Fun fact: Although just 20 years of age, San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the eight-team Texas League.
Funner Fact: For the first eight seasons of its existence, Wolff Stadium was the newest ballpark in the Texas League. Its descent from “newest” to “oldest” occurred over a span of just nine seasons; Midland (2002), Arkansas (2007) and Tulsa (2010) built new ballparks for previously existing teams, while Frisco (2003), Corpus Christi (2005), Springfield (2005), and Northwest Arkansas (2008) began play in new facilities after re-locating from elsewhere.
The Texas League, where change is the only constant!
I arrived at Wolff Stadium after a long drive from Midland, during which I got caught in rush hour traffic. I arrived at the ballpark around 6 p.m. (much later than originally intended), changed clothes in the parking lot, and then snapped this shot of the ballpark’s exterior.
Welcome to the Wolff, man:
Wolff Stadium is located across the street (more or less) from Lackland Air Force base. This base serves as the sole location for Air Force basic training, meaning that impossibly fresh-faced recruits are a common sight at Missions games. The sounds of planes flying overhead has also led some (or at least one) to dub it “The Shea Stadium of Minor League Baseball.” (At Shea Stadium, planes flying in and out of LaGuardia airport lent the ballpark a certain acoustical ambiance.)
I was joined on this evening by one Jon Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist who recently completed a piece in which I am depicted blogging sans shirt.
Jon and I went to high school together (Wissahickon Class of ’97, for those keeping score at home). He was last seen on this blog at a Modesto Nuts game, eating meat-stuffed pretzels. Here he is upon entering Wolff Stadium, brandishing a brobdingnagian team-logo mug that was the evening’s giveaway item. (I now allow myself one use of the word “brobdingnagian” per season. Look forward to seeing the word again in 2015.)
Some stadium views, captured upon arrival. Though it was a Friday, the Missions drew a lackluster crowd due to the fact that the Spurs had a Game 7 playoff game that evening. When you’re a Double-A baseball team, it’s kind of hard to compete with a championship-caliber NBA team in the same market. But what can you do?
The National Anthem was adorable. For maximum enjoyment, listen to this at least 145 times in a row. I did!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
I taped that anthem snippet in the press box, a domain occupied by shadowy figures.
And while in the press box, I got my first glimpse of iconic Missions mascot Ballapeno. For more on Ballapeno and his arch-rival, Puffy Taco, read my MiLB.com article on the subject. I COMMAND YOU.
I also got my first glimpse of Alex Vispoli, broadcaster for the visiting Frisco RoughRiders. If broadcasters were ranked as MLB prospects in the same manner that players are, Vispoli would be high on the list. (Actually, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? But what methodology would be used? It’s a hard thing to quantify.)
My interaction with Vispoli was brief, for the game was ready to begin.
Following standard protocol, I did not settle in to watch the game. I commenced to wandering.
And in the course of that wandering, I soon ran into my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
That’s Darren Smith, who drove in from Austin for the occasion. “I just wanted to see a new ballpark and shoot the [shoot] about baseball,” he told me. Smith currently works for an Austin-area summer camp that specializes in outdoor education, but in a previous life he worked for the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton as well as the Bradenton Marauders during their nascent years of existence.
After talking with the team, it was decided that Darren would sample the “Nacho Dog.” It’s nacho dog, it’s Darren’s.
Have at it, Darren.
Darren was less than enthused with the Missions’ culinary concoction.
“The chili’s not great, the cheese is okay, but the bread is the worst,” he said. “It’s rock hard and cold. [Ballpark sponsor] Mrs. Baird’s is a Texas brand and you’d think they’d use that. The only thing that makes this a nacho dog is the chips, otherwise it’s a chili-cheese dog.”
We then stopped by Tony T’s Ballpark Treats, a third-party vendor, and got their signature Ribbon Fries.
Darren was a fan of these, lauding their look, crispness, and overall flavor.
I loved these (gluten-free!) creations as well. Tony T’s is a winner.
Fischer took the above photo, and he took this one as well. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of my professional career that one can find.
Finally, we stopped by another third-party vendor: Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse.
Darren, an expert when it comes to the Austin-area BBQ scene, opted for the brisket sandwich. He said that “In Texas, you know a place has good BBQ if they have a good brisket.”
Oh, and a Frito Pie was involved somehow.
Have at it, guys.
In case you prefer your images of 30-something white men eating to be of the moving variety:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
“I’m pretty sure that the bread here is Mrs. Baird’s,” said Darren. “By Texas brisket standards, this is at the level of a Dickey’s [a BBQ restaurant chain]. It’s pretty commercial, there’s no burnt stuff or smoke lines.”
And with that we bid adieu to Darren Smith, a tough but fair designated eater. I then re-commenced wandering.
Some two decades into its existence, Wolff Stadium is in need of a little TLC. This metal fence could use a touch-up, for example.
And this isolated area, located behind the berm, was just a dump.
But for the most part, Wolff Stadium gets the job done. It is neither old nor young, just plugging along and maintaining its status as a San Antonio summertime entertainment staple.
Of course, the aforementioned Ballapeno and Henry the Puffy Taco are a big part of the ballpark experience. Here, a gaggle of children chase Ballapeno across the field.
I really wish I had been able to properly capture this moment. Ballapeno, in the act of waving to a young fan, accidentally slapped her in the face instead. The girl, more shocked than hurt, began to cry. In the below photo, Ballapeno is attempting to apologize, but, you know, it’s hard to apologize when you can’t talk.
But don’t worry about it, Ballapeno, as it was clearly unintentional. Get in touch if you need me to provide a statement exonerating you of any wrongdoing.
I was back up in the press box during Henry the Puffy Taco’s nightly humiliation. Not only does he lose every base path race, but the victor then stands upon him and gloats. Once again, my attempt to capture the action was subpar. (Everybody has their off nights, no matter what the job, and I had a blogging off night here in San Antonio).
Humiliated or not, Henry the Puffy Taco still loves to dance.
The game was moving rapidly, leading me to a sort of existential crisis. I’d been out and about and on my feet throughout, but what had I done? Anything? It didn’t feel like much, kind of like those recurring dreams I have where I’m at a ballpark in order to write about it but instead remain stuck in one place. (I really and truly have these dreams on a regular basis.)
But I wasn’t stuck, it was time to move. I had to get to the illuminated truth of this multi-tiered conundrum.
But all I found was that the game was over, and fans were now attempting to throw tennis balls into a chimney. Typical.
This was one case where people actually wanted to come down with the flue, but it was not to be. “Oh my God that was so close. Oh! Oh!”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
On this trip, my travel schedule was pretty grueling: ballpark, write, sleep, drive, repeat. Texas-sized travel itineraries didn’t leave any time for idle explorations.
Therefore, upon arriving at Midland’s Sleep Inn, I was relieved to see that the RockHounds’ home — Security Bank Ballpark — was right across the street. No more driving for me that evening, from there on out I was gonna be a walking man!
So walk I did. Over the course of this arduous five-minute journey, I noticed that Security Bank Ballpark is located adjacent to another facility.
In true Texas fashion, this is a high school football stadium (the town of Odessa, where Friday Night Lights took place, is next to Midland). It hosts two local teams, and was built at the same time as the RockHounds stadium.
But on this overcast and windy evening, the only game in town was Minor League Baseball.
Midland RockHounds Minor League Baseball.
Built in 2002, Security Bank Ballpark is a pleasant and serviceable albeit rather generic facility. A bit later in the evening I posted the following tweet, and responses ranged from Arizona Spring Training facilities to Gwinnett County, Georgia to Colorado Springs. Given its lack of distinctive design elements and its location in a rather barren (but growing) part of town, this is one of the more anonymous facilities in Minor League Baseball.
Where am I? pic.twitter.com/46NsWbWUzX
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
But Security Bank Ballpark has accomplished everything it needed to and then some. It easily meets professional standards, provides the front office with plenty of room in which to create new entertainment features and group areas, and is on the verge of being paid off some 14 years ahead of schedule (more on that, and Midland’s currently booming oil-based economy in general, can be found in this MiLB.com piece).
And did you know that a “RockHound” is a slang word for a geologist (usually of the amateur variety)? Since they’re the RockHounds and all, the team has its own lucky rock located outside of the stadium.
(Did you hear the one about the foul-smelling RockHound? He ran out of geoderant.)
I touched the rock on the way in, and, for the record, I have had nothing but fun and good times since then. I water-skied to work this morning.
Soon after arriving at the stadium I met with RockHounds assistant general manager Greg Berman, and we took a lap of the facility. This batting cage just opened this season, and, in addition to being used by the players for their batting cage needs, it is also used for ballpark events such as autograph sessions.
Beyond that is the weight room, which I would deem fair to Midland.
At one point during our wanderings I was able to snap this candid shot of Rocky RockHound in conversation with Juice the Moose. Is it just me, or does Rocky look like he has a face on the back of his head? I was told that they were simply spots.
Here we are at the ProPetro Diamond Club, open to season ticket and suite holders. No hoi polloi allowed.
If you don’t have a season ticket or a suite, you can walk up to these friendly folks and buy a ticket.
And if it’s a Thursday, the first order of business is for of-age fans to prove that they are of age. You can’t quench your booze thirst without a wristband!
At this point Bergman had left in order to perform his actual job duties, and I commenced to solo wandering.
The Coors Light Playground?
If you are walking on the concourse, you should, oh, I don’t know: WATCH FOR FOUL BALLS.
A new addition to the stadium this season is this concourse train.
This ain’t no sedentary train, either.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
If you want sedentary, then head on over to the Rocky Town Tavern.
I don’t drink on the job (much), but I was definitely planning on eating a meal. I didn’t have a designated eater at this particular stop (as in, an individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits), so I just wandered around and pondered my options.
This stand had walking tacos and Frito pie, among other delicacies that I can no longer discern.
And this place had a whole bunch of stuff. If only I had written down what!
Eating gluten-free at a ballpark can be tough. I had a craving for some nachos, which are sometimes gluten-free and sometimes not. I therefore commenced to crack the case of “Are the Midland RockHounds nachos gluten free?”
A cardboard box on a cart next to the concession kiosk listed the ingredients of the chips, which did turn out to be gluten-free. Then I noticed the cheese was from Ortega, and internet research revealed that their nacho cheese is gluten-free.
So I took the plunge and ordered up some chicken macho na–
TRAIN COMING THROUGH
Here’s something you don’t see every day, a trio of Tabasco dispensers.
I ate my nachos as the sun went down on Midland. That’s not just the name of an iconic country song; for a couple of minutes it was my reality.
Still visible, to my immediate left, was the gargantuan high school football stadium mentinoed before. This facility is run by the RockHounds staff and also hosts the Midland/Odessa Sockers of the USL Premier Development League.
I don’t have a video clip, but let it be known that RockHounds third baseman Miles Head uses Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” as his walk-up song. That’s a rather fatalistic outlook for a 23-year-old, but also an apt metaphor for life in the Minors (in which “God” = “Baseball”). That song applies to all of us, really. We’re all gonna get knocked down, hoi polloi and former presidents alike.
Speaking of which: While 21 of the RockHounds’ 22 suites are named after baseball players, this one is named after prez-turned-painter George W. Bush.
My wanderings, they bring me everywhere, and in this particular instance they brought me to the concourse area near the right field foul pole. One dude with a fake beard and a bazooka and one kid attempting to don a fake beard were on their way to shoot hot dogs at the crowd with said bazooka.
Next, I visited RockHounds groundskeeper Eric Campbell in his groundskeeping lair. Our resulting conversation became the basis of an entertaining MiLB.com article that touched on dust, fire, tarantulas, and owl vomit.
After bidding adieu to Campbell and crew, I came upon Rocky and Juice riding a bicycle together. Juice fell off.
Throughout the evening, I had tried to capture the frightening sound effects that are played over the loudspeaker every time a visiting batter strikes out. Finally, in the ninth inning, I nailed it. The more you listen to this Vine, the better it gets.
Post-strikeout sound effects, take 2 https://t.co/R2futPNDta
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 2, 2014
And, hey, look, the home team won! (The visiting team was Corpus Christi, for the record.)
I haven’t been doing #cupdates much on this trip, but I came across this collectible item among the post-game detritus.
Post-game launch-a-ball! Every team does it a little bit differently; in Midland the primary target is a car on the pitcher’s mound.
And that’ll do it from Midland. I hope that RockHounds were satisfied with my reportage, both here and on MiLB.com. If not, I’m sure I’ll hear about it via the issuance of a scathing press release.
My previous post on the Chihuahuas ended mid-narrative, but I had a good reason for ending it when I did. I didn’t want to bury the lede, and the lede is this:
The El Paso Chihuahuas have really, really good ballpark food. Like, really good, easily within the top five of the 110 or so ballparks that I’ve visited over the past five seasons. I learned this first-hand on April 29, the Chihuahuas second-ever home game, when Jeff Hanauer, general manager of Ovations food service at Southwest University Park, gave me a whirlwind tour of the team’s many concession offerings.
It’s all kind of a blur, but I’ll do my best to share with you what I remember….
Prior to meeting up with Hanauer, I’d snapped a few stray food-related shots. In keeping with the team’s “living the brand” philosophy, this concession stand is called the Rio Gr-r-r-r-r-rande Grill.
The thing to do with Chihuarrines is tear open the bag and douse with hot sauce (That’s what I was told, at least. The first ingredient was wheat flour, making it a no can do for a celiac such as myself).
Pre-packaged snack food aside, the Chihuahuas have adopted an “everything’s fresh” concessions philosophy. Items throughout the ballpark are made to order on the premises. “You’ll never see a pre-wrapped hot dog here,” Hanauer told me.
There are a series of food kiosks located along the third base concourse (many of them offering food from local vendors), and Hanauer and I began with a seafood taco stop. $10 is a bit pricey for a taco platter, but it’s a lot of food. (And gluten-free!)
One shrimp, one tilapia. I preferred the shrimp.
Hanauer told me that, in a market like El Paso, it would be foolhardy for the team to offer its own, quite possibly inauthentic, Mexican food. Why not just go straight to the source? The Chihuahuas have therefore partnered with Leo’s, a famous restaurant with several locations in the area. Here are the folks at Leo’s, doing their thing.
And that thing, in a word, is meat. Meat that has been cooked slowly throughout the day, for hours and hours and hours, so that by the time its served its exceedingly tender. The burritos are minimalist affairs — maybe a little sauce is added, but its pretty much just meat.
But these pork carnitas nachos were the star of the show, just amazingly good. The meat was so tender, yet crisp on the edges, and tasted amazing on its own along with the chips and queso. With all apologies to places in which I’ve had exemplary ballpark nachos (Memphis, Northwest Arkansas, Round Rock), these just might be the best.
Hanauer, watching me tear into these things, mentioned that he didn’t think they were gluten-free (as in, the chips had wheat flour). I should have asked about this right off the bat, but when these things appeared in front of me that part of my brain went off. I just started eating as if there was no tomorrow. (And who knows? There might not be.) In this particular instance I am at peace with my transgression. These nachos were just that good.
Anyhow, this is a picture of a margarita.
Why is this significant? Because the margarita was prepared using the Bottoms Up dispenser, in which the cup fills from the bottom. Bottoms Up took the industry by storm a few years back, but I had never seen it used for anything other than beer. (Unfortunately, my video of the margarita being filled up was plagued by technical glitches, so this is just one more thing that you’ll have to trust me on).
Speaking of technical glitches, this is one poorly lit photograph.
That there is the Flamethrower, a half-pound burger with ghost peppers, deep-fried jalapenos and jack cheese. Ghost peppers are the hottest peppers in the world, so they’re incorporated into the mix pretty sparingly — LEST SOMEONE DIES. Still, this thing packs some serious heat and just might be the spiciest hamburger in Minor League Baseball. Tell me it isn’t.
Here’s the Frito Pie, served up in a dog bowl. Absolutely fantastic, and gluten-free! I went at this one pretty hard for a minute.
I’m not sure if the Frito Pie is always served in a dog bowl, but these steak nachos definitely are. And these things did not skimp on the steak, as big tender chunks are distributed throughout.
Here we have a foot long hot dog with chili con carne:
Healthy options. They exist.
I don’t know exactly where I was at this point, except for “in the stadium.”
Men were at work.
And — what’s this? — eggs were on the grill.
Eggs are a key component of the Huevos Rancheros burger, a variation of the Mexican breakfast staple.
The burger is topped with egg, cheese and salsa verde, and if you stick a fork in it the egg yolk oozes out as a sort of bonus condiment. (I had one of these, sans bun, and it was probably better that way. I plan on making these at home.)
And then there was the Juarez dog, a variation of the Mexican street food classic.
That is an applewood bacon-wrapped beef hot dog topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, cole slaw and chicharrones. Think about that mix of flavors and textures for a second, it really is extraordinary.
Juarez dogs on the grill:
This one was firmly in the “look but don’t touch” category for me: Buffalo Chicken and Waffles:
Dessert Nachos, because too much is never enough.
But speaking of dessert — the Chihuahuas offer what is now MY FAVORITE DESSERT IN ALL OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
Here’s what I wrote over at MiLB.com: Quite simply the best dessert I’ve ever had at a Minor League ballpark. You could compare Raspas to a snow cone, but that would be like comparing Leo’s to Taco Bell. Shaved ice is topped with one of six fruit flavors, and a variety of condiments can be added to provide an additional kick of sweet, sour and/or spicy flavor.
The Raspas stand is run by local concessionaire Elizabeth Triejo, who has a true passion for this traditional Mexican dessert. I stopped by the next day and got another one.
There are two key elements that make Raspas so good. One is that all of the fruit flavors are made in small batches by Elizabeth, so everything is all natural and tastes that way. And then there are the condiments, such as Chamoy and Tajin, that deliver a customized mix of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.
So, yeah, if you’re ever at an El Paso Chihuahuas game then get a raspa. My adjectival accolade abilities are failing me, but they are almost certainly better than any ballpark dessert you’ve had before.
My itinerary on this particular road trip began in Albuquerque and ended in Austin, my primary motivation for traveling to this area in the first place was so that I could visit El Paso. For it is in El Paso that one will find the biggest story of the 2014 Minor League season, the El Paso Chihuahuas. This Pacific Coast League entity played its first-ever home game on April 28 (after opening the season in their old home of Tucson), but I spent that evening in Albuquerque. I was on hand for the second-ever Chihuahuas game, however, as on April 29 I arrived in the city and quickly made my way to Southwest University Park in order to see what all the fuss was about.
And believe you me, there was a fuss. Upon entering my hotel room, I found a limited-edition Chihuahuas-themed can of Pepsi:
The newspaper coverage during the days that I was in town was extremely enthusiastic.
And the one time I turned on the radio while driving in El Paso, I happened to hear a morning talk show in which one of the co-hosts was being lambasted for wearing a Chihuahuas hat after having initially bashed the team name and all it stood for. In short, the Chihuahuas aren’t just the biggest sports story in El Paso, they’re the biggest story in El Paso. Period.
I have already written a long MiLB.com story about the Chihuahuas and their home of Southwest University Park, which provides far more context regarding how and why the team came to be. The Chihuahuas are going to be an interesting team to follow for quite some time, on several levels, but this post is gonna keep it simple. This post will simply walk you through (a portion of) my night at the park.
My hotel, a Holiday Inn, was on Missouri Avenue in downtown El Paso. From there it was just a short walk to the stadium.
And then — bam! — the ballpark.
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t ever spent time in a town that borders Mexico. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by just how close Mexico was to El Paso — what was I expecting? — but seeing signs such as the above just felt surreal to me. (This says more about my northeastern upbringing and perspective than it does about anything having to do with El Paso and Juarez.)
The gates hadn’t yet opened at the time I arrived, but anticipation was high. People were lined up on all sides of the ballpark, hundreds deep. I had never seen so many people waiting to get into a Minor League stadium, ever.
Once I got inside, I took this photo of the field itself. Those are the Franklin Mountains looming beyond left-center field, and later on during my stay I learned that the Rocky Mountains extend to El Paso as well.
Taking a cue from the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Chihuahuas’ logo features a prominent set of eyes. Here’s an eyes-olated view, which I snapped on the staircase.
Quite unexpectedly, just prior to the game I received an invite to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While this was the second game of the season, there was still an Opening Day-level of excitement. Politicians, media personalities, pop singers, youth baseball players and military members were all gathered in this little “room” adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. Being from out of town, I kind of felt like an interloper amid this display of local pride.
As for my first pitch — it was a strike, but no evidence seems to exist. Or, if there is evidence, I don’t have it. Hey, does anybody out there have any evidence? Chico?
I know you can hear me, Chico! Don’t walk away from me!
Eh, nevermind. I have no idea what I’m talking about anyway. After throwing my first pitch, I returned to the concourse and embarked on a solo walk around the facility. A pictorial tour, or, as I like to call it, a pic-tour-ial, will now commence.
See that brick structure out in right field? Keep that in mind, we’ll visit that later.
Berm seating is $5.
The Splash Zone, which remained splashless on this pleasant Spring evening.
The Chihuahuas bullpen is ensconced in a little alcove located down the third base line, while the visitor’s are caged within the bottom floor of this outfield structure.
As I mentioned previously, the Mexican city of Juarez is located directly behind the ballpark. Juarez is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua (hence the team name), and residents of the city represent, at least potentially, a sizable portion of the of the fan base.
Turning inward, and then outward again.
That picture was taken through a window, as I was standing in a hallway located outside of the suite area. This area is decorated with a surprisingly diverse array of artwork.
This is Tom Lea’s The 2,000 Yard Stare, a famous portrait of post traumatic stress disorder and the visual equivalent of a punch in the gut.
This Warholian expression of team pride was created by a local non-profit called “Creative Kids.”
Around this point in the evening I ran into Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor, and he led me on the so-called “nickel tour” of the ballpark. Specifically, he wanted to show me the aforementioned three-story brick structure that sits just beyond the right field fence. It is called “The Big Dog House,” and the first level houses the City Hall Grill.
This establishment got its name because it stands where El Paso City Hall once stood. City Hall, as you may recall, was imploded in order to make room for the ballpark. Was this an example of visionary leadership, or a wasteful, hubristic and ultimately self-defeating folly? That question that has been hotly debated in El Paso (and elsewhere) over the past year, leading to some criticism that “City Hall Grill” is a disrespectful name. (Somewhat akin to clearing a forest to make room for a housing development, and then naming all of the streets in the development after trees.)
This plaque is currently displayed in the City Hall Grill.
Taylor brushed off this controversy, saying that “Once [those critical of the City Hall Grill] realized that we had no intent to mock them, I think they understood our vision. We’re just paying tribute to those who preceded us.”
We then walked up one floor, to the Sun Kings Saloon.
The Sun King Saloon is named after one of El Paso’s former Minor League entities (the Sun Kings were not blown up in order to make room for the Chihuahuas, however). The walls of the saloon are decorated with El Paso baseball memorabilia, often with a Chihuahuas twist.
This advertisement is interesting, in that it lauds the Sun Kings as a Minor League Baseball success story as a result of almost drawing 100,000 fans in their debut 1962 season. It’s comparing apples and oranges, but I’d be surprised if the Chihuahuas draw less than 600,000 in 2014.
Finally, at the top of the building, one finds the “Wooftop Deck.” It was largely empty on the night I visited, but this would be a great place to watch the game!
From the Woof Top Deck, one can see the side profile of El Paso’s famous “Mountain Star.”
Another view from the Woof Top:
From there we made a brief stop the WestStar Bank Club, located on the second level behind home plate, an appealing place to get a drink despite its less-than-appealing name. (The next afternoon, I saw people chugging beer from a dog bowl at the bar.)
Somehow my next picture is from the far left field corner of the stadium. I guess we walked over there.
The seats out here, they swiveled! Swiveled, I tell you!
You know, it’s like that old gypsy woman once told me: “Once the seats start swiveling, the blog post must end.”
Part Two of this El Paso Chihuahuas saga shall appear on Monday, then. It’s gonna have a lot of pictures of food.
It’s a word if you’re a Simpsons fan, at least. The motto of Springfield, bestowed upon it by town founder Jebediah Springfield, is “A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man.”
The Albuquerque Isotopes are most definitely the biggest Simpsons fans in Minor League Baseball, as the team name is a direct reference to an episode of the show in which Springfield’s Minor League team almost moves to Albuquerque. I, like many of my generation, am a huge Simpsons fan, so I was psyched to begin my 2014 Minor League Baseball travels in a ballpark with such a direct tie-in to my youthful (and now, manchild) obsessions.
Welcome to Isotopes Field, home of the — wait for it — the Albuqerque Isotopes.
Upon entering the ballpark, this is the first person that greets you.
I went on to write a detailed story about the origin of the team name as well as the Simpsons family statues that can be found throughout the concourse. I suggest that you read it, and if I was able demand such a thing then a demand it would be.
Now that you’ve read that particular piece, let’s move on to a little tour of the ballpark. With the players warming up on the field, Isotopes broadcaster Josh Suchon led me on a 360-degree walk of the facility.
First things first, the team had a new videoboard installed prior to the season. That’s the new one on the left, complementing the old board on the right.
I asked Suchon whether the Isotopes were making any claims regarding it being the biggest/tallest/widest board in Minor League Baseball, because those are the sort of things that Minor League Baseball teams do. His reply was that “It’s bigger than El Paso and that’s the most important thing. Everything is a rivalry with El Paso now.”
I was going to respond that “Well, yeah, it’s easier to be bigger than a Chihuahua,” but then realized that no team in professional sports history has ever named themselves after something smaller than an isotope.
There’s plenty of room to move at Isotopes Park, which opened in 2003. Multi-tiered berm seating is not something you see every day, unless you work in a park that has multi-tiered berm seating.
Remember when you read that story I linked to, which explained that the Isotopes acquired their Simpsons statues at a Los Angeles junk store run by the inimitable Nick Metropolis? Well, the team also acquired this Hollywood sign from Mr. Metropolis. It is a reference to Albuquerque being, as Suchon put it, “the Minor Leagues of Hollywood.” The city provides tax breaks to film companies who work in the region, and the fact that Breaking Bad took place there certainly raised the region’s profile in the industry (and America) at large.
This Captain Morgan statue was also obtained via Nick Metropolis and his impressive junk world connections.
We soon made our way back on the concourse and — look — here’s Lisa.
It seems fitting that Bart is below an advertisement for “pest management.”
Isotopes Park was built where its predecessor once stood — Albuquerque Sports Stadium (or A.S.S., as I prefer to call it). At that facility, fans could park beyond the outfield wall and watch the game from their cars.
But these days, fans watch the game from their eyes, man. From their eyes!
Isotopes Park is one of several sports facilities in the immediate area. This, as viewed from outside the suite entrances, is the home of University of New Mexico basketball and it is called “The Pit.”
Meanwhile, over here, you’re apt to see the pigskin get tossed around.
Turning my camera in the other direction resulted in a view of a facility that hosts baseball — Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes. (I almost forgot where I was there for a second).
I neglected to ask why the Isotopes took a multi-hued approach to their glass panel installation. It’s pretty cool, though.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
Finally, I spotted Marge. In a decidedly uncharacteristic move, she had Coke up her nose.
At this point, you’re probably asking the same question I was.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
It was around this time that I met Isotopes general manager John Traub, who told me the Simpsons stories that ended up in the MiLB.com article that you already read. But one more thing that I didn’t mention is that Traub is the (once) proud owner of an Alex Rodriguez signed bat. Traub was formerly the general manager of the Calgary Cannons (the team that moved to Albuquerque in 2003), and got that bat when A-Rod was in Calgary in 1994.
After speaking with Traub, I went down to field level in time for the National Anthem. And look who I ran into — Mr. Clint Belau! Regular readers of this blog (I hope that you are one of them), will recognize Clint as one of 2012’s Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journalists. That employment seeking effort eventually landed him a job in Albuquerque, and he is now in his second season with the Isotopes and his first as an assistant groundskeeper. Clint remains as I described him back in 2012: irrepressibly optimistic. Dude just loves working in baseball, and was so committed to breaking into the industry that he moved to Albuquerque at the age of 35 to be a stadium operations intern.
Clint had also recruited my designated eater for the evening. You know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Today’s eater would be Megan Black, an Oregon native and girlfriend of Isotopes groundskeeper Casey Griffin. In the above photo, Megan is mid-bite on a Lasorda Dog: two hot dogs, deep-fried jalapenos, bacon, sour cream, and cheese in a flour tortilla. “The bacon’s really good with it, though I guess it’s a little fatty if you want to get technical,” said Megan. “This thing, it’s got a good kick to it.”
Next up was the Tortilla Burger, available at the team’s “items with self-explanatory names” kiosk. Megan was a little taken aback, saying, “I don’t know, it’s a lot of meat….the fries are good.” Casey soon chipped in, adding that “it almost tastes like meat loaf. The meat’s real tender and good, but a little plain.”
Pizza’s not the most exciting item to photograph and write about, but the Isotopes offer Dion’s at the ballpark. Dion’s is a well-respected local chain, and, I’ve gotta say, it looked far better than your average slice of ballpark pizza. “Okay, it’s really good,” is all that Megan had to say about Dion’s. The view from our second-level location was really good as well. Finally, we went back inside for some Bananas Foster, which I don’t believe I had ever seen at a ballpark before. I’m not exactly sure what was in this Isotopes mini-helmet rendition, though it must have been some combination of bananas, ice cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, liqueur, and (of course) whipped cream. (In retrospect I should have walked down to the stand where these were being made, as there was some flambe action going on.) Megan and Casey were less than thrilled by this poorly lit “romantic” photo, but I can’t resist including it. Although I couldn’t immediately ascertain whether or not the Bananas Foster were gluten-free, I went ahead and gave it a try (when in doubt, I should NOT try something, but I guess I don’t always follow that rule). I’ve never liked bananas in any context, really, but that was a great dessert!
And with dessert concluded, it was time to say goodbye to Megan and Casey and move upward and onward — to the broadcast booth with Josh Suchon! After a pleasant inning on the air chatting with Josh about the start of another season of Minor League travel, I peeked my head into the control room. Everything was copacetic. For whatever reason, I seem to have a habit of visiting teams on “off” nights when it comes to attendance. This game took place on a Monday, and it was freezing! The temperature was in the low 40s once the sun went down, with winds whipping about at approximately 35 miles an hour. Hence, a pretty small crowd. I needed to move in order to stay warm, so I moved on down into the tunnel adjacent to the third base dugout. Clint had invited me to “help” drag the infield. I’ve dragged the infield a couple of times before — generally as part of a dance routine — but for whatever reason I still felt a little nervous prior to taking the field. But it was like riding a bike, in that once you get out there you just have to rely on muscle memory.
What form! What skill! What daintily-fitting tapered-leg jeans! I forget what led to what, and it’s barely documented, but I soon ended up in a mascot race dressed as “Green Chile.” I did not win. That bottle of salsa was, like, way ahead of me. Lost within the bowels of the stadium after the race, I happened upon this awesome painting. Dancin’ Homer! After getting situated again amid the general population, I opted for some dinner. One of the main concession stands had a promising (albeit) vague sign advertising a “gluten-free sandwich.” I got one. It was a turkey sandwich, apple, and a bag of chips. Good for what it was, I suppose, and certainly better than nothing. I appreciated that it was on offer in the first place. But, thinking long-term, my opinion is that gluten-free ballpark food should adhere as closely to food that people usually want at a ballpark. This might not be feasible in all situations, but with a little bit of effort regarding inventory and staff training it is possible to offer gluten-free hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, nachos, beer and more at the ballpark. Please, make it happen if you’re not making it happen already. My fellow celiacs will thank you, and even shake your hand so long as you are not made of wheat.
Off of my soapbox, for the time being, I did a lap around the stadium. It was the ninth inning, and it was cold and deserted throughout the park (save for a cluster of hardcore fans behind home plate). While I was wandering, the Isotopes plated a run in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 3-3. The game ended up going into extra innings, which I commemorated by wandering into the team store. Orbit says welcome. This is the team’s standard Simpsons-inspired logo. But the team also pays homage to Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston is a fan of the team, and while the show was filming in Albuquerque he helped organize celebrity softball tournaments. (Unfortunately, there was nary a Weird Al homage to be found in the team store. Nonetheless, Albuquerque remains one of the best songs he ever wrote!)
Finally, one can buy a copy of a book that Traub co-authored, Dave Rosenfield’s Baseball: One Helluva Life.
Rosenfield has his own Simpsons connection, as the MiLB.com article that you already read made clear: “Dancin’ Homer,” the episode in which the Springfield Isotopes were first introduced, was written by former Norfolk Tides broadcaster Ken Levine. Levine drew on his experiences with the Tides in writing the episode, and Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield even makes a cameo (in name only) as the owner of the rival Capital City Capitals.
But anyway, for the first time all night I decided to just sit down and relax. When the Isotopes make the call to the bullpen, this bullpen cart is driven around the field. I don’t think any pitchers ever ride in it, though. Despite the fact that a game had been going on for almost four hours, Homer still had his sights oriented away from the field. The Salt Lakes Bees reminded me of a cartoon at this point, in that their infield was “drawn in.” The drawn-infield wasn’t able to prevent the run from scoring, as Jamie Romak hit a single to score Miguel Rojas with the winning run.
And that, my friends, was all she wrote. She being me, and this blog post being that which got wrote. I hope you found it to be more than a rote effort, and are excited (or at least mildly curious) about the dozens of “On the Road” posts that are still to come this season.
The next post in this “On the Road” blogging series will feature the El Paso Chihuahuas. It is scheduled to run on Smarch 16.
This blog post contains the ultimate 2014 Minor League Baseball road trip itinerary — all 159 parks in one season! I have yet to meet anyone foolhardy enough to actually undertake such an endeavor (in this season or otherwise), but, as you shall soon see, it is possible.
Before I divulge this massive, reader-submitted nationwide travel schedule, a little housekeeping:
By the time this post goes live, I will be officially be “On the Road.” Here’s the itinerary of my current trip:
April 28: Albuquerque Isotopes
April 29, 30: El Paso Chihuahuas
May 1: Midland RockHounds
May 2: San Antonio Missions
May 3-4: Travel/writing catch-up/miscellaneous wandering (I had hoped to check out the Mexican League, but no can do).
May 5: Corpus Christi Hooks
May 6: Round Rock Express
Please Note! My plan this time around, coverage wise, is to prioritize MiLB.com articles while on the road and then write the corresponding blog posts upon my return. Therefore, blog posts from this trip will begin appearing at or around May 9 and will run all the way until I embark on trip #2. (All four trip itineraries can be found HERE.)
In the meantime, there should be plenty of Ben’s Biz material to keep you occupied: Road trip articles on MiLB.com, Promo Preview on Tuesday April 30 and Tuesday May 1, and the April edition of Crooked Numbers on May 1 (along with a corresponding blog post). Finally, check out the current edition of Farm’s Almanac, a hyper-linked extravaganza of Minor League road trip highlights and lowlights from 2010-2013.
And now, the main event! At the end of March I received an email from a West Virginia-based reader named Steve Bieniek, who wrote, in part:
I’ve been following your blog for a few years now, and I just wanted to say keep up the good work. My favorite pieces are always when you’re on the road. As a result, I’m going to start the task this year of trying to go to all 30 MLB parks at some point in my life. I’d really enjoy going to all the minor league ballparks as well, but that seems like a monumental task. But that got me thinking; would it be possible to visit all the minor league ballparks in one summer?
It took me a couple of tries, but if you look at the attached spreadsheet, I was able to fit in all 159 parks, with many double header days included. The drive time between cities is listed beside each day (For example the drive time between Jupiter and Port St. Lucie is 37 minutes) and the second game of each double header day is marked in [bold]. You would need a massive amount of luck as well in trying to avoid rainouts and just frankly making it to each game on time. Perhaps it would be a good goal to have in 25 years when I’m retired.
Just for fun, I’m going to follow which game I’d hypothetically be at each day as best I can, just to see how the trip would go. I thought you might enjoy seeing this and if you’re in desperate need of road trip ideas, this could be (but probably not) a candidate.
This is, quite simply, an amazing piece of work:
|-||4/3/14||Jupiter, FL||6:35 PM||Jupiter||Fort Myers|
|37M||4/4/2014||Port St. Lucie, FL||6:30 PM||St. Lucie||Palm Beach|
|1H 7M||4/5/2014||Melbourne, FL||6:35 PM||Brevard County||Daytona|
|2H 17M||4/6/2014||Jacksonville, FL||3:05 PM||Jacksonville||Huntsville|
|1H 28M||4/7/2014||Daytona, FL||7:05 PM||Daytona||Brevard County|
|1H 44M||4/8/2014||Lakeland, FL||6:30 PM||Lakeland||Brevard County|
|57M||4/9/2014||Clearwater, FL||1:00 PM||Clearwater||Tampa|
|47M||4/9/2014||Bradenton, FL||6:30 PM||Bradenton||Palm Beach|
|1H 30M||4/10/2014||Fort Myers, FL||7:05 PM||Fort Myers||Charlotte|
|56M||4/11/2014||Port Charlotte, FL||6:30 PM||Charlotte||Palm Beach|
|1H 42M||4/12/2014||Dunedin, FL||6:30 PM||Dunedin||Brevard County|
|31M||4/13/2014||Tampa, FL||1:00 PM||Tampa||Daytona|
|7H 39M||4/14/2014||Rome, GA||7:00 PM||Rome||Lexington|
|2H 53M||4/15/2014||Kodak, TN||11:30 AM||Tennessee||Jackson|
|3H 34M||4/15/2014||Lawrenceville, GA||6:35 PM||Gwinnett||Norfolk|
|2H 9M||4/16/2014||Chattanooga, TN||11:15 AM||Chattanooga||Jacksonville|
|5H 51M||4/17/2014||Pensacola, FL||6:30 PM||Pensacola||Montgomery|
|1H 3M||4/18/2014||Mobile, AL||7:05 PM||Mobile||Birmingham|
|2H 11M||4/19/2014||New Orleans, LA||6:00 PM||New Orleans||Colorado Springs|
|4H 31M||4/20/2014||Montgomery, AL||2:05 PM||Montgomery||Mississippi|
|1H 20M||4/21/2014||Birmingham, AL||11:30 AM||Birmingham||Tennessee|
|1H 28M||4/21/2014||Huntsville, AL||6:30 PM||Huntsville||Mobile|
|3H 34M||4/22/2014||Memphis, TN||11:02 AM||Memphis||Oklahoma City|
|2H 3M||4/22/2014||North Little Rock, AR||7:10 PM||Arkansas||Tulsa|
|3H 31M||4/23/2014||Jackson, TN||12:05 PM||Jackson||Chattanooga|
|6H 7M||4/24/2014||Springdale, AR||7:05 PM||NW Arkansas||Springfield|
|1H 41M||4/25/2014||Tulsa, OK||7:05 PM||Tulsa||NW Arkansas|
|1H 34M||4/26/2014||Oklahoma City, OK||7:05 PM||Oklahoma City||Nashville|
|5H 26M||4/27/2014||Round Rock, TX||1:05 PM||Round Rock||Memphis|
|3H 24M||4/28/2014||Chorpus Christi, TX||7:10 PM||Chorpus Christi||Frisco|
|2H 3M||4/29/2014||San Antonio, TX||7:05 PM||San Antonio||Frisco|
|5H 3M||4/30/2014||Odessa, TX||11:00 AM||Midland||Chorpus Christi|
|3H 58M||5/1/2014||El Paso, TX||6:35 PM||El Paso||Fresno|
|4H 1M||5/2/2014||Albuquerque, NM||7:05 PM||Albuquerque||Fresno|
|9H 19M||5/3/2014||Frisco, TX||7:00 PM||Frisco||Midland|
|6H 10M||5/4/2014||Pearl, MS||1:00 PM||Mississippi||Jacksonville|
|5H 57M||5/5/2014||Nashville, TN||12:05 PM||Nashville||Iowa|
|6H 41M||5/6/2014||Springfield, MO||11:10 AM||Springfield||Tulsa|
|7H 2M||5/7/2014||Louisville, KY||11:05 AM||Lousiville||Norfolk|
|1H 11M||5/7/2014||Lexington, KY||7:05 PM||Lexington||Asheville|
|2H 32M||5/8/2014||Charleston, WV||7:05 PM||West Virginia||Savannah|
|2H 49M||5/9/2014||Salem, VA||7:05 PM||Salem||Carolina|
|2H 44M||5/10/2014||Richmond, VA||6:05 PM||Richmond||Erie|
|3H 3M||5/11/2014||Greensboro, NC||4:00 PM||Greensboro||Lexington|
|1H 34M||5/12/2014||Hickory, NC||6:00 PM||Hickory||Augusta|
|1h 51M||5/13/2014||Greenville, SC||TBD||Greenville||West Virginia|
|2H||5/14/2014||Kannapolis, NC||7:05 PM||Kannapolis||Delmarva|
|4H 13M||5/15/2014||Savannah, GA||7:05 PM||Savannah||Greenville|
|1H 57M||5/16/2014||Charleston, SC||7:05 PM||Charleston||Hickory|
|1H 50M||5/17/2014||Myrtle Beach, SC||7:05 PM||Myrtle Beach||Potomac|
|3H 2M||5/18/2014||Zebulon, NC||2:00 PM||Carolina||Salem|
|52M||5/19/2014||Durham, NC||7:05 PM||Durham||Louisville|
|3H 21M||5/20/2014||Asheville, NC||11:05 AM||Asheville||Greenville|
|2H 8M||5/20/2014||Charlotte, NC||7:05 PM||Charlotte||Norfolk|
|7H 14M||5/21/2014||Dayton, OH||7:00 PM||Dayton||Great Lakes|
|4H 31M||5/22/2014||Midland, MI||7:05 PM||Great Lakes||South Bend|
|4H 33M||5/23/2014||Columbus, OH||7:15 PM||Columbus||Durham|
|4H 46M||5/24/2014||Bowling Green, KY||7:05 PM||Bowling Green||Lake County|
|5H 49M||5/25/2014||South Bend, IN||4:05 PM||South Bend||Lansing|
|2H 33M||5/26/2014||Indianapolis, IN||6:05 PM||Indianapolis||Buffalo|
|1H 58M||5/27/2014||Fort Wayne, IN||11:05 AM||Fort Wayne||Dayton|
|1H 41M||5/27/2014||Toledo, OH||6:30 PM||Toledo||Durham|
|1H 47M||5/28/2014||Lansing, MI||7:05 PM||Lansing||Great Lakes|
|1H 3M||5/29/2014||Comstock Park, MI||6:35 PM||West Michigan||Dayton|
|5H 4M||5/30/2014||Davenport, IA||7:00 PM||Quad Cities||Beloit|
|4H 19M||5/31/2014||Appleton, WI||6:35 PM||Wisconsin||Quad Cities|
|2H 21M||6/1/2014||Beloit, WI||2:00 PM||Beloit||Clinton|
|3H 8M||6/2/2014||Cedar Rapids, IA||12:05 PM||Cedar Rapids||Burlington|
|2H 40M||6/2/2014||Peoria, IL||7:00 PM||Peoria||Kane County|
|2H 31M||6/4/2014||Geneva, IL||6:30 PM||Kane County||Clinton|
|3H 20M||6/5/2014||Burlington, IA||6:30 PM||Burlington||Quad Cities|
|2H 37M||6/6/2014||Des Moines, IA||7:05 PM||Iowa||Colorado Springs|
|3H 2M||6/7/2014||Clinton, IA||6:30 PM||Clinton||Wisconsin|
|5H 13M||6/8/2014||Omaha, NE||2:05 PM||Omaha||Oklahoma City|
|8H 18M||6/9/2014||Colorado Springs, CO||7:05 PM||Colorado Springs||Las Vegas|
|14H 51M||6/11/2014||San Bernardino, CA||7:05 PM||Inland Empire||Visalia|
|40M||6/12/2014||Adelento, CA||7:05 PM||High Desert||Lake Elsinore|
|1H 3M||6/13/2014||Lancaster, CA||6:30 PM||Lancaster||Rancho Cucamonga|
|1H 22M||6/14/2014||Bakersfield, CA||7:45 PM||Bakersfield||Modesto|
|1H 35M||6/15/2014||Fresno, CA||5:05 PM||Fresno||Omaha Storm|
|2H 35M||6/16/2014||Sacramento, CA||12:05 PM||Sacramento||Iowa|
|2H 8M||6/17/2014||Reno, NV||7:05 PM||Reno||Oklahoma City|
|6H 54M||6/18/2014||Las Vegas, NV||7:05 PM||Las Vegas||Nashville|
|3H 50M||6/19/2014||Lake Elsinore, CA||7:05 PM||Lake Elsinore||Lancaster|
|39M||6/20/2014||Ranch Cucamonga, CA||7:05 PM||Rancho Cucamonga||Inland Empire|
|3H 24M||6/21/2014||Visalia, CA||6:00 PM||Visalia||San Jose|
|2H 32M||6/22/2014||Stockton, CA||2:09 PM||Stockton||Bakersfield|
|33M||6/22/2014||Modesto, CA||6:05 PM||Modesto||High Desert|
|1H 23M||6/23/2014||San Jose, CA||7:00 PM||San Jose||Modesto|
|12H 10M||6/24/2014||Tacoma, WA||6:05 PM||Tacoma||Oklahoma City|
|2H 27M||6/25/2014||Hillsboro, OR||1:35 PM||Hillsboro||Vancouver|
|54M||6/25/2014||Salem, OR||6:35 PM||Salem-Keizer||Everett|
|1H 14M||6/26/2014||Eugene, OR||7:05 PM||Eugene||Salem-Keizer|
|4H 55M||6/27/2014||Everett, WA||7:05 PM||Everett||Spokane|
|1H 55M||6/28/2014||Vancouver, BC||7:05 PM||Vancouver||Tri-City|
|5H 33M||6/29/2014||Pasco, WA||7:15 PM||Tri-City||Boise|
|7H 54M||6/30/2014||Great Falls, MT||7:00 PM||Great Falls||Missoula|
|1H 28M||7/1/2014||Helena, MT||7:05 PM||Helena||Great Falls|
|6H 16M||7/2/2014||Ogden, UT||7:00 PM||Ogden||Idaho Falls|
|1H 14M||7/3/2014||Orem, UT||7:05 PM||Orem||Grand Junction|
|39M||7/4/2014||Salt Lake City, UT||6:35 PM||Salt Lake||El Paso|
|2H 59M||7/5/2014||Idaho Falls, ID||7:15 PM||Idaho Falls||Ogden|
|4H 29M||7/6/2014||Missoula, MT||5:05 PM||Missoula||Great Falls|
|3H 2M||7/8/2014||Spokane, WA||6:30 PM||Spokane||Tri-City|
|6H 39M||7/9/2014||Boise, ID||7:15 PM||Boise||Hillsboro|
|9H 33M||7/10/2014||Billings, MT||7:05 PM||Billings||Idaho Falls|
|10H 18M||7/12/2014||Grand Junction, CO||7:05 PM||Grand Junction||Helena|
|26H||7/15/2014||Augusta, GA||7:00 PM||Augusta||Kannapolis|
|4H 59M||7/16/2014||Bluefield, WV||7:05 PM||Bluefield||Greeneville|
|21M||7/17/2014||Princeton, WV||7:05 PM||Princeton||Elizabethton|
|2H 31M||7/18/2014||Lynchburg, VA||7:05 PM||Lyncburg||Carolina|
|1H 57M||7/19/2014||Pulaski, VA||7:00 PM||Pulaski||Bluefield|
|1H 53M||7/20/2014||Elizabethton, TN||6:00 PM||Elizabethton||Burlington|
|12M||7/21/2014||Johnson City, TN||7:00 PM||Johnson City||Bristol|
|27M||7/22/2014||Kingsport, TN||7:00 PM||Kingsport||Greeneville|
|2H 53M||7/23/2014||Winston-Salem, NC||12:00 PM||Winston-Salem||Potomac|
|1H 14M||7/23/2014||Danville, VA||7:00 PM||Danville||Burlington|
|3H 18M||7/24/2014||Norfolk, VA||12:05 PM||Norfolk||Toledo|
|2H 23M||7/24/2014||Salisbury, MD||7:05 PM||Delmarva||Charleston|
|5H 53M||7/25/2014||Burlington, NC||7:00 PM||Burlington||Kingsport|
|3H 12M||7/26/2014||Bristol, TN||7:00 PM||Bristol||Greeneville|
|1H 1M||7/27/2014||Greeneville, TN||6:00 PM||Greeneville||Bristol|
|6H 8M||7/28/2014||Hagerstown, MD||7:05 PM||Hagerstown||Greenville|
|1H 41M||7/29/2014||Aberdeen, MD||7:05 PM||Aberdeen||Tri-City|
|1H 49M||7/30/2014||Woodbridge, VA||12:05 PM||Potomac||Myrtle Beach|
|2H 25M||7/31/2014||Harrisburg, PA||7:00 PM||Harrisburg||Akron|
|1H 49M||8/1/2014||Wilmington, DE||7:05 PM||Wilmington||Frederick|
|1h 26M||8/2/2014||Allentown, PA||6:35 PM||Lehigh Valley||Durham|
|1h 51M||8/3/2014||Lakewood Township, NJ||5:05 PM||Lakewood||Asheville|
|1H 7M||8/4/2014||Staten Island, New York, NY||11:00 AM||Staten Island||Auburn|
|21M||8/4/2014||Brooklyn, NY||7:00 PM||Brooklyn||Connecticut|
|3H 29M||8/5/2014||Bowie, MD||6:35 PM||Bowie||Portland|
|2H 35M||8/6/2014||Trenton, NJ||12:05 PM||Trenton||Altoona|
|1H 22M||8/6/2014||Reading, PA||7:05 PM||Reading||Harrisburg|
|2H 10M||8/7/2014||Frederick, MD||7:00 PM||Frederick||Carolina|
|3H 6M||8/8/2014||Moosic, PA||7:05 PM||Scranton/WB||Columbus|
|1H 38M||8/9/2014||Wappingers Falls, NY||7:05 PM||Hudson Valley||Tri-City|
|2H 6M||8/10/2014||Norwich, CT||4:05 PM||Connecticut||State College|
|1H 40M||8/11/2014||Lowell, MA||7:05 PM||Lowell||Williamsport|
|2H 5M||8/12/2014||Manchester, NH||7:05 PM||New Hampshire||Richmond|
|1H 34M||8/13/2014||Portland, ME||7:00 PM||Portland||Akron|
|3H 51M||8/14/2014||Burlington, VT||7:05 PM||Vermont||Aberdeen|
|4H 1M||8/15/2014||Pawtucket, RI||7:05 PM||Pawtucket||Scranton/WB|
|1H 44M||8/16/2014||New Britian, CT||7:05 PM||New Britian||Harrisburg|
|4H 34M||8/17/2014||Auburn, NY||2:05 PM||Auburn||State College|
|1H 5M||8/18/2014||Rochester, NY||7:05 PM||Rochester||Syracuse|
|1H 11M||8/19/2014||Buffalo, NY||7:05 PM||Buffalo||Rochester|
|4H 25M||8/20/2014||Troy, NY||7:00 PM||Tri-City||Vermont|
|4H 21M||8/21/2014||Williamsport, PA||7:05 PM||Williamsport||Mahoning Valley|
|2H 16M||8/22/2014||Binghamton, NY||7:05 PM||Binghamton||Akron|
|2H 47M||8/23/2014||Batavia, NY||7:05 PM||Batavia||Mahoning Valley|
|1H 54M||8/24/2014||Jamestown, NY||4:05 PM||Jamestown||State College|
|53M||8/25/2014||Erie, PA||7:05 PM||Erie||Bowie|
|3H 19M||8/26/2014||Altoona, PA||7:00 PM||Altoona||Richmond|
|42M||8/27/2014||State College, PA||7:05 PM||State College||Williamsport|
|4H||8/28/2014||Syracuse, NY||7:00 PM||Syracuse||Rochester|
|4H 56M||8/29/2014||Niles, OH||7:05 PM||Mahoning Valley||Auburn|
|1H 11M||8/30/2014||Eastlake, OH||7:00 PM||Lake County||Dayton|
|46M||8/31/2014||Akron, OH||2:05 PM||Akron||Erie|
So what do you think? Can this be done, by a mere mortal? Should it be done? Are there other itineraries that would also work? What stretches of the above 2014 itinerary are most appealing to you, and why? If you’ve gone on a Minor League road trip, what were the highlights? What were the lowlights?
Why am I asking so many questions? Sometimes, it’s just better to relax.
After an absurd amount of dilly-dallying, second-guessing, waffling, hemming, hawing, and out-and-out procrastinating, the day has finally arrived. The day in which I unveil my 2014 road trip itineraries to you, the (presumably) loyal reader. This year I will be going on four trips — with the first one kicking off in less than two weeks — visiting some 30 teams in all. This should provide me with enough material to last somewhere into the 2016 season, but like anything else in life you’ve got to take it one step at a time.
When traveling within the world of Minor League Baseball, one has plenty of options.
Before getting to the travel itineraries, a few of my standard-issue caveats:
Due to the vagaries of home and away schedules, it can be very difficult to assemble these itineraries. I apologize to teams that were skipped over, and please know that I am a very sensitive man who doesn’t ever want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Nonetheless, I am fully prepared for the inevitable slew of “You were in (X) ballpark yet didn’t visit (Y) ballpark?” emails and tweets, as well as front office comments like “It’s really too bad you’re here on a Wednesday. The weekend’s gonna be awesome.” I do my best!
Also, while there are MANY places that I’d love to return to, priority will always go to places I have yet to visit.
– As many of you know, I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012 and had to switch to a gluten-free diet. This makes it hard for me to sample ballpark delicacies with the reckless abandon to which I had been accustomed, but there is a solution: THE DESIGNATED EATER.
At every ballpark I visit, I am looking for a fan (ideally) or local media member who will sample the concessions that I cannot. I will document your eating experiences in words and pictures, so that those reading can still enjoy the comprehensive ballpark food coverage they have come to expect — nay — demand.
If YOU are interested in being a designated eater at one of the ballparks listed in the itineraries below, then get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org. First come, first served.
(Note to teams: if you are planning on staging a contest of some sort to find the designated eater, then let me know so that I do not accept someone on my own accord. Also, in the interest of providing an unbiased perspective, I will no longer be accepting team employees as designated eaters.)
Finally, I will not necessarily have a designated eater at each ballpark this season. If volunteers and/or team interest are non-existent, I am fine with skipping a ballpark or two. It gets kinda tedious taking pictures of people while they’re eating and then asking “So, how’s the hot dog?”
This could be you!
As always, my time at each location will be limited. But, as always, I am interested in your recommendations regarding what else there is to do, see and consume in the area. If you have any cultural, culinary or record store expertise regarding any of the locations listed, THEN GET IN TOUCH. Many of these recommendations make their way into my “Return to the Road” content, in which I write about my experiences outside of the ballpark.
– I have (or will be) getting in touch with all of the teams included, but if you’re a member of the front office feel free to jump the gun and get in touch with me regarding recommended hotels, story suggestions, designated eater leads, etc.
Sorry for burying the lede here, but I wanted to get all of the fine print out of the way first. And now, without further ado, the itineraries…
TRIP #1 SOUTHWESTERN SOJOURN
April 28: Albuquerque Isotopes
Designated Eater: Megan (No Last Name Given)
April 29-30: El Paso Chihuahuas
May 1: Midland RockHounds
May 2: San Antonio Missions
Designated Eater: Darren Smith
May 3-4: TBD
I originally had written that I hoped to visit teams in the Mexican League, but multiple people have advised me not to visit border towns by car. I hope to do a Mexican League trip in 2015, but, for now, these dates are open).
May 5: Corpus Christi Hooks
Designated Eater: Javi Rodriguez
May 6: Round Rock Express
Designated Eater: Phil Boyd
Notes: The motivation for this trip was, not surprisingly, the desire to visit the brand-new El Paso Chihuahuas. They actually have their home opener on the 28th, but the only way I could also work Albuquerque into the schedule was to delay my El Paso arrival until the 29th. I’m also excited to finally visit Texas (I have already been to the four Texas League stadiums NOT located in Texas), but obviously the Mexican League dates are still a big question mark. If that doesn’t work out I’ll call an audible and go from there.
TRIP #2: SAYING GOODBYE AND HELLO DOWN SOUTH
June 5: Huntsville Stars
June 6: Rome Braves
Designated Eater: Joe Webster
June 7: Gwinnett Braves
June 8: Hickory Crawdads
Designated Eater: Alex Ward
June 9: Charlotte Knights
Designated Eater: Matt Campbell
June 10: Kannapolis Intimidators
The motivation for this trip was two-fold — to see the Huntsville Stars during their last-ever season before moving to Biloxi, and to see the Charlotte Knights in their brand-new downtown stadium. With these as a focal point, it was difficult to put together an itinerary that didn’t overlap too heavily with trips that I have already taken. I’ve already been to Huntsville on a previous trip, but thought that the “last season” angle justified a return. I also visited Chattanooga on that trip, but the game was rained out. The least justifiable return visit is Gwinnett, but I’ll find a way to cover it that won’t overlap with that which has come before. Just got to get creative! Maybe we can find someone there to be “Ben’s Biz for a Day,” with the end result being a massive guest blog post covering that person’s experiences…
TRIP #3: OHIO AND THEN SOME
July 18: Akron RubberDucks
Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows
July 19: TBD (Update: Toledo, West Virginia, Lake County, and Mahoning Valley have all proposed visits).
July 20: Columbus Clippers
July 21: Indianapolis Indians
Designated Eater: Tim Mullin
July 22: Louisville Bats
July 23: Lexington Legends
July 24: Dayton Dragons
Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie
I’ll be driving for the entirety of this trip, after renting a car in NYC. This one came together after I received an invitation from Akron to participate in a gala (and, of course, ridiculous) world record attempt on July 18. With that as the starting point, I crafted an itinerary that allows me to visit five teams whose ballparks I have yet to visit (in-season, at least). Not much else to say about this one, other than that it’ll be a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to it. How’s that for some illuminating insight?
TRIP #4: KEEPING IT (RELATIVELY) LOCAL
August 22: Batavia Muckdogs
August 23: Rochester Red Wings
August 24: Jamestown Jammers
August 25: Erie SeaWolves
August 26: Buffalo Bisons
Designated Eater: Phil Walck
August 27: Syracuse Chiefs
Designated Eater: Brian Goswell
August 28: Auburn Doubledays
August 29: Tri-City ValleyCats
August 30: Hudson Valley Renegades
September 1: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
Designated Eater: Matthew Vervlied
Notes: I’m a New York City resident, and for whatever reason I’ve found it difficult in the past to put together an itinerary focused on the Empire State. So I figured, why not? I’ll end the season with a New York-based blowout, which will deplete whatever remaining energy reserves I may have left at that point. I like the mix of big International League stadiums and quaint New York-Penn League parks, with the Erie SeaWolves and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders serving as PA outliers.
Let me know your thoughts on these itineraries, should you have any, and feel free to share any trip itineraries that you may be embarking on this season. Thank you for reading, and hope to see you on the road this season.
And as for 2015 — I think that’s going to have to be my “Rookie” season. Apologies to teams in those leagues, and all teams that I have yet to visit thus far. There’s just so many of you!
Okay, for real this time: Today’s post marks the last occasion in which I “Return to the Road” in order to write about my 2013 West Coast trip. My next post will include all four of this season’s road trip itineraries, the first of which kicks off on April 28 in Albuquerque.
Oh, right: In Klamath Falls, Ore., home of the collegiate wood bat league Gems. I arrived in Klamath Falls at the end of a travel day, choosing it as a place to spend the night so that I could visit Crater Lake the next morning before moving on to Hillsboro to check out the Hops. Seeing a baseball game during my brief time in Klamath Falls was not something I planned on doing; in fact, I hadn’t even been aware of the Gems existence until the front desk clerk at the Days Inn alerted me to the fact that a game was going on. While I had been looking forward to a night off from the ballpark routine, seeing the Gems was just too serendipitous of an opportunity to pass up. Kiger Stadium, an all-wood facility constructed in 1948, happened to be locating just across the street from where I was staying!
So, I did what any self-respecting baseball fan would do in such a situation: I hightailed it on over there in order to catch what remained of the ballgame. Kiger, as you can see, delivers a rustic and picturesque baseball environment.
Kiger Stadium hosted the Far West League Klamath Falls Gems from 1948-51, but since then all of the baseball played there has been of the amateur variety (the Gems are in the West Coast League, comprised of premier collegiate players). From the Kiger Stadium website (which, as you’ll see, hasn’t been updated in a few years):
Kiger Stadium has been far from empty during years since the Far West League. The ballpark has been home to tens of thousands of American Legion, Babe Ruth League, college and high school games through the years. In 2011, Oregon Tech, Mazama High School, the Klamath Falls Falcons and Hawks (American Legion) and local Babe Ruth Baseball teams will call the historic ballpark home.
I also discovered that the 1951 Gems squad included game show host Bert Convy. This is the picture that accompanies Convoy’s Wikipedia page:
In addition to hosting Tattletales, Super Password, and Win, Lose or Draw, Convoy was an actor whose myriad roles included sleazeball Glenn Hamilton in the soap opera Love of Live. He also appeared in the in the pilot episode of Murder, She Wrote and directed the Goodspeed Opera House premiere of the musical Zapata (which featured music and lyrics written by Harry Nilsson, one of my all-time heroes).
Before falling down this internet rabbit hole any further, let me get back to the matter at hand: Kiger Stadium, circa 2014.
The seventh inning stretch was a charming experience, a six-second snippet of which can be viewed HERE (man, I wish I could embed Vine videos on this blog). Once that requisite bit of national pastime tradition was in the books, I moved over to the bleacher seating area located down the first base line.
Tater the mascot. coming through:
The existence of Tater tipped me off to the fact that potatoes must be important to Klamath Falls. And, of course, they are. Here’s an overview of the region’s potato history, courtesy of the internet.
I didn’t get any food while I was at Kiger, potatoes or otherwise, and my photos of the concession stand are, unfortunately, non-existent. Kiger is unique, however, in that the concession stand was located indoors, at the end of a hallway.
Klamath Falls is home to spuds, and it’s also home to bugs. This photo only hints at just how many winged creatures were swarming the lamp posts at the end of the evening.
This lackluster act of bug documentation was the last thing I did while at Kiger Stadium. With the Gems game in the books, I headed back across the street to the Days Inn and got a good night’s sleep in advance of waking up bright and early in order to visit Crater Lake.
Crater Lake, located about an hour from Klamath Falls, is, to put it simply, the most beautiful place that I have ever visited in my life. Formed within a caldera created by the collapse of a volcano, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America (nearly 2000 feet) and the water boasts a deep blue color that seems almost otherwordly. I would have loved to have spent several days here, camping, hiking, boating, and taking in the view from the lodge. Instead I had to settle for 90 minutes of idle wandering along the upper perimeter instead. Not ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I don’t have a particularly high quality camera, nor am I a particularly skilled photographer. Crater Lake is just this beautiful:
The high rollers of south central Oregon travel to Crater Lake in limousines with Mitt Romney bumper stickers and chintzy advertisements emblazoned across the sides.
Motorcycles are a far more common mode of transportation, however, at least on this particular morning.
After (reluctantly) leaving Crater Lake, I got lunch at Highway 97’s self-proclaimed best restaurant.
And then it was on to Hillsboro, home of the Hops. (My time with the Northwest League’s newest entity was chronicled HERE). After a night game and a day game in Hillsboro, the trip (and my 2013 travel in general) came to a conclusion in Portland. I spent one evening there before flying back to New York City, with fellow MLBAM employee Jared Ravech serving as a tour guide. Here I am, blocking the view.
I had a really fun evening in Portland, but at this point it’s all kind of a blur. Pinball was definitely involved.
And that — finally! mercifully! — is that. The next post on this blog will contain this season’s road trip itineraries. Here we go again…
(In the meantime, should you be looking for something to read, check out my new book round-up on MiLB.com)
Early next week, come hell or high water (but preferably neither), I will reveal my 2014 road trip itineraries. In the meantime I will continue to dip into my seemingly inexhaustible reserve of 2013 road trip content.
Today’s “Return to the Road” segment, fourth in a series, picks up in “Magnificent” Stockton, CA.
My time in Stockton, at the ballpark or otherwise, has been amply chronicled in previous posts and articles. But before heading on my way to Reno, Nev., I made a stop at Rasputin Music. This is the sort of one-size-fits-all music and movie superstore that weas once quite prevalent around the country, but now going extinct as our media consumption habits move from the physical to the virtual. (In my home of New York City, for example, the Virgin Megastore at Union Square is now a bank, and the iconic E. 4th street Tower Records now houses the MLB Fan Cave. The only establishment of this ilk still holding it down in the Big Apple is J&R Music World.)
I don’t know if Rasputin is still going strong, but it’s still going, and God bless ‘em for it. Perhaps I’m somewhat motivated by nostalgia, but I can’t help spend a little money when I visit establishments such as this.
My core musical tastes, circa 1989:
My core musical tastes, circa 1999:
Cassettes for a quarter:
Finally, a gluten-free pop artist:
All of this is to say: If you still find joy in the act of going to a record store, and find yourself in the Bay Area or Central Valley, then keep an eye out for Rasputin. It’s the kind of place where you can buy Guns N Roses “Spaghetti Incident” for $5 because, hey, why not, it may be a cover album but it’s still Guns N Roses!
(Or at least that was my line of reasoning).
Soon after leaving Rasputin I spotted this establishment. I should have pulled over and taken a proper picture, but, regardless, old-fashioned bowling alley signage should always be celebrated. (I would have plenty of opportunity to do that the next day, as it turned out.)
Finally, a brief stop at Stockton’s “Miracle Mile” shopping district.
Regardless, I had some time to poke around Reno the next day before showing out for points northwest. The bus station was fairly easy to spot.
But that wasn’t the only over-sized and out-of-place vehicle in the immediate vicinity. The annual Hot August Nights car show happened to be taking place during the weekend I visited Reno, and this was one of the more notable entities on display.
In the midst of all this automotive action, I happened to notice a most welcome sight.
Delicious, filling, and (often) gluten-free, Vietnamese is one of my all-time favorite cuisines.
One of downtown Reno’s more notable (non-gambling related) attractions is the National Bowling Stadium/International Bowling Museum Hall of Fame.
In case you’ve never ventured to the upper deck of a bowling stadium before…
The Hall of Fame featured plaques for male bowlers, while women were celebrated via paintings honoring their “superior performance.”
Also featured: archaic equipment and pop culture detritus.
Speaking of pop culture detritus, I made one more stop in Reno before leaving town for good. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Randy Newman signage on a building’s exterior is always a positive in my book.
The interior of Recycled Records included vinyl, cds, and even eight tracks.
My next, and last, stop on this road trip was Hillsboro, Ore., home of the Hops. I didn’t have to be in Hillsboro until the following evening, however, so I made a plan to drive to Klamath Falls, Ore. so that I could then drive to (relatively) nearby Crater Lake in the morning before heading on to Hillsboro.
I hope that makes sense.
Upon getting out of Reno proper, the landscape changed considerably.
I can’t tell you where I was, but a stop at this gas station yielded both a Big Hunk and a Pop Shoppe cane sugar root beer.
Again, I chose Klamath Falls as my destination because of its close proximity to Crater Lake. I had no baseball plans for this particular evening, but while checking into the Days Inn, the clerk asked me what had brought me to this neck of the woods. I replied that I was a baseball writer, and planning to visit Crater Lake in the morning before before driving on to Hillsboro.
“That’s funny,” he replied. “I figured you’d be hear to see the Gems. I think they’re playing right now.”
Unbeknownst to me, Klamath Falls is home to the collegiate wood bat league Gems, who play at 65-year-old Kiger Stadium. And would you believe that Kiger Stadium was located a five-minute walk from the hotel in which I had elected to spend the night? And that the Gems were indeed playing at that very moment?
I had thought that Klamath Falls would be the one town on this trip in which I didn’t see a baseball game, but, as is so often the case, I thought wrong.
The next — and last! — post in this series will detail my time in Klamath Falls and Crater Lake. That will really and truly conclude my 2013 road trip content, leading to the unveiling of my 2014 road trip itineraries.
In the meantime, please know that I am aware that the season is underway!
– A new Promo Preview appeared today (Tuesday), and will run weekly through the remainder of the season.
– A special ‘Opening Weekend” edition of Crooked Numbers appeared yesterday (Monday), and will run monthly for the remainder of the season.
– And, what’s this? A bold new form of Ben’s Biz “On the Road” content? I’ll have more on this shortly…
There’s a lot going on.
Welcome to the latest installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I re-trace my steps during my third and final road trip of the 2013 campaign in order to bring you all of the non-ballpark content that’s fit to print. The previous post in the series began in amid the vast expanse of Bakersfield and ended at Visalia’s Lamp Liter Inn, surely one of the quaintest team-affiliated hotels in all of Minor League baseball.
The Lamp Liter still issues honest-to-God keys, and the room signage was a definite blast from the past.
The on-site diner was similarly retro:
Before leaving Visalia I headed downtown and took a stroll. Most of the Central Valley California towns I visited on this trip were rough-around-the-edges and possessed an air of general economic despair, but the core of Visalia I found to be surprisingly vibrant. A brief photo tour, starting with a record store that was, unfortunately, closed on Mondays (marking the second day in a row my attempts to visit a local record store were thwarted).
I was very taken with Visalia, but my momentary illusion that it was some sort of small town utopia quickly received a reality check.
I didn’t get any lunch in Visalia. My next stop was Fresno, and in that city my first order of business was to go on a brief tour of notable area taco trucks. This tour, arranged by members of the Fresno Grizzlies front office, was covered extensively on MiLB.com. In brief, I had a really good time!
My time at that evening’s Fresno Grizzlies game has also been extensively documented. Among many highlights of my time at the ballpark was my encounter with this particularly committed “designated eater” (ie, the individual recruited at each ballpark to consume the gluten-free cuisine that my celiac disease prohibits).
The next day I made a pit stop at E. Olive Street in Fresno.
This particular record store was called Spinners. Welcome!
I picked up a few moderately-priced used classic rock LPs (Michael Nesmith, Humble Pie, Black Oak Arkansas), bantered with the friendly clerks for a bit, and then was on my way out of Fresno.
Next stop: Modesto, home of the Nuts. As is my standard operating procedure on these trips, I entered the ballpark while waving to my fans while riding atop a ’59 Corvette.
You can read all about my evening with the Nuts HERE. Part three of this series will pick up with my wanderings the next day in Modesto. A visit to a record store may have been involved.