Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

Return to the Road: In-N-Out of Bakersfield and on to Visalia

The 2014 season is almost upon us, and my recent realization of its imminence quickly led to another, related, realization: I had better finish writing about my 2013 road trips!

As you probably know, I went on three road trips during the 2013 campaign: A Southern Swing, some Midwest League Meandering, and, finally, a little bit of West Coast Wandering. Every last ounce of material from those first two trips has been wrung dry, but, today, it’s time to “Return to the Road” for the third and final time this season. I have odds and ends from the West Coast to share!

This particular trip took place in August, beginning in Bakersfield, Calif. and concluding in Hillsboro, Ore. I arrived in Bakersfield at about 3:30 on Saturday morning, after driving in from LAX, and following a good night’s sleep I pulled back the hotel room curtain to reveal this landscape.

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Just across this vast expanse of asphalt was a water park, an appropriate entertainment destination for those residing within this arid atmosphere.

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After sleeping late and doing a little bit of writing, there wasn’t much time to explore Bakersfield before heading to that evening’s Blaze game. So, rather unambitiously, I set my GPS coordinates toward a local In-N-Out Burger.

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While I find the slavish devotion of its chief adherents to be a bit comical, there is no doubt that In-N-Out Burger is an above-average fast food establishment. I’ve made a point to eat there whenever I’m on the west coast, but this time around my patronage was strategic as well. I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012, and since then good gluten-free fast food options have been hard to come by. In-N-Out Burger, with its minimal, fresh menu, provides an easy option: protein style, in which lettuce is used as a bun (yes, I promise that there is a burger somewhere in there). The fries are “animal style,” with a thousand island-esque dipping sauce.

2916I spent that evening at Sam Lynn Stadium, home of the Blaze, which resulted in some of my best writing of the season (if I do say so myself, which I just did). The next morning I checked out of the Marriott — watch the Vine! — and spent an hour or so exploring downtown Bakersfield. Here’s “Lyles College of Beauty,” which I drove past while en route to World Records.

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World Records was closed.

002It was late on a Sunday morning, and downtown was so silent as to be a little eerie. What few sounds there were (a car passing by, the cough of a pedestrian) seemed magnified, momentarily overtaking my entire aural landscape. The scene, as I recorded it.

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The Prospect Lounge — where Bakersfield’s Minor League elite go to eat?

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Amid this desultory wandering I located another record store and this, too, was closed.

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Did anybody go to this show? If so, I’d be happy to publish your review on this blog.

Since there didn’t seem to be too many lunch options in downtown Bakersfield proper, I instead went, once again, to In-N-Out Burger. Different location, but the meal remained the same. (Perhaps also worth noting is that, according to my notes, Bakersfield’s 89.7 is a “great radio station.” Further investigation reveals that to be KSVG “Savage Radio,” a community-owned non-profit.)

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The evening before, while attending the Blaze game, assistant general manager Philip Guiry told me about a vintage store called “Hidden Treasures” that he was a fan of. It sounded like an offbeat place, the kind of spot you go to if you’re trying to make a doll head necklace, so I decided to try and check it out.

My “Hidden Treasures” internet research brought me to, well, I don’t know where I was. All I know is that I couldn’t find a place called “Hidden Treasures.”

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Since I wasn’t in the market for a 420 evaluation, I reluctantly left the Bakersfield area for good. Visalia, home of the Rawhide, was next up on the agenda, and my first impression of Visalia was distinctly positive. Welcome to the Lamp Liter Inn, one of the quaintest team hotels one can find in the world of Minor League Baseball.

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That Sunday evening I attended the Visalia Rawhide game, writing about alligator hexes and giant pretzels and whatnot. The next morning began at the Lamp Liter Inn, and that’s where tomorrow’s post shall begin as well. Until then, I remain,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

A Dance Routine That’s Anything But

Unless you stumbled upon this blog after searching for “Brett Favre,” “Canadian Tuxedo,” or “skateboard,” then there is a very good chance that you are familiar with the world of Minor League Baseball. And if you are familiar with the world of Minor League Baseball, then there is a very good chance that you are familiar with the Zooperstars!. You know —  that roaming crew of giant inflatable performing animals with pun-based names such as Harry Canary, Clammy Sosa, and Sixtoed Slothcano (I made up that last one).

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My encounter with Harry Canary, Tucson, 2011.

The man overseeing the Zooperstars! empire is Dom Latkovski, a celebrated mascot performer whom I’ve written about in the past. Given Latkovski’s professional background, it shouldn’t be surprising that his daughters are accomplished performers as well. But what is surprising is just how accomplished they are.

Nine-year-old Gracie Latkovski has cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy and therefore must use a wheelchair. Nonetheless, Gracie and her older sister, Quincy, were the winning performers at this month’s Jamfest Dance Super Nationals. An impressive feat under any circumstance, to be sure, but even moreso considering the challenging nature of the routine they performed together. Who says you can’t dance from a wheelchair?

More on Gracie and Quincy’s winning performance, from Kentucky TV station KPHO. 

Gracie, 9, who uses a wheelchair due to Cerebral Palsy and Cystic Fibrosis, has been dancing for years with her sister at a studio near Louisville, Ky. This weekend they took the stage together at the Jamfest Dance Super Nationals at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.

Their duet began with Gracie in her wheelchair and Quincy also sitting in a wheelchair. Quincy then stood up and twirled around the stage with her sister in a choreographed routine to a song titled ‘Reflections’.

“Seeing both my girls on stage together inspires me and shows they have the heart of a true champion,” says mom Christin Latkovski. Those who saw the performance were just as inspired by the sisters, with Jamfest representatives saying the girls “awed the audience and warmed hearts throughout the competition.”

At the end of their routine, Gracie and Quincy were named National Champions and received special recognition on stage.

“I love dancing and want to show that I can do anything everyone else can because I believe in my dreams,” Says Gracie who began dancing at age 3.

Clearly, Gracie and Quincy’s inspiring work together is deserving of a large audience. Dom Latkovski has spent decades within the world of Minor League Baseball, so shouldn’t this video be shared throughout the world of Minor League Baseball? Teams — share it with your fans! Fans — share it with your friends!

And now, an encore performance.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Saying Goodbye to the Huntsville Stars

Earlier this month I wrote a post asking for suggestions regarding my 2014 road trip itineraries. Responses flowed in (well, perhaps trickled in) via both email and Twitter, but an email I received from one Gillian Richard stood out above the rest. Richard is a passionate fan of and advocate for the Huntsville Stars and their home of Joe Davis Stadium, and as I read her email it became apparent to me that hers is a perspective worth sharing. While this may have been addressed to me specifically, it can — and should! — be read as a message to all Minor League Baseball fans: Get thee to Huntsville in 2014!

Enjoy, and after reading get thee to MiLB.com and read this blog post’s companion piece, my interview with Stars general manager Buck Rogers.

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photo: Gillian Richard

Hey Ben,

I just wanted to add my thoughts about your 2014 road trip itinerary, on behalf of the Huntsville Stars. I’ve been a Stars Fan for a long time (since birth, actually. I’m from Huntsville), and I’m really sad to see the team go at the end of the year. However, since it is the last year for the team, I think they are very deserving of a spot on your itinerary.

While the team doesn’t have the best reputation within the Minors, it holds a special place in my heart. Being in the South, baseball usually comes second to college football, but it was never that way for me, and that’s largely because of the Huntsville Stars. I grew up going to games, and I worked at “The Joe” for two summers that went by way too fast. It was at Joe Davis Stadium that I fell in love with the game, and during my second season there that I realized all I ever want to do in life is wake up and work at a ballpark. I poured my heart and soul into that summer, and I was paid back tenfold because of the people who worked there and, of course, because of the game.

 Joe Davis Stadium has a lot more to offer than it’s given credit for. Being the oldest stadium in the league has its perks, one of which is the great wildlife you can find inside the park! Gary the Groundhog was the subject of many conversations, and I think it’s safe to say he’s the unofficial mascot of the Stars. (He even has his own Twitter handle.) One of my cats was a stray I found running around after a game, so I took him home and named him Joe Davis. It just seemed like the right thing to do. There are countless other things that make the stadium unique, and I’m sure you could find several long-time season ticket holders who can share even better stories than what I’ve got. I can think of several people who feel the same way I do about this place, as a matter of fact.

Photo: Ben's Biz

Photo: Ben’s Biz

So maybe the attendance numbers aren’t as good as they could be. Maybe I spent my 20th birthday spray painting a tarp to cover a hole in the batter’s eye because the stadium is outdated. But despite those things, I can’t think of a staff or a stadium more deserving of recognition. Isn’t Minor League Baseball supposed to be about the historic instead of these brand new, high-tech stadiums anyways? About spending an afternoon in the cheap seats, appreciating the simple things in life? Focusing more on the talent and the crazy promotions than on the stadium amenities? That’s what I love about the game, anyways. And that’s what I’ve gotten out of the countless nights I’ve spent at The Joe throughout my life.

If nothing else I’ve said makes you at least consider coming to Huntsville to help me say goodbye to my team, we have a sweet used record store that’s trip-worthy! I would be more than happy to show you all Huntsville has to offer, which is more than you might think.

I don’t know if you’ll be able to make time for it, but I would appreciate you considering it. Baseball is one of those things that gets in your blood and stays forever, especially for those of us who have chosen to make careers out of loving a game. The Huntsville Stars are definitely in my blood, and even though all my merchandise will become vintage come September, I’ll never forget what the team meant to me and what a difference it made in my life.

I think I wrote this letter partially to pitch the idea of you coming for a visit, but mostly it was for me to be able to express how I was feeling about the team leaving to someone who might understand. Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing this blog. You do a great job with it, and I appreciate every post.

Gillian Richard

While I have visited Huntsville in the past, Gillian’s email really got me thinking about how a “final” visit would be appropriate. While I am not ready to announce my road trip itineraries yet (i’s need to be dotted, t’s need to be crossed, blah blah blah), I have put together a trip that does include Huntsville on the schedule. I’ll be there in early June, God willing, chomping at the bit to visit that used record store.

But, more importantly, I hope that Gillian has inspired YOU to perhaps visit the Stars in their final season. You might get to meet Gary the Groundhog, and, who knows? You might get to go on the field after a rain out and watch the general manager use a bullwhip to pull a sword out of a guy’s mouth. That’s what happened when I stopped by in 2009.

 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Three-Sided Midland Perspective

Thus far, this ongoing “Return to the Road” series has highlighted outside-of-the-ballpark trip highlights from Appleton, WI to Beloit, WI (but barely) to Midland, MI. Midland is where we are going to remain, as we begin today’s fourth and final post in the series.

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I awoke in Midland on Wednesday, June 26, and had a little bit of time to explore after checking out of the hotel. After all, that evening’s destination of Lansing (home of the Lugnuts) was just a short drive away. My partner in these explorations was writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me during this trip as part of a book he is writing on Minor League Baseball. We began in downtown Midland, which included the periodic table-influenced “H Hotel” and its attendant eateries “Table restaurant” and the “Zinc Cafe.”

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The heart of downtown Midland, and certainly its most recognizable landmark,  is “The Tridge,”

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The Tridge, built in 1981, is what its name implies: a three-way bridge (built at the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Chippewa Rivers). A Farmer’s Market is located nearby (it wasn’t open on the day I visited), and a variety of cultural events are held in and around this area as well. It’s all very scenic and well-maintained, and we were fortunate enough to have visited on a beautiful day.

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This statue, simply title “Couple,” features its titular individuals gazing upon the Tridge in perpetuity.

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After a little bit of wandering, we came upon the similarly-titled “Family.”

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Unfortunately, a certain subset of Midland’s public statue-viewing public can’t keep their hands to themselves.

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A little bit of local history, courtesy of a rock.

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These idyllic early afternoon wandering were much enjoyed, but soon enough it was time to depart not just the Tridge but Midland itself. Farewell county courthouse, I hardly knew ye!

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From here on out, my outside-of-the-ballpark content from this week-long Midwest League excursion is exceedingly minimal. As previously mentioned, I attended that night’s Lansing Lugnuts game (and wrote about it HERE and HERE and HERE). Unfortunately, there was no time to explore Lansing proper, as I had to get up bright and early the next morning in order to appear on Grand Rapids radio. That was the first act in what turned out to be a full-to-bursting West Michigan Whitecaps experience, which was chronicled HERE and HERE and, yes, even HERE.  My time with the Whitecaps turned out to be so full-to-bursting that I didn’t get any real chance to explore Grand Rapids, either, although on the way out of the city Matt LaWell and I stopped at an eatery recommended by then-Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster Slavko Bekovic.

This eatery was called “The Winchester.” As a Brooklyn resident, I am quite familiar with this sort of establishment: a locally-sourced nouveau American bistro with self-consciously hip sensibilities.

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Here’s a picture of Matt LaWell at the bar. I only wish his well-manicured mustache was visible, as well-manicured mustaches are just the sort of thing one would expect to see at such an establishment.

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If you’ve got $40 to spend on a hamburger, then you’re everything that is wrong with America. But if this is wrong, maybe you don’t want to be right….

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All in all the Winchester had a very impressive menu, and “GF” designations are always much appreciated by celiac disease-afflicted individuals such as myself.

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An order of chicken wings and polenta fries turned out to be way more food that I bargained for.

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Sorry for the anti-climax, but this is all I’ve got and my Midwest League 2013 content well is now officially dry. (From Grand Rapids it was on to South Bend and my time visiting the Silver Hawks was chronicled HERE and HERE. Unfortunately, time constraints were such that no explorations of South Bend proper were able to take place.)

Therefore, this particular “Return to the Road” series is going to end with a picture of chicken wings and polenta fries. Isn’t that always the case?

In any case —  I’ll “Return to the Road” again before the offseason is through, in order to cover August’s trip to the West Coast. Gotta milk the material for all it’s worth!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Well En-Dow-ed Afternoon in Midland

It’s time for another installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I, yes, return to the road in order to further elaborate on that which was experienced during my 2013 Minor League road trips. Part one of this episodic adventure covered Appleton, WI, part two covered Beloit, WI (however fleetingly), and today will cover Midland, MI (home of the Great Lakes Loons).

bens_map_2013_ha1isac9I spend the entirety of Tuesday, June 24 in Midland, giving me plenty of time to explore the city before attending that evening’s Loons game. Often when I  find myself in this type of situation, I look up the location of a local record store and orient my wanderings from there. But this time was different, as Loons vice president of marketing Chris Mudhenk had magnanimously set up an afternoon itinerary of local cultural destinations.

I wrote a story on all of this for MiLB.com, but in the interest of redundancy and copious photo-dumping I will recap it here as well. First up was the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio.

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From the MiLB.com piece:

In many ways, Midland is synonymous with Dow Chemical, as Herbert Henry Dow established the company there in the late 19th century, and its headquarters have remained there ever since.

Herbert’s son Alden was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright who went on to enjoy a distinguished architectural career, and for the last 50 years of his life he lived and worked in a whimsical yet geometrically precise house — constructed largely with one-foot square “Unit Blocks” recycled from the chemical company — that has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the house, but these outdoor images help to illustrate the spirit of pragmatic whimsy which infused Dow’s work.

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Next up was the Midland Center of the Arts, beginning with a stop at the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art. Again, from the MiLB.com piece:

The Midland Center for the Arts is a cultural consortium, a one-stop humanities shop in which “art, science, history, music, theatre, dance, films, camps, classes and professional world-class entertainers live under one roof.” The building housing these complementary entities was designed by none other than Alden B. Dow and is anchored by the four-story Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art.

Assistant marketing director Kristen Wuerfel gave me a brief after-hours tour of the facility, passing by attractions such as a mastodon skeleton, an interactive periodic table of the elements and a full-size farm tractor en route to a fourth floor “Icons of the Sky” exhibit featuring the Lego architecture of Adam Reed Tucker.

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Next door to the museum is the Dow Gardens. For the last time, an excerpt from my MiLB.com piece:

This 110-acre sanctuary was developed by Herbert [Dow], expanded upon by Alden, and now maintained via the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Amid the impeccably maintained expanses of grass, curved pathways and idyllic waterways are a variety of sculptures, many of which are installed temporarily. Dow Gardens assistant director Elizabeth Lumbert explained, “Our visitors might not like everything they see, but the art helps people see the landscape in a fresh way.”

Dow Gardens [then featured] an exhibit titled “Zimsculpt,” which highlights work done by Zimbabwean artists.

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Not a bad way to spend an afternoon; those considering visiting Midland in order to see the Loons should know that they’ll have plenty to do beforehand. My evening was spent at the Loons game, of course, and you can read about that experience HERE. But if I had to sum it all up in one photo, then that photo is this.

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There will be one more “Return to the Road” post next week. After that, other topics will be explored. I’m just not sure what, so let me know if you any suggestions or perhaps want to write a guest post. Like a produce stand sold out of everything except corn, I’m all ears.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Odds and Ends from Southernmost Wisconsin

My previous “Return to the Road” post, dedicated to all that was seen and done during an afternoon in Appleton, was a bit of an anomaly. Appleton was the only city on this late June Midwest League road trip in which I attended two ballgames, and therefore I had more time to explore. For the remainder of the trip time was much more of an issue, so I was unfortunately unable to immerse myself in the local sights and sounds to the extent that I did in Appleton.

But do not despair, banal rhyming fans, as I’ve still got more to share! I woke up on Sunday, June 22, in Appleton, and my last order of business in that fine city was to post a Road Trip Hotel Room Review on Vine. It was then time to drive south to Beloit, so that I could attend that afternoon’s Snappers game at Pohlman Field.

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My post on the Beloit Snappers experience can be read HERE, and over on MiLB.com I wrote an article on centenarian mainstay Grace Phillips as well as one on the incredible phenomenon that was the “Whitewall Ninja” (part two of my shoulda-been-award-winning “Bullpen Trilogy,” which began with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and later continued on the Lansing Lugnuts).

I spent Sunday evening across the state line, in South Beloit, Illinois, but traversed back into Wisconsin on Monday afternoon in order to visit Midwest League headquarters in downtown Beloit. Long-time president George Spelius works out of a nondescript office located next door to a local insurance provider, across the street from the flower shop that he runs with his wife and daughter. (I wrote a story about the Speliuses, which can be read HERE.)

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001Unfortunately my camera had some sort of conniption when I tried to photograph Spelius in his office. This here is the best I’ve got.

002After my brief visit with the Spelius clan I drove over to the Rodeway Inn, which I had been told is one of the more “colorful” team hotels in the Midwest League. While I didn’t get to stay there this time around, I paid my respects and got a meal at the attached “Road Dawg” restaurant.

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This seemed to be the sort of thing one orders while dining at such an establishment:

006Snappers baseball, as promoted via a Rodeway Inn urinal ad. (Side note: please send me any and all photos you may have of Minor League Baseball urinal ads).

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Adjacent to the Rodeway Inn was the Cornellier Superstore, the sort of roadside tourist trap that I can never resist visiting.

009 The back side of the superstore featured this amazing confluence of signage, which sums up Wisconsin pretty well.

008While I didn’t procure any cheese, I did buy this assortment of fortifications for the road.

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It was now time to make the long drive to Midland, MI, but not before one final attempt at documenting parking lot quirkiness.

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Goodbye, Beloit — I hardly knew ye!

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The rest of this pleasant summer Monday in late June was spent driving to Midland, a drive made more enjoyable once I was able to pick up the broadcast of that evening’s West Michigan Whitecaps game. Once in Midland I met up with writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me for the rest of the trip as part of his book on the sexiest individuals working in Minor League Baseball (or at least that’s what I hope the book is about). We watched the tail-end of the Stanley Cup finals, got a late dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings (plenty of gluten-free options!) and made plans to meet early the next afternoon so that we could tour the city of Midland.

And, yes, that’s what the next post in this rollicking saga will be about. It will be a fair to Midland effort.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Ample Opportunities in Appleton

With that recent spate of bouillabaisse posts now complete, I can now return with an unencumbered mind to my favorite of all blogging topics: the road.

I went on three Minor League Baseball road trips during the 2013 season, during which I documented the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I was able. But, of course, the beauty of a Minor League Baseball road trip is that it gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark, but the city itself. And that’s simply what these “Return to the Road” posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark.

In November I wrote three “Return to the Road” posts, covering May’s “Southern Swing’ trip. The next series of posts will cover late June’s Midwest League meanderings, which began on June 21 in Appleton, Wis. and ended one week later in South Bend.

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On Friday, June 21, I attended a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game and wrote about it profusely in a two-part blog post (Part One) (Part Two) as well as an indispensable MiLB.com piece that turned out to be part one of the much-lauded “Bullpen Trilogy.” I spend the entirety of Saturday, June 22, in Appleton as well, meaning that I had plenty of time to explore the city before heading back to what is now “Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.”

As everyone knows, the best way to explore a new city is with the assistance of a trusted local. For me, that individual was Brew Crew Ball proprietor Kyle Lobner, who picked me up at the hotel bright and early (by my standards) Saturday morning. First up was a visit to Appleton’s weekly Farm Market. The Farm Market runs from June through October, and gray skies did not deter our journey.

“In Wisconsin you eat fresh while you can, because the growing season is not very long,” said Loebner, who, in addition to writing about the Brewers, serves as an alderman.

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As many of you know, a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis forced me to convert to a gluten-free diet. Well, one thing I learned during this meandering Saturday is that Appleton accommodates gluten-free diets to a degree rarely seen in Minor League markets. Gluten-free or not I’m generally not one for sweets, but when in Rome…

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Lobner was a strong proponent of the Kangaroostaurant, a “cookery on wheels.” In addition to being popular with Milwaukee-centric baseball bloggers such as  Lobner, the Kangaroostaurant is also patronized by pregnant women and young outdoorsy beardos.

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Downtown Appleton was a pleasant place to be, and after getting breakfast Lobner and I strolled around for a bit. While I don’t have a picture of Appleton City Hall, I was informed that it is located in the top floor of an old department store building. That’s not quite as cool as Appleton’s History Museum, which is located in a castle.

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And this is not just any castle-cum-history museum, mind you. It is a non-perishable castle-cum-history museum.

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Some random items from my notebook, most likely gleaned through conversations with Lobner but possibly the result of gluten-free breakfast sandwich fever dreams:

– Appleton was the first city with hydroelectric power.

– Fox River is the largest north-flowing river in the United States.

– Former MLB reliever Jack Taschner is now a member of the Appleton police force.

And, for the records, downtown Appleton now boasts a store specializing in vinyl. It’s called Top Spins, and at the time I visited it had only been open for about a month.

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I went ahead and picked up a couple LPs, including one featuring Pete Seeger. (RIP) I was inspired to buy the Bobby Bare record after greatly enjoying his double LP of Shel Silverstein-penned compositions. (Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe is one of my favorite songs ever.)

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Lobner and I then made a brief detour to Goodland Field, home of the Appleton Foxes from 1958-1994 (the team moved to its current home the following season and changed its name to the Timber Rattlers). Goodland Field is now run by the Appleton School District, and while it is a perfectly acceptable amateur facility I found it hard to believe that just 20 years ago it hosted Class A professional baseball. It now hosts TERROR BASEBALL.

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A few more peeks through the chain link:

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On the way back to the hotel there were a few photo opportunities to be found, because when aren’t there?

The Lawrence University campus is situated along the Fox River…

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The Appleton-area paper industry is not nearly as robust as it once was — at one point, the city’s Minor League team was called “The Papermakers” — and this particular mills have been re-purposed for residential uses.

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Rocky Bleier, a wounded Vietnam veteran who overcame his injuries and won four Super Bowl rings as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was born in Appleton.

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Many thanks to Lobner for taking the time to show me around (as well as serving as my “Designated Eater” the night before). He dropped me back off at the hotel in the early afternoon, but I barely had time to catch my breath before my next social engagement. This one requires a little bit of backstory…

Back in the summer of 2012, in the wake of my aforementioned celiac disease diagnosis, I received an email from Timber Rattlers production assistant Peter DeRuyter. He mentioned that his sister, Nicole, had a gluten intolerance and soon enough Nicole got in touch with a wealth of information and advice for the newly gluten free. That was kind enough as it was, but she followed that up by sending me a “Welcome to Gluten Freedom” package of various GF foods. It was great!

So, anyway, now that I was in Appleton I finally had the chance to meet Nicole and Peter!

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Yes, we got lunch, but let’s back up a bit in this narrative (you’re all riveted, right?) Upon departing from the hotel, Nicole informed me of the following:

“Alright, here’s the game plan. We’re going to get dessert first. Happy Belly’s, and it’s aptly named. It’s gonna feel like I’m taking you to the back room of some place, because I am taking you to the back room of some place.”

Awesome! I’ve always loved the back rooms of some places. We returned to the by-now-kind-of-familiar streets of downtown Appleton, which were remarkably deserted considering that the Farm Market had taken place a few short hours ago.

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The front entrance of this place was adorned with a complimentary bath tub.

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And, yes, here’s the back room gluten-free friendly bake shop. See, this is why it’s always good to hang out with the locals!

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I got some cupcakes, because, again: When in Rome.

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Back outside, I happened to notice this sign. In Appleton, even the sub shops are gluten-free!

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The DeRuyters and I then took a scenic walk to a nearby restaurant because, clearly, what was needed at this juncture was more food. One of the views along the way:

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Our destination was the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

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Which, of course, had a gluten-free menu.

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This being Wisconsin and all, a cheese plate was mandatory.

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This was followed by a Reuben, which comes in at #1 on my list of “things I miss ordering at a diner in the wake of being diagnosed with celiac disease.”

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Once again, Nicole and Peter DeRuyter. Their generosity on this idyllic Saturday afternoon was much appreciated.

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Even more Appleton vantage points, taken during the walk back to downtown proper.

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I can say, without hyperbole, that this is the best-named business of all time.

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Oh, and in addition to castle-cum-history museums, Appleton now boasts the Houdini Plaza in honor of one of its most well-known native sons. But, when I was there, it was under construction.

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Finally, some wise words from former president Benjamin Harrison (a man preceded and followed in office by Grover Cleveland).

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After all that, I attended Saturday evening’s Timber Rattler game — “Salute to Outdoors Night”! — and wrote about that HERE. Thanks for everything, Appleton! No Minor League city has ever provided me with so much to write about.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Is Minor League Baseball Still Interesting?

During last month’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla, I got the chance to interview Bull Durham director Ron Shelton regarding the adaptation of that film into a musical. My article on that can be read HERE, but in today’s post I’d like to focus on one of the interview “outtakes.”

As my final question, I asked Shelton the following:

Considering the success of Bull Durham, have you ever considered re-visiting Minor League Baseball in the 21st century? Are there any new stories to tell? 

His response:

It’s gone so corporate that it’s sort of become uninteresting. It’s great still for the players; it’s as unromantic and shaggy dog if you’re living in that world now. But the front offices of the Minor Leagues used to be as shaggy as the game on the field, but now that’s very different. It’s here [the Baseball Winter Meetings]. You can see it.

I remember a team that was owned by a guy who owned a local bread company in Stockton. That was the year we did 10,000 [fans]  for the season. He only invested a few grand and lost every nickel of it, and was looking for someone to bail him out. That was the way it used to be.

Now it’s part of a big thing, but if you go to the games, it’s the same. Players, they don’t make any money, the dreams, trying to get dates with the local girls and not get in trouble if the local girl’s dad was the cop. That is exactly the same. And the fear factor, you know – you’re a star and you sign out of high school or [junior college] or college, then get to the Minor Leagues and realize it’s a nasty, brutal, tough world. An injury, or one bad season, and the number one pick, even if he’s just as good as you, he’s going to be given five years to fail while you’ve got one.

All that has not changed and never will, which is glorious.  

Shelton, left, and Mets manager Terry Collins at the Winter Meetings.

Shelton, left, and Mets manager Terry Collins at the Winter Meetings.

I think that Shelton’s take on the current state of the industry is indicative of a larger issue, in that success is generally not very interesting from a story-telling perspective. And to a large extent, I share that perspective when it comes to my own writing. (For example, exploring the ramshackle absurdity of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium is far more interesting to me than wandering around the gleaming concourse of Birmingham’s $64 million downtown ballpark amid long lines of screaming kids).

But Shelton is also romanticizing a failed business model, as well as his own memories of competing in the Minor Leagues (he played in the Orioles farm system from 1967-71, including several seasons with the bread company-backed Stockton team referenced in the interview). I believe that the Minor Leagues’ gradual rise from 1960’s obsolescence is a story worth telling, and even within today’s more “corporate” front office environs there are “shaggy dog” stories aplenty. The aforementioned Bakersfield Blaze, sure, but also everything from volunteer-run Appy League teams to down-on-their-luck Triple-A franchises to lame duck Southern League entities. Not to mention the irreverent promotional strategies that are still employed at all levels of the Minors, with various levels of enthusiasm and results.

Shelton could very well be right that the Minor League front offices of today aren’t as compelling or quirky as those that could be found some 40 or 50 years ago. But if that’s the price you’ve gotta pay for success, then so be it. If teams were still run by a motley collection of in-debt-to-their-eyeballs local merchants, then I wouldn’t have a job. And, if you work in baseball, chances are that you wouldn’t either. As many a team exec has told me: “If we only marketed to the purists, then we’d be out of business.”

One thing that Shelton made clear is that, regardless of shifts in industry operating methods, there will always be worthwhile Minor League stories to tell. At its core it always has been and always will be a brutally competitive world. Most of its participants will fall short of their goals, and the constant threat of failure makes for a compelling story.

What are your thoughts on this apropos of nothing mid-January discussion topic? Feel free to contact me via Twitter or through my corporate email address.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Winter Meetings Job-Seeker Journals: Kasey Decker Finds the Silver Linings

Throughout this year’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, four attendees of the PBEO Job Fair kept a journal chronicling their employment-seeking experiences (meet them all HERE). In this installment, Kasey Decker (@KDSmoove) provides a post-Meetings update.

Kasey Decker

I was not excited about going to the Winter Meetings this year in a job-seeker capacity, but I was definitely going to make the best of it. I had been successful the first time I went and had high hopes for this year. I was completely confident that I would come back to Atlanta with a job offer.

Having worked in baseball in some way for the past eight seasons I had plenty of people to catch up with and I felt like I had a lot of potential for landing that ever-elusive “dream job.” I was not expecting the levels of frustration and disappointment that I encountered this year.

Ever the optimist, I treated it as a learning experience. I made the best of every opportunity, I submitted my resume for jobs outside of my comfort zone, and I caught up with people who had helped me grow in my career. Although I did not have the days full of interviews from my first Job Fair trip, I took it as a sign to build and strengthen professional connections outside of the interview room.

I learned that while the Job Fair is teeming with opportunities for those looking to get started in baseball, it’s very tough for someone with a fair amount of experience looking for more than an internship. If someone were to ask me if I thought the experience was worthwhile for someone trying to start his or her career, I would absolutely recommend it. If that person were to tell me that they were looking for a full time, forever job, I would be more wary.

I wrote about that elusive job I was confident that I was ideal for, that I was doing everything in my power to prove that I was the best candidate for, and I did do everything in my power. It turns out I wasn’t the candidate that they were looking for, but I won’t let that discourage me. I probably would not have received advice on continuing my career and an upfront answer as to why I wasn’t the right candidate had I not gone to the Winter Meetings and found out exactly who to contact regarding that position.

All in all, the PBEO Job Fair gave me access to networking opportunities and a chance to get my name out there. Also, this blogging experience gave me the opportunity to make a friend in fellow job seeker Meredith Perri that I probably otherwise would not have met. I have confidence that I will do well in the baseball world; it’s just going to take patience to find that right fit.

Thanks to Kasey for sharing her experiences throughout the Winter Meetings. Her knowledge of and passion for Minor League Baseball is made immediately evident through her writing; I (and I’m sure many others) are rooting for her to one day snag that ever-elusive “dream job.”

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz 

Winter Meetings Job-Seeker Journals: Meredith Perri Plays the Waiting Game

Throughout this year’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, four attendees of the PBEO Job Fair kept a journal chronicling their employment-seeking experiences (meet them all HERE). In this installment, Meredith Perri (@meredithperri) provides a post-Meetings update.

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Just Waiting…

When we last met, I was writing from the skies as I made my way back to Boston University a day earlier than many of the other job seekers. Well, I wrote those essays, worked a few shifts, finished up my final and took a nap or two. Then, when I probably should have been packing to go home for winter intercession, I sat on a couch in the lobby of my building, finally able to think about the adventure I had gone through a week earlier.

The Winter Meetings were one of those weird experiences for me – I feel like they just happened, with the thrill of getting a call for an interview or the adrenalin rush I would get the moment before I went up to network with someone. At the same time, it seems like months have passed since I ran from the Swan to the Dolphin trying to savor every exchange of my three-day trip.

Among the many things I came away with, I know that one of the best decisions I made was reaching out to a few industry professionals beforehand. Whether it was simply introducing myself or actually talking to them, I met people that have already helped me to move forward with my career. I also couldn’t be more grateful to my former supervisor over at SportsNet New York who, after I talked to him back in October, made sure I had a media credential while I was at the Meetings. With that lanyard I had the chance to see a few press conferences and ask a few more questions of those pros that I have a knack for tracking down.

At the same time, it was great reconnecting with and meeting other job seekers (I’m looking at my Cape Cod Baseball League companions and fellow journaler Kasey Decker on this one). While the main goal of the trip was to come away with a job, I really think one of the more essential experiences for me was talking to new people and learning about others’ experiences in the baseball industry.

So, with all of that said… where will I move all of my media guides and sports writing compilations after the pomp and circumstance in May?

I couldn’t tell you.

I had a couple interviews during the Job Fair that I think went incredibly well, and I am a finalist for one of those spots. I’m also a finalist for another job that I had applied for before making the trip down to Florida. While I was at the Meetings, I reached out to the coordinator for that position and had a chance to talk with him in person on my final day there.

Now I just have to wait patiently, something I’m admittedly not great at doing. If things turn out the way I hope, I could know in the next month. With my last semester of college, a spring internship and my work around campus, though, I have plenty of things to keep me distracted while I wait.

Thanks for following along as I made my way through the Winter Meetings. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences as much as I enjoyed writing about them. And, of course, thanks to Ben for the great opportunity.

And thanks to Meredith for providing such a great series of journal entries — I know that many of this blog’s readers are rooting for her! Tomorrow, we’ll hear from journaler Kasey Decker; Alex Reiner and Ian Fontenot are also playing the waiting game and will check in at a later date. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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