Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

On the Road: Winged Pigs and Whiskered Fish in Zebulon

To see all my posts from my May 13 visit to the Carolina Mudcats, click HERE. To see all my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

This guy right here, holding meat in both hands, his name is Sherman Gillespie.

036Sherman lives in Garner, North Carolina, a town located south of Raleigh. He has worked 25 years in the Raleigh police department, holding down a variety of positions through the years. Currently he is a “school resource officer sergeant,” overseeing the officers who are placed within high schools throughout the city.

Sherman is also, not surprisingly, a big Minor League Baseball fan. He is a native of Shelby, North Carolina, and annually takes time off in order to volunteer at the American Legion World Series held at historic Keeter Stadium. Sherman attends approximately 10 Carolina Mudcats games each season and also goes on Minor League ballpark trips with his family. At this particular game  — Friday, May 13th, for those keeping score at home — he was accompanied by his 13-year-old son, Carson.

I am writing about Sherman because he had volunteered to be my designated eater — you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark foods that my gluten-free diet prohibits. (The Mudcats do a good job with gluten-free offerings, with GF chicken tenders, Red Bridge beer and GF buns on request. Food and beverage director Dwayne Lucas told me that “Anytime someone has an allergy, we try our best. It’s about accommodating it as many people as possible.”)

Sherman’s culinary journey began with two items I had procured from the concourse-level “Grand Slam BBQ Stand”: Pig Wings ($10) and a Carnitas Tacos platter ($8).

We began with the Pig Wings (aka pork shanks), which Sherman is holding in the above picture. They were accompanied by an order of fries, which tasted spectacular — thick, crispy and dusted with Old Bay seasoning.

033Have at it, Sherman.

“It’s not bad,” said Sherman. “It’s like a chicken wing with a lot more meat. It’s juicy. Tastes just like a chicken thigh, but like eating ribs.”

From there it was on to the Carnitas Tacos platter.

034“The vegetables give it a crunch, it tastes fresh, the meat’s tender and it’s got a good flavor,” said Sherman, who had a lot to chew on.

039Seeing that we were attending a “Mudcats” game, it was only fitting to then get a Catfish Po’Boy ($5). The catfish was crispy and well-cooked, but the accoutrements a little lacking.

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“It’s hot and crunchy, but doesn’t have a lot of flavor,” said Sherman. “It just needs more seasoning.”

As the catfish was being consumed, Sherman was visited by some of his Raleigh PD school resources colleagues. Sherman is their boss, but they were giving him a jovial hard time about all sorts of things and I’m sure they’ll enjoy the pictures in this post. Sherman’s son, Carson, is on the left in the Reading Fightin Phils cap.

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And with that, my time with Sherman and his pals ended. And with this sentence, my Carolinas trip blog posts are now complete. Thanks to all those who’ve followed along, and stay tuned for plenty of posts from my imminent Appalachian League trip.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Scouts and Superstition in Zebulon

To see all my posts from my May 13 visit to the Carolina Mudcats, click HERE. To see all my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

You know how it goes, usually: My first post from a particular locale sets the scene, while the third focuses on my designated eater. The second is an overview of what occurred during the ballgame itself. That’s where where at now here in Zebulon, North Carolina, the home of the Carolina Mudcats.

Yep, the ballgame had just begun. The Mudcats — Class A Advanced affiliate of the Atlanta Braves — were taking on the Lynchburg Hillcats.

027 The above “nothin’ but net” picture was taken from the lower reaches of the upper level.

028It was “Scout Night,” and Muddy was prepared.

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A lot of these scouts were planning to stay the night.

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As mentioned in the previous post, the netting at Five County Stadium extends from foul pole to foul pole. It may look the netting runs across the front of the dugouts, but it does not. This was a Friday the 13th optical illusion.

031The ballgame was a blur for me. I spent quite a bit of time talking to front office folks, and some of these conversations formed the basis for my article on the genesis and unlikely popularity of the Mudcats logo. I also spent a few innings with my designated eater, which, of course, will be covered in the next post.

After all that, evening sun had given way to a dark night sky. I ventured up to the farthest reaches of the ballpark and made an obvious, yet germane, observation.

My travels to the stratosphere were undertaken so that I could spend an inning on the air with Mudcats broadcaster Greg Young.

One distinct highlight of my time on the air with Greg was that I got to witness an at-bat by Lynchburg’s Sicnarf Loopstok, perhaps the best-named baseball player of all time (and winner of the 2013 Minor Moniker Madness contest).

sicnarfBack on level ground, I took in a Mudcats’ walk-off.

This was followed by post-game launch-a-ball and of course, fireworks. I never take good photos of fireworks, but I think this turned out pretty well.

After the fireworks, kids ran the bases. (This was truly the night that would never end, as run the bases was followed by a movie shown on the videoboard for the scouts in attendance.)

048As the youth ran in circles, I retreated to the concourse to write and disseminate a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

While on the concourse, I noticed that Muddy had indulged in an additional wardrobe change. He was no longer a scout; now he was Freddy Kreuger. This outfit was no doubt motivated by the fact that it was Friday the 13th, even though Freddy is from an entirely different horror franchise. Did it matter? No. Minor League Baseball.

Truly, there was nothing left for me to do, or see. With the audio of the Scouts Night’ post-game movie booming away in the background, I made my way to the parking lot.

IMG_1404Good night from Zebulon.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Ending in Zebulon

To see all my posts from my May 13 visit to the Carolina Mudcats, click HERE. To see all my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

A couple years ago, I delivered a presentation at the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar entitled “From Albuquerque to Zebulon: Another Season on the Road in Minor League Baseball.” I took a little artistic license with that title, however, as I had never actually been to Zebulon. It took me until May 13, 2016, to get to Zebulon, last in the Minor Leagues alphabetically and the last stop on my Carolinas road trip.

“Zebulon?” you may be saying to yourself at this juncture. “I’ve never heard of a team from Zebulon.”

Well, theoretical you, this is because the team in question carries the geographically indeterminate name of Carolina Mudcats. The Mudcats play in Five County Stadium, with Wake, Franklin, Nash, Johnston and Wilson being the North Carolina counties in question (the ballpark is located in Wake County, while Franklin, Nash and Johnston are all within 1,500 feet). Part of the reason the team is located here is because it is just outside the territorial rights of the Greensboro Grasshoppers and Durham Bulls.

Too much text without an image is deadly in this blogging game. So here’s a picture of Five County Stadium as it looked when I arrived there in the early evening of Friday, May 13.

001The ballpark has undergone many changes since it first opened in 1991, after the Mudcats relocated from Columbus, Georgia. Eric Gardner, the team’s general manager of operations, later sent me a series of photos that help to illustrate these changes.

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FiveCountyStadiumArial1992

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FiveCountyStadiumJune1996Arial2004 (following extensive 1999 renovations)

NIKOLAUS(C)Copyright 2003

It was 90 minutes before game time, and already the ballpark was bustlin’ with marching bands and clapping fans…

005…and lots of scouts. Lots and lots of scouts. They were planning on staying a while.

002On the inside, things were more sedate.

006The Mudcats were way ahead of the times when it comes to safety netting. For nearly the entirety of the park’s existence, the netting has extended from foul pole to foul pole. (Note, also, the iconic Mudcats water tower beyond left field.)

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The netting isn’t as obtrusive as it would be at most Minor League parks, as the majority of the seats are on the upper level.

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You really don’t see stadiums like these much anymore. “Layers upon layers” it says in my notes, and that sums up the general feel. Because it was built incrementally, it has a Frankenstein’s monster vibe to it.

To wit: This is the view from the new left field party deck, which hadn’t yet opened when I was in town.

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The pathway beyond left field is a good spot to get autographs, as well as a good spot to gain perspective on just how large outfield billboards are.

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This is the view from the second level, which illustrates that those from Zebulon and its surrounding areas like to drive white pickups.
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On the upper level, one can get a meal at full-service restaurant “Cattails.” This establishment opened in 2005 and is open during all games as well as special events.

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In the Mudcats’ front office, an actual mudcat (aka “catfish”) resides in a large tank.

010There are also two ponds on site, and Gardner told me that catfish reside therein.

“There was a bus driver who pulled a 17-pound catfish out of the pond using a hot dog as bait, while the teams were taking BP,” he said. “No one believed him, so he caught it again the next day.”

As for how the team came to be called the “Mudcats,” and how their iconic logo came about … well, that’s a story in and of itself. A story that, recently, I wrote. Check it out HERE.

Carolina_Mudcats_960_gzqntauj_wc944fqfMeanwhile, I’ll be hard at work on the next two posts in this Zebulon zaga. Stay tuned, please.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: A Culinary Journey in Columbia

To see all my posts from my May 12 visit to the Columbia Fireflies, click HERE. To see all my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

At each Minor League ballpark I visit, I recruit a designated eater to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. At Columbia’s brand-new Spirit Communications Park, that individual was 16-year-old Carter Blackmon. Carter was attending the game with his Dad, Nathan, a well-known (some would say legendary) figure in the world of Minor League Baseball. He spent eight seasons (1997-2004) as the International League’s assistant to the president before transitioning to a then-fledgling website by the name of MiLB.com. Nathan, officially, is the site’s “director of MiLB initiatives.” If you work in Minor League Baseball, then you probably know him.

049Now let’s get to know Carter, who lives with his Mom and Dad and two sisters (one of whom is his twin) in the town of Waxhaw, North Carolina. Carter is licensed to drive, plays offensive tackle for his high school Parkwood Rebels and says a “perfectly cooked cheeseburger” is his favorite food. Carter also told me that he “likes” to fish, which prompted his Dad to say, “Like to fish? You fish at least three days a week. It’s more than ‘liking.'” Carter then conceded that he loves to fish, and proudly showed pictures of some of his latest bass conquests from the ponds of Waxhaw. The biggest bass he’s caught in the region was eight and a half pounds.

Fish wouldn’t be on the menu tonight, but barbecue was. With Fireflies VP of marketing Abby Naas serving as our guide, we began our journey at the Fireflies’ “Low N Slow” cart.

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From this cart, Carter was given a pair of sandwiches. The Pulled Pork is topped with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, utilizing a recipe developed by Fireflies president John Katz. The Beef Brisket has a tangy “Carolina Gold” sauce.

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Have at it, Carter.

“Oh, dang. That’s good,” said Carter, of the pulled pork. “The sauce is excellent — sweet with a little bit of tang at the end.”

He was an even bigger fan of the brisket, as he deemed the Carolina Gold sauce to be “too good for words.”

“If I had to use one word, it’d be ‘extravaganza’,” he continued, after giving the semantics a lot of thought. “It’s like a little mustard and a little barbecue thrown into one.”

Carter is a barbecue aficionado and says that if you’re ever in Waxhaw (hey, you never know), then Jo Jo’s and the Rock Store are both good places to check out. After prompting from his ever-watchful father, he added that “Mom and Dad’s is also a pretty good place to eat.”

Next up was a pair of tacos from the “El Toros” stand, so-named because “toro” means “bull” and the Fireflies’ Spirit Communications Park is located on Bull Street.

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“We go to Salsarita’s a lot, so I’m experienced with tacos,” said Carter, referring to the Mexican restaurant chain. “I love tacos.”

He then showed his love for tacos by tearing right into one. I believe it had chicken in it, while the other one had pork.

064Carter declared the pork taco to be superior, because the “meat was better seasoned” and had an overall “bolder flavor.” Eating the pork taco also led to an important culinary discovery.

“The black beans made it good, too, and usually I have tacos with no beans,” he added.

At this juncture I was called away from my designated eating duties to participate in a karaoke contest atop the dugout. I featured this video in my last post and I’ll feature it again here, as it was one of the greatest triumphs of my life.

The above contest was hosted by Fireflies executive vice president Brad Shank, and upon returning to Carter and Nathan I found that Pork Shank (no relation) was waiting for us. Pork Shank was joined by Tri-Tip Sandwich. Both are available in the upper-level suites.

066 I asked Carter to pose with the tri-tip in the same manner in which he would pose in his football uniform. Focused, determined, unstoppable.

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Carter said the tri-tip “had a nice crust around the meat. The grilled onions were great, and the sauce excellent.”

As for the shanks, I went ahead and tried ’em myself. Carter, meanwhile, played the role of cinematographer.

“Very meaty,” it says in my notes. “Not much seasoning. Tender. Overwhelming.”

(I assume I was writing about the shanks there, and not brainstorming the “About Me” section of my online dating profile.)

Carter was unable to eat dessert, unfortunately, as he still has five years to go before he can legally sample Mocha Chocolate Moonshine and Caramel Moonshine ice cream. This creamy alcoholic dairy product is produced locally by JB’s Pr%f.

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Nathan, ever-helpful, was happy to step in.

Nathan’s impish grin in the above Vine pretty well sums up how the moonshine ice cream tasted.

Speaking of summing up: Carter said that, when it came to the designated eating experience, “Shoot, I don’t have any words. It left me speechless. I started to like new things. It was a journey of discovery.”

And that, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about. Shanks for everything, Carter.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Four Dudes and a Lot of Food in Myrtle Beach

To see all my posts from my May 10 visit to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

Prior to embarking on my Carolinas road trip, I did not receive any designated eater volunteers for my evening with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. “Don’t worry,” said the Pelicans (I’m paraphrasing here). “We’ll take care of it.”

Take care of it they most certainly did. Via Facebook, the Pelicans recruited not one but FOUR designated eaters. Not only that, but these four designated eaters got to enjoy a four course (one per inning) concession standvaganza that took the designated eating concept to bold new terrain. Pelicans food and beverage director Brad Leininger and his ballpark kitchen crew are masters of the craft.

I met my four designated eaters at a picnic area located down the first base line, just after the game was underway. Our location was within spitting distance of the “Clark and Addison Grille”, one of many Cubs-themed modifications to the ballpark in the wake of the Pelicans affiliating with Chicago’s National League affiliate prior to the 2015 season.

092When I arrived at our designated location, the designated eaters were already enjoying a variety of cold, canned alcoholic beverages. It was “Craft Beer Tuesday” at TicketReturn.com Field, and, furthermore, the Pelicans had just become the first professional team to add buckets ($30) and growlers ($25) to the daily beverage menu.

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Left to right: cans of Terrapin RecreationAle, Oskar Blues IPA and Palmetto Lowcountry Pilsner

This quartet, from left to right:

Thomas Robinson — A Myrtle Beach native who now lives in-between Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, North Carolina. Thomas is a big baseball fan and, while not yet a Pelicans season ticket holder, he said “I’m going to be.”

Chris Lizio — After working for the Pelicans in 2015 as a production assistant, Chris transitioned to a digital broadcast assistant position at nearby Coastal Carolina University.

Rich Johnson — For over two decades, Rich has hosted The Fishing Line program on New York-area TV and radio. He also spends ample time in the Myrtle Beach area, and particularly enjoys watching the Pelicans on dollar beer nights. “My record is 12,” said Rich. “I don’t drive, of course.”

JD Hewett — JD is a childhood buddy of Thomas; the two played baseball together growing up and now regularly attend Pelicans game. JD, who now lives in Little River, South Carolina, works alternately as a commercial artist, furniture reconditioner and hot dog vendor (selling to a whitewater rafting clientele from the riverbanks of Robbinsville, North Carolina).

The first inning was dedicated to the Pelicans’ Chicago-centric variations of ballpark favorites.

We’ll start with Thomas and Chris.

Thomas, as you saw, had the Chicago Dog. I promise there is a hot dog in there somewhere. It’s just submerged underneath green relish, sport peppers, tomato, a pickle spear, celery salt and who knows what else.

096“It’s awesome,” said Thomas. “The peppers have a good kick and I like the hotness.”

Chris had a “Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Burger.” As the name would imply, it’s a burger featuring a deep-dish pizza bun. I don’t have a standalone quote from Chris regarding this item, which I assume is because his mouth was full.

097Before moving on to Rich and JD, I’d like to give a shout-out to the house made chips that accompanied these items. Thick, crispy, seasoned with Old Bay and accompanied by a dipping sauce whose specifics I forget but which were nonetheless complementary to the overall flavor package.

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Rich and JD, you’re up.

The Double Play Dog is an Italian sausage topped with Italian roast beef and peppers.

099“It’s excellent,” said Rich. “I don’t think of beef on sausage but the two flavors really balance nicely. It’s not in your face. It creeps up on you. It’s got a great kick that dissipates fast, like a chili pepper. It doesn’t linger until the next bite.”

The Polish Sausage is self-explanatory, with the titular meat topped generously with sauteed onions and peppers. I’m going to assume that my lack of a specific quote on this item was once again due to mouths being full. (The vegetable array seen behind the Polish Sausage was universally ignored, the only item all night to receive no interest. Make of that what you will.)

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Everybody was having a great time, and that was only the first course. Beer break!

103Second Inning — Seafood, eat it.

Next up for the boys was an array of coastal cuisine: crab cake, fried clams and fried shrimp along with a heap of fries. The boys were pleased.

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The Pelicans’ crab cakes are sourced from the aptly-named Crab Cake Lady, who operates out of Murrels Inlet, South Carolina.

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In a Facebook post of his own, Rich said that the crab cake may have been the “best thing he ate all night. Tangy, delicious and not much filler at all.” The fried clams and shrimp received general approbation as well, with lack of greasiness and ample meat within the breading cited as distinct positives. Thomas said that the clams were “as good as anything you’ll find in Calabash,” claiming that that particular North Carolina locale set the gold standard for local seafood.

JD is a huge Motorhead fan — just check the shirt — so I thought it was fitting that he was the one who found the “devil shrimp.” #RIPLemmy

IMG_1316Third Inning: 

Bog Balls, a South Carolina specialty, consist of chicken, rice and sausage  mixed together into a ball and fried. They are served with a Sriacha mayo dipping sauce and, as I later learned, are gluten-free (!)

112Chris said that the fried pickles “might be my favorite thing in the ballpark.”  But nonetheless, he made a beeline for the chicken waffle bites. They are fried in waffle batter and come with a side of syrup.  (The sweet potato fries, dusted in cinnamon sugar, were similarly sweet.)

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Thomas went ahead and grabbed the fried bologna sandwich, remarking that “a big cut of bologna is the best way to go. Who doesn’t like a big bologna?” He then made a suggestion to Pelicans food and beverage director Brad Leininger. “Y’know what’d be good on this bologna? A fried egg.”

115With so much food being eaten and so much being said about it, I was finding it hard to keep track of everything that was going on. This Facebook Live video, posted by the Pelicans, illuminates the general scene during this time. These guys were really living it up, in a sort of collective disbelief over how well they were being treated.

Finally, mercifully, we came to the end.

Fourth Inning: Dessert

118Thomas, Chris, JD and Rich were now enjoying birthday cake, chocolate and mint chocolate chip ice cream in a waffle cone bowl.

117But Rich was particularly enamored with this root beer float.

119“I remember being a kid at the Jersey Shore, getting my first kiss to “Light My Fire” and all that. We’d get root beer floats just like this. This is the real deal.”

And then there was funnel cake.

120Chris is a funnel cake man. 
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And lest we forget, a peach bellini made an appearance. JD said that “It reminds me of a Seagrams wine cooler.”

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Postscript: I’ve been recruiting ballpark designated eaters for nearly four years now, beginning shortly after I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Just like anything related to one’s job, I sometimes get cynical about it. It adds a lot of extra work at an already busy time of year, and, truly, you can only ask a guy how a hot dog tastes so many times before it gets a little boring. But I still love the concept, because it gives me a chance to meet people, at every ballpark I visit, who I otherwise wouldn’t. I love getting to tell their stories. And my own cynicism is often trumped, as it was in Myrtle Beach, by the almost giddy enjoyment of the designated eaters themselves. Brad Leininger and Pelicans staffers such as Jen Borowski, Kristen Call, Hunter Horenstein, Andy Milovich (and others, I’m sure) put a lot of effort and coordination toward creating an experience that was truly memorable for all involved.

Rich: The food was so great, I’m not gonna eat for two days. At the gym tomorrow, I’ll be in slow motion.

Chris: This made it even harder to decide what to eat here. Everything is so good.

JD: I couldn’t ask for a better evening at the ballpark. It was great hanging out with you and these guys, and watching Rich drink.

Thomas: This was the best experience I ever had at a ball field. I played ball, but this was the best.

Thanks, guys. It really was a lot of fun.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Shooting, Rolling and Singing in Myrtle Beach

To see all my posts from my May 10 visit to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

As mentioned in my previous post, my whirlwind day with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans was overseen by the indefatigable front office duo of Jeffrey Draluck and Hunter Horenstein.

For the record, Jeffrey and Hunter later decided that their collective nickname would be “Hans and Franz Jefenstein.”

During the ballgame itself, Hunter was my point man. He ably oversaw the most massive designated eating experience in the history of this blog — a four-man, four-inning effort that will be documented in the next post. When all that was said and done, it was the fifth inning, and there was still much on the agenda. For reasons I can no longer quite ascertain, we began the inning while wandering around the home bullpen area.

Pelicans on their perch.

124Hunter pointed out that one downside of this bullpen setup is that it isn’t visible from the press box, meaning that those covering the game have no way to tell who is warming up. He also said that while walking past the clubhouse door, it is always a good idea to keep one’s hand out in front in a defensive gesture. You can get clobbered if someone opens it from the inside while you’re walking by. The more you know.

125Oh, wait. I do remember why we were out this way. I had been invited to ride along during the nightly ritual that is shooting t-shirts out of a massive 12-barrel t-shirt gun. Jen Borowski, the Pelicans’ senior director of community development, is an expert T-shirt markswoman. I left the shooting to her and was content to just hang out in the passenger seat while trying to look cool.

IMG_1320Riding around the field while shirts are getting shot is a lot of fun.

The view from center field.

IMG_1321Hunter and I then made our way to the third base dugout, so that I could compete in an oversized dice-rolling competition. Along the way Hunter saw an usher by the name of Bob and said “How ya doin’?”

“If I was doing any better, I’d be twins,” replied Bob.

I laughed at Bob’s remark, but upon further reflection I realized I have no idea what it means.

Anyhow, this was the oversized die I was tasked with rolling.

IMG_1324The specifics of this contest have been lost to the annals of time, but I got two rolls and an opponent on the first base side got two rolls as well. I won. That’s the important thing. And I won because my form was flawless.

Photo: Larry Kave

Photo: Larry Kave

The next stop was the press box, so that I could spent an inning on the Pelicans radio broadcast. John Vittas is on the left and Scott Kornberg is on the right. They join a distinguished legacy of Pelicans broadcasters that includes Nathan Barnett (now engaged in a futile quest to get me to visit his current Frisco RoughRidgers locale) and Tyler Maun (now an MiLB.com co-worker and widely beloved co-host of the Show Before the Show podcast).

126Kornberg kindly vacated his seat so that I could spend some time chatting with Vittas.

I was on the air during the top half of the seventh inning and immediately went from the booth to a press-box window so that I could lead the crowd in singing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Footage of this rousing rendition may exist, but I can no longer find it. But I did find this photo (credit Larry Kave) on the team’s Facebook page.

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Back on the concourse, I spent a few minutes chatting with longtime gameday employee John Glover. Glover is, in a way, the heart of the franchise. He’s been with the team since the beginning and for years has manned the guest service kiosk. He knows everybody, and everybody knows him.

128Glover, originally from what he calls “the real New Jersey” (Bayonne, to be exact) has a military background and used to teach survival courses in the Air Force. He has a kind, calm demeanor and told me that, when it comes to his time with the Pelicans, “I’ve never had a job I’ve enjoyed so much in my life.”

As the game wrapped up, I spent some time with Pelicans president Andy “Milo” Milovich. He showed off this beach area that, while empty on this Tuesday night, is often used as a group party area.

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Milo told me that if a sorority books the beach area, they get to take part in a pre-game “Field of Dreams” of sorts and run out onto the field with the players. I imagine that the players don’t have much of a problem with this.

We then walked over to Grissom Plaza, on the left field concourse, which was turned into a “Mini-Wrigley” after the Pelicans became a Cubs affiliate. Note the ivy. (And my apologies for the poor quality photo.)

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As Milo and I wandered about, the Pelicans put the finishing touches on a 5-2 victory over  the Winston-Salem Dash. My evening at the ballpark didn’t end there, however, as almost all of the front staff and assorted hangers-on stuck around for an impromptu post-game party at the groundskeeper’s shed. Moments like those are what makes working in Minor League Baseball special, and it says a lot about the Pelicans front office culture that nearly everyone wanted opted to hang out despite having just worked a 14-hour day and with another 14-hour day on the horizon. (And then another. And another.)

This account must end on a sad note, however, as the seemingly inseparable “Hans and Franz Jefenstein” have been separated from one another. Jeffrey has recently taken a position with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, leaving Hunter to ride the dinosaurs alone.

Stay strong, guys, and never forget the good times.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Myrtle Beach

To see all my posts from my May 10 visit to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

I’m used to arriving at the ballpark before the game begins, but more than seven hours before the game begins? This was my situation when I visited the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

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At the request of the team, I showed up at TicketReturn.com Field in the late morning so that I could get the “full Myrtle Beach experience.” Pelicans staffers (and best buds) Hunter Horenstein and Jeffrey Draluck were my designated tour guides, and over the course of the afternoon, we did everything from touch horseshoe crabs to play putt-putt to fly in helicopters. These intrepid adventures in rapid-fire tourism have been documented in an MiLB.com article, which touches on the Pelicans and their unique situation of operating a Minor League team within a vacation-based market.

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Hunter and Jeffrey, my dino-riding Myrtle Beach tour guides.

By the time Hunter, Jeffrey and I made it back to the ballpark, I was exhausted and just about ready to call it a day. But the day had just begun! We entered the ballpark through the backdoor, which gave us the chance to check out the team locker rooms. The Pelicans are in their second season of Cubs affiliation, and this relationship is made readily apparent throughout the entirety of the players’ domain.

073Even the bathroom stalls are Cubs-branded. Use the stall on the left if you need to “drop a Maddux.”

075The Cubs have assigned a nutritionist to work with the Pelicans players on-site. Therefore, healthy “shot” options are always at the ready.

078The clubhouse was empty because the players were warming up out on the field.

079What’s up, Jeffrey Baez?

080The Pelicans were established in 1999, operating first as a Braves affiliate (1999-2010) before transitioning to the Rangers (2011-2014) and, now, the Cubs. In that time quite a few players have traveled the “Road to the Show.”

082One such player was Mike Hessman, who slugged 23 home runs for the Pelicans in their inaugural ’99 campaign. Hessman went on to hit 433 homers in the Minors, the most of all time. If I have a reason to mention him, however gratuitous, I will.

With the gates open and game time approaching, I returned to the out-of-doors. It was a pleasant evening, if a bit overcast.

087

In the dugout, I did my first-ever “Facebook Live” interview with Pelicans broadcaster Scott Kornberg.

It was then time to deliver a ceremonial first pitch. For good luck, I had my ball autographed by Splash.

088Splash’s John Hancock increased my confidence that my imminent offering would be straight and true.

And, of course, it was.

You’ll just have to take my word for it.

You’ll also have to take my word for it that there will be plenty more blog posts to come from Myrtle Beach. And by “plenty,” I mean “two.” Stay tuned.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Haute Cuisine and Lowcountry Gourmet in Charleston

The Charleston RiverDogs are known for many things, and chief among those many things is food. As longtime readers of this blog are aware, I have made an annual habit of dedicating a preseason post to their new concession options. And when I last visited Charleston in 2011, food and beverage overseer Jon Schumacher laid out a spread that included a Pimento Pickle Burger, a RiverDog, a Pig on a Stick corn dog, Kitchen Sink Nachos and, of course, the Pickle Dog.

charleston20-20pickledogThe Pickle Dog is no longer offered at RiverDogs game, sadly. And, even more sadly (from my self-centered  perspective) Schumacher has left the team in order to open a restaurant of his own. This new establishment, Harold’s Cabin, is co-owned by RiverDogs co-owners Mike Veeck and Bill Murray.

But the RiverDogs food tradition has been ably carried on by current food and beverage overseer Josh Shea and his assistant Jay Weekley, who continue to roll out new items such as this:

023This may look like a corn dog — which would make sense, because it is — but it’s not just any corn dog. Playing off of one of Charleston’s signature dishes, this is a Shrimp-N-Grit Corn Dog.

Of course, I would not be the one consuming such lowcountry ballpark specialties. That job, as always, goes to my designated eater. In Charleston, this individual was one Frank Monterisi. I took the below photo of Frank before tutoring him in the basics of food posing technique. Namely, do not block the entirety of the foodstuff with one’s hand.

024Frank, originally from New York, moved to North Carolina along with his family in 2003. A graduate of Clemson University, he relocated to Charleston in 2007 and currently works as a math teacher at a community college.

“Teaching runs in the family,” said Frank, a RiverDogs season ticket holder. “Being a math teacher is like being a politician. You walk in on the first day and half the people hate you already. I try to do it so that math isn’t like the other four-letter words that people use.”

There would be no four-letter words used on this evening, math-related or otherwise. As a great man maybe once said, “You can’t talk when your mouth is full.”

The Shrimp-N-Grit Corn Dog was brought to our plastic picnic bench location by Jay Weekley, who explained that it is made with yellow stone grits, smoked gouda and shrimp. This mixture is then breaded in hush puppy batter and served alongside a tomato gravy dipping sauce. Like many items in American retail history, it sells for $9. Weekley said that the team sells approximately 25 per ballgame, “which is pretty good for a brand-new item.”

Frank, who prepared for his designated eating assignment by consuming just five Frosted Mini-Wheats earlier in the day, said that the dipping sauce was “amazing” and that the breading was “not too heavy and not too soft.”

He then washed it all down with two alcoholic milkshakes.

027These might not be much too look at, but they were a lot to taste. On the left is an Apple Pie Shake — Angry Orchard cider and vanilla ice cream mixed with an actual apple pie from Charleston’s Mudd Pie Girl Bakery.

“This is fantastic,” said Frank. “There’s the old saying ‘American as apple pie’ and baseball is the national pastime. So what’s better than an Apple Pie milkshake?”

I think Frank should get a part-time job writing ad copy for the RiverDogs.

On the right is a Palmetto Biscotti Shake — Biscotti cookie dough, vanilla ice cream and Palmetto espresso porter beer. Frank praised the “rich, almost coffee-like taste,” but I think he still had his mind on the Apple Pie Shake.

It was then time to lighten things up via the Harvest Salad, which, par for the Minor League Baseball course, is served in a helmet and feeds 2-3 people.

030“We introduced this last year,” said Weekley. “Everybody seemed to be doing Quadruple Bypass Burgers and things like that, and we wanted to go healthier. We use hydroponic lettuce — it’s never in the soil — hollow out the core, fill it with quinoa and top it with fresh fruit and feta cheese.”

032“A lot of people think of salad as rabbit food,” said Frank, who is not a rabbit. “But the fruit adds a nice element and then you mix it with the cheese, it’s like seven food groups in one. It’s nice to see ballparks going away from the norm.”

But there are many ways in which to deviate from the norm, some ways more healthy than others. Shea soon arrived bearing a Double Chicken and Waffle Burger, and this thing looked so good that I had him explain it for posterity.

“My experiences were high and they were met,” said Frank. “As a Yankee, chicken and waffles have become my favorite food since moving to Charleston.”

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Yankee tasted, Yankee approved.

There was no time for further reflection, for Jay Weekley is a relentless man.

039In Jay’s right hand (on your left, dummy) is a Hawaiian Dog. It is topped with pineapple relish, pineapple, red onions, pickled okra, “a little cilantro grown here at the stadium” and house-made lemon aioli. In Jay’s left hand (that would be your right, hockey puck) is a Southern Kimchi Dog. That one has shredded collard greens, locally-made kimchi, sweet piquant peppers and a ginger-soy dressing.

A closer look, for all you closer-look fiends out there:

038Frank said the Hawaiian Dog has “that sweet and sour taste to it” while the Southern Kimchi Dog was like “an Asian twist on sausage and peppers.”

Frank, like me, is a single man. That makes me an expert in online dating profile pictures, and I do believe that this would be an excellent one. Good luck out there, Frank.

040Things had, by now, crossed over into the realm of the ridiculous. Next up was one of the RiverDogs’ new rice bowls. The Southwestern Chicken Bowl, to be exact, consisting of yellow rice, chipotle chicken, house-made corn salsa, cilantro coleslaw, black beans and lime crema.

I took a closer look. Too close, probably.

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“It’s definitely got a kick to it,” said Frank. “The best way to describe it is ‘Loaded Nachos without the nachos.'”

Loaded Nachos without the Nachos is simply “Loaded”, which is how Frank felt at this juncture.

IMG_1243Fortunately, Frank had hit the end of his designated eating run. Asked to sum up his experience, he snapped to attention delivered a final summation.

“There was food variety for all. Everything’s great.”

Now that I think of it, has anyone checked on Frank recently? For all I know, he could still be passed out on a plastic picnic table. But like most endeavors that end in such a fashion, I’m sure it was all worth it.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Corn, Dogs in Charleston

To see all my posts from my May 9 visit to the Charleston RiverDogs, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

When this Charleston RiverDogs narrative left off, I had just thrown a ceremonial first pitch perfect strike. This flawless spherical missive gladdened the hearts of all in attendance on this Monday evening at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, but while a lesser man would have rested on his laurels I immediately got back to work. The first several innings of the ballgame — an eventual 8-3 RiverDogs victory over the visiting Hickory Crawdads — were spent with my designated eater. This will all be documented in the next post. When that task was complete, I rendezvoused with promotions director Nate Kurant (formerly of the Dunedin Blue Jays) at a location on the third base side of the ballpark. Once there, I was immediately reminded that this Monday — like all Mondays in Charleston — was “Bark in the Park” night.

IMG_1244It was also, regardless of canine admission policies, a beautiful night. A beautiful night…for baseball!

IMG_1246The majestic dog seen two photos above was on the verge of competing in a “sit or stay” on-field contest against another massive (albeit fluffier) canine. The goal was to be the first dog to obey his (or her) owner’s command to sit and stay in a hula hoop placed on the field. Neither contestant seemed too interested in this endeavor, but it was the other, fluffier, dog that won. Another great moment in Charleston baseball history, I’m sure.

One great moment begets another, as Nate and I proceeded to the control room in order to oversee the debut of a Bark in the Park-themed “Simba Cam.” The goal was to have fans hold their dogs triumphantly in the air — ala the Lion King — but really everything was fair game. Lots of laughs were had by all, particularly when a woman held up her corn dog (as seen in the right hand monitor).

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“That went as well as we could have hoped,” said one control room denizen after all was said and done. In Minor League Baseball, as in life, this is always the goal.

I then returned to the third base dugout, in order to participate as a contestant as a between-inning ribbon dance contestant. I’d be representing the third base side of the stadium, competing against a counterpart on the first base side. As always, the victor would be decided by applause.

Upon reporting for duty, I was told that I’d be dancing while dressed as an ear of corn. The justification for this nonsensical wardrobe choice was something I’ve heard time and time again while visiting Minor League ballparks: “Why not?”

Corn

In time-honored Minor League Baseball between-inning contest fashion, getting in the corn suit was a case of “hurry up and wait.” The pace of the game noticeably slowed down (there was a pitching change at one point), and the third out of the inning started to seemed like it would never come. In lieu of plotting a coherent and crowd-pleasing ribbon dance strategy, I sat around and took selfies while lamenting my latest ludicrous stint in ballpark purgatory.

Almost immediately after posting the above tweet, responses like these started appearing in my timeline. I don’t think I look all that much like Ben Roethlisberger, but I guess the dissimilarities are less apparent when wearing a corn suit. Call me Ben Roeth-Biz-Berger.

Finally, after tens of minutes of anticipation, I took the field for the big dance-off. While waiting, I had been given the following advice by a RiverDogs promo staffer: “Start dramatically, with slow, big moves. Then really get going and end with a power move.”

I guess that’s what I was going for here?

At any rate, I lost the ribbon dance-off by a significant applause margin, as apparently my first base side counterpart was the Mary Lou Retton of vegetable suit dancing. He started things off with a series of cartwheels while I was tip-toeing around plotting for a payoff that never came.

Still out of breath but no longer wearing a corn suit, I joined RiverDogs broadcaster Matt Dean for an inning on the airwaves.

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Hey Matt! IMG_1255

Once my time with Matt was said and done, there was almost no baseball left to be played. As the RiverDogs put the final touches on their victory over the Crawdads, I posed for a picture with RiverDogs co-owner Bill Murray.

When there was only one set of footprints in the infield dirt, it was then that Bill Murray carried me.

IMG_1257I also paid a brief visit to the RiverDogs concourse “Memory Booth”, which is a pretty cool idea.

054There is an iPhone camera mounted in the booth. Fans who step aside are simply instructed to press the camera icon and then relay their favorite Charleston baseball memory. I guess my favorite memory is that time I danced on the field while dressed like a piece of corn. Remember that?

Profile2While on the verge of leaving the ballpark, it occurred to me that I had not yet written and disseminated a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke. I quickly pressed Nate into service, using his last name (Kurant) as the punchline. Brilliant, as usual.

There was one more interesting — and unexpected — element left in my evening. Upon leaving the ballpark, RiverDogs operations director Philip Guiry asked if I wanted a ride to my hotel. Next thing I knew, I was riding in the breeze in the back of an ’82 El Camino.

Thanks for the ride, Philip. And goodnight, Charleston.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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On the Road: Have Ball, Will Travel in Charleston

To see all my posts from my May 9 visit to the Charleston RiverDogs, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

About a week before I embarked on my road trip to the Carolinas, I received a package in the mail from the Charleston RiverDogs. In said package was a pristine South Atlantic League Baseball, along with a note from RiverDogs mascot Charlie T. RiverDog. “Hi Ben,” it read. “Please return this ball to the Charleston RiverDogs on May 9, 2016. Redeem for one first pitch at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park.”

I’ve never been one to disregard politely-worded written requests, especially when they come from Minor League mascots, so I dutifully put the ball in my road trip luggage and it traveled with me from New York City. On May 9, as scheduled, the ball and I arrived in Charleston.

After a short walk along the coast (more or less) from my…

001…I arrived at the abundantly leafy front entrance of the ballpark.

003Once I got the to the gates (which had not yet opened to the public), I heard a voice from on high. “Ben Hill,” the voice said. The voice belonged to Riverdogs director of operations Philip Guiry, who, after stringing lights among the trees below, was doing his best not to electrocute himself.

IMG_1229Long-time readers of this blog may remember Philip from my 2013 visit to the Bakersfield Blaze, with whom he held the lofty title of assistant general manager. At the time, he told me that he would be the “Quasimodo of Sam Lynn [Stadium, home of the Blaze], painting fences and changing light bulbs when no one else is here. You can bury me in center field.”

Life apparently got in the way of those ambitious death plans, because here he is in Charleston. Before resuming his cord untangling duties, Philip made a point of showing me an unlikely mural which can be found on the concourse: Charlie T. RiverDog at the Last Supper.

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This mural was painted by an artist by the name of Andy Nelson, who Philip told me “Just shows up and crashes at the stadium, hangs out and paints, and then shuffles off.”

It’s easy to miss, however, as it is located on the inner portion of a concession kiosk conglomeration.

007Philip had work to do, so he asked promotions director Nate Kurant for advice on how to get rid of me.

009They needn’t have worried. Taking inspiration from Andy Nelson the peripatetic muralist, I just sort of shuffled off. Here’s what the concourse looked like, shortly after the gates opened.

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Mondays are “Bark in the Park” nights, which are always a crotch-sniffing good time.

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The first base side of the ballpark features a scenic view of the swampy Ashley River surroundings.

015Clearly, it was a beautiful night. A beautiful night…for baseball.

012My wanderings then brought me to the press box. Shortly after entering, Nate yelled “Ben! Fox! Fox!” I just assumed he was letting everyone know that I am a total fox, and maybe he was. But, if so, his urgent exhortations had a dual purpose as there was an actual fox running across the field. After fumbling about with my camera, I snapped this photo just as the fox was about to disappear into the dugout.

011Fox!

011After recovering from this brief encounter with wildlife, my wanderings resumed. These two young boys were practicing their synchronized berm-running routine.

018My next stop was the field of play because, if you’ll recall, I had a first pitch to throw.

019Charlie T. Riverdog, the ball-mailing mascot, was waiting for me.

021I summarily threw a first pitch strike.

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How do you know that it was a strike? Because I never lie.

When this narrative resumes, a game will have just begun. But, for now, I’m just gonna shuffle off.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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