Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

On the Road: Another Sellout in Dayton

The seventh and final stop of my Midwest-based July road trip was Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dragons (Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).

I had never been to Dayton before; my first and still-strongest association with the city was via Randy Newman’s evocations of a turn-of-the-20th century lazy Sunday afternoon. But when I pulled into this parking lot, it was an early Thursday evening during a decidedly more dystopian-seeming epoch. There was no time for tea, and the missus was nowhere to be found.

009 To get to the Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field, one hooks a left at the far end of Mendelson Liquidation Outlet, crosses the street, and then walks down this narrow  alleyway. (Or at least that’s what I did.)

011Life, post alleyway, was considerably brighter. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but there was a group of bagpipe players kicking out summertime jams in front of the stadium. Apparently, Dayton was on the cusp of its annual Celtic Festival.

012Enter here.

013Chances are that, if you know anything whatsoever about the Dayton Dragons, you know this: the team currently boasts the longest sellout streak in the history of professional sports. They set the record with sellout number 814 in 2011, and this season they passed the 1000 sellout milestone. For a little perspective, I will now quote from a 2011 article written by an increasingly complacent yet  intermittently brilliant writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called “Rust Belt” cities — Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind — the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.

Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s).

So, yeah, the sellout streak is due to a combination of having a well-designed facility in a well-chosen location, playing in a baseball-friendly market with rooting attachments to the parent club, and consistent and conscientious ownership and front office staff. It’s a multi-laired situation.

Yeah, multi-“lair”ed. Because they’re the Dragons, see.

017I entered via the main office, where I was met by vice president Eric Deutsch so that he could lead me on a tour of the facility. We began in the main office, which is lined with photos of notable ballpark guests. For starters, did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson is a Dayton native? (Also, and unrelated: did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson has donated some $10 million to the Church of Scientology? For that kind of money, you could buy the Batavia Muckdogs twice over.)

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Magic Johnson, part of the team’s ownership group, once threw out a basketball first pitch. I mean, sure, why not? It’s kind of like that time that David Copperfield threw out an invisible first pitch because he had already made the ball disappear.

016Actually, Johnson no longer has a stake in the team, as Mandalay has recently sold the Dragons to Palisades Arcadia. The price was not disclosed, but it is somewhere in the $35-40 million dollar range — the most ever paid for a Minor League Baseball team. The sale was not yet official on the late July evening that I visited, however, and Deutsch was reticent to talk about it in any detail. But the front office will remain in place, so I wouldn’t expect any major changes to the way that the team does things.

Sorry, the pace of this post is already Dragon. (Before writing this post, I tested my Dragon jokes by doing a set at a local comedy club. They killed that Knight.)

018

Like Dayton Dragons? This guy is single.

Deutsch and I meandered through subterranean hallways for a bit, with one such hallway eventually leading us onto the field. The field was redone prior to the 2013 season, and the seven-story tall scoreboard features a dragon that shoots smoke out of its nostrils.

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021A sellout crowd would soon be watching the action on the field, of course. In the Dragons case, a sellout occurs once all 7230 fixed seats have been sold. (These seats all have theater-style cup holders, for what it’s worth.) Walk-up tickets are available for the lawn area on most evenings, resulting in an average crowd somewhere in the 8400 range.

Pretty suite, right?

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027Each season, approximately 25 Dragons games are shown on local TV. Hence, this backdrop, and hence a recent $1 million investment to redo the team’s control room.

029Hey, look, Willie Nelson played here once. (I might have an extra ticket to see Willie Nelson in Newark on September 20 so drop me a line if you want it.)

031Deutsch reported that the this is one of three party decks and that the party decks are always the first thing to sell out. (If I ran the Dragons I’d name this the “Baby Boomer” party deck because it sells out so easily. Oooh, take that parents!)

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The view from the right field party deck, this is.
036Given Fifth Third Field’s limited downtown footprint, the team had to build up as opposed to out. Hence, a six-row second-level seating area. Second-tier seating levels are very rare in Minor League Baseball. Fresno has one, and that’s the only team that immediately comes to (my) mind. There are no concession areas up here, but Deutsch said that an order-from-the-seats concession service was generally underutilized and therefore discontinued. People, they like to get up and mingle. Sitting is overrated.

037 The concourse runs in a predictable pattern: concession stand, portable stand, restroom, repeat. Among the portable stands, Dippin Dots are among the most popular. I was told that this perpetually futuristic avant-garde ice cream purveyor, based in relatively nearby Paducah, Kentucky, considers the Dragons to be among their top partners. (Daytonians love Dippin Dots, that’s all that I’m trying to get at here.)

038The 3100 square foot team store is called the Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of items for sale, one will not find goofy variations on the logo such as could be found in the likes of, say, Lexington (see previous post).

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Deutsch said that, when it comes to the logo, the team goes “narrow, rather than deep. We’re the Yankees, as opposed to the Diamondbacks.”

I got the impression that the above statement applies to the Dragons’ way of doing business, period. You can’t argue with success, but operationally speaking they feel like a Major League team trapped in a Minor League team’s body. I’ll be curious to see if the new ownership group experiments, at least just a little, with theme jerseys, bobblehead giveaways,  regionally specific and/or “crazy” concession items, and other hallmarks of the 21st century Minor League experience. At the very least, maybe they could use Twitter as a tool to interact with the fan base? (I’m not sure if @DragonsBaseball has replied to a tweet, ever.) All I’m saying is: even the best have room to improve.

In the time it took to read that half-formed editorializing digression, one could walk from the team store to the Dragon’s Lair group seating area. (I did the math.) There are 306 seats in the Dragon’s Lair, making it pretty sizable as lairs go.

042Next to the lair is the lawn.

044If one keeps moving, one finds this statue of mascot Heater.

045On this particular evening, Heater had company in the form of touring mascot Birdzerk. Birdzerk is a close personal friend of mine; we met in a subterranean tunnel and then I accompanied him to the concourse so that he could begin his first routine of the evening.

Go!

Birdzerk ran onto the field, coerced the visiting third baseman to dance, stole his glove, and tossed his glove into the stands. Vaudeville at the ballpark.

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052After Birdzerk disappeared into the netherworld from which he came, I journeyed back up to the press box. By the time I got there, Birdzerk had re-emerged and was now harassing an umpire.

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The next inning break was a more solemn affair, as the Dragons staged a “Home Run for Life” in which a recovering cancer patient took a lap around the bases. This bit of tearjerking ballpark pageantry, now common throughout Minor League Baseball, originated with the Dragons.

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In the press box I spoke with Wright State University assistant professor Scott Peterson. He and student Sam McClain (a Dragons intern) are working on a project regarding the changing nature of media coverage throughout the Midwest League.

059I contemplated writing an article on this project, as it is the kind of thing that interests me (and, perhaps, you). But Peterson and McClain are still in the relatively early stages of the project, so I’ll catch up with them a little later on down the line. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.

061Next up on the docket was to meet my designated eater for the evening: Mr. George Coleman.

064George grew up in Chicago, often taking the subway to go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

“Ernie Banks was the man and still is,” he said.

George now lives in Dayton, having retired from a 30-year career in the Air Force spent primarily in aircraft maintenance. (The beard was a long time coming — he wasn’t allowed to have one while in the Air Force, and said that it then took another 10 years to convince his wife.) He was motivated to volunteer as a Designated Eater simply because he is a fan of Minor League Baseball in general and my writing specifically.

“I like the same things you like, so anything you write gets priority in my inbox,” he said. “I’m 63 and the reference you have, some of them are aimed at my generation. I hope people get it….It’s a little slice of heaven to read your stuff.”

George and I headed over to the “Dragons Fire Grill” so that he could obtain a “Pit Boss Burger.”

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The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.

065Have at it, George.

“I love the crunchiness of the cole slaw, and the soft pretzel bun,” said George. “The burger’s the base of it, and while Ohio’s not known for its barbecue the pulled pork is done well. This makes the list of beard-worthy burgers.”

067I, meanwhile, snacked on a bag of Mikesell’s potato chips.

066These Ohio-based snack purveyors know what they are doing. Otherwise, why would they be doing it?

069Next up for George was some cake batter ice cream from Stone Cold Creamery, enjoyed amid the late-evening splendor of the lawn area. George said that the ice cream tasted like “cake in a cup,” which is probably its intended purpose.

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074Upon parting ways with George (Thanks, George!), the ballgame was in its eighth inning. My night in Dayton — and this entire road trip — was on the cusp of concluding. All that was left to do was get an autograph from my good pal Birdzerk.

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079“Ben — a smooth man with a blog!”

Put that on my tombstone, please!

Meanwhile, my next (and last) road trip of the season is already well underway. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch should you be motivated to do so. I will respond.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Legendary Night in Lexington

When one thinks of Lexington, Kentucky, and its surrounding environs, two things that quickly come to mind are bourbon…

053 and horses.

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Baseball, perhaps not so much.

052But professional baseball in Lexington is very much a thing. Welcome to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends (Class A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). The ballpark opened in 2001, marking the return of professional baseball to Lexington after a 47-year absence.

056In addition to the three murals seen above, one can find this giant ball outside of the ballpark. Reading the messages left me in stitches.

055I visited Lexington on July 23, and July 23 was no ordinary evening. It was “Star Wars Night.”

(Note: this woman would not stop fiddling with Darth’s midsection. Finally I just gave up and took the picture.)

058“Star Wars Night” has become a bona fide phenomenon in the world of Minor League Baseball promotions, and many teams consider it to be one of the cornerstones of the promotional schedule. The Legends’ iteration was a decidedly low-key affair, however.

“Tonight is the first time we’ve done it in several years,” said Sarah Bosso, Legends director of community relations. “We’re just getting our feet wet, doing it on a Wednesday and testing it out.”

059Here, mustachioed mascot Big L displays his rather tepid light saber technique.

060Out on the concourse, the atmosphere was decidedly more sedate.

062

Following standard (but by no means mandatory) Ben’s Biz Blog operating procedure, I took to the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While there, I got my picture taken with my good friend Darth Vader.

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Soon after this photo was taken, Darth overheard Bosso and myself talking about the Legends’ concession options.

“Did you say ‘Hot Brown Dog?'” asked Darth, intrigued by a local culinary specialty. “Where can I get that? Can you maybe put it through a blender?”

There were three individuals throwing out a first pitch: Judge John Schrader (Fayette Family Court), myself, and Darth Vader. I later mentioned to the judge that it was funny that Schrader and Vader were both throwing out a first pitch. He responded with a blank stare.

Here’s Judge Schrader. Or, as I now call him, the Mirthless Magistrate.

065I was in fine form on this particular evening, if I do say so myself.

BenHill_FirstPitch_July23Finally, we have Darth, flanked by stormtroopers.

069Darth didn’t have a very good arm.

I’ve thrown dozens of first pitches through the years; perhaps I should begin taking note of each team’s first pitch procedure?

The Legends did two things that I had never seen before: the balls used were from the batting cages (and therefore scuffed up and dirty), and the speed of the pitch was displayed and announced to the crowd. For the record, Darth and the Mirthless Magistrate both clocked in at 38 miles an hour. I, meanwhile, threw a blistering 47.

How’s ’bout a buncha random ballpark photographs, provided by a writer with rudimentary photography skills? That writer would be me, and these would be the photos:

070 071The placement of the bullpens provide plenty of opportunity for fan interaction.

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

The Jim Beam distillery is located just outside of Lexington. Maybe the team could get Jim Beam to be the official sponsor of these massive concourse beams?

073A pair of Star Wars aficionados ponder their options.

074As you may be aware, the Legends re-branded themselves in a mustache-centric fashion prior to the 2013 season.  Therefore, plenty of mustache-centric gear can be obtained at the Legends Locker.

076Inside this humble space, things get pretty strange on the t-shirt front.

077

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Tag, this photo

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117Viewing these images may cause you to feel like you’re in a dream.

But this? This is no dream. This is real: a piece of officially licensed Minor League Baseball apparel that explicitly references the time-honored act of mustache riding.

IMG_0083After this exhilarating foray into the wilds of the team store, I journeyed to the stadium’s second level. This picture, as inelegant as it may be, portrays the area immediately surrounding Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A downtown facility, this isn’t.

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While visiting the press box, I was pleased to see my visage beaming back at me from the videoboard. Move over, Darth! I am the evening’s true guest of honor.

080This little joystick-like contraption has a special purpose.

081Flipping the switch causes flames to shoot out of the Candleberries situated atop the scoreboard. (Now that’s a sentence that I’ve definitely never written before.) This photo is unfortunately flameless.

082 A man named Ty Cobb gave me the opportunity to flick the switch that shoots off the flames. This is Ty Cobb.

084

Ty Cobb serves as the Legends creative marketing director and PA announcer, and I wrote a story about him that can be found HERE. During my time in the press box with Mr. Cobb, he reminded the crowd that if the Legends get 10 hits then they can redeem their ticket stubs for a free order of fried pickles at Hooters.

This dude, I bet that he likes fried pickles at Hooters.

087But Mr. Ball Head (not sure if that’s his real name) wasn’t the only interesting character wandering around on the concourse. I also ran into this guy.

088The above individual is Ryan Ferry, who had agreed to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Ryan, a Lexington native who says that he can see the Whitaker Bank Ballpark scoreboard from his backyard, was nine years old when the Legends played their first season. He used to be a batboy, and now occasionally mans the speed pitch booth as a game day employee. Among other claims to fame, he was waiting in line for kettle corn when Bryce Harper hit his first professional home run.

“I consider myself a fixture here,” said Ryan, a sports management major at Eastern Kentucky University.

He also collects hats and shoes. Check out these size 15 specimens.

092And now, on to the food.

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What you see above is the Hot Brown Dog, which Darth Vader wished to be pulverized so that it could be poured through the holes in his mask. The Hot Brown Dog is a ballpark variation of a Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky specialty described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown.  

Of course, the Hot Brown Dog substitutes a hot dog for the turkey. As a Pennsylvania native, it reminded me of a hot dog version of cream chipped beef on toast.

Hot Brown, goin’ down.

091“The saltiness is what sticks out, and the bacon also sticks out because it’s the king of all meats,” said Ryan. “It definitely lives up to the hot name, at least in temperature. The sauce is like gravy, and a little sweeter than I expected it to be. I hope that nobody from Kentucky comments on this, calling me out for not eating Hot Browns all that much.”

Next, Ferry suggested that he sample a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly donut called the “PBJD.” When we ordered it, the woman manning the concession counter gave us an annoyed stare, sighed, and said “Are you kidding me?”

Apparently, PBJDs are not ordered very often.

“It’s totally slept on,” said Ferry. “They really need to market it more.”

Indeed, the only mention of the PBJD that I could find was on this concession sign. Just four little letters; no picture, no explanation.

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Here it is, in all of its obscure glory.

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Ryan savors the moment:

098“They take the donut, cut it, and put on the PB&J,” said Ryan. “It’s doughy, but has a little bit of a crisp to it.”

And with that, Ryan’s work was done. We now return to the ball field. Notice the “stables” group area in the background.

100I would like to point out that this guy had a June bug on the back of his neck. I was told that they were all over the place this time of year. June, July, same difference.

104

Next on my agenda was to compete against children in a between-inning game of “musical donkeys.” These three children, specifically:

105No video documentation exists of this effort, a sadly recurring theme of this trip. Here, I lurk around like a neanderthal while waiting for the music to stop.

106I made it through the first round, but was eliminated in the second. Ben’s Biz out.

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DSCN3237Another night, another career highlight, and veteran on-field emcee Mykraphone Mike was there to narrate it all. Yes, it’s spelled “mykraphone.”

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Things were beginning to wind down on this sleepy Star Wars night.

119Ty Cobb, on the PA, was adhering to the night’s theme by telling Star Wars jokes to the crowd.

“What do you call a potato that has gone to the dark side?” Cobb asked the crowd.

The crowd did not seem eager for an answer, but Cobb persisted.

“Darth Tater.”

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Ty Cobb, stand-up comic

The Legends ended up losing the game to the Charleston RiverDogs, by a score of 6-4. But that’s okay. It’s a long season, full of ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on grinding.

In other words: keep a stiff upper lip.

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Meanwhile, I’m on the road again! Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Knowing the Score in Louisville

Today’s dispatch finds us in Louisville, the home of the International League’s Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). This marked the second time I’d been in Louisville over the span of one year, as I visited this past October in order to attend the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. I wrote quite a bit about that visit, from the ballpark and otherwise; all of those posts are cataloged HERE.

So when I arrived at Louisville’s Galt Hotel, the same establishment that hosted the Promo Seminar, it was with a not inconsiderable sense of deja vu. I checked in, leaving my bags in the car, and immediately began the short walk to the Bats’  home of Louisville Slugger Field.

Hello, Louisville.

001Or at least it should have been a quick walk to the ballpark. A combination of  haste and misplaced confidence regarding my knowledge of downtown Louisville led to me walking right past E. Main Street, where the ballpark is located, and into parts unknown. Pro tip: if you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School. then something has gone horribly wrong.

002But I, like an ineffective constipation remedy, could not be de-turd. Eventually I got back on track and arrived at the ballpark.

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Pee-Wee Reese, Louisville native, is there to greet all comers.

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Pee-Wee played shortstop. Here’s the view from the hot corner.
005If Louisville Slugger Field looks like it has a unique ballpark exterior, that’s because it does. This building, in its previous incarnation, was a rail depot. Hence, an enclosed entrance way so wide that one could drive a train through it.

006This photo, also meant to convey a grand sense of spaciousness, was taken during my October visit to the ballpark.

042This, also taken during the Promo Seminar, illustrates how the converted depot area can be used as an offseason event Also, fans of foreshadowing should take note of this image. Depicted therein is an individual who will soon play a prominent role in this post…

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Here’s one final photo from the Promo Seminar, taken from the suite level. Louisville Slugger Field is located on the banks of the Ohio River.

We now return to the current narrative:

Upon arriving at the stadium and making my way to the press box, I learned that the Bats’ approach to my visit was of the hands-off variety. While there’s no right or wrong way to handle a Ben’s Biz intrusion, this caught me off-guard simply because my previous four ballpark visits had included participation in a World Record attempt, a karaoke battle against wrestling royalty, in-depth history-minded ballpark tours, two ceremonial first pitches and stints as a racing cow, hot dog, and bearded Sun King brewer. Full-to-bursting ballpark agendas had begun to feel like the new normal.

The cool reception was kind of a relief, as it was nice to know that I could take a break and set my own pace. So goodbye, Bats press box, I hardly knew ye. It was time to wander.

010I didn’t get very far in my wandering, at least initially. Sitting behind home plate was my friend “Stevo,” a Louisville native who describes himself as a “semi-retired punk-metal atavist.”

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kvlt

One of Stevo’s ballpark rituals is to purchase “mystery cards” from a concourse souvenir stand, for $2 a piece. One was enshrouded in pink, the other enshrouded in blue. “Which one do you want?” asked Stevo.

012 I chose pink, which is always the correct choice, and ended up with a 2008 Bowman Nick Adenhart card. Stevo, meanwhile, received Jared Burton.

014Receiving a Nick Adenhart card was bittersweet, to say the least, as he was killed in a car accident on April 9, 2009 at the age of 22. I wrote a news story about this tragedy later that day; speaking to his teammates just hours after they had heard the news was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a professional journalist.

(Deep breath)

Stevo had a good vantage point for that evening’s game against Columbus. This was the scene as we rose for our National Anthem.

016Stevo has a passion for scorekeeping; that’s what he was at the ballpark to do.

017Later in the evening I interviewed Stevo about his scorekeeping history, techniques and tips. I’d highly recommend reading it, which you can do so by clicking HERE.

Of course, one of the joys of scorekeeping is that its practitioners can indulge their idiosyncratic whims. In the below photo, the parenthetical “FLS” in the box next to Lindor’s name indicates a “Flying Louisville Slugger.” (As in, Lindor had lost control of his bat at some point during his at-bat against the Bats.)

019 I pointed out that a Francisco Lindor FLS was in fact an “FLFLS.” Clearly, a celebratory selfie was in order.

That accomplished, I took a lap around the ballpark. The shark fin-looking thing sticking out above the stadium is…a building. I forget what building it is, but it’s distinctive.

022This isn’t just some random corporate sponsorship. KFC is based in Louisville, and Louisville is home to the first, and thus far only, KFC Eleven.

023The presence of the sun in this photo reminds me that it was brutally hot on this particular evening. 116 degrees would be my guess.

026The weird looking building whose name I can’t recall is visible on the right.

027Bermanent Vacation:

029I call this one “Trash can, foul pole, vendor.”

031My lap around the stadium brought me right back to where I started, as laps tend to do. It also brought me into contact with these two women.

033That’s Stephanie Fish, on the left, and Shannon Siders, on the right. These women, independently of one another, contacted me about being the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). That’s not the only thing that Stephanie and Shannon have in common with one another, however, as they are both former Minor League Baseball front office employees who now work for a Louisville-based sports entity.

Stephanie, formerly of the Lexington Legends, now works in an administrative role with the SkillVille Group. The SkillVille Group’s roster of touring ballpark and arena performers  is highlighted by the Zooperstars!, meaning that a big part of Stephanie’s job is keeping the likes of Harry Canary in line. Shannon, formerly of the Reno Aces, now works in marketing and communications for Louisville Slugger. She does not have to deal with anthropomorphic inflatables on a daily basis.

Our tour guide for this portion of the evening was Jason Betts, concessions manager for Centerplate food service.  Betts can be seen in the below photo, looking pensive while ordering pork chop sandwiches from this center field kiosk.

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These sandwiches are made from pork tenderloin, marinated for three days in chef Jim Darr’s secret concoction of sauce and spices.
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Have at it, ladies.

“That’s a big piece of meat,” declared Stephanie, after careful deliberation.

“I don’t think I can follow that comment,” said Shannon. “It’s delicious. Better than salad.”

Next up was a visit to the “Nacho Cantina,” a concession stand so popular that it even has its own Facebook page.

“The nachos are all a la carte, so the lines can get pretty long,” said Jason. “People get up there like ‘Uhhhhhh…..'”

037Shannon, a self-proclaimed nachos fanatic, considers her choices.

038Service with a smile:

As opposed to tortilla chips, Shannon opted for the house-made potato chips. But, regardless, this dish is very much a nacho dish and this photo is suitable for framing.

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“Aside from $1 beer night, this is the happiest that I’ve ever been at Louisville Slugger Field,” said Shannon. “Does that make me an alcoholic?”

“I wish I had a napkin,” added Stephanie.

043After the nachos, a veggie wrap panini was bound to be a bit of a comedown. This was filled with red onion, spinach, hummus, squash and zucchini.

045 Both women praised the sauce, but I neglected to write down what this sauce consisted of. Ambrosia, probably.

“This is a salad in a wrap,” said Stephanie. “That’s my quote. That’ll work.”

Cheers.

047Because too much is never enough, next up was a Philly cheesesteak.

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Betts said that the team sells 150 cheesesteaks per ballgame, a number which can increase to 300 on weekends.

“I’m not sure why it’s on a bun, because you can’t pick it up,” he said. “There’s too much stuff on it.”

Stephanie and Shannon eventually came to the conclusion that this Vine video should be called “Two Girls, One Cheesesteak.”

Finally, mercifully, we have reached the dessert phase of the evening. Blue Bell brand ice cream — cake batter for Shannon and strawberry for Stephanie.

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Stephanie really liked the strawberry.

051Thanks to Jason Betts, whose rollicking culinary tour greatly enlivened what might have been an otherwise moribund night at the ballpark.

056And thanks to Stephanie and Shannon, of course. They didn’t go home hungry, that’s for sure.

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Upon parting ways with Stephanie and Shannon, I made a brief pit stop at an eerily desolate relief station.

Throughout all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

059Hours had passed since we last spoke, but Stevo was right where I had left him. To the casual observer, this had been a rather lackluster Tuesday night contest. But Stevo is no casual observer.

“I’m a Cubs and Royals fan, and to see an ex-Cub (Donnie Murphy) hit a home run off of an ex-Royal (Kyle Davies), that’s amazing,” said Stevo. “You never know when you’re going to see something like that.”

061The tricks of the trade. (Stevo: “These are all the implements I need. I’ve got everything but chewing gum.”

063

The Columbus Clippers defeated the home nine, by a score of 8-5.

062But don’t take my word for it. Take Stevo’s.

064Good night from Louisville. 065

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in two days. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Great Day for Mankind in West Virginia

When I first posted the itinerary for this particular ballpark road trip, July 19 was listed as “TBA.” This was because I did not have a clear idea which ballpark I should visit, as most of the options were places that had already been graced with my ineffable presence. Several teams, or at least the fans of several teams, ended up making pitches as to why I should visit (Mahoning Valley, Toledo and Lake County among them). But the organization that won out was the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of your (or at least someone’s) Pittsburgh Pirates. After all, the Power are West Virginia’s only full-season Minor League Baseball team! Further investigation was needed.

The Power play in Charleston, but since there is another South Atlantic League team bearing the Charleston name (the RiverDogs of South Carolina) the Power went ahead and claimed the whole state. (Informally, Charleston, West Virginia, is referred to as “Charlie West.”) The Power compete at Appalachian Power Park, which is located in a rather desolate-feeling stretch of downtown amid modestly-sized high rise office buildings, labor union headquarters and dilapidated factory buildings. My hotel was within walking distance of the stadium, and what follows  are a few pictures I took during the walk.

In the biz, we call this “setting the scene.”

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This overpass leads to interstates 64, 77 and 79, which combine to form mega-interstate 220. (This is what I choose to believe, at least.) Walking underneath the overpass, one finds the stadium.

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Ah, yes, here we are:

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Upon entering Appalachian Power Park, I took 10 minutes or so and did my requisite lap around the concourse.

Again, more scene setting.

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Lap completed, I was escorted onto the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Joining me was the evening’s special guest, a man even more special than me: wrestling superstar Mick Foley (aka Mankind aka Dudelove aka Cactus Jack).

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mick. (I’m the guy on the left.)

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I took the mound and fired something resembling a strike.

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#emergingmanboobs

7.19.14 296The guy who delivered the second first pitch threw a scorching fastball right over the plate, and Mick Foley then hammed it up by recruiting that guy to throw out his first pitch for him. Which, for those keeping score at homes, means that the guy who threw out the second first pitch threw out the third first pitch as well. My first pitch was first.

Update: Commenter Mark Henderson adds the following info:

The guy who threw out the second and third pitches is Scott Robinson, a former batboy for the Charleston Wheelers. Scott has became somewhat of an inspirational local hero, due to his battle with a heart disease that resulted in him receiving a donor heart, going through the transplant just a year ago.

I am now realizing that I talked to Scott later in the evening. He is the guy that took the awesome Toastman pic that appears later in the post.

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Mick then joined the managers and umpires for a pre-game conference, presumably regarding whether metal folding chairs would be permitted in any on-field brawls that may occur.

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I don’t have any video of Mick Foley from this evening, but he now has a severe limp and moves like a man 30 years his senior (he is 49). It’s painful to watch, but that’s what happens when you sacrifice your body for your passion. I’ve never been much of a wrestling fan, but I have a genuine respect for Mick Foley as he is a smart, engaging individual who forged a unique career path.

While these pre-game shenanigans were taking place, fans were already queuing up for a chance to meet Mick.

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There was a significantly shorter line for the pepperoni rolls, a coal miner favorite and staple of West Virginia cuisine. You’ll also note that a 25-ounce beer could be had for just $3. Power assistant general manager Jeremy Taylor told me that the team sold out of the 25-ounce beers on Redneck Night, a stereotype-reveling theme night that has become a highlight of the team’s promotional schedule.

035With the game underway, I turned my attention to Rod Blackstone a.k.a. the Toastman. He is one of the most passionate, divisive and memorable fans one could ever hope to meet at a Minor League Baseball game, and I wrote a feature article about him HERE. Please read it, as I don’t want to repeat myself repeat myself.

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Okay, I’ll repeat myself just just a little. From my MiLB.com story::

Rod Blackstone is the “Toastman,” a West Virginia Power ballpark icon who can be found sitting in a front-row aisle seat in section 107 during each and every game. From this homeplate vantage point, he leads the section in cheers, displays homemade signs made in honor of each position player and, most memorably, throws pieces of toast to the crowd after every visiting batter strikes out.

The toast isn’t pre-made, either. Blackstone brings several loaves of bread to the game and toasts them on-site using a toaster set up on a small metal patio table. The electrical outlet he uses was installed by the team, specifically to accommodate his nightly toast-making needs.

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After spending an inning with the Toastman, I spent an inning in the broadcast booth with Power broadcaster Adam Marco. It was a pleasure talking to one of the finest blogging broadcasters in Minor League Baseball.

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From the dim press box environs, I soon transitioned…

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to the bright lights of a between-inning contest atop the dugout. Next up was a karaoke battle against one Mick Foley.
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My plan was to post the Power’s videoboard footage of this “battle,” but apparently there were technical difficulties. This is really too bad, as this was one of the most embarrassing/memorable moments of the season for me.

Before the game it had been decided that I would sing “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a choice I was fine with because I assumed that I’d only be singing the chorus. However, when it was played over the PA system to begin the contest, the song began during the first verse. After an awkward pause followed by some herky-jerky gesticulating, I began improvising lines such as “Please play the chorus, this is the verse. I only know the chorus, what are the words?”

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My efforts resulted in a round of boos, as the crowd clearly had no love for the most underrated entity in all of sports media. Mick Foley then got on the mic and crooned Hulk Hogan’s theme song “Real American.”

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So, yeah, I got to play the heel in a karaoke battle against Mick Foley. That’s definitely going on the resume.

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But there was no time to wallow in misery. I save that for the hotel room. Next up on the docket was meeting the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Hello, Mr. Mike Taylor.

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Mike, a former Power bat boy, works in the produce department of a Charleston-area grocery store. He said that, despite his slight frame, he had no problem eating large amounts of food. Well, okay then. Here’s a pepperoni roll. It’s basically pepperoni baked inside of a roll. That’s why they call it a pepperoni roll. I expect to soon see it on a menu in at a nouveau American Brooklyn bistro at a cost of $16, featuring nigella seed Ethiopian sourdough and artisan soppressata imported from an old world butcher operating in San Francisco’s North Bay neighborhood.

051Pepperoni rolls are served at the Appalachian Power Park thanks to Power food and beverage director Nate Michel.

“Pepperoni rolls are what West Virginia is known for,” he told me. “You can’t go into a convenience store without seeing them. Once we got them out here they sold like hot cakes.” (Note: hot cakes are not sold at the ballpark.)

Last season the pepperoni rolls were provided by local restaurateur Rocco Muriale. This year, they are being provided by a local pizzeria. Either way, Mike Taylor was psyched to be eating one.

“I’ve never had a pepperoni roll here before, but already I can tell that this will be the best pepperoni roll I’ve ever eaten,” he said. “The bread is buttery and real soft. I could probably eat two of these.”

That wouldn’t be a good idea, as Mike also had to contend with the Gunner Nachos, named after the Power’s nacho-loving on-field emcee. They are served in a full-size helmet, and topped with chicken tinga, pulled pork, beef brisket, cheese, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream.

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Thus far, no fatalities have been recorded as a result of eating this item. Have at it, Mike.

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So, to recap:

“These were two of the best things I’ve ever eaten here, and I’ve been coming here a long time,” said Mike. “I’m a skinny guy, but I can eat a lot.”

Hey, what do you know? While all of this was happening, there was a game going on.

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During the next inning break, I had the honor of running across the field while waving the team flag. Mascot Chuck (as in, short for Charles, as in Charleston) was with me, with a gaggle of children close behind.

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Throughout all of this, fans were patiently waiting in line so that they could meet Mick Foley.

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See that guy in the above photo, on the far right? That guy was an absolute dead ringer for Mick. This photo, stolen from Adam Marco’s aforementioned must-read blog, shows just how much of a dead ringer he was.

img_7403After checking in on Mick, I wandered over and spoke to the rambunctious, fun-loving group of fans that can be found in the “Rowdy Alley.”

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The Rowdy Alley are a loose-knit group. Some nights there are only four or five people sitting here, while on some nights (like Thirsty Thursday) there are a couple dozen. I plan on writing about the Rowdies in an upcoming MiLB.com feature.  They love their beer, have a pet monkey, and all their ducks are in a row.

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This guy was wearing a towel, fashioned into a cape. He seemed vaguely annoyed by my presence, like “Can’t a guy just wear a cape and keep score and occasionally blow into an old trumpet (not pictured) in peace?”

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This guy, meanwhile, was ready to face the elements.

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Immediately after I took this photo, the members of the Rowdy Alley broke into song. I wish I had it on video. Wishing I had things on video seems to have been a theme of the evening.

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I also spoke with legendary souvenir salesman Wheeler Bob. He, too, will be included in the upcoming MiLB.com feature that I previously alluded to.

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Meanwhile, the smell of smoke had begun to permeate the ballpark.

Culprit: the Toastman.

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Just another night at the ballpark in West Virginia.

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Photo credit: Scott Robinson

I did get some video of the Toastman in action.

The game ended shortly after the Toastman’s bread-based pyrotechnic display. But more pyrotechnics were soon to come, as it was a Friday Fireworks night. This season, the Power have taken the novel step of filming their fireworks with a remote controlled drone.

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This, showing the drones in action, is one of my favorite Vines of the year. Also, it conveys the extreme intensity of the Power’s fireworks display. I was a big fan.

When the fireworks were over, a squadron of vacuum-toting interns appeared on the field in order to clean up the pyrotechnic debris. Their appearance was a sure sign that the evening had come to an end. 082Good night from Charleston, West Virginia.  072

Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location).

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road — July 31 Update

The last time that I had the chance to update this blog, it was July 22 and I was in a La Quinta lobby in downtown Indianapolis. I am currently back home in New York City, steadily cranking out “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, Promo Preview, and, soon, Crooked Numbers. (Hat tip to Bowling Green Hot Rods announcer Andrew Kappes, who just sent me a detailed recap of a recent 2-3-5-4-1-7 putout at home plate.)

Read now or die trying:

On the Road: Akron RubberDucks (the Return of the King and Duck Duck Goose) 

On the Road: West Virginia Power (the Toastman)

On the Road: Columbus Clippers (team historian Joe Santry)

On the Road: Indianapolis Indians and the most popular team Twitter account in the Minors.

On the Road: Louisville Bats and the Art of Keeping Score

But for right now, I’m here to answer the question that no one’s asking: What did you do after leaving the La Quinta on the early afternoon of July 22? Why, I’m glad you didn’t ask! Here’s the answer:

July 22: I drove from Indianapolis to Louisville’s sprawling Galt House Hotel, where I stayed during last September’s Minor League Baseball promo seminar.

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September 2013 file photo

I was in Louisville to attend a Bats game, of course, and the Bats’ home of Louisville Slugger Field is quite close to the hotel. However, while walking to the ballpark in a distracted state (my de facto road trip existence) , I shot right past W. Main Street (where it is located) and walked north about 25 minutes in the wrong direction. These are just the sort of things I seem to do on these road trips.

If you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt House Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School, then something has gone wrong.

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And, jeez, it was so hot outside — just about the hottest that I have ever been while on one of these trips. I took a walking selfie in an attempt to convey the extent of the heat-related misery.

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I arrived at Louisville Slugger Field much later than intended (a running theme on this trip), but no harm, no foul. Awareness of and interest in my visit was minimal within the Bats front office, and this gave me time to just take a minute and get my bearings. I ended up having a good night for what it was, and, of course, you’ll read all about it here soon enough. Or at least I hope you will.

July 23: I do enjoy staying at the Galt House Hotel. This was the view the next morning from the 21st floor.

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IMG_0077The next day in Louisville was hectic, and I’ll write about it in a separate blog post. But, long story short, I visited both the Louisville Slugger Museum and Skillville Group HQ (home of the Zooperstars! and crew).

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Posing in the bat vault with what I believe was a Chuck Klein model

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I wish I had had time to visit Dan Simon (of logo-designing Studio Simon fame) in Louisville as well. Between him and Louisville Slugger and Skillville and punk-metal atavist Stevo (he’ll appear in a story in the near future), I’ve got a lot of contacts there.

But, yikes, all of this cavorting once again put me in a time crunch. From Louisville it was on to Lexington. Lexington is home of the Legends.

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All will soon be revealed regarding my evening with the Legends. I stayed at the Ramada Inn that night, which kinda seemed stuck in a mid-late ’70s time vortex. The vending machines didn’t have a slot for dollar bills, and the likes of Seals and Crofts were playing in the lobby the next morning.

But, as for that vending machine, I did grip some Grippo’s. As you’ll notice, Grippo is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s….on and on until infinity, except there is no such thing as “until” infinity. Only “toward.”

IMG_0084July 24 — After the requisite frantic late morning/early afternoon writing session in the hotel lobby, it was on to Dayton. But first, I stopped for lunch at a Lexington BBQ spot called “Willie’s Locally Known.” This was on the recommendation of West Virginia Power broadcaster Adam Marco, who has been known to blog about such things.

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As you probably know, I have celiac disease and must maintain a gluten-free diet. Therefore, ordering a sandwich was off limits. But the burnt ends — succulent cubes of brisket — they seemed like it would be gluten free (Yes, seemed. I did not have the heart to verify whether or not they were gluten-free, because I really wanted to eat them. It’s hard out there for a celiac, and I try to maintain my self-discipline, but sometimes I error on the side of incaution when it comes to potential gluten in sauces and seasonings and what not.)

Anyway, just look at these things. The best ones were those that had some fat on them, which had the buttery almost bone marrow-like consistency.

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I patronized Willie’s during an early weekday afternoon, and it was empty and quiet. But I got the sense that good things are happening there, as friendly people and good food and live music makes for a great combination. Plus, it was recommended by Adam Marco. One must follow Adam Marco’s recommendations.

After lunch I stopped at a funky shopping center on Leesman Road, in order to make a cameo at Pop’s Re-Sale.

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Pops Resale is a ramshackle palace of used records, old video game systems, DVDs, VHS, vintage clothing, stereo equipment and all sorts of odds and ends. It is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

005 I considered buying this, so that Grippo could ride it on his journey toward infinity.

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Whipped Cream, Other Delights.

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If you’re in Lexington, I’d definitely recommend checking out this stretch of stores on Leesman Road. I had actually been here in 2004, during my pre-MiLB existence, and bought an awesome dark green work jacket at the Goodwill seen in the below photo. I wish I had had the time to visit there again, as well as Wild Fig. Next time.

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But, per usual, I was running late. Dayton awaited! Dayton is the home of the Dragons.

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That’s the view from a privately-run downtown lot, where I paid $5 to park my rental car. The Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field is located just beyond and to the right of that warehouse.  (Dayton’s Fifth Third is one of three Fifth Third ballparks in Minor League Baseball. Three Fifth Thirds equal five, for those keeping score at home.)

I spent a total of four hours in Dayton, as immediately after the game ended I drove to Pittsburgh. There were reasons for this. One, I wanted to break up the drive to New York City as opposed to doing it from Dayton in a straight shot, and, two, I always enjoy visiting Pittsburgh. I went to Pitt and, therefore, lived in Pittsburgh from 1997-2002 (in 2001-02 I did a stint in AmeriCorps). Pittsburgh is a great city.

July 25 —  One of Pittsburgh’s best eateries is Dee’s Six Pack and Dogs in Regent Square. Down that hallway lurks a massive walk-in beer cooler, which I occasionally used to visit in my gluten-free days.

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I appreciate that Dee’s is now friendly to the gluten free. This hot dog (topped with Sriracha slaw and sweet potato fries) came wrapped in two corn tortillas. I found this to be better than gluten-free buns, which, like a house of cards, fall apart upon contact.

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Oh, and I visited record stores. Back in my college days, this fine establishment was called Paul’s CDs. One year I was music director at WPTS 92.1, Pitt’s college station, and in that role I was able to spend $35 a week on music to add to rotation. That was awesome.

The eponymous Paul sold the store a few years back, and it is now owned by Karl Hendricks (of the Karl Hendricks Trio) and called Sound Cat. It’s in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, and I suggest that you go there. I picked up some Michael Hurley and some Nilsson.

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From there it was on Mind Cure in Polish Hill, which opened well after I left Pittsburgh for the less-green pastures of NYC. Seen entering the store is one Mike Rensland, a guy who wore a sleeveless death metal t-shirt to his own wedding reception.

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IMG_0096At Mind Cure I picked up a used Ultrabunny LP as well as a Folkways label curiosity: a dramatization of  the 1855 Murder Trial of William Palmer, Surgeon. Let me know if you want to come over, have a couple drinks, and listen to it.

I wasn’t in town Saturday night, unfortunately, but if you live in Pittsburgh you know that this show has essentially been taking place three times a year for the past 15 years.

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Finally, we have the king of all record stores: Jerry’s. This place is a national treasure. Go there immediately.

IMG_0106 This ground-floor dollar bin alcove is bigger than most proper record stores.

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But upstairs, that’s where the magic happens. Pictures don’t do it justice. There are multiple rooms beyond the main room (include “Whistlin’ Willies” 78 Shop), and those boxes stacked in the back are all 45s.

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That dude on the right in the blue shirt (in conversation with much loved/much hated concert promoter Manny Theiner) is Mike Prosser. Prosser knows more about music, books, and movies than anyone I know. Guys like Prosser tend to live in cities like Pittsburgh.

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I bought a small selection of primo used LPs from Jerry’s, but even cooler is that I finally took home this 100-year-old Victor Talking Machine that I bought there three years ago (I didn’t have a car on that visit, and ended up storing it at a friend’s house). Check it out, this thing is now in my living room!

Anyhow, “On the Road” blog posts — one from each stop on the road trip detailed above and in the previous post — will resume in early August. In the meantime, here’s the itinerary for my fourth and final trip of the season. As always, get in touch with any and all article/cultural suggestions. An asterisk next to the team name means that a designated eater is still needed at that particular location.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road Again — July 22 Update

Hello from the main lobby of a La Quinta hotel in downtown Indianapolis. I am in the midst of my latest and therefore greatest road trip, and have somehow already visited four ballparks (with three to go). Each trip takes its own tone, and this one has been particularly manic.

The tone was set on Friday, when I drove from New York City to Akron in order to see the RubberDucks game that evening. Most of the drive was on interstate 80, and this road is kind of a mess to drive on — congested, narrow and, during some stretches, there are more trucks than cars. I got pulled over for speeding almost immediately, but the New Jersey state trooper who did so let me off with a warning and I was most appreciative. I wasn’t so fortunate later in the trip, when, somewhere in the Pennsylvania Wilds, traffic came to a total standstill for over an hour.

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I ended up talking to a trucker for a while as we sat on the guardrail, and he said that there was a motorcycle fatality at mile marker 139 (we were at 144). He seemed like a nice guy, but I guess when you’re on the road for a living gallows humor becomes the norm.

“The only reason they’d close both lanes is because somebody got squished,” he said. “The coroner’s gonna do what he needs to do and then they’ll let us go.”

So, yeah, getting to a Minor League Baseball game on time suddenly didn’t seem so important. The seven-hour drive ended up taking 10, and I arrived in Akron as the game was starting. Late arrival or not, I still got a sneak preview of the “Return of the King” burger (read about it HERE) and then suited up as the Goose in a Duck Duck Goose world record attempt.

The next day I had very little time to explore Akron, but I did what I always try to do: I visited a record store.

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Square Records was a quality establishment, good mix between new and used offerings and plenty of under-the-radar stuff to peruse. I ended up getting the Heavy Blanket/Earthless live record as well as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid/M.A.A.d. City” on vinyl. I had only had that on iTunes previously, but it is a stone-cold classic and very respectful of the album format. Therefore, I wanted to have it as an album, something to put on late at night in the living room.

As you can see from the above photo, Square Records is next to a movie theater. And not only were they showing “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but a real-life sports drama as well. “Welcome Home, LeBron,” in other words.

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This was a cool neighborhood, wherever I was. Surely, this dive bar would be a great place to catch a show.

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From there, I filled up the satanic gas tank and moved on to Charleston, West Virginia.

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Downtown Charleston was largely deserted on Sunday, but I enjoyed the atmosphere.

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On Capitol Street, I visited Taylor Books. This establishment had a coffee shop on the premises and a great selection of books and magazines. Long may it live.

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Following standard operating road trip procedure, I picked up a couple of zines while at Taylor. One was a public transit diary, the other a history of Iran-Contra. If you’re lucky enough to have a book or record store that sells zines in the area where you live, then please buy them.

West Virginia complete, it was then back to the Buckeye State.

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I wish I had something to share from my time in Columbus, as regards the city itself, but I was under the weather on Sunday and well into the next day. It was really touch and go there for a while. But I’ll persevere, all the way up until the time when I don’t. Gotta keep moving.

I’m in Indy now, as mentioned, and will soon be in Louisville (Tuesday, as in TONIGHT) —  Lexington (Wednesday) and Dayton (Thursday) will follow. Oh, and over the last two nights I cobbled a new edition of Promo Preview together, you can read that HERE. (And then tell your friends to do the same.)

I’ll update this post with more if and when time allows. In the meantime, please know that Mick Foley is now a close and personal friend of mine. This photo was taken at Saturday’s West Virginia Power game, which was a great day for Mankind.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Keeping It Simple In Kannapolis

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Kannapolis. 

The Kannapolis Intimidators play 25 miles northeast of Charlotte, a major metropolitan area that is expanding to the point to where it may just swallow Kannapolis whole. But despite the proximity of Kannapolis to Charlotte, the Minor League Baseball atmosphere to be found in the two cities could not be any more different.

The Charlotte Knights — Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox — play in a beautiful new uptown stadium featuring the bells and whistles one would expect from a top-level Minor League team playing in a top-level Minor League market. (Click HERE for my blog entry on the Knights.) The Kannapolis Intimidators — Class A affiliate of those same Chicago White Sox — are something else entirely. CMC-Northeast Stadium is a wonderful place to take in a game, charmingly intimate and comparatively quiet. You can hear yourself think here. And while the crowds might be relatively small (especially on the rainy Tuesday evening in which I attended), there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and quirkiness that makes it a quintessential Minor League experience.

Simply put, I enjoyed seeing a game in Kannapolis more than I’ve enjoyed seeing a game in any other stadium during this, the 2014 season.

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Unlike many Minor League parks, CMC Northeast Stadium is not located on a street which reflects the presence of a ballpark. No “Curveball Court” or “Home Run Avenue” or “Defensive Indifference Boulevard” to be found here. Rather,  the 20-year-old facility resides on Moose Road. Once I turned onto Moose Road, I became convinced that I had entered the wrong address into my GPS. It was a most unassuming road, surrounded by trees and devoid of any commercial establishments.

But then — bam — there it was. A huge parking lot, leading to a not-so huge stadium.

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The Intimidators franchise relocated to Kannapolis in 1995 from Spartanburg, South Carolina, beginning life as the Piedmont Phillies. They changed their name to the Boll Weevils the following season (Boll Weevils are an insect possessing an insatiable appetite for cotton, once a major problem in textile towns such as Kannapolis). NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, a Kannapolis native, purchased a share of the team in 2000 and this precipitated a name change to the Kannapolis Intimidators.

Dale Earnhardt was known as “The Intimidator,” of course, but he never got to see the Intimidators play. He was killed in a racing accident in February of 2001, but the Intimidators name still lives on.

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My first view from inside the stadium:

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A penthouse perspective:

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The Intimidators have retired three numbers, only one of which is in honor of a baseball player. #50 is retired throughout the South Atlantic League in honor of John Henry Moss, who served as league president for 50 years. #42 is retired throughout the entirety of professional baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. And #3 is, or course, Dale Earnhardt.

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One can obtain booze under a canopy.

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The food options are pretty basic, but we’ll get to that later.

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At this juncture of the evening it was probably a pretty good idea to be standing under a nearby canopy. For, once again, I was witness to a pre-game rain delay. (In fact, the only game I saw on this trip that wasn’t affected in any way by rain was the Rome Braves.)

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This certainly wasn’t the first time that the Intimidators front office pulled tarp this season. So, you want to work in Minor League Baseball?

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During the rain delay I hung out in the press box with Intimidators broadcaster Josh Feldman and PA announcer Sean Fox. In Fox’s bio on the team website, it says “Sean has been the primary PA Announcer for Intimidators games since 2010. He wanted to be listed on the website. It was either this, or he’d have fans boo the website the same way he encourages you to boo BINGO numbers on Tuesday nights.”

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It was indeed “BINGO Night” on the night I attended, and booing is indeed a tradition. We’ll get to that later. But first, here’s an exclusive look at Sean’s go-to sound effects. Baseball anthropologists should file this picture away, as it captures the Minor League zeitgeist. 

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And if you’re wondering, the “visitor home run” audio (F8) is Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

I also spent time perusing through the team’s cd collection, which is no longer used. With a few exceptions, the music on this particular mix is just awful.

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With not much else to do, I simply gazed upon the wonder that is the Intimidators’ eternal press box. These windows go on forever, each one depicting a small glance into an increasingly out of focus alternate Minor League Baseball reality.

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Sean utilized his time in a more productive way. Namely, by initiating an impromptu rain delay BINGO game. The prize was a baseball autographed by the 2012 Charleston RiverDogs, which Feldman happened to have sitting on a nearby shelf.

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And here’s Mr. Josh Feldman, the Intimidators announcer. Feldman’s path to his profession is an odd one. After being cut from the USC volleyball team he began calling the team’s games, mostly out of frustration with the fact that no one else seemed to know anything about volleyball. This led to an interest in broadcasting, which led to a stint with an Indy League team which led to his current gig with the Intimidators. You should listen to the dude, he’s erudite.

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The rain, like bull riding or sumo wrestling, was intense but brief. While waiting for the game to begin, I did a little wandering.

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But my wanderings were cut short, as Feldman tracked me down and said that since I was a ceremonial first pitch throwing professional I should throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

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It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to strap on my recently-acquired GoPro camera.

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I threw a strike. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And while I neglected to take a picture, the Intimidators give all ceremonial first pitch throwers a team-signed baseball. I gave mine away, but how cool is that? I’d never seen such a thing before.

With the game underway, I spent an inning or two with Debby and Marshall Smith. They are members of the Intimidators Booster Club, and very passionate when it comes to supporting the players (who are mostly in their early 20s and in some cases away from home for the first time).

065My feature on the Smiths and their work with the Intimidators Booster Club can be found HERE.

The Smiths sit in second-row seats located down the third base line, but those seeking more rustic accommodations can certainly find them.

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Walking on the concourse, toward home plate, I stopped and chatted briefly with a couple named Heather and Mike. Mike started following me on Twitter on the spot, which Heather said is an honor because he hardly follows anyone on Twitter. I said that I’d give them a shout-out on the blog, so here you go: Hello, Heather. Hello, Mike.

And hello, Paul Buchanan!

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At the ballpark, very few people know this gentleman as Paul Buchanan. He is the “Uh-Huh Guy,” and he is a real character. I wrote a feature on him, which I’d ask that you take the time to read. If not, here’s an introductory excerpt:

The Uh-Huh Guy wears an “Uh-Huh” hat and an “Uh-Huh” T-shirt (both custom made), and punctuates his ear-splitting ballpark cheers and jeers with his signature phrase of — you guessed it — “Uh-huh!” And throughout the ballgame, it’s not just the Uh-Huh Guy’s voice that travels. He always wears a glove and is always on the move, pacing the concourse in a constant pursuit of foul balls. 

Kannapolis call and response.

After interviewing the Uh-Huh Guy (which,  let me assure you, is no easy task), I was approached by “Raider Rock.”

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Raider Rock wrestles for $5 Wrestling, an organization with the tagline “Wrestling So Bad It’s Good.”  You don’t want to mess with Raider Rock.

Seriously.

Raider Rock could generally be found in close proximity to the Uh-Huh Guy, making for one of the most eccentric ballpark duos I’ve ever seen. I heard him yelling his “Dominate, Terminate and Exterminate” tagline throughout the evening, but to me he said “I’ve heard good things about you, Ben, and if I’ve heard good things you know it’s good.”

Thanks, Raider Rock. Keep doing what you’re doing!

Anyway, time to play some BINGO.

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I even called a few numbers myself, with the help of promotions director Amber Sersen (who has since moved on to a position with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers . A lot can happen in a month). My selections were indeed met with a smattering of boos, but the crowd seemed to go pretty easy on me.

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The balls I grabbed were white. Here’s a look at the board at the end of the half-inning break.

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I really liked BINGO Night, which  suited the quiet Tuesday night atmosphere. As opposed to frenetic blasts of activity every half-inning, this was a fun, low-key contest that kept the fans engaged throughout the game. Kannapolis was the seventh city (and ninth ballpark) I’d visited in the last seven days, so I was feeling a little burned out and grateful for the change of pace.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same…

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That shadowy figure is Matt Campbell, reprising his role as designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). The previous night in Charlotte, Matt l had enjoyed Queen City Cue and a Carolina Dog. Today, he had the Colossal Dog to contend with.

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“It’s a half-pound monster,” said Matt. “The team used to have a stand called Hot Dog Hut, where you could get a wide variety of toppings. But I’d order this again, even if its naked and I have to squeeze the condiments from out of a dispenser.”

Okay! Moving on, we have something a little more unique.

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This is a “Dale’s Mater Sandwich” — tomato, mayo and pepper on white bread. It was a childhood favorite of Dale Earnhardt (hence the name), and, as it turns out, it was a childhood favorite of Matt’s as well.

“I was raised on these,” said Matt. “Like on a Sunday afternoon, you’re with your cousins at the pool and you have a tomato sandwich. This one is pretty good. The tomatoes appear to be relatively fresh.”

And, at $2, this is one of the cheapest sandwich options in Minor League Baseball.

As Matt finished up with his Dale’s Mater, I checked in on Feldman and company in the press box.

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In fact, I even took a little video of Feldman at work. I recorded it in improper vertical fashion, but nonetheless I think this is worth watching. It gives a nice sense of the Kannapolis atmosphere, in which everybody seems to know everybody.

Speaking of everybody knowing everybody — soon after I left the press box I heard a voice behind me. “Hey, Ben.”

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That’s Charlotte Knights general manager Scott Brown. The Knights had played a day game (which I had attended), and Scotty took advantage of his free evening by driving out to Kannapolis.

“I just like to come here, sit down, throw my peanut shells down on the ground, and relax,” he told me. “This is what it’s all about.”

This inspired me. When was the last time that I had actually sat down and watched the game? When had I thrown some peanut shells on the ground?

The time was now.

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South Atlantic League baseball, Tuesday night after a rain delay edition.

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I watched the final two innings with Matt, his father-in-law, and step-daughter. There was some mild ribbing of this guy’s hair.

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And a debate regarding whether anyone could spell this guy’s name correctly on the first attempt.

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The game ended in a frustrating fashion, as an Inimidators rally was snuffed out after an extremely delayed third strike call. It was definitely a deer-in-the-headlights “rookie moment” for the umpire, and helped clinch the first-half division championship (it became official the next day).

To add insult to injury, the tarp was then put on the field as a precaution. Feldman tried to convince me to join in the fun, but I bailed due to a lack of proper tarp-pulling clothing. But, next time, this excuse isn’t going to fly. I have since been informed that the Intimidators have a bin full of so-called “tarp shoes,” ready and waiting for reluctant tarp-pullers such as myself.

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Next time, guys. Next time.

That’ll do it for posts related to my second road trip of the season, but trip number three starts now! Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

(team is recruiting)

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Reversal of Fortune in Hickory

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read about a distinct “highlight” from Hickory. 

Six of the seven cities I visited on my latest (and therefore greatest) ballpark road trip started with one of the first 11 letters of the alphabet. What are the odds? Coming in fourth alphabetically and fifth chronologically was Hickory, North Carolina.

I think I need to work on my ledes. In the meantime, here’s a picture.

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Hickory is the home of the Crawdads, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox  Texas Rangers. The team plays in city-owned L.P. Frans Stadium, named after a local Pepsi bottler who funded a portion of the stadium’s construction (there’s no truth to the rumor that L.P. stands for “Loves Pepsi”). I arrived at L.P. Frans Stadium on a recent Sunday afternoon, amid beautiful weather and correspondingly buoyant spirits.

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L.P. Frans Stadium is 21 years old, having been built in 1993 for $4.5 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this comes to approximately $7.4 million dollars, and this begs the question: why are stadiums so much more expensive to build these days? There is no chance whatsoever that, in our present economic climate, a Class A facility could be constructed for $7.4 million. Three times that, maybe, and even that would be a relatively conservative estimate. What is going on here?

But tangents can wait. The subject here is L.P. Frans Stadium, which underwent extensive renovations this past offseason in advance of the Crawdads hosting the 2014 South Atlantic League All-Star Game. One new addition are these Party Patios, located down the third base line.

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My view from this particular location, at this particular moment in space and time, was this:

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To the left was the home clubhouse. Note the immaculately manicured bullpen area, on the right.

006 I then walked round (and round) to this carousel, located next to covertly-branded playground equipment. It’s certainly not the best playground of all time, but it’ll do in a pinch.

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Is you a Crawlady, or is you a Crawdude? (Actually, the sign on the women’s room says “Crawdudettes,” but I don’t like taking pictures of women’s rooms because I don’t want anyone to get the mistaken impression that the kindly traveling Minor League Baseball writer is some sort of lecher.)

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As you can tell by the above photo and the one below, there is a significant amount of brickwork incorporated into L.P. Frans Stadium. That just means that there is mortar love.

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And what are these contraptions hanging from wall-mounted half-baseballs? Anyone? I forget to ask, and clearly it would be too labor intensive to send an email.

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Like the Party Patio, the Picnic Pavilion is another p-based alliterative addition to the stadium. This area used to be bleacher seating.

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It’s a little tough to see, but the stadium has protective netting all the way up the base lines. This is a good thing, safety-wise, but a bad thing, sight-line wise.

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Speaking of Crawdudes and Crawdudettes, here are Candy and Conrad.

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I was on the field at this juncture in order to — you guessed it — throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my GoPro, strapped to my skull, and this time the footage was somewhat acceptable. That’s really all I’m aiming for in life — to be somewhat acceptable.

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Here’s the footage, followed by a portion of the afternoon that I’ll contextualize a bit later on. You can hold off on watching that second portion, for now.

A bit high, but I’d rather be a bit high than in the dirt. At any rate, no one was impressed.

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Guys on the bench are — wait for it — reserve Claws.

The pre-game introductions were pretty cool, and involved not one but two youth teams. Upon having their name announced, the players ran through a high-five line (yellow team) and then joined with a kid from the black team as they made their way to their respective positions.

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For what it’s worth, the Crawdads’ catcher is one Joe Jackson. His great-great-great uncle was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, so, yeah, you could say baseball runs in the family.

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I requested an interview with Jackson prior to the game, but for whatever reason he wasn’t available. Maybe because he’s tired of always answering questions about his great-great-great uncle? It’s a nice twist that he’s playing in the same league as the Greenville Drive, however, as Greenville is his hometown and it was where “Shoeless” lived as well.

As the game began, Crawdads community relations director Megan Meade gave me a brief tour of the ballpark. The press box and surrounding areas were almost comically crowded. To an extent, this cramped environment is a result of not having much storage space elsewhere in the ballpark.

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But there was plenty of room to move on the concourse, where this gentleman was enjoying one of the Crawdads’ expanded beer selections.

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The Crawdad Cafe, located down the third base line and also featuring an indoor seating area, is another new edition. It lies across the concourse from the so-called VIP seating area.

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For VIPs only

For VIPs only

One component of the renovations was the expansion of the front office, by a cool one thousand square feet. According to Meade, “It felt like 200,000.”

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Oh, hey, it’s Conrad.

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Conrad was psyched, as he was on the cusp of witnessing what would be the main event of the afternoon. The tour could wait, as it was now time for Alex Ward to take “The Clawlossal Challenge.”

This, friends, is the Clawlossal. The challenge is to eat it within the span of six outs or less.

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For the record, the “Clawlossal” is a foot-long chili-cheese dog, pub chips, a half-pound burger, a pulled pork sandwich, a corn dog, five onion rings, two jalapeño poppers and two pickle spears. Also for the record: I’ve already written an entire article (with videos) about how the whole absurd spectacle went down.  Therefore, what follows are simply a few photo highlights.

Alex, all smiles at the outset:

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Should Alex complete the challenge, he’d win a t-shirt that would make him the envy of all.

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Alex alternated between the Clawlossal’s myriad food items with finesse and aplomb. Chews Your Own Adventure:

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In the homestretch, with plenty of time still remaining.

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A crowd gathers, hoping to witness an historic occasion. That kid in the orange shirt is 11 going on 37. He just got hired as an assistant AD at a Division II college.

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The finish line was in reach, but the finish line was not reached. Instead, disaster struck.

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Those in the biz call this a “reversal of fortune.”

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So close, but yet so far.

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Better luck next time, Alex!

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Okay, time to resume our little tour of the stadium. Here’s the Party Patio, once again. This time with people!

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Meade and I then walked down to the bullpen, which is a most picaresque locale.

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Meet “The CrawFathers”

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As is often the case with bullpens, there was a lot of clever banter taking place. Much of it was unprintable, but at one point there was an extended riff about taking Aleve.

“We call these I-B-Throwins. Take 6-8 of these and you’re good to go.”

We didn’t hang around in the bullpen for very long — there was a game going on, after all — but I was reminded of the fact that I like to do stories about bullpen games/rituals/pranks, etc. I got some great material last year in that regard (if you don’t know, Google “Whitewall Ninja”), and am hoping for more before this year is out. If you’ve got any leads, call me.

But anyway, we left the bullpen and came upon this scene.

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These young fans were waiting for their opportunity to chase Conrad across the field, in much the same way that I was chased across the field last season in Tennessee while wearing a chicken suit. It’s a pretty standard Minor League promotion, and I got some great video of it, but because I was born yesterday I shot the video in improper vertical fashion and the MiLB.com Quality Control Department deemed it unusable.

See that red haired kid, front and center? I asked him why he was so excited to chase Conrad and he told me “I’m gonna punch him in the head! He steals hats, he creeps me out.”

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Never underestimate a child’s desire to physically assault a Minor League mascot.

After watching Conrad escape the clutches of his would-be tormentors, I rendezvoused with Crawdads promotions assistant Brice Ballentine. I was to be a contestant in the team’s version of “Cash Cab,’ answering trivia questions while being driven around the perimeter of the field in a golf cart.

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Remember the video I posted earlier, with the first pitch footage? That video also includes my time in the Cash Cab. Ballentine is to be commended for writing a series of questions specific to my job, and I am to be commended for knowing the answers (though, toward the end, I got by with a little help from the fans).

As you can probably see from the above video, the weather was beginning to take a turn for the ominous.

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The skies soon opened up, and the crowd began to disperse. Through it all, Ballentine, dressed as a base-cleaning tooth fairy, stoically stood beside the first base dugout.

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Ballentine was waiting for an inning break that never came, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the vague sense of longing that is a chief component of the human psychological condition.

What came instead was a torrential downpour, and then came the tarp. Fortune, it had been reversed yet again.

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As you can see in the above picture, the rain absolutely soaked the playing field. Puddles were all over the outfield, and the game was subsequently called with the Crawdads defeating visiting West Virginia, 4-2, in an abbreviated six inning contest.

Time to go home, folks, nothing more to see here.

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That concourse concrete doesn’t just look slick, it is slick! Once the rains came, Alex (of Clawlossal eating challenge fame) and I sought refuge in the Crawdads Cafe. He entered before me and held open the door, just in time for me to take a comical pratfall. I slipped, landed on my posterior, and slid into the interior of the cafe as if it was third base. There were a bunch of people already inside, who politely stifled the urge to laugh until finding out that I was indeed okay (I was save for a couple of minor scrapes and, of course, a bruised ego).

Moral of the story: Don’t run on a wet concourse, especially if the concourse in question is at L.P. Frans Stadium. That thing is slippier than an eel lathered in sunscreen taking a nap atop a banana peel.

This guy was more equipped for the wet concourse than I, and for good reason: he’s a baseball lifer. Meet Crawdads group sales representative Stephen “South” Johnson.

075South got his nickname because his father is none other than North Johnson, a veteran Minor League exec who currently serves as the general manager of the Gwinnett Braves (who I had visited the day before).

“I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work in Minor League Baseball. I grew up in a ballpark. I was in one for the first time when I was four days old,” said South, whose family moved from Kinston to Rancho Cucamonga to Myrtle Beach to Gwinnett. “It’s kind of like being a military brat.”

As it turned out, South did a far better job than I did in documenting the storm that postponed the game.

That marked the second time on this trip in which I saw the tarp, and it would not be the last. But, regardless, the game must go on.

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Meanwhile, my next ballpark road trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch! I’ve had some cancellations recently, plenty of spots still available!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Can-Do Spirit in Gwinnett

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my rollicking report from Gwinnett. 

While traveling this country each summer, it is generally my intent to not visit ballparks in which I have already set foot. I don’t like redundancy as redundancy is something I don’t like, particularly when there are still a couple of dozen ballparks that I have yet to visit once.

But there are exceptions to every rule. I first visited the Gwinnett Braves in 2010 — getting termites in my pants and eating Knucksie sandwiches — and last month I visited them again. It’s just how the schedule worked out, and I make no apologies (primarily because no one has asked for one).

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

2010 file photo of termite entering pants

And, redundant or not, I was happy to visit Gwinnett again. I’ve always respected the operating skills of general manager North Johnson (and not just because he has the best front office name in all of baseball), and this season Brandon Apter had joined on as the director of promotions. I had been in touch with Brandon on a regular basis during his previous stint with the Frederick Keys, and knew that he would do his best to make my evening in Gwinnett a spirited one.

So let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

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Some quick facts:

– The Gwinnett Braves are the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

– The Atlanta Braves own the Gwinnett Braves.

– Gwinnett County is a suburb of Atlanta.

Given the above three circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the G-Braves’ home of Coolray Field is heavy on big league Braves iconography. The banners in the above photo feature Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox and….is that Dale Murphy? It’s kind of hard for me to tell. Let’s just say Dale Murphy.

It’s not hard to find a parking space, as Coolray Field has vast swaths of asphalt that are ready and waiting for the sweet, soft tread of your automobile.

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The hoi polloi was lined up early on this particular Saturday, as Mike Minor bobbleheads were on the giveaway docket.

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The view from the concourse as the gates were opened.

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The view of the field as the gates were opened. It was a beautiful day, the clouds billowy as all get out.

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I don’t have any pictures of the Mike Minor bobbleheads that were given away, but I do have a photo of an oversized Rochester Red Wings hat. This was to be used as part of a villain’s outfit in the next day’s Superhero promotion.

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I knew that I would be busy during the game itself, so I used this little window of time to take a quick lap around Coolray Field.

Here’s Niekro’s, named after legendary Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and serving a sandwich named after Niekro’s signature pitch.

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The knuckleball was the signature pitch and the “Knucksie” is the signature sandwich. Here’s my 2010 file photo of the Knucksie, which is described as “House smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw, and served on a toasted corn muffin.”

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

I’ll seize this brief window of opportunity to gratuitously mention that, in 1979, 40-year-old Niekro went 21-20 over 44 starts for the Braves. He threw 344 innings and tossed 23 complete games, just one of which was a shutout. 1979 was the third of three consecutive seasons in which Niekro pitched 330 innings or more.

Of course, pitching that frequently, Niekro would get shelled on occasion. Please allow that observation to serve as your segue into this photo of a peanut kiosk.

026 Seeking shade in the picnic area.

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In this photo inflatable Chopper looks likes an unworthy supplicant, beseeching God.

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It has taken longer than originally planned, but a large-scale development project is soon set to kick off at Coolray Field. The Views would be a good place to live, so long as you’re really into Braves-affiliated Triple-A baseball.

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The views in the other direction are pretty good as well.

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Hey, it’s Chopper, taking the time to pose with his favorite obscure sportswriter.

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With the game about to begin, I headed down to the playing field. This groundskeeper was in a staring contest with third base, entering its third hour.

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But more interesting to me was seeing my old friends Baldy, Shades, and Martinez. Here’s hoping that TNT picks up their show for a second season.

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I was on the field because I had been invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my newly acquired GoPro headstrap while doing so, but the resultant footage was too shaky to use (I’m learning, slowly but surely. Basically, the camera was affixed to the base of my skull too loosely).

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My pitch was a perfect strike. And even sans-GoPro footage, I have proof! Just hit play…

I’ll reference a few other elements of that video a bit later on. But, for now, I’d like to mention that the G-Braves players were wearing specialty Doctor-theme jerseys on this evening. The jerseys were auctioned off via a silent auction during the game, with proceeds benefiting the Gwinnett Medical Center.

038 Yes, that is a stethoscope.

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I had made a plan to spend most of the game with Brandon Apter and his promo team, more or less embedding myself as a promo intern of sorts. Here’s Brandon. He and I both grew up in the Philly suburbs. (I went to Wissahickon, he went to neighboring Upper Dublin. Wissahickon is notable in that its 1992 seventh-grade baseball team went undefeated, led by the leadoff efforts of diminutive on-base machine Ben “Future Obscure Baseball Writer” Hill.)

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Wissahickon > Upper Dublin

I started off by shooting the t-shirt gun into the crowd, a task that always gives me anxiety because I am perennially fearful of disappointing people. (For the Ben’s Biz completists out theee, the t-shirt gun shooting begins at the :12 second mark in the above video.)

With the game underway…

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Brandon and I then took a leisurely stroll through the tunnel located down the first base line. Cans awaited.

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More specifically, the above three upside down individuals compete in the SATA (Southern Aerosol Technical Association) Can Race. The contestants are Stubs (shaving cream), Sunny (sunscreen), and Bugs (insect repellent). The purpose of the race is to raise awareness of both aerosol recycling options and inhalation abuse. A side benefit is that the cans often get to beat the crap out of each other.

I prepared for battle, slowly transforming myself into the guise of Stubs.

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As is often the case when I run a mascot race, I simply hung back and let the carnage happen elsewhere. This photo shows Stubs (me) just after he won the race, after Sunny and Bugs (bottom left corner) had been knocked out of the running.

As for how that happened, watch the video. The Can Race intro bit starts at 1:12, but pay particular attention to what happens at the 2:00 mark.

Bugs, aka promo intern Taylor Boone, took a shovel to the head! Chopper was the culprit; Chopper is a Jerk. For you, Chopper:

These Can Races are downright Cronenbergian, in that they have a History of Violence. I wrote about this in far more detail over on MiLB.com, the official website of Missing Letters Bureau Minor League Baseball. That article also contains this video, of a can race that had taken place the previous month.

Jessie the promo intern gets clobbered at the finish, but she lived to tell the tale. This is a must-watch.

Chopper’s shovel of death, hanging demurely in the so-called “Area of Refuge.”

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I’m not exactly sure what that room is a refuge from. Maybe the pervasive litter in the visitor’s dugout?

057  Hey Rahl! Hey Rohlfing! Learn how to use a trashcan why dontcha?

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Rahl and Rohlfing soon had a front row seat for this wing-eating contest.

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The dude in the camo shorts ended the contest with the wing-eating equivalent of dropping the mic.

My next failed attempt at gathering GoPro footage occurred at the end of the fourth inning.

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I ran around the basepaths, putting two identical pieces of a baseball uniform on each base. This was the set-up for the “Dress Around the Basepaths” contest, in which a couple of kids race each other around the basepaths. Of course, they have to stop and put on an article of clothing at each base.

After witnessing this spectacle, I was inspired to go upstairs and put on a new article of clothing myself.

Gwinnett Braves Doctor’s Jersey, as worn by Ben’s Biz. Let’s start the bidding at $1.29.

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Modeling stint complete, I returned to the field in time to witness a car washing contest.

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The kid on the left had a far better technique.

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The above contest took place at the end of the fifth inning. Three outs later, it was time for the Dave & Buster’s “Eat, Drink, and Play” competition. Eat a hot dog, drink a cup of water, do the dizzy bat and then sink a basketball shot. Good job out there, kids. I can’t remember which of you won.

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Finally, it was time for a game of “Guess the Pizza Topping” atop the dugout roof.

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I find this to be one of the more hypnotic entries in my Vine catalog.

“Is it raisins?”

And that was about it for the various between-innings hi-jinx and tomfoolery. Apter, like myself, is a Phillies fan by upbringing. His tomahawk chop was strictly perfunctory, and, most likely, damaging to his soul.

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These kids, they were cheering after their Dad won a Price is Right-inspired “Hi-Lo” game.

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Shortly after this moment of triumph, the game resumed.

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And shortly after this resumption, it was complete. The G-Braves lost by a score of 3-2, and then had to remain on the field while they were matched up with the individual who had bid for their Doctor-theme jersey.

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Nothing left to do now but throw some tennis balls into a plastic pool. You know how we do.

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Most of these attempts were unsuccessful.

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The G-Braves generally have high production values, but this goodbye message isn’t exactly racking up any points in the style department.

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I hope to come back soon. I already miss my pal Stubs.

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Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Tim Mullin

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: When In Rome

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Rome, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

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The view from the parking lot: Rome’s State Mutual Stadium, under a vast expanse of clouds and sky.

Apologies for the most obvious “On the Road” blog headline of all-time, but how could I resist? For on my latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, the stop after Huntsville was indeed Rome. And when in Rome, it’s pretty much mandatory that one makes cliched “When in Rome” observations. But why? How did this saying come to be? Since I’m backlogged on the blog and in a time crunch to write a lot of posts before my next trip (kicking off in Akron on July 18), clearly the best use of my time would be to look up the origins of this saying.

Okay, got it! “When in Rome” is an abbreviated portion of a saying attributed to Aurelius Ambrose, who, per Wikipedia, was “one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century.” Again, per Wikipedia:

Ambrose displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”

Follow the custom of the church where you are. Those are words to live by, and a philosophy I certainly apply while visiting Minor League stadiums.

When in Rome, Georgia, this is the place to see South Atlantic League baseball action. Welcome to State Mutual Stadium, land of the free (parking, with a media credential) and home of the Braves.

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On many of my stadium stops, I know more or less what to expect. I’ve had contacts with the team in question for many years, they know who I am and what I do, and it’s full speed ahead from the moment I step inside. But, in Rome, I didn’t know quite what to expect. They are not a team I’ve had occasion to cover on a regular basis, and while the front office was very welcoming in advance communication it was still a mystery to me regarding what the evening would bring.

Spoiler alert: it brought a lot.

First things first, I got the lay of the land. As you can see, this is a solid but not immediately spectacular Minor League facility. In a nutshell, it’s what you’d expect an 11-year-old Class A stadium to look like: a capacity of 5000, 14 suites, and a good but not great videoboard. The concourse provides ample vantage points down the baselines, but it is not 360 degrees nor is it entirely “open.” (Many of the concession, souvenir, and informational kiosks are located behind home plate, isolated from the field of play.)

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017But there wasn’t much time to ascertain the specifics of my surroundings. After briefly saying hello to mascots Romey (left) and Roxie…

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I met up with assistant general manager Jim Jones and this group of people. They had won a Facebook essay contest on why they should renew their wedding vows at the stadium, and they were at the ballgame to, yes, renew their vows.

019Even better, from my narcissistic perspective, I was asked to serve as “the official Minor League witness.” This was to be a first for me, and I was delighted.

Our motley crew soon proceeded onto the field, as the ceremony would take place just behind home plate.

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Well, okay, it was just me who proceeded onto the field. The four couples were driven to the ceremony in a grand golf cart procession.

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The following group of photos were taken by Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.

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While Mr. Hess took some great photos, he largely missed what was obviously the best part of the ceremony: me serving as the official witness. This is a task that was very important and took the utmost concentration, as I had to stand beside “Elder Kevin” and, well, follow the custom of the church where I was.

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You can kind of see me in the above photo. But being the Greatest Minor League Baseball Blogger of All Time has its perks, as I was spotted by someone in the crowd as well.

As for @gondeee, we’ll meet him later. And if you want more specifics about this stirring ceremony, then read my article on MiLB.com.

But for those intent on contributing to my rapidly approaching obsolescence by prioritizing the photos, then scroll on. Again, these are courtesy of Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.

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As the game began on this mercifully rain-free summer evening, I was in the press box. I don’t know why, but I’m sure there was a reason.

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The stadium is located within a rather nondescript area of Rome.

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In fact, all I saw while en route from the hotel to the stadium were chain stores, chain eateries and billboards exhorting the importance of proper Christian living. But the next day I had the chance to visit downtown Rome proper, and it was a charming and exuberant area that I would encourage anyone to visit (you know, when in Rome).

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Beastie Boys reference?

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But, anyway, there was a game going on. And me? I’m here to write about the game that was going on.

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Nah, just kidding. When I’m on these trips I never have time to watch the game. All I do is run around like the proverbial chicken with its proverbial head proverbially decapitated. Next on the docket was to meet the evening’s designated eater — you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

Joe Webster, ladies and gentleman. The most enthusiastic designated eater of all time.

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Joe is 16 years old, and lives in nearby Dallas, Georgia. He’s an aspiring broadcaster, and currently writes sports articles for his hometown Dallas-New Era newspaper. He was in frequent contact with me prior to my visit, just to make sure he knew he’d be in the right place at the right time. Joe was psyched, in other words, and I appreciated his enthusiasm.

We met at Bubba’s BBQ Barn — where the elite meet to take a seat and get some eats.

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Joe and I ordered a BBQ Sundae, fried bologna sandwich and a BBQ plate (you know, when in Rome). None of these items were served to us on Frisbees, though that is apparently the standard operating procedure for certain delicacies.

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Here’s Joe and I, with Joe just about to chow down.

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Joe began with the BBQ Sundae, a layered vertical concoction. Starting from the bottom: Cornbread, pulled pork, cole slaw, more cornbread.

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Excuse this break in regularly scheduled programming, for just as Joe was digging in to the sundae I noticed that the “Renew Your Vows” couples were taking part in a between-inning interview.

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I used this occasion to ask Martha and Bill Sims for an interview. They obliged, and some of that conversation is in my linked-to-twice over MiLB.com piece. Okay, three times over. 

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Joe ably served as a bodyguard during this interview, should any foul balls come in the Sims’ direction. While none came within threatening distance, Joe nonetheless almost chased one down that had landed about 100 feet away. Joe was enthusiastic.

But now, back to Joe and his BBQ Sundae.

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Plan B.

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Joe’s multi-pronged approach to the BBQ Sundae spoke to his frustration with it. He said that he “wasn’t enthralled” because he “wished it was layered better. It’s a good thing they give you a long spoon, because it’s hard to get down in there.”

More traditional, at least in regard to preparation technique, is the fried bologna sandwich. This is a comparatively rare ballpark food item, though I can remember the Danville Braves and Jackson Generals serving them as well. Any others?

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Have at it, Joe.

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Joe liked the bologna because it was “different than normal ballpark food.” But I got the sense that he wouldn’t have ordered it on his own. In my experiences, the people who like fried bologna sandwiches are the people that grew up eating fried bologna sandwiches. It’s a comfort food.

At this point a special guest arrived in the form of Twitter’s very own @Gondeee, the individual who had taken the photo of me serving as the wedding witness. @Gondeee was toting a BBQ Sundae and, unlike Joe, he was very much a fan of this concoction.

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@Gondeee’s real name is Martin Gandy, and he writes the “Chop County” blog. He told me’s a “tech guy by trade” and that his job involves frequent calls to India.

“Every time I call they’re like ‘Oh, Ghandi” and then I get the best tech support ever,” he said.

While we were talking, Joe was digging into his BBQ plate.

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That look of bliss says it all. Joe was a fan.

But I had to depart from Joe, at least for the time being, as I had been invited to ride along in the “Redneck Rummage Sale Trailer.”

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“It’s not a bad way to start a Friday,” said on-field host Matt Hayes. “On a trailer surrounded by beautiful women.”

The Redneck Rummage sale is a popular recurring event held in the parking lot of the stadium, and it is what it sounds like. There’s lots of junk for sale, and it’s generally very cheap. The trailer takes a nightly lap around the field between innings, as a way to promote the event.

While my attempts to film this ride with my brand-new GoPro were woefully unsuccessful, I did end up with the following scoreboard footage.

I also ended up with the following photos.

055 059 062 After riding in the rummage sale trailer, I had a little time to myself. That could only mean one thing, and that one thing is wandering.

Joe and I had missed out on the shrimp bucket, apparently. 063 And what better place to enjoy a shrimp bucket than by sitting in a motorboat? The Coosa River is back there somewhere, should anyone want to commandeer this boat in order to place it in a more natural environment. 067 Sitting man, as framed by a bronze leg kick. 068 A beach ball had been set loose upon the crowd, and I don’t know why. 069 These kids, meanwhile, were in their own private ballplaying universe. 070 I think there was a Chik-Fil-A ad on the other side of the foul pole. Get it? Fowl pole? 071 Back on the other side of the stadium, a top-level view of the front entranceway. 072 Roxey and Romey are an item. Did you know that? 075 Back on the concourse, I snapped this photo of condiments, fruit, and a chicken. 076 As it so often the case during these sort of circumstances, their job was to dance. Vine time!

Henry the Hot Dog, ladies and gentlemen. Or at least I think his name was Henry.  080 Bill and Martha Sims, that delightful married couple whom I mentioned earlier, came to the game with lots of family in tow. In retrospect this was not the best angle in which to take a group photo, but it’s what I got. Hello, Sims family!  085 Down on the concourse, manning the Fan Services booth, I ran into Kasey Decker.  087Yes, Kasey Decker of Winter Meeting Job Seeker Journals fame! Her long and winding path through the industry has brought her to Rome.

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Kasey, as she was last seen on the blog.

The game was winding down, so I reconvened with Joe and we got some dessert at “The Sweet Spot. 088 Joe wanted a “Banana Stick Sundae” but they were out of banana and a “stick sundae” didn’t sound as good. He got a swirl with Oreo instead, and ate it while boldly gazing into the future.  090 “It’s good. It’s ice cream,” said Joe.

But Joe was far more excited by the presence of All-Star Game ballots. Apparently, if he voted for B.J. Upton 250 times, he would be eligible to receive a B.J. Upton bobblehead at an upcoming Braves game. Joe was ready to vote 250 times and then some.

“People think I’m insane, but it’s okay,” he said. I hope he carries that attitude into adulthood, because it’s a good attitude to have.

Bye, Joe, and thanks. 091 The Braves won the ballgame, and celebrated by chucking Frisbees into the crowd with reckless aplomb.

And that, as they say, was that. Goodnight from Rome, Georgia, where I did my best to follow their customs.  DCIM100GOPRO —- Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a Designated Eater at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch. YOU can be the next Joe Webster!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Tim Mullin

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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