated from playoff contention, but there was still something to play for: the battle to not finish in last place!
The playing field is one of the few things at PNC Field that is not new. The days of this ballpark bearing a distinct Veterans Stadium resemblance are long, long gone.
For the record, Rob was very enthusiastic about the drink rail that wraps around the entire concourse. I think he used the term “Trex-style decking,” and I was like “How can T-Rex even hold a drink when he’s got those tiny baby arms?”
One of the coolest things about this “new” ballpark is the extent to which the natural landscape is incorporated into the outfield concourse. This is the Railhouse Bar.
Booze with a view.
And this picnic area is called “Oak Grove.” The trees are lit up at night, but, alas, I was there during the day.
“I’m not sure if the trees are oak, but that’s what we call them,” said Rob. “I’m no arborist.”
Stay off of the rocks, please.
Actually, on second thought: have a seat:
$2 buys three shots on the Porcupine Putt Putt.
“If you’re wondering, it goes to the left,” said Rob.
“We wanted the biggest, tallest, most intense visual we could find,” said Rob, explaining the thought process behind this gargantuan Fun Zone offering.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons/Yankees/RailRiders have retired two numbers over the course of franchise history. Greg Legg, No. 14, was not honored simply on the strength of his name, but because he played for the Red Barons from 1989-94. All told, Legg played 11 seasons in Triple-A, all within the Phillies organization, and he has since spent the last two decades coaching and managing within the Phillies system. Dave Miley, No. 11, has managed the club since 2007. He is the only manager Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has had during its time as a Yankees affiliate.
On the third-base side of the concourse, one finds this Midway-style attraction.
Ribbet Riders in action, featuring president Rob.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Frogs, but it was time to move on. The Laurel Line Grill is named after the Laurel Line trolley route. Did you know that Scranton is the birthplace of the electric street car? And that’s why the team is called the “RailRiders” in the first place? Well, now you do.
I’m not sure that I had ever seen this before: add peanuts for $3.00.
The Birthday Burrow is where all the cool Scranton kids have their parties.
During our lap of the concourse, Rob was in full taking-care-of-business mode. In addition to augmenting my tour with various ballpark facts, I witnessed him pick up stray pieces of litter, radio a co-worker about a broken armrest in section 11 and constantly monitor the weather via an app on his cell phone. A storm front was in the vicinity of the ballpark, and it was an open question at whether it would wreak havoc or steer clear.
In the meantime, Rob and I went upstairs in order to check out the aforementioned Mohegan Sun Club.
The four-top tables placed outside are in the shape of blackjack tables.
The elevated view from the second level makes it easier to appreciate the artistry of the groundskeeper.
The suite hallways are decorated with photos of Yankee greats.
In the suites, one finds induction heaters mounted inside harvest tables. Other teams are gonna have to step up their food-heating game!
There are 18 suites overall, identified by glowing signage modeled after that which can be found at Yankee Stadium.
Back on the concourse, pitcher Nick Rumbelow and second baseman Robert Refsnyder (separated at birth?) were in the midst of a 20-minute pregame autograph session. Refsnyder didn’t know it then, but weeks later he would win a MiLBY for Top Home Run Video.
The RailRiders’ press box and control room are located on the concourse level. Twenty-one games are broadcast on local television each season, with most of the equipment needed for such an endeavor found here.
With the game about to begin, I bid adieu to President Crain (for the time being) and wandered back to the outfield concourse. One of the coolest features of this area is the primo view it affords of the home and visiting bullpens. Here, IronPigs pitcher Sean O’Sullivan gets in some final tosses before taking the mound.
The RailRiders’ relievers struck a casual pose.
But the IronPigs’ bullpen denizens were even more relaxed. Dude on the left is all, “Man, it’s the penultimate day of the season. I’m not even gonna put on pants.”
* * *
With the game under way, I recommenced wandering, and, soon enough, my wanderings led me to this trio.
My conversation with the above trio led to an MiLB.com article, excerpted below of context:
Junichi “Jay” Inoue, Yu “Buffalo” Matsumoto and Tetsuhiro “Freddy” Usui were visiting the RailRiders from Sendai, Japan, as part of a tour of American sporting venues. All three men work in the “enterprise department” of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team commonly referred to simply as “Rakuten” — and they were in America on business.
Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui wanted to learn about how professional sports teams operate in the United States. The hope was that, after careful observation, they could apply some of these American ideas to the Rakuten baseball experience.
This trio of international travelers was accompanied to PNC Field by Morris Morioka, a native of Japan who has just completed his second season as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager of marketing and promotions. Two years ago, Morioka and IronPigs promotions director Lindsey Knupp traveled to Japan to share ideas at sports promotional seminars in Tokyo and Sendai. While in the latter city, they met Usui, who kept in touch with Morioka and solicited his help in planning a trip to the United States.
Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui had an interesting array of paraphernalia, including this Masahiro Tanaka golden bobblehead.
This concessions brochure was fascinating.
And, yes, your eyes do not deceive you. In the bottom right hand corner, Andruw Jones is eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And here’s a close-up of Andruw Jones enjoying KFC in Rakuten Eagles concessions menu. pic.twitter.com/gwKVBijEj2
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) September 22, 2014
* * *
After parting ways with my new Japanese friends, I returned to the pig carving station to see how things were going. A significant chunk of this unfortunate fellow was now missing.
I abstained from the pig, but, seeking sustenance, did procure an order of nachos. These were obtained from a concession kiosk sporting the incredibly creative name of “Nachos.” They were delicious.
Nachos consumed, I reconvened with President Rob to continue my tour. As we proceeded into the guts of the facility, I offhandedly mentioned that the game was “flying along.” Without missing a beat and without even turning around, Rob raised a finger in the air and said “Don’t jinx nothing.” Clearly, I had broken a baseball taboo: never comment on how quickly a game is proceeding. This will anger the baseball gods, who will respond with a rain delay and/or extra innings.
Anyhow, this is the visitors’ locker room. It is perfectly adequate.
The refrigerator in the nearby kitchen area was covered with signatures, sayings and off-color baseball poetry. One man who added his name to the mix this season was peripheral Duck Dynasty character Mountain Man.
Mountain Man was not just here this season, he was everywhere.
While the visiting clubhouse is adequate, the home clubhouse is spectacular. Rob mentioned that such deluxe accommodations aid the Yankees in their efforts to sign six-year Minor League free agents and fringe MLB veterans who might end up spending some or all of the season at Triple-A.
The weight room:
The former auxiliary clubhouse is now used as the groundskeeper’s area. Be jealous, other Minor League groundskeepers.
When we emerged back on the concourse, T-shirts were being launched. Note that image on the videoboard, as that’s one impressive-looking gun.
Later, a Honda Fit was given away to a fan who had correctly guessed the number of baseballs filling the trunk of said vehicle.
Those who did not win a Fit could still obtain a fitted cap at the team store. There were some interesting specimens therein.
Meanwhile, on the field, the game continued to fly right along. The RailRiders held a 1-0 lead through seven innings, with Tyler Henson leading off for the IronPigs in the top of the eighth.
Henson was greeted with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” as he strode to the plate, and he promptly deposited a fat-bottomed offering from Rumbelow over the center-field fence to tie the game, 1-1. In the bottom of the eighth, Lehigh Valley’s Hector Neris was summoned from the bullpen. I found it odd that a Philadelphia-affiliated pitcher was greeted with the Rocky theme while pitching on the road.
Making an entrance… https://t.co/OP26xEabxq
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
But that’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for ya. It’s a land of divided loyalties.
Rob’s efforts notwithstanding, apparently I had jinxed this ballgame’s ability to conclude at a rapid pace. For in the bottom of the eighth inning, the rains came.
A tarp snafu resulted in the right side of the infield getting completely waterlogged.
I was certain that the game would be called immediately, but this was not the case. A protracted rain delay then followed, indefinitely extending my season-ending road trip. I entertained myself by watching “Baseball’s Best Blunders” on the videoboard until, finally, mercifully, the following message was broadcast to the fans.
Finally, my 2014 ballpark travels were complete. Just before exiting PNC Field, I thrilled to one last instance of creative Minor League Baseball sponsorship.
But as much as I was looking forward to finally returning home, I nonetheless was overtaken by a pervasive melancholy upon leaving the ballpark. In 2014, I would be “On the Road” no longer. Seeking to postpone my inevitable offseason existential crisis for as long as possible, I shuffled about at a snail’s pace and snapped photos of anything that even seemed remotely interesting.
Hey, Gene Schall! I remember seeing him play back in 1993.
Finally, at approximately 5:30 p.m., I officially closed the book on this season’s travels.
And that’s all she wrote. See you at a MiLB ballpark in 2015, hopefully. https://t.co/h9jcwBuj2i
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
Thanks to all the teams that hosted me, the fans I met and, most importantly, everyone who has taken the time to read this season’s crop of MiLB.com articles and blog posts. I really appreciate it. Get in touch anytime, and stay tuned later in the month for the start of offseason content as well as odds and sods left over from the road. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.
Over the last five seasons my Minor League Baseball ballpark travels have taken me to every corner of the continental United States, from El Paso, Texas to Everett, Washington to Burlington, Vermont to Fort Myers, Florida. Yet it wasn’t until this season-ending trip of 2014 that I visited the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are located just 75 miles north of my home base of New York City.
Finally, on August 30th, I rectified this egregious omission. Welcome to Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.
Construction on Dutchess Stadium began in January of 1994, and, somewhat miraculously, completed in time for the start of the 1994 New York-Penn League season. (The construction crew, like a good entomologist, was able to make adjustments on the fly.) Dutchess Stadium has hosted the Renegades for the duration of their existence, after the franchise relocated from Erie, Pennsylvania following the 1993 campaign.
While Dutchess Stadium boasts an ample parking area, be forewarned that traffic into and out of the ballpark is very slow moving. Don’t let that get to you, though. Just take a deep breath and take in the mountain view.
The Renegades are owned by the Goldklang Group, whose baseball portfolio also includes the Charleston RiverDogs, Fort Myers Miracle, independent St. Paul Saints and wood-bat collegiate Pittsfield Suns. The Goldklang Group’s executive roster features the likes of Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, but I was disappointed to find out that neither man had traveled to Dutchess Stadium on this evening to give me a proper Hudson Valley welcome. “Don’t they know who I am?” I bellowed to no one in particular. “I am the mighty Ben’s Biz!”
Goldklang Group vice president Tyler Tumminia is the mastermind behind the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, and plaques featuring the inductees are displayed at each Goldklang Group ballpark. At Dutchess Stadium, these plaques are located just outside of the main entrance.
It’s not hard to discern Tumminia’s motivations for establishing the PBSHOF — her father, John, a veteran White Sox scout and global baseball humanitarian, is one of the inductees.
If you like inflatable cacti — and who doesn’t? — then you’ll love the team’s Fun Zone.
Heading down the third base line, one encounters this bit of creative landscaping. I just wish that dessicated cow skulls and tumbleweeds had also been incorporated into the design.
Renegades players prepared for their imminent New York-Penn League contest by congregating in the outfield and staring blankly into the middle distance.
While, down the first base line, an unruly mass of pre-game guests began to congeal.
Fortunately, I had some help making sense of the chaos. Sandy Tambone, a local photographer who often works Renegades games, introduced himself to me prior to the game and, throughout the evening, helped me make sense of what I was seeing. For instance, in the above photograph, you can see a woman wearing a crown. That would be Miss Hudson Valley, one April Maroshick, who soon had to handle the awkward task of throwing out a first pitch while wearing a skirt, sash and high heels. (I would be happy to attempt this at a Minor League game in 2015. Get in touch.)
Nadia Manginelli, also known as Miss Westchester, threw out a first pitch as well. While she might Miss Westchester, she did not miss her home plate target.
During my pregame peregrinations Sandy introduced me to the Hanson Sisters, a pair of Hudson Valley superfans who are not actually named Hanson but are in fact sisters. I wrote a story about them that appeared on MiLB.com last month; click HERE to learn all about the sisters’ well-honed raccoon-centric ballpark antics.
I also spoke with Glenn Looney, a veteran usher.
2014 marked Glenn’s 18th and final season as an usher at Dutchess Stadium, but he will continue to participate in the Renegades’ host family program.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Glenn of his impending retirement as an usher. “But part of the reason [I’m retiring] is because I’m getting a new hip. I made sure to schedule the surgery after the playoffs, though. But now I’ll have time to sit in section 203 with the other host families, having a beer and watching my kids play baseball. I’m looking forward to it. Yesterday the score [of the Renegades game] was 3-2 and I had no idea what happened. I was working.”
By “my kids” Glenn meant the players that he’ll be hosting during the baseball season. I’ve heard that terminology used frequently when talking to host families, which speaks to the level of commitment and loyalty that develops as a result of these endeavors.
Left once again to my own devices, I resumed my aimless ballpark wanderings. Several Midway-style games had been set up in the “Corona Cantina” as part of the evening’s carnival theme.
Among the carnival games was this strength-determiner, which featured an insulting and not entirely politically correct set of benchmarks (the first five were “softy,” wimp,” “girly man” “sissy,” and “assistant general manager”). Also, I have no idea whether that basketball shot made it in or not. It shall now linger on the rim for all eternity.
The game I attended was on a Saturday night, the penultimate home game of the 2014 season. A robust crowd had filed in at this point, and many fans went straight to the concession stand.
It is perhaps to be expected from a team operating within the exorbitant orbit of New York City, but the Renegades’ concession items were on the pricier side. An order of nachos (just chips and processed cheese, no other toppings) was $5.50, and a 22-ounce soda went for $4.50. Perhaps also to be expected from a team in the greater NYC area, security procedures were more rigorous than at any other Minor League ballpark I had ever been to (including Brooklyn and Staten Island). Security personnel wielding hand-held metal detectors greeted fans at the gate and dog-toting officers from the Dutchess County sheriff’s department were on the premises as well.
If this blue dude is indicative of the Renegades’ customer service approach, then let it be known that they will bend over backwards to fulfill your needs.
Truth be told, I developed a mild obsession with this aqua-hued creature. In this panoramic photo, he reveals himself to be a shape-shifting entity capable of dividing himself into a half-dozen separate organisms.
Regretfully, and with no small amount of effort, I wrested myself away from the Blue Man Group.
A Minor League Baseball game was about to begin!
The Renegades get pretty creative with their between-innings contests, which are overseen by Rick “Zolz” Zolzer.
Zolz paces around the concourse throughout the whole game, handling both PA duties and on-field emcee duties. The only other locale in which I saw such multi-tasking in action was Charleston, which, not coincidentally, is also part of the Goldklang Group empire.
I didn’t get the name of this particular contest, but it involved guessing song lyrics which were played over the PA in a monotone robotic voice. I can’t believe that these guys couldn’t guess this one, and it only got worse! They later failed to identify “New York, New York.”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 30, 2014
There was also a putting challenge at one point. Two guys, one shirt.
Later in the game I witnessed “Pie Wars.” Ostensibly this is a trivia contest, but really it seemed like an elaborate excuse for Zolz to mercilessly pick on one of the contestants. Check out the acerbic absurdity.
You can take away his dignity, but you can’t take away his smile.
I have no idea what is going on in this photo. Maybe an on-field Heimlich maneuver demonstration?
On-field shenanigans are all well and good, but I had other things to do. Namely, it was time to meet the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
The above two individuals are Kathleen Fleming and Josh Gladstone. Josh is a fellow Major League Baseball Advanced Media employee, though his work and mine don’t often intersect. “Managing Producer” is his job title, though I generally refer to him as “guy who is always talking about technical things I do not and probably never will understand.” Nevertheless, I think he’s an HTML of a guy.
At the time this game took place, Kathleen and Josh were engaged to be married. And now, thanks to the inexorable passage of time, they are husband and wife! Congratulations, guys! Let me treat you to an array of concession offerings at a Class A Short Season Minor League Baseball game. Really, it’s the least I could do.
“I’m one of those obnoxious foodies who posts a photo of a tray of oysters,” said Josh.
“On our ‘Save the Date’ invite, we’re literally stuffing pie into our mouths,” added Kathleen.
Clearly, I was dealing with a couple of discerning gourmands.
Kathleen ordered a portabello-and-swiss burger, obtained from a made-to-order concession kiosk located on the concourse behind home plate.
Josh opted for a nacho cheese-slathered hot dog. (In a feat of perhaps unparalleled gastronomic ingenuity, he then opted to put the potato chips directly onto his hot dog.)
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
Kathleen, unfortunately, was unimpressed.
“Portabello and Swiss, both of which are cold,” she said. “I did not expect that. It was grilled…at one point. It tastes good, but I’m sorry: Cheese on a hot sandwich that’s not at least nominally melted? At least make an attempt.”
Josh had a better experience.
“Plus one on the ridged potato chips. If it’s not Ruffles, it’s a strong rival,” he said. “The hot dog is well-cooked, and I like a heavier, well-cooked dog. The chips on the dog give it a nice crunch. It tastes like America.”
Earlier in the evening I had noticed that the “Curious Traveler Eatery” featured a “Kegs and Eggs” special: scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and a beer for $7.
Being a curious traveler myself, I quickly procured this Minor League Baseball culinary rarity so that Josh and Kathleen could (hopefully) enjoy it.
“I am excited about Kegs and Eggs because my favorite time to eat breakfast is anytime but breakfast,” said Josh.
Kathleen may have dabbled a bit, but it was Josh who ended up doing most of the Kegs and Eggs heavy lifting. Sorry, ladies. He’s taken.
“This is a summer camp-quality scramble,” said Josh.
“Uh, is that a good thing?” I asked him.
“You can leave that up to the reader to decide. I, for one, have fond memories of summer camp,” he replied.
And with that, we say goodbye to Josh and Kathleen. Any final words?
“We’re getting married on October 12, and interested parties can find our registry at joshandkathleen.com,” said Kathleen, not realizing that this post would not appear until two weeks after their nuptials. “Maybe strangers on the web will contribute. ‘Oh, those people with their portabello burgers. They’re adorable.'”
“This is the best baseball experience we’ve had all season,” added Josh, who had not been to a baseball game in 2014. “I like food of all kinds, and I’m always excited to check out a new venue. This was my first visit to the Renegades, but it will not be my last.”
I may be posting these final “On the Road” missives of 2014 at a glacial pace, but the game itself was moving quicker than a jackrabbit dancing on a bed of coals. By the time I parted ways with Josh and Kathleen, it was already the top of the eighth inning. The crowd was fully settled in and the stands were packed.
With everyone safely ensconced in their seats, this usher had plenty of time to pose with visiting regional beauty pageant royalty.
In addition to taking the above photo, Sandy introduced me to Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. His personal grooming > my personal grooming.
Molinaro has been a strong advocate for the Renegades, to the extent that the team gave away Molinaro bobbleheads in 2012. Prior to this season Dutchess Stadium, a county-owned facility, installed a new artificial turf playing surface and Molinaro has been a key supporter of efforts such as these. Here’s one more photo from Sandy Tambone, depicting the official public debut of the new playing surface. Clearly, it is a cut above.
Anyhow, the visiting Connecticut Tigers defeated the Renegades by a score of 3-2, in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 15 minutes to play.
The game was over, but there was still a four-part suite of post-game entertainment.
Part One: Space Invaders — Live!
Part Two: Fireworks
While the fireworks show was going on, I ducked into the temporarily deserted men’s bathroom to document the wall art found therein.
Part Three: Launch-A-Ball
Entering the hottest dance party in the Hudson Valley region. https://t.co/vOfDEymmTS
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
On my way out of the ballpark, I noticed this dismembered action figure abandoned on a concourse table. That’s a metaphor for something, I just don’t know what.
Good night from Hudson Valley.
August 28th was the last Friday of the regular season in Minor League Baseball, representing one of the final opportunities to pull out all of the promotional stops in the service of a celebratory evening of end-of-summer National Pastime action. That was certainly the Tri-City ValleyCats’ approach on this evening, an approach that extended to the imminent arrival of esteemed Minor League Baseball scene chronicler and gratuitous third-person referrer Benjamin Hill.
In a nod to my gluten-free diet (the result of a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis), the team released this video in advance of my arrival. No glutes!
— Tri-City ValleyCats (@ValleyCats) August 29, 2014
I arrived at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in the mid-afternoon to ensure that I’d have enough time to fully experience everything that the ValleyCats had planned for me on this glutes-free evening. “The Joe,” as it as referred to colloquially, opened in 2002. Not coincidentally, 2002 was also the first season of the ValleyCats’ existence after the franchise relocated from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of the ValleyCats, the last Minor League team to have played in the Tri-City (Albany, Troy, Schenectady) region was the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League. That team re-located to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1995 and now plays in Richmond as the Flying Squirrels.
The Joe is located on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, an institution of higher learning affectionately (or would that be derisively?) known as “Harvard on the Hill.” This was not my first time attending a ValleyCats game, but it had definitely been a while. In 2008 myself and a contingent of MiLB.com staffers visited The Joe to see the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, and while there I wrote a “fan experience” article that served as a precursor to the “On the Road” material that now dominates my professional existence.
This time around I was met at the entrance by Ben Whitehead, the account executive who appears in the “glutes” video posted above at the two-minute mark. Whitehead gave me a tour of the facility, which began in the ticket office (the exterior of which you can see in the above photo.)
From there, it was on to the team store. Note the signage, which elucidates the region’s professional baseball history. The Schenectady Frog Alleys are not included in this regional round-up, but Tim Hagerty’s much-recommended Root for the Home Team: Minor League’s Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Tean Names and the Stories Behind Them includes a page dedicated to this oddly-named squad.
“The city of Schenectady is where the Hudson River and Mohawk River converge, leaving plenty of opportunities for reptiles and frog alleys,” writes Hagerty in the book.
In the team store, one can buy jars of Helmbold’s hot dog sauce. New York state is home to many regional frankfurter purveyors, as I learned on this trip, and Troy in particular is known for its unique take on the hot dog.
The ValleyCats won the New York-Penn League championship in 2013. This season, the trophy was displayed in the team store for all to admire.
On the day I visited, the ValleyCats had already clinched the NYPL’s Stedler Division. A playoff ticket sale campaign had been launched with the tagline #unomas, but this drive for “one more” championship was thwarted in the best-of-3 finals series by the State College Spikes. In 2015, the trophy seen above will reside there.
I really got lucky with the weather on this trip. Once again, it was a beautiful day for Minor League Baseball in the Empire State.
During every game this season the ValleyCats ran “sixth-inning selfie” photos on the videoboard, submitted to the team via MiLB.com’s Inside the Park app. I posed for a photo and ended up looking like a silent movie villain.
Also on the concourse is Food’s on First, perhaps the only concession stand in Minor League Baseball to be named after a comedy routine. (The concession stand on the opposite side is called the “Hot Corner,” but “I Don’t Know” what it should be called.)
Brown’s Brewing Company, a Troy-based brewery, sells its beers at this location (including a team-specific “ValleyCats Ale”). Apparently this is also a pre-game hangout spot for silver-haired game-day employees.
The pre-game silver-haired hangout scene was slightly less robust at Vamos Tacos (a play on the team slogan of “Vamos Gatos,” which is Spanish for “Go Cats”).
Buddy’s Grill serves the upstate New York specialty of salt potatoes (also available at Minor League stadiums in Buffalo and Syracuse), as well as the Binghamton-based treat that is the spiedie (marinated cubes of meat, served on bread).
“We almost called it ‘Benjamin’s Button,'” said Ben.
To my right stood one of the steepest berms in all of Minor League Baseball. Note that the right field foul pole is sponsored by DDperks.com, which is not to be confused with the Auburn Doubledays’ “Double D Booster Club.”
On the other side of the concourse, there is a general admission Tiki Bar.
Musgrove wasn’t the only individual at The Joe exuding a profound passion for improvement. ValleyCats chef Jason Lecuyer, seen in the glutes-adverse video that leads this post, has overseen many additions to the ValleyCats’ culinary scene.
“Our goal it to create a dining experience,” he told me. “We use fresh ingredients as much as possible, because as an organization we want to be known for our food. We think we have the best food in the New York-Penn League. We want to take it to another level.”
One way in which Lecuyer has “taken it to another level” is via the addition of a brick pizza oven on the concourse. The oven was procured prior to this season from “a guy in Vermont,” and the team sometimes brings it to local food festivals and community events so that attendees can enjoy a “taste of the Joe.”
I can’t eat pizza these days (on account of the glutes), but I can make it. First I donned some rubber gloves, utilizing the technique I had learned from my pal Dr. Peter Lund the previous Monday in Erie.
Checking the temperature (the oven can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but it is generally in the 700 degree range).
The finished product, boxed and sliced.
This evening’s designated eater was a gentleman by the name of Kyle Wirtz. He lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and works as a personal trainer. He attends ValleyCats games on a semi-regular basis, however, as his in-laws live in nearby Watervliet, New York.
“I’m a trainer by trade, so I’m really going to have to work this one off,” said Kyle, a long-time reader, first-time designated eater. “My buddies will bust my chops. ‘You know what you do for a living, right?'”
Too late to turn back now, Kyle.
“I’m coming from Connecticut, where New Haven is known as the pizza capital,” said Kyle. “But this is pretty good. You guys did a nice job.”
Kyle would end up accompanying me throughout the majority of the evening, and in this way he became more of a “designated fan” than simply a “designated eater.” This gave me an idea for the 2015 season: When visiting teams who have devised a full slate of activities for me, I may just recruit a “designated fan” to come along and participate in the entire experience.
Ben, Kyle and I traveled down the third base concourse to visit the “Top of the Hill Bar and Grill” in left field. Ben told me that, in honor of my visit, it had been unofficially renamed “Top of the Benjamin Hill Bar and Grill.” Okay, sure, I’ll take any ego boosts that I can get. It serves as fuel for the long, cold offseason.
Long-time Ben’s Biz Blog readers may recognize the individual shown on the screen above. That’s ValleyCats broadcaster Sam Sigal, who, in 2012, while working as an intern for the Trenton Thunder, picked me up at the Trenton train station while wearing a hot dog suit. It was raining at the time, making this image all the more memorable.
While hanging out in the Top of the Hill area, Kyle and I enjoyed some Nine Pin cider. Nine Pin is a local company that uses New York apples. The resulting cider is crisp and tart, free of the cloying sweetness that can make ciders unappealing. I give it an enthusiastic bottoms up.
After extricating ourselves from the vehicle, Kyle and I wandered around the playing field. A pig was there to greet us.
I love this dude in the sunglasses and bucket hat, who seems to approach autograph collecting as if it were a furtive back alley transaction. As Zach Davis puts pen to paper, this dude is keeping both eyes peeled for the fuzz.
Biz Blog history was then made, as Kyle became the first designated eater to ever throw out a first pitch. (It was a great year for designated eater milestones. The previous month Greg Hotopp became the first designated eater to receive his own media credential, courtesy of the Indianapolis Indians.)
Kyle’s first pitch was expertly delivered, befitting his status as a former pitcher for Manhattan College. In 2005, he led the Manhattan Jaspers with 22 appearances, picking up one of his wins against my Dad’s alma mater of Lafayette.
Kyle’s career didn’t progress beyond the collegiate ranks, but his roommate was former Minor League (and current indy ball) pitcher Chris Cody. His Jasper teammates also included future Cardinal farmhands Nick Derba and Mike Parisi (who pitched briefly in the Majors).
“I was the mediocre one of my group,” said Kyle. (He was also, through no fault of his own, the Wirtz one of the group.)
There were 14 ceremonial first pitches overall, a new ValleyCats record. Oh, the glory of it all!
Some merely witness history. Others shape it.
ValleyCats players were then introduced one-by-one as they took the field. Unlike Southpaw, this is not a team that runs out to battle with its tail between its legs.
With the players in position, it was time to “Play Ball!” Take it away, tentative young girl!
Play ball? https://t.co/TVpLXxjyUt
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 29, 2014
More than three hours after I arrived at the ballpark — and, now, more than 2,000 words after I began this blog post — the game was underway.
I said it once and I’ll say it again: It was a beautiful night. Not just for baseball, but for being alive.
First pitch duties complete, Kyle resumed his designated eating duties. Here, after obtaining some Vamos Nachos, he formally introduces himself.
The nachos, ready for their close-up:
“These are some of the better nachos I’ve had at a ballpark,” said Kyle, who preferred eating nachos to giving his opinion on nachos.
I agreed with him — all of the ingredients were fresh, and there was no artificially-processed cheese product goop to be found. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nachos are naturally gluten-free if you use the right chips and cheese, and they are delicious. BETTER NACHOS EQUAL A BETTER MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE.
That nacho soapbox is mine. I’ll get it off it now, so that this overstuffed narrative can move on. Up in the press box, I joined erstwhile rained-upon hot dog Sam Sigal for an inning on the radio broadcast.
I also spent some time operating the team’s scoreboard, which, at 17″ by 36″ is the largest primary scoreboard in the New York-Penn League. Apparently, this cow is some sort of control room mascot.
A near-sellout crowd had filtered into The Joe by this point.
Ben soon returned with this smorgasbord: salt potatoes, apple nachos (apple slices topped with peanut butter, Craisins and chocolate chips), chicken Spiedies (sans bread) and a Mexican-inspired salad that I unfortunately forget the name of.
Both the salad and the apple nachos had been obtained at “The Healthy Zone.”
Kyle praised the salt potatoes, saying that this upstate New York specialty was something that his Mom made every week.
“It’s a quality side,” he said. “A real staple for me when I was a kid.”
The spiedies and salad received high marks from both Kyle and me, but Kyle was most enthusiastic about the apple nachos.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m straight edge,” said Kyle. “But these are really, really good. It can be tough to eat right in the summer, but these are outstanding. So simple, yet so good.”
One aspect of the ValleyCats’ experience that is not to be mist is the nightly mascot pitting the mayors of Troy, Albany and Schenectady against one another. I was assigned the role of Schenectady city boss Gary R. McCarthy, and in this photo I’m standing alongside my bespectacled colleague mayor Lou Rosamilia of Troy.
The two of us, along with Albany head honcho Kathy Sheehan, concluded our back room dealings and headed out into the New York night in order to mingle with our constituents.
I just signed this baseball as “The Mayor,” reminding me of the time I was in Inland Empire dressed as a molar and signed baseballs as “Tooth.”
I’m a large-craniumed representation of Gary R. McCarthy, and I approve this message.
The race was followed by even more mingling with the hoi polloi. At this point I was feeling kind of light-headed and out of breath, yet another reminder that if I’m going to continue to do this mascot racing stuff into middle age (and beyond?) then I really need to exercise more during the offseason.
After changing out of my mayoral duds, Kyle (who had been hanging out with me ever since I made him a pre-game pizza) and I ran into Ben Whitehead in the office. He was dressed as his “Big Tex” alter-ego.
As an Astros affiliate, we thought it’d be a nice tribute to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after our 7th inning stretch. Being that I have family in Texas and my wife is from the Houston area, I had all the necessities – Texas flag, cowboy hat, boots, “Everything is BIGGER in Texas shirt” and other Astros gear — so I decided to jump on top of the dugout dressed to the nines and sing. Instantly, it became a thing.
Unfortunately I missed Ben’s routine. After he left the office I parted ways with Kyle as well, who had to leave due to familial obligations. Thanks, Kyle, for your exemplary work as not just a designated eater but a designated fan. We’ll always have the memories!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 30, 2014
Changing the pace considerably, my next task was to head back out into the stands meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It would have been awkward to document this portion of the evening, but it was nice to meet them! They live in Troy, where my girlfriend, Rebekah, grew up, and more detail on the personal-professional confluence can be found in this blog post featuring my city of Troy-based explorations.
So, yeah, in a nutshell: This was turning out to be a very long night in the midst of a very long road trip, and at this late juncture I was beginning to lose a little steam. Like, what’s even going on here? A hot dog on a bike is being pursued by a hot dog in a car? It’s all a bit blurry.
I spent the final inning of the ballgame with the “Vamos Gatos” fan group, a contingent of enthusiastic ValleyCats supporters located behind home plate (the “Vamos Gatos” crew includes none other than Santa Claus, who apparently spends his summers in upstate New York). Follow them on Twitter @VamosGatosCrew.
Vamos Gatos Tri-City ValleyCats https://t.co/5pqbkPDwJF
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 30, 2014
The Vamos Gatos crew had much to cheer about, as the home team emerged with a 3-2 win.
But a night at the ballpark does not conclude with the cessation of on-field play. That’s just not how it works in the world of Minor League Baseball, especially on a Friday night. Next up was a post-game Diamond Dig, in which female fans were given wooden spoons and invited onto the field so that they could hunt for a valuable piece of dirt-submerged jewelry.
And they’re off!
Try as I might, my Diamond Dig photographic efforts paled in comparison to my 2012 efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, still, these are always fun to watch. Several minutes (and many increasingly obvious emcee clues) later, this woman emerged with the diamond.
Launch-A-Ball was the next item on the agenda. A popular pastime among the front office staff gathered on the field was to pelt tennis balls at this hapless inflatable referee.
Finally, after this action-packed slate of post-game programming had concluded, I got the chance to meet with fellow baseball writer Steven Cook.
Steven writes the Greatest 21 Days blog, an ongoing attempt to profile all of the Minor League players featured in the 1990 CMC card set. It’s a quirky, obsessive and illuminating writing project, and I recommend it. Steven took photos of Brooklyn Cyclones coach Tom Gamboa during the ballgame, in preparation for an interview that occurred the next month. (The full list players he has interviewed can be found along the right side of the blog.)
Upon saying goodbye to Steven, I headed out of the ballpark (some seven hours after I had entered it). Thanks to the ValleyCats for their prodigious hospitality, as this was a truly memorable evening.
That’s all folks! Pig out.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
Thus far, my blog dispatches from this season-ending Empire State excursion have been rather dense affairs. Epics, even. If these posts were converted to song form, they would be a series of monolithic dirges possessing little to no melodic pop sensibilities. Therefore, I think that what we need now is a good palate cleanser, the blogging equivalent of Black Sabbath inserting “Laguna Sunrise” into the back section of Vol. 4.
With that said: Welcome to Falcon Park, home of the Auburn Doubledays.
The Doubledays, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Washington Nationals, were the third of five New York-Penn League franchises that I visited on this trip. Like my previous stops in Batavia and Jamestown, Auburn is a “classic” NYPL environment: a community-owned team operating in a small market and playing in a simple, no-frills facility that is actually located in one of the league’s namesake states. Falcon Park is almost identical to Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, and the similarities don’t end there. Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing a stadium built in 1937 on the same site; Falcon Park opened in 1995, replacing a stadium that was built in 1927 on the same site.
Also like Dwyer Stadium, Falcon Park is located in a quiet residential neighborhood.
You’ve gotta love baseball environments like this, where, if you get there early enough, you might be able to mingle with players as they obtain a pre-game snack. This pair of hungry Muckdogs appears to be Ryan Cranmer (25) and Brad Haynal (16).
Setting the scene.
A closer look under the bleachers. Hula hoops and folding chairs, what more do you need in life?
The Doubledays name is, of course, a reference to Auburn native, Civil War general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday. Hence, Abner the mascot. Abner’s #96 jersey is a reference to the first year in which Auburn’s NYPL team was named the Doubledays.
This team employee was setting up a video camera in a most seductive way.
Early arriving fans were in full compliance with this piece of signage.
The Doubledays have been an affiliate of the Nationals since 2011.
This relationship will continue through (at least) the 2016 season, as prior to the game representatives of both teams made the announcement that the Player Development Contract (PDC) between the two clubs had been extended.
There was also a pre-game awards ceremony honoring the team’s best players (as voted on by the players themselves). Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, standing on the far right, was named team MVP. The gentleman in the plaid shirt is Auburn baseball fixture Art Fritz, who serves as the team chaplain and director of the Double D Booster Club (please, keep your “Double D Booster Club” jokes to yourself).
Former MLB pitcher Tim Redding now serves as the Doubledays pitching coach, marking his return to the team with which he made his professional debut in 1998. Redding threw a no-hitter for Auburn that season, but apparently did not have any mementos of it. Enter Marshall Trionfero, a Doubledays fan who took it upon himself to assemble this tribute to Redding’s moment of glory. I ran into Trionfero while wandering about before the game; he presented this collage to Redding later in the evening. (Redding no-hit the St. Catherines Stompers, who played in the NYPL from 1986-99. They were based in Ontario, the fourth and final Canadian team to have played in the circuit.)
“Welcome to Falcon Park. Tonight we have $1 hot dogs, $1 soda and $1 beer with a government-issued ID.”
As the game began, it seemed that most of the fans in the ballpark were taking advantage of these economically prudent food and beverage specials (also, the evening featured a combo meal deal: hot dog, pretzel and soda for $3).
The stands were a far more pleasant place to be.
This photo, it just speaks to me.
Shortly after the sun set, I spent several innings speaking with New York-Penn League historian Charlie Wride. Charlie has enjoyed a long and varied career within the world of Auburn professional baseball, and my feature story on him can be found HERE.
Here, we see a contingent of Batavia Muckdogs hanging out in the visitors bullpen. This is fairly similar to their home environment, save for the fact that they don’t have a place to stash their bikes.
No one volunteered to be my designated eater while in Auburn (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Nevertheless, I waited in line and obtained a hot dog and fries, just so that you, the reader, could see it. Like the nearby Syracuse Chiefs, the Doubledays’ sell Hofmann’s hot dogs at the ballpark. It may have been an off night at the concession stand — they definitely seemed understaffed — but this hot dog was not cooked properly. Half of one side was charred, while the remainder of the dog seemed to have barely touched the grill at all. But, on the plus side, the fries were good and the price was right.
Batavia eked out a 3-2 victory in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 26 minutes to complete. There were only four games left in the season after this one, and both teams were already eliminated from postseason contention. About the only thing they were playing for, standings-wise, was third place in the NYPL’s Pinckney Division. (The Doubledays ultimately won this less-than-riveting battle, finishing a half-game above the Muckdogs with a record of 34-41.)
Following the ballgame, and following established Minor League Baseball tradition, tennis balls were thrown onto the field by fans desirous of winning a prize.
The fans then streamed out of the ballpark and into the Auburn night. A profound stillness soon pervaded through the atmosphere. The asphalt was empty, the bullpens abandoned and the pitch speed frozen at 69.
Good night from the home of the Doubledays.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
On Tuesday, Aug. 27, I woke up in Buffalo and, after a concentrated burst of exploration in that fine city, hit the road and drove 150 miles on I-90 east to Syracuse. While flipping through the radio dial on the way there, it seemed like all the disc jockey chatter was focused on the New York State Fair. People in this region of New York seem to LOVE the State Fair, an annual 12-day, late-summer extravaganza that takes place in a town just west of Syracuse proper. During the drive to Syracuse, I thrilled to a radio host’s impassioned rant against a new State Fair policy banning goldfish as one of the Midway game prizes, and, later, I was less than thrilled to hear that people seemed to enjoy seeing Train and the Wallflowers perform the night before.
But the New York State Fair — featuring performances by Journey and Cheap Trick! — wasn’t the only game in town on Aug. 27. For it was on that evening that I attended a ballgame at NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs. Ignoring the adjacent “Park and Ride” State Fair parking lot, I deposited my vehicle within a vast expanse of asphalt and proceeded toward this, the main entrance.
2014 was a very interesting season for the Chiefs, both on and off the field. Last fall, after a string of money-losing seasons and increasing dissatisfaction regarding the direction of the community-owned franchise, John Simone was replaced as general manager by Jason Smorol. In November I wrote an article about this chain of events, excerpted here:
In 2013, the Chiefs drew only 345,000 fans to NBT Ballpark, the lowest total since the stadium opened in 1997. Upon the conclusion of this dispiriting campaign, the news only got worse as a financial report released by the team’s board of directors revealed that the franchise had already lost more than $500,000 in 2013. This was, by far, the most that the International League franchise had ever lost in a single year.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. And at the end of September, the board relieved general manager John Simone of his duties. Simone had served in that role since 1996, taking over for his father, legendary executive Tex Simone, who had been at the helm since 1970. The 2014 season will mark the first time since the 1960s that a Simone hasn’t been in charge of the Chiefs, and stepping into that void will be none other than Smorol. Can he turn this ailing franchise around?
2014 not only marked Smorol’s first season at the helm, it also included the Chiefs’ first trip to the postseason since 1998 and their first division title since 1989. (On the day I was in attendance, they were on the verge of clinching the North Division title, a feat accomplished three days later.)
After introducing myself to Mr. Smorol, I proceeded to the press box and took in the view on what was an overcast but generally pleasant evening at 17-year-old NBT Bank Stadium.
The concourse was sparkling.
Walking further down the right-field line, one finds the “Hank Sauer Room of Legends.” Sauer played four seasons as a member of the Chiefs (1942-43 and 1946-47, with two years of military service in-between), hitting 50 home runs in 1947 at the age of 30. This solidified him once and for all as a bona fide power hitter, and he went on to play in the Majors from 1948-1959 (winning an MVP Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1952).
Smorol later told me that the team has “grand visions” for the Room of Legends, as the long-term plan is for it to house the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
Outside of the Room of Legends, one finds this tribute to Syracuse’s “Mr. Baseball” Tex Simone. Prior to his retirement last year, Tex had been involved with the Chiefs, in one capacity or another, since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1961. (Other iterations of the Chiefs existed, in one form or another, from 1934-1957).
This bust had originally been located at the main entrance to the stadium, and its relocation to the Room of Legends did not sit well with the Simone family. This article, from Syracuse.com, details the ensuing controversy and provides a good glimpse at the turmoil that gripped the franchise prior to this season of transition.
Moving on to happier matters: 1911 is a local spirits and hard cider company whose products are readily available at this “Flavors of Syracuse” concession stand. (On an unrelated note, those two guys must have been so embarrassed when they realized that they wore the same outfit to the ballpark.)
All of the pregame photos shared thus far show few fans in the ballpark. But a significant number of early-arriving fans were indeed present, and their mission was to procure an autograph from special ballpark guest Bucky “Expletive Deleted” Dent. The line snaked through the concourse, as legendary Syracuse vendor Jimmy Durkin roamed up and down the line selling pens.
“Hey!” yelled Durkin. “Get your own pen right here! They’re any color you want! They’re only a dollar! Hey!”
“What we found out is that Syracuse doesn’t have a very large Latino population,” Smorol later told me. “This might be our last Latino Night.”
Speaking of Smorol, here he is on the scoreboard making a nightly pregame speech that details all of the activity that’s about to take place at the ballpark. I had seen Rochester Red Wings general manager Dan Mason making a similar speech several days before, and I think it’s a great idea. It sends the message that the general manager is open and personable, ready and willing to interact with the fans and listen to their suggestions and questions, and this is an especially important thing for someone in Smorol’s position to do. He’s the proverbial “new guy in town,” after all, and a big part of his job this year was to turn around the public perception that the Chiefs are an out-of-touch organization.
Oh, and for those keeping score at home: The videoboard seen above was installed prior to the 2012 season, boasting dimensions of 30 by 55 feet.
Meanwhile, my wandering continued. This is the view from down the right-field line:
During these solitary travels, I came across a piece of signage left over from the “Sky Chiefs” era. The team went by this moniker from 1997-2006, reverting back to the original “Chiefs” name in 2007. At that point the team adopted a train-themed identity that “honors the mighty railroads that shipped goods manufactured in Syracuse all over America.”
The Rochester Red Wings were that evening’s opponent. In the team’s bullpen, I noticed one-time Moniker Madness semifinalist Mark Hamburger receiving a vigorous back rub from one of his relief corps compatriots.
Hamburger then returned the favor. Hey, you scratch my back…
The game was now under way, and the Latino Night videoboard graphics were in full effect. (I’m not exactly sure why Steven Souza is listed as having a .000 batting average, as he played in 96 games for the the Chiefs this season. He and several other core Syracuse players were called up to the Nationals at the conclusion of the regular season, and this move angered Chiefs fans who felt that the team should have remained intact for the playoffs.)
The Chiefs are one of a few teams to feature an elderly mascot among their costumed character repertoire. Here’s Pops, up close and personal.
Soon thereafter, I caught a less up-close but still quite personal view of Scooch. Introspective mascot alert!
I didn’t just meet with mascots during these early-game peregrinations. I also spent a significant chunk of time with Brian Goswell and his son, Owen. They were my designated eaters for the evening (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Brian, his wife, Joanne, and Owen had driven all the way from Kingston, Ontario, in order to obtain designated-eating glory (although Joanne, probably wisely, had chosen to abstain). Brian, who works for the city of Kingston, serves as the president of the baseball league in which Owen, 12, competes. Owen is a catcher, and Brian proudly told me that he’s “got the art of framing a pitch down pat.” Owen, whose favorite player is Josh Thole, told me that I bore a striking resemblance to Thole’s battery mate R.A. Dickey. Does he have a case here?
Eponymous Biz Blog author:
Brian, a dedicated reader of this blog for several years, had long had designated-eating aspirations. He contacted me shortly after my 2014 trip itineraries were posted and promptly secured this honor, all the while unaware that his passport had expired. Thanks to his deft handling of the required bureaucratic maneuvers, a new one arrived in the mail the day before and his plans proceeded apace.
Oh, the irony: The Goswells crossed the border into the United States so that they could eat some poutine. Poutine, of course, is a Canadian specialty consisting of french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. This might be blasphemous to those living north of the border, but the Chiefs’ iteration of this dish replaced the cheese curds with shredded mozzarella.
Owen, an avowed poutine fan, says that his favorite poutine purveyors are New York Fries and Smoke’s Poutinerie. Of the Chiefs’ offering, he remarked that it’s “Awesome, better than some in Canada. I like the different cheese — mozzarella instead of curds.”
“When cheese, gravy and fries are added together, you can’t lose,” added Brian.
Next up was a fried clam sandwich, served with cole slaw and french fries.
Designated eaters check in, Syracuse Chiefs They drove in from Kingston, Ontario https://t.co/wkuHMiJ8Rt
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
“I’m not big on seafood, but I thought that this was good,” said Brian. “My wife was right: ‘Try it — you might like it.'”
“But she doesn’t need to hear about this,” replied Owen.
Next up was chicken wings with “Bang Bang” sauce, which Smorol raved about. (“It’s good on everything!” he enthused at one point. “Bang bang everything!”)
My photo of the wings is abysmal.
I’m not too familiar with the history and origin of Bang Bang sauce, but it appears to be a spicy-sweet mayo-based condiment.
“Jason was right: ‘Bang Bang everything,'” said Brian. “These are really good.”
“I agree,” said Owen.
“It’s not much that you and I agree on,” said Brian. “You’re coming around.”
“Don’t tell Mom this, either,” said Owen. “Then she’ll want us to get along all of the time.”
Meanwhile, Smorol couldn’t help but help himself to some chicken wings. What, the GM worry?
The upstate New York specialty that are salt potatoes made an appearance as well. I have no other photos or quotes involving these potatoes, but here they are.
Finally, there were some hot dogs. Hofmann’s hot dogs, to be exact, a local company that spells its name in counterintuitive “one F, two N’s” fashion.
“It was huuuge,” concluded Owen.
And that, as they say, was that.
“I have now fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams,” said Brian. “Being your designated eater.”
Brian had one final request before disappearing into the sunset. Would I please do a Syracuse Chiefs #Cupdate?
But of course. This one’s for you, collectible cup aficionados, courtesy of Brian Goswell.
After parting ways with the Goswells, I walked over to the concourse area behind home plate and introduced myself to legendary vendor Jimmy Durkin. I ended up conducting a brief interview with Jimmy, which will form the basis of an upcoming MiLB.com piece (I’m telling ya, this season’s road trip content might never end).
Lest we forget, there was a game going on.
Lloyd is a Chiefs superfan known for his profound heckling skills, and his backstory is an interesting one (read all about it in my “Suspect” MiLB.com piece). Here he is in action.
Lloyd “the suspect” Broadnax. Syracuse Chiefs heckling superstar https://t.co/NgimRgTExZ
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
The Chiefs held a “Tattoo Night” promo earlier in the season, in which fans got a team-logo tattoo in exchange for season tickets. Lloyd, not surprisingly, was one of the fans who took part.
Jared Wicks, a die-hard Chiefs fan who often sits in the same section as Lloyd, got a tattoo as well.
Lloyd, Jared, Ziv and everyone else had plenty to cheer about, as the Chiefs plated a pair in both the seventh and eighth frames en route to a 4-3 win. It was a good — “neigh” — great victory for the Chiefs. The fans cheered themselves “horse.”
I took that picture on my way out of the ballpark, but that was only so I could go back into the ballpark. My next stop was the Chiefs’ ground-floor front-office area, which features several full-to-bursting display cases of Chiefs memorabilia.
I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the front office, chatting with team staffers who were decompressing after (yet another) long day. I also spoke with 98-year-old Don Waful, a former Chiefs team president who is still a regular presence at the ballpark. Here, Waful points to his plaque on the Chiefs Wall of Fame.
Waful, a WWII veteran, spent more than two years in a German POW camp located in Poland. One of the American prisoners alongside him was Fred Johnson, the father of former Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Last February, Johnson attended the Chiefs’ annual Hot Stove Dinner specifically so that he could talk to Waful about his war memories. From a Syracuse.com article on the encounter:
Fred Johnson was a tank commander who slept in the same section of an Oflag64 barracks as Waful and six other men. But Davey Johnson recalls that his father – quiet and reserved – rarely spoke about what he endured as a POW.
Johnson looked forward to what he might learn from Waful, who told him about the intense cold at the camp, during winters in Poland. Waful told him about the awful nature of the food. But he also remembered the extraordinary camaraderie that bound together all the prisoners during the harsh days of the war.
It’s hard to top a story like that, so I won’t even try. Good night from NBT Bank Ballpark, an enjoyable place to take in a ballgame and a fine entertainment alternative to the New York State Fair.