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Storm Chasers’ Four Day Frenzy: Day Two

The Omaha Storm Chasers’ “Four Day Frenzy,” in which the front office staff is combining to work 84 straight hours at their home of Werner Park, is taking place now. Throughout the week, the Storm Chasers’ front office will be chronicling their collective “Four Day Frenzy” experience. This is the second installment; to read all of the journal entries click HERE.

Four_Day_Frenzy_ARTICLEToday’s post, covering the events of February 16th through 10 p.m., comes courtesy of ticket sales executive Andy Baker and senior group sales executive Ryan Worthen. 

Andy: Wow. It is hour 37 of the 84-hour 4-Day Frenzy extravaganza. Ryan and I are “reporting” to you after our Tallboy Tuesday trivia night inside the VIP Club. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. The new $5 Tallboy Cans were a hit and I’m looking forward to Tuesday Nights at Werner Park this season. I haven’t been with the Storm Chasers for very long, and when I was first told about this event I thought it was insane. Going through it, though, it’s definitely sick.

Ryan: I was in the first full staff meeting where the subject of Frenzy came up. I honestly don’t remember my initial reaction, but I guess nothing shocks me anymore. Perhaps my old age began creeping up on me these past few seasons.

Andy: Tuesday started as a normal day for me. I was on the phone, visiting with folks interested in learning more about this season’s ticket opportunities. The group that was stuffing tickets overnight on Monday came in at 4 p.m. and participated in a four-hour promotion informing fans about a special one-day only ticket package promotion. They could receive a free gift by signing up today.

Ryan: We should mention that tonight’s “Graveyard Shift” is trickling in now. They will stuff thousands of ticket envelopes and boxes until seven in the morning. Last night the group totaled 108 boxes. Not sure that tonight’s crew has it in them, as a few of them are first timers.

Andy: I’ll be one of those rookies, but I’m not on the overnight shift until tomorrow. I’m still new to the MiLB game, and learning things every day.

Ryan: I know one thing you learned today.

Andy: Yeah, so tonight’s event was held in the VIP Club. The trivia teams were enjoying the new drink specials, etc., and hot dogs and brats were also sold. Then one young member of the staff (who was called out for being born before 1991), acting under some misguided assumption, brought out chips and salsa as a surprise dish. To be fair, we both partook and wanted the chips for ourselves. However, chips and salsa in a full bar never go unnoticed. Indeed, the entire VIP Club ended up wanting to taste some of the chips and salsa. It was a huge hit out of nowhere.

Ryan: We ran out of chips.

Andy: Lesson learned. The trivia came to a good finish, with the eventual second-place team coming back from the bottom of the standings. Congrats to “A View from the Box Seats”.

Ryan: Random questions were also featured, which gave everyone present a good challenge and, at times, a good laugh. There were quite a few teams present, and all of the attendees gave the club a season-like atmosphere.

Trivia bros

Trivia bros

Andy: Both of us were security for the event, fancy earpieces and all (like the Secret Service, but different]). We were doing simple things, such as making sure that contestants didn’t use their phones and making sure that they got their money’s worth in food and drink the whole night. On that note, it is our time to wrap up our evening shift. We are going to try to be up by 8 a.m., in anticipation of our 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift Wednesday night.

Ryan: I’ll be in bed by 11.

Andy: Pray for us, and Go Chasers!

Check in throughout the week for more Storm Chasers’ Four Day Frenzy updates. Until then, I remain: 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Miraculous Encounters and Unavoidable Delays in Montgomery

To see all posts from my August 1, 2015 visit to the Montgomery Biscuits (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

I ended Part One of this Biscuits blog series with a reference to the team’s theme song. Well, if you like team theme songs, then you’re in luck. The Biscuits’ have two of them! If “They’re Out of Sight” wasn’t your thing, then maybe “Bring on the Biscuits” will strike your fancy.

Let’s Cook!

And now, on to Part Two. The game was underway at this juncture of the evening, meaning that it was time for me to wander. It is never not time for me to wander, and it is never not time for a non sequitur.

Did you know that Montgomery is home to a Hyundai plant? In 2015, the three millionth vehicle rolled off of the assembly line and into our hearts. That vehicle was purchased by the city and installed on the Riverwalk Stadium concourse

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Meanwhile, upstairs in the owner’s suite, Miss Gravy, Duchess of Pork, was making the rounds. The leash-holder in the above photo is Biscuits co-owner Sherrie Myers, who was hosting a “Leadership Alabama” event that evening and did not have time to speak with me. Myers and her husband, Tom Dickson, also own the Lansing Lugnuts, as well as PSC (Professional Sports Catering).

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Big Mo, a biscuit loving beast if there ever was one, always has time to mingle with his constituency.

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Big Mo and I spent the better part of an hour just standing there, our arms around one another, gazing lovingly into the middle distance. It was a beautiful evening in which to do such things.

063But nothing lasts forever, not even intimate moments with Southern League mascots. I eventually made my way downstairs, visiting a team store in which one can actually find biscuits in the oven.

065Overseeing these biscuits, and many other pieces of paraphernalia, is merchandise director Steve Keller.

065 I wrote a feature about the Biscuits for MiLB.com, providing an overview of the operation, and that feature included my observation that Keller “is quite possibly the only native-born German in a Minor League front office.” When will I learn not to write such things? Because, hilariously and inevitably, I soon received an email from Pensacola Blue Wahoos merchandise manager Denise Richardson. The email read, in part:

“I just wanted to point out that [the Biscuits] merchandise manager is not the only native-born German working in a Minor League front office – he is not even the only one in the Southern League. I was also born in Germany. Lived there for several years and then visited my Oma every summer in Maroldsweisach (in Bavaria) until she was too elderly to entertain my brother and I. My mother was the first and only member of her family to come to America. So, while Steve Keller probably spent a larger portion of his life there, I just wanted to let you know that is he not, “quite possibly the only native-born German working in a Minor League front office.” 

May I suggest a new league motto?

The Southern League: Current Home to (At Least) Two German-born Merchandise Directors. 

download (1)While in the team store, I made the following Vine. I should have added a #YAM tag to this, which of course stands for “Yet Another Masterpiece”.

Upon leaving the team store, I had a chat with the one and only Dr. Miraculous, a man of spectacular facial hair and deep Montgomery baseball knowledge.

071Dr. Miraculous — real name, Shane — is a lifelong Montgomery baseball fan who has childhood memories of seeing Mark Fidyrich pitch for the Montgomery Rebels. He attends nearly every Biscuit game, and blogs about Montgomery baseball past and present via the Dr. Miraculous blog.

Dr. Miraculous told me that, through the years, Montgomery has fielded a lot of good teams. The ’40s and ’50s were a particularly fertile period, though he currently finds himself particularly interested in the ’09 team. As in, 1909.

Dr. Miraculous has already written about me on his blog, noting that “I met blogger-king Ben Hill and managed to not make a single reference to Yakkity Sax.”

Dr. Miraculous. This is the fourth straight paragraph that begins with Dr. Miraculous. And, also, the last. Time was running out on the evening, which meant that it was time to write, record and disseminate a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

Yes, there was a baseball game going on throughout all of this, as there always is. Without it, nothing else would have reason to exist. After the visiting Tennessee Smokies secured a 4-3 victory over the Biscuits, it was time for a post-game fireworks display.

Except no. No, it wasn’t yet time for a post-game fireworks display. A CSX freight train was making its way past the stadium, and the fireworks couldn’t commence until the team received permission from the yardmaster to do so.

081The delay was considerable, as this freight train was so long — How long was it? — It was so long that it ended up circling the entire globe and running in to its own caboose. While at the mercy of the whims of the mercurial yardmaster and his serpentine machinery, the team passed the time by showing a video of Muppets characters lip-syncing to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

As the train snaked by, the yardmaster cackling dementedly in his lair, the folks in the production booth had to scramble to keep the crowd entertained. Over the next 15 minutes or so, they just about exhausted their crowd-pleasing absurdist viral video supply. In addition to Muppets’ paying homage to Queen, there was (of course) “Let It Go,” the Muppets doing “Don’t Stop Believing”, “Turn Down for What” mashed up with video from Frozen, “Happy” accompanied by video of dogs, the SpongeBob SquarePants theme (of course), something that my notes describe as “cats being manipulated to dubstep” and more. The zeitgeist was in full effect.

I was a freight it would never happen, but finally the team got permission to shoot off the fireworks. Could I have taken a worse picture than this? Probably not.

082And that, as they say, was that. As “Sweet Home Alabama” filtered over the PA, I Riverwalked my way out of the stadium. Another ballpark visit is now in the books.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Taco Bell offers free tacos for all of Fresno — with one catch

By John Parker / MiLB.com

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The Fresno Grizzlies made news last month — and again last night — by changing their name to the Fresno Tacos for one night only in celebration of the club’s annual Taco Truck Throwdown.

Just before the game began, Taco Bell upped the ante for the team and the entire city of Fresno.

Your move, Grizzlies.

On the Road: Characters and Coupons in St. Lucie

To see all of my posts from this visit to the St. Lucie Mets (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Hello, and welcome back to this “live” report from Tradition Field, home of the St. Lucie Mets.

001The previous dispatch in this series covered an array of pregame sights and sounds. Now, we remove the “pre” from the equation. It is officially game time here in St. Lucie (and, no, it’s not Larry David Lookalike Night).

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Further down the third-base line, fans can watch the game from the comfort of the Tiki Bar.

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I am never able to watch the games I attend, however. There is always wandering to do. An early bout of wandering this evening occurred alongside St. Lucie Mets general manager Traer Van Allen, who, over the years, has accumulated a 520-strong collection of bobbleheads.

“After spending this long in the industry, it’s really taken on a life of its own,” he told me. “I give them all a home. I don’t care what team it is.”

025Let’s take a quick look.

While Traer collects bobbleheads with an indiscriminate flair, there is of course an inevitable St. Lucie bias. The “Banana Phone,” for example:

023If you’re wondering why a Banana Phone would be honored in collectible figurine form, then you’re wasting valuable brain space. But, nonetheless, I’ll satiate your assumed curiosity via the posting of this excerpt of my 2010 “Promo Preview” column that explained the phenomenon:

St. Lucie Mets (Florida State League)
Banana Phone Giveaway, Sept. 6

All season long, the St. Lucie Mets have played Raffi’s “Banana Phone” whenever the opposing team makes a call to the bullpen. The fan base has responded to this unorthodox musical choice, doing improvised banana phone dances in the aisles and, in extreme cases, bringing bananas to the ballpark. Now everyone can get in on the act as the team will be giving away custom-designed banana phones on Monday. These cheerful anthropomorphic bananas feature a (non-functional) keypad on its belly and are sponsored by Humana. Therefore, it’s the Humana Banana Phone. Don’t let the opportunity to procure one of these items “potassium” you by.

So there you have it.

Moving on to another notable St. Lucie bobblehead in Traer’s collection, here’s “Mary Lou.”

022Mary Lou, a long-time St. Lucie Mets game-day employee, is unofficially known as the “world’s oldest intern.” A retired General Motors test driver from Michigan, Mary Lou began working for the team in 1997 and has done everything from maintenance work to running in-game promos to picking players up from the airport to, yes, wearing the mascot suit.

(Trigger Warning: This photo depicts a mascot without its head on.)

026I caught up with Mary Lou later in the evening. A St. Lucie Mets legend!

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Upon emerging from Traer’s lair of bobbleheads, I struck up a conversation with Gayle and Jack Fishbein. They’re the fans with the candy.

028I wrote a feature on the Fishbeins for MiLB.com. Again with the relevant excerpt:

Gayle and Jack always bring full-to-bursting Ziploc bags of candy to the ballpark, distributing them to the players as they’re warming up and socializing on the field prior to the start of the game. From Dubble Bubble to Tootsie Rolls, Starburst to Laffy Taffy, they’re equipped to meet the sweet-toothed desires of every St. Lucie Mets player.

No one, least of all Gayle and Jack, would argue that candy is good for the players’ health. But baseball players are known for their oral fixations, and candy is a far superior alternative to chewing tobacco. Tobacco products are banned in Minor League Baseball, but some players maintain the habit nonetheless. Gayle and Jack want to make sure that there is always an alternative, however. As the St. Lucie Mets players move up the Minor League ladder, and, perhaps, make it to the Major Leagues (where tobacco is still permitted), the Fishbeins hope the candy habit will take precedence over the far more dire possibility of being addicted to tobacco.

Oh, and here’s Grace, a familiar figure at Tradition Field.

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What’s that sign say, Grace?

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Next up on the evening’s agenda was to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). His name is Jay Meyer, and my next post will be dedicated to his exploits.

045By the time Jay and I had parted ways, it was raining heavily and the tarp was on the field.

055The deluge caused some fans to head for the exits. Because that evening’s “K Man of the Game” had indeed struck out, fans were entitled to a coupon good for a free Taco Bell taco. This brave employee was on hand to make sure that these fans got what they were entitled to.

The game was official at this point — the Mets had a 7-3 lead over Brevard County in the bottom of the fifth — but the show must go on. After a 59-minute rain delay, the tarp was taken off the field. The cessation of play had given way to the resumption of play.

058And, we’re back!

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With very little to do at this point, I rambled back to Mulligan’s Bar and Grill and cracked wise amid the desolation.

I then introduced my self to a concession stand lizard. I had never seen one of those before.

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Finally, I helped myself to a front-row seat so that I could read up on the latest dugout news.

060A pair of rehabbing New York Mets pitched the eighth and ninth inning for St. Lucie: Vic Black and then Bobby Parnell.

Here’s Bobby!

Finally, some four hours after the ballgame began, it ended.

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St. Lucie’s handshake line culminated with a man wearing slacks designed to highlight his well-toned posterior.

065And to all those fans who left during the rain delay — you lose! After play resumed St. Lucie crossed the 10-run threshold, meaning that fans who stuck it out to the end received both the “‘K’ Man of the Game” free taco and a “10 Run Rule” free chicken sandwich.

068Whether you enjoy eating such fast food fare is beside the point, it’s just the principle of the thing. Never leave a game early. You never know what you’ll miss out on.

Like, you know, a Banana Phone Call to the Bullpen!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Free Admissions

Earlier this month I posted a, uh, post that included one item of recent vintage and one left over from the 2014 season. This endeavor received a rapturous response, as most of my endeavors do, so once again I’m going to utilize this format. We’ll start with something new. It’s more of an update, really, regarding the New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ “Fan Photo Contest.” The team’s pitch was as follows:

Want to see your photo on a Season Ticket? Post your favorite Fisher Cats-themed photo on our Facebook page, and it could be featured on a 2015 Season Ticket.

Well, the results are in. Fisher Cat fans such as these will be showcased on season tickets in 2015:

Joseph from Barnstead, who is ready to catch the first pitch:

Fan1

A triumphant Maureen from Manchester

Fan3

Ian from Manchester honors America

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And so on and so forth. To see all of the winners, go to the Fisher Cats’ Facebook page. I had never seen such a thing done before in the world of Minor League Baseball — correct me if I have overlooked a similar endeavor — and think that it’s a great idea.

Speaking of great ideas… 

The Dunedin Blue Jays are located one rung below the Fisher Cats on the Toronto Blue Jays’ organizational ladder. And, this past July, they made baseball history. Therefore, if you care about baseball, history and the intersection of the two, then you will be fascinated by this. I guarantee it:

DUNEDIN, FL –This past Saturday, July 19th, 2014, was a historic day for baseball, as a baseball “first” took place at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Florida. The Dunedin Blue Jays defeated the Jupiter Hammerheads 12-7 in front of an announced crowd of 1,098. But the story actually begins almost two weeks earlier and about 58 miles to the east.

On Sunday, July 6th, the Lakeland Flying Tigers were set to host the Daytona Cubs. The Flying Tigers were looking to bounce back after losing the night before at Joker Marchant Stadium. On this Sunday, though, the Flying Tigers weren’t able to get back on the winning side of things.

Because on Sunday, July 6th, in Lakeland, Florida, it rained.

A ticket from that Cubs/Flying Tigers game was redeemed at the box office here in Dunedin, marking the first time in baseball that a fan has made use of the “Universal Rain Check” policy. This policy was created at the beginning of the 2014 season by the Dunedin Blue Jays, and they are the first and only team in Minor League Baseball to offer this unique rainout program.

check

The program is set up so that fans from all over Minor League Baseball are able to use a rain check from any MiLB game for admission to a D-Jays game. While the promotion is open to teams from all across the minors, as expected, the first redemption came from a fellow Florida State League game.

“I think it’s awesome that someone made use of it,” said Nate Kurant, the D-Jays director of marketing and social media. “I’m grateful that our GM, Shelby Nelson, allowed us to try something unique and I’m glad that it paid off for at least one fan. Hopefully it gains a little more momentum and more fans take advantage of it, especially here in the FSL.”

Longtime Ben’s Biz Blog readers, of which there are several, will recall that the Universal Rain Check idea can at least partially be attributed to reader Peter Golkin. In 2012, Golkin wrote a guest post in which he advocated for the implementation of the Universal Rain Check throughout Minor League Baseball. This post inspired one of the most robust comments section that this blog has ever seen, an occurrence that always does my heart good.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Looking for a Job at the Winter Meetings? Want to Write About It?

The Baseball Winter Meetings is scheduled to take place from December 7 through December 10 in by-all-accounts beautiful San Diego, California. As always, a primary component of this sprawling and multi-faceted event will be the annual PBEO Job Fair, in which professional baseball aspirants seek to secure a coveted position within the world of, yes, professional baseball.

pbeo

Looking for a job at the Winter Meetings is a fraught, exhilarating and often maddening proposition, as hundreds of seekers vie to land a professionally, geographically and economically appropriate position. Some are content with securing an internship — anything to get that proverbial foot in the door — while others have already gone this route and are now intent on full-time employment. Some are just out of (or still in) college, while others are taking a leap of faith by trying to break into baseball after having started out within a different line of work.

Every story is unique, is what I’m saying, and these stories are well worth sharing. In 2014, as during the previous two Winter Meetings, I am planning on running a series of Job Seeker Journal guest posts on this blog (these will also be compiled and featured daily on MiLB.com). Are YOU attending the Winter Meetings as a Job Seeker? If so, are you interested in joining this group of distinguished individuals?

2012Clint Belau, Chris Miller, Eric Schmitz, Linda Le

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2013Kasey Decker, Ian Fontenot, Meredith Perri, Alex Reiner
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2014: You?

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If you are interested in sharing your 2014 Winter Meetings job-seeking experience on this blog and MiLB.com, then please get in touch — benjamin.hill@mlb.com — with the following information:

— Name, age, hometown, college, Twitter handle (if applicable)

— Prior Sports Industry Experience (if applicable)

— Why do you want to work in baseball?

— One random fact about yourself (this can, literally, be anything)

Emails must be received within one week from today: the deadline is Tuesday, December 2 at 12 p.m. EST. Three individuals will then be chosen (selected by myself, with input from an esteemed group of MiLB.com colleagues), and introduced to the public in December 5’s “Minoring in Business” feature on MiLB.com. Journals will begin running the following week — one entry covering each day of the Job Fair, followed by a final post in early 2015 explaining how everything panned out.

Job-seekers, I hope to hear from you! This is a great opportunity to share your unique perspective on a baseball career rite of passage, and, who knows? The exposure you get from these journals could be just what you need to separate yourself from what is always a crowded field of candidates. Good luck, and hope to hear from you!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Shuckin’ with Buck in Biloxi

On Monday evening, Biloxi’s new Southern League franchise announced that it will go by the name of “Shuckers.” This is nothing to do with an action that is often performed in tandem with jivin’; rather it is an homage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast city’s thriving seafood industry. Oysters, which must be shucked by, yes, shuckers, are a big part of this industry.

main logo biloxi

My MiLB.com story on the new name was published on Monday evening, in conjunction with the team’s official announcement. The story includes a cornucopia of quotes from Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers, who held the same position in the team’s previous home of Huntsville, Alabama.

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

If you’ve ever spoken with Buck, you know that he’s never at a loss for words. In fact, I would go so far as to dub him “the most loquacious dude in the industry.” This was certainly the case when I spoke with him for my MiLB.com story. In fact, I ended up with a veritable novella’s worth of surplus verbiage. Being a conservationist at heart, I figured that I’d now share some of this surplus with you, the presumably interested and undeniably attractive reader.

On capitalizing on the Shuckers’ name:

Milwaukee, our parent club, has the sausage race. In Huntsville we did a superhero race. Here in Biloxi, we can do a seafood race. The sky’s the limit! (Note: Buck said “the sky’s the limit” a half-dozen times during our conversation.)

Maybe we can call up Smuckers — get a mascot that’s a jar of strawberry jam. The sky’s the limit….I guarantee you, if we take our staff to a beachside bar, get a pizza and some barley sodas and start brainstorming, we’ll come up with a big list of ideas.

I’d love to get Blue Oyster Cult out here to play a post-game concert. They’re my favorite rock band of all time.

On the potential negative of naming the team “Shuckers”:

You can take any name and turn it into something perverse. This is a local name with a local logo, and it’s reflective of the Gulf Coast. We didn’t have Willie-Off-the-Pickleboat design this. It’s professionally done, and we’re really proud of it. This whole thing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. New team, new name, new stadium. Everything’s brand new. This is Christmas, New Year’s, Mardi Gras and your birthday all rolled into one.

biloxi cap 2

On the Shuckers’ ownership group, which is headed by Ovations Food Services president Ken Young (whose portfolio also includes the Albuquerque Isotopes and Norfolk Tides):

This isn’t their first rodeo. We’ve had members of the Albuquerque staff out here, and they’ve helped tremendously. It’s been a great team effort. Ken owns Ovations, so you know the food here is going to be first class. We had Ovations when I was working in Brevard County [Buck was GM of the Manatees] and I’m happy to be back in that family. We have to think that the sky’s the limit. I’m not gonna tell them “Serve this, serve that.” They know what they’re doing. I expect shrimp po’ boys, oysters, all that kind of stuff. The concession stands will reflect the flavor of the Gulf Coast.

On keeping the Shuckers name a secret: 

The Albuquerque staff took the lead on ordering the merchandise. Thank God, because we’ve had so much to do. So a lot of the merchandise was shipped there first, because we didn’t want a box showing up here that said “Shuckers” on it. But we worked really hard to keep the name off of any boxes or labels; we needed the whole thing kept under wraps. All you want to do is reward the locals. If you reveal the name, then you took the prize away, you took the present away. It’s like showing a kid his Christmas presents two days early. You took the joy away. We’ve had people from all over trying to find out the name. I just told everyone “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Lie, deny and counter-accuse. It’s the military way. [Buck is a former airborne infantryman, who took part in the 1989 mission to apprehend Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.]

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On the perks of operating in Biloxi: 

We’re right across from the beach, and the team hotel is 100 steps away. We’ve got night life, gambling, clubs, concerts, shows and everything else. This is a good destination. Teams are going to like coming here. We’re going to have the best home record in the league, because the guys on the visiting team, they’ll all have sunburn and will be tired from having spent the night at the casinos.

bilxi cap 3

So what do you think of the “Shuckers” name? Your feedback is always welcome, via whichever medium you might choose to deliver it.

benjamin.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.

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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 Two

(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!)

Part one in this series detailed my non-ballpark explorations (or lack thereof) in Batavia, Rochester and Jamestown. Part two, which you are reading now, begins on August 25th and covers Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York.

Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 25th — Erie, Pennsylvania (home of the SeaWolves)

I grew up outside of Philadelphia, my grandparents had a house in the Poconos, and I went to college in Pittsburgh. Therefore, I consider myself to be quite familiar with the state of Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t until this trip that I ventured deep into the northwest quadrant of the state, and I’m glad that I finally had the opportunity to do so. Erie, heretofore unbeknownst to me, is quite beautiful.

I arrived in Erie on the evening of August 24th, having driven there after attending that afternoon’s Jamestown Jammers game. After a night of rest at the Clarion Inn, I did some writing, got lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, and then headed over to Presque Isle State Park. (I’ve been pronouncing it “Press Kyle State Park.” I hope that’s correct.)

IMG_0206Per the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources:

Presque Isle State Park is a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that arches into Lake Erie. As Pennsylvania’s only “seashore,” Presque Isle offers its visitors a beautiful coastline and many recreational activities, including swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, bicycling and in-line skating. 

I only had about an hour to poke around, but my pokings soon brought me to this pristine stretch of beach. It was a beautiful day, and the water was a perfect temperature. I would have happily spent the entire day there, if Minor League Baseball obligations hadn’t intervened (as they always do, and must).

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I didn’t do much except wander along the coastline with my pantlegs pulled up to my knees, but what else was there to do? Presque Isle is now firmly entrenched in my mind as a place to visit on a non-baseball-related road trip (should such a thing ever exist in my life). And while that’s all the time that I had to explore Erie, there is, obviously, much more to do than go to the beach. In an email prior to my visit, SeaWolves president Greg Coleman provided the following information:

  • Near the entrance to Presque Isle (locally know as The Peninsula), you’ll find two local institutions – an amusement park called Waldameer and a ’50’s style hot dog stand/eatery called Sara’s. Both are considered Erie institutions. The Ravine Flyer at Waldameer has one of the most stunning rollercoaster views I’ve ever seen as it looks out over the peninsula and Lake Erie.
The Ravine Flyer (photo from Wikipedia)

The Ravine Flyer (photo from Wikipedia)

  • Bicentennial Tower is probably the most recognizable landmark in Erie.  It is located on the bay front at the northernmost tip of State Street (Erie’s equivalent of “Main Street”) and was built in 1996 to commemorate Erie’s 200th anniversary.
Bicentennial Tower (again, from Wikipedia)

Bicentennial Tower (again, from Wikipedia)

  • The Erie Maritime Museum is a short walk from Bicentennial Tower.  The museum hosts the U.S. Brig Niagara, the official flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, when it is docked in Erie.
  • Erie boasts a number of number of attractions rarely seen in a community of its size (Erie County’s population is 280,000) including the Erie Zoo, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, four colleges/universities within 15 miles, an indoor water park (Splash Lagoon), an NBDL basketball team, an OHL hockey team and Minor League Baseball.
  • Pop culture notes: Alice from the Brady Bunch (the recently deceased Ann B. Davis) and Train lead singer Pat Monahan both grew up Erie, PA.  Erie was also home to fictional band, the Wonders, from Tom Hanks’ movie That Thing You Do (limited filming was done at Mercyhurst University in Erie).
Erie native Ann B. Davis (once again, from Wikipedia)

Erie native Ann B. Davis (once again, from Wikipedia)

The next day, it was onward to the Queen City.

August 26: Buffalo, New York (home of the Bisons)

In Buffalo, I had a man on the inside in the form of Seamus Gallivan. Seamus and I first became acquainted during his days working for the Corpus Christi Hooks and Round Rock Express, but after the 2009 season he left Minor League Baseball and returned to his native Buffalo. His professional career is now dedicated to spreading “Buffalove” via his Good Neighborhood Foundation, working for the Larkin Square public event space and booking shows all around the city. Buffalo, after years of industrial decline and a resultant inferiority complex, is now re-inventing itself in myriad ways and Seamus is a passionate proponent of all that it has to offer.

I met Seamus at Larkin Square, which opened in 2012.

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From the Larkin Square website:

Larkin Square lies at the heart of Larkinville, the site of the former Larkin Soap Company warehouse buildings. This open public space provides a backdrop of colorful furniture amongst whimsical architecture….food, music and fun abound.

When I first got to Larkin Square, a few early-arriving food trucks were staking out the best spots for that evening’s Food Truck Tuesday event. 20 trucks set up shop on the premises, a live band plays, and (presumably) a good time is had by all.

But Seamus and I weren’t going to be visiting any of these vehicular food purveyors. Following Buffalo protocol, we were going to get some chicken wings. In advance of my visit Seamus had initiated a Facebook discussion regarding the best wings in Buffalo, which elicited a remarkable 138 comments. Here’s a sampling of the conversation:

Stevie Matthews Duffs Amherst (get hot to make them sweat) for traditional wings. Or, I am also partial to Dwyer’s in NT if you want to travel a bit out of Buffalo and get experimental with a ton of flavors.

Nathan Montague Duke’s if they want smoked BBQ wings. Gabriel’s Gate is good. Consider taking them to Anchor so they can say they’ve been there.

Christopher Taylor 911 tavern if you have to stay in the city. If not Bar Bill in EA all day long.

Lauren Leadbetter Bar Bill – east aurora (honey butter BBQ). OR Potters pub – south buffalo (honey mustard BBQ)

Duke Duquin Our smoked bbq are the best bbq by far…not even close & offer a healthy alternative as fat is rendered off during smoking process. These tasty treats are grilled not fried. #nextlevelwings

dukes

Duke’s

Chris Duncan Elmos or duffs or anchor….. since hes never been to Buffalo why not take him to where it all started. Just kinda makes sense.
Edmund Cardoni Where I like to get wings living here: Papa Jake’s for classic wings, Essex Street (smoked), Gabriel’s Gate, Bar Bill if I’m in East Aurora, etc. But I would always bring a first-time visitor to the Anchor Bar.
Seamus went with a well-considered wild card selection, however:
Seamus Gallivan For those interested, we hit Cole’s with consideration of the interior aesthetics, patio, and that I could give him a driving tour from Larkinville up the East Side, over Delaware Park, and down Elmwood Village and downtown.
Yes, Cole’s:
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Aesthetically, Cole’s is most definitely a winner. It was established in 1934, and the walls are lined with vintage sports memorabilia.
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Seamus and I opted for a spot outside, which was a nice environment until the bees descended upon us. We ordered Buffalo wings (or, “wings” as I suppose it’s redundant to call them Buffalo wings while in Buffalo) and, changing things up, Sicilian chicken wings (tossed in Italian and Caesar dressing with Parmesan and lemon juice).
The Buffalo wings were, as Seamus put it, “solid but unspectacular.” They were a little dry, and I would have preferred a little more sauce and overall bite. Perfectly acceptable is what they were, but I guess when one is in Buffalo one expects wings of transcendence.
IMG_0334The Sicilian Wings were less traditional, but had more going on flavor-wise. A little tart, a little sweet, a little spice. I liked them a lot.
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After finishing our meal, which really was descended upon by bees, Seamus and I went upstairs to see Cole’s private event room. The lighting left something to be desired, but the stained glass Buffalo sports logos were really cool. This is the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (who later moved to Los Angeles and became the basketball powerhouse that are the Clippers).
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Bills:
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Buffalo was already making a good first impression on me, and then I saw that this was the cover story in the weekly free paper. My good impression subsequently turned to great!
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(In related pinball news — after a 15 month run, I was recently dethroned as Medieval Madness grand champion at my local laundromat. Without hyperbole, I can tell you that my local laundromat is the greatest laundromat of all time.)
After lunch, Seamus headed back to Larkin Square to get set up for the Food Truck Tuesday event. I, meanwhile, checked into my hotel and then walked to the Bisons’ home of Coca-Cola Park. There were a few architectural highlights along the way, such as this building (whatever it may be).
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But this was the highlight: The Prudential Building, designed by noted architect Louis H. Sullivan and built in 1895. It’s “an all-steel frame office building with fine terra cotta veneer.”  I mean, just look at that veneer!
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Not all architecture is created equal, however. Just look at the phallic monstrosity that is One Seneca Tower.
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Across the street from the ballpark, I spotted this piece of heartfelt signage.
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I then watched the Bisons play their final home game of the year; some has already been written about that but much remains to be written. After the ballgame I wandered down to the waterfront area known as Canalside and got a drink with Seamus at a bar called Liberty Hound. Located at the original terminus of the Erie Canal and surrounded by the USS The Sullivans and The USS Little Rock, this is a very scenic place to spend some time. The bartenders were friendly and the pours (very) generous; I’d highly recommend checking this place out before and/or after and/or during a Bisons game. Here’s a picture of the Liberty Hound, which I stole from Seamus’ Good Neighborhood website.
Liberty-Hound-at-night
 My night ended at the Liberty Hound, but my Buffalo explorations did not. The next day, after an extended bout of hotel-based writing, I met Seamus for lunch at the West Side Bazaar.  Somehow, this is the best photo I was able to take of the building’s exterior.
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Anyhow, this place is great. Simply put, and stolen from the website, the West Side Bazaar “is a small business incubator supporting entrepreneurs on their path to becoming successful business owners.”
Immigrant entrepreneurs, specifically. Inside the Bazaar are eight separate “boutiques” and four food windows. Again, my photography skills (to the extent that they exist in the first place), were failing me.
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The food options are South Sudanese, Ethiopian, Thai…
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and Burmese.
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Seamus and I opted for the Burmese. I got a curry combination platter, and it was a very satisfying meal. I would have loved to try all four options, and if I make it back to Buffalo I’m definitely making it back to the Bazaar.
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Seamus and I parted ways after lunch — thanks, Seamus, for the hospitality! Before heading on to Syracuse, I poked around the general area just a little bit more.
“Your link to quality” can be found at this “Meating Place.” Get it? I bet you never sausage a sign as that!
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West Side Stories is a great used book store. I bought an Elvis “Live in Hawaii” record (found therein was a 1977 newspaper editorial lamenting his death), a coaster embossed with a Shel Silverstein poem, a book of horror stories by Clive Barker and an annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution.
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The proprietress of West Side Stories suggested I walk down the street and check out Black Dots, a record store in an unassuming downstairs space.  You don’t have to tell me twice!
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This was a cool little spot, for sure. There was a strong punk/metal emphasis amid the limited inventory, but I ended up buying some stuff that I wouldn’t have expected to find there. Namely, a used copy of the Beastie Boys’ “Alive” 10″ and a new copy of Lil’ Wayne’s “The Leak” ep (I did not even know this existed in physical form. “I’m Me” is my second-favorite Lil Wayne song of all time, but all five tracks are fantastic.) I was also gonna finally get that last Jucifer LP but I guess that can wait until another day.
Black Dots, like every record store on Earth, had a used copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours sale. People who say they do not like Rumours are probably just kidding because it’s a near-impossible album not to like no matter what your genre predilections may be.
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Oh, and Black Dot had a shelf of bootleg live tapes for 50 cents apiece. I bought “Neil Young at the New York State Fair, Syracuse, 8/27/1989.” After all, it was August 27, 2014, and I was just about to make my way to Syracuse! That’s some serious serendipity right there.
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At this point I really don’t have too much more to add, except that Sweetness 7 Cafe is a good spot to get some coffee.
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Oh, and Buffalonians really hate Jon Bon Jovi! Apparently he was part of a scheme to buy the Bills and move them to Toronto, but that scenario was thwarted thanks to a fracking billionaire. (Hey man, you can destroy the environment all you want. Just make sure that that team stays in Buffalo.)
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Jon Bon Jovi owning the Bills? Sayreville it ain’t so.

And that’s it for me, until part three.
benjamin.hill@mlb.com
twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Another Sellout in Dayton

The seventh and final stop of my Midwest-based July road trip was Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dragons (Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).

I had never been to Dayton before; my first and still-strongest association with the city was via Randy Newman’s evocations of a turn-of-the-20th century lazy Sunday afternoon. But when I pulled into this parking lot, it was an early Thursday evening during a decidedly more dystopian-seeming epoch. There was no time for tea, and the missus was nowhere to be found.

009 To get to the Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field, one hooks a left at the far end of Mendelson Liquidation Outlet, crosses the street, and then walks down this narrow  alleyway. (Or at least that’s what I did.)

011Life, post alleyway, was considerably brighter. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but there was a group of bagpipe players kicking out summertime jams in front of the stadium. Apparently, Dayton was on the cusp of its annual Celtic Festival.

012Enter here.

013Chances are that, if you know anything whatsoever about the Dayton Dragons, you know this: the team currently boasts the longest sellout streak in the history of professional sports. They set the record with sellout number 814 in 2011, and this season they passed the 1000 sellout milestone. For a little perspective, I will now quote from a 2011 article written by an increasingly complacent yet  intermittently brilliant writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called “Rust Belt” cities — Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind — the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.

Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s).

So, yeah, the sellout streak is due to a combination of having a well-designed facility in a well-chosen location, playing in a baseball-friendly market with rooting attachments to the parent club, and consistent and conscientious ownership and front office staff. It’s a multi-laired situation.

Yeah, multi-“lair”ed. Because they’re the Dragons, see.

017I entered via the main office, where I was met by vice president Eric Deutsch so that he could lead me on a tour of the facility. We began in the main office, which is lined with photos of notable ballpark guests. For starters, did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson is a Dayton native? (Also, and unrelated: did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson has donated some $10 million to the Church of Scientology? For that kind of money, you could buy the Batavia Muckdogs twice over.)

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Magic Johnson, part of the team’s ownership group, once threw out a basketball first pitch. I mean, sure, why not? It’s kind of like that time that David Copperfield threw out an invisible first pitch because he had already made the ball disappear.

016Actually, Johnson no longer has a stake in the team, as Mandalay has recently sold the Dragons to Palisades Arcadia. The price was not disclosed, but it is somewhere in the $35-40 million dollar range — the most ever paid for a Minor League Baseball team. The sale was not yet official on the late July evening that I visited, however, and Deutsch was reticent to talk about it in any detail. But the front office will remain in place, so I wouldn’t expect any major changes to the way that the team does things.

Sorry, the pace of this post is already Dragon. (Before writing this post, I tested my Dragon jokes by doing a set at a local comedy club. They killed that Knight.)

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Like Dayton Dragons? This guy is single.

Deutsch and I meandered through subterranean hallways for a bit, with one such hallway eventually leading us onto the field. The field was redone prior to the 2013 season, and the seven-story tall scoreboard features a dragon that shoots smoke out of its nostrils.

020

021A sellout crowd would soon be watching the action on the field, of course. In the Dragons case, a sellout occurs once all 7230 fixed seats have been sold. (These seats all have theater-style cup holders, for what it’s worth.) Walk-up tickets are available for the lawn area on most evenings, resulting in an average crowd somewhere in the 8400 range.

Pretty suite, right?

026

027Each season, approximately 25 Dragons games are shown on local TV. Hence, this backdrop, and hence a recent $1 million investment to redo the team’s control room.

029Hey, look, Willie Nelson played here once. (I might have an extra ticket to see Willie Nelson in Newark on September 20 so drop me a line if you want it.)

031Deutsch reported that the this is one of three party decks and that the party decks are always the first thing to sell out. (If I ran the Dragons I’d name this the “Baby Boomer” party deck because it sells out so easily. Oooh, take that parents!)

035

The view from the right field party deck, this is.
036Given Fifth Third Field’s limited downtown footprint, the team had to build up as opposed to out. Hence, a six-row second-level seating area. Second-tier seating levels are very rare in Minor League Baseball. Fresno has one, and that’s the only team that immediately comes to (my) mind. There are no concession areas up here, but Deutsch said that an order-from-the-seats concession service was generally underutilized and therefore discontinued. People, they like to get up and mingle. Sitting is overrated.

037 The concourse runs in a predictable pattern: concession stand, portable stand, restroom, repeat. Among the portable stands, Dippin Dots are among the most popular. I was told that this perpetually futuristic avant-garde ice cream purveyor, based in relatively nearby Paducah, Kentucky, considers the Dragons to be among their top partners. (Daytonians love Dippin Dots, that’s all that I’m trying to get at here.)

038The 3100 square foot team store is called the Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of items for sale, one will not find goofy variations on the logo such as could be found in the likes of, say, Lexington (see previous post).

039

Deutsch said that, when it comes to the logo, the team goes “narrow, rather than deep. We’re the Yankees, as opposed to the Diamondbacks.”

I got the impression that the above statement applies to the Dragons’ way of doing business, period. You can’t argue with success, but operationally speaking they feel like a Major League team trapped in a Minor League team’s body. I’ll be curious to see if the new ownership group experiments, at least just a little, with theme jerseys, bobblehead giveaways,  regionally specific and/or “crazy” concession items, and other hallmarks of the 21st century Minor League experience. At the very least, maybe they could use Twitter as a tool to interact with the fan base? (I’m not sure if @DragonsBaseball has replied to a tweet, ever.) All I’m saying is: even the best have room to improve.

In the time it took to read that half-formed editorializing digression, one could walk from the team store to the Dragon’s Lair group seating area. (I did the math.) There are 306 seats in the Dragon’s Lair, making it pretty sizable as lairs go.

042Next to the lair is the lawn.

044If one keeps moving, one finds this statue of mascot Heater.

045On this particular evening, Heater had company in the form of touring mascot Birdzerk. Birdzerk is a close personal friend of mine; we met in a subterranean tunnel and then I accompanied him to the concourse so that he could begin his first routine of the evening.

Go!

Birdzerk ran onto the field, coerced the visiting third baseman to dance, stole his glove, and tossed his glove into the stands. Vaudeville at the ballpark.

051

052After Birdzerk disappeared into the netherworld from which he came, I journeyed back up to the press box. By the time I got there, Birdzerk had re-emerged and was now harassing an umpire.

055

The next inning break was a more solemn affair, as the Dragons staged a “Home Run for Life” in which a recovering cancer patient took a lap around the bases. This bit of tearjerking ballpark pageantry, now common throughout Minor League Baseball, originated with the Dragons.

057

In the press box I spoke with Wright State University assistant professor Scott Peterson. He and student Sam McClain (a Dragons intern) are working on a project regarding the changing nature of media coverage throughout the Midwest League.

059I contemplated writing an article on this project, as it is the kind of thing that interests me (and, perhaps, you). But Peterson and McClain are still in the relatively early stages of the project, so I’ll catch up with them a little later on down the line. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.

061Next up on the docket was to meet my designated eater for the evening: Mr. George Coleman.

064George grew up in Chicago, often taking the subway to go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

“Ernie Banks was the man and still is,” he said.

George now lives in Dayton, having retired from a 30-year career in the Air Force spent primarily in aircraft maintenance. (The beard was a long time coming — he wasn’t allowed to have one while in the Air Force, and said that it then took another 10 years to convince his wife.) He was motivated to volunteer as a Designated Eater simply because he is a fan of Minor League Baseball in general and my writing specifically.

“I like the same things you like, so anything you write gets priority in my inbox,” he said. “I’m 63 and the reference you have, some of them are aimed at my generation. I hope people get it….It’s a little slice of heaven to read your stuff.”

George and I headed over to the “Dragons Fire Grill” so that he could obtain a “Pit Boss Burger.”

070

The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.

065Have at it, George.

“I love the crunchiness of the cole slaw, and the soft pretzel bun,” said George. “The burger’s the base of it, and while Ohio’s not known for its barbecue the pulled pork is done well. This makes the list of beard-worthy burgers.”

067I, meanwhile, snacked on a bag of Mikesell’s potato chips.

066These Ohio-based snack purveyors know what they are doing. Otherwise, why would they be doing it?

069Next up for George was some cake batter ice cream from Stone Cold Creamery, enjoyed amid the late-evening splendor of the lawn area. George said that the ice cream tasted like “cake in a cup,” which is probably its intended purpose.

072

071

074Upon parting ways with George (Thanks, George!), the ballgame was in its eighth inning. My night in Dayton — and this entire road trip — was on the cusp of concluding. All that was left to do was get an autograph from my good pal Birdzerk.

078

079“Ben — a smooth man with a blog!”

Put that on my tombstone, please!

Meanwhile, my next (and last) road trip of the season is already well underway. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch should you be motivated to do so. I will respond.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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