Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

On the Road: It All Comes to an End in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

(Also: I will be on vacation through Monday, November 17. Please take this opportunity to get caught up on all of my 2014 in-season content. And if you have suggestions regarding offseason topics that I may wish to pursue, then please get in touch. Your feedback is always appreciated.)

The first Minor League game that I ever went to was in 1989, when I saw the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons play at Lackawanna County Stadium. The Red Barons were a Philadelphia affiliate, and as a fanatical young Phillies fan, I loved seeing players in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre whom I might one day see play in Philadelphia. I also thought it was really cool that Lackawanna County Stadium was designed as a mini-Veterans Stadium, so that players who got the call-up to the Phillies would already have a good sense of the field layout as well as the unforgiving nature of the artificial playing surface.

I attended Red Barons games on a semi-regular basis over the next half decade or so, one of the primary perks of my grandparents having bought a house in nearby Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania. I remember cheering on the likes of Greg Legg, Steve Scarsone and Jeff Grotewold, and occasionally seeing rehabbing Major Leaguers such as Darren Daulton and, on one memorable day, Darryl Strawberry (suiting up as a member of the visiting Columbus Clippers). These are my first, and still some of my best, Minor League Baseball memories.

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At one time in my life, I had a Red Barons pennant hanging in my bedroom

Some two decades later, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre still has a Triple-A team. This much has remained constant. But the franchise has switched affiliations (from the Phillies to the Yankees in 2007) and rebranded itself twice (becoming the Yankees in conjunction with the 2007 affiliation switch and then adopting the “RailRiders” name prior to the 2013 season). Furthermore, the team is playing in what is essentially a new ballpark. Renovations to Lackawanna County Field (now called PNC Field) were so extensive that the team was forced to spend the entirety of the 2012 season on the road. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball experience of my youth is no longer. The franchise is now ensconced with a whole new epoch and on Sunday, August 31, I finally got the chance to see it for myself.

*  *  *

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was the 10th and final stop of my fourth and final road trip of the 2014 season. Finally, the end was in sight, and it seemed fitting that my travels would end with the franchise where my relationship with Minor League Baseball began.  I arrived at the ballpark in the late morning, and was greeted not by a parking attendant but by a “Director of First Impressions.”

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First impression: you should tuck in your undershirt

“Director of First Impressions” and other whimsical approaches to customer service can be attributed to team president Rob Crain, who came aboard in 2012 and oversaw the stadium renovation and rebranding efforts that occurred prior to the 2013 season. He had experience with that sort of thing, having previously been a part of similar endeavors in Omaha (during the 2010-11 offseason, the Omaha Royals moved to a new ballpark and named themselves the “Storm Chasers”).

It was approximately two hours until the start of the game, meaning that I had the parking lot practically to myself.

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I wasn’t the first one to arrive, however. These fans were already in line, presumably so they could obtain one of the team-logo toothbrush holders that were to be given away.

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Which, by the way, looked like this. (I’m not sure where the toothbrush is supposed to go, but whatever. I’m sure those in the know will bristle at my ignorance.)

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I met Rob Crain outside of the ballpark, and he gave me a tour of the facility. Let’s begin.

*  *  *

This mural depicting Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history and culture, was painted by local artist Evan Hughes. (His was the winning design in a contest staged by the RailRiders prior to this season.) The mural runs alongside the steps that lead to PNC Field’s Mohegan Sun Club, a private second-level club and suite area.

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Outside the entrance to the Mohegan Sun Club, I happened upon this curious sight.

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The RailRiders were set to play the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and in response the team was roasting a pig and selling the resulting “IronPig Sandwich” for $7.50.

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The RailRiders had already lost the “IronRail” head-to-head season series with Lehigh Valley, and both teams had long been eliminated from playoff contention, but there was still something to play for: the battle to not finish in last place!

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The playing field is one of the few things at PNC Field that is not new. The days of this ballpark bearing a distinct Veterans Stadium resemblance are long, long gone.

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For the record, Rob was very enthusiastic about the drink rail that wraps around the entire concourse. I think he used the term “Trex-style decking,” and I was like “How can T-Rex even hold a drink when he’s got those tiny baby arms?”

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One of the coolest things about this “new” ballpark is the extent to which the natural landscape is incorporated into the outfield concourse. This is the Railhouse Bar.

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Booze with a view.

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And this picnic area is called “Oak Grove.” The trees are lit up at night, but, alas, I was there during the day.

“I’m not sure if the trees are oak, but that’s what we call them,” said Rob. “I’m no arborist.”

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Stay off of the rocks, please.

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Actually, on second thought: have a seat:

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The rocks have eyes!

$2 buys three shots on the Porcupine Putt Putt.

“If you’re wondering, it goes to the left,” said Rob.

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“We wanted the biggest, tallest, most intense visual we could find,” said Rob, explaining the thought process behind this gargantuan Fun Zone offering.

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The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons/Yankees/RailRiders have retired two numbers over the course of franchise history. Greg Legg, No. 14, was not honored simply on the strength of his name, but because he played for the Red Barons from 1989-94. All told, Legg played 11 seasons in Triple-A, all within the Phillies organization, and he has since spent the last two decades coaching and managing within the Phillies system. Dave Miley, No. 11, has managed the club since 2007. He is the only manager Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has had during its time as a Yankees affiliate.

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On the third-base side of the concourse, one finds this Midway-style attraction.

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Ribbet Riders in action, featuring president Rob.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Frogs, but it was time to move on. The Laurel Line Grill is named after the Laurel Line trolley route. Did you know that Scranton is the birthplace of the electric street car? And that’s why the team is called the “RailRiders” in the first place? Well, now you do.

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I’m not sure that I had ever seen this before: add peanuts for $3.00.

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The Birthday Burrow is where all the cool Scranton kids have their parties.

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During our lap of the concourse, Rob was in full taking-care-of-business mode. In addition to augmenting my tour with various ballpark facts, I witnessed him pick up stray pieces of litter, radio a co-worker about a broken armrest in section 11 and constantly monitor the weather via an app on his cell phone. A storm front was in the vicinity of the ballpark, and it was an open question at whether it would wreak havoc or steer clear.

In the meantime, Rob and I went upstairs in order to check out the aforementioned Mohegan Sun Club.

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The four-top tables placed outside are in the shape of blackjack tables.

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The elevated view from the second level makes it easier to appreciate the artistry of the groundskeeper.

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The suite hallways are decorated with photos of Yankee greats.

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In the suites, one finds induction heaters mounted inside harvest tables. Other teams are gonna have to step up their food-heating game!

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There are 18 suites overall, identified by glowing signage modeled after that which can be found at Yankee Stadium.

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Back on the concourse, pitcher Nick Rumbelow and second baseman Robert Refsnyder (separated at birth?) were in the midst of a 20-minute pregame autograph session. Refsnyder didn’t know it then, but weeks later he would win a MiLBY for Top Home Run Video.

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The RailRiders’ press box and control room are located on the concourse level. Twenty-one games are broadcast on local television each season, with most of the equipment needed for such an endeavor found here.

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With the game about to begin, I bid adieu to President Crain (for the time being) and wandered back to the outfield concourse. One of the coolest features of this area is the primo view it affords of the home and visiting bullpens. Here, IronPigs pitcher Sean O’Sullivan gets in some final tosses before taking the mound.

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The RailRiders’ relievers struck a casual pose.

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But the IronPigs’ bullpen denizens were even more relaxed. Dude on the left is all, “Man, it’s the penultimate day of the season. I’m not even gonna put on pants.”

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*  *  *

With the game under way, I recommenced wandering, and, soon enough, my wanderings led me to this trio.

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My conversation with the above trio led to an MiLB.com article, excerpted below of context:

Junichi “Jay” Inoue, Yu “Buffalo” Matsumoto and Tetsuhiro “Freddy” Usui were visiting the RailRiders from Sendai, Japan, as part of a tour of American sporting venues. All three men work in the “enterprise department” of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team commonly referred to simply as “Rakuten” — and they were in America on business.

Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui wanted to learn about how professional sports teams operate in the United States. The hope was that, after careful observation, they could apply some of these American ideas to the Rakuten baseball experience.

This trio of international travelers was accompanied to PNC Field by Morris Morioka, a native of Japan who has just completed his second season as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager of marketing and promotions. Two years ago, Morioka and IronPigs promotions director Lindsey Knupp traveled to Japan to share ideas at sports promotional seminars in Tokyo and Sendai. While in the latter city, they met Usui, who kept in touch with Morioka and solicited his help in planning a trip to the United States.

Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui had an interesting array of paraphernalia, including this Masahiro Tanaka golden bobblehead.

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This concessions brochure was fascinating.

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And, yes, your eyes do not deceive you. In the bottom right hand corner, Andruw Jones is eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.

*  *  *

After parting ways with my new Japanese friends, I returned to the pig carving station to see how things were going. A significant chunk of this unfortunate fellow was now missing.

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I abstained from the pig, but, seeking sustenance, did procure an order of nachos. These were obtained from a concession kiosk sporting the incredibly creative name of “Nachos.” They were delicious.

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Nachos consumed, I reconvened with President Rob to continue my tour. As we proceeded into the guts of the facility, I offhandedly mentioned that the game was “flying along.” Without missing a beat and without even turning around, Rob raised a finger in the air and said “Don’t jinx nothing.” Clearly, I had broken a baseball taboo: never comment on how quickly a game is proceeding. This will anger the baseball gods, who will respond with a rain delay and/or extra innings.

Anyhow, this is the visitors’ locker room. It is perfectly adequate.

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The refrigerator in the nearby kitchen area was covered with signatures, sayings and off-color baseball poetry. One man who added his name to the mix this season was peripheral Duck Dynasty character Mountain Man.

Mountain Man was not just here this season, he was everywhere. 

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While the visiting clubhouse is adequate, the home clubhouse is spectacular. Rob mentioned that such deluxe accommodations aid the Yankees in their efforts to sign six-year Minor League free agents and fringe MLB veterans who might end up spending some or all of the season at Triple-A.

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The weight room:

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The former auxiliary clubhouse is now used as the groundskeeper’s area. Be jealous, other Minor League groundskeepers.

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When we emerged back on the concourse, T-shirts were being launched. Note that image on the videoboard, as that’s one impressive-looking gun.

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Later, a Honda Fit was given away to a fan who had correctly guessed the number of baseballs filling the trunk of said vehicle.

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Those who did not win a Fit could still obtain a fitted cap at the team store. There were some interesting specimens therein.

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Meanwhile, on the field, the game continued to fly right along. The RailRiders held a 1-0 lead through seven innings, with Tyler Henson leading off for the IronPigs in the top of the eighth.

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Henson was greeted with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” as he strode to the plate, and he promptly deposited a fat-bottomed offering from Rumbelow over the center-field fence to tie the game, 1-1. In the bottom of the eighth, Lehigh Valley’s Hector Neris was summoned from the bullpen. I found it odd that a Philadelphia-affiliated pitcher was greeted with the Rocky theme while pitching on the road.

But that’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for ya. It’s a land of divided loyalties.

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Rob’s efforts notwithstanding, apparently I had jinxed this ballgame’s ability to conclude at a rapid pace. For in the bottom of the eighth inning, the rains came.

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A tarp snafu resulted in the right side of the infield getting completely waterlogged.

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I was certain that the game would be called immediately, but this was not the case. A protracted rain delay then followed, indefinitely extending my season-ending road trip. I entertained myself by watching “Baseball’s Best Blunders” on the videoboard until, finally, mercifully, the following message was broadcast to the fans.

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Finally, my 2014 ballpark travels were complete. Just before exiting PNC Field, I thrilled to one last instance of creative Minor League Baseball sponsorship.

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But as much as I was looking forward to finally returning home, I nonetheless was overtaken by a pervasive melancholy upon leaving the ballpark. In 2014, I would be “On the Road” no longer. Seeking to postpone my inevitable offseason existential crisis for as long as possible, I shuffled about at a snail’s pace and snapped photos of anything that even seemed remotely interesting.

Hey, Gene Schall! I remember seeing him play back in 1993.

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Finally, at approximately 5:30 p.m., I officially closed the book on this season’s travels.

Thanks to all the teams that hosted me, the fans I met and, most importantly, everyone who has taken the time to read this season’s crop of MiLB.com articles and blog posts. I really appreciate it. Get in touch anytime, and stay tuned later in the month for the start of offseason content as well as odds and sods left over from the road. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: So Close and Yet So Far Away in Hudson Valley

Over the last five seasons my Minor League Baseball ballpark travels have taken me to every corner of the continental United States, from El Paso, Texas to Everett, Washington to Burlington, Vermont to Fort Myers, Florida. Yet it wasn’t until this season-ending trip of 2014 that I visited the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are located just 75 miles north of my home base of New York City.

Finally, on August 30th, I rectified this egregious omission. Welcome to Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.

IMG_0791Construction on Dutchess Stadium began in January of 1994, and, somewhat miraculously, completed in time for the start of the 1994 New York-Penn League season. (The construction crew, like a good entomologist, was able to make adjustments on the fly.) Dutchess Stadium has hosted the Renegades for the duration of their existence, after the franchise relocated from Erie, Pennsylvania following the 1993 campaign.

While Dutchess Stadium boasts an ample parking area, be forewarned that traffic into and out of the ballpark is very slow moving. Don’t let that get to you, though. Just take a deep breath and take in the mountain view.

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The Renegades are owned by the Goldklang Group, whose baseball portfolio also includes the Charleston RiverDogs, Fort Myers Miracle, independent St. Paul Saints and wood-bat collegiate Pittsfield Suns. The Goldklang Group’s executive roster features the likes of Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, but I was disappointed to find out that neither man had traveled to Dutchess Stadium on this evening to give me a proper Hudson Valley welcome. “Don’t they know who I am?” I bellowed to no one in particular. “I am the mighty Ben’s Biz!”

Goldklang Group vice president Tyler Tumminia is the mastermind behind the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, and plaques featuring the inductees are displayed at each Goldklang Group ballpark. At Dutchess Stadium, these plaques are located just outside of the main entrance.

IMG_0793It’s not hard to discern Tumminia’s motivations for establishing the PBSHOF — her father, John, a veteran White Sox scout and global baseball humanitarian, is one of the inductees.

IMG_0794 Meanwhile, I had my own scouting to do. The view from the inside.

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If you like inflatable cacti — and who doesn’t? — then you’ll love the team’s Fun Zone.

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If you don’t like cactus then you are Nopal of mine

Heading down the third base line, one encounters this bit of creative landscaping. I just wish that dessicated cow skulls and tumbleweeds had also been incorporated into the design.

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Renegades players prepared for their imminent New York-Penn League contest by congregating in the outfield and staring blankly into the middle distance.

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While, down the first base line, an unruly mass of pre-game guests began to congeal.

IMG_0803Fortunately, I had some help making sense of the chaos. Sandy Tambone, a local photographer who often works Renegades games, introduced himself to me prior to the game and, throughout the evening, helped me make sense of what I was seeing. For instance, in the above photograph, you can see a woman wearing a crown. That would be Miss Hudson Valley, one April Maroshick, who soon had to handle the awkward task of throwing out a first pitch while wearing a skirt, sash and high heels. (I would be happy to attempt this at a Minor League game in 2015. Get in touch.)

photo: Sandy Tambone

photo: Sandy Tambone

Nadia Manginelli, also known as Miss Westchester, threw out a first pitch as well. While she might Miss Westchester, she did not miss her home plate target.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

During my pregame peregrinations Sandy introduced me to the Hanson Sisters, a pair of Hudson Valley superfans who are not actually named Hanson but are in fact sisters. I wrote a story about them that appeared on MiLB.com last month; click HERE to learn all about the sisters’ well-honed raccoon-centric ballpark antics.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

I also spoke with Glenn Looney, a veteran usher.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

2014 marked Glenn’s 18th and final season as an usher at Dutchess Stadium, but he will continue to participate in the Renegades’ host family program.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Glenn of his impending retirement as an usher. “But part of the reason [I’m retiring] is because I’m getting a new hip. I made sure to schedule the surgery after the playoffs, though. But now I’ll have time to sit in section 203 with the other host families, having a beer and watching my kids play baseball. I’m looking forward to it. Yesterday the score [of the Renegades game] was 3-2 and I had no idea what happened. I was working.”

By “my kids” Glenn meant the players that he’ll be hosting during the baseball season. I’ve heard that terminology used frequently when talking to host families, which speaks to the level of commitment and loyalty that develops as a result of these endeavors.

Left once again to my own devices, I resumed my aimless ballpark wanderings. Several Midway-style games had been set up in the “Corona Cantina” as part of the evening’s carnival theme.

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Among the carnival games was this strength-determiner, which featured an insulting and not entirely politically correct set of benchmarks (the first five were “softy,” wimp,” “girly man” “sissy,” and “assistant general manager”). Also, I have no idea whether that basketball shot made it in or not. It shall now linger on the rim for all eternity.

IMG_0808The team’s concession-area signage is similarly carnival-esque.

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Getting a leg up on the competition

The game I attended was on a Saturday night, the penultimate home game of the 2014 season. A robust crowd had filed in at this point, and many fans went straight to the concession stand.

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Wade-ing in line

It is perhaps to be expected from a team operating within the exorbitant orbit of New York City, but the Renegades’ concession items were on the pricier side. An order of nachos (just chips and processed cheese, no other toppings) was $5.50, and a 22-ounce soda went for $4.50. Perhaps also to be expected from a team in the greater NYC area, security procedures were more rigorous than at any other Minor League ballpark I had ever been to (including Brooklyn and Staten Island). Security personnel wielding hand-held metal detectors greeted fans at the gate and dog-toting officers from the Dutchess County sheriff’s department were on the premises as well.

IMG_0814Somehow this wildly gesticulating freakazoid made it past security, attracting children who came to the ballpark wearing the same shade of blue.

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If this blue dude is indicative of the Renegades’ customer service approach, then let it be known that they will bend over backwards to fulfill your needs.

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Truth be told, I developed a mild obsession with this aqua-hued creature. In this panoramic photo, he reveals himself to be a shape-shifting entity capable of dividing himself into a half-dozen separate organisms.

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Regretfully, and with no small amount of effort, I wrested myself away from the Blue Man Group.

A Minor League Baseball game was about to begin!

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The Renegades get pretty creative with their between-innings contests, which are overseen by Rick “Zolz” Zolzer.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Zolz paces around the concourse throughout the whole game, handling both PA duties and on-field emcee duties. The only other locale in which I saw such multi-tasking in action was Charleston, which, not coincidentally, is also part of the Goldklang Group empire.

I didn’t get the name of this particular contest, but it involved guessing song lyrics which were played over the PA in a monotone robotic voice. I can’t believe that these guys couldn’t guess this one, and it only got worse! They later failed to identify “New York, New York.”

There was also a putting challenge at one point. Two guys, one shirt.

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Later in the game I witnessed “Pie Wars.” Ostensibly this is a trivia contest, but really it seemed like an elaborate excuse for Zolz to mercilessly pick on one of the contestants. Check out the acerbic absurdity.

You can take away his dignity, but you can’t take away his smile.

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I have no idea what is going on in this photo. Maybe an on-field Heimlich maneuver demonstration?

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On-field shenanigans are all well and good, but I had other things to do. Namely, it was time to meet the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

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The above two individuals are Kathleen Fleming and Josh Gladstone. Josh is a fellow Major League Baseball Advanced Media employee, though his work and mine don’t often intersect. “Managing Producer” is his job title, though I generally refer to him as “guy who is always talking about technical things I do not and probably never will understand.” Nevertheless, I think he’s an HTML of a guy.

At the time this game took place, Kathleen and Josh were engaged to be married. And now, thanks to the inexorable passage of time, they are husband and wife! Congratulations, guys! Let me treat you to an array of concession offerings at a Class A Short Season Minor League Baseball game. Really, it’s the least I could do.

“I’m one of those obnoxious foodies who posts a photo of a tray of oysters,” said Josh.

“On our ‘Save the Date’ invite, we’re literally stuffing pie into our mouths,” added Kathleen.

Clearly, I was dealing with a couple of discerning gourmands.

Kathleen ordered a portabello-and-swiss burger, obtained from a made-to-order concession kiosk located on the concourse behind home plate.

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Josh opted for a nacho cheese-slathered hot dog. (In a feat of perhaps unparalleled gastronomic ingenuity, he then opted to put the potato chips directly onto his hot dog.)

IMG_0831The lovebirds have at it.

Kathleen, unfortunately, was unimpressed.

“Portabello and Swiss, both of which are cold,” she said. “I did not expect that. It was grilled…at one point. It tastes good, but I’m sorry: Cheese on a hot sandwich that’s not at least nominally melted? At least make an attempt.”

Josh had a better experience.

“Plus one on the ridged potato chips. If it’s not Ruffles, it’s a strong rival,” he said. “The hot dog is well-cooked, and I like a heavier, well-cooked dog. The chips on the dog give it a nice crunch. It tastes like America.”

Earlier in the evening I had noticed that the “Curious Traveler Eatery” featured a “Kegs and Eggs” special: scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and a beer for $7.

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Being a curious traveler myself, I quickly procured this Minor League Baseball culinary rarity so that Josh and Kathleen could (hopefully) enjoy it.

“I am excited about Kegs and Eggs because my favorite time to eat breakfast is anytime but breakfast,” said Josh.

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Kathleen may have dabbled a bit, but it was Josh who ended up doing most of the Kegs and Eggs heavy lifting. Sorry, ladies. He’s taken.

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“This is a summer camp-quality scramble,” said Josh.

“Uh, is that a good thing?” I asked him.

“You can leave that up to the reader to decide. I, for one, have fond memories of summer camp,” he replied.

And with that, we say goodbye to Josh and Kathleen. Any final words?

“We’re getting married on October 12, and interested parties can find our registry at joshandkathleen.com,” said Kathleen, not realizing that this post would not appear until two weeks after their nuptials. “Maybe strangers on the web will contribute. ‘Oh, those people with their portabello burgers. They’re adorable.'”

“This is the best baseball experience we’ve had all season,” added Josh, who had not been to a baseball game in 2014. “I like food of all kinds, and I’m always excited to check out a new venue. This was my first visit to the Renegades, but it will not be my last.”

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I may be posting these final “On the Road” missives of 2014 at a glacial pace, but the game itself was moving quicker than a jackrabbit dancing on a bed of coals. By the time I parted ways with Josh and Kathleen, it was already the top of the eighth inning. The crowd was fully settled in and the stands were packed.

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With everyone safely ensconced in their seats, this usher had plenty of time to pose with visiting regional beauty pageant royalty.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

In addition to taking the above photo, Sandy introduced me to Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. His personal grooming > my personal grooming.

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Molinaro has been a strong advocate for the Renegades, to the extent that the team gave away Molinaro bobbleheads in 2012. Prior to this season Dutchess Stadium, a county-owned facility, installed a new artificial turf playing surface and Molinaro has been a key supporter of efforts such as these. Here’s one more photo from Sandy Tambone, depicting the official public debut of the new playing surface. Clearly, it is a cut above.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Anyhow, the visiting Connecticut Tigers defeated the Renegades by a score of 3-2, in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 15 minutes to play.

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The game was over, but there was still a four-part suite of post-game entertainment.

Part One: Space Invaders — Live!

Part Two: Fireworks

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View from the rafters

While the fireworks show was going on, I ducked into the temporarily deserted men’s bathroom to document the wall art found therein.

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This falls under the “general interest” category

Part Three: Launch-A-Ball

IMG_0859Part IV: Dance Party!

On my way out of the ballpark, I noticed this dismembered action figure abandoned on a concourse table. That’s a metaphor for something, I just don’t know what.

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Good night from Hudson Valley.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Three Times the Fun in Tri-City

August 28th was the last Friday of the regular season in Minor League Baseball, representing one of the final opportunities to pull out all of the promotional stops in the service of a celebratory evening of end-of-summer National Pastime action. That was certainly the Tri-City ValleyCats’ approach on this evening, an approach that extended to the imminent arrival of esteemed Minor League Baseball scene chronicler and gratuitous third-person referrer Benjamin Hill.

In a nod to my gluten-free diet (the result of a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis), the team released this video in advance of my arrival. No glutes!

I arrived at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in the mid-afternoon to ensure that I’d have enough time to fully experience everything that the ValleyCats had planned for me on this glutes-free evening. “The Joe,” as it as referred to colloquially, opened in 2002. Not coincidentally, 2002 was also the first season of the ValleyCats’ existence after the franchise relocated from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of the ValleyCats, the last Minor League team to have played in the Tri-City (Albany, Troy, Schenectady) region was the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League. That team re-located to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1995 and now plays in Richmond as the Flying Squirrels.

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The Joe is located on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, an institution of higher learning affectionately (or would that be derisively?) known as “Harvard on the Hill.” This was not my first time attending a ValleyCats game, but it had definitely been a while. In 2008 myself and a contingent of MiLB.com staffers visited The Joe to see the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, and while there I wrote a “fan experience” article that served as a precursor to the “On the Road” material that now dominates my professional existence.

This time around I was met at the entrance by Ben Whitehead, the account executive who appears in the “glutes” video posted above at the two-minute mark. Whitehead gave me a tour of the facility, which began in the ticket office (the exterior of which you can see in the above photo.)

009From there, it was on to the team store. Note the signage, which elucidates the region’s professional baseball history. The Schenectady Frog Alleys are not included in this regional round-up, but Tim Hagerty’s much-recommended Root for the Home Team: Minor League’s Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Tean Names and the Stories Behind Them includes a page dedicated to this oddly-named squad.

“The city of Schenectady is where the Hudson River and Mohawk River converge, leaving plenty of opportunities for reptiles and frog alleys,” writes Hagerty in the book.

011In the team store, one can buy jars of Helmbold’s hot dog sauce. New York state is home to many regional frankfurter purveyors, as I learned on this trip, and Troy in particular is known for its unique take on the hot dog.

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Shelf, shadows, sauce

The ValleyCats won the New York-Penn League championship in 2013. This season, the trophy was displayed in the team store for all to admire.

012Championship trophy selfie! Or, as I like to call it, a selphy:

013On the day I visited, the ValleyCats had already clinched the NYPL’s Stedler Division. A playoff ticket sale campaign had been launched with the tagline #unomas, but this drive for “one more” championship was thwarted in the best-of-3 finals series by the State College Spikes. In 2015, the trophy seen above will reside there.

017Ben and I then swung by the promo supply room, which, for those keeping score at home, contains a bongo.

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I really got lucky with the weather on this trip. Once again, it was a beautiful day for Minor League Baseball in the Empire State.

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During every game this season the ValleyCats ran “sixth-inning selfie” photos on the videoboard, submitted to the team via MiLB.com’s Inside the Park app. I posed for a photo and ended up looking like a silent movie villain.

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028Also on the concourse is Food’s on First, perhaps the only concession stand in Minor League Baseball to be named after a comedy routine. (The concession stand on the opposite side is called the “Hot Corner,” but “I Don’t Know” what it should be called.)

030Brown’s Brewing Company, a Troy-based brewery, sells its beers at this location (including a team-specific “ValleyCats Ale”). Apparently this is also a pre-game hangout spot for silver-haired game-day employees.

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The pre-game silver-haired hangout scene was slightly less robust at Vamos Tacos (a play on the team slogan of “Vamos Gatos,” which is Spanish for “Go Cats”).

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Buddy’s Grill serves the upstate New York specialty of salt potatoes (also available at Minor League stadiums in Buffalo and Syracuse), as well as the Binghamton-based treat that is the spiedie (marinated cubes of meat, served on bread).

033This is the view from “The Porch,” a seating area added in 2009 in place of the grandstand seating that had previously existed there.

036While in the Porch, I took the opportunity to get a little writing done. (Seriously, there is a line in my notebook which reads “I am working hard in the Porch. Seating area down RF line.)

037I had no problem gaining access to these special stadium seating areas, for the team had given me this (I haven’t taken it off since).

“We almost called it ‘Benjamin’s Button,'” said Ben.

035To my right stood one of the steepest berms in all of Minor League Baseball. Note that the right field foul pole is sponsored by DDperks.com, which is not to be confused with the Auburn Doubledays’ “Double D Booster Club.”

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On the other side of the concourse, there is a general admission Tiki Bar.

043 As batting practice took place on the field, ValleyCats pitcher Joe Musgrove could be found running on the stadium stairs.

041Musgrove wasn’t the only individual at The Joe exuding a profound passion for improvement. ValleyCats chef Jason Lecuyer, seen in the glutes-adverse video that leads this post, has overseen many additions to the ValleyCats’ culinary scene.

“Our goal it to create a dining experience,” he told me. “We use fresh ingredients as much as possible, because as an organization we want to be known for our food. We think we have the best food in the New York-Penn League. We want to take it to another level.”

One way in which Lecuyer has “taken it to another level” is via the addition of a brick pizza oven on the concourse. The oven was procured prior to this season from “a guy in Vermont,” and the team sometimes brings it to local food festivals and community events so that attendees can enjoy a “taste of the Joe.”

045I can’t eat pizza these days (on account of the glutes), but I can make it. First I donned some rubber gloves, utilizing the technique I had learned from my pal Dr. Peter Lund the previous Monday in Erie.

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Checking the temperature (the oven can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but it is generally in the 700 degree range).

046Adding the sauce. (Not pictured: adding the cheese.)

053Ready to bring the heat.

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055Several minutes later.

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The finished product, boxed and sliced.

059I could not eat the finished product, of course. That’s what I have a designated eater for! (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

This evening’s designated eater was a gentleman by the name of Kyle Wirtz. He lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and works as a personal trainer. He attends ValleyCats games on a semi-regular basis, however, as his in-laws live in nearby Watervliet, New York.

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“I’m a trainer by trade, so I’m really going to have to work this one off,” said Kyle, a long-time reader, first-time designated eater. “My buddies will bust my chops. ‘You know what you do for a living, right?'”

Too late to turn back now, Kyle.

061“I’m coming from Connecticut, where New Haven is known as the pizza capital,” said Kyle. “But this is pretty good. You guys did a nice job.”

Kyle would end up accompanying me throughout the majority of the evening, and in this way he became more of a “designated fan” than simply a “designated eater.” This gave me an idea for the 2015 season: When visiting teams who have devised a full slate of activities for me, I may just recruit a “designated fan” to come along and participate in the entire experience.

Ben, Kyle and I traveled down the third base concourse to visit the “Top of the Hill Bar and Grill” in left field. Ben told me that, in honor of my visit, it had been unofficially renamed “Top of the Benjamin Hill Bar and Grill.” Okay, sure, I’ll take any ego boosts that I can get. It serves as fuel for the long, cold offseason.

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067The view of the playing field, from seats located directly beneath the scoreboard.

066In the above picture, you may have noticed that there is a TV installed into the back of the scoreboard. A closer look:

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Long-time Ben’s Biz Blog readers may recognize the individual shown on the screen above. That’s ValleyCats broadcaster Sam Sigal, who, in 2012, while working as an intern for the Trenton Thunder, picked me up at the Trenton train station while wearing a hot dog suit. It was raining at the time, making this image all the more memorable.

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While hanging out in the Top of the Hill area, Kyle and I enjoyed some Nine Pin cider. Nine Pin is a local company that uses New York apples. The resulting cider is crisp and tart, free of the cloying sweetness that can make ciders unappealing. I give it an enthusiastic bottoms up.

071The pregame festivities were about to get underway, so Kyle and I hopped into a Jeep and rode to the field in style.

072Riding in this vehicle, Kyle and I had a great view of Southpaw’s feet, as well as his oversized championship ring.

080 075Just look straight ahead, Kyle. Everything will be fine.

077Views from the road:

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Joe Tuschak smiles for the camera

After extricating ourselves from the vehicle, Kyle and I wandered around the playing field. A pig was there to greet us.

086I love this dude in the sunglasses and bucket hat, who seems to approach autograph collecting as if it were a furtive back alley transaction. As Zach Davis puts pen to paper, this dude is keeping both eyes peeled for the fuzz.

088An absurd number of ceremonial first pitches were thrown out on this balmy summer evening, most of them by purple-clad members of various University of Albany sports teams. Most, but not all.

Ben Hill 1st Pitch (2)Biz Blog history was then made, as Kyle became the first designated eater to ever throw out a first pitch. (It was a great year for designated eater milestones. The previous month Greg Hotopp became the first designated eater to receive his own media credential, courtesy of the Indianapolis Indians.)

DE 1st PitchKyle’s first pitch was expertly delivered, befitting his status as a former pitcher for Manhattan College. In 2005, he led the Manhattan Jaspers with 22 appearances, picking up one of his wins against my Dad’s alma mater of Lafayette.

Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf

Kyle Wirtz, some eight years before achieving designated eating glory. (Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf)

Kyle’s career didn’t progress beyond the collegiate ranks, but his roommate was former Minor League (and current indy ball) pitcher Chris Cody. His Jasper teammates also included future Cardinal farmhands Nick Derba and Mike Parisi (who pitched briefly in the Majors).

“I was the mediocre one of my group,” said Kyle. (He was also, through no fault of his own, the Wirtz one of the group.)

There were 14 ceremonial first pitches overall, a new ValleyCats record. Oh, the glory of it all!

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Some merely witness history. Others shape it.

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ValleyCats players were then introduced one-by-one as they took the field. Unlike Southpaw, this is not a team that runs out to battle with its tail between its legs.

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With the players in position, it was time to “Play Ball!” Take it away, tentative young girl!

More than three hours after I arrived at the ballpark — and, now, more than 2,000 words after I began this blog post — the game was underway.

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I said it once and I’ll say it again: It was a beautiful night. Not just for baseball, but for being alive.

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First pitch duties complete, Kyle resumed his designated eating duties. Here, after obtaining some Vamos Nachos, he formally introduces himself.

The nachos, ready for their close-up:

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“These are some of the better nachos I’ve had at a ballpark,” said Kyle, who preferred eating nachos to giving his opinion on nachos.

I agreed with him — all of the ingredients were fresh, and there was no artificially-processed cheese product goop to be found. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nachos are naturally gluten-free if you use the right chips and cheese, and they are delicious. BETTER NACHOS EQUAL A BETTER MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE.

That nacho soapbox is mine. I’ll get it off it now, so that this overstuffed narrative can move on. Up in the press box, I joined erstwhile rained-upon hot dog Sam Sigal for an inning on the radio broadcast.

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I also spent some time operating the team’s scoreboard, which, at 17″ by 36″ is the largest primary scoreboard in the New York-Penn League. Apparently, this cow is some sort of control room mascot.

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A near-sellout crowd had filtered into The Joe by this point.

111 Kyle and I soon returned to ground level, so that Ben Whitehead could assemble yet another round of concession stand offerings for us. A panoramic view from our picnic bench location:

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Ben soon returned with this smorgasbord: salt potatoes, apple nachos (apple slices topped with peanut butter, Craisins and chocolate chips), chicken Spiedies (sans bread) and a  Mexican-inspired salad that I unfortunately forget the name of.

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Both the salad and the apple nachos had been obtained at “The Healthy Zone.”

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Kyle praised the salt potatoes, saying that this upstate New York specialty was something that his Mom made every week.

“It’s a quality side,” he said. “A real staple for me when I was a kid.”

The spiedies and salad received high marks from both Kyle and me, but Kyle was most enthusiastic about the apple nachos.

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“I don’t know, maybe I’m straight edge,” said Kyle. “But these are really, really good. It can be tough to eat right in the summer, but these are outstanding. So simple, yet so good.”

119As Kyle enjoyed a heaping plate of apple nachos, a fine mist was wafting through the playing field. These two occurrences were not related.

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One aspect of the ValleyCats’ experience that is not to be mist is the nightly mascot pitting the mayors of Troy, Albany and Schenectady against one another. I was assigned the role of Schenectady city boss Gary R. McCarthy, and in this photo I’m standing alongside my bespectacled colleague mayor Lou Rosamilia of Troy.

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The two of us, along with Albany head honcho Kathy Sheehan, concluded our back room dealings and headed out into the New York night in order to mingle with our constituents.

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I just signed this baseball as “The Mayor,” reminding me of the time I was in Inland Empire dressed as a molar and signed baseballs as “Tooth.”

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I’m a large-craniumed representation of Gary R. McCarthy, and I approve this message.

132Here’s how the race went down. That whole “digging in the dirt” sequence is not a Peter Gabriel reference, but a nod to the Diamond Dig that was to be one of the evening’s post-game festivities.

The race was followed by even more mingling with the hoi polloi. At this point I was feeling kind of light-headed and out of breath, yet another reminder that if I’m going to continue to do this mascot racing stuff into middle age (and beyond?) then I really need to exercise more during the offseason.

140After changing out of my mayoral duds, Kyle (who had been hanging out with me ever since I made him a pre-game pizza) and I ran into Ben Whitehead in the office. He was dressed as his “Big Tex” alter-ego.

142The Big Tex origin story, in the words of Ben:

As an Astros affiliate, we thought it’d be a nice tribute to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after our 7th inning stretch. Being that I have family in Texas and my wife is from the Houston area, I had all the necessities – Texas flag, cowboy hat, boots, “Everything is BIGGER in Texas shirt” and other Astros gear — so I decided to jump on top of the dugout dressed to the nines and sing. Instantly, it became a thing.

143Unfortunately I missed Ben’s routine. After he left the office I parted ways with Kyle as well, who had to leave due to familial obligations. Thanks, Kyle, for your exemplary work as not just a designated eater but a designated fan. We’ll always have the memories!

Changing the pace considerably, my next task was to head back out into the stands meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It would have been awkward to document this portion of the evening, but it was nice to meet them! They live in Troy, where my girlfriend, Rebekah, grew up, and more detail on the personal-professional confluence can be found in this blog post featuring my city of Troy-based explorations.

So, yeah, in a nutshell: This was turning out to be a very long night in the midst of a very long road trip, and at this late juncture I was beginning to lose a little steam. Like, what’s even going on here? A hot dog on a bike is being pursued by a hot dog in a car? It’s all a bit blurry.

147I went back to the Top of the (Benjamin) Hill Grill to collect my thoughts.

153No thanks, guys, this time a ride will not be necessary. I’ll walk.

148I spent the final inning of the ballgame with the “Vamos Gatos” fan group, a contingent of enthusiastic ValleyCats supporters located behind home plate (the “Vamos Gatos” crew includes none other than Santa Claus, who apparently spends his summers in upstate New York). Follow them on Twitter @VamosGatosCrew.

The Vamos Gatos crew had much to cheer about, as the home team emerged with a 3-2 win.

156But a night at the ballpark does not conclude with the cessation of on-field play. That’s just not how it works in the world of Minor League Baseball, especially on a Friday night. Next up was a post-game Diamond Dig, in which female fans were given wooden spoons and invited onto the field so that they could hunt for a valuable piece of dirt-submerged jewelry.

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And they’re off!

159Try as I might, my Diamond Dig photographic efforts paled in comparison to my 2012 efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, still, these are always fun to watch. Several minutes (and many increasingly obvious emcee clues) later, this woman emerged with the diamond.

162An acceptance speech soon followed.

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Launch-A-Ball was the next item on the agenda. A popular pastime among the front office staff gathered on the field was to pelt tennis balls at this hapless inflatable referee.

165Meanwhile, I logged some quality time with Chef Lupos, New York’s preeminent spiedie marinade purveyor.

167Finally, there were fireworks. Or, if my photos are to be believed, intimations of fireworks.

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Racing to fertilize the egg?

Finally, after this action-packed slate of post-game programming had concluded, I got the chance to meet with fellow baseball writer Steven Cook.

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Steven writes the Greatest 21 Days blog, an ongoing attempt to profile all of the Minor League players featured in the 1990 CMC card set. It’s a quirky, obsessive and illuminating writing project, and I recommend it. Steven took photos of Brooklyn Cyclones coach Tom Gamboa during the ballgame, in preparation for an interview that occurred the next month. (The full list players he has interviewed can be found along the right side of the blog.)

Upon saying goodbye to Steven, I headed out of the ballpark (some seven hours after I had entered it). Thanks to the ValleyCats for their prodigious hospitality, as this was a truly memorable evening.

That’s all folks! Pig out.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Doubledays on a Night in Auburn

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

Thus far, my blog dispatches from this season-ending Empire State excursion have been rather dense affairs. Epics, even. If these posts were converted to song form, they would be a series of monolithic dirges possessing little to no melodic pop sensibilities. Therefore, I think that what we need now is a good palate cleanser, the blogging equivalent of Black Sabbath inserting “Laguna Sunrise” into the back section of Vol. 4. 

With that said: Welcome to Falcon Park, home of the Auburn Doubledays.

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The Doubledays, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Washington Nationals, were the third of five New York-Penn League franchises that I visited on this trip. Like my previous stops in Batavia and Jamestown, Auburn is a “classic” NYPL environment: a community-owned team operating in a small market and playing in a simple, no-frills facility that is actually located in one of the league’s namesake states. Falcon Park is almost identical to Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, and the similarities don’t end there. Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing a stadium built in 1937 on the same site; Falcon Park opened in 1995, replacing a stadium that was built in 1927 on the same site.

Also like Dwyer Stadium, Falcon Park is located in a quiet residential neighborhood.

097You’ve gotta love baseball environments like this, where, if you get there early enough, you might be able to mingle with players as they obtain a pre-game snack. This pair of hungry Muckdogs appears to be Ryan Cranmer (25) and Brad Haynal (16).

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Setting the scene.

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A closer look under the bleachers. Hula hoops and folding chairs, what more do you need in life?

108The Doubledays name is, of course, a reference to Auburn native, Civil War general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday. Hence, Abner the mascot.  Abner’s #96 jersey is a reference to the first year in which Auburn’s NYPL team was named the Doubledays.

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This team employee was setting up a video camera in a most seductive way.

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Early arriving fans were in full compliance with this piece of signage.

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Future Doubledays?

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The Doubledays have been an affiliate of the Nationals since 2011.

111This relationship will continue through (at least) the 2016 season, as prior to the game representatives of both teams made the announcement that the Player Development Contract (PDC) between the two clubs had been extended.

114There was also a pre-game awards ceremony honoring the team’s best players (as voted on by the players themselves). Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, standing on the far right, was named team MVP. The gentleman in the plaid shirt is Auburn baseball fixture Art Fritz, who serves as the team chaplain and director of the Double D Booster Club (please, keep your “Double D Booster Club” jokes to yourself).

113Former MLB pitcher Tim Redding now serves as the Doubledays pitching coach, marking his return to the team with which he made his professional debut in 1998. Redding threw a no-hitter for Auburn that season, but apparently did not have any mementos of it. Enter Marshall Trionfero, a Doubledays fan who took it upon himself to assemble this tribute to Redding’s moment of glory. I ran into Trionfero while wandering about before the game; he presented this collage to Redding later in the evening. (Redding no-hit the St. Catherines Stompers, who played in the NYPL from 1986-99. They were based in Ontario, the fourth and final Canadian team to have played in the circuit.)

109Meanwhile, it was time for the evening’s ballgame between the Doubledays and Batavia Muckdogs to begin. Oh say can you see that it was a beautiful evening for baseball?

116When I entered Falcon Park, the ticket taker greeted me thusly:

“Welcome to Falcon Park. Tonight we have $1 hot dogs, $1 soda and $1 beer with a government-issued ID.”

As the game began, it seemed that most of the fans in the ballpark were taking advantage of these economically prudent food and beverage specials (also, the evening featured a combo meal deal: hot dog, pretzel and soda for $3).

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The stands were a far more pleasant place to be.

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This photo, it just speaks to me.

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Shortly after the sun set, I spent several innings speaking with New York-Penn League historian Charlie Wride. Charlie has enjoyed a long and varied career within the world of Auburn professional baseball, and my feature story on him can be found HERE.

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Nighttime at Falcon Park is quite similar to daytime at Falcon Park. It’s just darker.

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Here, we see a contingent of Batavia Muckdogs hanging out in the visitors bullpen. This is fairly similar to their home environment, save for the fact that they don’t have a place to stash their bikes.

128No one volunteered to be my designated eater while in Auburn (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Nevertheless, I waited in line and obtained a hot dog and fries, just so that you, the reader, could see it. Like the nearby Syracuse Chiefs, the Doubledays’ sell Hofmann’s hot dogs at the ballpark. It may have been an off night at the concession stand — they definitely seemed understaffed — but this hot dog was not cooked properly. Half of one side was charred, while the remainder of the dog seemed to have barely touched the grill at all. But, on the plus side, the fries were good and the price was right.

131Meanwhile, the game was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip.

IMG_0262Batavia eked out a 3-2 victory in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 26 minutes to complete. There were only four games left in the season after this one, and both teams were already eliminated from postseason contention. About the only thing they were playing for, standings-wise, was third place in the NYPL’s Pinckney Division. (The Doubledays ultimately won this less-than-riveting battle, finishing a half-game above the Muckdogs with a record of 34-41.)

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Following the ballgame, and following established Minor League Baseball tradition, tennis balls were thrown onto the field by fans desirous of winning a prize.

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The fans then streamed out of the ballpark and into the Auburn night. A profound stillness soon pervaded through the atmosphere. The asphalt was empty, the bullpens abandoned and the pitch speed frozen at 69.

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Good night from the home of the Doubledays.

145benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Changing Directions in Syracuse

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

On Tuesday, Aug. 27, I woke up in Buffalo and, after a concentrated burst of exploration in that fine city, hit the road and drove 150 miles on I-90 east to Syracuse. While flipping through the radio dial on the way there, it seemed like all the disc jockey chatter was focused on the New York State Fair. People in this region of New York seem to LOVE the State Fair, an annual 12-day, late-summer extravaganza that takes place in a town just west of Syracuse proper. During the drive to Syracuse, I thrilled to a radio host’s impassioned rant against a new State Fair policy banning goldfish as one of the Midway game prizes, and, later, I was less than thrilled to hear that people seemed to enjoy seeing Train and the Wallflowers perform the night before.

But the New York State Fair — featuring performances by Journey and Cheap Trick! — wasn’t the only game in town on Aug. 27. For it was on that evening that I attended a ballgame at NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs. Ignoring the adjacent “Park and Ride” State Fair parking lot, I deposited my vehicle within a vast expanse of asphalt and proceeded toward this, the main entrance.

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2014 was a very interesting season for the Chiefs, both on and off the field. Last fall, after a string of money-losing seasons and increasing dissatisfaction regarding the direction of the community-owned franchise, John Simone was replaced as general manager by Jason Smorol. In November I wrote an article about this chain of events, excerpted here:

In 2013, the Chiefs drew only 345,000 fans to NBT Ballpark, the lowest total since the stadium opened in 1997. Upon the conclusion of this dispiriting campaign, the news only got worse as a financial report released by the team’s board of directors revealed that the franchise had already lost more than $500,000 in 2013. This was, by far, the most that the International League franchise had ever lost in a single year.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. And at the end of September, the board relieved general manager John Simone of his duties. Simone had served in that role since 1996, taking over for his father, legendary executive Tex Simone, who had been at the helm since 1970. The 2014 season will mark the first time since the 1960s that a Simone hasn’t been in charge of the Chiefs, and stepping into that void will be none other than Smorol. Can he turn this ailing franchise around?

2014 not only marked Smorol’s first season at the helm, it also included the Chiefs’ first trip to the postseason since 1998 and their first division title since 1989. (On the day I was in attendance, they were on the verge of clinching the North Division title, a feat accomplished three days later.)

After introducing myself to Mr. Smorol, I proceeded to the press box and took in the view on what was an overcast but generally pleasant evening at 17-year-old NBT Bank Stadium.

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The concourse was sparkling.

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Walking further down the right-field line, one finds the “Hank Sauer Room of Legends.” Sauer played four seasons as a member of the Chiefs (1942-43 and 1946-47, with two years of military service in-between), hitting 50 home runs in 1947 at the age of 30. This solidified him once and for all as a bona fide power hitter, and he went on to play in the Majors from 1948-1959 (winning an MVP Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1952).

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Smorol later told me that the team has “grand visions” for the Room of Legends, as the long-term plan is for it to house the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.

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Outside of the Room of Legends, one finds this tribute to Syracuse’s “Mr. Baseball” Tex Simone. Prior to his retirement last year, Tex had been involved with the Chiefs, in one capacity or another, since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1961. (Other iterations of the Chiefs existed, in one form or another, from 1934-1957).

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This bust had originally been located at the main entrance to the stadium, and its relocation to the Room of Legends did not sit well with the Simone family. This article, from Syracuse.com, details the ensuing controversy and provides a good glimpse at the turmoil that gripped the franchise prior to this season of transition.

Moving on to happier matters: 1911 is a local spirits and hard cider company whose products are readily available at this “Flavors of Syracuse” concession stand. (On an unrelated note, those two guys must have been so embarrassed when they realized that they wore the same outfit to the ballpark.)

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Blue collared shirt? Check. Khaki shorts? Check. Sneakers? Check.

All of the pregame photos shared thus far show few fans in the ballpark. But a significant number of early-arriving fans were indeed present, and their mission was to procure an autograph from special ballpark guest Bucky “Expletive Deleted” Dent. The line snaked through the concourse, as legendary Syracuse vendor Jimmy Durkin roamed up and down the line selling pens.

“Hey!” yelled Durkin. “Get your own pen right here! They’re any color you want! They’re only a dollar! Hey!”

029 Away from the concourse, the scene remained serene.

030The Chiefs were wearing theme jerseys as part of the evening’s “Latino Night” promotion.

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“What we found out is that Syracuse doesn’t have a very large Latino population,” Smorol later told me. “This might be our last Latino Night.”

Speaking of Smorol, here he is on the scoreboard making a nightly pregame speech that details all of the activity that’s about to take place at the ballpark. I had seen Rochester Red Wings general manager Dan Mason making a similar speech several days before, and I think it’s a great idea. It sends the message that the general manager is open and personable, ready and willing to interact with the fans and listen to their suggestions and questions, and this is an especially important thing for someone in Smorol’s position to do. He’s the proverbial “new guy in town,” after all, and a big part of his job this year was to turn around the public perception that the Chiefs are an out-of-touch organization.

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Oh, and for those keeping score at home: The videoboard seen above was installed prior to the 2012 season, boasting dimensions of 30 by 55 feet.

Meanwhile, my wandering continued. This is the view from down the right-field line:

034During these solitary travels, I came across a piece of signage left over from the “Sky Chiefs” era. The team went by this moniker from 1997-2006, reverting back to the original “Chiefs” name in 2007. At that point the team adopted a train-themed identity that “honors the mighty railroads that shipped goods manufactured in Syracuse all over America.”

035Just minutes before, when I had been on the left-field side of the stadium, the Fun Zone inflatables were standing tall and proud. But, clearly, something had since gone awry.

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The Rochester Red Wings were that evening’s opponent. In the team’s bullpen, I noticed one-time Moniker Madness semifinalist Mark Hamburger receiving a vigorous back rub from one of his relief corps compatriots.

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Hamburger then returned the favor. Hey, you scratch my back…

038The game was now under way, and the Latino Night videoboard graphics were in full effect. (I’m not exactly sure why Steven Souza is listed as having a .000 batting average, as he played in 96 games for the the Chiefs this season. He and several other core Syracuse players were called up to the Nationals at the conclusion of the regular season, and this move angered Chiefs fans who felt that the team should have remained intact for the playoffs.)

041If the scoreboard is to believed, “Today’s Options” equal the sound made when someone blows into the crook of their arm.

043International League baseball inaction.

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The Chiefs are one of a few teams to feature an elderly mascot among their costumed character repertoire. Here’s Pops, up close and personal.

044 Soon thereafter, I caught a less up-close but still quite personal view of Scooch. Introspective mascot alert!

046I didn’t just meet with mascots during these early-game peregrinations. I also spent a significant chunk of time with Brian Goswell and his son, Owen. They were my designated eaters for the evening (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

051Brian, his wife, Joanne, and Owen had driven all the way from Kingston, Ontario, in order to obtain designated-eating glory (although Joanne, probably wisely, had chosen to abstain). Brian, who works for the city of Kingston, serves as the president of the baseball league in which Owen, 12, competes. Owen is a catcher, and Brian proudly told me that he’s “got the art of framing a pitch down pat.” Owen, whose favorite player is Josh Thole, told me that I bore a striking resemblance to Thole’s battery mate R.A. Dickey. Does he have a case here?

Dickey:

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Eponymous Biz Blog author:

maybe

Brian, a dedicated reader of this blog for several years, had long had designated-eating aspirations. He contacted me shortly after my 2014 trip itineraries were posted and promptly secured this honor, all the while unaware that his passport had expired. Thanks to his deft handling of the required bureaucratic maneuvers, a new one arrived in the mail the day before and his plans proceeded apace.

Oh, the irony: The Goswells crossed the border into the United States so that they could eat some poutine. Poutine, of course, is a Canadian specialty consisting of french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. This might be blasphemous to those living north of the border, but the Chiefs’ iteration of this dish replaced the cheese curds with shredded mozzarella.

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Owen, an avowed poutine fan, says that his favorite poutine purveyors are New York Fries and Smoke’s Poutinerie. Of the Chiefs’ offering, he remarked that it’s “Awesome, better than some in Canada. I like the different cheese — mozzarella instead of curds.”

“When cheese, gravy and fries are added together, you can’t lose,” added Brian.

Next up was a fried clam sandwich, served with cole slaw and french fries.

055Father and son partake:

“I’m not big on seafood, but I thought that this was good,” said Brian. “My wife was right: ‘Try it — you might like it.'”

“But she doesn’t need to hear about this,” replied Owen.

Next up was chicken wings with “Bang Bang” sauce, which Smorol raved about. (“It’s good on everything!” he enthused at one point. “Bang bang everything!”)

My photo of the wings is abysmal.

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Out of focus, everything

I’m not too familiar with the history and origin of Bang Bang sauce, but it appears to be a spicy-sweet mayo-based condiment.

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“Jason was right: ‘Bang Bang everything,'” said Brian. “These are really good.”

“I agree,” said Owen.

“It’s not much that you and I agree on,” said Brian. “You’re coming around.”

“Don’t tell Mom this, either,” said Owen. “Then she’ll want us to get along all of the time.”

Meanwhile, Smorol couldn’t help but help himself to some chicken wings. What, the GM worry?

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The upstate New York specialty that are salt potatoes made an appearance as well. I have no other photos or quotes involving these potatoes, but here they are.

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Finally, there were some hot dogs. Hofmann’s hot dogs, to be exact, a local company that spells its name in counterintuitive “one F, two N’s” fashion.

063 Father and son partake.

064Brian called this “one of the top three hot dogs I’ve ever had” as a result of its “big ballpark feel and the spicy mustard complementing it.”

“It was huuuge,” concluded Owen.

And that, as they say, was that.

“I have now fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams,” said Brian. “Being your designated eater.”

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Brian had one final request before disappearing into the sunset. Would I please do a Syracuse Chiefs #Cupdate?

But of course. This one’s for you, collectible cup aficionados, courtesy of Brian Goswell.

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049After parting ways with the Goswells, I walked over to the concourse area behind home plate and introduced myself to legendary vendor Jimmy Durkin. I ended up conducting a brief interview with Jimmy, which will form the basis of an upcoming MiLB.com piece (I’m telling ya, this season’s road trip content might never end).

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Hey, it’s Jimmy Durkin!

Lest we forget, there was a game going on.

069Of the 4,209 fans in attendance on this Tuesday evening, there was one gentleman in particular that I wanted to meet.

071And there he is: Lloyd “Suspect” Broadnax.

075Lloyd is a Chiefs superfan known for his profound heckling skills, and his backstory is an interesting one (read all about it in my “Suspect” MiLB.com piece). Here he is in action.

The Chiefs held a “Tattoo Night” promo earlier in the season, in which fans got a team-logo tattoo in exchange for season tickets. Lloyd, not surprisingly, was one of the fans who took part.

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Jared Wicks, a die-hard Chiefs fan who often sits in the same section as Lloyd, got a tattoo as well.

077Ziv Konsens, another regular attender, displaying an “Ump Needs Glasses” eye chart.

079Lloyd, Jared, Ziv and everyone else had plenty to cheer about, as the Chiefs plated a pair in both the seventh and eighth frames en route to a 4-3 win. It was a good — “neigh” — great victory for the Chiefs. The fans cheered themselves “horse.”

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I took that picture on my way out of the ballpark, but that was only so I could go back into the ballpark. My next stop was the Chiefs’ ground-floor front-office area, which features several full-to-bursting display cases of Chiefs memorabilia.

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I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the front office, chatting with team staffers who were decompressing after (yet another) long day. I also spoke with 98-year-old Don Waful, a former Chiefs team president who is still a regular presence at the ballpark. Here, Waful points to his plaque on the Chiefs Wall of Fame.

093Waful, a WWII veteran, spent more than two years in a German POW camp located in Poland. One of the American prisoners alongside him was Fred Johnson, the father of former Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Last February, Johnson attended the Chiefs’ annual Hot Stove Dinner specifically so that he could talk to Waful about his war memories. From a Syracuse.com article on the encounter:

Fred Johnson was a tank commander who slept in the same section of an Oflag64 barracks as Waful and six other men. But Davey Johnson recalls that his father – quiet and reserved – rarely spoke about what he endured as a POW.

Johnson looked forward to what he might learn from Waful, who told him about the intense cold at the camp, during winters in Poland. Waful told him about the awful nature of the food. But he also remembered the extraordinary camaraderie that bound together all the prisoners during the harsh days of the war.

It’s hard to top a story like that, so I won’t even try. Good night from NBT Bank Ballpark, an enjoyable place to take in a ballgame and a fine entertainment alternative to the New York State Fair.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Everything’s Bigger in Buffalo

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

When the Buffalo Bisons’ home of Pilot Field opened in 1988, it was amid of wave of intense baseball optimism in the region. The facility was built not just with the Triple-A Bisons in mind, but as the potential home for a re-locating or expansion Major League team. If this dream indeed became reality, then the stadium’s capacity would be more than doubled via the addition of more than 20,000 mezzanine seats.

Major League Baseball never came to Buffalo, of course, but the Bisons’ stadium (now known as Coca-Cola Field, after a series of name changes) remains a Minor League ballpark with a big league feel.

IMG_0352And even though the city’s big league dreams were never realized, Pilot Park North AmeriCare Park Dunn Tire Park Coca-Cola Field was nonetheless a harbinger of things to come. It was the first stadium designed by HOK Sports, now known as Populous, the architectural firm that four years later designed Camden Yards in Baltimore. Its combination of retro aesthetic and modern amenities was extremely influential, helping set the stage for the ballpark revolution that was soon to come. (In which intimate, quirk-laden, baseball-specific environments —  with real grass! — replaced cavernous multi-use facilities.)

It was an accident, but I love the father-son moment captured in the photo below. The kid’s decked out in a Bisons cap, shirt, and foam claws, and he and Dad are moving toward the entrance with enthusiasm and energy. I bet they had a great night.

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This statue of former Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin was unveiled in 2012. From a press release issued by the team:

Griffin – who passed away in 2008 – did all he could to further the presence of baseball in the city of Buffalo, going to great lengths in support of the city’s push for a major league team – as well as in the development of Coca-Cola Field….[L]ightly crouched, glove outstretched, Griffin stands ready to deliver his first pitch – just as he did before the ballpark’s first-ever game on April 14, 1988. Considering Griffin’s omniscient presence in the area baseball scene, the statue is sure to serve as a reminder of one man’s dedication and love for a city, and a team.

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The Bisons’ name dates all the way back to 1879, as from that season through 1885 a team by that name played in the National League. (Everyone involved with this incarnation of the franchise is dead. I looked it up.) The current iteration of the Bisons arrived in 1979 as a member of the Double-A Eastern League, transitioning to the Triple-A American Association in 1985 and then, when that circuit dissolved, becoming members of the International League in 1998. Buffalo-based Rich Products Corporation bought the team in 1983, and it remains under the Rich family’s ownership. (Rich Baseball Operations is under the Rich Entertainment Group umbrella. The Rich family also owns the Northwest Arkansas Naturals as well as the new Morgantown, West Virginia, New York-Penn League club formerly known as the Jamestown Jammers. Rich Entertainment Group is also involved in the theater scene, such as the current effort to turn Bull Durham into a Broadway musical.)

Upon gaining entry to the stadium, I proceeded to the concourse and snapped the following photos. It was August 26, the last home game of the regular season, and a pre-game awards ceremony was set to take place shortly as part of the evening’s Fan Appreciation Night festivities.

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IMG_0357I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at this early juncture in the evening, so I texted my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). “Hey, designated eater, are you ready to eat?” I queried. “Yes, obscure blogger, I am,” he replied. (Or something to that effect.)

This is Phil Walck, designated eater.

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Phil used to be a Bisons season ticket holder, but these days he attends five or six games per season. He lives in Niagara Falls and works for an unnamed “major freight forwarder.” (Major freight forwarding is a big business in this part of the country, due to the large amount of goods crossing the border between the United States and Canada.) Phil has been reading this blog for the last several years, and, when I posted my trip itineraries for the 2014 season, he jumped at the opportunity to become a designated eater.

“I love ballpark food, especially the weird stuff,” said Phil. “The only time I have hot dogs is when they’re a dollar.”

The Bisons aren’t especially “weird” when it comes to concessions, but public relations director Brad Bisbing later told me that the team has recently made a concerted effort to go local. Hence, you’ll find Wardzynski’s sausage, Charlie the Butcher’s “Beef on Weck” and Sahlen’s hot dogs. (I’m sure there are non-meat related examples, but that’s all I’ve got written down).

“Brad Bisbing, Buffalo Bisons” is a delightfully alliterative front office moniker. In search of further examples of splendid alliteration, Phil and I visited a cramped, crowded concourse concession area and procured a bologna sandwich. These are a relatively rare Minor League concession item, though I can recall that they are also sold at ballparks in Jackson (Tennessee), Danville (Virginia) and Louisville (Kentucky).

IMG_0362Looking for an escape from the the cramped crowded concourse, Phil and I headed up the stairs and immediately found plenty of room here (I later found out that this is primarily used as a vendor stocking area, and that appears to be what is happening there in the background).

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The pre-game awards ceremony was now taking place on the field, but I was more concerned with Phil’s opinion of a bologna sandwich.

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IMG_0363“This bologna is really good,” said Phil. “It’s thick — I don’t know the measurements — but they cut it thick. The bologna’s from a local deli, and the roll is from a local bakery. It’s a really good roll.”

Phil, who occasionally fries up bologna in the privacy of his own home after a long day of freight forwarding, said that “you gotta pop the middle, right in the middle. That does the trick.” Otherwise the center of the bologna will rise up like a hot air balloon and, perhaps, float away to parts unknown.

Since Phil seemed like a pretty knowledgeable guy when it came to food, I asked him the question that every Buffalonian has an answer to: Who has the best wings? He said that “it’s a very contentious issue” but it’s “gotta be Duff’s, and then Anchor Bar.”

But Buffalo is known for more than just wings. Buffalo is also known for its “Beef on Weck,” which is simply roast beef au jus on a kummelweck roll. Charlie the Butcher, a particularly well-known Buffalo-based purveyor of beef on weck, is available on the concourse.

IMG_0366The Bisons became a Blue Jays affiliate prior to to the 2013 season, and as a result there has been a considerable uptick in the number of Canadian fans visiting Coca-Cola Field. The Bisons aggressively market to fans north of the border (watch out for a future MiLB.com story on that), and Canadian money is accepted throughout the ballpark. Just keep yourselves in check, big spenders.

IMG_0370While waiting in line for our beef on weck, I caught a glimpse of legendary Buffalo beer vendor “Conehead.” My attempt to document Conehead in his natural habitat yielded woeful results, and he soon disappeared. Would I get another chance to view the Conehead, or had I missed my opportunity?

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Conehead in the wild

That question would have to wait, because, once again, it was my job to watch a man eat a sandwich. In this line of work, I have watched many men eat many sandwiches.

IMG_0373Have at it, Phil. Have at it.

Outside of noting that there was “salt in the caraway seeds,” Phil had little to say about this sandwich other than that “it’s really good, just roast beef and jus.” I guess that’s all you need to know.

But you should also know that salt potatoes, yet another New York state specialty, are also available from Charlie the Butcher. They are gluten-free, of course, so I can report from first-hand experience that these potatoes were soft, buttery, well-seasoned and, in a word, delectable. I was pleasantly surprised that such a simple item had so much flavor.

IMG_0372Thank you, Phil Walck, for treating your designated eating duties with the reverence and dedication that the position deserves. I let him eat the remainder of his beef and weck and salt potato meal in peace, as I had places to go and people to see. He later tweeted this picture, for your edification and enjoyment.

“There is lots of good food here, it’s simple stuff,” said Phil. “There’s no bacon-wrapped anything, but it’s all good.”

IMG_0377My next stop was the press box, a multi-tiered sanctum for Buffalo’s sporting fourth estate.

IMG_0378While in the press box I spoke with none other than alliteration king Brad Bisbing of the Buffalo Bisons. He pointed out that, in addition to my random wandering, I might want to pay a little attention to the ballgame that was taking place. The Bisons and visiting Pawtucket Red Sox were in a tight pennant race and both teams had premier pitching prospects on the mound. (Daniel Norris for the Bisons and Henry Owens for the Paw Sox.) The Bisons had drawn more than 11,000 fans to the ballpark in each of the last five games, but Bisbing was predicting a crowd of 16 or 17,000 for this, the Fan Appreciation home finale.

The Bisons would then end the season with a six-game road trip, because they always end the season with a road trip. This is because the Buffalo Wing Festival takes place at Coca-Cola Field each Labor Day weekend, in which some 40,000 people combine to eat 20 tons of wings.

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This festival has a fairly ridiculous origin story, which I fell compelled to share with you, the loyal, patient and marginally good-looking Ben’s Biz Blog reader:

The idea for the festival came from a movie called Osmosis Jones. Bill Murray starred as a compulsive eater with a goal of attending the Super Bowl of junk food, The National Buffalo Wing Festival. Ironically, there wasn’t one. That is when native Buffalonian Drew Cerza, now affectionately known as the Wing King, decided to make it happen back in 2002. This is a case of Real Life knocking off Hollywood!

After speaking with Bisbing, I was introduced to Bisons director of marketing and entertainment Matt LaSota. The two of us wandered down labyrinthian corridors for a spell, peering into various doors along the way.

IMG_0382Behind one door lurked veteran public address announcer Jerry Reo.

IMG_0381Behind another door was a control room, housing the equipment needed to run what, at one time, was the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball. (The Memphis Redbirds usurped this honor in 2012, one year after the Bisons’ board was installed.)

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80 feet by 33 feet, that’s what this is. (And as you can see, the evening’s vaunted pitching prospects both struggled in the early going. A pitchers’ duel this was not.) The Bisons have upgraded their sound system in recent years as well, transition from three massive speakers to 120 smaller ones (three in the scoreboard and 117 distributed throughout the park). La Sota told me that, prior to this change, the team sometimes received noise complaints from downtown law offices during weekday afternoon games. The sound was so massive, and there was little to absorb it.

IMG_0388At this juncture in the evening, the ballpark had filled in considerably and the Bisons were on the verge of announcing a sellout. The attendance for the evening was a formidable 18,025, by far the largest Minor League crowd that I had ever been a part of.

IMG_0386Just prior to my visit, the Bisons announced that 3,700 seats in the lower seating bowl would be replaced, the first phase of a multi-year stadium renovation project. The seats at Coca-Cola Field are from 1988, and, as the team’s press release notes, they are six years past their life expectancy and replacement parts are not readily available. Bisbing told me that many of the improvements to the stadium will be “unfortunately, things that the fans don’t see.” This includes converting the concession areas from electric to gas, installing new boilers and replacing light fixtures. Sexy stuff, but necessary as Coca-Cola Field, somewhat improbably, is now the second-oldest ballpark in the International League. (Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium was built in 1945 but has since been extensively renovated.)

Speaking of sexy stuff, the hard-hat wearing beer vendor was toting around a mobile draft beer unit. These things are big in Japan.

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More discerning beer drinkers might want to visit the concourse’s “Craft on Draft” beer corner, which features several selections from the local Hamburg Brewery Company (note that one beer is poured via tap with a yellow foul pole handle).

IMG_0395But if you’re spending your time on the concourse, you’re missing out on some primo baseball views.

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IMG_0391When Coca-Cola Field opened in 1988, obtaining Bisons season tickets was a prerequisite for obtaining season tickets to whatever MLB team might one day play there. Crowds in the early days of the ballpark were colossal by Minor League standards, as the Bisons drew over one million fans on a regular basis. (They drew 535,275 over 66 openings in 2014, for a per-game average of 8,110.) As the above picture shows, the Bisons are still capable of packing ‘em in during beautiful summer evenings. In April, when the weather is often absymal? Not so much.

Anyhow, at this juncture of the evening Mr. Mike Zagurski was on the mound. Let’s hear it for Mike Zagurski, who has pitched for seven Triple-A teams over the last five seasons (in addition to big league stints with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Pirates).

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“I ain’t an athlete, lady…” 

Zagurski

Zagurski

Shortly thereafter I witnessed the nightly race between Wing, Cheese and Celery. Celery had not won a race all year and was thus a crowd favorite, but he (or she) was thwarted by a Bon Jovi-blasting carrot (Jon Bon Jovi is a villain in Buffalo, due to his now-thwarted efforts to re-locate the Bills to Toronto).

Mascot racing complete, and in search of more views, I accompanied an intern — whose name escapes me, I apologize! — on a journey into the bowels of the ballpark. (Update! The intern’s name was Daniel Kuligowski.)

IMG_0396A walk through the tunnel led to a primo spot behind the home plate netting.

IMG_0397While in the tunnel, I took this unflattering shot of Buster the mascot. I think that, going forward, I’m going to make it a point to photograph mascot posteriors.

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Buster’s cousin goes by the name of Chip, making him the only mascot whose name is a poop reference.

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Soon I was back among the hoi polloi. This what a sellout crowd at America’s largest Minor League Baseball stadium looks like. It’s an amazing thing.

IMG_0401Views from the outfield berm.

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Myself and unnamed intern Kuligowski then climbed a rickety ladder, one that led to a television camera platform. (I really hope that replacing this ladder is part of the team’s ongoing renovation efforts). Again, I present you with another view. Click to enlarge.

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While here, I witnessed a full-throated rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It would have brought a tear to my eye, if I had not had my tear ducts removed as part of an ill-fated effort to never experience emotion again.

Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the team’s Hall of Fame Room it had been shuttered for the evening. But let it be known that the Bisons have retired three numbers over the course of their history. Ollie Carnegie was the International League’s all-time home run leader until this season, when cult hero Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens surpassed him. Negro League legend Luke Easter, whose number is also retired by the Rochester Red Wings, was a productive power hitter in Buffalo despite the fact that he was in his 40s at the time. And Jeff Manto? He hit a lot of home runs (79) for the Bisons in not a lot of at-bats (923) and is recognized as the team’s “modern-day” home run leader.

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Given the size of the stadium, most of the Bisons’ between-inning entertainment is videoboard-based. This celebrity look-a-like cam got a great reaction, as it featured dozens of fans and their alleged celebrity doppelgangers.

Now dating Neil Young?

Now dating Neil Young?

The Bisons lost by a 9-3 score, and shortly after the game concluded they appeared on the field and threw souvenirs to the crowd. I dutifully yelled for them to throw something to me, but their arms were weak.

IMG_0418Fireworks then lit up the night sky, as fireworks are wont to do.

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On the way out of the ballpark, I happened to glance toward the vendor stocking area where, hours ago, freight forwarder Phil Walck had valiantly eaten a bologna sandwich. Was that Conehead that I spotted?

IMG_0422It was! My last act of the evening was to interview Conehead the beer vendor, and you can read that HERE.

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Good night, Conehead, and good night, Buffalo!

IMG_0430Until next time, I remain,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Thorough Examination in Erie

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

On Sunday, August  24th, after witnessing a game between the State College Spikes and Jamestown Jammers at Russell Diethrick Park, I hopped into my rental car and crossed the state line into Pennsylvania’s northwestern-most region. My destination was Erie, home of the SeaWolves, an outlier on this trip in that they were the only Double-A team I visited and one of just two that were located outside of the great state of New York.

After a good night’s sleep, I woke up on Monday rarin’ to go and ready for some Tigers-affiliated Eastern League baseball action. The SeaWolves compete at Jerry Uht Park, a downtown facility that opened in 1995. The SeaWolves were were a Class A short-season New York-Penn League club from 1995-98, making the jump to Double-A in 1999 as one of two Eastern League expansion teams. They have been a Detroit affiliate since 2001.

So, here we are: Jerry Uht Park, named after a local benefactor who, in 1995, established a fund that would, in perpetuity,  assist with ballpark renovation and maintenance costs. Those in the know call it “The Uht.”

002Upon receiving entry into the ballpark (obtained via the solemn utterance of a secret password), myself and SeaWolves assistant general manager Greg Gania immediately began a journey through the outfield. We were bathed in a resplendent aura during our travels, courtesy of a blazing celestial orb.

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Our destination was the SeaWolves clubhouse, located beyond the center field fence and vaguely resembling a minimum security penitentiary.

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Our purpose was to locate SeaWolves reliever Will Startup, whom I wanted to interview on the subject of his baseball-themed artwork. Mission accomplished.

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You can read my feature on Will HERE. The gist of it is that he spends much of his down time during the season painting baseballs, using gel pens and mechanical pencils, and recently he completed his first home plate artwork as well. Will’s a really nice guy who, at the age of 30, has admirably persevered while riding the rickety wooden roller coaster that is the Minor League existence. This marked the first time that I spoke to him since he won 2008’s Moniker Madness contest for having the best name in Minor League Baseball. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter, should you be so inclined.

A recent Will Startup creation, designed at the request of a SeaWolves batboy (who gave it to his girlfriend).

005And here’s a page from Will’s journal, showcasing a few of his sneaker designs (this is a post-playing career aspiration of his, to design footwear).

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Will also mentioned to me that he is not the only artistically-inclined reliever in the Eastern League. Did you know that Blake McFarland of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats does incredible work with recycled tires?

After talking to Will, I rather inarticulately thought to myself that “Hey, you might as well take a couple of pictures from out here in the outfield. Carpe Diem and all that.”

So that’s what I did. You’ll notice that Jerry Uht Park has a second deck seating area on the first base side of the stadium. In 2009, ESPN.com named these seats among the top 10 seating areas in the Minors and a lowly scrivener such as I would not dare contest this assertion.

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The left field wall doubles as the back end of the Erie Insurance Arena, home to the BayHawks (NBA D-League), Otters (Ontario Hockey League) and Explosion (Continental Indoor Football League). This got me to thinking — are there any other cities that boast Minor League baseball, basketball, hockey and football franchises? Erie is a Minor League sports lovers paradise.

Anyhow, in its original permutation, Jerry Uht Park boasted a walkway out in left field where fans could watch the game. The arena-as-left field wall set-up occurred as a result of an extensive renovation and expansion to the arena, completed in the fall of 2013.

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“And Popcorn”

Meanwhile, back at the box office, bananas and poncho wearers were steadily selling tickets to a robust walk-up crowd. It was “Buck Night” in Erie, featuring $1 concession items and beer, a deal that has proven to be quite popular with Erie’s returning college students.

“We always do the costumes on Buck Night,” SeaWolves president Greg Coleman told me. “Someone will have a question about where to park and it’s like ‘Talk to the banana.'”

015Speaking of college students, their return to school in August means that, during the last two two weeks of the season, most Minor League teams are short-staffed. After all, college students almost always make up a sizable portion of the intern and game-day employees. In industry parlance, nights in which a team is lacking in personnel are referred to as a “midget wizard” (as in, one with a short staff). “We’re gonna have to make due with a midget wizard” is a phrase that I heard time and time again on this trip.

Just kidding, no  one has ever used this terminology. I should stick to pictures, which I took a lot of as a wandered around the Uht and soaked in the pre-game scene.

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017This gentleman, sitting in an ESPN.com-approved seating area, was already plenty comfortable.

019A lone Baysox player prepares himself for the evening’s upcoming contest.

021Team-logo cornhole? Check.

023Large fun zone bounce house? Check.

025Smith’s Sausage Shack? Check.

026Yes, Smith’s Sausage Shack! Smith’s is an Erie-based meat purveyor, much beloved by individuals in the area. I was delighted to see the Smith’s Sausage Shack with my own eyes, as in 2008 it served as the inspiration for one of my favorite team-produced videos of all-time. I have posted this video on several different occasions, and I am probably responsible for 1200 of its 3500+ views.

Meanwhile, the pre-game preparations continued both on and off of the field.

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034The game was just about ready to begin, and the Buck Night devotees were still streaming in.

Buck Night — Where you don’t have to spend a lot of doe!

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Identification required

IMG_0212Just make sure that you can handle your booze, Buck Nighters. SeaWolves team policy strictly prohibits the loss of consciousness.

049As the game began, Erie right fielder Steven Moya was on the cusp of making SeaWolves history. He entered the game with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs, tied with Kurt Airosa for most home runs in franchise history and one behind Eric Munson’s all-time RBI mark.

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Moya and company sure had their work cut out for them, as, in the top of the first inning, SeaWolves pitcher Wilson Palacios went through the entirety of the Bowie Baysox line-up without recording an out. Leadoff hitter Mike “Carl’s Grandson” Yaztremski, hitting for the second time in the inning, made the ballgame’s first outs via a 6-3 double play that ran the score to 7-0.

The scoreboard must have been in error when this photo was taken, as at no point in the inning was there only one out (save for that brief moment in time which the double play was being turned).

044 The black and white Great Gatsby-esque player headshots were part of the evening’s “20s Night” theme. Mascot C. Wolf was certainly dressed for the occasion.

045As was SeaWolves director of entertainment Kristi Servais, who was manning the fan assistance booth. When I mentioned to Kristi that she had the same last name as a former MLB catcher, she replied “Yeah, Scott’s my cousin.” It’s a small world.

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It was during these early-game wanderings that an autograph-collecting fan named Nick introduced himself. He was not interested in being photographed or serving as designated eater (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits), but nonetheless he was an enjoyable and knowledgeable ballpark guide. Back in his college days he worked at Smith’s Sausage Shack, and he had nothing but good things to say about its husband and wife proprietors Dee and Barney.

“Smith’s has a cult following around here, but I’m not sure how far that it goes,” Nick told me. “Barney just works it, he’s a local legend. I was fortunate enough to work with him for three years and they were the best summers of my life. He and Dee are real salt of the Earth people.

Smith’s hot dogs certainly did look delicious.

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Nick also raved about SeaWolves second baseman Devon Travis, seen above on the scoreboard in his 1920s-style headshot.

“He’s the most fan-friendly player ever,” he said. “He has fun every day and you can just see it in his face.”

Noted, Nick. In the future, I will make a point to seek out Mr. Travis for an interview.

I also chatted a bit with SeaWolves fan Eric Brookhouser, a SeaWolves season ticket holder and jersey enthusiast (he owns 121 hockey jerseys and 49 baseball jerseys, most of the theme night variety) whom I have long interacted with on Twitter. I’m not sure what beer Eric is drinking there, but let it be known that the SeaWolves proudly serve various offerings from the nearby Erie Brewing Company.

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You can’t spell “Eric Brookhouser” without “Erie.”

Unfortunately, the SeaWolves most unique fan was not in attendance on the day that I visited. Prior to my arrival, team president Greg Coleman described this individual in an email:

Every ballpark has its characters, and Jerry Uht Park is no exception.  Richard Laurie attends each game with his puppet to cheer on the SeaWolves (Viva Los Lobos del Mar! is one of his favorite chants).  He also humorously lets the umpires know when they’ve erred.

Here’s what I (and, by extension, you) missed out on.

In this midst of all of this wandering and hobnobbing, something very unexpected occurred: the SeaWolves, down 7-0 before they came to bat, took the lead! Moya had doubled three times by this point, en route to tying the all-time franchise RBI record. And, most amazingly, Palacios was still in the game and thus in line for the win. I mean, how often does that happen? A pitcher goes through the entirety of the line-up before recording an out and still ends up with the win?

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More like the “no kiss” cam

As previously mentioned, I did not have a designated eater on this particular evening. I did enjoy a gluten-free treat, however, in the form of a walking taco.

Upon finishing the taco, I just kept on walking. The press box was my destination.

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Look closely at the above picture, and you can see an image of a doctor reflected within the top panel of press box glass. Your eyes do not deceive you — there really was a doctor in the press box.

067That’s Dr. Peter Lund of St. Vincent Allied Urology, who was in the press box so that he could administer a prostate exam to team president Greg Coleman as Coleman sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This philanthropic publicity stunt, unique to the Minor Leagues, has been dubbed the “Two Knuckle Challenge” and was begun by Andy Milovich of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. In the manner of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, this stunt was then passed from team to team. It went from Myrtle Beach to Lake Elsinore to Charleston to Savannah and then here, to Coleman in Erie.

062“I thought it was a joke at first,” said Lund of the Two-Knuckle Challenge. “But prostate cancer is a serious disease, it still kills 30,000 men a year. Men should get screened and it’s not necessarily something that they brag about.”

Coleman had recently turned 40 — as a gift, he received a Startup-designed baseball — so he was a bit on the young side to receive an exam. This wasn’t so much about his health as it was a way to raise awareness.

Here, Lund, Coleman and SeaWolves team doctor Brad Fox set up a makeshift press box examination room.

064And here’s Greg, ready to go. The lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” were taped to the table in front of him in case he got disoriented. Sing it, Greg!

And that was that. Maybe you find this whole thing stupid and anti-climactic, but the point is crystal clear: if this guy can get a prostate exam in public while singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” then YOU can get one in the privacy of a doctor’s office. It ain’t that big a deal.

With the Two-Knuckle Challenge complete, I then spent some time speaking with SeaWolves team doctor Brad Fox. He is an interesting, enthusiastic and loquacious fellow, and my interview with him can be read HERE. He’s not only the team doctor, he’s also a batboy!

071While all of this was going on, the SeaWolves put the finishing touches on their improbable comeback.

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Final score: Erie 10, Bowie 7. Palacios was the indeed the winning pitcher, despite the fact that the ballgame’s first nine batters reached base against him. This marked the first time that I was in attendance for a game that later ended up in one of my Crooked Nuggets blog posts:

An Erie Occurrence (And I was there) — Erie SeaWolves’ right-hander Wilsen Palacios struggled mightily against the Bowie Baysox on August 25. He went through the entirety of the starting line-up without recording an out, en route to allowing seven runs on seven hits and two walks in the first inning alone. But then a funny thing happened — Palacios settled down and followed up his frightful first with four scoreless innings, and ended up earning the win as the SeaWolves rallied for a 10-7 victory. Baysox starter Branden Kline took the opposite approach, retiring the SeaWolves 1-2-3 in the first but ultimately taking the loss after allowing nine runs over 4 2/3 innings.

And that was all she wrote, folks. Upon the conclusion of the game, balls were launched and children ran the bases. Then everyone went home.

074The only thing I’ve got left to mention is that the SeaWolves are managed by Lance Parrish, surely the only Minor League skipper to have once guest-starred in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes. The internet is really failing us by not having any clips of this episode available, but here, as a consolation prize, is Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker guest-starring in an episode of Magnum P.I. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Just in the Nick of Time in Jamestown

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

It’s official: In 2015, the New York-Penn League will be fielding a team in Morgantown, West Virginia. This marks yet another instance of geographic expansion within the 14-team circuit, which, in addition to its namesake states, includes teams in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut.

But this growth comes at a cost, as the appearance of each new NYPL team means the loss of another. Inevitably, the cities that lose their franchises are those which operate in smaller, more traditional locales. The considerable charms of a classic baseball environment are no match for the two-headed team-slaying monster that is weak attendance and obsolete facilities.

The latest NYPL city to lose its team is Jamestown, New York, a charter member of the league. The Jamestown Jammers are Morgantown-bound in 2015, and while this had been rumored for well over a year it didn’t become official until, well, the day that I visited Jamestown.

On Sunday, August 24th, this was the headline in Jamestown’s local paper.

031So it was with something of a heavy heart that I pulled into the parking lot of Jamestown’s Russell Diethrick Park, as at the same time that I was saying hello I would also be saying goodbye.

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004The ballpark, built in 1941 and later re-named in honor of Jamestown’s “Mr. Baseball,” sits adjacent to a soap box derby track. Races are held in late spring and again in the fall; it was not set up on the day that I was attendance.

076I began my afternoon on the roof of the ballpark, checking out the press box located thereon. Rooftop press boxes: a dying breed!

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009It was a beautiful day, more beautiful than I seem to remember it being, and the roof offered some primo vantage points of the surrounding environs.

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011The sign on the press box stairs reads “No Spikes Beyond This Point,” which I interpreted as a none-too-subtle bit of discrimination directed at the opposing State College Spikes. (The  Spikes had clinched the NYPL’s Pinckney Division the night before, so not much was on the line in this late season contest against the already-out-of-it Jammers.)

012Back on ground level, I surveyed the team’s no-frills concessions operations. Sahlen’s, a well-regarded local company, is the team’s hot dog brand of choice. (In a Minor League frankfurter coup, Sahlen’s was named the official hot dog of the Charlotte Knights in this, their first season at a brand new downtown ballpark. This marks a significant bit of expansion for the brand, which had been largely unknown outside of its western New York base of operations.)

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Sahlen’s in Charlotte:

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At Russell Diethrick Park, what you see is what you get. There is a covered grandstand and bleacher seating on both the first and third base sides. On occasion, you might catch a glimpse of a Bubba Grape the Baseball Ape.

016For the record, the “Jammers” name is an homage to the Jamestown region’s fertile grape crop. Hence, this logo, which, depending on your perspective, is one of the greatest or worst in Minor League history. There is no in-between. I for one think it’s grape, but enough of my purple prose…

bCxoCNrF

(For more on the logo, read this article written by a young, confused and impressionable Benjamin Hill in January of 2006. I’ve been doing this job for too long, maybe.)

Jammers in action.

018Sitting, standing, stretching and stooped in the bullpen.

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The concourse separates the stadium from the clubhouses. Players traipsing about in their spikes, en route to the dugouts or the bullpen, were a common sight.

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In this photo we see longtime thirst-quenching adversaries Powerade and Gatorade trying to make the best of their uneasy cusp-of-the-dugout existence. Powerade looks ready to throw in the towel.

021This “end of summer mega sale!” was, in actuality, an end of existence mega sale! I plan on holding one of those prior to my scheduled 2066 move into an assisted living facility.

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On the flip side:

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At the gift shop, one could acquire his or her own “Bubba the Grape Ape” t-shirt.

006Ducking into the restroom, I was delighted to find one of the last remaining trough urinals in Minor League Baseball. Truly, they are a dying breed. (Are there any left outside of the Appy League?)

024The Vineyard Tent Area, located down the right field line.

025Spikes weren’t allowed on the roof, but there were plenty of ‘em on the playing field.

027Grass and fence, separated by a granular warning.

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The clouds were just beautiful on this particular afternoon. Everything was beautiful. Life is beautiful.

029Another view of the Vineyard.

030I made it back to the grandstand for the start of the ballgame, capturing six seconds of the National Anthem for posterity’s sake.

New York-Penn League baseball in action.

033Number 99, last seen wandering the concourse, was now safely ensconced in the bullpen.

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On the concourse, I happened to spot this unguarded washer-dryer combo. I don’t think this is what they mean by “soapbox” racing, but I’ll get off of mine and not speculate any further.

038Given the news regarding the Jammers’ imminent departure, I thought it would be pertinent to speak to some of the team’s long-time fans. I didn’t know where to begin, but this smiling young man seemed like a good place to start.

040That’s 16-year-old Andrew Sisson, who has been part of the Jammers’ operation, in various capacities, since he was a little kid. He spoke with an understated eloquence that belied his young age, and his quotes are incorporated into a MiLB.com feature that I wrote about the Jammers’ departure. Sisson then recommended that I speak to the fans in section B, which I did.

They, too, were great to speak with. A loyal, good-humored bunch who were understandably saddened by the end of the Jammers’ era. On the whole, their remarks were characterized not by anger, but by resignation, frustration and melancholy.

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The Jamestown faithful

For the sake of (ir)regulars such as those seen above, I hope that Russell Diethrick Park is able to find a suitable baseball tenant in 2015 and beyond. A return to affiliated ball is highly unlikely — it simply is no longer profitable — but landing an independent or collegiate wood bat team seems feasible. This is a charming ballpark with a rich history and it would be a real shame for it to go unused during the summer.

I mean, where else but here can Jamestownians enjoy culinary specialties such as these Buffalo chicken-topped french fries?

049 That’s all I have, food-wise, from Russell Diethrick Park. No one had volunteered to be designated eater prior to my visit (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits), and I wasn’t motivated to recruit one. For me, the primary prerogative of this particular ballpark visit was simply to soak in the atmosphere. This was the end of an era, and I wanted to convey what was being lost.

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053At this juncture I spent a couple of innings hanging around with on-field host Corey Raymond and crew. Here, he is officiating an on-field pillow fight.

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The guy on the right emerged victorious, and there was no doubt about it.

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Man, down

Next up on the agenda was the “Chicken Dance,” performed by an extremely unenthusiastic chicken, who, at some point along the way, had lost his gloves.

057The chicken inaction:

While playing this game, the young contestant missed the target on his first two attempts.

058His third attempt? Well, it would have been impossible not to miss.

059In the game’s latter stages, Corey spent some time showing off his juggling skills.

060Sisson with the assist.

Throughout these late-game endeavors, I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy. Business was proceeding as usual, but business as usual was soon to be a thing of the past. Here, Sisson wipes the slate clean, a task that only needed to be done two more times.

Ever.

(The Jammers hit the road after this ballgame; and, due to an August 31 rainout, the only games to take place at Diethrick Park after this one was a Labor Day doubleheader against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers).

063I decided to end my day in Jamestown on top.

067The best seat in the house.

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It was the top of the ninth inning at this point, and the Jammers had a 5-1 lead. Three consecutive singles narrowed the lead to three runs, but that would be all she wrote as the game concluded with a 6-3 double play and then a 6-3 groundout. My enduring memory of this half-inning is listening to the infield chatter of shortstop Tyler Filliben, as the sounds of his incessant encouraging banter filled the largely-empty ballpark. Filliben was hyper-engaged throughout, so it seemed fitting that he ended up being involved with all three outs in the inning.

The Jammers won, marking what would be the penultimate home victory in the history of the franchise.

071After the game ended, as I was preparing to leave the ballpark, Jammers general manager Matt Thayer intercepted me and suggested that I head back to the press box. There was something I had not yet seen, he said, something that was unique to Jamestown and worthy of commemoration.

And what he showed me was this, the only press box toilet in Minor League Baseball that provides a direct view of the playing field.

073But never again shall Jammers baseball be witnessed from the throne, as the door has been closed on this era of New York-Penn League history.

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I’ll close, not with a picture of a toilet, but with this. In 1990, Candid Camera visited the Jamestown Expos and pulled a prank on pitcher Bob Baxter that would never fly in today’s Minor League environment. Can you imagine an MLB farm director allowing this to happen in this, the year of our Lord 2014? Also, this video provides a great glimpse of Diethrick Park during an era when far more fans were coming to the ballpark.

Because of moments like that, and many others both large and small, New York-Penn League baseball in Jamestown will not be forgotten. It is, after all, an enduring part of its heritage.

005benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Back to the Basics in Batavia

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

This isn’t the first time that I’ve titled a blog post “Back to the Basics,” and it probably won’t be the last. By “basics” I mean a baseball environment largely free of the amenities and peripheral entertainment that have come to characterize the modern Minor League Baseball experience.  At a Batavia Muckdogs game, fans will not find a massive videoboard, blaring sound system, corporate suites, 360 degree concourse, a thriving mascot ecosystem and front office members espousing “living the brand” ideology. They will simply find a no-frills ballpark, one that houses a community-owned team whose roots stretch back to the founding of the league in which it still operates.

This is Dwyer Stadium, home of the Muckdogs.

020A closer look, sans arboreous enshroudment:

017Dwyer Stadium was built in 1996, replacing a structure on the same spot that had stood since 1937 (the playing field remained the same). The facility was called State Street Park when it first opened, with the name switching to MacArthur Stadium during WWII. (It’s too bad that it wasn’t called “MacArthur Park,” as then then the Muckdogs could sell “cake left out in the rain” as an historically apropos signature concession item.) The Dwyer moniker was adopted in 1973, in honor of team president Edward D. Dwyer and all he did for baseball in Batavia.

The facility is located in a residential neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown proper. There is a small (free!) parking lot adjacent to the first base side.

019I entered the stadium about an hour and a half before game time, talking to a few folks and getting the proverbial lay of the land. There is a covered grandstand, bleacher seating and a picnic area down the third base side, and a wooden porch group area down the first base side.

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Behind the ballpark lurks the concourse.

025The Muckdogs are now a Marlins affiliate, but from 1988-2006 they were with the Phillies. Ryan Howard is a former Muckdog, as indicated by this banner.

026Howard is one of 89 players who started his career in Batavia and subsequently made it to the Major Leagues. Did you know that Jeter also began his career here? It’s true!

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Pardon the glare

There are some interesting names on the above list. Many years prior to his (perhaps apocryphal) hallucinogenic no-hitter heroics, Doc Ellis was a member of the 1964 Batavia Pirates. That team posted a horrific 33-97 record, and Doc was the only player on the roster who went on to the Majors. As for me, I’m a Phillies fan, and as such I recognize a lot of these names from late ’90s excursions to a depressingly empty Veterans Stadium. For instance, I once saw Gary Bennett team up with Joel Bennett to form the only same last name battery in Phillies history and the first all-Bennett battery in Major League history. True story.

As I mentioned in a recent “New York State of Mind” post, what is now known as the New York-Penn League was conceived in a Batavia hotel during a concentrated burst of National Pastime passion. Here’s a plaque commemorating this circuit-creating tryst.

030The Jamestown Jammers are re-locating to Morgantown, West Virginia next season, which leaves Batavia as the NYPL’s sole remaining charter member. Along with the Auburn Doubledays, who are also community-owned and play in a ballpark nearly identical to Dwyer Stadium, the Muckdogs are the last bastions of the “old” New York-Penn League. Over the past two decades the league has changed dramatically, greatly expanding its footprint and putting a premium on new stadiums. This of course makes sense from an economic standpoint, but in the process the smaller Empire State locales that once formed the heart and soul of the league have been largely abandoned.

During the evening I was aware of a palpable sense of angst among the Muckdogs faithful that Batavia will be next on the NYPL chopping block. I’ll provide more detail on that, and the team’s unique ownership situation, in an upcoming MiLB.com piece. But, in a nutshell: the Muckdogs are community-owned, with an entity called the Genesee County Baseball Club (GCBC) holding legal title. The GCBC have a 25-person Board of Directors, but since 2008 the team has been operated by the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings (themselves a community owned team) who cover all expenses and receive all revenue. Thus, Batavia Muckdogs front office members — led by general manager Travis Sick — are in fact employees of the Red Wings organization. The Red Wings have lost money in this endeavor thus far, but each year that they operate the team the Red Wings receive an additional 5% stake in the MuckDogs ownership. This will be capped at 50%, after 10 years, with GCBC retaining a technical majority. The hope in Batavia is that, economic realities be damned, a new owner committed to keeping the team in Batavia will swoop in and insure a long-term baseball future. What seems more likely is that the team will eventually be sold and re-locate, with the Red Wings recouping their ongoing operational losses via their stake of the team’s ownership. The Muckdogs drew just 33, 376 fans in 2014, averaging 954 a game. The only team in the league with a lower total was the Jamestown Jamestown (24,246) who, of course, are now no longer.

Anyhow, let’s get back to the plaques.

This one details another significant bit of Batavia baseball history: in 1961, Gene Baker became the first black manager of an affiliated baseball team.

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The whole write-up is interesting, so I’ll include it in full in the hopes that you read it in full:

In June 1961, Batavia proudly played a role in baseball history when Gene Baker took the reins as manager of the Batavia Pirates. Baker, a native of Davenport, Iowa, thus became the first African-American manager of an affiliated professional baseball team. 

After beginning his playing career with the famed Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, Gene Baker joined the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Second-baseman Baker and shortstop Ernie Banks dazzled fans as part of the “Bingo-Bango” double-play combination. Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and won a World Series ring in 1960. 

The next year, the Pirates assigned Baker as player-manager of the struggling Batavia team, which was in seventh place when he was named skipper. Under Baker’s leadership and aided by the pitching of phenom Steve Blass, Batavia made the league playoffs, losing the championship series to Olean. Despite bad knees, manager Baker hit for a sizzling .387 batting average in 1961. 

In September 1963, while a coach with Pittsburgh, Baker managed the Pirates after Danny Murtaugh was ejected from a game, thereby becoming the first black man to manage a game in the major as well as the minor leagues. 

The popular Baker returned to manage Batavia in 1964, and he spent the next quarter century as a scout in the Pirates organization. Gene Baker died in 1999. He is buried in Rock Island, Illinois.

Plaque perusal is now complete, meaning that wandering shall re-commence.

The team store is a barn; the barn is a team store.

033A view of the seats, shortly after the gates opened.

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The Muckdogs’ promotion for the evening was that they were attempting to break Dwyer Stadium’s 75-year-old attendance record of 3000. (If they did so, one fan would win $3001). In the end only 1532 fans passed through the turnstiles, but in a stadium as intimate as this it still made for a nice crowd.

A quirk of Dwyer Stadium is that the sun sets in straightaway left field. We’re not talking Sam Lynn-levels of Bakersfield blindness here, but it’s still tough to see the playing field during the early stages of the evening.

IMG_0161

I summarily sought some shade at this scenic under-the-bleachers beverage emporium.

042Will wanders never cease?

044Another under-the-bleachers view, just because.

046As I was traversing back and forth, taking in the scene, I heard a rather grouchy-sounding voice over the PA:

“Ladies and gentleman, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers line-up has changed — significantly changed — so we’ll go through the whole thing again.”

Then, during this second spin through the line-up, I heard this:

“Batting seventh…I don’t know, I haven’t looked it up yet…catcher Martin Sevenka.”

I later learned that this rather put-upon sounding stickler for detail was Wayne Fuller, who plies his trade in a press box that has been named after him. He’s a legendary figure in Muckdogs baseball, and next time I visit Batavia (oh, there’ll be a next time) I’ll make sure to meet him and hopefully hear some stories.

Line-ups communicated, anthem complete, it was time to play ball.

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052With the game underway, I walked down to the porch area down the third base to meet Russ Salway. Here he is with his wife, Kellie.

055Russ and Kellie live, in Russ’s estimation, 20 houses away from the ballpark. He said that he first attended MuckDogs games as a convenient “getaway at the end of the night,” but this casual fandom has since blossomed into something else altogether. The Salways house ballplayers via the team’s host family program, and Russ is a member of the team’s board of directors. He runs a Facebook page called “Let’s Keep the Batavia Muckdogs in Batavia,” works to promote the team in the community, and occasionally does odd jobs around the stadium (staining the deck that he and Kellie are standing upon, for example). He also is an avid record collector, and recommended that I visit the Record Archive and Lakeshore Record Exchange in Rochester and Record Theater in Buffalo (I was unable to visit these establishments for reasons of varying legitimacy, but it it’s the thought that counts and these establishments will be on my radar during my next pass through the region).

But, perhaps most important to this narrative, Russ had volunteered to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). We thus began a journey, from the porch to the concession stand.

027A closer look at that which is available.

056I requested that Russ get the “Muckdog Chow,” which is an iteration of the regional specialty that is the “Garbage Plate” (which originated in nearby Rochester). “Muckdog Chow” is, per the above menu, “served with macaroni salad, homefries and your choice of Red or White Hot or Cheeseburger or burger topped with Muckdog Sauce.” A “white hot” is another regional specialty, described on Wikipedia as a variation on the hot dog found in the Upstate New York area.[1] It is composed of some combination of uncured and unsmoked pork, beef, and veal; the lack of smoking or curing allows the meat to retain a naturally white color. 

A “red hot,” meanwhile, refers to the more standard-issue frankfurters to which we have become accustomed at ballparks. The Muckdogs’ offerings are courtesy of Zweigles, a New York-based company long recognized as one of the pre-eminent purveyors of the white hot. (One thing I learned on this road trip: upstate New York is a hotbed of hot dog production, and people are very particular about their brand preferences.)

For something with “Garbage Plate” aspirations, Muckdog Chow looked a fairly orderly food combination.

057Russ, clearly a man who lives life on the edge, decorated his dinner with impressionistic condiment flair.

061Have at it, Russ.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these. What you’ve got to do is cut the meat and mix it all up,” said Russ, who in preparation for his designated eating assignment, had passed on eating a chicken and broccoli dish that Kellie had made. “There are several different flavors all at once.”

Kellie was giving Russ a hard time, saying that the dinner she had prepared was “much better” than a Garbage Plate. She then took him to task for improper food posing technique.

063“See, Russ? This is how you do it.”

064As this was happening, there was a young boy on the field with a net. Just thought you’d like to know.

066Also, Russ made me aware that this, far from a ballpark deficiency, is the result of blistering Ryan Howard foul ball.

“We should get a plaque or something,” said Russ.

038As the Clearwater Threshers could tell you, the proper way to commemorate Ryan Howard-related foul ball damage is to have him sign it. WOB = Watch out, bro:

034And for my third and final non sequitur, I’d like to note that, along with the Muckdog Chow, I also ordered “Loaded Fries” topped with bacon and cheese.

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The above item is the sort that I struggle with at ballparks — the ingredients should be gluten-free, but I didn’t know for sure and, in fact, didn’t want to know. They looked good, so I ate some. I realize I should show more restraint, and often do, but celiac disease is a tough road to navigate sometimes and we’re all going to die anyway.

Designated eating complete, Russ and I walked over to the bleachers so that he could introduce me to Bill Kauffman. Kauffman, a writer of some renown, is vice president of the Muckdogs’ board of directors.

067On Kaufmann’s Wikipedia page, his politics are described as “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist.”[4] He has also described himself as an “Independent. A Jeffersonian. An anarchist. A (cheerful!) enemy of the state, a reactionary Friend of the Library, a peace-loving football fan.”

Such leanings could make for all sorts of interesting conversations, but given that I am a baseball writer at a baseball game we talked about baseball.

“We’re the Green Bay Packers of Minor League Baseball, this was passed down to us and we hope to pass it on to the next generation,” said Kauffman, who proudly noted that Batavia is the smallest American city with both a symphony orchestra and a professional baseball team. “This is the soul of baseball, you don’t pay money to park, there are no TV timeouts, and you’re not patted down on the way into the stadium.”

I’ll have a few more quotes from Kaufmann in my previously threatened upcoming MiLB.com piece, but, for now, let me just note that he wrote a book about Batavia called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. I’m gonna have to get a copy.

Speaking of Muckdogs, I believe that this autograph-signing canine was named Homer.

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Behind Homer, you’ll can see the Wayne H. Fuller Pressbox (I find it weird that “pressbox” is just one word on the signage).

077I spent the eighth inning of the game talking to an autograph collector by the name of Ted Wasko, who was sitting in seats directly behind home plate. This is a great view, but as a believer in the curse of the Bambino my general preference when it comes to ballpark seating is “No, No, Nanette.”

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Speaking of the net, there was much speculation regarding whether this wayward foul ball would ever be extracted from its precarious elevated location.

084Continuing on with this photo tour of obfuscated views, here’s a look at the Muckdogs bullpen. The reason I’m sharing this photo is to point out the row of bikes lined up against the clubhouse. Virtually all of these guys live with local families, and many of them ride their bikes to and from the stadium each day. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock n’ roll.

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Bullpen, sans link:

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Zooming in for a closer look.

087In the ninth inning, with the Muckdogs down by a score of 2-1, I went back to the porch to visit Russ. He was waving his trusty Muckdogs rally flag, as he is wont to do.

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Russ was multi-tasking. In addition to waving his rally flag, he was also ringing his rally bell, drinking a beer and, between breaks in the action, using his hammer on non-compliant deck nails. All in a day’s work for an ardent supporter of a community-owned team.

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Russ’s rally efforts were for naught, as the Muckdogs fell in defeat to the Scrappers. A fireworks show followed, and while this is by no means a good photo it does make it appear that the town of Batavia was annihilated by a nuclear bomb.

IMG_0173And that, as they say, was that. I said goodbye to Russ, walked to the parking lot, and soon commenced the drive to Rochester.  While en route to my rental vehicle, I noticed that the Scrappers’ charter bus company is called Precious Cargo. Aw, that’s adorable, Scrappers. You guys are precious. Do your Mommies ride the bus with you and tuck you in and sing you lullabies?

101I’m just playing, Mahoning Valley Scrappers. You know I love you. I just couldn’t resist making muck ado about nothing.

That’s it as regards blogging from Batavia, but stay tuned for much, much more from this final road trip and, while you’re waiting, go ahead and tell your friends to read this blog as it is the most underrated entity in all of sports media.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: New York State of Mind, Part Four

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

Part one in this series detailed my non-ballpark explorations (or lack thereof) in Batavia, Rochester and Jamestown. Part two covered Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York. while part three began on August 27th in Syracuse and ended on the 29th as I left Syracuse for Troy (one of the three cities referenced in the Tri-City ValleyCats name).

And now, we’ve arrived at the (perhaps not-so) grand finale of this series of “New York State of Mind” blog posts: Part four.

You know the drill: Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 30 — Troy, New York (home of the Tri-City ValleyCats)

I attended August 29’s game between the ValleyCats and visiting Brooklyn Cyclones, and the following afternoon I had a little time to poke around the city of Troy, New York, before heading on to Hudson Valley.

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I had never been to Troy before, and was fortunate to have a Troy native for a tour guide: my girlfriend, Rebekah. Rebekah attended the previous night’s  ValleyCats game, along with her parents, whom I had never met. I made their acquaintance shortly after running in the team’s nightly Mayor Race (which pits the mayors of Troy, Albany, and Schenectady against one another).

Rebekah was adopted from Korea, and in this photo she’s posing in front of the courthouse where she was naturalized on St. Patrick’s Day 1983.

004We didn’t have a specific agenda while wandering around Troy, we just parked the car and started walking. One of the first things of interest that we came across was this, the original Bruegger’s Bagels. Apparently Bruegger’s is such a known commodity in Troy that having a tree block their front window signage is no problem at all.

Trees > Signs.

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Down the street from the Original Brueggers (the “OB,” for those in the know) is noted dive bar “The Ruck.” This place’s website is www.getrucked.com, which may or may not be regularly visited by people interested in learning more about General Electric’s fleet of delivery and maintenance vehicles.

Before taking this picture, I channeled the spirit of someone who had perhaps had a few too many beverages at the Ruck. Otherwise, including a poorly framed and blurry photo on this blog would be unthinkable.

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Fun fact: The Ruck used to be known as “Sutter’s,” where Jeff Vervlied, the first designated eater in Biz Blog history, used to work as a bouncer. How long will this blog be able to continue before it collapses upon itself?

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Before eating pork roll sandwiches in Trenton, this man worked at Sutters

Rebekah is a fan of many things, posing among them. Here, she poses in front of a statue of Emma Hart Willard, educator and founder of the school that now bears her name. This statue is located on the bucolic commons of Russel Sage College.

006The plaque beneath the statue reads “In honor of EMMA HART WILLARD who on this spot established AD 1821 the first permanent seminary in America for the advanced education of women….Her most enduring monument the gratitude of educated women.”

And here’s the entryway to Russell Sage College, a women’s college instituted by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage and named after her husband.

008 (2)Now, we approach River Street, where several commercial establishments are located.

009 (2)On River Street, one finds the River Street Beat Shop. Records are sold there.

011 (2)Even better, there was a free outdoor show taking place outside of the record store.

The band playing was Yoma, who were celebrating a split cassette release with We Are Oceans. I was digging it, and would have been happy to spend the entire afternoon at River Street Beat Shop. The proprietor, from whom I bought a copy of this, raved to me about a band that had played earlier in the afternoon. They were called Twin Speak, and he said that “he’d never heard anything like it.” I’m listening to Twin Speak now, and the first band that comes to mind for me, as a reference point, is SubArachnoid Space.

River Street leads right into Monument Square. This Soldiers and Sailors memorial pays tribute to area veterans who served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the Civil War.

013 (2)Did you know? Troy is the birthplace of Uncle Sam.

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Uncle Sam’s origin story is kind of murky, similar to the origins of baseball, in which fiction becomes fact simply as a result of it having been repeated so many times (incidentally, that’s how Ben’s Biz came to be known as the “greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time”).

Here’s the standard Uncle Sam explanation, per “The Straight Dope” website:

A widely held belief, reported as fact in supposedly reliable reference books, is that the original Uncle Sam was one Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy, New York, who supplied rations to the U.S. military during the War of 1812. Wilson was a subcontractor to one Elbert Anderson, and the letters “E.A. — U.S.” were stamped on all the pair’s army-bound grub. On being asked what the letters stood for (the abbreviation U.S. supposedly was unfamiliar at the time), one of Sam’s workers joshed that it stood for “Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam,” meaning the jovial Wilson himself.

The joke was quickly picked up by Wilson’s other employees. Many of these men later served in the army during the war, and the story spread from there. This tale appears to have first found its way into print in 1842.

The above statue is part of Troy’s “Uncle Sam Project,” in which 30 fiberglass Uncle Sam statues were installed around the town. But Uncle Sam imagery and references are everywhere in Troy. This, for instance, is the Uncle Sam Parking Garage. They want YOU to temporarily place your automobile within the confines of their establishment.

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Rebekah sez “Troy is visitor friendly!” (direct quote)

018 (2)And so the visit continued, with a pit stop at Market Block Books.

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Next up was The Grocery, which offers a well-curated selection of meats, cheese, beer and other such comestibles. Such a business would not be out of place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, though a proprietor in Park Slope would probably incorporate the unbearably pretentious word “provisions” somewhere on the signage.

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The Grocery is owned by the husband and wife team of Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine. Both used to work for the ValleyCats, and I used to be in frequent contact with Vic back when he was the team’s assistant general  manager. Here’s a picture of Vic during his baseball days:

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I would have loved to hang out here for a bit and catch up with Vic, but my arrival was unannounced and he wasn’t around and time was at a premium. So, next time.

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In the meantime, just look at this meat.

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Adjacent to The Grocery (and connected via a patio) is another business owned by Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine: The Lucas Confectionery. It was not yet open, early on this Saturday afternoon, but here’s the exterior. Folks on Yelp seem to love this place.

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Next up on this pedestrian (in both senses of the word?) journey was the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

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This mural, on the side of the venue, hints at the splendor that can be found therein.

029The venue’s 2014-15 concert season is definitely geared toward the Baby Boomer crowd. Anyone want to go see Bruce Hornsby on November 1? Just keep in mind that, like Derek Jeter during the back half of his career, he lacks The Range he used to have.

This is a frat house, inhabited by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) students. I was disappointed that they didn’t invite us in for tea and civilized discourse.

032 (2) And, finally, we have a picture of Jimmy’s Lunch. How can you not be charmed by an exterior like that?

034 (2)I am very well aware that, as with all of my city visits of this nature, I have barely scratched the surface. I mean, this post was about Troy but it didn’t even have any tiny hot dogs in it!

But time was up. I had to hit the road and move on toward Hudson Valley, the penultimate stop on 2014’s ultimate ballpark tour.

Cruisin USA, needing a shave

Cruisin USA, needing a shave

I attended August 30’s Renegades game at Dutchess Stadium, immediately driving to Scranton upon its conclusion. I spent that night in a Scranton Econo-Lodge — not the team hotel — whose hallways smelled like a pungent combination of excrement and marijuana. On the afternoon of August 31 I witnessed a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game and that, as they say, was that. On the night of August 31 I arrived back in NYC, where a couple of lazy jerks were waiting for me. I had missed these lazy jerks.

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And with that, this series of “New York State of Mind” posts have concluded. Next up on the blog: a full-to-bursting post dedicated to each of the 10 teams I visited on this trip: Batavia Muckdogs, Rochester Red Wings, Jamestown Jammers, Erie SeaWolves, Buffalo Bisons, Syracuse Chiefs, Auburn Doubledays, Tri-City ValleyCats, Hudson Valley Renegades and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

The content never ends, nor does my discontent regarding how much more I still have to write. Thanks for reading thus far, and stay tuned for much, much more.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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