Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

Loose Ends Tied Up

Housekeeping!

This word, spoken from outside the door, is my alarm clock when I’m on the road.  It brings me back to hotel room reality, as I lie in bed and wish to the high heavens that I had remembered to put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign the night before.

Housekeeping is also the purpose of this post, as I fear that readers of this blog may not have been picking up on much of what I’ve been putting down lately. To wit:

Are you familiar with “The Show Before the Show”? It’s the weekly MiLB.com podcast, co-hosted by esteemed colleagues Sam “Not Lenny’s son” Dykstra and Tyler “Maybe Lenny’s son for all I know” Maun. Each week, I join Tyler and Sam for “Ben’s Biz Banter,” in which we riff on current MiLB events that fall within my broad purview. Listen, rate and review HERE.

But THAT IS NOT ALL. I’ve been promoting it relentlessly on Twitter, but earlier this month, Tyler and I hosted a special “ALL MINOR LEAGUE TEAM THEME SONGS” edition of the podcast. Seventeen baseball earworms, three interviews with songwriting masterminds and all the contextualizing info and theoretically witty banter you could could ever want. Look — like Richard Marx, it’s right here waiting for you! Listen now! I won’t give up until I’m satisfied.

After listening to all of these songs way too many times, I think my favorite is “Everybody Loves Curve Baseball.” What’s yours? Also, if you’d like a specific team theme song to be featured in an upcoming episode, please get in touch.

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Every Friday, I have a feature story on MiLB.com. Today’s piece tracks a remarkable 36-season streak, as at least one new Minor League ballpark has opened every season from 1981-2016. Check it out HERE. And, hey, here’s a visual that shows how much the Minor League landscape has changed over the last two-plus decades.

by league graphicupdate

I had to compile and contextualize a lot of info for this piece and, unfortunately, there were a few omissions. I appreciate people pointing them out, but jeez, it’s not intentional. If I ever make a mistake regarding your team, it’s not because I don’t like your team. I love everyone.

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Meanwhile, earlier this month, I wrote a piece about David LaBounty and his “Bookstores and Baseball” zine. I was very glad to get the chance to write about a zine in a professional context, and this one fit as it is about, yes, bookstores and baseball.

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For years, David and his family have gone on road trips centered around attending literary festivals, visiting independent bookstores and seeing baseball games (many in the Minors). Each issue —  or inning — of the zine covers a year of travel, and there are eight so far. If this sounds like your kind of thing, in line with your sensibilities, then give the article a read and check out the zine HERE.

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Also, if you like being kept abreast of the Minor League promo scene, check out “Promo Watch.” It runs every Tuesday. Where else can you find important information such as how Greg “The Hammer” Valentine bailed out of a Fort Myers Miracle appearance due to “unspecified differences” with fellow guest (and former tag team partner) Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake?

Don’t worry. Bushwhacker Luke showed up in Greg’s place and all was well.

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And, of course, there’ll be plenty of road trip material — on MiLB.com and on the blog — in the very near future. I’ll be hitting the road next week!

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Okay, I shall now consider this house to be kept. Thanks, as always for reading.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

Guest Post: Recapping a Grapefruit League Road Trip

Jae Canetti is an eighth-grade student and an avid baseball fan from the Washington, D.C. area.  Next year, he will be attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where he hopes to play baseball for the Colonials and study astrophysics.

Last month, he and his family visited Spring Training ballparks throughout the Grapefruit League, many of which host Florida State League ballparks during the regular season. Jae, a long-time reader of this blog, now shares his experience:

 On March 18, 2016, after months of counting down to my family’s long-planned trip to Spring Training in Florida, I woke up to my dad blasting “Centerfield” by John Fogerty in my ear and dancing around like Christmas had come early. With the song playing on repeat, my parents and I packed everything up, hopped into our Honda and set out down I-95.

We were greeted at the Florida Welcome Center by free orange juice and a giant banner advertising Spring Training as one of Florida’s main attractions. An entire corner of the building was filled with brochures about spring baseball and decorated with pennants for each of the 15 Major League teams that make up the Grapefruit League.

Our itinerary took us to seven Spring Training facilities over the span of a week.  We began at Champion Field in Disney World, where we saw the Braves host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers.

Picture 1 - Champion Field

Before the game, we were treated to the sight of a laid-back Miggy taking infield practice while appearing to urge the Tigers coaches not to hit those grounders at him too hard.

Picture 2 - Miguel Cabrera Enjoys Infield Practice

We also ventured over to the Braves’ minor league complex behind the stadium where I, a Minor League Baseball fanatic, sought out and found some of the team’s top prospects. I obtained autographs from Ozzie Albies and Touki Toussaint, the Braves’ #3 and #6 prospects, respectively.

Most exciting for me, however, was my conversation with Dansby Swanson, the Braves’ top prospect (the #8 overall prospect in Major League Baseball) and last year’s first overall draft pick. He and Trey Keegan, a catcher in the Braves organization, were nice enough to take a picture with me, even though I was wearing some of my Tigers gear from Little League. Meeting and talking to these two guys was a highlight of my trip and I can’t thank them enough.

Picture 3 - With Dansby Swanson & Trey Keegan

Dansby Swanson, Jae and Trey Keegan

We then launched ourselves to Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals were ending their final spring before leaving Viera for a new home in West Palm Beach.

Picture 4 - Space Coast Stadium

As Nationals devotees, my father and I came to the park determined to buy Nationals hats with the 2016 Spring Training patch on the side. As a cap collector, this purchase was at the top my trip agenda. The hats were flying off of the shelves, but we managed to grab a pair.

Picture 5 - Nats Cap With 2016 Spring Training Patch

Sporting our new caps, we watched one of the last games that the Nationals would ever play in Viera. They won it on the strength of a home run by Wilson Ramos and a two-run double by Ryan Zimmerman.

Picture 6 - Wilson Ramos Homers (32116 - Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida)

Ramos makes contact

Due to some pre-trip confusion, we scheduled our next stopover at the Mets’ Spring Training home in Port St. Lucie on a day when they were playing in Tampa (oops).  Having made this realization, we rejiggered our plans and used this location as our jumping-off point to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. My dad had purchased special tickets that allowed us to enter an hour before the gates usually opened to watch batting practice, and what we saw when we got to the gates was shocking.

Roger Dean Stadium is shared by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who happened to be playing each other that day. We came to the park expecting a somewhat equal balance of Marlins and Cards fans. Instead, we were greeted at the gates by a sea of Cardinals red. The entire stadium was filled with the Cardinals faithful, and not a Marlins fan was anywhere to be seen. Marlins fans, your team plays here too. To make things worse, the Cards were designated as the “home team” that day, meaning that even the PA announcer was on the Cardinals’ side.

Our seats for this game were… well… not seats.  The game sold out long before we arrived in Jupiter — apparently to Cardinals fans exclusively — so the only remaining tickets were standing-room-only. My dad and I chose the section along the left field line near the Marlins’ bullpen.

Picture 7 - Ichiro (32316 - Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Florida

Ichiro in action at Roger Dean Stadium

If you’re one of those people who buys a standing-room-only ticket and then sneaks behind home plate in the fourth inning while the usher isn’t looking (you know who you are … I tried), Cardinals games at Roger Dean Stadium are not for you. At most of the Spring Training games we attended, there was a steady flow of people exiting the stadium by the eighth inning or so. However, at this game, the only people I saw leaving before the last out were two poor Marlins fans (the only ones there) who got kicked out of the stadium for heckling their own team. I knew that the Cardinals may have the most dedicated fan base in baseball, but these fans took Spring Training to a whole new level. Long story short: If you want a seat for a Cardinals game at Roger Dean Stadium, buy a ticket.  Early.

Back in Port St. Lucie, we found a batting cage near our hotel. I wanted to take some swings to prepare for my own baseball season. After a few sessions in the cage, a young man asked us how to operate the payment system. After engaging in a short conversation with him, we discovered that we were talking to Christian Montgomery, a New York Mets prospect who will begin this season pitching for Double-A Binghamton. This was my second time talking to professional ballplayers in three days.  Talk about getting lucky.

My elation dimmed upon returning to the hotel when we discovered that the Red Sox game we planned to attend the next day in Fort Myers was also sold out. Even standing-room-only tickets were gone. Apparently, Red Sox fans give Cardinals fans a run for their money in Spring Training enthusiasm. We still had to drive to Fort Myers because we had hotel reservations there. However, we were now free to take a detour half a mile up the road to Tradition Field, which the Mets open to the public at no charge from 9:30 until 11:30 each morning. While there, we watched David Wright, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes go through their morning routines.  Manager Terry Collins even wandered over to the fence, spoke to fans, and autographed a ball for me.

Picture 8 - Mets Camp (32416 - Port St. Lucie, Florida)

Terry Collins, between the seams

Terry Collins, between the seams

After about an hour, we had to leave for Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida. Although there was no way we could get into the Red Sox game, we found out that there were two Minor League games being played at the training complex behind the stadium and decided that we could not pass up the chance to see one of the nicest facilities in the Grapefruit League.

Picture 10 - jetBlue Park (32416)

My dad and I ended up watching a game between the Greenville Drive (Class A Red Sox affiliate) and the Delmarva Shorebirds (Class A Baltimore Orioles). As we watched, we heard loud cheers and the famous singing of “Sweet Caroline” coming from inside JetBlue Park as the big league game wound down. Outside, it began to rain in the late innings of the Minor League games that were taking place. After a considerable downpour, the coaches got together and spontaneously called the games off. As a 10-year veteran of Little League Baseball, I can tell you that this was eerily familiar to me. I have had numerous games unceremoniously ended due to weather, never to be completed or rescheduled. Some things never change, do they?

But this was not the end of that day’s excitement. Earlier, one of the Orioles’ Minor Leaguers chipped his bat. As he walked past me on the way back to the clubhouse, I stopped him and asked him if he needed it. He was incredibly friendly, gave me the broken bat and even signed it. Many thanks to Alejandro Juvier. Your bat is a fantastic souvenir that now has a home in front of my bed.

After Fort Myers, we turned north toward Sarasota to see the Orioles play the Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium. Before the game, we met up with former neighbors who moved to Sarasota last summer. This was fun in and of itself, but as an additional surprise our friends had arranged for us to visit the home of their new friends Fernando and Kristi Cuza. Mr. Cuza is a leading agent for Latin players — including many household names — and they invited us to tour their memorabilia room.

My jaw dropped at the sight of the collection. I would say that the Cuzas’ assortment of memorabilia easily rivals a gallery in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (and I’ve been there — twice). Mrs. Cuza was very gracious with her time and shared many insights into her and her husband’s baseball experiences. But the Cuzas’ generosity didn’t stop there. Mr. Cuza gave me a baseball autographed by Miguel Cabrera!

Picture 11 - Miguel Cabrera Signed Baseball

We then made our way to Ed Smith Stadium, where we witnessed an absolute slugfest. The Orioles hit four home runs and the Yankees slammed two, on top of a few hard-hit doubles. We watched those baseballs fly out of the stadium from what I believe was the best standing-room-only view out of all of the parks we visited.

Picture 12 - Ed Smith Stadium (32516)

Our final day found us unexpectedly attending a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers at the Phillies’ home park of Bright House Field in Clearwater. We originally planned to attend a Blue Jays game in Dunedin, but that game sold out (again). By going to this game, however, we completed an unintentional tour of every National League East camp.

The game turned out to be entertaining, with a late-inning Tigers comeback to rob the Phillies of a win.  More importantly, we witnessed Justin Verlander’s hilarious bunt and walk to first base that later went viral.  If you missed it, Verlander laid down a bunt with two strikes against him and then proceeded to take about two slow steps toward first before being thrown out. As he veered off toward the Tigers’ dugout, all of the fans on that side of the stadium let loose with a barrage of light-hearted jeers, to which Verlander responded with an elegant doffing of his helmet.

The final out of that game marked the conclusion of our time in Florida. Over the following days, we drove back home with a new (broken) bat, several autographed baseballs, an assortment of Spring Training gear and a week of memories that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to see what the regular season holds. Go Nationals!

Picture 13 - Equipment Bag

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Thanks to Jae for contributing this post, which, not surprisingly, contains no spelling errors. If you find yourself intrigued by the idea of contributing a guest blog post, then get in touch. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: 2016 Edition

Here we go again. It’s time to hit the open road.

Since 2010, I’ve spent a portion of the baseball season visiting Minor League Baseball stadiums all across the country. My mission at each ballpark is to highlight what it is that makes that team (and city) unique. If each team is a reflection of the community in which it operates, then Minor League Baseball’s 160 teams, taken together, are a reflection of America. So what better way to explore America than through Minor League Baseball?

So, that’s me and what I’m all about. (Plan your own road trips HERE.) 

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I’ve visited 139 Minor League ballparks through the years (some more than once), including 128 of the 159 currently in use. 2016 will see me get that much closer to my goal of “collecting ’em all,” while also providing the opportunity to revisit some past favorites. Here’s a thumbnail; an extensive breakdown immediately follows.

roadtrips 2016

My itinerary is a touch lighter as compared to the last couple of seasons, but should nonetheless result in plenty of unique articles, blog posts, Tweets, Instagram photos and Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Jokes. And, of course, 2016 will mark the fourth season of the “Designated Eater,” in which I recruit an individual at each ballpark to consume the cuisine that my gluten-diet prohibits.

If YOU are interested in being a designated eater at one of the ballparks listed in the itineraries below, then get in touch:  benjamin.hill@mlb.comFirst come, first served — and you MUST get in touch via email. Also: first-time DEs are prioritized over veterans, good communicators are especially welcome and how come women almost never apply?

Anyhow, this could be you:

0482Alright, let’s break it down:

Trip #1: Carolinas On My Mind

May 6: Greensboro Grasshoppers (vs. Columbia Fireflies, 7:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Alan Hand

May 7: Durham Bulls (vs. Norfolk Tides, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Ken Childs

This should be a memorable evening in Durham, as it’s a “A Tribute to Han Solo” Star Wars Night.

May 8: Greenville Drive (vs. Columbia Fireflies, 4:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Rich Wofford

May 9: Charleston RiverDogs (vs. Hickory Crawdads, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Frank Monterisi

May 10: Myrtle Beach Pelicans (vs. Winston-Salem Dash, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

May 11: “Off”

May 12: Columbia Fireflies (vs. Asheville Tourists, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Carter Blackmon

May 13: Carolina Mudcats (vs. Lynchburg Hillcats, 7:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater: 

Why? The Columbia Fireflies, one of two new teams/stadiums in Minor League Baseball this season, served as the impetus for this trip. But I was overdue for a Carolinas trip, anyway; I last visited Durham, Charleston and Myrtle Beach in 2011, and have never before been to Greensboro or Zebulon (home of the Mudcats). Greenville I’ve kinda sorta been to, having stopped by the ballpark when the team was on the road in 2010. I’m glad to actually see the Drive in action this time around.

Also, I am one of tens (or, likely, hundreds) of millions of Americans who condemn the idiotic bigotry codified within North Carolina’s HB2 law. The Durham Bulls have recently spoken out against it, and I hope (but am not necessarily expecting) other NC teams to do the same. I’ll be interested in getting the perspectives of fans — particularly those whom this law directly affects — when I’m in North Carolina.

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Manning an HD camera in Durham, 2011

Trip #2: Getting Hartford’s Goat 

June 3-4: Hartford Yard Goats (vs. Portland, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Jim Manning

Why? This isn’t a trip, really. I’d consider it to be more of a jaunt. It is imperative that I make it to Hartford this season, as the brand-new Yard Goats (who formerly existed as the New Britain Rock Cats) will be playing in brand-new Dunkin’ Donuts Park. After ending last season with a New England-based trip — including the Rock Cats’ last-ever home game — there aren’t many teams in the region I currently feel compelled to visit. So a Hartford exclusive this shall be.

Eat It Up.

Trip #3: Appy League Entirety

June 25: Greeneville Astros (vs. Johnson City, 6:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

June 26: Kingsport Mets (vs. Pulaski, 4:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

June 27: Johnson City Cardinals (vs. Elizabethton, TBD)
Designated Eater: Aaron Hodge

June 28: Bristol Pirates (vs. Greeneville, 7:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

June 29: Elizabethton Twins (vs. Pulaski, TBD)
Designated Eater: Daniel Buck

June 30: Princeton Rays (vs. Greeneville, 7:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

July 1: Bluefield Blue Jays (vs. Kingsport, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

July 2: Pulaski Yankees (vs. Bristol, TBD)
Designated Eater: Thomas Panek

July 3: Danville Braves (vs. Burlington, TBD)
Designated Eater:

July 4: Burlington Royals (vs. Danville, 6:35 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Justin Moody

Why? Finally, after years of pestering, hectoring, cajoling, persuading and pleading from various Appalachian League personnel, I am happy to announce a trip that covers the entire Rookie-level circuit. With the exception of Danville and Burlington (in 2011), I haven’t visited any of these teams before. The travel will be minimal, as well. The first five days of the trip cover the Western Division, during which I will be staying in the same hotel. Johnson City, I’ll soon know you well.

And, yes, by ending in Burlington I’ll pretty much be exactly where I started (and ended) during my May Carolinas trip. I’m sure I’ll get some flak for hitting the same general area twice in the same season, but I’m used to it. Last year, I didn’t make it west of Omaha and this annoyed my three-hours-behind-the-times pals in the Pacific Time Zone.

Burlington heckling squad, 2011. I hope to see them again.

Burlington heckling squad, 2011. I hope to see them again.

Trip 4: Sacramento to Spokane, the Long Way

August 1: Sacramento River Cats (vs. Salt Lake, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

August 2: Stockton Ports (vs. Rancho Cucamonga, 7:10 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Ryan Benton

August 3: Modesto Nuts (vs. Visalia, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Derek Nyquist

August 4: San Jose Giants (vs. Modesto, 6:30 p.m.)
Designated Eater: John Lambert

August 5: Visalia Rawhide (vs. Inland Empire, 7:00 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

August 6: Las Vegas 51s (vs. Fresno, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater: Zachary Lucy

August 7: “Off”

August 8: Reno Aces (vs. Salt Lake, 7:05 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

August 9: “Off”

August 10: Boise Hawks (vs. Hillsboro, 7:15 p.m.)
Designated Eater:

August 11: Tri-City Dust Devils (vs. Spokane, TBD)
Designated Eater:

August 12: Spokane Indians (vs. Eugene, 6:30 p.m.)
Designated Eater: 

Why? Speaking of the Pacific Time Zone, here we are! This trip is a behemoth, motivated by the desire to hit a bunch of disparate teams whom I have missed on past trips. This includes Golden State stalwarts Sacramento and San Jose as well as the final three Northwest League teams I’ve yet to visit: Boise, Tri-City and Spokane. My time in those regions are book-ended by a swing into Nevada, to see the Las Vegas 51s for the first time and to make a return trip to Reno (the Aces were rained out when I visited in 2013). There are several other repeats from the 2013 season thrown in out of scheduling necessity, in the form of Modesto, Stockton and Visalia. My apologies to the Fresno Grizzlies, another 2013 stop whom I would have loved to include had the home and away gods smiled upon me. Maybe I can still stop by Fresno on the way to Visalia and get some Spam fries to go.

A "what could've been" moment from my rained out Reno visit, 2013.

A “what could’ve been” moment from my rained-out Reno visit, 2013.

Postscript: 2017, the Path is Clear

Upon the conclusion of the 2016 season, there will be only a handful of teams I have yet to visit: the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Frederick Keys, Frisco RoughRiders, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Salt Lake Bees and … the entirety of the Pioneer League. Thus, I anticipate the following itineraries:

Southern California: Seeing the Quakes also allows me to see California League teams (such as Lake Elsinore, Lancaster and High Desert) whom I have not visited since 2011.

Frisco: Maybe this will tie into a larger trip, maybe it will just be a RoughRiders exclusive. Either way, visiting Dr Pepper Ballpark is the only way to get RoughRiders broadcaster Nathan Barnett to stop bothering me.

Four States, Four Days: In addition to having never visited the Frederick Keys in Maryland, I am long overdue for stops in both Binghamton and Wilmington. (I visited the former in 2008 and the latter in 2009, both before I started doing these trips in earnest.) The Altoona Curve would be a necessity as well; I have visited them three times but, weirdly enough, never in a traditional regular-season game context.

Oh, Pioneer: This would be a huge one, comprising Colorado Springs and Salt Lake as well as the eight-team Pioneer League (which has teams  in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana). I’m up for it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Thanks to everyone who has followed along with me thus far, and welcome to anyone who’s on board for the first time. I’m looking forward to my upcoming travels, and also looking forward to receiving my annual barrage of complaints regarding why my itineraries are flawed. (Yes, of course, I went out of my way to visit your team on a Monday.)

As always, feel free to get in touch with all manner of questions and concerns. I remain:

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

Return to the Road: The Road Ends in Portland

For the last two and a half months, when time has allowed, I’ve written “Return to the Road” posts detailing my non-ballpark traveling experiences during the 2015 season. Today, that series of posts ends with this, a brief account of my time in Portland, Maine.

I arrived in Maine’s most populous city on the evening of September 3, and the next afternoon I had a couple of hours to spare before heading on over to the Sea Dogs’ home of Hadlock Field. Given that this would be my only full day in Maine, I felt like I almost had no choice but to get some lobster. After a thorough research effort (okay, an overwhelming Yelp consensus might have had something to do with it), I chose to visit Fishermen’s Grill.

IMG_0417In the above photograph, the Fishermen’s Grill looks impossibly tiny, kind of like the restaurant version of floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich. But I made it inside, all 68 inches of me, and ordered a “lobstah” roll. Given my gluten-free obligations, I chose the option in which the lobster was served separate from the bread. There was a specific term for this option, but it now eludes me. I’ll call it the “Celiac Compromise.”

The lobster — tender, generously portioned, dipped in butter — was fantastic.

IMG_0415Afterwards I went for a brief stroll in Mayor Baxter Woods. When I came to a fork in the road, I took it.

IMG_0418I then took a short drive to Portland’s downtown, where parking was an ordeal. Finally finding a space for my (rented) Dodge Charger represented a moment of triumph so profound that I documented it for posterity.

IMG_0421The statue in the below photo is reads “PORTLAND: To Her Sons Who Died for the Union.” I like that the dude on the right accidentally snuck into the shot, representing Bob Marley to the fullest on this late summer afternoon.

IMG_0422While parking was tough in Portland’s downtown, the flip side was that it was good for pedestrians.

IMG_0423I’m a big fan of Little Lad’s popcorn, whose “herbal” variety is available here in New York City. Therefore, I was happy to have stumbled upon the Little Lad’s Cafe, which had a plethora of Little Lad’s flavors I had not previously enjoyed. (That said, the original “Herbal” flavor remains my favorite.)

IMG_0426Time was running out (time always seems to be running out while I’m on the road), but I was able to squeeze in one last record store visit. In addition to LPs, Electric Buddha had a variety of old video games as well as a nicely-curated selection of pop culture detritus.

IMG_0425I focused my energy on the records, per usual, and among those I walked away with was “Early Steppenwolf.” This 1967 live LP has since blown my mind to an extent I wasn’t expecting.

And, hey, that’s all I’ve got, as my 2015 road trip posts are now 100% complete. I ended the season looking like this; expect a leaner, meaner and cleaner Ben’s Biz in 2016.

IMG_04132016 ballpark trip schedule coming soon. Hope to see you on the road!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

Return to the Road: Keeping Vermont Weird

Yesterday’s post detailed my thirst-quenching visit to the Burlington, Vermont headquarters of Citizen Cider. That was just one element of a whirlwind weekend in and around Vermont’s most populous city,  a weekend which also included a Vermont Lake Monsters game.

I spent said weekend with my cousin, Ali, and her family, who live in nearby Hinesburg. I arrived on the evening of Friday, July 10, after a downright idyllic ride on Amtrak’s “Vermonter” line. The next morning I participated in my first-ever 5K race, and it was a 5K with a distinctly Vermont flair: The Brain Freezer.

brainfreezer

At the halfway point of the Brain Freezer, participants had to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. (Hence, the “Run, Pint, Run” tagline.) Really, though, my primary concern was with “run” part of the equation. In my youth I was a real skinny and naturally in-shape; my 30s, on the other hand, had (until recently) been characterized by a slow descent into a sloth-like state.

The race — proceeds of which benefited the People Helping People Global micro-lending organization — began in Burlington’s Battery Park. The “competitive” runners were lined up in the front. I, meanwhile, was a “Fun Runner” (an oxymoron, if I’ve ever heard one).

freezer1

I ran the race with Ali and her son, Jason. Always prepared, she had obtained green “Keep Vermont Weird” shirts for all three of us as well as armbands which could hold our ice cream spoons.

I’m in the right hand portion of the below photo, huffing and puffing between Ali and Jason and already desirous of a nap.

freezer2

My apologies for the brain freeze, but I don’t have any photos of the actual ice cream-eating portion of the race. The pints were handed out on a downtown city street, and I opted for a Cherry Garcia as it was the only gluten-free option. It was pretty much on the honor system, as regards eating the whole thing before continuing. I didn’t, and am sorry for sullying the sanctity of the Brain Freeze’s core premise.

Maybe I should have an asterisk after my name (denoting pint consumption failure), but I did finish the race. Jason overtook me at the end; finishing 221st out of 297. I then came in 222nd with a less-than-inspiring time of 42:45.

freezer3The following day, Vermont got even weirder. Weird Al Yankovic, one of my all-time personal heroes, played a show at the Flynn Theater in downtown Burlington.

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Before the show I enjoyed a “Wit’s Up” Citizen Cider.

IMG_1602Ali and I also had time to poke around the excellent Burlington Records. There were a lot of off-the-beaten path weirdo vibe records in the used bin, and I know I bought a few but can’t remember what. Next season, I’m gonna keep a record store log.

IMG_1603And then — Weird Al!

11698768_10207553734507235_7695033495968297565_oThis marked the sixth time I’ve seen Weird Al, and never in the same place twice (Red Bank, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Glenside, Pennsylvania; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Oakland, California; Burlington, Vermont). The one constant is that he puts on an awesome show, full of costume changes and multi-media elements and a start-to-finish commitment to each and every song and routine.

The Flynn is an intimate and classy venue, and Ali had scored us some great seats.

IMG_1605One of the most unique elements of Al’s “Mandatory Fun” tour is that, at each stop, he opens the show with a rendition of “Tacky that starts with him outside the venue and ends on the stage. Footage from the Burlington show is at the 1:15 mark in the below video, but the whole thing is very much worth watching. It’s one of many examples of Al’s total commitment to each and every detail of the performance.

Anyhow, another massive leg of the “Mandatory Fun” tour begins in June and ends in September. He’s making stops at many Minor League markets, but I’ll be at the tour-concluding show at Radio City Music Hall on September 24. Sorry to come off like such a fanboy here, but I’ve been a Weird Al fan for a very long time.

alDare To Be Stupid.

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Return to the Road: New England Fun Spots

Opening Day is less than three weeks away. Believe me, I am aware. But before debuting my 2016 road trip itineraries (coming soonish!), I’d like to finish my series of 2015 “Return to the Road” posts. (These posts, as you probably know, highlight my non-ballpark road trip experiences.)

My fifth and final road trip of the season was a late August/early September jaunt through New England. As you can see, the Vermont Lake Monsters trip was actually a one-off stop in July, but I’m going to write about it as if it was part of this itinerary. It’ll all make sense in the end.

neFrom Norwich to New Britain to Lowell to Pawtucket, this trip was a blur. Regarding those cities I have nothing in my files regarding anything that happened outside the ballpark. It was simply a matter of keeping one foot in front of the other as I mixed metaphors while bouncing from one place to the next.

The only random picture I have from those first four days is this selfie, taken at a Vietnamese restaurant somewhere in the vicinity of Lowell.

Beautiful.

IMG_0320The narrative, such as it is, begins on the morning of September 2. I woke up in Providence, where I stayed after having seen the PawSox the previous evening.

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IMG_0362Early that afternoon, I met my friend Jake for lunch. We were comedy scene pals in NYC, but he abandoned me in favor of pursuing a modeling career in Rhode Island. Go figure.

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Jake and I grabbed lunch from one of the food trucks set up in downtown’s Kennedy Plaza, and then took a seat in this rather idyllic wooded environment.

IMG_0363After lunch, we checked out the local waterways.

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IMG_0366Our time together was brief. Jake had to rush off to a photo shoot, and I had to make my way to Manchester, New Hampshire.

Before leaving Providence, I checked out the site of the proposed downtown ballpark that would replace Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium. For myriad reasons, this plan has since been abandoned.

What could have been

What could have been

I saw a New Hampshire Fisher Cats game on the night of September 2. The following afternoon, before leaving town, I made a pit stop at a local record store.

IMG_0389Unfortunately, The Music Connection was closed. But now I know where I’m celebrating my next birthday.

IMG_0390I had better luck later on in the day, when I swung by Pitchfork Records in Concord, New Hampshire.

IMG_0396Pitchfork Records had a ramshackle, curmudgeonly vibe. I know I bought something, but, at this late juncture, I can’t remember what it was. Just know that if I bought it, then it had to have been good.

IMG_0398Deeper into the evening, I made a pit stop in Laconia, New Hampshire. You wouldn’t know it by looking at this particular photo, but this building houses one of the world’s largest collections of classic video games.

IMG_0402I had arrived at Funspot, the iconic arcade that was prominently featured in the 2007 documentary King of Kong. Being a weeknight in September, the place was kinda dead.

IMG_0401My photos do not do Funspot justice, but for people of a certain age it is a major nostalgia trip. For people of a younger age than those of a certain age, it is a blast from an unknown and now largely incomprehensible past. Coin-op is dead. Long live coin-op.

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A tribute to Keith Apicary, video game legend:

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And this, I assume, is a tribute to a Minor League Baseball legend:

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I skipped the miniature golf.

IMG_0405But I did try my hand at candlepin bowling. Unlike standard “10 Pin” bowling, the balls and pins are much smaller.

IMG_0410Though I’m a fairly decent bowler, my candlepin efforts were abysmal. You get much less pin action than with “normal” bowling, and I could not get in any sort of rhythm. I was also confused by the fact that one gets three rolls per frame, but a spare only counts if all the pins are knocked down in the second shot. I didn’t get any spares.

Afterwards, I was too frustrated to join — or start — the party.

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Minor League Baseball News Explosion!

The month began with a slew of attention-grabbing promotional announcements, but recently things have been pretty slow here in the world of Minor League Baseball. I call it the calm before the storm. Pretty good expression, right? Feel free to use it.

Therefore, now is a good time for a good ol’ fashioned bouillabaisse blog post (and, yes, for those keeping score at home, I always spell bouillabaisse correctly on the first try). If, for some reason, you need to use a restraining device while using your computer, then now would be a good time to buckle up. A bubbling stew of delectable Minor League morsels and mixed metaphors await you.

***

For the second year in a row, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats are featuring fans on their season tickets. Pretty cool, right?

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Note, also, that the Fisher Cats (who for a short but glorious period of time were known as “The Primaries”) have unveiled their “Bipartisan” Opening Day jerseys. Fans get to vote on the accompanying hat. Pretty cool, right?

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***

Speaking of politics, eminently qualified presidential candidate Donald Trump recently issued a “53 degrees or free” guarantee on behalf of the Syracuse Chiefs. Take that, Rochester. Until this video was released, I hadn’t realized just how much Trump looks like Chiefs general manager Jason Smorol. Pretty cool, right?

***

David Kronheim, aka “The Number Tamer”, has released his 2015 Minor League Baseball Attendance Analysis. It doesn’t get any more thorough than this (for more on the Number Tamer, read THIS ARTICLE and/or THIS GUEST BLOG POST). Pretty cool, right?

***

As I think I’ve mentioned before, the California League has a 75th anniversary logo

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I bring this up because every team in the league has its own specific logo, courtesy Brandiose. Pretty cool, right?

calpture

***

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are one of many teams that host Scout Night ballpark sleepovers. They are the only team (so far as I know), to issue scouts their own team-logo badges. Pretty cool, right?

scout

Update: Fort Wayne TinCaps creative director Tony DesPlaines has creatively directed my attention to the fact that his club has been doing this for years.

TinCaps Scout Patches

Update to the Update: The Vermont Lake Monsters have been doing this for years as well.

scoutnightpatches

Update to the Update to the Update: 

Update to the Update to the Update to the Update: 

Update to the Update to the Update to the Update to the Update: 

Return to the Road: Nashville Sights Before Nashville Sounds

Yesterday’s post detailed my visit to Nashville’s Third Man Records. Upon the conclusion of this late morning jaunt, Tyler and I swung by Gabby’s Burgers for lunch. (Tyler, as you may recall, is a Nashville local who, among other life accomplishments, served as my designated eater at that evening’s Sounds game.)

I was familiar with Gabby’s Burgers, having already visited there (thanks to a reader tip) during my 2013 visit to Nashville. I was happy to be back.

IMG_0180I must have taken the above picture after leaving Gabby’s, as when we got there there was a line out the door. It’s an unassuming place — get your place in line, place your order, find a place to sit, wait for your number to be called, retrieve foodstuffs, consume.  IMG_0176Regarding the “Answers to Common Questions” on the wall above the grill, my favorite is the second from the right:

NO

We don’t serve beer. 

I just don’t want to deal with the headaches.

Being gluten-free (I have celiac disease, remember?), it can be tough to get a good burger on the road. But at Gabby’s, you simply have to order it jazz-style. Nothing quite connotes the improvisatory, exploratory nature of jazz quite like meat wrapped in a lettuce bun.

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Anyhow, these burgers (and fries) are great — greasy (but not too greasy), salty, well-seasoned, decently-proportioned and all-in-all satisfying. If you’re in Nashville I’d highly recommend a trip to Gabby’s, which sits in the shadow of the Sounds former Greer Stadium home.

After lunch, I parted ways with Tyler and poked around downtown Nashville for a bit. IMG_0181The Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators, has a separate entrance for a what I assume is a sizable portion of the fan base.

IMG_0182Here’s the arena, in full part:

IMG_0183My wanderings soon brought me to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

IMG_0184My take:

I would have loved to spend a few hours at the CMOF (that’s what people call it, right?), but the time I had available didn’t justify the required expenditure. It would have been great to learn about Taylor Swift at the Taylor Swift Education Center, for instance.

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No caption, just a Blank Space

Basically, I just wandered around the Country Music Hall of Fame lobby. Or, as I like to call it, a spacious atrium.

IMG_0189Hatch Show Print, an iconic Nashville print shop, is located on the premises. Vintage baseball advertisements were among the many things for sale.

IMG_0187For lack of a better term, they were also selling hipster Bibles.

IMG_0186I ended up buying these two classic CDs at the CMOF gift shop.

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The clerk told me that he used to play Rubber Room at closing time as a way to clear people out of the store. To each his own, I guess. I’d never leave when this is playing.

Back outside, I admired statues.

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IMG_0194I would have visited this museum devoted to Johnny, but I didn’t have the…money.

IMG_0196The John Seigenthaler pedestrian bridge is anything but, as it offers great views of the Nashville skyline. (Previously known as the Shelby Street Bridge, the structure was renamed in honor of journalist and first amendment crusader John Seigenthaler.)

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Storm clouds were beginning to roll through, an ominous sign for that night’s scheduled baseball action (the game was called in the second inning).

IMG_0198Finally, I hoofed it on over to Broadway. This is the most touristy section of the city, what Beale Street is to Memphis. With time running out, I decided to make a brief stop at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.

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This establishment has a great marquee, and the display at the back of the store (an homage to the still-ongoing Midnight Jamboree) adds a lot of character.

IMG_0205But as for the records themselves, this store was lousy. Understocked, with a selection comprised of overpriced (and generally not hard to find elsewhere) CDs.

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But I don’t want to end on a negative note. I loved being in Nashville, and this is the only way I’ll rag on such a great city.

Thanks for reading this penultimate series of “Return to the Road” posts. There’s still more to come in that regard (from my New England trip), which should segue nicely into the reveal of my 2016 travel itinerary.

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Return to the Road: Third Man, a First Person Account

August 4, the final day of my sprawling ballpark road trip through the South, was spent in Nashville. My primary objective in the Music City was to check out First Tennessee Park, the new home of the Nashville Sounds. Stadium visits are always the primary objective.

But the secondary objective, as always, was to explore the city to the extent my limited time frame allowed. In this regard, I received a major assist from Tyler Glaser. Tyler, who works at Grimey’s Records as well as the historic Belcourt Theatre, had volunteered to be my designated eater at that evening’s Sounds game. Utilizing some local connections, he also set up a tour of Third Man Records. Third Man is the music shop/record label/house of curiosities/recording studio/performance space established by Jack White. The company began in Detroit; the Nashville branch opened in 2009.

Third Man is located on 7th Avenue South, in a rather unassuming location.

001 (2)The open-to-the-public portion of Third Man consists of two rooms.

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005Restoring turn-of-the-20th century coin-op entertainment is a Third Man specialty.

This is the Scopitone, which plays music videos on 16mm sound film. Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell, who gave Tyler and me a tour, said that this is the only Scopitone in operation and that they had to “Frankenstein it together.” He went on to say that maintaining it is a “nightmare.”

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16mm films at the base of the Scopitone:

IMG_0170“Fully automatic” Photobooth:

IMG_0173This is the “Voice-o-Graph.” One can step inside and record anything they want direct to vinyl. Blackwell said that customers do “marriage proposals, jokes, whatever.” More ambitiously, Neil Young recorded his 2014 LP A Letter Home on the Voice-O-Graph. And let’s not forget that Weird Al and his band stopped by and recorded this.

Records, all released by the Third Man label, are available as well. (I, forever and always, am a fan of Mudhoney.)

008Blackwell described the whole Third Man operation as “Simple DIY on a large scale.” Our tour continued throughout the entire facility, but unfortunately cameras were no longer allowed. The “Hipster Willy Wonka” vibe (as I heard one person refer to it as) continued throughout. We passed thorough a graphic design station (staffed by four full-time designers) and a recording studio featuring live direct-to-acetate recordings. If my notes are to be believed, the studio uses a Rupert Neve 5008 console and the signal is sent to a 1955 Scully Lathe.

The musicians who record at Third Man set up in a literal “Blue Room”, augmented by soft lighting, carpets and taxidermy.

Ben’s Biz solo record, coming soon:

thirdmanphoto My notes include a lot of other interesting tidbits from my time at Third Man, but a lot of it is out of context and kinda hard to convey without accompanying photos. A few random notes:

— The operation is bigger than it looks from the outside. Third Man Nashville has grown from two to 27 employees since it opened in 2009, and has expanded to include the building next door (which had been an auto body shop).

— All Third Man Record order fulfillment is done in house; when Jack White’s Lazaretto LP came out they shipped 25,000 in a single week.

— A “super-top secret” master tape storage room is located on the premises, climate-controlled and fire-proof. In the (increasingly likely) advent of the apocalypse, it’s possible that Third Man recordings will survive and perhaps even thrive in a post-human reality.

Anyhow, thanks to Tyler for setting up the tour and Ben for showing us around.

010

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Return to the Road: I Went to Jackson, and That’s a Natural Fact

On August 2 I visited the Mississippi Braves, who play outside of Jackson, Mississippi. I bypassed that particular Jackson entirely, however, in favor of its Tennessee counterpart. Jackson, Tennessee, is perhaps best known in pop culture via the country duet “Jackson“, an exemplar of marital dysfunction and misplaced masculine confidence. The tune wasn’t written with any particular Jackson in mind but has since become most associated with Tennessee. In 1967 it was recorded by both Johnny and June Carter Cash and Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Both versions are stellar (though make me choose one and it’ll be Nancy and Lee every time).

After witnessing August 3’s Jackson Generals game, I had a little time to poke around the next afternoon before moving on to Nashville. So, I poked. Said poking soon brought me to the Madison County Courthouse; the monument seen on the right is dedicated “To the CONFEDERATE DEAD of Madison Co.”

IMG_0145On the courthouse lawn stands my favorite historical plaque of all time. It made me laugh for a couple minutes straight, and over the last six months it has continued to make me laugh at semi-regular intervals.

IMG_0150The First United Methodist Church, which boasts an interesting history, is located nearby.

IMG_0153It was now (past) lunchtime. I needed to get a meal in Jackson before heading out of the city. The West Alley BBQ and Smokehouse was just a short walk away; how could I argue with that?

IMG_0158I stopped by West Alley on a Tuesday afternoon, and the place was nearly deserted. This certainly looks like more of a late-night, party-oriented live music kind of environment. I wish I could have experienced it as such.

IMG_0155Nonetheless, the atmosphere was very welcoming. The waitress, a young African-American woman whose name I unfortunately cannot recall, pulled up a seat next to me and made various menu recommendations while asking where I was from and what had brought me there.

I went with the rib platter.

IMG_0156West Alley only has 11 Yelp reviews and 13 on TripAdvisor, so from an internet-based perspective it’s a bit of an unknown. But the guest book was loaded with accolades from out-of-town guests, and I was happy to add my own.  IMG_0157After making my feelings known, I had to split.

IMG_0159Goodbye, Jackson.

IMG_0160And hello, open road. Soon enough, I found myself at one of our nation’s greatest rest areas.

IMG_0162I also ended up in traffic next to Ted Cruz’s tour bus. This marked the only time in my life in which I was to the right of Ted Cruz.

IMG_0163Somewhere on the way to Nashville, there was a massive AT&T outage. My destination had been (predictably) a local record store, but with maps and internet down on my phone I had no idea how to get there. It made me feel like a helpless baby, unable to function in a world without a smartphone, and served as a reminder to always have my destination written down as well as a supply of relevant maps.

While aimlessly driving around the city’s downtown, I stopped outside of the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium to recalibrate. I don’t find stadiums, they find me.

IMG_0164Finally, after much trial and error, I made it to my location: Grimey’s Records (and the adjacent Grimey’s Too).

IMG_0166At Grimey’s I met Tyler Glaser, who was to be my designated eater at the following evening’s Nashville Sounds game. But, prior to that, he had set up a visit to Jack White’s Third Man Records. That will be detailed in the next post in this series.

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