Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

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

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On the Road: Living the Sweet Life in Greenville

To see all my posts from my May 8 visit to the Greenville Drive, 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). 

This is Rich Wofford. On Sunday, May 8, Rich and his family attended a Greenville Drive game at Fluor Field so that he could serve as my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

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The above photo was taken outside of an empty Fluor Field suite, where myself, Rich, his family, luxury suites executive chef Rob Hansen and food and beverage manager Kyle May convened for a few innings of food-based reverie.

I’ve mentioned Rich’s family twice already, so I’ll briefly jump ahead in the narrative in order to show a picture of the Wofford clan on the cusp of dessert. From left to right, we have Colton (3), Charlotte (4), Rob, Calum (six months) and Dovie.

046The Woffords live in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Rob works as an accountant for a non-profit organization, while Dovie has a full-time job and then some in her role as stay-at-home mom. (She takes care of “the rats,” as Rob lovingly put it.) This all took place on Mother’s Day, so a happy belated Mother’s Day to Dovie.

Rich is originally from Greenville. He met Dovie while living in Arizona, and moved back to South Carolina three years ago. Despite growing up in Atlanta Braves country, Rich is first and foremost a Boston Red Sox fan. He said that the Sox were his father’s favorite team, and though it was never pushed upon him he nonetheless became a fan during a time in his youth when the Braves “were in a stretch of terrible years.” Rich is also a big fan of Cal Ripken, and said that “Calum” is as close as he could get to convincing Dovie to name one of their children “Calvin.”

The Drive are a Red Sox affiliate, so Rich is particularly enamored with his hometown Minor League team. He said that he and the family attend about seven games a year, watching approximately three innings “before we go to the playground.”

Today, the playground could wait. There was eating to do.

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The above spread was laid out for Rich by Drive food guys Hansen and May. We’ll cover each one individually, but we’ll begin with something not included in the above picture:  The Hot Tot.

CaptureMay explained that the Hot Tot consisted of “salsa, tater tot and shredded cheese on top of a hot dog.” The Hot Tot is among a rotating cast of specialty dogs that the Drive sell on the concourse.

Have at it, Rich.

“It’s a good ballpark hot dog,” said Rich. “There’s not a lot of hot in the tot, but the taters add a nice crunch on the top.”

Charlotte then took a bite.

“It’s good!” she said. “I kind of like the spice.”

I then took the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with Charlotte, a self-assured and witty four-year-old whom Rich has already indoctrinated into Red Sox fandom.
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Charlotte’s favorite color is pink and her favorite team is (surprise) the Red Sox. After answering these queries she momentarily got distracted by a talking dog video on the scoreboard, but quickly regrouped. The talking dog video had reminded her of her pets — Dribbles the hamster and Dudley the dog — though, unfortunately, “all of them died.” She then went on to tell me that her favorite player is Dustin Pedroia and that if she had all the money in the world she’d buy a Belle dress (Belle being a Disney princess character).

Our interview concluded with me asking Charlotte “What’s the funniest thing that ever happened in your life?” She had an answer at the ready:

“When Daddy said ‘Pull my finger!'”

Rich broke out into peals of embarrassed laughter and immediately asked that this remark be stricken from the record. However, being a brave and honest man, he later consented to have his daughter’s delighted account of his finger-pulling request documented within the public sphere.

Rich Wofford: Finger pullee, American hero

Rich Wofford: Finger pullee, American hero

Anyhow, we were talking about the Drive’s ballpark food options.

This “Triple Crown” slider platter — available in the 500 Club restaurant/bar/group area — was constructed with aplomb. From left to right we have (if my notes are correct) the “Chef”, the “Big Hurt” and the “Sultan of Swat.”

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The Chef, consisting of bacon, cheese and green peppers, was Rich’s favorite. He said that it was an “excellent burger” because the “meat was perfect” and overall it was an excellent combination of ingredients. The Big Hurt — topped with fried jalapenos — got lower marks because it was “spicy, very spicy, to the point where I don’t taste the burger.”

The Sultan of Swat, topped with fried green tomatoes, red onions and pimento cheese, was the most interesting looking of the bunch.

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Rich was underwhelmed, however.

“There was lots of onion taste, and that’s pretty much it on that one.”

Next, we classed up the joint by tasting the seared tuna (available at the suite level). The tuna, spiced up with a creole-style seasoning, was served atop a bed of greens and accompanied by a sesame ginger sauce and a jicama slaw.

037“If you’re not familiar with jicama, it’s a vegetable kind of like an unripe pear. Pretty mild as far as texture goes,” explained Hansen. “[The slaw] has yellow pepper, red pepper, fresh mint and strawberry.”

I probably ate more of the tuna than anybody. In my notes it says that there is a “Nice spice on the edges. The tuna is tender and the flavor radiates outward.”

Rich said that the tuna was “not what I’d expect to eat at a ballpark, but if I found it I’d eat it. The [sesame ginger] sauce has a nice heat that goes away quickly.”

From the perspective of the Wofford family, the best was most definitely saved for last: Xangos.

038Xangos is (are?) fried cheesecake. The Drive’s version, a “sweet” level specialty, is dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce. It got a 100% Wofford approval rating, summed up by Rich’s assessment that “I don’t know how to describe it other than ‘perfect.'” It even put a momentary stop to Calum’s crying, leading Rich to deem it a “baby husher.”

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Xangos: Wofford family tested, Wofford family approved

The dessert based reverie could only last so long, as Calum, though no longer crying, summarily threw up on Rich.. Assessing himself as his family prepared for departure, he noted “This would definitely be the ‘after’ picture. I’m covered in chocolate sauce and baby barf.”

The Wofford family then left the suite, moving on to their far more familiar playground environment. There, the kids would find swings to swing upon, slides to slide upon and, hopefully, fingers to pull upon.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Moms, Dogs and Scouts in Greenville

To see all my posts from my May 8 visit to the Greenville Drive, 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). 

The first game I saw on this road trip, in Greensboro, was actually a pair of games. After a rainout the night before, the Grasshoppers and visiting Columbia Fireflies played a pair of seven-inning doubleheaders. The second game I saw, in Durham, went 11 innings before the Bulls finally dispatched the visiting Norfolk Tides. The third game I saw, in Greenville, was yet again a deviation from the normal.

After a power outage the night before, the Greenville Drive and visiting Columbia Fireflies (yes, them again) had been forced to suspend the game in the fifth inning. Therefore, my Sunday afternoon at Greenville’s Fluor Field now consisted of the completion of that suspended game, at 2 p.m., followed by a seven-inning game at the regularly scheduled time of 4 p.m. You’ve gotta say this for Minor League Baseball: it always keeps you on your toes.

I arrived in Greenville’s West End neighborhood in the early afternoon, changed clothes in a parking garage (as I am wont to do), and then made my way to the ballpark. The short walk over began with an idyllic stroll along the Reedy River, within Falls Park.

002The walk wasn’t all idyllic, however. There’s a lot of development going on in this area as well.

003Another 10 minutes or so later, I obtained my first view of Fluor Field. I was on the wrong side of the tracks.

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Fluor Field is a largely brick edifice, as are the buildings that surround it. The architecture in this area is reminiscent of the textile mills that used to dominate the landscape.

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006I last visited Fluor Field in 2010, as the final stop on one of my very first road trips. A game wasn’t even taking place, but I stopped at the park and got a tour from then-general manager Mike deMaine. From an article on said tour:

Fluor Field, located in Greenville’s West End district, is a bona fide “mini-Fenway.” The facility, which opened in 2006, boasts its own “Green Monster” and “Pesky Pole.” The ballpark dimensions are exactly the same, and a manual scoreboard is located along the left-field wall. Fluor Field’s Fenway inspirations came about not just because of the parent club but also as a matter of practicality.

“The piece of land our owners had to work with is small as compared to other stadiums, so a key issue was to find unique ways to maximize our space,” said deMaine. “There’s no better example of a large stadium within a small footprint than Fenway, so with our affiliation changing [to Boston], it was an easy tie-in.”

I don’t have much more to add about the ballpark, or anything else, when it comes my most recent appearance at Fluor Field. The bulk of my afternoon was spent wandering alone on the concourse, looking (in vain) for something that might translate into a story. The Drive were a very different experience than the other six teams I visited on this trip, and from my recent (and not so-recent) ballpark visits in general. Very hands-off.

I entered Fluor Field just as the completion of the suspended game was underway. There was hardly anyone in the ballpark yet, given that it was two hours prior to the afternoon’s regularly-scheduled contest. It felt like a high school game.

This day-glo Columbia Firefly fan really stood out in the crowd. In this particular section, he was the crowd.

IMG_1198It was Mother’s Day, and the team had procured 1000 carnations to give out to women as they entered all the ballpark. (I assume that most of the women who got carnations were mothers, but it’s not like anyone was checking IDs.) The team’s original plan was to have the players give out the carnations, but the necessity of completing the suspended game made that an impossibility.

IMG_1199I entered the ballpark at the Main St. entrance, in the left field corner. In the above photo, fans were entering via the Field St. entrance down the first base line. This entrance is directly across from the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, which is located in a modest brick home where Shoeless Joe spent the last 11 years of his life. I visited the museum during my 2010 Greenville cameo, and you can read about that HERE.

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Photo from visitgreeneville.com

The museum wasn’t open on this Sunday afternoon; nor was this concourse Chick-fil-A. This is in accordance with company policy.

012Que’s BBQ and Carrera Cantina were open for business, however.

013It was a beautiful day for the completion of a suspended contest, here at this self-described “mini-Fenway.” (The Drive are the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.) The building beyond left field houses retail and office space on the left and residential units on the right.

014I think I took this scoreboard picture because “Basabe” shares more letters with “baseball” than any other player surname I can think of.

017It wasn’t just Mother’s Day; it was also “Bark in the Park.” Volunteers from the Greenville Humane Society were on hand with a small but adorable cadre of adoptable canines.

023Who wants a puppy? Who wants one?!

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His name is Chewy

As the dogs — and people — accumulated on the concourse, the Fireflies put the finishing touches on 13-3 victory. They score was only 5-2 when play resumed, but the Fireflies made up for the previous day’s power outage by scoring two runs in the sixth and then six more in the seventh.

As the players retreated to their respective dugouts for a between-game break, mascot Reedy Rip-It led a veritable army of local Girl Scout troops in a warning track parade.

029The parade route included a scenic stroll through a dusty outdoor storage area.

030When you’ve got a bunch of dogs in the ballpark and a bunch of Girl Scouts, then it’s a pretty likely scenario that you’re going to see Girl Scouts walking dogs. The sight of such a thing prompted distracted one Drive outfielder to the extent that he neglected a pregame handshake ritual.

031In short order, the afternoon’s regularly-scheduled ballgame began.

033It was 80 degrees and sunny, but that didn’t stop this intrepid team photographer from coming to the game in an all-black outfit topped off by a black knit cap.

034After spending several innings with my designated eater and his family — that will be chronicled in the following post — I returned to the concourse and came face-to-face with mascot Reedy Rip’It.

049After spending some time on the dugout…

051Reedy led the crowd in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

Shortly thereafter, the Drive put the finishing touches on a 5-4 victory over Columbia. The seven-inning contest took two hours and 17 minutes to play. It then took what seemed like another two hours and 17 minutes for all the kids in attendance to run the bases.

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While the youth ran in circles, I took the time to write and disseminate yet another Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke.

And that, my friends, was how I spent my afternoon at Fluor Field. I would have written more about Greenville, but I lacked the….initiative.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Steak, Cheese and ‘Cue in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, 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). 

This is Ken Childs.

050Ken, a Massachusetts native, attended college (and played baseball) at North Carolina Wesleyan College. Collegiate wood bat aficionados may remember him from his stint as bullpen catcher for a Cape Cod League Hyannis Mets team that included Jason Varitek. Upon graduating from college in 2001 he moved to Durham, and in Durham he remains. Ken is currently an IT manager for Duke’s anesthesiology department. He also works as a PA announcer at South Boston [Virginia] Speedway and covers bobsled, skeleton and luge at his website slidingonice.com. Ken, clearly a 21st-century renaissance man, is also a diehard Durham Bulls fan. He’s a half-season ticket holder with front row seats located just past the first base dugout.

Finally, and most importantly to the purposes of this narrative: Ken served as the designated eater when I attended May 7’s Durham Bulls game. Therefore, it was his duty to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. That ballpark cuisine included the Angus Barn steak and cheese sandwich that he is brandishing in the above photo.

Let’s take a closer look at this $16 behemoth.

049Angus Barn, a well-known upscale Raleigh steakhouse, is one of two new Bulls food vendors for the 2016 campaign. These steak and cheese sandwiches — angus beef, grilled onions, peppers, cheddar cheese and secret sauce on Italian bread —  are prepared and sold out of a concourse kiosk. The only other item on the Angus Barn menu is cheddar cheese and crackers; clearly, steak and cheese is the prime attraction here.

“You have no shame, right?” I asked Ken, as he was preparing to take his first bite of this imposing creation.

“My softball team’s name is, quite literally, No Shame,” Ken replied.

At this moment, I knew I had selected the right man for the job. Have at it, Ken.

“Amazing,” said Ken, while removing dripping foodstuffs from his chin. “I don’t know what the secret sauce is, but it’s delicious as hell. This is the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had. I’m not even exaggerating here.”

As for the hefty $16 price tag, Ken said it was justified but conceded that there are better deals to be had.

“The food here [at Bulls games] is so good, and so much of it is not $16.”

That said, he then went back to rhapsodizing about his sandwich.

“I’m taking some huge bites here. Everything is cooked perfectly. It’s fantastic.”

053 2016’s other new ballpark food vendor is Makus Empanadas. We didn’t have any luck there, unfortunately. It was the seventh inning, and they were already sold out.

055Undaunted, we traversed over to the third base side of the ballpark in order to sample the day’s two Star Wars-themed beverage offerings.

056On the left is Vader Ade, consisting of Fruit Punch Gatorade and blood orange sorbet. On the right is Yoda Soda, which is Lemon-Lime Hawaiian Punch with Sierra Mist and lime sorbet. Ken sampled the former and I the latter. Both were overwhelmingly sweet. Kids would love ’em, I think, but it was a little too much for my refined and sophisticated adult palette to handle.

“It tastes like ice cream covered in Pixy Stix juice,” is the quote written in my notebook. I’m not sure who said that, me or Ken, so let’s just consider it a team effort.

Despite having eaten a massive steak and cheese sandwich in less than 10 minutes, Ken was still hungry. Or, at the very least, he was still willing to stuff more food into his mouth. Next up was a visit to Smokebox Barbecue, located on the outfield concourse.

058The Smokebox is “eastern style” vinegar-based barbecue. Ken opted for the ‘Cue Dog, which is a hot dog topped with pulled pork and coleslaw.

057Ken gamely assented to starring in yet another Vine video.

“You’ve got to come at this thing from the bottom to really get it right,” said Ken. “But the barbecue is incredible, and that plus the dog and the slaw, it all comes together. It’s inexplicable, really.”

As with the steak and cheese sandwich, Ken consumed this oversized item within the span of a few minutes. His food consumption efforts were nothing if not conscientious, focused and dedicated.

“I’m not one to back down from a challenge,” he said. “Thankfully, there’s no bad challenge here. The food here is incredible. They’ve got a little bit of everything, and it’s fantastic. It really is.”

Thanks to Ken volunteering to be my Durham Bulls designated eater. This was an experience that really stayed with him.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Star Wars Sells Out in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, 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). 

A short time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a hackneyed Minor League Baseball writer began a blog post about the Durham Bulls’ May 7 Star Wars promo with an uninspired reference to the film. That writer? Me!

When the last post in this Bulls blogging trilogy ended, I was on the field and a game was about to begin. I don’t want anyone griping to me about continuity errors, so I’m gonna pick up right where I left off. So, there I was: standing on the field with the game about to begin.

What’s up, Leia? I’m surprised they let that Wookiee standing next to you into the ballpark. Chewtobacca is banned in Minor League Baseball.

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The above two compatriots were soon joined by Han Solo — or at least what passed for Han Solo on this beautiful day at the ballpark.

038As the first pitch approached, Bulls manager Jared Sandberg took a moment to model the team’s Star Wars uniform.

IMG_1179It was cool to chat with Sandberg, even if it was only for a minute. Most players/coaches/managers don’t know who I am, as my side of the Minors generally doesn’t deal with what’s happening on the field. But Sandberg is a fan of the “exploring America through Minor League Baseball” angle, and we made extremely tentative plans to go on a MiLB road trip after he retires from coaching and managing. Be on the lookout for that in 2047 or so.

Once the game began, I had a few innings to engage in some idle wandering. A sold-out Star Wars crowd in a beautiful ballpark on a beautiful Saturday afternoon — what more could one want from their Minor League Baseball experience?

This photo, sent to me by the team, depicts Luke Maile at the plate for the Bulls. He shoulda changed his surname to “Skywalker” for the occasion. (Get it? It’s a Star Wars reference.)

Luke Maile UniformYou know who else should’ve assumed a different identity? Bulls on-field host Jatovi, who could’ve affixed an “Obi-Wan” in front of his name. Note that Jatovi, a true fashion icon, is wearing a Star Wars shirt with tags still affixed at the neck and an “X-Large” sticker on the front.

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During my laconic travails around the ballpark, I witnessed a variety of between-inning events. This Vine was filmed in the aftermath of a Bull Durham mascot race, featuring Crash, Nuke and Annie. I believe Wool. E. Bull — a.k.a. Han Solo — was in there as well, but he didn’t finish after having been banished to the abyss.

This photo, again sent to me by the team, depicts an abdomen-baring moment of the Diamond Cutters grounds crew dance.

Han Solo DCsAt one point during the middle innings, I wrote and disseminated a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

At another point during the middle innings, I participated in an on-field Star Wars trivia contest. It was a setup, as all the “correct” answers involved me doing a Wookiee yell. I did my best to appease the masses, and for the rest of the afternoon random fans stopped me to say “Good job!” or a variation of that sentiment.

Ken Childs, the disseminator of the above tweet, was my designated eater for the evening. His exploits will be chronicled in the third and final post of this Bulls trilogy. Once my time with Ken was complete, the game was in its waning innings.

060The waning innings waned a little longer than usual, however, as the Tides and Bulls were deadlocked at 1-1 after nine frames. This gave me the opportunity to write and disseminate another groundbreaking ballpark joke.

I wish I could report that the Bulls won on a “Han” solo home run, but it was not to be. Instead, the Bulls emerged victorious after Dayron Varona (who has a Star Wars-style name, at least) hit a two-out walk-off double. Jaff Decker, who had singled with one out, scored the winning run. The sellout crowd, therefore, went home happy.

@durhambulls win, 2-1, in 11, after a walk-off double by Dayron Varona. I was far away when it happened.

A video posted by Benjamin Hill (@thebensbiz) on

And that did it for my evening with the Durham Bulls. Stay tuned for the aforementioned food-related post, appearing a short time from now in, yes, a galaxy not-so far away.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: The Force Awakens in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, 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). 

It’s hard to talk about the Durham Bulls without referencing the 1988 movie Bull Durham, portions of which were filmed at the team’s old home of Durham Athletic Park. The film made the Bulls an internationally recognized name, and the ensuing publicity and increased crowds helped the erstwhile Carolina League team move to a new ballpark (Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995) and level of play (the Triple-A International League, in 1998).

All of this is to say, the current Bulls experience is a long way from that which was immortalized in Bull Durham. A galaxy far, far away, perhaps, given that I visited the team for its annual Star Wars promotion. Can you imagine Crash Davis wearing something like this?

IMG_1169Yet, there are plenty of iconic elements still incorporated into the Bulls’ game experience. As I ventured to the stadium on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, walking through Durham’s Tobacco District, the back end of the “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign served as my North Star.

001En route to the home plate entrance, I saw a bull that clearly hadn’t been fed in a while.

003And then — bam — there it was: the imposing front entrance to Durham Bulls Athletic Park (which will henceforth be referred to as “DBAP”).

004Shortly after arriving, I sat in on a brief promo team meeting overseen by Bulls director of marketing Krista Boyd. Here are a few quotes from this confab that I scribbled down as Krista went over the agenda. (This year’s Star Wars promo was a tribute to Han Solo and mascot Wool E. Bull was dressed up as Han.) It appears that Margot (or is it “Margo”?) had a busy day.

“Margot, you’re with Chewbacca and Leia. Chewbacca’s in seven-inch platform shoes so he walks slowly. His name’s Ryan in real life.”

“Kylo Ren will take Luke into the abyss at the end of the [mascot] race.” 

“Margot, you’ll help get Chewy, Leia and the other characters, all the Storm Troopers, to Jackie’s Landing so they can dance for the Cantina Cam.”

“Wool E. Bull will drive a landspeed racer at the end of the fifth.”

“Margot, you’ll be with Leia and meet Grace at [section] 116 for the Star Wars Kiss Cam. Wool E. will give Leia a kiss. Then get the mini-Kylo Rens ready. There will be five of them. During this time the Diamond Cutters [grounds crew dance team] will be performing….Nico, you coordinate with Grace about having the mini-Kylo Rens go after Wool. E. with the light sabers.” 

There was a lot more than than, but you get the point. Minor League theme nights, done right, take a lot of planning and coordination.

After receiving their briefing from General Boyd, the promo team was ready to go into battle.

005I then was led to a room that had been pressed into service as a changing area for members of the 501st Legion’s Carolina Garrison. The 501st Legion is legion throughout the country, and crucial to the success of Star Wars promotions. Its members appear at the ballpark, gratis, in full movie-quality costumes.

I ended up speaking with Scott “Darth Vader” Wilmoth…

Vader guy…as well as Sandie “Princess Leia” MacLachan.

Leia and cardI wrote an MiLB.com story based around these interviews, which I would encourage you to read. Click HERE.

I should mention that I was guided during these pregame wanderings by Bulls director of communications Matt Sutor, a master of corridor, concourse, staircase and onfield navigation. After bidding adieu to the Star Wars crew, he and I paid a quick visit to the Bull Durham Beer Company. While many Minor League teams have their own team-branded beer, this is something else entirely. The brewery is actually located on the concourse, in what used to be a pop-up team store.

010The Bull Durham Beer Company is an independent operation, and not owned by the Bulls. There are currently four full-time employees, and four beers on tap at every Bulls game. These include 2016’s two additions to the line-up, “Lollygagger Kolsch” and “Water Tower Wheat.” I was told that the the brewery expected to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 pints on this beautiful Star Wars Saturday evening.

Anyhow, it was nice chatting with this group of brew company employees for a few minutes. I apologize to the woman on the left, as the picture I took in which your eyes are open was too blurry for me to use.

012Another current concourse highlight is the tobacco card-themed wall art, painted in conjunction with a season-long exhibit at the Durham History Hub.

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Meanwhile. out on the concourse, I was able to confirm that it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

015DBAP underwent $19 million in renovations prior to the 2014 season, and one of the most prominent additions was a large social space down the right field line dubbed Jackie’s Landing. Jackie’s Landing — so-named because it runs parallel to Jackie Robinson Drive — includes the 42 Playground and 42 Bar. Here’s the bar, which probably had Bud Light on tap. Just a guess.

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Videoboard upgrades were also part of the renovations. Though the game was still about an hour from beginning, a Star Wars-themed headshot of Tides’ leadoff hitter L.J. Hoes was already fired up and ready to go.

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Up in the press box I spoke with PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, a native of Durham who attended his first Bulls game in 1962. My conversation with Tony, an affable and interesting guy, was summarily turned into this MiLB.com article. 

019A brief peek into the owner’s suite — the owner in this case being Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting — revealed an old-tyme barber shop atmosphere….

021…as well as some old-time video games. Shoutout to Matt Sutor, who earned a blog cameo via his deft mirror positioning.

022This is the “PNC Triangle Club,” whose tables are either circles or squares.

024Meanwhile, outside, Star Wars mania was in full effect. Costumed 501st Legion members were hot photo op commodities.

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IMG_1175Outside and inside of the ballpark, it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

032And this time, when I returned to the field, my new friends were waiting for me.

IMG_1178I hope this post gave you much to Chew over. Right now I’m gonna Leia down and take a nap, but please know that the next installment of this Durham Bulls Star Wars blog trilogy will appear very shortly.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: Getting Grilled in Greensboro

To see all my posts from my May 6 visit to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, 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). 

My regular readers are by now well aware of the “designated eater” concept, but since this is the first such post of the year allow me to provide a brief review:

During the 2012 season I was diagnosed with celiac disease, meaning that I had to adopt a gluten-free diet. “Gluten-free” and “ballpark food” have a minimal Venn diagram overlap, which led to a conundrum for me. How could I continue to make stadium cuisine a part of my coverage while I myself could no longer eat most of it? The answer to this query came from on high, entering my brain space as an idea fully formed.

The designated eater.

At each ballpark I visit, I would recruit a fan to consume the concession specialties that my diet now prohibited. This initiative started in earnest during the 2013 season, and as of this writing more than 60 individuals have bravely served in the designated eater role. In Greensboro, home of the Grasshoppers, that man was Alan Hand.

In the below picture, you can say Aloha to Mr. Hand on the left. On the right is his good friend Ronnie Higdon.

041Alan and his family — wife Kristina and daughter Elliott Rose (named after Pete) — moved from Oregon to Mooresville, North Carolina in 2002. Alan and Ron became friends as a result of their respective daughters becoming friends. The two men soon found they had a mutual passion for Minor League Baseball exploration, and estimate that they attend 30 games together each season. Alan reports that he has visited 67 ballparks, while Ron puts the number at “a bunch.” Included in this bunch is the South Atlantic League in its entirety, an excursion he underwent as a sort of 50th birthday present to himself. While not pursuing their Minor League Baseball road trip urges, Ron works as a theater teacher in Mooresville while Alan is a behavior specialist in the Rowan County school system.

“I was sitting in an IEP [individualized education program] meeting and there was a lull, and I saw your post about needing a designated eater in Greensboro,” said Alan. “‘Dude, I am so doing that!'”

So here we are. Our first stop was the Grasshoppers’ “Cheeseboro” cart, which features an array of grilled cheese sandwiches.

034 As a proponent of always selecting the most unique item on the menu, I suggested that Alan get the “Sweet-n-Salty” grilled cheese. He obliged.

035The above photo doesn’t really convey just how unique this concoction was (at least by ballpark food standards). The “sweet” came in the form of strawberry marzipan brie and cinnamon, with the “salty” component delivered via prosciutto and Old Bay seasoning.

Have at it, Alan.

Alan said that the sweetness of the cheese had a “rich, melty taste that took the edge off of the salt.”

“The cheese is melted right into [the prosciutto], it meshes well and has a nice finish,” he continued. “That’s the thing here [at Grasshoppers games]. These guys really know what they’re doing.”

After the grilled cheese, we headed over to a cart situated on the third base side of the concourse. There, a man obscured by beer cans could be found in the act of grilling sausage and its various accoutrements.

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Alan opted for a good old Italian sausage, topped with peppers and onions.  038

With sausage procured and picture taken, there was nothing left for Hand to do but transfer to mouth.

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“Oh, this is good,” said Alan. “You can really taste the pork. It’s got a good snap to it. The grilled veggies are awesome, caramelized with a little bit of sweetness. The bun is nice and soggy from soaking up all the juices. Good. This is so good. I would definitely get it again.”

A ringing endorsement, to be sure, and that just about did it for the designated eater portion of the evening. Alan and Ron soon went back to their spouses in the stands, noting that their attendance at this Grasshoppers game once again earned them “wife points” and that “we realize how lucky we are.”

Back home, Alan presumably enjoyed a nightcap in his idyllic screened porch. He later sent this photo along because, if you look closely enough, you can see that the porch is illuminated by lights placed within collectible Minor League cups. Fellow #cupdate aficionados, take note.

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Let’s also hope that Alan remembered to feed his dog, Bailey. The needs of a 2010 Kannapolis Intimidators “Bark in the Park” award winner should never go unmet.

image1And with that, we bid adieu to Greensboro. Durham is next up on the blogging docket.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Day Turns to Night in Greensboro

To see all my posts from my May 6 visit to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, 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 never know how to start my second post from a particular location, other than to observe that “The game had just begun.”

So, here we are. It was May 6, 2016, the Greensboro Grasshoppers were hosting the Columbia Fireflies in a Friday evening doubleheader, and the (first) game had just begun.

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If you’re curious about what the NewBridge Bank Park videoboard looks like and who the game’s best-named player was, then you’ll find that this image simultaneously satiates both desires.

014The ballpark was largely empty throughout the bulk of the first game, as the majority of fans arrived closer to the originally-scheduled 7 p.m. single-game start time. Even the outfield concourse putting green, which I assume is usually swamped with aspiring Lee Carvallo’s, was empty.

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Putting Greensboro

A more expansive green can be found nearby.

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A commenter on my previous post remarked that NewBridge Bank Park has “one of the most underrated skylines” in Minor League Baseball. I’d have to agree.

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Miss Babe Ruth retired as the team’s batdog, but she still faithfully greets fans on the concourse during the second, fourth and sixth inning of every game.

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Mascot Guilford greets fans as well, from all sorts of ballpark locations.

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Guilford can often be found in close proximity to onfield emcee Spaz, whose voice sounds exactly like you’d expect the voice of someone named “Spaz” to sound like. Unfortunately — or mercifully, depending on your perspective — I don’t have any audio snippets.

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Spaz’s real name is Danny. Hi, Danny.

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Miss Babe Ruth may be retired, but the Grasshoppers still have an ample onfield canine presence. Master Yogi Berra takes part in a nightly game that, while a bit chaotic, is a lot of fun to watch. Team (and dog) owner Donald Moore uses a modified t-shirt gun to shoot a tennis ball to the outfield fence. Once Yogi gets to the ball, a child positioned on first base races Yogi to home plate. Hopefully this video will give you some sort of idea regarding what it is that I’m trying to convey.

Another nightly between-inning spectacle is the Neese Country Sausage Race, featuring Extra Sage vs. Extra Hot vs. Original Country. Each sausage represents a randomly chosen fan, with the winning sausage netting his (or her, if sausage can be female) corresponding fan 10 pounds of said sausage. I don’t think I’ve ever written a more convoluted sentence. Here’s a picture.

023If you want to learn more about Neese’s Sasuage, check out this — wait for it — LINK. I’d like to see a second set of racers appear at the ballpark, representing the more obscure Neese’s Country Sausage triumvirate of Souse, C-Loaf and Liver Mush.

The sausages were standing in the batting cage, which doubles as an in-game promo contest changing room and storage area. There are some groundskeeping supplies in here as well. Welcome to Minor League Baseball.

020The batting cage is close to the clubhouse, which serves as an in-game resting area for Master Yogi Berra and young Miss Lou Lou. In the below photo, Miss Lou Lou is in the cage labeled “Miss Babe.”

024Meanwhile, back outside, people were still buying tickets. Fans steadily trickled into the ballpark over the course of three hours, from the time the gates opened at 4:30 until 7:30 or so.

027Back inside, I spent a couple of innings talking with Grasshoppers’ “Speaker of the House” Zeb Vance and his father, Gil. The Grasshoppers mean a lot to Zeb, a developmentally-disabled 28-year-old, and vice-versa. I wrote an MiLB.com story about this relationship, which you can find HERE.

Zeb at May 6 Grasshoppers game and with team VP Katie Dannemiller.

Zeb at May 6 Grasshoppers game and with team VP Katie Dannemiller.

Zeb watches games from this vantage point, often interacting with the team’s players as they traverse between the playing field and the clubhouse. In the below picture, the first game of the doubleheader had just ended.

032The beginning stages of the second game were spent with my designated eater; those interactions will be the subject of the next post. Once that task was complete, I traipsed back to the tunnel (waving to Zeb, watching from above) and watched some more dog-centric between-inning endeavors.

Here we see Donald Moore and Miss LuLu, who succeeded Miss Babe Ruth as team bat dog.

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An inning or two later, Master Yogi Berra once again took part in his ball-to-the-wall race. He lost, but remains number one.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day (or any day): jeans for sale at a Minor League team store.

IMG_1119These are Wrangler jeans, specifically, because Wrangler is based in Greensboro (or, as the t-shirts in the above photo say, “Jeansboro”). Also of note: the team store is called the Majestic Yard because Vanity Fair is based in Greensboro and Majestic is one of the apparel companies residing under the VF corporate umbrella.

Enough with the facts. Time for a joke. This right here was my first groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of 2016. I imagine that you missed viewing them about as much as I missed making them (ie “not all that much”).

The second game, like all things this side of eternity, ended. I don’t remember who won either game of this Grasshoppers vs. Fireflies twinbill, but regardless it had six legs, wings and a short life span. With no baseball left to play, the players retreated through the tunnel and into the bowels of the facility.

IMG_1122I, meanwhile, took up residency in the home dugout and watched the postgame fireworks.

On the way out of the stadium, the exterior wall art inspired a well-timed Vine that I am particularly proud of.

And with that, my night at the ballpark concluded. Good night from NewBridge Bank Park.

IMG_1130And good night, Greensboro, as I then drove straight on to my next destination.

Hello, Durham.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: It All Begins in Greensboro

To see all my posts from my May 6 visit to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, 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 on a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

My 2016 “On the Road” season kicked off on May 5th, 2016. Would you like to hear about how the day went? It’s really interesting. I got up early and went to the gym, as this season it is my goal to become the most physically alluring single male 30-something Minor League Baseball writer of all time. (I’m not sure who I’m competing against). I then took a green cab to Penn Station and boarded a New Jersey transit train to the Newark airport. After an Airtrain ride spent silently mocking the automated conductor’s pronunciation of “United” (U-knitted? Really?), I proceeded through security, got mad at how expensive airport food is, got sad at the dystopian check-out kiosks that are slowly displacing the American retail worker and, finally, boarded a plane to Raleigh-Durham. In much the same way that the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are located in Moosic, PA, the Raleigh-Durham airport is located in Morrisville. Representing two places in your name while being situated in a third — now that’s covering your bases!

Please have patience while this introduction builds to an exquisite crescendo. In Durham, where the weather was miserable, I rented a car (Volkswagen Passat, for those keeping score at home) and then drove to Greensboro while listening to the first disc in the four-volume “Complete Road Music” series. (Red Sovine almost made me cry. Again.) Greensboro, being in close proximity to Durham, was also experiencing miserable weather and, in fact, that evening’s Grasshoppers game was rained out. No matter. I wasn’t planning on attending a Grasshoppers game until the next evening, where surely everything would be fine.

And you know what? It was. Everything is always fine. This was my view of NewBridge Bank Park the next morning. There was nary a tarp in sight.

IMG_1088After an afternoon spent in silent observance of my 37 1/2 birthday (aka “Halfway to 75”) I traipsed — yes, traipsed! — to New Bridge Bank Ballpark for that evening’s scheduled doubleheader against the Columbia Fireflies. It was a doubleheader because the previous evening’s ballgame had been rained out. Everything is connected.

On Twitter I referred to the scene below as a “quintessential MiLB tableau” and I stand by that assessment. The inanimate canines to the right of inanimate mascot Guilford are, I believe, batdogs Master Yogi Berra and Miss Babe Ruth (retired). More on them later.

001In front of the giant inflatable jersey one finds a memorial to Flight 93 flight attendant Sandra W. Bradshaw, a “caring friend and companion….who sacrificed her life to save others.”

002 From the home plate side, NewBridge Bank Park is considerably more imposing.

004I was met at the entrance by Grasshoppers VP Katie Dannemiller, who led me through the team store and into the front offices. Miss Babe Ruth, a daily ballpark presence even in retirement, was there to greet me. Or, more accurately, she was there to dolefully stare at me as I traipsed past.

005From the front office it was on to the concourse, where I caught my first-ever glimpse of the brand-new South Atlantic League entity that are the Columbia Fireflies.

In the above photo, one can see a new ballpark addition (Sunbrella Shade Zone Picnic Area) as well as new ballpark view apartments that are being constructed beyond left field. Though built over a decade ago, the area around NewBridge Bank Park is still developing.

In its own way, the view from behind the ballpark is pretty nice as well.

007The early-arriving masses, beside themselves with anticipation for a pair of seven-inning Class A ballgames, could no longer be contained. A brave member of the Hoppin Fun Crew (who, like the Reading Fightin Phils, eschew apostrophe) was ready for them.

010The concourse, which spans 360 degrees but does not offer views of the field from all of those degrees, sprung to life.

008During my pregame strolling I saw one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen at a ballpark. From my notes:

“Young autograph-collecting dad, wearing flip-flops, parks his stroller on the concourse and totally wipes out while walking down the muddy berm. His feet went right out from under him and he landed on his back. Fireflies players warming up on field let out collective ‘Ohhhhh!’ He was covered in mud and elbows scraped. Went back up the hill without getting an autograph.”

I don’t mean to be mean-spirited in laughing at this, as Lord knows I’ve had my share of ballpark bloopers. One time I threw up in a clubhouse tunnel toilet in Tulsa after over-exerting myself in an on-field human bobblehead contest.

Oh, say can you see that a game was about to start? My notes indicate that the anthem fireworks were not quite in sync with the words “bomb bursting.” This observation is followed by “I love MiLB.”

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I love MiLB and I love being on the road visiting the ballparks. Perhaps this is because “On great fields, something stays.” Take it away Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, whose timeless words of wisdom are displayed in this piece of signage immediately to the left of the main entrance.

012Chamberlain’s quote brings to mind the last paragraph of Jack London’s Star Rover, an influential text in my personal canon.

There is no death. Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die. Only the flesh dies and passes, ever a-crawl with the chemic ferment that informs it, ever plastic, ever crystallizing, only to melt into the flux and to crystallize into fresh and diverse forms that are ephemeral and that melt back into the flux. Spirit alone endures and continues to build upon itself through successive and endless incarnations as it works upward toward the light. What shall I be when I live again? I wonder. I wonder. . . .

Nothing is guaranteed, but before melting into the flux I plan on writing Part Two of this Greensboro Grasshoppers blog series. Stay tuned.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

About Friday Night: Carolina Mudcats, May 13, 2016

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll write an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my presumed return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

May 13: Five County Ballpark, home of the Carolina Mudcats (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Atlanta Braves)

Opponent: Lynchburg Hillcats, 7:05 p.m. start time

Five County Ballpark, from the outside:

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Five County Ballpark, from within: 

IMG_1390Culinary Creation: Pig Wings

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Ballpark Character: Muddy, celebrating Friday the 13th by dressing as Freddy Krueger.

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At Random: It was also Scout Night

003Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Up Next: 

This trip is over. Stay tuned for a cavalcade of Carolinas-themed blog posts and MiLB.com articles. My next trip, God willing, will be to see the Hartford Yard Goats on June 3 and 4th.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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