Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

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

On the Road: Not Much of a Goodbye in Huntsville

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

One of my most anticipated stops on this, my latest and therefore greatest ballpark road trip, was Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium. The Stars are currently playing their final season, as the franchise will move to Biloxi in 2015 and compete as either the Black Jacks, Mullets, Schooners, Shrimpers, Shuckers or Beacon (these are the finalists in the ongoing “Name the Team” contest).

Joe Davis is undoubtedly a dump, but dumps have character and I have always enjoyed visiting. In fact, Huntsville was one of the first places I ever visited in my “traveling ballpark writer” capacity. I went there in 2009 in order to participate in and write about the team’s attempt to play the longest game of Wiffle Ball of all time.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

That game of Wiffle Ball never happened, due to a rainout. (But I did get to see an on-field sword swallowing demonstration, because obviously a sword swallower should be on the premises during a Wiffle Ball world record attempt.)

And, five years later, on June 5, 2014, the game in which I was supposed to attend didn’t happen either. While the weather had been pleasant during my drive from Chattanooga to Huntsville, things took a turn for the worse shortly after I checked in to my hotel.

My concern was justified. After the torrential downpour and frightening lightning subsided, I dutifully drove over to the ballpark. You know, just in case. There were a smattering of cars in the parking lot, and tickets were still being sold.

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The women at the ticket window were very welcoming — after all, this was to be my special night! Huntsville Stars GM Buck Rogers had declared June 5 to be “Ben Hill Day” at Joe Davis Stadium, with free admission to any fans residing in Ben Hill County, Georgia. Ben Hill is about six hours away from Huntsville, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anyone to take the Stars up on the offer, but with the weather being what it was it was now a virtual guarantee that the good people of Ben Hill had stayed home. I just hope they did so of their own free will, and not because they were in jail.

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

Also nowhere to be found was Buck Rogers himself. Buck has been named general manager for the new team in Biloxi, so he’s splitting the remainder of this season between there and Huntsville. He, his wife Babs (an essential Stars staffer as well) and several other front office members were in Biloxi, making an already quiet Joe Davis Stadium that much more quiet. (For those who don’t know Buck, he’s a very loquacious guy.)

On the Road: Mingling With the Stars in Huntsville

Buck Rogers in his office, taken during my 2010 visit to Huntsville

Rogers and crew had picked a good night to be out of town. Within three minutes after I arrived at Joe Davis Stadium, word filtered in via the omnipresent staff walkie-talkies that the game had been “banged” (industry slang for “postponed”).

Come back tomorrow, Huntsville Stars fans.

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But for me, there would be no tomorrow. At least not in Huntsville. While I briefly considered modifying my itinerary and sticking around for the following day’s doubleheader, the weather wasn’t looking good for that one either. With a heavy heart, I made the executive decision to proceed to the next day to Rome, Georgia, as I had originally planned.

The game wasn’t happening,  but that didn’t mean that I had to leave Joe Davis Stadium. “Why not wander around and get a few final photos?” I said to no one in particular.

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The Stars are called the Stars because of Huntsville’s rich aeronautic past and present. The fact that the GM is named “Buck Rogers” is just a coincidence, however.

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What isn’t a coincidence is that the signage around the stadium is in a NASA-style font.

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If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign next to “Stars Radio” declares this section of the ballpark to be a “horn-free zone.” Casio, the team’s PA announcer, told me that he had never heard a horn in the stadium before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Yes, when I was wandering around Joe Davis Stadium I ran into a guy named “Casio” (given name: Matt Mitchell), and ended up writing a story about him. Rainout or not, this is something I had been planning on doing anyway. Casio is a local celebrity!

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The view from the press box.

031Up in the pressbox, I was reminded of a Tweet that had been directed at me the previous week. The guys at Cespedes Family BBQ were on a road trip with a somewhat similar itinerary to mine, and had been in Huntsville several days before.

Found it!

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Thanks guys. I held on to the card, filing it in my Rolodex under sub-category “individuals who have never invited me on their podcast even though I am the greatest Minor League blogger of all time and most underrated sports media entity of the last five years.” This is the second-biggest sub-category in my Rolodex, right behind “sports media professionals who never respond to me on Twitter even though that joke I tweeted at them was really clever and funny and clearly the best use of my time.”

If it sounds like I have a chip on my shoulder, it’s because I do!

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Sorry, I’ve been a bit obsessed with wordplay lately. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to M&M.

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That M&M is a bibliophile because he’s, well, red. He does most of his reading in the bathroom, but didn’t think it was funny when I nicknamed him “John Candy.” (Also, I’m going to file an expense report for the $2.50 I spent on the chips and M&Ms. Clearly it was a justifiable business expenditure.)

Anyway, I was writing about Huntsville. The game was rained out, Casio had been talked to, business cards had been found, and there was nothing left for me to do but go back to the hotel room and sulk in a desultory manner. (Is there any other way to sulk?)

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to provide more on the Huntsville Stars in this, their final season, but at least I’ve written about them plenty in the past. Click ‘em all!

Blog post from my 2009 visit 

Blog post from my 2010 visit 

Article on Buck Rogers from my 2010 visit

Article on Huntsville Stars as they entered their 2014 swan song

Guest blog post from former Stars employee Gillian Richard, on why she loves the team. 

I too, will miss Joe Davis Stadium, and this is the one moment I will never forget.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Lonely Weekday Matinee in Chattanooga

I have now visited AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, on two occasions. On neither of those occasions did I see an actual Southern League baseball game. The first such occasion was in 2010, as a torrential downpour began just before game time and resulted in a rainout. I was still at the ballpark long enough to get a blog post out of it, which you can peruse HERE.

I visited AT&T Field again earlier this month, and this time there wasn’t even a hint of a game. The Lookouts had completed a homestand the day before, but — hey! — when in Rome. Why not stop in and say hello?

AT&T Field, which opened in 2000, is located in downtown Chattanooga. I parked my rented Volkswagen Bug on Chestnut Street, safeguarded all valuables, exited the car, began walking, and, soon enough, made a quick left on “Power Alley.” (This is a common feature of modern day Minor League ballparks, in that they are located on streets that have been re-christened with a baseball-themed name. This can wreak havoc if you are getting to the ballpark via GPS, which may not have been programmed to recognize “Home Run Drive” or “Fastboulevard” or “Respect the Game Lane” or what have you.)

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Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.

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Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.

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Somewhat mysteriously, this trolley was idling in the parking lot unattended with its doors open. While I did not commandeer it for my own usage, I did hop aboard and take this world-exclusive picture of the interior.

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Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.

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As for the stadium itself, it’s a solid if unspectacular turn-of-the-century model. It’s efficient, reliable, and looks pretty good, but if it was hanging out with other Minor League ballparks at a Minor League ballpark social function it would blend in with the crowd pretty easily.

004Once inside the ballpark, I met up with Dan Kopf (media relations manager) and Alex Tainsh (corporate sales). They insisted on being referred to as “esteemed tour guides.” Kopf is the guy on the right and, for the record, “Kopf and Tainsh” would be a good name for a basic cable show about crusading maverick lawyers.

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It was a pretty sleepy afternoon at the ballpark, given that the Lookouts had concluded a homestand the day before. I was poking around for something to write about (as in, for an MiLB.com article), but that’s tough to do when very few people are around and not much is going on. However! My esteemed tour guides said that, should I ever actually do my job properly and see an actual Lookouts game, Wanda Goins would be a good person to write about.

Wanda is a veteran program vendor, so well known that on the rare occasions in which she cannot attend the team plays a recording of her. And, like any Minor League celebrity worth her salt, she has been the recipient of her own bobblehead. (Which reminds me, when am I going to be honored with my own bobblehead?)

Anyhow, if you want a Wanda Goins bobblehead (and cd!), it can be currently be had for the (not-so-low) price of $75 on eBay. 

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But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.

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As you’ll see in the picture below, AT&T Field lacks an open concourse. For all I know, it may have been the last Minor League stadium to have been built without this feature (prove me wrong, readers. You always do.) In looking around for more info, I came across this Ballpark Digest tidbit about how the stadium was funded:

Frank Burke bought the Lookouts in the mid nineties but felt the team had to have a new stadium to stay in Chattanooga. In the fall of 1998, Burke announced that he and his ownership group would build a privately funded ballpark if the team could sell 1,800 season tickets. The 1800th ticket was sold on January 28, and construction of the park started in late March 1999. The Lookouts ended up selling over 2,200 season tickets.

Is that the only MiLB stadium to have been funded in such a manner? The only other completely privately-funded stadium I can think of, at least within the past two decades, is the West Michigan Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Ballpark. (Note: I have since been informed that the Lexington Legends privately funded their ballpark in 2001.)

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Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that there used to be a cannon positioned in the outfield, which would make loud exploding noises after home runs. However, the shells for this cannon are no longer commercially available. (I blame Obama.) There is a home run choo-choo train, however.

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It hasn’t happened yet, but any Lookout batsman with the wherewithal to blast a ball through the crook of this angled dirt-scoop receives  a cool $500.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that this block of outfield seats did not have a name. I was surprised they weren’t called “The Lookout Seats” or “Lookout Landing” or something like that.

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There is a “Lasorda’s Landing,” however. Tommy doesn’t have any deep personal connections to Chattanooga, but the Lookouts are a Dodgers affiliate so there you go.

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And, well, that’s all I’ve got. Upon bidding adieu to my esteemed tour guides I trekked back down the hill to Chestnut Street, and noticed that there is a movie theater right there on the corner. Minor League Baseball teams are in a mortal war with movie theaters! Both want to procure as large a portion of your “family-friendly entertainment” expenditures as possible, and there’s only so much to go around.

IMG_1489I have now written two posts about this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, and neither have taken place during an actual game. Third time’s the charm?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Re-visiting a Classic in Chattanooga

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

My latest (and therefore greatest) Minor League ballpark road trip kicked off in Chattanooga, home of the Lookouts. I did not see a Lookouts game, however, as they played an 11:05 contest on the day that I arrived and I was unable to make it to the ballpark on time. (My fault, as I had not noticed that anomalous game time when I booked my flight.) However, all was not lost. Far from it.

For being in Chattanooga means being able to visit Engel Stadium, which served as the home of the Lookouts from 1930-98. In the decade following the team’s departure — they now play at AT&T Park in downtown Chattanooga — Engel Stadium fell into a state of extreme disrepair. In 2009 a concerned group of community activists formed the Engel Foundation, with the quixotically noble goal of restoring this classic facility to its former glory.

I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, where I got to know Foundation president Janna Jahn and her ragtag group of supporters. I then wrote about Engel again in 2013, after the stadium stood in for Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42. And now, here I am writing about Engel again.

I drove to the stadium immediately after arriving in Chattanooga, marking my first excursion in the black Volkswagen Beetle that was assigned to me by fine folks at Avis. Jahn was already at the stadium waiting for me, and for the next hour or so we ambled through this historic facility as I got up to speed on the latest news.

From the outside of Engel Stadium, it’s hard to get a sense of the beauty that lurks therein.

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But once you step inside, it’s a different story.

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My MiLB.com piece detailed the specifics of the recent improvements to Engel, but what it boils down to is this: much has been done, and there is so much more to be done. To name one of many examples: Engel Stadium once had what was billed as “the world’s largest scoreboard,” seen in the photo below, and Jahn said that, long term, the Foundation would love to install a replica.

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But one thing at a time. A more pressing concern at the time that I visited was removing the dead bird from the netting behind home plate.

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A closer view.

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The grandstand looked immaculate, and the press box had recently been restored to its ’30s-era parameters and bestowed with a brand-new instrument.

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The view from the press box.

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This office area, located down the third base line, is now referred to as “The 42 Room.” Some of the film’s locker room scenes were shot here, and it is now filled with production photos and paraphernalia.

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From there, we took a nice stroll across the outfield.

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I took this photo using the MiLB Instagram account. It was the first Instagram photo I ever took, and also the first time I used a filter of any kind.

Hey, man. Nice shot! 

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That Filter reference I just made was exquisite

Engel Stadium received a laser-graded infield, courtesy of the 42 production team. The outfield remains the same as it ever was.

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For the filming of 42, the dugouts were modified to resemble those of Ebbets Field. Then, after the filming, they were changed back to their original state (more or less).

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If you’ve never spent time in the bowels of an 80-something-year-old facility…well, this is what it looks like:

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There’s a poignant scene in 42 in which Jackie finally loses his cool, going on a bat-smashing rampage in the tunnel leading onto the field. That tunnel, now inaccessible, was here:

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Which stadium has the worst bathroom facilities? Engel Stadium, or Burlington Athletic Park (home of the Appy League Royals) circa 2011?

Engel:

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Burlington:

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Have you staked out your position in this great American debate, and able to articulate it? Great. Then let’s continue.

A day or two before I visited Engel, the stadium had been vandalized (chalk it up to a security system malfunction).

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It’s hassles like these that really give me a lot of respect for the Engel Foundation volunteers. They have full-time jobs and busy lives but nonetheless must repeatedly drop what they are doing in order to deal with hassles such as the above. As Engels’s 21st-century prominence continues to grow, it is my hope (and, I’m sure, theirs) that sufficient funds will become available to pay for a full-time facilities manager.

The vandalism seemed to be limited to the above graffiti as well as a smattering of smashed fluorescent light bulbs.  I found it interesting, that in the midst of the all this juvenilia, there was what seemed to be a heartfelt nod to Jackie Robinson. Even vandals have respect for one of the all-time greats!

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The damage was cleaned up promptly, as one week after I visited Engel Stadium hosted the Southern League Home Run Derby. This picture is from the Lookouts Facebook photo album.

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But as for me, it was time to depart. Until next time, Engel:

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No filter.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Elvis, Willie and Rojo in Round Rock

My sixth and final stop on this, my first road trip of the 2014 season, was Round Rock, Texas. The Express, Triple-A affiliate of your Texas Rangers, are one of Round Rock’s (and the greater Austin area’s) top attractions.

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The Express play at the Dell Diamond, which was built by legendary train robber Sam Bass in 1877 for use as a hideout from the law (either that, or I have misread the Wikipedia entry). These days, the trains are safe from the likes of Mr. Bass. This one sped past as I was entering the stadium, unencumbered from the constant threat of a hostile takeover.

As for the team’s name of “Express,” that’s a nod to the nickname of team co-owner Nolan Ryan. ( It costs $8 to park at Dell Diamond, a rather high rate by MiLB standards, and the comparative exorbitance of that fee is particularly striking in light of the fact that Ryan issued a Major League-record 2,795 free passes during his career.)

Upon entering the stadium I was greeted by Express director of communications Jill Cacic, who immediately led me and my guest for the evening (you’ll meet him later) on a tour of Dell Diamond.

Upon further investigation, it appears that Dell Diamond opened not in 1877 but in 2000. For the first five seasons of the Express’s existence they played in the Double-A Texas League. That team relocated to Corpus Christi in 2005, becoming the Hooks and staying under the Ryan-Sanders ownership mantle, while the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League relocated to Round Rock and assumed the identity of the Express. Make sense? It’s kinda like that time that the Carolina League Kinston Indians re-located to Zebulon and assumed the identity of the Carolina Mudcats, while the Double-A team that had been the Mudcats relocated to Pensacola and became the Blue Wahoos. That’s the sort of comparison that everyone knows and relates to and can understand right away with no confusion whatsoever.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know is this: there are a lot of Golden Chicks in the Dell Diamond dugout.

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A cool quirk — or a #cooquirk, to use the internet parlance of the day — of the Dell Diamond is that the players enter and exit the field via this staircase located down the left field line. The purpose of this is to promote fan interaction with the players; like it or not, they’re gonna have to mingle with the hoi polloi. (The Corpus Christi Hooks’ home of Whataburger Field utilizes a similar strategy, except that the player entrance is located amid the third base stands as opposed to straightaway left field.)

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At the top of the stairs one finds the entrance to the clubhouse. And, yes, players interacting with fans.

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The view from the player’s entrance. It’s a long way to the Golden Chicks.

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After going up the stairs we went right back down the stairs. Such is life. The purpose of our descent was so that I could be interviewed on the field by Express director of entertainment Ballpark Rob Runnels.

So we meet again, Ballpark Rob. My appearance has degenerated since the last time that I saw you.

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Rob and I spoke about life, love, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept, pre-code Hollywood, DIY pickling techniques, the deleterious effects of clickbait on social discourse,  maintaining a connection with God amid an increasingly secular society, and Minor League Baseball.

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My time on the videoboard, and on the field, continued beyond the interview. Next up was a ceremonial first pitch. The pictures tell the story.

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#emergingmanboobs

Bounced it.

Fortunately, there weren’t too many people who witnessed my bounced first pitch. It was a Monday evening, and as the game started the crowd was rather sparse.

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Nonetheless, the Express are averaging 7,985 fans per game this season, best in the Pacific Coast League. It is a fact of life that I always visit teams on off nights, and they always make sure to tell me so.

It’s not the size of the crowd that matters anyway, it’s how you use it. Spike, he always does his best to entertain.

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Ready for his close-up:028

Speaking of Spike, one Spike Owen is on the Express coaching staff and Steve Buechele is the manager. As someone who collected baseball cards between the years 1986-1992, I am very familiar with these names. You probably are too.

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Spike Owen’s middle name is Dee. Spike Dee Owen is a cool name.

With the game underway, I did what I do best: not watching the game. Instead, our ballpark tour resumed. Later, guys.

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All of the Express’s food and beverage options are now handled in-house, via the newly-created Ryan-Sanders Sports Services (RS3 for short). I’ll have more on that later, but, for now:

This is the “Brew @ The Rock” bar, which features 16 beers on tap.

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Those pieces of wood affixed to the bar are used as serving containers for “beer flights” ($8 for four four-ounce glasses), and they’re made out of baseball bats. I’m not sure when, but it’s a guarantee: other teams will steal this idea.

Teams will not, however, use this sign as a template. There’s a semi-colon where the comma should be, which completely changes the sign’s intended meaning.

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Triple-A rosters are often comprised of veteran guys, who are for more likely to have wives and families than any other level of the Minors (guys at other levels of the Minors are far more likely to have video game systems, a dozen pairs of flip-flops, and the Tinder app on their phones). Hence this room, reserved for the families of the players.

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There are plenty of other places in which to lounge at the Dell Diamond. These rocking chairs are available to anyone with a berm ticket, for an additional cost of $5 (first come, first served).

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The members of the Express bullpen like to put their feet up as well.

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As do the grounds crew.

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RS3 also offers sports turf services throughout Texas, so this storage area has room for equipment above and beyond what is need to maintain their field. (When I post pictures such as these, I imagine MiLB groundskeepers in less lavish environments pounding their fist on the desk, spitting coffee onto the computer monitor, and yelling obscenities).

047While in the groundskeepers shed, I paid a visit to the center field camera well.

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Looping around the stadium’s exterior, we soon came upon the player’s parking lot. You can generally tell which cars belong to players; there’s all sorts of overcompensation going on.

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GMC envy

The owner of this vehicle possesses what very well may be the most bird poop-splattered Mercedes in all of Minor League Baseball. Get in touch if you are aware of any competition in this category.

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The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.

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All of the above apply to Ben’s Biz Blog, which, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time as well as most underrated entity in all of sports media. You know this. Tell a friend.

No segue:

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You don’t see this at most ballparks.

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Earlier on this trip, I visited the Midland RockHounds and made a note of the huge rock sitting just outside of the stadium. Flipping the script, the Express have a huge rock inside of the stadium. Fitting, as they are one of the boulder teams in Minor League Baseball.

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If you’re not into sitting in front of a big rock, you can go swimming instead. I’m not sure if one can stand in this swimming pool or not. Guess that deep ends.

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Our lap of the stadium complete, it was once again time to return to field level. Hola, Spike.

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I was back on the field in order to compete in a between-inning shirt shag, in which I was tasked with catching t-shirts (launched from a slingshot) with a net.

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I missed the first one due to lack of skill, as it clanked off the side of the net. I caught the second.

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The third one was a soft launch, and I had to hustle for it. This photo makes it appear as if I might catch up to it, but I didn’t.

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TRUE GRIT:

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And what’s this? STOP THE PRESSES — full video documentation.

Okay, fine, whatever. Another on-field failure. But there’s no crying in Minor League Baseball blogging, a fact of life when you’re born with defective tear ducts.

Time to eat! My designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was Austin resident Phil Boyd.

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Phil and I were friends (and, for three years, roommates) at the University of Pittsburgh. We initially bonded over a shared love of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his band Shockwave Riderz had just gotten off of a tour in which they opened for the Blues Explosion. Check out these Shockwave Riderz oscillations, and then cop some music here! It’s an In the Red Silver Apples synthscuzz Suicide attempt, like Dirty Beaches once the sleeping pills wear off.

Round Rock turned out to be a very good location in which to be a designated eater. As mentioned before, the team is now doing all of its concessions in-house, and executive chef Ed Ebert and food and beverage director Jay Kudla were psyched to show off their new creations.

What’s up, guys?

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I wrote a MiLB.com feature about the concessions, and will try my best not to be overly redundant here. Each concession area is now a standalone, separately-branded entity, and there are a ton of options. Our first stop was the Metro Deli, which has three sandwiches named after Texas icons.

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Herb mayo, get it?

You’ll also notice the words “gluten-free market” on the above sign. The Express cater to gluten-free diets whenever possible, and the staff is fully trained as regards food handling procedures as well as the specific ingredients in each item. They’re doing it right.

While my photo documentation is poor (by this point my camera batteries had died and I was fumbling around with an iPhone), Phil ended up with a McConaughey.

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My notes regarding Phil’s opinion of this sandwich were much like McConaughey himself: kinda hard to comprehend. In a nutshell, he liked it but wasn’t blown away.

Meanwhile, I was trying my hand at the Big Kahuna Dog — a quarter-pound Nolan Ryan beef hot dog topped with mango salsa, pineapple mustard and avocado and served (for me) on a gluten-free bun. On the side are house-made sea salt and pepper chips (when the Express say that everything is made on-site, they really mean it. There are no bagged chips to be found, and homemade is MUCH better).

The gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately (such is life, gluten is a binding agent) but this is a great dog and indicative of the Express’s attention to detail. Ebert and Kudla can (and will!) explain every component of every item in exacting detail. The result of this approach is food items that are uniformly fresh and flavorful.

Also available from the 50’s diner-themed “Fairlane’s” concession stand (or “storefronts,” as the team now calls them) is the James Dean hot dog. It’s topped with bleu cheese  slaw and Frank’s Red Hot:

“This is a classic Buffalo wing flavor, and the bleu cheese slaw is great,” said Phil. “This is a good dog, man.”

Also named after a 50’s icon, but far less traditional, is “The Elvis.” Banana and peanut butter on a bun, drizzled with honey.

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The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.

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“The cool thing about it is that’s dessert, but not that unhealthy,” said Phil. “It’s so cool to have a dessert that’s not, like, a ton of ice cream.”

And then there’s this: the Grilled Cheese Dog. No explanation required.

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Man, I wish I could have tried this one. But this garlic fries on the side are EXCEPTIONAL. Much crisper than your usual garlic fries, and seasoned to perfection.

Here’s Phil watching the game with the Grilled Cheese Dog, his steadily growing array of food items laid out in front of him.

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“The dog is the first thing you notice, but it’s followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor,” said Phil. “It’s a fun idea.’

Hey! Remember back in 2010, when “Rojo Johnson” made a relief appearance at a Round Rock game? If not:

Rojo is now back at the ballpark, in the form of “Rojo’s Southwestern Hideaway.”

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Lots of great gluten-free options here, such as this “Taco Flight” — pork carnitas and chicken verde with shredded romaine, cotija cheese, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

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In lieu of a written opinion, a picture:

Even better were the nachos, which are some of the best to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball. Red, white and blue tortilla chips, pork, “Queso Rojo,” jalapeno, pico de gallo, and sour cream.  Things like this represent the best kind of gluten-free ballpark options, in that they are naturally gluten-free as opposed to a compromised consolation prize.

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Extreme close-up!

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Next up for Phil was the beer shake, available at the Frozensational Tiki Bar. This is a Convict Hill oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream.

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“You’re gonna want a straw with that,” said either Ebert or Kudla (my notes are unclear). “This is not a beer with milk in it, it’s a milkshake with a shot of beer.”

And — yes! — a gluten-free beershake was concocted for me using Redbridge. Cute hair, bro:

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By this points most of the concession stands (or, sorry, “storefronts”) were shutting down. But we weren’t done yet. Here, Phil “The Bottomless Pit” Boyd poses with a brisket BBQ plate from the South Side Market (a third party vendor that has a restaurant in Elgin, Texas).

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Once again, a picture says more than words ever could.

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RS3 has come very strongly out of the gate, and the long-term plan is, as Kudla said “to make it salable and take it elsewhere.” Could the Grilled Cheese Dog be coming soon to a ballpark near you?

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Encore presentation

This extensive food tour brought us right through to the end of the game, but it was worth it. The only thing I regret is that Phil and I missed seeing this:

That dude clearly put a little too much herb mayo on his Willie Sandwich.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Whatanight in Corpus Christi

In keeping with the theme of this Texas-sized road trip, I arrived in Corpus Christi shortly before the game began and didn’t really have any time to get the lay of the land. But my first impression of Corpus Christi was that it was a pretty swanky place, at least in the waterfront area where my hotel was located. On these trips I am used to staying in nondescript establishments located within  homogeneous swaths of depressingly generic chain establishments. But the Corpus Christi Holiday Inn was 20-something stories tall and located right on the water, definitely not a typical Minor League hotel!

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The view from my room:

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Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to access the balcony. How’s this for some strangely-worded hotel room signage?

“We would like to make you aware”?

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This grandiose sense of scale carried over to the ballpark itself, which opened in 2005. Welcome to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.

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This statue, sporting the disappointingly generic title of “For the Love of the Game,” is 22 feet tall. Is it the biggest statue in all of Minor League Baseball? I don’t know, you tell me.

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I wrote about this statue, and many other aspects of the Hooks experience, over at MiLB.com. Please read it, as I am going to do my best not to be redundant when it comes to what I cover here in this blog post.

As you’ll see in this photo, and throughout the post, the landscape surrounding Whataburger Field is rather cluttered. There are cranes, ships, bridges, train tracks, wind turbines (and more). Much of this industrial activity is affiliated with the Port of Corpus Christi, which, per Wikipedia, is the sixth largest port in the United States as regards cargo volume.

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The wood beams incorporated into the stadium’s facade (as well as the corrugated steel paneling along the upper suite level)  are architectural nods to the cotton warehouses that used to permeate the region.

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During the days when cotton reigned, baseball in Corpus Christi was more apt to resemble this.

The AutoNation Club group seating area features this view of Harbor Bridge (it’s much prettier at night, as you shall soon see).

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There are a lot of Minor League groundskeepers out there would will kill (with their bare hands, if necessary) for storage space like this.

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Another perk of groundskeeping in Corpus Christi, as detailed in my MiLB.com piece:

Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn’t receive much rainfall, but what Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers calls “an incredibly effective drainage system” plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel. 

Tanks, a lot:

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Cotton presses, still standing in their original location, flank each side of the (brand-new) scoreboard. The “Bam Bam” sign below the window commemorates a batting practice home run hit by Hunter “Bam Bam” Pence while he was with the Hooks.

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The boilers that once drove the presses now serve as the backdrop for an outfield basketball court.

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Beyond the boilers one finds this youth field, which has games taking place at 5:45 most days of the week. On the day I attended, the Challenger League was in action.

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And here we have a rock wall, which has not yet achieved sentience.

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The view from the 407 Club, so named because it sits just beyond the deepest part of the ballpark.

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Even deeper, but not part of the ballpark proper:

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The Hooks’ Splash Zone is a bit more modest than the water park seen above.

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The view from the right field entrance.

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After taking this lap of the surroundings (thanks to Matt Rogers for the tour), I went down to the playing field for a pre-game interview with Hooks broadcaster Chris Blake.

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No pictures of this interview exist, but rest assured that I was charming and witty and incredibly knowledgeable. That’s Chris there on the left, and that guy on the right is wearing a poncho in celebration of Cinco De Mayo. This photo also provides a good view of the cotton press as well as the team’s new scoreboard.

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The dugouts are sponsored by the Downtown Marina Holiday Inn, who would like to make you aware that the balconies are not accessible.

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A pre-game autograph session featuring both players and mascots.

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I’m not sure if Sammy the Seagull is signing the baseball or eating it. Maybe a little of both. 124

And, yes, that is an anthropomorphic hook wearing a poncho. I don’t think that I had ever seen that before.

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As the game began, I was in a storage area among “Only in Minor League Baseball” accoutrements such as a super-sized order of Whataburger Fries.

129 I wasn’t participating in any spud-related activity, however. My task was to compete in a between-inning tricycle race.

IMG_1333 During most of the game I hung out with on-field emcee Charlie Kovar — aka “Ballpark Chuck.” He was rooting for me to succeed.

I started off strong, but at some point during the race my foot slipped off of the pedal and I never regained my speed. I finished in second (of three).

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Many of our adventures together throughout the evening were chronicled on the videboard, but the video I obtained lacked audio and I have decided not to use it. Hopefully these pictures will suffice, please send any complaints regarding my subpar content to benjamin.hill@mlb.com 

Ballpark Chuck and I then adjourned to the outfield for the “Whataburger Fry Shuffle” contest. (Similar to a cap shuffle or what have you). For participating in this contest, I received an oversized Whataburger t-shirt. Please, pay no attention to my emerging manboobs.

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Our ballpark journeys now segued into a now common segment of the Ben’s Biz Blog “On the Road” experience. It was time to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

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Say hello to Javi Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach in Corpus Christi. Javi was at the ballpark with his wife, Megan (also a teacher), father Jaime and son James (that James and Jaime in the background).

“I just love Minor League Baseball, and reading the different blogs,” said Javi. As for his designated eating duties, he remarked that “My wife couldn’t believe it, but she said ‘If if it’s going to be anyone, I guess that it’d be you.”

Yes, “The Babe.” Created last season in response to MiLB.com’s “Food Fight” competition, “The Babe” is cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger wrapped in bacon.

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“The cheddarwurst makes it so it’s not as dry as you would think,” said Javi. “And anything wrapped in bacon is a can’t miss. This is Texas, so when you put those meats together it’s good stuff.”

Next up was the Taco Dog — a hot dog in a crispy corn taco shell in a soft flour tortilla, topped with ground beef and pico de gallo.

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Javi simply remarked that this was a “good doubledecker, there’s a lot going on.” We then moved on to the mac and cheese dog, which I failed to take a good picture of.

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“This is good, but it could use a little ketchup,” said Javi. “Some people say that’s sacrilegious, to put ketchup on a hot dog.

At one point Javi attempted to enlist 14-month-old  James as a designated eater, which would have made him the youngest designated eater in the history of designated eating. James was having none of it, though.

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Ive Got You, Babe

Thanks to Javi and his family for taking the time to do some designated eating! When I asked if it was embarrassing to sit at a table and have someone take pictures of him eating, he said “Nah, I’m a teacher. You have to embarrass yourself in the classroom every day.”

That’s the spirit!

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For the record, Whataburger Field has its own Whataburger (which the locals pronounce “Waterburger.”)  The fast food franchise began in Corpus Christi, and still has its headquarters there.

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Enshrouded in the shadows, one can also find Nolan Ryan’s “Smoke 5714″ BBQ stand. (The Hooks were originally owned by Ryan-Sanders. Nolan Ryan struck out 5714 batters over the course of his 63-season career.)

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And don’t forget. There was a game going on! There is always a game going on.

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As alluded to previously, the Harbor Bridge is beautiful at night.

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Ballpark Chuck and I had made our way back down to the playing field so that I could emcee a “Finish the Lyrics” competition. Madalee and McKayla ably finished the lyrics (of a pop song I can no longer recall); fun was had by all.

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I then emceed a Dizzy Bat Race, because why not? I wish I had proper video of this, as my comedic chops were on point for a change.

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Taking a phone call while the contestants spin.

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After the Dizzy Bat Race, I interviewed Hooks super-fan Tammy Tucker about the myriad ways in which she supports the team. You can read that interview HERE.

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You don’t need a fancy lens to get a good picture of Harbor Bridge.

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With the game just about over, I made a pit stop at the press box. Like seemingly everywhere else at Whataburger Field, there is plenty of room to move.

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The Hooks do not acknowledge the existence of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

A unique aspect of Whataburger Field is this radio studio, located on the ground floor of the stadium and visible to fans. Here, outfielder Mark Wik does a post game interview with Chris Blake after homering in his Corpus Christi debut. I’m not sure of the machinations that led to Wik being in Corpus Christi, but he came straight from extended Spring Training, played two games with the Hooks, and then went to Class A Advanced Lancaster and played two games there. He is now back in extended Spring Training (I think), and will most likely appear again with Class A Short Season Tri-Cities once their season begins. What a life.

177 As I observed this interview, a man I had met previously in the evening, one Douglas Calhoun, tapped on the window and waved a ball and pen at me. I assumed he wanted me to get Wik to autograph the ball, but he wanted my autograph (!!!) I was happy to oblige.

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If you would like me to sign an autograph for you, then get in touch. I am a very accessible celebrity.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Mission Complete in San Antonio

Fun fact: Although just 20 years of age, San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the eight-team Texas League.

Funner Fact: For the first eight seasons of its existence, Wolff Stadium was the newest ballpark in the Texas League. Its descent from “newest” to “oldest” occurred over a span of just nine seasons; Midland (2002), Arkansas (2007) and Tulsa (2010) built new ballparks for previously existing teams, while Frisco (2003), Corpus Christi (2005), Springfield (2005),  and Northwest Arkansas (2008) began play in new facilities after re-locating from elsewhere.

The Texas League, where change is the only constant!

I arrived at Wolff Stadium after a long drive from Midland, during which I got caught in rush hour traffic. I arrived at the ballpark around 6 p.m. (much later than originally intended), changed clothes in the parking lot, and then snapped this shot of the ballpark’s exterior.

Welcome to the Wolff, man:

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Wolff Stadium is located across the street (more or less) from Lackland Air Force base. This base serves as the sole location for Air Force basic training, meaning that impossibly fresh-faced recruits are a common sight at Missions games. The sounds of planes flying overhead has also led some (or at least one) to dub it “The Shea Stadium of Minor League Baseball.” (At Shea Stadium, planes flying in and out of LaGuardia airport lent the ballpark a certain acoustical ambiance.)

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I was joined on this evening by one Jon Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist who recently completed a piece in which I am depicted blogging sans shirt.

shirtless

Available for purchase

Jon and I went to high school together (Wissahickon Class of ’97, for those keeping score at home). He was last seen on this blog at a Modesto Nuts game, eating meat-stuffed pretzels. Here he is upon entering Wolff Stadium, brandishing a brobdingnagian team-logo mug that was the evening’s giveaway item. (I now allow myself one use of the word “brobdingnagian” per season. Look forward to seeing the word again in 2015.)

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Some stadium views, captured upon arrival. Though it was a Friday, the Missions drew a lackluster crowd due to the fact that the Spurs had a Game 7 playoff game that evening. When you’re a Double-A baseball team, it’s kind of hard to compete with a championship-caliber NBA team in the same market. But what can you do?

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The National Anthem was adorable. For maximum enjoyment, listen to this at least 145 times in a row. I did!

I taped that anthem snippet in the press box, a domain occupied by shadowy figures.

1680And while in the press box, I got my first glimpse of iconic Missions mascot Ballapeno. For more on Ballapeno and his arch-rival, Puffy Taco, read my MiLB.com article on the subject. I COMMAND YOU.

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I also got my first glimpse of Alex Vispoli, broadcaster for the visiting Frisco RoughRiders. If broadcasters were ranked as MLB prospects in the same manner that players are, Vispoli would be high on the list. (Actually, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? But what methodology would be used? It’s a hard thing to quantify.)

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My interaction with Vispoli was brief, for the game was ready to begin.

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Following standard protocol, I did not settle in to watch the game. I commenced to wandering.

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And in the course of that wandering, I soon ran into my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

1702That’s Darren Smith, who drove in from Austin for the occasion. “I just wanted to see a new ballpark and shoot the [shoot] about baseball,” he told me. Smith currently works for an Austin-area summer camp that specializes in outdoor education, but in a previous life he worked for the MLB  Urban Youth Academy in Compton as well as the Bradenton Marauders during their nascent years of existence.

After talking with the team, it was decided that Darren would sample the “Nacho Dog.” It’s nacho dog, it’s Darren’s.

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Have at it, Darren.

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Darren was less than enthused with the Missions’ culinary concoction.

“The chili’s not great, the cheese is okay, but the bread is the worst,” he said. “It’s rock hard and cold. [Ballpark sponsor] Mrs. Baird’s is a Texas brand and you’d think they’d use that. The only thing that makes this a nacho dog is the chips, otherwise it’s a chili-cheese dog.”

We then stopped by Tony T’s Ballpark Treats, a third-party vendor, and got their signature Ribbon Fries.

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Darren was a fan of these, lauding their look, crispness, and overall flavor.

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I loved these (gluten-free!) creations as well. Tony T’s is a winner.

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Fischer took the above photo, and he took this one as well. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of my professional career that one can find.

SanAntonioMissions3

Finally, we stopped by another third-party vendor: Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse.

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Darren, an expert when it comes to the Austin-area BBQ scene, opted for the brisket sandwich. He said that “In Texas, you know a place has good BBQ if they have a good brisket.”

1699 Fischer, meanwhile, got a Hot Chop sandwich with Serrano peppers.

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Oh, and a Frito Pie was involved somehow.

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Have at it, guys.

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In case you prefer your images of 30-something white men eating to be of the moving variety:

“I’m pretty sure that the bread here is Mrs. Baird’s,” said Darren. “By Texas brisket standards, this is at the level of a Dickey’s [a BBQ restaurant chain]. It’s pretty commercial, there’s no burnt stuff or smoke lines.”

And with that we bid adieu to Darren Smith, a tough but fair designated eater. I then re-commenced wandering.

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Some two decades into its existence, Wolff Stadium is in need of a little TLC. This metal fence could use a touch-up, for example.

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And this isolated area, located behind the berm, was just a dump.

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But for the most part, Wolff Stadium gets the job done. It is neither old nor young, just plugging along and maintaining its status as a San Antonio summertime entertainment staple.

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Of course, the aforementioned Ballapeno and Henry the Puffy Taco are a big part of the ballpark experience. Here, a gaggle of children chase Ballapeno across the field.

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I really wish I had been able to properly capture this moment. Ballapeno, in the act of waving to a young fan, accidentally slapped  her in the face instead. The girl, more shocked than hurt, began to cry. In the below photo, Ballapeno is attempting to apologize, but, you know, it’s hard to apologize when you can’t talk.

But don’t worry about it, Ballapeno, as it was clearly unintentional. Get in touch if you need me to provide a statement exonerating you of any wrongdoing.

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I was back up in the press box during Henry the Puffy Taco’s nightly humiliation. Not only does he lose every base path race, but the victor then stands upon him and gloats. Once again, my attempt to capture the action was subpar. (Everybody has their off nights, no matter what the job, and I had a blogging off night here in San Antonio).

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Humiliated or not, Henry the Puffy Taco still loves to dance.

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The game was moving rapidly, leading me to a sort of existential crisis. I’d been out and about and on my feet throughout, but what had I done? Anything? It didn’t feel like much, kind of like those recurring dreams I have where I’m at a ballpark in order to write about it but instead remain stuck in one place. (I really and truly have these dreams on a regular basis.)

But I wasn’t stuck, it was time to move. I had to get to the illuminated truth of this multi-tiered conundrum.

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But all I found was that the game was over, and fans were now attempting to throw tennis balls into a chimney. Typical.

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This was one case where people actually wanted to come down with the flue, but it was not to be. “Oh my God that was so close. Oh! Oh!”

But, hey, there’s always Run the Bases. 1730 Good night from Wolff Stadium. Don’t forget to get an autograph on your way out. 1733 benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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