By John Parker / MiLB.com
Just before the game began, Taco Bell upped the ante for the team and the entire city of Fresno.
Your move, Grizzlies.
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.
The 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).
Further down the third-base line, fans can watch the game from the comfort of the Tiki Bar.
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.”
Bobblehead collection of St. Lucie Mets GM Traer Van Allen https://t.co/mhTB7BTsoB
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 16, 2015
While Traer collects bobbleheads with an indiscriminate flair, there is of course an inevitable St. Lucie bias. The “Banana Phone,” for example:
If 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.”
Mary 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.)
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.
I 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.
What’s that sign say, Grace?
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.
The 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.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 17, 2015
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.
With very little to do at this point, I rambled back to Mulligan’s Bar and Grill and cracked wise amid the desolation.
Your groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the day. https://t.co/fpznc5eLT3
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 17, 2015
I then introduced my self to a concession stand lizard. I had never seen one of those before.
Finally, I helped myself to a front-row seat so that I could read up on the latest dugout news.
Bobby Parnell on the mound for the St. Lucie Mets https://t.co/yYZ3JK6SWz
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 17, 2015
Finally, some four hours after the ballgame began, it ended.
St. Lucie’s handshake line culminated with a man wearing slacks designed to highlight his well-toned posterior.
And 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.
Like, you know, a Banana Phone Call to the Bullpen!
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:
A triumphant Maureen from Manchester
Ian from Manchester honors America
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.
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.
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.
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?
If you are interested in sharing your 2014 Winter Meetings job-seeking experience on this blog and MiLB.com, then please get in touch — firstname.lastname@example.org — 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
So what do you think of the “Shuckers” name? Your feedback is always welcome, via whichever medium you might choose to deliver it.
(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.
Dwyer 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.
I 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.
Behind the ballpark lurks the concourse.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
I summarily sought some shade at this scenic under-the-bleachers beverage emporium.
“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.
Russ 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.
I 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. 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.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 22, 2014
“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.
“We should get a plaque or something,” said Russ.
As 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:
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.
On Kaufmann’s Wikipedia page, his politics are described as “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist.” 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.
Behind Homer, you’ll can see the Wayne H. Fuller Pressbox (I find it weird that “pressbox” is just one word on the signage).
I 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.”
Speaking of the net, there was much speculation regarding whether this wayward foul ball would ever be extracted from its precarious elevated location.
Continuing 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.
Bullpen, sans link:
Zooming in for a closer look.
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.
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.
And 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?
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.
(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.)
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).
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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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
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.
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.)
Life, 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.
Chances 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.
I 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.)
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.
Actually, 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.)
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.
A 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?
Deutsch 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!)
The view from the right field party deck, this is.
Given 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.
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.)
The 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).
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.
On 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.
Blink and you miss him. Birdzerk @daytondragons https://t.co/yBRH0Ifymi
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 24, 2014
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
“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.”
The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.
Designated Eater checks in Dayton Dragons https://t.co/i3PE1rdIR7
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 25, 2014
“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.”
Next 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.
Upon 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.
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
When one thinks of Lexington, Kentucky, and its surrounding environs, two things that quickly come to mind are bourbon…
Baseball, perhaps not so much.
But professional baseball in Lexington is very much a thing. Welcome to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends (Class A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). The ballpark opened in 2001, marking the return of professional baseball to Lexington after a 47-year absence.
(Note: this woman would not stop fiddling with Darth’s midsection. Finally I just gave up and took the picture.)
“Star Wars Night” has become a bona fide phenomenon in the world of Minor League Baseball promotions, and many teams consider it to be one of the cornerstones of the promotional schedule. The Legends’ iteration was a decidedly low-key affair, however.
“Tonight is the first time we’ve done it in several years,” said Sarah Bosso, Legends director of community relations. “We’re just getting our feet wet, doing it on a Wednesday and testing it out.”
Following standard (but by no means mandatory) Ben’s Biz Blog operating procedure, I took to the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While there, I got my picture taken with my good friend Darth Vader.
Soon after this photo was taken, Darth overheard Bosso and myself talking about the Legends’ concession options.
“Did you say ‘Hot Brown Dog?'” asked Darth, intrigued by a local culinary specialty. “Where can I get that? Can you maybe put it through a blender?”
There were three individuals throwing out a first pitch: Judge John Schrader (Fayette Family Court), myself, and Darth Vader. I later mentioned to the judge that it was funny that Schrader and Vader were both throwing out a first pitch. He responded with a blank stare.
Here’s Judge Schrader. Or, as I now call him, the Mirthless Magistrate.
Darth Vader first pitch Lexington Legends For the record, mine was faster. https://t.co/y8QUZZ1myV
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 20, 2014
I’ve thrown dozens of first pitches through the years; perhaps I should begin taking note of each team’s first pitch procedure?
The Legends did two things that I had never seen before: the balls used were from the batting cages (and therefore scuffed up and dirty), and the speed of the pitch was displayed and announced to the crowd. For the record, Darth and the Mirthless Magistrate both clocked in at 38 miles an hour. I, meanwhile, threw a blistering 47.
How’s ’bout a buncha random ballpark photographs, provided by a writer with rudimentary photography skills? That writer would be me, and these would be the photos:
The Jim Beam distillery is located just outside of Lexington. Maybe the team could get Jim Beam to be the official sponsor of these massive concourse beams?
As you may be aware, the Legends re-branded themselves in a mustache-centric fashion prior to the 2013 season. Therefore, plenty of mustache-centric gear can be obtained at the Legends Locker.
But this? This is no dream. This is real: a piece of officially licensed Minor League Baseball apparel that explicitly references the time-honored act of mustache riding.
After this exhilarating foray into the wilds of the team store, I journeyed to the stadium’s second level. This picture, as inelegant as it may be, portrays the area immediately surrounding Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A downtown facility, this isn’t.
While visiting the press box, I was pleased to see my visage beaming back at me from the videoboard. Move over, Darth! I am the evening’s true guest of honor.
Flipping the switch causes flames to shoot out of the Candleberries situated atop the scoreboard. (Now that’s a sentence that I’ve definitely never written before.) This photo is unfortunately flameless.
Ty Cobb serves as the Legends creative marketing director and PA announcer, and I wrote a story about him that can be found HERE. During my time in the press box with Mr. Cobb, he reminded the crowd that if the Legends get 10 hits then they can redeem their ticket stubs for a free order of fried pickles at Hooters.
This dude, I bet that he likes fried pickles at Hooters.
The above individual is Ryan Ferry, who had agreed to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Ryan, a Lexington native who says that he can see the Whitaker Bank Ballpark scoreboard from his backyard, was nine years old when the Legends played their first season. He used to be a batboy, and now occasionally mans the speed pitch booth as a game day employee. Among other claims to fame, he was waiting in line for kettle corn when Bryce Harper hit his first professional home run.
“I consider myself a fixture here,” said Ryan, a sports management major at Eastern Kentucky University.
He also collects hats and shoes. Check out these size 15 specimens.
What you see above is the Hot Brown Dog, which Darth Vader wished to be pulverized so that it could be poured through the holes in his mask. The Hot Brown Dog is a ballpark variation of a Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky specialty described by Wikipedia thusly:
Of course, the Hot Brown Dog substitutes a hot dog for the turkey. As a Pennsylvania native, it reminded me of a hot dog version of cream chipped beef on toast.
Hot Brown, goin’ down.
“The saltiness is what sticks out, and the bacon also sticks out because it’s the king of all meats,” said Ryan. “It definitely lives up to the hot name, at least in temperature. The sauce is like gravy, and a little sweeter than I expected it to be. I hope that nobody from Kentucky comments on this, calling me out for not eating Hot Browns all that much.”
Next, Ferry suggested that he sample a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly donut called the “PBJD.” When we ordered it, the woman manning the concession counter gave us an annoyed stare, sighed, and said “Are you kidding me?”
Apparently, PBJDs are not ordered very often.
“It’s totally slept on,” said Ferry. “They really need to market it more.”
Indeed, the only mention of the PBJD that I could find was on this concession sign. Just four little letters; no picture, no explanation.
Here it is, in all of its obscure glory.
Ryan savors the moment:
And with that, Ryan’s work was done. We now return to the ball field. Notice the “stables” group area in the background.
Next on my agenda was to compete against children in a between-inning game of “musical donkeys.” These three children, specifically:
Things were beginning to wind down on this sleepy Star Wars night.
“What do you call a potato that has gone to the dark side?” Cobb asked the crowd.
The crowd did not seem eager for an answer, but Cobb persisted.
The Legends ended up losing the game to the Charleston RiverDogs, by a score of 6-4. But that’s okay. It’s a long season, full of ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on grinding.
In other words: keep a stiff upper lip.
Meanwhile, I’m on the road again! Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.
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
The fourth stop on this, my penultimate road trip of the season, was Indianapolis. I had been to this city once before in a professional context, as Indianapolis was the site of the 2009 Winter Meetings. Weirdly enough, I didn’t visit the Indianapolis Indians’ home of Victory Field during the 2009 Winter Meetings. I did, however, take a tour of the Colts’ home of Lucas Oil Field. Man, this feels like a long time ago.
After checking into the downtown La Quinta, I began the .75 mile walk to Victory Field. Along the way, I passed the home of the Indianapolis Pacers. It is called the “Bankers Life Fieldhouse,” because very few things are more exciting than the life of a banker.
Ah, yes, here we are: Victory Field, built in 1996 as the home of the Indianapolis Indians. Please note that the Indians are NOT an affiliate of the Indians, but the Pittsburgh Pirates. They and the Spokane Indians are the only two teams in Minor League Baseball to share a name with a Major League team while not being affiliated with the team in question. Do with that what you will.
Victory Field is located within spitting distance of Lucas Oil Field, the NCAA Hall of Champions and the Indianapolis Zoo (among other points of cultural interest). It is also located within spitting distance of a steam plant.
Upon arriving at the stadium, I was met by Indians media relations manager Brian Bosma. He was a very gracious and accommodating host throughout the evening, which kicked off with a walking tour. We started at the uppermost tier of the ballpark, with me making an offhand remark that walking around at this level of elevation felt like “being on the roof.”
We did, climbing an imposing steel ladder to get there, and here are the photos to prove it. That monolithic JW Marriot is a recent addition to the skyline; it was completed in 2011 and is part of a $450 million “Marriot Place” project consisting of five hotels that are all connected to the Indiana convention center.
Also, note that the Indiana state capitol building can be seen as well. It’s located beyond center field (shaded toward left), a green-ish dome dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to meet Indy Indians president Max Schumacher, who began working for the team in 1957 as a ticket sales manager. He became president in 1969, and was instrumental in the conception and construction of Victory Field. The stadium opened in 1996, its name a reference to the team’s previous home of Bush Stadium, which itself bore the name of Victory Field from 1942-67. (Bush Stadium, incidentally, has since been turned into an apartment complex.)
Anyhow, I was talking about not having met Max Schumacher. But I did visit his suite. That framed uniform on the wall dates back to 1949. It belonged to the team’s bat boy, who eventually grew up to be a bat man.
Each of these balls is from an Indianapolis Indians’ no-hitter, signed by the pitcher (or pitchers) who threw it.
Below, you will be gazing upon framed ticket stubs from the last game at Bush Stadium (July 3, 1996) and first game at Victory Field (July 11). I can only imagine how hectic that season must have been, closing one ballpark and opening another in the span of a little more than a week.
Down on the concourse, one can find many an illuminated placard dedicated to prominent Indy Indians alumni.
Bosma told me a story about Randy Johnson during his time in Indianapolis, when he was so wild and intimidating that none of his teammates would stand in against him during batting practice. Razor Shines finally stepped up the challenge and immediately got drilled; thereupon everyone steered clear of Randy Johnson for good. Out of options, the team borrowed a mannequin from the nearby Indiana State museum and Johnson promptly threw a ball right through it.
I can only assume that this is true, but, even if it’s apocryphal its still a good story and who doesn’t love a good apocryphal story?
As for the presence of Razor Shines on the Indians’ roster, that can definitely be confirmed. He spent nine seasons in Indianapolis, retiring after the 1993 season at the age of 36.
“Razor Shines, he was the mayor of Indy,” said Bosma. “If you talk to anyone here who’s in their late 30s or early 40s, they’ll say that Razor was their favorite player.”
Razor and Randy played in Indianapolis at a time when the Indians were affiliated with the Expos. These days, the Pirates are the parent club.
This seating section is sponsored by the Hoosier Lottery. If an Indians player hits a home run off of the foul pole in the fifth inning, then one person in that section wins $1 million. This has yet to happen.
Here’s another enticing home run target. A pre-selected fan wins this truck if a player hits it with a home run, but that fan needs to be in attendance to win it. While the truck has been hit on several occasions, no fan has ever been in the ballpark to claim it. Bosma reports that Tony Sanchez hit it once, and asked if he could win it instead. No deal, Tony. No deal.
My previous post, on the Columbus Clippers, noted that that team has a Victory Bell. Well, so do the Indians. Specifically, it is the “Max Schumacher Victory Bell.” It was dedicated in 2011, and a fan gets to ring it after every victory. Max Schumacher does not ring it, because after it was dedicated the team lost their next seven games and he figured that he must have cursed it somehow.
With the game about to begin, Bosma and I headed over to “The Cove.”
Note the near-total lack of outfield signage. It’s all part of a larger organizational philosophy, to present the team as simply and professionally as possible. This is a Minor League stadium with a Major League kind of feel, as befits a team playing in a city that also hosts an NBA and NFL team.
Plenty of people were willing to pay $10 for berm seats, hauling in their own blankets and coolers. Or, even better for young fans, membership in the team’s Knothole Club costs just $16 and includes a season-ticket pass good for lawn or reserved seat admission. $16 for the whole season!
But we weren’t in the Cove just so that I could randomly take a bunch of photos and make a bunch of observations. I can do that anywhere. We were in the Cove so that I could meet my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
This is Greg Hotopp, an Indianapolis resident (by way of Cincinnati) who works for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
This was definitely a first, and credit to Brian Bosma for doing it: Greg was given his own designated eating credential. Other teams, take note!
Greg said that he enjoys attending Indians games with his wife, Tracie, and their three-year-old daughter (she was left at home with a sitter on this particular evening). He has no problem rooting for the home team, but as a fan of the Cincinnati Reds this can lead to conflicting emotions.
“It can be tough as a Reds fan,” he said. “Like, ‘McCutcheon is amazing!’ and then the realization ‘Oh, crap. That’s not going to bode well for the Reds.'”
But Greg wasn’t here to wax on the contradictory nature of the Minor League fan experience. He was here to eat, and eat he did.
Designated Eater checks in IndyIndians https://t.co/7aBPlMPE9v
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 21, 2014
Greg is eating a “Shish-Kadog,” which is a shish kabob on a hot dog bun. It stands to reason that this would be so. This is the chicken version, topped with onion, pineapple, peppers and teriyaki sauce.
Greg was mildly pleased with this creation.
“It tastes pretty good, pretty much as advertised,” he said. “A little messy, but that’s okay. I’d never had pineapple at a ballpark before.”
The kadog was washed down with an Indians Lager, made specially for the team by Sun King brewery.
“This isn’t just me trying to impress Ben Hill, I actually like it,” said Greg of the lager. “This is third on my list of favorite Sun King beers [behind Sunlight Cream Ale and Cowbell Porter]. I get growlers of this.”
Tracie couldn’t help chiming in here.
“All of a sudden he’s this craft beer guy,” she said. “He used to never drink it.”
Greg agreed that this was true. He was more of a whisky guy, with Kentucky Barrel Bourbon Ale serving as his gateway to the world of beer.
Beer definitely goes with nachos.
BBQ Nachos, specifically, topped with pulled pork, cheese and jalapenos. Traiei had been content to stay behind the scenes — “Behind every designated eater is a good woman,” said Greg — but who can resist nachos?
And with that, Greg’s duties were done.
“It was everything I could have wished for, and more,” he said.
Thank you for your service.
While still in The Cove, I spoke with communications coordinator Chris Robinson about the team’s Twitter account. The Indians have more followers than any team in Minor League Baseball, and I wrote an article about the team’s Twitter strategy and style HERE.
Robinson, wishing to retain an air of mystique, posed for a photo with his face obscured. He may or may not be the same Chris Robinson who fronts the Black Crowes.
As Rowdie looked on, I made a top-secret transformation into a Chik-Fil-A Cow. A sign was draped around my neck exhorting the populace to consume the flesh of a chicken in lieu of consuming the flesh of a cow.
Did an onfield race occur? Does documentation exist? These questions may never be answered. All that I can tell you is that transforming into a cow and then back into a human takes a lot out of a guy. I was exhausted.
But there was no rest, for the weary or otherwise. Another metamorphosis led to a another new persona, this time as an overall, glove and goggle-wearing keg-toting bearded Sun King brewer.
My task was to carry a keg toward my teammate stationed in the outfield.
Good luck, and Godspeed.
It was a valiant effort, but we lost. I drowned my sorrows with french fries from the team’s “Build-A-Fry” concession area. (One can also build their own burgers and nachos.) Yes, there are french fries in there somewhere.
And, yes, that is a collector’s cup. I have not done a good job providing #cupdates this season, but here you go:
And that’s all she wrote from Indianapolis, she being the muse that guides all creative endeavors. I spent the last inning of the game in fan mode, sitting in the Cove with Bosma, waxing nostalgic about childhood baseball memories. It was nice to get the chance to do this.
But, alas, no victory bell could be heard at Victory Field that evening as the visiting Charlotte Knights emerged victorious. Maybe some other time, bell. Maybe some other time.
Meanwhile, my next trip begins later this week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.
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