Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

About Yesterday Afternoon: New Britain Rock Cats, August 30, 2015

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

2015 “On the Road” landing page — including complete itinerary — HERE! 

August 30, 2015:  New Britain Stadium, home of the New Britain Rock Cats (Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies)

Opponent: Portland Sea Dogs, game time 1:35

New Britain Stadium, from the outside:

001New Britain Stadium, from within: 

IMG_0309Culinary Creation: This was the last game in New Britain Stadium history, as the team is moving to Hartford in 2016. This special occasion, coupled with the advent of my designated eater having to cancel, led to the decision to not focus on food this afternoon. So, this is the best I got.

IMG_0312Ballpark Character: New Britain staple Al Nelson, 88, who rode his bike to the game.

033At Random: At the team store, pretty much everything was for sale. Want some signage?

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Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

8/31: Lowell Spinners

9/1: Pawtucket Red Sox

9/2: New Hampshire Fisher Cats

9/4: Portland Sea Dogs

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Connecticut Tigers, August 29, 2015

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

2015 “On the Road” landing page — including complete itinerary — HERE! 

August 29, 2015:  Dodd Stadium, home of the Connecticut Tigers

Opponent: Lowell Spinners, 7:05 p.m. game time

Dodd Stadium, from the outside:

008Dodd Stadium, from within: 

022Culinary Creation: The $11 Broad Street Bully Cheesesteak, from Philly’s cheesesteak stand — “Extra ribeye steak, provolone, fried onions, mushrooms, sweet and hot peppers, pickles, Cheese Whiz.”

052Ballpark Character — A pregame visit with Jean Stott, proprietor of”Stott’s At-Bat” restaurant (and batting cages). Located just down the road from the ballpark, “Stott’s At-Bat” is a favorite spot for players, coaches and staff alike.

003 At Random: Before the game started, I got to throw T-shirts out of this submarine.

IMG_0292Your groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the day: Long night, long season

Next Up: 

8/30: New Britain Rock Cats

8/31: Lowell Spinners

9/1: Pawtucket Red Sox

9/2: New Hampshire Fisher Cats

9/4: Portland Sea Dogs

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On the Road: Oysters and So Much More in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

Before visiting the Biloxi Shuckers home of MGM Park, there was one thing I was certain of:

There will be oysters.

I mean, if this is your logo, then there better be oysters:

shcuksHowever, I was unprepared for just how much else there was, and I think that you will be as well.

MGM Park’s concessions are overseen by Mike Brulatour, general manager of Ovations Food Services for the Shuckers. On this blog, which I aspire to write in a light-hearted and conversational tone, I usually refer to people by their first name. But I will refer to Mike Brulatour as “Brulatour,” because it’s a cool-sounding surname and allows us to imagine him as some sort of all-powerful Minor League food god. The Mighty Brulatour!

Brulatour had previously held a similar position with the Memphis Redbirds (whom I visited in 2012), where Barbecue Nachos are king.

“In Memphis, we claimed that we were the only ballpark where hot dogs weren’t number one,” he said.

It should come as no surprise that, under Brulatour’s watchful eye, the Shuckers offer their own take on this Memphis specialty: Shuckers Barbecue Nachos. The cheese sauce is actually made in Memphis, while the pulled pork is local (more on that in a moment).

045For comparison’s here are the “Rendezvous Barbecue Nachos” that were on offer when I visited the Redbirds’ home of AutoZone Park (Brulatour was my tour guide there as well).

memphisnacho

The Shuckers’ iteration is the result of a partnership with The Shed, a barbecue joint in nearby Ocean Springs. Here, The Shed co-owner Brad Orrison poses alongside his ballpark kiosk with his three “Little Shedheads” (check the shirts).

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Alongside me for this food-based juncture of the evening was Cale Merrill, my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Oh, Cale. He was so young then, so innocent, so entirely unaware of the culinary challenges that awaited.

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Cale, an insurance agent who lives in Gulfport, recently returned to the Mississippi after a stint living in Houston. He’s a proud advocate of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, which he says does not conform to the rural backwoods stereotypes that are often associated with the state. Cale’s also proud of his alma mater, collegiate baseball powerhouse Mississippi State University.

“You’re not gonna find bigger baseball fans than MSU, and don’t let LSU tell you something different,” he said. “You can print that.”

Cale is also a fan of the Shuckers, of course, whom he embraced as soon as they arrived.

“In the South, being outside in the Summer is what it’s all about,” he said.

And as for the Shuckers barbecue nachos?

“The pork is delicious, not just run-of-the-mill,” said Cale. “I like the sweet sauce. I’m not a mustard or vinegar-y kind of person. I’ve always loved [The Shed’s] food.”

Next up: Po’Boys.

049Here’s the Shrimp Po’Boy, with remoulade sauce, which Cale immediately stripped of all vegetable matter. Cale is kind of a picky eater.

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And here’s the team’s Oyster Po’Boy, in its natural state.

051Fortunately, Cale’s college buddy Turner was able to lend a helping hand with this (and many other) concession items. Turner lived in Washington D.C. for the past four years, but returned to the Biloxi area to help manage a casino construction project.

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“What you’re eating was fished out of these waters yesterday,” said Brulatour, just before the above photo was taken. He also noted that the Po’ Boy sandwiches utilize “good to the last crumb” bread from New Orleans-based Ladenheimer Bread Company.

Cale said that he’s “Not a huge Po’Boy fan” and that he “doesn’t do lettuce.” Turner, perhaps more well-versed on the subject, said that “these are as good as you’ll find anywhere.”

Meanwhile, did you know that Barq’s Root Beer was founded in Biloxi?

“The people here drink it like it’s going out of style,” said Brulatour.

Therefore, it was imperative that Barq’s be served at the ballpark.

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Cale, clearing the palate with a Barq’s Root Beer float.

055Next up was a Pimento and Cheese Burger with house-made chips, which Brulatour had procured from the Beacon Grill.

“It’s not frozen,” he said. “We use fresh meat, and you can tell.”

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“With pimento cheese, you can’t go wrong,” said Turner, again ably assisting in concession consumption. “I don’t understand why it’s not used more. I’ve never seen it on a burger, and it’s great.”

Brulatour, meanwhile, was plotting his next move. This is the only photo I have of him.

057His next move, in this case, was the centerpiece of the Shuckers oeuvre. 

Aw, Shucks.

058At Aw Shucks, one can get fresh oysters, fresh off of the grill. The oysters, provided by local Crystal Seas Seafood, are shucked offsite, shrink-wrapped and delivered to the stadium. This makes sense from an operational standpoint — on-site shucking would require additional space and resources — but it was disappointing to find out that no actual shucking goes on during a Shuckers game. I was naive enough to believe that it might.

This Vine appears to have been shot in reverse, I have no idea how that came to be.

The Aw Shucks Grill also features, among other things, Bayou Jambalaya served in a helmet. Cale enjoyed some.

060But those oysters! Though pricey ($15 for 8), these garlic butter bivalves are one of the best things I’ve ever seen (and tasted) at a Minor League Baseball game. They are served “on the fly” (as in “atop a Frisbee”) and accompanied by a hunk of French bread. In deference to my gluten-free reality, we forwent the French bread.

IMG_0036Usually I do a “designated eater checks in” Vine at the beginning of a post. Better late than never.

The Aw Shucks grill also features boudin, a Cajun specialty which is, essentially, a rice-stuffed pork sausage.

063I couldn’t get immediate confirmation that the boudin was gluten-free. Yet, I tried it. Forgive me, gluten, for I have sinned. Boudin is delicious.

069Meanwhile, Cale and Turner had become inundated with Brulatourian offerings.

071Here, Cale chows down on a “Grilled Chicken Sink” sandwich from the “Shuck and Cluck” chicken stand.

068In this case, I believe that “kitchen sink” can be interpreted to mean “provolone, mushrooms, peppers and onions.”

067“You can tell, they’re very proud of their food here,” said Cale. “I’m not a good judge of the peppers, but there’s a lot of chicken in that sandwich.”

This, meanwhile, appears to be the grilled Italian Sausage.

064And this? This appears to be a different sandwich than the one seen above. I think that it’s the “Brewers Beer Brat,” which, like the sausage, is available at the Home Plate Hot Dogs stand.

066“I’m gonna have nightmares about you,” said Cale to Brulatour. He had reached his limit.

073And yet, the Brula-Tour continued. At this point in the evening, maybe 10 minutes after the above photo had been taken, the game was in a rain delay and the tarp was on the field.

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After an impromptu upper-level ballpark tour, Brulatour led us into the Shuckers main kitchen area. This is the domain of head chef Bob Barlow, an old crony of Brulatour from his Memphis days.

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Here, Cale, have a cookie. Brulatour said that it’s called “The Royale” and that “its got everything in it.”

089While in the kitchen, we were also presented with deep-fried cheese curds. These, a suite-only delicacy, do not scream “Mississippi Gulf Coast.” But keep in mind that the Shuckers are a Milwaukee affiliate and general manager Buck Rogers is a Wisconsin guy. So, why not?

090But this isn’t Biloxi’s only instance of commercial cheese curd availability. I know this because Buck’s been on the lookout.

With the weather having cleared up and the game ready to resume, Brulatour led us back to the concourse and promptly handed Cale a BBQ Shrimp Pizza.

092

“Two hours ago, I was sad not to be eating the shrimp pizza,” said Cale. “But now…”

He didn’t even finish his sentence. He looked like he might pass out.

094Brulatour then emerged with a corn dog. Cale had now had all that he could stand. Therefore, he couldn’t stand no more.

“I’m not eating anymore! I’m a small man!” Cale yelled into the unforgiving abyss of night.

He did, however, consent to pose with the corn dog.

093Cale and Turner, both shell-shocked, stood dazedly on the concourse as Brulatour bid them adieu. When I came upon them again, nearly an hour later, they were being regaled by Shuckers GM Buck Rogers with the sort of story that only Buck Rogers can tell. From my notes:

“Buck is talking about drinking beer in Central America to stay hydrated for rabies shots after getting bit by a vampire bat.”

096Despite his fully-stuffed status, Cale was now in good spirits.

“I made a mistake. I ate a bunch of nachos right at the beginning,” he said. “But no regrets. I’d been looking forward to this, and it was first class.”

Cale had survived his brush with the mighty Brulatour, and has the souvenirs to prove it.

074

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: The Raining Champ in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, clickHERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

Part one of this Biloxi blog saga gently deposited us at the door step of game time. In this, part two, we’ll quietly open the door and step inside. The date was July 29th, and the Shuckers were taking on the visiting Jackson Generals in an evening contest at MGM Park.

048Shortly after the game begin, I rendezvoused with designated eater Cale Merrill and director of food and beverage Mike Brulatour. My time with these individuals was extensive, and will be documented in the following blog post. It encompassed the first four innings of the game as well as, inevitably, a rain delay.

082Fans took shelter under a concourse overhang, as they are wont to do.

083Ballpark VIPs, such as daredevil clown Bello Nock, waited out the rain delay from the comfort of a private suite.

084Some fans tired of waiting, and headed out into the Mississippi night via the long, winding, gently sloping exit.

085Finally, the tarp was removed and the game picked off just where it had left off. With normalcy restored, I engaged in conversation with Shuckers ticket executive Kevin Trembley.

098

Kevin, a 2013 college graduate, is the son of former Baltimore Orioles manager and current Atlanta Braves director of player development Dave Trembley. Kevin has known Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers since he was a kid, when he was a batboy for the turn-of-the-21st century Daytona Cubs.

In those days, Kevin’s dad was the Daytona manager and Buck was the GM. These days, Kevin works in the ticket department by day and serves as on-field emcee by night. There are, most likely, many chapters in his baseball career yet to be written.

Further wanderings brought me to the berm area, where the view was as pleasing as the grass was wet.

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My wandering also brought me into contact with a fan by the name of Charlie O’Brien, who was wearing this irreverent and self-deprecating Huntsville Stars shirt. (The Stars, of course, are the team that moved to Biloxi and became the Shuckers.)

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This shirt gives an accurate peek into the mindset of Stars fans and front office members during their final years of existence, when they were overseen by an absentee owner and left to languish in a decrepit city-owned facility. Buck Rogers was the general manager there (he moved with the team to Biloxi), and this shirt has “Buck” written all over it.

“This is Huntsville Stars baseball,” the shirt reads. “This ain’t Montgomery and we ain’t perfect. Our ballpark is a train wreck. We have a skunk for a mascot. Out videoboard is shot. But ya’ know what? We don’t care! The drinks are cold and & the ‘dogs are great! Stars fans are my family. And this is my team! 

But wait — there’s more. I’m not gonna transcribe this side, for I am only one man.

103

When I met Charlie, I assumed that he was a die-hard Stars fan who, like a jilted lover stalking an ex, had come to check out the team’s new digs. But, once again, my assumptions proved unverified. He’s a committed ballpark traveler who chronicles his journeys over at charliesballparks.com

“I just roll along,” Charlie told me.

And so do I. More accurately, I roll in slow circles around the perimeter of the ballparks I visit.

IMG_0038This picture was aided and abetted by Instagram.

IMG_0041I spent the waning moments of the ballgame speaking with Shuckers co-owner Tim Bennett, who has an interesting story to tell regarding how he got involved with professional baseball and his future goals in the industry. An article based on this conversation is “in the works,” but most likely won’t appear until sometime in September.

106That did it for my evening at the ballpark, with the Shuckers losing to the visiting Jackson Generals by a score of 3-2.

But wait! There’s more!

As an anti-rainout insurance policy, my itinerary included two nights in Biloxi. Shortly after waking up the following morning, I belatedly issued forth a “groundbreaking and subversive” Vine joke.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time exploring Biloxi on this Thursday afternoon, which was largely dedicated to writing this MiLB.com piece on the MGM Park experience. When I returned to the ballpark that evening, this was the scene: Another day, another tarp on the field. It’s just been that kind of season.

006

I hope that this maintenance vehicle made it through the storm unscathed.

My rain-soaked meanderings eventually brought me to the “Shuckers Shop,” which is overseen by retail manager Babs Rogers. 007Babs is the wife of GM Buck Rogers. The couple’s two daughters — Bree and Holly — work retail for the Shuckers and Babs’ father serves as an usher. For the Rogers family, baseball really is a family affair.

“It’s always been that way,” said Babs. “Back to the days of our daughter doing her homework at the fan assistance desk in Daytona.”

Shuckers merchandise has been a hot commodity in Biloxi, ever since the team name was announced this past offseason. Babs said that this shirt — simple, eye-catching, elegant — has been the number one seller.

005With the tarp still on the field and more bad weather still expected, I had to find ways to pass the time.

For a while I engaged in conversation with usher Mike Steer, a resident of nearby Ocean Springs. He said that his town had plenty to recommend on the culinary front, and then went about recommending it: –

Murky Waters Barbecue: “Get there by 12 if you want the burnt ends,” said Mike. “Get there at 12:05, there ain’t no burnt ends.”

— The Tatonut Donut Shop: “Go there for breakfast. It’s donuts, but they use potato flour.”

Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant: “All you can eat catfish and shrimp.”

McIlroy’s on the Bayou: “Go there for oysters.”

For the record, I went to Murky Waters for the next day in search of burnt ends. This mission was a success. IMG_0059

IMG_0058

I hope to do a series of “Return to the Road” posts in the offseason, chronicling my divers and sundry off-the-field photos and observations. But, for now, let’s get back to this riveting Biloxi Shuckers rain delay.

008

The Buena Vista Beer Garden is named after the Buena Vista hotel, which once existed where MGM Park now stands.

009

The hotel opened in 1924 and was destroyed by fire in 1991.

Public domain photo taken from Wikipedia.

Public domain photo taken from Wikipedia.

My wanderings eventually brought me to the press box, where I joined Chris Harris for a radio interview. The game was officially postponed just before our interview began, but this did not postpone our chat.

Chris interviewed me, but I also interviewed him as well. The former Jackson Generals broadcaster has had an eventful year, to say the least. After accepting a job with the Shuckers, he set up the team’s broadcast agreements and then, once the season started, embarked on a 54-game road trip. This epic jaunt was necessitated by MGM Park’s construction schedule, as the facility didn’t open until early June.

011Soon after parting ways with Chris, I parted ways with MGM Park. All that was left to do was make one last stab at my nightly groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

I spent two nights in Biloxi, enduring a rain delay on the first and a rainout on the second. Furthermore, two of the three times I visited Huntsville had resulted in a rainout as well. None of this was lost on Buck, who, the next morning, held a brief ceremony naming the MGM Park tarp after me.

What an honor.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: The Shucking Begins in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

Remember last year when I visited Joe Davis Stadium, so that I could see a Huntsville Stars game during what would be their final season? The game got rained out and the whole visit turned out to be a whole lot of not much, but, still, it was a worthwhile endeavor. I’m glad I got the chance to say goodbye.

After the 2014 season, the Stars relocated to Biloxi, Mississippi and rechristened themselves with the bivalve curious moniker of Shuckers. The Shuckers play at MGM Park, a new ballpark located on land owned by MGM and overshadowed by the gambling conglomerate’s Beau Rivage hotel and casino. This would be where I spent my time on the evenings of July 29 and 30.

The above paragraph oversimplified the circumstances of the Shuckers’ 2015 season, as their relocation from Huntsville was anything but smooth. I’ve written about these circumstances ad nauseum, most recently for a piece that ran late last month on MiLB.com:

During the first half of the 2015 Southern League season, no team posted a better home record than the Biloxi Shuckers‘ mark of 22-13. This was more than a little improbable, given that the Shuckers didn’t play a game in Biloxi until June 6.

Up until that point, the Shuckers, Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, had played 55 games in locales other than Biloxi. Their “home” games, such as they were, took place in the visiting teams’ ballparks as well as the franchise’s former abode of Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Alabama.

But on June 6, that all changed, and it changed in a big way. After myriad budgetary negotiations and corresponding construction delays, MGM Park opened its doors to a crowd of just over 5,000 fans. This marked the first time in some 107 years that Biloxi had hosted a Minor League Baseball team, a void that had persisted since the Biloxi-Gulfport Sand Crabs played their one and only season in 1908.

MGM Park, while open for business, is not a finished product. For proof of this assertion, please view this curated collection of short video images.

Only one entrance to the stadium is currently functional, and much of the exterior perimeter is surrounded by dirt, barricades and divers and sundry construction vehicles. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Don Quixote lately and have been looking for an excuse to incorporate “divers and sundry” into a blog post. It’s just an archaic, and therefore pretentious, way to say “various.”)

004

This soon-to-be entrance is located directly behind and below the batter’s eye.

005

Finally, (the royal) we arrive at the main entrance. The stairs lead up and onto the left field side of the concourse.

007While I was admiring this impressive elevation into a new baseball reality, I ran into former Mobile BayBears assistant general manager Mike Callahan. He was accompanied by his daughter, Brittany, who writes the “Talk Baseball to Me” blog (click HERE to read her interview with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner). Photos were taken, social media was utilized.

I would have loved to join the Callahans for a pre-game daiquiri, as this seemed like a fitting prelude to a ballgame in Biloxi (daiquiri bars are numerous in the city).  But I’m a professional (I kept telling myself), and must forgo tropical drinks until after (or maybe during) the ballgame. Therefore, I entered MGM Park in a state of pristine sobriety and it was in this state that I met the one and only Buck Rogers.

036Buck’s the general manager of the Shuckers, which is the same position he held with the Huntsville Stars. In the above photo he’s wearing his tarp clothes (including a Stars shirt), as it had rained earlier in the afternoon and the forecast was less-than-ideal going forward. Of course, the inclement weather was my fault because it always is. Even the radio guys are piling on now.

Buck expressed optimism that the show would go on.

“There are eight inches of sand underneath, this is the best-draining field I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s a real-life lifesaver.”

But at the moment in which I met Buck, the skies were clear and drainage an abstract concern. We immediately proceeded on what he dubbed the “nickel tour” of the ballpark, presumably named as such because it appeals to the “five cents-es.” We began in the murky depths of the facility, where the rubberized flooring hasn’t yet been permanently installed.

012

It’s all a work in progress.

043

A service road wraps around the ballpark, which, of course, is highly beneficial from an operational standpoint. Buck pointed out that the three trailers located at the end of the road are currently used as fireworks transportation devices.

015

“We load ’em up, hook ’em together, put ’em on a tractor, bring ’em out to the field and start shooting fireworks right from the field. It just has to work,” said Buck.

And work, it (usually) does.

An unfortunate necessity of ballpark construction was the removal of 19 live oak trees from the property (though many were rotting and diseased). But survivors remain.

016 For a while there, the tour was a blur of corridors and doors. Behind one door I discovered this trio of game ball mud rubbers.

020I was gonna tell you dumbbells the name of this room immediately, but then decided to make you weight for it.

021Sorry about that. I’ll present this picture sands joke.

024

The area seen above is the domain of groundskeeper Jamie Hill, a one-time Stars groundskeeper who Buck persuaded to make the move to Biloxi. Buck called Hill the “Sodfather” as well as “the Duke of Dirt.”

“I’ve got an All-Star staff,” said Buck. “I just stay out of the way.”

Rushed construction sometimes results in interesting bloopers, such as this: A foul pole installed in front of the wall.

026“I don’t think they understood that we wanted the pole behind the wall,” said Buck. “We said, ‘Just leave it, we’ll pad it, and we’ll make the other one the same way.”

But, hey, there are no bloopers to be seen in this direction. Only a beautiful baseball field, enveloped in a grandstand’s warm embrace.

025

We then moved on to the upper level, where netting had to be installed in some places as a means to protect cars driving by on interstate 110. (Or was that 90? The ballpark is flanked by these two major roads.)

“The net wasn’t originally in the plans, but the interstate is right by and so that cost an additional $25,000,” said Buck, before resorting to tautology. “It is what it is.”

029

This building, located across from the stadium, is the horticultural office of the Beau Rivage. Once construction is complete, the denizens of this office will also be responsible for beautifying the perimeter of the stadium.

031There are plans for a lot more development in the area surrounding the stadium, much of which will be overseen by Shuckers co-owner Tim Bennett.

“This is the way back from Katrina, 10 years later,” said Buck. “There are so many kinds of people here — Yugoslavian, Slovenian, Vietnamese — and they’re as hard-working and honest as the day is long. I’m proud to be a part of this community.”

Moving indoors, this is the Mercedes Benz Club. It fits over 100 people and is available to rent on a year-round basis.

032

Benz Biz Blog

Bon Voyage, Benz. Bonjour, Beau Rivage.

033The concourse is wide, clean and monochromatic.

034Game time was approaching, which meant that it was time for me to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I threw out the first first pitch, more accurately. The headliner was Bello Nock, the world’s greatest daredevil clown and a regular performer at the Beau Rivage.

037My first pitch was kinda forgettable, in that I genuinely can’t remember how it turned out. I probably bounced it, and am now blocking out the memory.

039Of course, Bello’s first pitch was far more theatrical. His appearance on the mound was preceded by a videoboard presentation of one of his most memorable stunts, in which he hangs from a helicopter with only one foot. Bello then hammed it up on the mound for a bit, before throwing a perfect strike.

041It was fitting that a daredevil was in attendance on this evening, as Bello’s presence served as a fortuitous throwback to the first time I visited the Huntsville Stars. The year was 2009, the stadium was Joe Davis, the general manager was Buck Rogers. Following a rainout, sword swallower Dan Meyer still went ahead and performed for a crowd of about a dozen people. This performance was capped by Buck and bullwhip.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stay tuned for much more from my evening(s) with the Shuckers.

 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Reptile Meat Topped with Mud Bugs in New Orleans

To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

If there’s one thing you think about when you think about New Orleans, it very well may be “food.” From jambalaya to crawfish to oysters to muffalettas to Po’ Boys to gumbo to beignets and beyond, this is a city with no shortage of distinct culinary specialties.

Zephyr Field offers a solid array of region-specific concession items, allowing fans to forgo the traditional hot dogs and Cracker Jacks options endemic to the baseball culinary experience. The forgoing of hot dogs became a foregone conclusion on the Tuesday evening in which I was in attendance, as the local “Lucky Dogs” stand was closed for the evening.

019Boudreaux’s Smoke House, named after the team’s nutria mascot, did not serve nutria stew and thus that was skipped over as well.

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Instead, we settled on the unnamed stand located to the right of the Smoke House. There, one could find an array of New Orleans-centric items.

020In the above paragraph, when I said that “we” settled on the above concession stand, I was referring to myself and my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). On this Tuesday night in New Orleans, that individual was one Eric Olsen. He was in attendance along with his wife, Ami.

027Eric has actually appeared on this blog already this season, albeit in an incidental, extremely subtle way. He’s a member of the “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame,” as a result of failing to complete the Norfolk Tides’ “Salute to Pork Challenge.” Unbeknownst to me, but when I visited Norfolk last month I snapped a photo that included Eric within it. Within this melange of stuffed and defeated men, he’s in the first vertical row, second from the bottom.

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Ami was not the biggest fan of Eric’s pork-eating endeavors.

“For the love of our name, don’t throw up,” was the thought running through her mind at the time. “Better a quitter than a puker.”

Indeed.

Eric grew up in Queens, New York and moved with his family to the New Orleans area when he was a teenager. He met Ami via a blind date, and it was Ami who helped him land his current job as a “master control operator” with a local television station. (She moved on to the position of “station operations manager.”) The couple have worked together for the better part of the last two decades, and they often attend Zephyrs games together as well. Eric, a dedicated autograph collector, estimates that he visits Zephyr Field 60-65 times each season.

“This is what he loves,” said Ami. “We already spend eight hours a day together, so we might as well spend a couple more watching baseball.”

But when it came to designated eating, Eric was on his own.

024In Eric’s right hand is a gator sausage po’boy topped with crawfish etouffee, in his left is jambalaya (which, really, should be served in a helmet).  We began with the gator.

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Go for it, Eric:

“It’s good. Has a nice kick to it, and the etouffee has a good flavor to it. I’d definitely get this again,” said Eric, who had never ordered this particular item before. “You’ve got the crunch of the sausage, the spice, the onions and the peppers. I’ve had fried alligator before, and like everyone says, it tastes like chicken. But, to me, this is almost like a Spicy Italian.”

However!

“It’s not a typical po’ boy bun, it’s more a hoagie than French bread,” he added. “They’re stretching the definition just a tad.”

For the record, Eric’s favorite place to get a po’ boy is Short Stop, located in Metairie. He also reported that his crawfish cravings are most thoroughly satisfied at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter.

Ami, too, is a Gumbo Shop fan.

“The blackened catfish nuggets? Oh, my God,” she said. “You get them with a Creole honey mustard meets orange marmalade dipping sauce.”

Such recollections complete, we then moved on to the ballpark jambalaya. It’s shot through with sausage and shredded chicken.

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“It’s good, spicy, and there’s a lot of sausage,” said Eric.

026“It’s good, spicy and there’s a lot of sausage.”

That’s a solid quote, succinct and descriptive, so with that we’ll say goodbye to Eric. His designated eater duties were completed successfully, ensuring that he would not be inducted into another food related Wall-O-Shame.

Once is enough.

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On the Road: Cruising Through a Tuesday Night in New Orleans

To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

So, as I was saying in part one of this New Orleans blog saga, I happened to visit Zephyr Field on what was a low-key Tuesday night.

016While the Zephyrs play in a sizable market, they’re in a tough situation regarding their ability to consistently draw large crowds. There are endless year-round entertainment options in New Orleans, so professional baseball in a neighboring suburb is bound to get overlooked by locals and tourists alike. Plus, the area is one of the few in the country where college baseball — particularly Louisiana State University — is a major draw in its own right. The biggest crowd in Zephyr Field history was in 2001, and it wasn’t to see the Zephyrs. Rather it was to see LSU take on Tulane in the super regionals.

College football is massively popular in the greater New Orleans as well, and of course the National Football League Saints are a year-round concern. There’s also an National Basketball Association team — the Pelicans — whose name is, at least in part, an homage to the New Orleans Pelicans Minor League club that operated throughout the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Pelicans owner Tom Benson (who also owns the Saints) tried to relocate the (then) Double-A Charlotte Knights to New Orleans in 1993. If he had done so, he would have named them the “Pelicans.” This move never came to fruition, however, as the Denver Zephyrs relocated to New Orleans instead (more info on that move can be found in the previous post).

The Saints train in Metairie, and their preseason facility is visible from Zephyr Field. It’s that rectangular building in the distance, not-so-secretly containing an indoor football field.

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If one was to then move one’s head, and thus, eyes, to the left, then one would then see that Zephyr Field has a pool.

017There is also a small concourse arcade, for those who just can’t, under any circumstance, bring themselves to watch baseball. (For the record, I was once pretty good at “Cruisin’ USA,” a staple of boardwalk arcades during my teenage years.)

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But while cruisin’ is allowed, smokin’ is not. There was something about this signage that captured me; at first glance it appeared to be a cryptic communique from a lost civilization.

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Crusin’ back to the field of play, here’s how things looked from the third base side.

031And then it was up to the press box, where Z view was quite nice.

035You know you’re in New Orleans when the press box spread includes bags of Zapp’s. Roger that:

IMG_0020When in the press box, idle wandering wasn’t my primary concern. I ended up spending an enjoyable inning and a half on the air with the Zephyrs broadcast team of Tim Grubbs and Ron Swoboda (yes, the Ron Swoboda, of 1969 Miracle Mets fame).  Grubbs calls all 144 Zephyrs games each season and also coordinates team travel; Swoboda, a veteran TV sports journalist who has long called New Orleans home, joins him for every home game.

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During the course of our on-air conversation, we got to talking about my recent story on Norfolk Tides executive vice president Dave Rosenfield. I mentioned that Rosenfield was once name-checked on The Simpsons and Swoboda mentioned that he was as well.

Wow, I had forgotten about that! It’s in the season 22 episode Moneybart:

Marge: Lisa, can’t you let your brother back on the team? Fly balls and fungoes come and go, but family is forever. 

Homer: Sorry, Marge, I got to call bullcrap on that one. The ’69 Mets will live on forever, but do you think anyone cares about Ron Swoboda’s wife and kids? Not me, and I assume not Ron Swoboda. 

Swoboda laughed off this out-of-right-field swipe, with an attitude of “Hey, at least people are still talking about me.”

Anyhow, thanks to Grubbs and Swoboda for having me on. This photo of the three of us, taken in rushed circumstances during a commercial break, is not ideal. But it’s all I’ve got, and I’m happy to have it.

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(more…)

On the Road: Taking a Ride on the Zephyr in New Orleans

To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

Quick! What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of the city of New Orleans?

No matter what you said, I can (almost) guarantee that it wasn’t “wide open spaces.”

003 I can also (almost) guarantee that it wasn’t “baseball.”

004But, yet, here we are at Zephyr Field, a baseball stadium in a wide open space that serves as the home of the New Orleans Zephyrs. The Zephyrs play in the Pacific Coast League. If there’s one thing you think of when you think “New Orleans,” I can (definitely) guarantee that it isn’t the Pacific Coast.

Technically, Zephyr Field isn’t even in New Orleans. It’s in Metairie,  a suburb located a few miles northwest from New Orleans proper. I was there on Tuesday, July 28, with Zephyr Field the first stop of my Deep South “Shucking and Driving” road trip.

At the time that I arrived, the gates had yet to open. The concourse was largely deserted…

005…as were the playing field and stands…

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…as was the upper level.

009My companion during these pre-game wanderings was Zephyrs media relations director Dave Sachs, who was full of facts, figures, anecdotes and wry asides. He told me that the franchise’s previous incarnation was the Denver Zephyrs of the American Association, who moved to New Orleans after the 1992 season to make way for the Major League expansion Colorado Rockies. The New Orleans Zephyrs played at Privateer Park — the home of New Orleans Privateers college baseball — for the first four seasons of their existence before moving to brand-new Zephyrs Field in 1997.

The Zephyrs were a Brewers affiliate during those first four years, but when they moved into the new ballpark they dumped the Brewers in favor of the Astros. This is very similar to what happened to the Brewers this past offseason, as they got dumped by the Nashville Sounds (in favor of the Athletics) just as the Sounds were moving into a new ballpark. What I’m trying to say is that over the past two decades the Brewers have not been treated well by their Triple-A affiliates.

Furthermore! In today’s Minor League Baseball landscape, where unique regional identity is everything, it seems inconceivable that a team would keep the same name after moving to another location. The Denver Zephyrs were an homage to the iconic Denver Zephyr passenger train, which ran nonstop to Chicago. But the “Zephyrs” name, as luck would have it, had a New Orleans tie-in as well. Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, defunct since 1983, had had a popular roller coaster named the Zephyr. Thus, the team kept the name upon moving to New Orleans. Until visiting Zephyr Field and talking to Dave, I had not known this backstory, incorrectly and smugly assuming (as I am wont to do) that the only team in Minor League Baseball named after a roller coaster was the Brooklyn Cyclones. 

This bar on the concourse is called the “Last Ride,” paying tribute to what had once been Pontchartrain Beach’s star attraction.

006Dave also told me that Zephyr Field’s outfield berm, nicknamed “The Levee,” allegedly boasts the highest elevation in New Orleans. We’ll put aside the fact that Zephyrs Field is not actually located in New Orleans, as that kind of complicates this factoid.

007Let’s back up for a moment, however, before this roller coaster of a blog post careens off the tracks completely.

Soon after arriving at Zephyr Field, I interviewed infielder (and former Louisiana State University standout) Austin Nola regarding his “name on the front/ name on the back” jersey status. Pretty cool, right?

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PHOTO: Parker Waters, New Orleans Zephyrs

My story on Nola and his NOLA connection, which also includes his thoughts on how he might fare against his brother (pitcher Aaron, now with the Phillies) can be found HERE.

The Zephyrs NOLA uniforms are part of a larger emphasis on displaying New Orleans pride. Prior to the 2010 season, the team adopted a Fleur de Lis primary logo:

lis

The Fleur de Lis mark replaced a Nutria-themed logo, featuring mascot Boudreaux. In an article on the new logo, a writer (me) explained that nutria are “orange-toothed, semi-aquatic rodents that are prevalent in the city of New Orleans.” This article also featured the brilliant lede of, “In with the new, out with the nutria.”

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Old Logo

Nutria, for the record, are fit for human consumption. Boudreaux the mascot is NOT fit for human consumption, however. Do not try to eat him. Or his wife, (the former Clotile Picou). Or their six kids (Beauregard, Cherie, Claudette, Jean-Pierre, Noelle and Thibodaux). Mascot procreation is alive and well in Metairie, though the specifics of this act and subsequent childbirth are closely-guarded industry secrets.

booOh boy. Let’s get this train back on the tracks.

The Zephyrs front offices are located on the ground floor. Clearly, the team had recently staged a Back to the Future promotion.

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Here’s Dave Sachs in his office, which has become a storehouse for All-Star Game voting stations. Paper balloting has been discontinued, thankfully. Otherwise he’d soon have run out of room.

013Soon after the above photo was taken, Dave departed for the press box. I, meanwhile, headed to the stands. It was a low-key night, another thing you probably don’t think of when you think of New Orleans.

016But, yet, here we are…at the end of this post. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion, which I can (almost) guarantee is not the first thing that pops into your mind when you think “Ben’s Biz Blog.”

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On the Road: Rolling, Dogging and Clawing in West Virginia

To see all posts from my June 30, 2015 visit to the West Virginia Black Bears (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

My late June jaunt voyaging through the Virginias was bookended by an all-too-common occurrence: A delayed start to the ballgame due to inclement weather. It happened in Richmond on June 25, and it happened again in Morgantown (or, technically, Granville) on June 30:

In Richmond, I used this extra pre-game time to meet with my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). And at Monongalia County Ballpark, home of the fledgling Black Bears franchise, I did the same.

West Virginia Black Bears concessions: Small on signage, big on taste

West Virginia Black Bears concessions: Small on signage, big on taste

My designated eater, one Mike Rensland, was an old friend of mine from the University of Pittsburgh. And, like most Pittsburghers, he travels as part of a pack.

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Mike’s on the far right, standing next to his wife, Julia (I almost referred to Julia as his “long-suffering” wife, just because she’s married to Mike). Next to them is Mike’s brother, Tim. On the far left, wearing a vintage Acid Mothers Temple “Iao Chant from the Cosmic Inferno” t-shirt, is Gary Boeh. Gary was the metal director during the time I was a DJ at 92.1 WPTS, the University of Pittsburgh radio station. (Where I was known, depending on the time slot, as Futon, Professor Murder, and Sanctimonious Jerkface).

In order to get us out of the rain, Black Bears assistant general manager John Pogorzelski bestowed the above group of misfits (and Julia) with their own media passes so that we could proceed to the upper level and occupy a suite. Mike felt right at home, despite the fact that a metal pole had somehow lodged itself into his cranium.

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In Mike’s left hand is that most vaunted of West Virginia delicacies, the Pepperoni Roll. Specifically, this is the “Loaded Pepperoni Roll.”

041 The Pepperoni Roll, long a coal miner’s lunchtime staple, is simply pepperoni baked into a roll. The Black Bears’ “Loaded” version is topped with chili and cheese. It’s a “Julia’s Pepperoni Roll,” made locally by Chico’s bakery.

For comparison’s sake, this is the pepperoni roll served by West Virginia’s other Minor League Baseball entity, the West Virginia Power.

wvroll

Have at it, Mike, but, please, introduce yourself first.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘Mmmmm,'” said Mike, making a noise that clearly contained six m’s. “The best bites are when you get everything at once. All alone, it’s normal. Together, it’s a flavor masterpiece. I would definitely get it again. I might get it again when we go back outside. It’s fresh.”

Then, turning to his brother, Mike said that “This is up there with the sausage rolls that Mum makes.”

Here’s what the roll looked like after Mike had taken a few bites out of it:

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Mike wore a cutoff t-shirt bearing an indiscernible black metal band logo to his own wedding reception, but don’t let his appearance deceive you. He’s the math department chair at Urban Pathways, a charter high school located in downtown Pittsburgh. He’s been with the school since 2001, when he and I both worked there as AmeriCorps members in Pittsburgh’s KEYS (Knowledge Empowering Youth to Success) program. Some 14 years later he’s the math chair there, while I’m a niche Minor League Baseball writer based out of New York City. It’s exactly how we planned it.

‘They gave me the job two years ago, and I’m still waiting for my chair,” said Mike.

 

Anyhow, things did not stop with the Pepperoni Roll.

049Mike had apparently forgotten about the hot dog he had put in that steam tray 10 minutes prior. Specifically, it was the West Virginia Dog, a Farmdale frank topped with chili, coleslaw and Dijon mustard.

042Julia had had a West Virginia Dog soon after arriving at the stadium, and she declared it “disappointing” because the “chili had no flavor to it.” Now it was Mike’s turn to give it a try.

050“It’s not bad,” said Mike.

“See, I told you you’d be disappointed,” replied Julia, choosing to interpret Mike’s ambivalence as disappointment.

But Mike pressed on.

“It’s a fairly standard hot dog. I think I’ve been spoiled by Dee’s,” he said, referencing a stellar establishment in Pittsburgh’s Edgewood neighborhood. “It wouldn’t be good without the coleslaw. It gives it a creamy punch.”

Mike then made a punching motion.

An order of nachos had made their way up to the suite as well, which were standard-issue ballpark nachos. It was frustrating, however, that the cheese supply was diminished when there were so many chips left. This is a common lament of the nacho enthusiast, and I believe that teams across Minor League Baseball need to take steps to rectify this problem.

Actually, they need to take just one step: Provide more cheese.

052Our brief suite-based food tour ended on a high note, however. Bear Claws. stuffed with a sugar, butter and almond extract filling, had been obtained from a concourse-level kiosk. Each Bear Claw comes with a bowl of ice cream.

“But what do they do with the rest of the bear?” pondered Mike.

053The Bear Claws were met with a chorus of approbation, loved by all four individuals who tried them.

“The ice cream wets you up, and the bear claw dries you back up,” stated Mike.

 

The only downside was Mike’s cutlery snafu, as a plastic spoon is clearly no match for a bear claw.

060And that’ll do it for Mike and company’s designated eating adventure. If you, for some reason, just can’t get enough of Mike, then check out his band Night Vapor.

“It’s music for the mentally ill,” he said.

The “media” members seen above soon ended their charade, turning their badges in to guest services and returning to their seats just in time for the start of the game.

071Normalcy had returned.

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On the Road: Pepperoni Rolls and the PRT in West Virginia

To see all posts from my June 30, 2015 visit to the West Virginia Black Bears (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

When the previous installment of this West Virginia Black Bears narrative concluded — in a post that ran back on July 28, covering a game that took place on June 30 — the rains had come and that evening’s scheduled contest against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers was in a delay.

This installment, then, begins when the rain had passed. After a 79-minute delay, it was now time for some New York-Penn League Baseball.

064I had been told that West Virginians were a hardy breed, so I was therefore a bit surprised that so many ticket-holding fans either left during the delay or never showed up at all. This was just the sixth game in franchise history, why not wait it out? Weren’t you just excited to be there? At the very least there was plenty of time to wander around the concourse and get a nice sense of a brand-new ballpark.

Anyhow, those fans that did remain were treated to an excellent rendition of our National Anthem.

And, then, a ballgame began. It is the way of things.

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Playing ball is one thing, but retrieving them from the too-steep-for-fan-habitation berm area is not allowed. Throughout the ballgame, one can spot tantalizing yet unobtainable Easter eggs nestled within the grass.

067The berm area also provides on-field access for those taking part in between-inning contests.

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On this evening, those taking part in the between-inning festivities included Mike and Tim Rensland. The Renslands are old friends of mine, dating back to our University of Pittsburgh days. We kept our Pitt connections secret, given that we were in the heart of WVU territory, and this reminds me: the name of the on-field emcee was Caroline, which is a dangerous name to have when you’re in the heart of WVU territory. You will never hear “Sweet Caroline” play at a Black Bears game, that’s for sure. For more specifics on all of this, do a Google search. I do not traffic in profanity.

Another old pal of mine, former WPTS metal director Gary Boeh, declined to participate in the dance-off shown above. However! He did consent to being filmed performing his approximation of Chris Elliot’s Alley Cat dance while wearing his finest Acid Mothers Temple t-shirt.

Characters abounded on this evening. For reasons that made sense at the time, I made my acquaintance with an amiable turtle.

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And previously that evening I’d had the opportunity to meet Cooper, the Black Bears mascot. He’s a barrel of laughs. (Also, it’s now official: I am fatter than a bear.)

I later rendezvoused with Cooper in this right field corner location.

076Like all rendezvous, this one happened for a good reason. We were there to watch the Pepperoni Roll Race, in which Hot Pepper Hank, Double-Stuffed Dave and Pepperoni and Cheese Patty race across the outfield. (If you don’t know what a Pepperoni Roll is, then just wait until the next blog post).

It was a very uninspired race, as this triumvirate of pepperoni rolls was clearly suffering from a case of post-rain delay lethargy. Nonetheless, they were gracious enough to pose for a picture.

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Later, a young fan hit some balls into the stands.

080And, later still, fans were treated to a race inspired by WVU’s transportation system.

With the game winding down, I stopped into the “Bear’s Den” team store. A woman named Penny was working the register, and here’s the thing about Penny: she’s the mother of current San Diego Padre Jedd Gyorko. The Gyorko family is from this area, and Jedd went on to become one of the best players in WVU history. Monongalia County Ballpark is even located on “Gyorko Drive,” an homage to Jedd’s sporting success and a re-christening so fresh that it probably isn’t yet showing up in your GPS device of choice. I thought that an interview with Penny, regarding her life in and around baseball, could result in an interesting MiLB.com story. She (very politely) declined, however, marking only the second time this season I’ve been rejected. I’ve still got a pretty good batting average on this front, all things considered.

Meanwhile, the evening’s game between the Black Bears and visiting Hudson Valley Renegades was winding down. The one thing I remember about this contest, as regards the action on the field, is that the players were starting their slides very early and still overshooting the base. That artificial turf is slicker than it looks.

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Final score: West Virginia 6, Hudson Valley 4

And that was all she wrote from Monongalia County Ballpark, a Black Bears victory finished in front of a crowd announced at just 1,718. By the time the game ended the night was cold, the grounds were wet and the energy was low. But it’s important to remember that the day, way back when, had started out beautifully.

And that this is a beautiful place.

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