Hi everybody. Ben’s Biz here. I hope that you had a great offseason.
How was mine?
Thanks for asking. I kept busy. I enjoyed some vacation time in San Francisco and Montreal, lost money at the racetrack on a couple of lazy Sunday afternoons, volunteered on a regular basis, determined that Isaan Thai cuisine is the world’s finest, put one of my cats to sleep, thought a lot about the music Mark Sandman would have made had he not died at such a young age, broke up with my girlfriend and finally surpassed the halfway mark in my ongoing effort to watch all 325 episodes of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. Just life, is all.
Of course, I wrote about Minor League Baseball throughout, covering all of the offseason developments that are fit to print (or post, or tweet, or whatever). But, for everyone in baseball, life takes quite a drastic turn once the season starts. Instead of being merely involved with baseball, one becomes consumed by it. For me, that means traveling the country visiting Minor League ballparks.
Therefore, I’d like to let it be known that my 2015 trip itineraries will be revealed on…drum roll please…April 3.
So, yeah. Get excited. Did you hear me? GET EXCITED. At this point I’m not sure if I’m talking more to you, the presumably loyal reader, or myself. But, regardless: This season, like every season, my goal is to provide the best “On the Road” content I possibly can. From the start it’s been a learn-by-doing kind of thing. There’s certainly no established template for it, and your feedback (yes, yours) regarding what works, what doesn’t and what it is that you’d like to see has been crucial. So, please, keep getting in touch.
And, please, keep spreading the word that I’m doing this is in the first place. Readers, tell your like-minded friends. Teams, tell your fans. New Yorker “Talk of the Town” writers, please consider profiling me.
Finally, as I count down the days until the unveiling of my road trip itinerary, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite #BensRoadTrip memories from seasons past:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 24, 2015
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) March 25, 2015
Thanks for your continued support.
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Michael James, who lived in Asheville in the summer of 2012 and quickly became enamored with the Tourists and their home of McCormick Park. James is now based in Baltimore; his travel blog can be found HERE.
(all photos courtesy of Michael James)
Why I Love the Asheville Tourists, by Michael James
I first experienced one of the coziest stadiums in all of professional baseball during the summer of 2012, when I arrived in town as a curatorial intern at the Asheville Art Museum. Soon, I found myself making the quick drive to McCormick Field on a daily basis, seeing the likes of Trevor Story, Taylor Featherston, Sam Mende, and Will Swanner bludgeon the baseball night after night while getting just enough pitching — led by Tyler Anderson — to produce an overall 88-52 record. This memorable regular season campaign was punctuated by a South Atlantic League championship over the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Managed by the fiery, infamous Joe Mikulik, that team set numerous offensive records, batting .278 and ripping 127 home runs and 335 doubles over their 140-game regular season.
The Tourists’ offensive numbers were inflated by the extremely hitter-friendly dimensions of McCormick Field – just 297 feet to right and 373 feet to center. Lazy fly balls hit to right would either clear the 36-foot high wall, which is cut into a hillside that serves as the parking lot for players and fans alike, or bounce high off the fence for a double. Hard-hit shots that would be doubles in almost every other park would become singles due to the short throw back to second base for right fielders, who routinely played near the warning track. In the Colorado Rockies’ farm system, numerous players have put up huge numbers during their stints in Asheville. A truer test of those players’ abilities has usually come the next season, while playing for Modesto in the Class A Advanced California League.
I went back to Asheville for a weekend last July and took in two more games at McCormick Field, bringing my total to 28 games there over the two and a half months I’ve spent in that city in total. The 2014 team would again go on to win the South Atlantic League title, posting a superior 89-49 record, including a 43-26 mark at home. I was in attendance for Games Three and Four of their championship series in Hagerstown against the Suns, though, to my extreme annoyance, I was not able to make it to the decisive Game Five. That team featured some of the system’s top prospects, including Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, Correlle Prime, and Antonio Senzatela. I loved seeing the Tourists so much that now, as I currently live in Baltimore, I went to watch them on the road in Lakewood, New Jersey, as well as Hagerstown and Salisbury (home of the Delmarva Shorebirds), both in Maryland. I’ve now visited six of the 14 South Atlantic League stadiums, all in my support of the Tourists.
The baseball itself is one thing. It’s a major thing. More than that, though, it’s the overall experience that keeps me coming back. It is a difficult thing to convey in words, even for someone who prides himself on his writing, the feeling that one gets when taking in a game on a warm summer’s night. Is there anything better than spending three hours in the fresh air enjoying cheap nachos and even cheaper beer amongst like-minded fans, who are all there to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of the ballpark?
It’s the people.
It’s the entertainment and smiles produced by the PA announcer, Rick Rice. Asheville has one of the best in the business in Rice, whose humor and wit makes every between-inning promotion and on-field game a sight to behold. It’s the way the Tourists’ Spirit Squad gets the crowd on its feet to perform “YMCA” during the seventh-inning stretch. It’s the way the Tourists’ mascot, Mr. Moon, constantly engages the youngest fans and makes them jump up and down and run through the aisles to give him a hug.
It’s the way every usher at McCormick Field would work feverishly to towel off the bleachers after one of Asheville’s notorious summer rain showers, and the way every ticket-taker treated fans with kindness and genuinely asked each one of them how they were doing, wishing them a good time at the game.
It’s the way I sat behind the Tourists’ entire front office at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown last September, after they made the 453-mile trek up I-81 from Asheville. Right next to the visitors’ dugout on the third base line, players and staff interacted with each other so warmly. It’s the way Correlle Prime signed every autograph, flashing his huge smile and laughing with opposing fans.
That, to me, is the beauty of baseball. No other sport allows you this daily interaction, this sense of community and togetherness that is fostered night in and night out from April to September. Has it helped that the Asheville Tourists have been great during the two seasons I’ve been able to watch them? Of course. Everyone loves a winning team. But McCormick Field is so beautiful, and Asheville is such a great town, that it would be a privilege to spend three hours every summer night there to watch the 2003 Detroit Tigers.
I urge everyone to visit McCormick Field at some point. It made a cameo appearance in Bull Durham. It has hosted the “Sultan of Swat.” Its venerable history more than makes up for whatever it may lack in modern and cutting-edge amenities. Go on a Thursday night – it is the original home of “Thirsty Thursdays,” a promotion many teams have emulated over the years. Your experience there will be one you remember; I can assure you that.
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here is my 2013 blog account of my visit to McCormick Field (one of my Top 10 favorite ballparks): Part One/Part Two.
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Paul Worley, a long-time supporter of the “abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club.”
Why I Love the Charleston RiverDogs, by Paul Worley
(All photos by Paul Worley, unless otherwise noted)
Despite what the tourist brochures may tell you, Charleston, South Carolina, is largely a screen for the projection of history. Little could be said to still happen there. The city has stepped outside of the flow of time, as intentionally anachronistic horse-and-carriages echo down streets that are hardly large enough to accommodate the late-model sports cars owned by the men and women who fly back twice a year to take in a bit of salt air from meticulously reproduced antebellum verandas.
As someone who left Charleston to go to school in the mid-’90s, I return home to find that others have moved in, knocked out the walls and rearranged the furniture. Everywhere, that is, with the exception of the ballpark. Bill Murray (yes, THAT Bill Murray, a.k.a. the RiverDogs’ Director of Fun) and the rest of the Goldklang Group brought changes to the team, but as much as possible they have really left things the same. That’s why I love the RiverDogs.
The narrator of Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s 1979 short story about Charleston baseball in the 1930s spends his time in-between innings observing a little train over the outfield fence at College Park, one of the oldest Minor League parks in the country and the RiverDogs’ original home. He tries to catch it coming or going, but never can. He looks up and it’s there, or looks up and it’s gone. The train is either at the station or it isn’t. The train never moves or changes, but it does. It’s an apt metaphor for the team.
In my lifetime, the abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club has had several names: Patriots, Pirates, Royals, Rainbows and RiverDogs. Before that, the club was known as the Rebels, the Palmettos and the Quakers. Pro baseball in the city was founded in 1886 by two teams: a member of the Southern League of Colored Baseballists called the Fultons; and a Southern Association team known as the Seagulls. Unlike most teams then, the genealogy of the Riverdogs doesn’t lead us back to a single man or single team, but to the segregated legacy of the Jim Crow South that, through baseball, results in a kind of unity. White and black, they’re all founding fathers of Charleston baseball.
The RiverDogs play at Joe Riley Park, shortened by most fans to “The Joe.” Built in 1997, it’s among the new wave of parks whose architects, taking a cue from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, wove the park into the city. From the backside you can look out over the marsh leading onto the Ashley River with Citadel faculty housing tucked beneath a few oak trees on the shore off to the right. The outfield fence is lined with trees hiding the river just beyond with a tall building or two finishing out a modest skyline.
While the RiverDogs go to great lengths to capture the attention of the casual fan, the team has etched South Carolina’s baseball history into the park itself. Camden’s own Larry Doby has his number 14 retired out on the centerfield wall, the forlorn hero of Pickens County, Shoeless Joe Jackson, has a small beach named for him just beyond the right field foul line and there is a “Scouts Hall of Fame” located along the main concourse. Every year, during “Larry Doby Heritage Weekend,” the team hosts members of the Cannon Street All-Stars, an all-African-American Little League team from Charleston who, in 1955, were denied the opportunity to play in the Little League World Series because they’d won all of their games in the segregated South by forfeit.
Before they were a Yankees affiliate, the RiverDogs were one of the original franchises associated with my favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays, which means I cheer for certain “Yankees as Riverdogs” while still hoping that New York’s American League baseballers finish somewhere north of 100 losses. After all, while they come and go and by definition are trying to get somewhere else, it’s the players who make the Charleston experience meaningful.
Hall of Famers, all-time greats and MVPs have played with the Charleston club, and their names are easy enough to find. I’m a big fan of former RiverDogs catcher Francisco Arcia, who, during a “kids day at the (water)park” a few summers ago, walked around the bullpen area with a Super Soaker hosing down everything within 100 feet of him.
Dante Bichette, Jr. once impressed me with his knowledge of vintage minor league uniforms (I was sporting a Durham Bulls jersey from the mid-1990s signed by former RiverDog and Bull Elliot Johnson). I particularly enjoy talking smack to players in Spanish, and I’ll forever remember the pitcher (name withheld) who turned around to me in the middle of a game and asked me bluntly, “Y tú, ¿quién eres?” My scorecard from that game notes that this conversation lasted from two outs in the top of the fourth until the seventh inning stretch. My favorite Charleston ballplayer of all-time is the late Tom Saffell. His best memory of playing in Charleston occurred during the 1946 season, while running from first base to second on a routine ground ball. The shortstop, having made the pivot and overanxious to get the runner going to first, drilled Saffell, who was trying to break up the double play in the usual way, square in the head. This happened twice in the same game. There should be a plaque somewhere in the park to honor Saffell and the bungled routines that make life memorable.
Players present constantly intersect with players past, and you get the impression that if you could read them correctly, 30-year-old scorecards and discarded tidbits from the news would reveal tomorrow’s starting lineup. Walt “No Neck” Williams managed the Rainbows, so it’s unsurprising that Mason Williams, his nephew, would one day turn up in the RiverDogs outfield. Rob Refsynder had a few choice words for University of South Carolina fans after his Arizona team defeated USC in the 2012 College World Series, so naturally Charleston was his first stop after the Yankees drafted him. If L.J. Mazzilli is starting for the visiting Sand Gnats, expect Lee Mazzilli to materialize in the park. When Dante Bichette, Jr. was with the team, you could look up during the inevitable late August thunderstorm rain delays and find Dante Bichette, Sr. seated two rows up from you, eating a hot dog, drinking a Diet Coke and waiting out the rain with the rest of us who never played an inning beyond Little League.
During the South Atlantic League All-Star Game festivities that were held in Charleston in 2012, I had a chance to speak with the Director of Fun himself. He told me that slip-and-sliding on a tarped field during a rain delay is the best thing in the world, and that if I ever got the chance I should go for it. In honor of Rubin, Saffell, and Arcia, and Cannon Street, and the Fultons and the Seagulls, the next time I’m in Charleston I’ll take him up on it, if only to tell the cops who arrest me, “With God as my witness, Bill Murray told me it was all good.” Because it’s better than good, and it’ll always be home. That’s why I love the Charleston RiverDogs.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Charleston RiverDogs experience.
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Jared Wicks, a Syracuse resident who, over the past decade, has become an ardent supporter of his hometown Chiefs.
Why I Love the Syracuse Chiefs, by Jared Wicks
(All photo courtesy of Jared Wicks, unless otherwise noted)
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, I was taught that there were two teams to root for: Syracuse University basketball and Syracuse University football. If you insisted on watching baseball, then there were New York Yankees games on TV. I was also taught that my family’s income level would only permit attending a few sporting events each season, and always in the upper, upper deck.
In my youth I was familiar with the Chiefs. But, like many people in the area, I never thought much of them. That changed during the 2004 season, when I was 17. I received some free tickets from my sister, so my friends and I decided to head to the ballpark. Why not? The list of things to do in the area on a minimum wage budget were few and far between. That night, after the seventh inning, my friends and I sneaked down to the lower level seats and watched a man named Russ Adams play for Syracuse. He made an impression on us, largely because of the PA announcer’s introduction of “Ruuuussss Ad-dams.” Then, just a few days later, my friends and I were at a local sports bar watching the Toronto Blue Jays play against the New York Yankees. Up to plate came a man whom I had recently been just a few feet away from. Yes, Mr. Ruuuuussss Ad-dams.
Ever since that day I’ve been a die-hard fan. The Chiefs have, without seeming to even try, made me feel important while providing top-notch entertainment. I am certainly not rich, but when I’m at NBT Bank Stadium it’s hard not to feel that way. For a small price, you can sit just a few feet away from the baseball stars of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Chiefs became my little secret, but it wasn’t long before all of my friends took to the idea of going to games. In the central New York area there aren’t too many entertainment options on a summer night, and it doesn’t get much better than being at the ballpark watching players competing within the highest level of the Minors. From my vantage point in section 105, row 1, I’ve gotten a chance to watch Jayson Werth, Vernon Wells, John Smoltz, Josh Beckett, Melky Cabrera, Bryce Harper and many, many more. I can hear, smell and see everything, and maybe even get to hear the players say “Thank you” after I scream out “Good luck.”
In all the time I’ve been going to games, one of the most important aspects has been getting a chance to meet and become friends with some great people. Unlike bigger sports franchises, Minor League Baseball provides an intimate atmosphere. I have gotten to know many season-ticket holders and fans on a first-name basis — or should I say on a nickname basis? One of my favorites is former season-ticket holder Michael Kendrick. (Or, as we liked to call him, “K Dad.”) Kendrick came to every game from 2005-13, and during this time he was responsible for hanging the strikeout “Ks” for the Chiefs pitchers. He also was known for his heckling of players, which he peppered with unique and obscure facts. He might mention a player’s interests outside of baseball, or call former Yankee prospect Shelly Duncan by his real name (it’s David).
And then there’s Dave, who sits in section 207, row 1 at every single game (and many road games, too). While quiet in nature, Dave boasts a vast knowledge of not just Syracuse Chiefs baseball but also politics, social issues and other areas of sports history. And of course I have to mention Lloyd “The Suspect” Broadnax. We call Broadnax “the suspect” because of the catchphrase he uses while heckling the opposing team: “You’re not a prospect, you’re a suspect!” Broadnax doesn’t stop his heckling for even one minute during the game. The writer of this blog, Ben Hill, learned that this past season. Hill was trying to interview him, and during the interview Broadnax would only answer his questions in-between pitches.
(That article can be found HERE).
As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to love the Chiefs, management at the ball yard changed hands prior to the 2014 season. Jason Smorol was named general manager, and everything that I always said I would love to do if I owned a Minor League team came to life during his first season. Smorol brought an unmatched energy to the ballpark, introducing great games, promotions, deals and themes that made you not want to miss a single game.
One night, during a rain delay, the Chiefs set up a free miniature golf course on the concourse. I mean, how cool is that?
One promotion that I really became a part of was Tattoo Night. This promo offered me a chance at two great things: One, to get a free Syracuse Chiefs’ logo tattoo, courtesy of the Chiefs and sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City. Two, that very tattoo now grants me free admission for life to all Chiefs games.
Regardless of the tattoo, the Chiefs are well worth the five dollar cost of admission. They have provided me with years of not just entertainment, but memories. Summer nights with friends, enjoying dollar hot dogs, talking about work and family, watching fireworks, laughing at monkeys dressed as cowboys riding dogs and even seeing things like a perfect game by Columbus Clipper Justin Germano and a four-homer game by the Chiefs’ Michael Aubrey. And last season I — and the whole city — was provided with a real chance to get excited. The Chiefs made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and won their first division title since 1989.
Being a fan of the Chiefs has also given me an opportunity to visit other great cities, simply by following the team. Day trips to Rochester, Scranton and even Cooperstown to see them play have allowed me to explore those cities.
Shopping, zoos and landmarks lead to great day trips, which still cost under $100 for two people (including game tickets, gas and food). I even got a chance, in 2011, to watch the Chiefs play the Pawtucket Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston. The seats we had would have cost $150 face value at a Red Sox game, but they only cost me $22 and that was for a doubleheader.
The cuisine at any ballpark is great, superior to any other sports option in Syracuse. The Chiefs sell Hoffman’s Hot Dogs, a central New York staple, a dog so good that Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim and Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach became investors. The Chiefs sell these hot dogs at the same price that it would cost you to make one at home and, on Thursdays, for even less than that. My love of all things Canada is satisfied with poutine, and there are also pulled pork sandwiches, salt potatoes (a New York specialty) and even a burger with a hot dog on top of it.
I have recently changed my goals in life, from working as a correction officer to returning to school. I now want to work in sports, preferably Minor League Baseball, and it’s all thanks to the Chiefs. I love this team because they love me right back. Unlike at Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field, there is something to be said for watching a sports team whose staff knows your name, whose ushers know your seat and whose players smile when they hear you say something funny.
While other sports fans in New York may struggle to obtain custom license plates of their favorite teams — they’re all taken — GoChiefs was available for me as a way to show my pride. Summer is meant to be spent outdoors, and in central NY there is no cheaper or better option than the Syracuse Chiefs.
Thanks to Jared for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2014 “On the Road” post detailing my Syracuse Chiefs experience. Jared even makes a cameo:
It’s time for another “Why I Love” guest post, in which a Minor League fan explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Ken Childs, a proud resident of Durham, North Carolina and, therefore, a proud fan of the Durham Bulls.
Why I Love the Durham Bulls, by Ken Childs
(All photos courtesy of Ken Childs)
I’ve been a resident of the beautiful city of Durham, North Carolina my entire adult life. The city has transformed over the last 14 years from what was almost an afterthought of a place into a bustling center for local restaurants, shopping and the arts. And in the middle of all that growth has been (and always will be) the Durham Bulls.
You’ve probably heard the name: There was a little indie movie made about the Bulls in the 1980s that did okay. The players who have come through here have shaped the Major League Baseball landscape for quite some time. The Bulls have been a consistent model of how teams should be run, and that has been shown in their continual trips to the Governors’ Cup playoffs. The list of “what’s not to like” about the Bulls, their home of Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) and their organization as a whole wouldn’t be long enough to fill out an index card, let alone this space, so we’ll go with “what there is to like” and ramble on for a while all about it!
Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995, is considered “older” now, at least when compared to the Minor League Baseball building boom that’s come about over the last decade or so. Nonetheless, you likely won’t find a nicer stadium anywhere. On any given summer night, on the corner of Blackwell and Jackie Robinson, you’ll find families, friends, couples and desperately single guys alike settled in the beautiful 10,000 seat stadium to take in not only great baseball, but great entertainment in general. And the building itself is what those new stadiums aim to be. You want your Minor League park to be a smaller version of a Major League stadium, downtown, near lots of restaurants and things to do both before and after the game? The DBAP has long been that, before most new stadiums were even a glimmer in an architect’s eye.
The DBAP has its own little quirks that make it like no other: There’s the bull (of Hit Bull, Win Steak fame), Jackie’s Landing (the nicest bar in Durham), the Blue Monster, the grass in the outfield entire families sit on to enjoy a game on a weekend evening and no other shortage of things that make it unique.
For a facility of its caliber, and a team of its caliber, the Durham Bulls are just about as budget-friendly as their mascot, Wool E Bull, is family-friendly (the “E” is short for “Education”…seriously).
The Bulls offer dollar hot dog nights, the best fireworks show anywhere (your town’s 4th of July show pales in comparison, I promise) and lots of great coupons and deals to get in on the cheap. And, even if you don’t, the most expensive ticket in the place is $15. Admit it: in the past, you’ve spent a lot more on a lot less.
So that’s what there is to love, in general, about the Durham Bulls. Now, why do I love them? For starters, they’re my hometown team. At heart I’m a Chicago White Sox fan, and their Triple-A team is down the road in a lesser city in North Carolina playing in the same International League division. But when they come to town, you can only root for one team, and that’s going to be the hometown one (even if the Bulls are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays).
At heart I’m a “people person” kind of guy, and the Bulls’ entire staff are the same way. From Jatovi (the Bulls on-field announcer and master of ceremonies) to general manager Mike Birling and everyone in between, there’s not a single person who won’t go out of their way to help a fan make his or her experience amazing. I’m not a needy guy, but anytime I’ve ever had any issue with anything, there was someone there in a Bulls shirt to lend a hand.
I’m also a sucker for food and cheeky events, and the Bulls have me covered that department as well. There’s Food Truck Rodeo night, where all of Durham’s best food trucks (and we have many) line up in right field. There’s craft beer night, ’80s night, ’90s night and the always popular Bark in the Park night. The concessions have everything from traditional ballpark food to taco stands to what is truly some of the best BBQ anywhere. So, whatever you’re in the mood for, DBAP most likely offers it. The on-field action is always great, but sometimes it’s that little extra fun in-between innings that makes the night special.
And, of course, there’s the baseball itself. The roster is generally made up of outstanding players who are also outstanding people. Hardly ever do you see a player skip a chance to sign an autograph, grab a picture with a fan or flip an extra ball to a kid in the first few rows. Great players like David Price, Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Craig Albernaz, Desmond Jennings and so many more have spent substantial time here in Durham, and this has led to the knowledge that, at any given ballgame, you’re seeing the future of baseball right before your eyes.
The Bulls are always in the hunt for the playoffs, and since moving to Durham in 2001 I’ve seen them win the International League championship four times. Baseball is always a little bit more fun when your team is winning, and that is rarely a problem here in Bull City.
In short, there are a lot of baseball teams out there, but none are as great as the Durham Bulls. Candlesticks always make a nice gift, but Bulls tickets might be just a little bit nicer.
Thanks to Ken for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Durham Bulls experience.
It’s time for another “Why I Love” guest post, in which a Minor League fan explains what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is LaMichael Mitchell, a die-hard fan of Charlotte sports in general and the Charlotte Knights in particular.
Why I Love the Charlotte Knights, by LaMichael Mitchell
(Photos courtesy LaMichael Mitchell, unless otherwise indicated)
When you think of sports in Charlotte, North Carolina, what comes to mind? For many of us, it’s the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, who are coming off of a playoff appearance. There are also the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, who are once again using the Hornets name after a 12-year absence, as well as college basketball. But for me, a die-hard Charlotte sports fan, it’s all about spending summer evenings catching a baseball game inside the warm confines of BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte, cheering on my beloved Charlotte Knights.
Back when I was just 10 years old, in 1994, my parents used to take me to Knights games when they played down in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The team’s home in those days was Knights Stadium, and it was there that I learned about the one thing that I love to do when coming to a game: keeping score. That is something that I still do to this very day.
Like many Knights fans, I spent several seasons hoping and wondering: Would the Knights finally come back to a ballpark located within Charlotte city limits? We have a rich and storied baseball heritage here, as Knights alumni include Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Cal Ripken, Jr., Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. That dream became a reality in 2014, when we finally saw our team return to its rightful home in Charlotte.
I was there for the Opening Night of BB&T Ballpark, in April of last year, and the experience was truly electrifying. Even though the Knights lost in extra innings to the Norfolk Tides, I still had a fun time witnessing a new chapter in Charlotte baseball history. Whenever I attend a game at BB&T Ballpark, I feel welcomed by a warm and friendly staff that is passionate about making the experience at the ballpark fun. This is certainly true of media relations director Tommy “The V” Viola, and also includes the man that made it all happen for the Knights to return home to Charlotte, COO Dan Rajkowski. And I can’t forget Homer the Dragon, as he makes the experience of attending a Charlotte Knights game at BB&T Ballpark fun for kids of all ages.
Along with everything else that I mentioned, I can’t forget about the views. The Charlotte skyline is visible from just about anywhere you sit in the ballpark.
I usually choose the seats in left field, where the Charlotte Panthers’ home of Bank of America Stadium can be seen in the distance. The view from right field isn’t too bad, either.
Baseball in Charlotte has truly been a way of life for over 100 years. With the recent success of BB&T Ballpark in its record-setting inaugural season, it is no wonder why I love coming to a Knights game. The experience is out of this world. If you’re from in and around the Charlotte area, or if you’re planning to make a visit here during the summer, I would like you to check out a Charlotte Knights game at BB&T Ballpark. Once you attend a game, then you will see for yourself that it’s a great way to enjoy a warm summer night here in Charlotte.
Thanks to LaMichael for taking the time to write this and, again: if YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my “On the Road” post detailing my Charlotte Knights experience during the 2014 season.
After a seven-month hiatus, I am pleased to announce the return of the”Why I Love” series of blog posts. The premise is simple: Each post is written by a Minor League Baseball fan, in which they explain just what it is that they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Sarah Lukowski, an Ohio State University graduate student. The Buckeyes won the College Football National Championship last night and today is a day of celebration at OSU and throughout the state of Ohio. But, soon enough, it will be time for sports fans in the area and nationwide to turn their attention to baseball. In this post, Lukowski makes the case for her beloved Columbus Clippers.
Why I Love the Columbus Clippers, by Sarah Lukowski
It’s a beautiful evening, one of those summer evenings that seem to last forever. And if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Columbus, Ohio, on such an evening, there’s no better way than to spend it than at Huntington Park. Or, really, any other kind of evening…or afternoon, or morning. You get the point. That’s almost certainly where you’ll find me if the Clippers are in town.
Huntington Park, a gorgeous stadium, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. What’s not to love about a beautiful diamond? If you sit on the outfield grass on those long summer evenings, you’ll inevitably see a beautiful orange-purple sky as the sun sets behind the first base side of the ballpark. Nights like these are absolute perfection, reminding each and every person in the crowd why they fell in love with the game of baseball. Children roll down the slight incline of the lawn and hope that a home run heads their way.
Or, if you are like me and want to get closer to the action, you can situate yourself a few yards away home plate. It’s a cliche, but there truly isn’t a bad seat.
I have always loved watching sports because of the people and the Columbus Clippers game experience is no different. The staff is always friendly, the fans in the crowd are the type of people you want to hang out with and the guys on the field are the type of players it is easy to cheer for.
And, while you never want guys to get hurt or get sent back down from the Cleveland Indians, it is a part of the game. In recent years I have seen both Michael Bourn…
When you think “Minor League Baseball season ticket holder” I am probably not who you would imagine. I am a 24-year-old grad student who, while growing up in rural Michigan, fell in love with the game of baseball by cheering on the Battle Cats/Battle Creek Yankees/Battle Creek Rays/Southwest Michigan Rays (the name and affiliation changed frequently). In Columbus, from time to time, curious passersby will ask with some incredulity, “So Sarah, you come here every game?!” To which I always reply with a smile, “Yes, I just really like watching baseball.” This is true, but the full truth would be that the Clippers organization creates an atmosphere that I have loved from the time I arrived in Columbus.
When I moved to Columbus I knew that I wanted to be a season ticket holder and am grateful that the long-time season ticket holders — shout out to first few rows of Section 9! — have welcomed me with open arms. They tell me stories of the Clippers’ past as a Yankees affiliate, and we chat about Cleveland Indians players past, present and future. Such closeness has allowed generations to grow side-by-side over their mutual love of America’s pastime, a closeness that is truly at the heart of Minor League Baseball.
One person in particular that makes the Columbus Clippers unique is team historian Joe Santry. I can always count on Joe to tell me an amazing story of Columbus’ baseball past whenever I ask. Joe is one of the true gems of Minor League Baseball and if you haven’t met him yet, I highly recommend making a point to find him at the game. He can be hard to track down, as he is typically documenting the various events that make each game special, but if you do run into him, just ask him for a story. He never disappoints.
Beyond the people, if great eats are your thing, the Clippers do not skimp on the budget-friendly ballpark meals. I buy hot dogs for 10 cents on Mondays, dollar rib bones on Tuesdays, wings for 50 cents on Wednesday, and celebrate the beginning of the weekend each Friday with music, delicious pulled pork sandwiches, and discounted drinks. I could easily gain 10 pounds each summer feasting on all these ballpark treats. And, as if you needed an added bonus, visiting the various parts of the ballpark where they are sold give you all-new vantage points from which to take in the game.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the entertainment. You can always count on 2013 MiLB Mascot Mania champion Lou Seal to make his way through the crowd. Children shyly approach to give him a high five while their parents look on, camera in hand. The in-game entertainment brings the always crowd-pleasing hot dog race, among tons of other antics and promotions that often define the MiLB experience.
There is something new happening all the time. But my favorite, from childhood and until now, will always be the Zooperstars! Admittedly, the Zooperstars! are not special to the Clippers organization; they travel to various ballparks throughout the summer. The games are already worth it, but they make it even better. Look them up and if they are at a park near you, YOU MUST GO! Seriously, missing a Zooperstars! game is criminal.
If you’re a resident of the Columbus area and haven’t gotten to a game, I’m not sure what you could be waiting for — get yourself to the game! If you’re from out of town, it is well worth the trip. To the Clippers organization: Thank you for making each game memorable. I can’t wait to see what the next several years have in store.
Thanks to Sarah for taking the time to write this and, again: if YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my “On the Road” post detailing my Columbus Clippers experience during the 2014 season.
Day Four: Wednesday, December 10
I carry a notebook with me throughout the Winter Meetings, so that I may document that which I see and observe. Also, because it makes me feel legitimate. I mean, why would I be carrying a notebook around with me if I wasn’t a big-time writer? People who see me, even if they don’t know who I am, they still know I’m the real deal once they see that I’m a guy with a notebook. Clearly, important words are being written therein.
All that I have written in my notebook regarding the Winter Meeting events of Wednesday, Dec. 10, is “Writing, Lynn U., Job Fair, lunch, writing, Trade Show.” Fortunately, these events are still fresh in my mind, their myriad sharp edges and curved, sloping ambiguities as yet unravaged by the inexorable passage of time. So, please, allow me to elaborate. For the purposes of this narrative, it is now Wednesday morning in San Diego.
After an a.m. writing session, I headed down the bayfront boardwalk toward the San Diego Convention Center, walking at a leisurely enough pace while San Diego’s legions of workout warriors (rollerbladers, bikers, jogging moms pushing strollers) blazed on past. My biggest workout came courtesy of this staircase, which led from the boardwalk to the second floor of the Convention Center. I felt woozy going up this thing, trying to walk in a straight line up the stairs but inevitably drifting toward the railing. Did MC Escher design this?
After a few minutes of dazed and confused San Diego Convention Center wandering, I ran into a guy named Brandon Caudill. Rather than register for the PBEO Job Fair, he opted for a DIY employment-seeking technique.
Brandon Caudill needs a job. He once dressed up as a dragon. https://t.co/JUithTiWrT
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 10, 2014
Brandon didn’t seem to be in the best of spirits, perhaps as a result of having spent three days wandering around San Diego while wearing a homemade sandwich board. I admired his moxie, however, and hope that he will once again be able to dress up as a dragon.
Bidding adieu and good luck, I then hustled into the Trade Show in order to partake in what has become a Winter Meetings tradition for me: speaking to Lynn University sports management students. Each year, professor Ted Curtis procures a booth at the Trade Show, inviting various industry luminaries (operating at various degrees of wattage) to stop by and give a little insight into his or her profession.
Given the travel involved from Boca Raton to San Diego, there were fewer Lynn University students present than in previous years. Hear I am speaking to one of them.
From there it was back to the Job Fair, to speak with Maggie O’Keeffe. I first met Maggie, 20, at the Promo Seminar in Oklahoma City this past September and became intrigued by her quest to become the first female play-by-play announcer in Major League Baseball history. (Or at least one of the first.) My MiLB.com feature on Maggie can be read HERE.
While prowling the Job Fair area, I ran into Job Seeker Journal writer Darius Thigpen, who was participating in a podcast taping with fellow job seeker Ben Gellman-Chomsky.
I ended up inviting myself on as a guest to the podcast, and then got kicked off after delivering one too many puns. (For many people, “one too many puns” = one.) This was Gellman-Chomsky’s fifth time attending the Job Fair and — spoiler alert — he got a job.
— Ben Gellman-Chomsky (@benjgc) December 12, 2014
People don’t get hired based on the strength of their business cards alone, but this certainly couldn’t have hurt. 1986 Topps for life!
I had a small list of vendors who I wanted to interview for future MiLB.com stories or blog posts, but my efforts in this regard were largely fruitless. The show was now in its final hour, and a “Let’s blow this joint” attitude prevailed. Many of the vendors had already packed up and left, and many others were in the process of doing so. I understand how exhausting it is to be a Trade Show vendor, on your feet all day while hustling product with a permanent smile, but why not stick it out until the bitter end? You never know who might come along.
This representative of the XPogo stunt team stuck it out until the end, and I am now rewarding him for his perseverance via the posting of this Vine video. (Hey, it’s better than nothing). Coming soon to a ballpark near you?
XPogo Stunt Team at the Winter meetings Trade Show! https://t.co/qgVpSUm2bs
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 11, 2014
Closing time, the Trade Show sells no alcohol, so sneak in your whisky and beer… (If you’ve got better Trade Show-related parody lyrics, then, by all means, please get in touch.)
The mannequins had been stripped of their clothing and the floor had been stripped of its carpet. Clearly it was time to leave. After a brief constitutional in the hotel room, it was time to head back to Petco Park for the annual Winter Meetings Gala. This is the eighth such event I’ve been to, and the most memorable. Industry in a Holiday Wonderland.
The Winter Meetings Gala at Petco Park, happening now… https://t.co/peaiODaYf1
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 11, 2014
I’ve always enjoyed the Gala, no matter the locale, because it signifies the end of the Winter Meetings. I am fortunate to be able to attend this event, but is inherently stressful — a lot of frantic speedwalking from one locale to another, a lot of impromptu conversations with people who I may not see for another year (or whom I’m meeting for the first time) and a lot of harried writing sessions in lobbies, hallways and hotel rooms. No matter what I’m doing, I always feel like I’m missing out on something else. It’s just overwhelming.
So when the Gala rolls around, it is accompanied by a profound feeling of relief. The Winter Meetings are done, save for one last chance for me to walk around and wait for people who work in Minor League Baseball to accost me with compliments regarding the work I do. I need this ego fuel, keeping it in reserve for a long, cold months ahead.
A good photographer, or at least someone who didn’t have a phone in one hand and a drink in the other, could have gotten some great shots from this event. There were elves and Santa and the Grinch and fairies wearing ice skates on the premises. A sledding hill was installed on the outfield, tours of the clubhouse were available and fireworks went off promptly at nine o’clock.
The evening kept right on rolling after the Gala concluded, with many attendees heading across the street to a party co-sponsored by Brandiose (whose founders are San Diego natives) and the Lake Elsinore Storm (a Padres affiliate located just 75 miles away). This Vine sums up the atmosphere, and it also includes a cameo by elusive Minoring in Twitter scribe Danny Wild.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 11, 2014
It was a long night that resulted in virtually no sleep, as early the next morning I was at the airport in order to fly on back to New York City. I slept the whole way, but not before overhearing the following while waiting to board.
Overheard at San Diego airport: “So what do I do to make this the best cactus it can be? Nothing?” – man holding a small potted cactus.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 11, 2014
And that’s all I’ve got, the well has run dry. Not only are the Winter Meetings in the books, but my Winter Meetings-related blogging efforts are in the books as well. I hope you found these posts to be illuminating and edifying.
Day Three: Tuesday, December 9
On Tuesday, with the Winter Meetings in full swing, an anonymous but clearly exasperated Minor League Baseball employee posted the following to the @MiLBProbz Twitter account:
— MiLB Probz (@MiLBprobz) December 9, 2014
I can understand the frustration. Only a privileged handful of each team’s employees get to attend the Winter Meetings each year, while the rest are stuck in the office making cold calls (you know, because it’s winter). But, hey, guess what? If those same frustrated front officers ever get the chance to attend the Winter Meetings themselves, then you can bet dollars to donuts that they, too, will engage in disingenuous “wish you were here” social media braggadocio. It’s human nature: Complain about abhorrent behavior until you, too, have a chance to engage in it!
I’m as guilty as the rest. More so, actually, as this series of blog posts has allowed me to extend my Winter Meeting reminisces until more than a week after the event’s conclusion. This is because everything that happened to me while in San Diego was VERY IMPORTANT. Like, on Tuesday morning, while walking to the San Diego Convention Center, I took a picture of this boatload of bananas.
I could produce a lot of these types of pictures, if I so desired. They have mass a-peel, so why not just keep on Dole-ing them out? After all, I’m not the sort of man willing to let a prime punning opportunity potassium right by. Seeking to share the fruits of my labors, I introduced the following concept to my vast Twitter following:
Introducing the #WinterMeetingsPuns hashtag. Unburden yourself of the shame associated with the genre and send me your Winter Meetings puns!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 9, 2014
Spoiler alert: this went nowhere. The next day, I conceded defeat:
Like a six-second looping video of a fatal encounter, my attempt to popularize the #WinterMeetingsPuns hashtag died on the Vine.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) December 10, 2014
But that’s okay. In real life, I had places to go and people to see. Namely, the PBEO Job Fair, which I visited early Tuesday afternoon simply because I wanted to get a sense of what that environment was like. This event, a Winter Meetings staple, was situated on the second floor of the San Diego Convention Center. Specifically, it was located at the terminus of an interstellar portal.
The picture below depicts the scene in the Interview Schedule room. Each piece of paper posted on the boards shows the list of candidates that have been chosen to interview for a particular job or internship.
Job Seekers are generally engaged in one of three tasks: applying for a job, interviewing for a job or, most commonly, waiting around for jobs to be posted and interviews to be announced. But no matter what task one was engaged in, there was plenty of room in which to spread out.
Imagine, if you will, that the hallway seen above was littered with trap doors. Anyone with the misfortune of falling through such a door would have landed in or in front of the annual Baseball Winter Meetings Trade Show.
I went down to the Trade Show to meet a co-worker, esteemed Minoring in Twitter writer Danny Wild, so that the two of us could collaborate on a short Trade Show video for MiLB.com. In advance of Mr. Wild’s arrival, I took some time to acquaint myself with that which was contained within the Trade Show’s labyrinthian corridors.
There were a lot of things contained within, that’s the nature of the beast, but what fascinated me the most was this.
How to Master Baseball, self-published, was given to me by its author, Winston B. Lewy, who had obtained a booth at the Trade Show in order to convince attendees that he had indeed invented a way in which baseball could be mastered. The book contains 945 (!) queries related to the game of baseball, divided into chapters such as “How to Master Hitting” and “How to Master Sliding.” Adherents to the program then must construct a variety of PVC-pipe based mechanisms (as seen in the cover illustrations above) in order to practice the techniques outlined therein.
Free stuff is in abundance at the Trade Show, so when Lewy first handed me the book I didn’t think much of it. It was only after flipping through it in my room that evening that I realized I had stumbled upon something truly unique and strange. The book is written as if its target audience is a future civilization that has lost its knowledge of baseball, a civilization which must now use the book in order to understand and master the sport anew. I quickly became fascinated by Lewy and his quixotic mission, but when I returned to the Trade Show the next day to get more detail he was already gone. Had he ever been there?
Anyhow, after my brief but impactful encounter with Lewy, I did indeed meet up with my esteemed colleague Danny Wild and we did indeed produce a video (and accompanying article) about the Trade Show.
If you watched the above video, then you will see that I, for one, have already mastered baseball. My stroke (as seen at the :32 mark) is impeccable.
During last week’s Baseball Winter Meetings in San Diego, I dedicated my blog content to sharing the perspectives of four PBEO Job Fair attendees. I, for one, think that this job-seeking quartet did a spectacular job with their assignment. They were all great writers, up to the task of documenting a challenging life experience with honesty and humor, and since the Meetings have concluded I have been feeling quite proud of them in a cool uncle sort of way. (I am cool, right?) These feelings have unsettled me a bit, because they force me to acknowledge just how much older than them I really am. I mean, when this year’s crop of Job Seeker Journal writers was born, I was spending my days obsessing over season four of The Simpsons, Helmet’s Meantime lp and the Daulton-Kruk-Dykstra-era of the Philadelphia Phillies.
But now that the Job Seekers have had their say (at least for now), it is time to transition to sharing my own San Diego Winter Meetings experience. It was an exhausting four days, to be sure, but it was a privilege to attend and I hope this series of blog posts helps illuminate the lesser-known aspects of this annual baseball industry confab.
I arrived in San Diego a little after 12 p.m., after a mercifully uneventful flight. It felt a bit surreal to know that the day was still young, considering that I had just traveled across the country, but such are the vagaries of westward air travel. The above picture shows the facade of San Diego’s Hyatt Hotel, one of two host sites for the 2014 Meetings. The Major League folks were based in the Hyatt, while the Minor League contingent was centered approximately half a mile away in the Bayfront Hilton.
In between (but much closer to the Hilton) was the San Diego Convention Center, home of the PBEO Job Fair as well as the annual Trade Show.
On the other side of the tracks — literally — was the heart of San Diego’s tourist-friendly Gaslamp District.
Despite having spent four days in San Diego, I never did find out why the Gaslamp Quarter is called the Gaslamp Quarter. So let’s learn together, courtesy of the generally reliable informational juggernaut that is Wikipedia:
The name “Gaslamp Quarter” is a reference to the gas lamps that were common in San Diego in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four new gaslamps have been installed at the intersection of Market Street and 5th Avenue to evoke that time.
So there you go: The Gaslamp Quarter is called the Gaslamp Quarter because gaslamps used to be prevalent in that area of the city. Who could’ve guessed?
My Sunday afternoon wanderings were primarily motivated by a desire to get the lay of the land. One drawback of San Diego as a Winter Meetings host is that the myriad events were spread between three locations, meaning that one needed to know exactly how long it would take to get from place to place to place. This also resulted in a general dissipation of the energy that permeates the Winter Meetings, as a result of attendees being dispersed along such a wide swath of space. The reality is that the Winter Meetings have become such a huge event that there are very few locations that can accommodate it in its entirety. (Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel, a frequent Winter Meetings host, is probably the most well-equipped in this regard.)
But being forced to walk up and down Harbor Drive (or the bayfront boardwalk that runs parallel to it) is hardly something to complain about. It’s a most picturesque environment, something I really began to appreciate as the sun went down on Sunday evening.
As day transformed into night, I changed into khakis and a blazer (the most formal attire I could muster) and headed to the Hilton so that I could attend the annual Winter Meetings Banquet. Traditionally this event had been held on Thursday, the last night of the Winter Meetings, after the vast majority of attendees (including me) had cleared out of town. Moving it to Sunday seemed like a smart move on the part of the organizers, especially since this year’s iteration featured San Diego broadcasting icon Dick Enberg as emcee and Bud Selig as a special guest. A-listers!
Here’s a view from the cheap seats, as Enberg chatted up the outgoing commish on a variety of topics. Both men were fans of Minor League Baseball during a very different era. Selig spoke about rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers during the team’s days in the American Association, while Enberg was partial to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.
A recurring feature of the Winter Meetings Banquet is the (literal) crowning of that year’s “King of Baseball.” This monarchical title is bestowed upon a veteran executive in recognition of a lifetime spent in the game. 2014’s King of Baseball is one Bill Valentine, whose career in the sport began in 1951 when, at the age of 18, he became the youngest umpire in professional baseball history. Later, he spent more than three decades as the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers.
Here, King Bill poses with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. Valentine then took the podium in order to deliver a speech peppered with vintage jokes of the “Take my wife…please” variety. (He did not talk about the time that a Texas League umpire went through 84 baseballs during the course of two ballgames, but, fortunately, his profanity-tinged rant on that incident has been preserved for posterity.)
Oh, and for the record: I interviewed Bill Valentine the next day. The results of that rollicking conversation can be read HERE, and there’s plenty more where that came from.
After the Banquet, while standing in front of the Hilton, I happened upon the official Brandiose Winter Meetings party bus. Brandiose, as you may know, is the company responsible for many recent Minor League re-branding efforts. (Including recent efforts such as the Pawtucket Red Sox and Biloxi Shuckers.)
As they have during the past several years, Brandiose commissioned this vehicle to pick up their once (and perhaps future) Minor League clients from the airport and deliver them to the host hotel. This year held a special significance as Jason Klein and Casey White, the childhood friends who founded the company, are San Diego natives. So, while standing in front of this roving Brandiose billboard, I asked Klein to tell me a few things about the city that the average person might not know. His response:
— The Dole company ships massive amounts of bananas to the United States via the San Diego Port. Oklahoma City Dodgers broadcaster Alex Freedman tweeted about this the following day:
— Alex Freedman (@azfreedman) December 9, 2014
— San Diego is the craft beer capital of America.
— John Spreckels, at one time the wealthiest man in San Diego, played a huge role in the city’s early 20th century rise to prominence. Spreckels was aware that corner real estate commanded more money, and thus lobbied to create short city blocks that would result in, yes, more corner real estate.
And that’ll do it as regards Day One of the Winter Meetings in San Diego. And, yes, there will be plenty more where this came from….