Archive for the ‘ Uncategorized ’ Category

On the Road: On the Cusp of a Historical First in Hillsboro

My last stop on this West Coast road trip, and in 2013 overall, was Hillsboro, Oregon. This marked the first time that I visited Oregon since way back in, well, 2012, when I stopped by Eugene and Salem-Keizer on my way into Washington and, eventually, the foreign soil of Vancouver, Canada. But I had a reason to return to this area so quickly, as Hillsboro is home to 2013’s lone new team: the Hops of the Northwest League. The Hops are the franchise formerly known as the Yakima Bears, whom I also visited last season, and while the primary owners and much of the front office staff remained intact these two baseball environments have virtually nothing else in common. Go ahead and contrast this post with the Yakima dispatch linked to above and you’ll see what I mean.

The Hops fill the Portland-area professional baseball void that has existed ever since the Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers departed for Tucson following the 2010 season, and as such the fledgling franchise can draw on a deeply-engaged and (perhaps more important when it comes to long-term success) deep-pocketed fan base. Intel and Nike both have headquarters in Hillsboro, and visible from the stadium are construction cranes working on Intel’s multi-billion dollar research facility. It boggles the mind, really — just a few days ago I had been in Stockton, a city that had recently declared bankruptcy, and now here I was in an environment surrounded by construction projects with 10-digit price tags.

Hillsboro Ballpark is a city-owned facility built within a pre-existing parks and rec complex, and as such the acreage is vast and the parking ample. When I pulled into the lot, the parking attendant would not take my “I’m a member of the media” claim at face value, and waited until I was able to extract a pass from the detritus on the passenger seat floor.

“Okay, that’s good,” she told me. “I had to check, because you could’ve just been a blogger.”

Thanking her for her diligence, I pulled into my space and took in the view.

042

My first impression was that the structure seen in the above photo was Hillsboro Ballpark. But that impression, like most of the primary variety, was erroneous. That structure was a football field, with Hillsboro Ballpark situated just behind it.

045

The above two facilities have a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Hops’ primary concession stands — which we shall see in a bit — are located in the football stadium, facing outward toward Hillsboro Ballpark’s third base side concourse.

Getting to the stadium from the parking lot was a bit of a hike, but whimsical signage insured that my spirits remained high throughout the journey.

046

 My walking Cramps dissipated after seeing the ballpark’s Lux Exterior.

047

Said exterior included this interactive public art project, entitled Barometer.

048

Per sculptor Devin Laurence Field, Barometer “takes the overall triangular form of the baseball diamond held aloft by columns and illuminated with color changing, sound activated LED lights….Around the sculpture are various ‘instruments’ people can play, a giant horn, a rattle roller, drum sets and chimes that together form a symphony of sounds. When no one is at the park there is no colored light, when there is noise it lights up — the louder the noise, the brighter the light. The art is a veritable Barometer of excitement for the ballpark.”

Soon after arriving I embarked upon a ballpark tour with Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher, who re-located with the team from Yakima. K.L., he’s a serious guy.

025

On the concourse, K.L. and I soon ran into team owners Laura and Mike McMurray. To say that they are enthusiastic about their new locale would be an understatement. Mike told me that after 13 years in Yakima, Hillsboro seemed like “heaven.”

050

As mentioned before, Hillsboro marks the return of professional baseball to the Portland area after a two-year hiatus. The below display preserves some of the “final” items in Portland Beavers’ history, thus serving as a bridge to the present.

052

057

K.L. told me that while suites were part of the original stadium design, the club instead opted for open air party decks. The Hops’ status as a short-season team played a major role in that decision.

“The weather here from mid-June through September is just awesome, some of the best in the country,” said K.L. “During this time of year, people don’t want to be enclosed.”

The view from the top, game day employees in day-glo.

055

At this juncture game time was imminent, with Dust Devils and Hops alike gathering in anticipation.

056

059

060

And, hey, look! It’s Barley, the Hops’ mascot. Due to the prohibitions of my gluten-free lifestyle, I had to keep my distance.

061

Barley is a hop, and the Hops are called the Hops because of Hillsboro’s proximity to some of Oregon’s most bounteous hop farms. (Worth noting, and a bit ironic, is the fact that the Hops’ former home of Yakima was even more plentiful in the hop department.)

It was “Breast Cancer Awareness Night” at the ballpark, and this led to a cool moment. K.L.’s mom, Bev, is a 13-year breast cancer survivor and earlier that day she had been told that she had been selected for first pitch duties. She got a big round of applause, led by her son, prior to delivering the pitch and it was a heartwarming and truly spontaneous moment.

062

064

065

Heartwarming then gave way to plain ol’ adorable, as this young fan swept home plate.

067

Manager-Umpire relationships are volatile and subject to change at any moment, but at the exact moment in time in which this picture was taken everything was copacetic.

069

The Hops’ players were more than ready to take the field, save for the guy on the far left who was more into perfecting his Eminem impersonation.

070

“Come to gluten,” says Barley.

072

With an ominous cloud looming overhead, Barney and his less-glutenous ballplaying friends stood at attention as we honored our country through the singing of our National Anthem. (The flags were at half mast that day, in honor of a firefighter killed in action in Albany, Oregon.)

073

The completion of the “Star-Spangled Banner” means that it’s time to play ball. So, with Class A Short-Season Northwest League action as the backdrop, I took a lap of the facility.

One of the first areas that I encountered was Hot Dog Nation,  a presumably sovereign entity with non-existent border security. At said nation a standard-issue hot dog costs $3.75, and specialties include the Foot-Long, Hoppin’ Jalapeno, Philly Dog, and Chicago Dog.

074The Hops name, when it was first announced, drew acclaim from beer drinkers nationwide. Ale aficionados and IPA artisans alike allowed themselves to imagine Hillsboro Ballpark as some sort of beer drinking mecca, with baseball as the centerpiece of a thriving micro-brew scene. For now, however, the beer selection is modest as just three are on tap.

075

Two of these three beers are provided by the local BridgePort brewing company: Hop Czar and Long Ball Ale. That latter brew, a light and citrus-y summer ale, was sold exclusively at Hillsboro Ballpark and, as such, is the official team beer. The gentleman working the “Brew Pen” taps was, not surprisingly, biased toward BridgePort products. I repeatedly heard him explain the merits of both the Hop Czar and Long Ball Ale in detail, and then follow up those descriptions with a tossed-off “Or, of course, you could have the watered-down American lager.” (Also known as Coors Light.)

I’ll have more on Long Ball Ale in Part Two of this post (oh, yes, there is always a Part Two), but this lap around the perimeter of the ballpark wasn’t going to walk itself. Time to keep on movin’ on.

079

A cool feature of Hillsboro Ballpark is that, despite limited room to work with in certain areas, the Hops went out of their way to make the concourse of the 360-degree variety.  The right and center field berm area is very narrow, before opening up into a more traditionally vast expanse in left field.

080

The view toward the field: 081And the view behind the berm:

082

I admired this father and son duo, who were sticking it to the man by watching the game for free from beyond the fence.

084

The bullpen denizens don’t pay to watch the game either.

085

As mentioned, more traditional bermage can be found in left field.

087 - Copy And looping around to the third base side there was, of course, more food to be found. As mentioned previously, this concession stand is actually located in the adjacent football stadium.

058

Mannequin or real person?

At this point I was introduced to Tony Hendryx and Tim Watters. The former, on the left, is regional vice president of Ovations food services. The latter, on the right, is an Ovations operation manager. (Or would that be a “Hoperations Manager”?)

095If there’s one thing I learned this season while on the road, it’s that food and beverage guys are way more enthusiastic about their jobs than the average person is about his or hers. These guys were no exception, and Hendryx, an Oregon native, spoke excitedly about how the Hops’ mid-June through September season matches Oregon’s growing season and, therefore, the team makes sure to use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. (“If we can keep it out of the freezer, we do,” said Hendryx.”)

At this point in the blog post you have probably become accustomed to me introducing the “designated eater.” (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). But, in this case, “designated eating” was largely eschewed in favor of highlighting two of the Hops’ gluten-free options.

091 Oh, hey, hi, that’s me with a salmon burger (on a gluten-free bun, natch) and a Cobb salad.

The salmon burger was made of locally caught (never frozen) fish glazed with a brown sugar and garlic powder marinade then grilled and served with fried onions. I wish I had taken a close-up pic of just the salmon, as it was sweet and succulent and one of the best items I had at a ballpark this season. But you get the idea.

090

And here’s the Cobb salad, with Hendryx explaining that the chicken was from Carlton,Oregon, the hazelnuts grown in the Willamette Valley, the cranberries grown in local bogs and the blue cheese from Rogue River creamery of Central Point, Oregon.

Not that there is all that much competition, but I am going to declare this the best salad currently served at a Minor League ballpark. If you disagree, then get in touch and I will be happy to give your dissent a public airing.

089

I wasn’t totally alone in my culinary consumption, however. Meet Hops marketing intern Erik Knutsen, who was recruited to serve as a designated eater should the need arise for some designated eating. Knutsen was the most unenthused and underused designated eater in Ben’s Biz history; here he is with a Long Ball Ale that he was wary about drinking given that he was on the job.

092 Knutsen was a mite bit more enthusiastic about this Zenner’s-brand hot dog, topped with onions and nacho cheese.

093

094

“It tastes really good,” said Erik in a deadpan monotone. “Party.”

This party was cut short, however, as I had been recruited to participate in a between-inning contest. The beer, it was abandoned.

096

Erik and I headed down to the visitor’s dugout area, where I was equipped with a helmet, blindfold, and kneepads. I don’t know the exact name of this game I was going to play, but it bore a strong similarity to that which I made a fool of myself doing in Wisconsin. Basically, an object is placed on the field and I, through the crowd’s “hot” or “cold” exhortations, had to find it.

The sting of Wisconsin-based on-field failure was still fresh in my mind, and I was ready for some Oregon-style redemption.

098

Except, no. My shot at redemption was postponed due to unforeseen circumstances.

What unforeseen circumstances, you might ask? Well, here’s my answer to that question:

097

All will be revealed in Part Two of this Hillsboro saga, which, sadly, will be 2013’s final “On the Road” post. We’ll always have the memories.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Crooked Nuggets: July Edition

I am writing this from a hotel in Bakersfield, cranking up the AC while contemplating the legacy of Buck Owens. My content from this California (and Oregon) trip, which begins tonight at Sam Lynn Ballpark and ends next weekend in Hillsboro, will almost certainly provide me with enough blog (and MiLB.com) material to last through the remainder of the regular season.

But before all that there is this important piece of business to take care of: Crooked Nuggets, the counterpart to my monthly MiLB.com Crooked Numbers column. Read the new edition of Crooked Numbers HERE (highlights include a Merkle-esque blunder, Double-A Rod antics, and the info behind this month’s strangest ejection) and then come back here to enjoy Crooked Nuggets: Minor League on-filed weirdness in 75 words or less.

This post, like every piece of Crooked content, is dedicated to Jayson Stark. May he one day acknowledge the existence of my efforts.

Let’s go!

Crooked Nuggets — Notable instances of July 2013 Minor League on-field weirdness and statistical quirks, in 75 words or less!

crook

A Delay That Makes Scents — Minor League Baseball’s latest and therefore greatest skunk delay occurred in Lynchburg on July 6, in a game between the Hillcats and the visiting Frederick Keys. Keys reliever Miguel Chalas emerged as the man of the hour, fearlessly ambling onto the warning track and using his glove to capture the skunk. (It turns out that he thought it was a cat). For far more on this riveting saga, please read this funny, informative and creatively-written post on the “Unlocking the Keys” team blog.

Good Things Come — Tim Dillard earned the 36th win of his Nashville Sounds career on June 30, establishing a new franchise record. Let’s just say that Dillard took the long route to the record, as he has just one win in 2013 and earned just one in 2012 (notched on August 14, when he tied the franchise mark). Dillard earned eight wins for the Sounds in 2007, six in 2008, 11 in 2009, give in 2010 and four in 2011. Win #37 is currently scheduled for sometime in early 2015.

Anomalous, I Tell You. Anomalous — MiLB.com records only date back to 2005, and in that time the Kannapolis Intimidators have managed to hit just three pinch-hit home runs — all of them against the Greensboro Grasshoppers. The most recent to do so Juan Ramirez on July 14, his only home run of the season.

crook

Flair for the Dramatic — Speaking of records dating back to 2005: in that time, there have been 16 “ultimate grand slams” in Minor League Baseball, in which a player hit a walk-off grand slam when his team was trailing by three. The most recent to do so was Dayton’s Seth Mejias-Brean on July 18, which marked the first time that any player in the Reds organization had done so since Adam Dunn on June 30, 2006.

Swinging Singles — The Charleston RiverDogs defeated the Hickory Crawdads by a score of 3-0 on July 21, in a game that featured 16 hits. All 16 of these hits were of the one-base variety.

A Pacific Coast League Canine Mascot Reports from Texas — I am proud and a little bit baffled to have among my sources an honest-to-God mascot, and that mascot is Spike of the Round Rock Express. Presented in its unexpurgated form, here is his latest Twitter-based contribution. Make of it what you will.

 

crook

All in Two Days Work — Brian Fletcher enjoyed a three-homer game for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals this month, and it sure took him a long time to do it. He blasted two homers against Arkansas on July 23 before the ballgame was halted by a thunderstorm, and then when play resumed the next day he hit a walk-off homer in the 11th.

Texas Sized Whiffin’ — During July 25’s game between the aforementioned Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Springfield Cardinals, six moundsmen combined to strike out a league record 32 batters (18 by Northwest Arkansas and 14 by Springfield, with NWA’s Kyle Zimmer leading the way with 12). The previous record was established way back on September 3, 1951 when Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell struck out 14 for Houston and Bob Turley (who lost the game) struck out 17 for San Antonio.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better (and then, eventually, worse) — Montgomery’s Victor Mateo and Jacksonville’s Bryan Evans were locked in an masterful pitching duel on July 27, with neither allowing a hit through the first five frames. Evans lost his bid after allowing a solo home run with one out in the sixth, and Mateo then trumped that by allowing back-to-back-to-back home runs to start the seventh.

crook

Paging Anthony Young — In 2012 Matt Benedict earned a mid-season call-up to the Bradenton Marauders and proceeded to go 0-8 with an 8.08 ERA over 14 appearances. This season he managed to lower his ERA considerably, but still lost his first nine decisions. This epic 17-game losing streak came to end on July 31, when Benedict hurled two scoreless inning and earned the win as his Marauders defeated Dunedin.

Did You Know? – In his New York-Penn League notebook on MiLB.com, Craig Forde points out the following:

A deadline deal in which the Cardinals traded left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski to the Indians came with a quirky side note pointed out by the crack media relations staff in State College. Infielder Juan Herrera, whom St. Louis received in return, was assigned to the Spikes and became the first player to play against and for the club in the same season. 

Tweet Triumvirate! Sometimes all that you really need to know is contained within 140 characters and, often, a corresponding link. Some examples:

And finally, we close with this month’s contribution from Crooked Numbers’ all-time contribution king: Oklahoma City RedHawks broadcaster Alex Freedman.

freedman

After a sustained run of Crooked brilliance, July turned out to be a pretty tame month for Alex and his OKC cronies. But, by Crooked mortal standards, these are still pretty good:

I don’t know how crooked you can say these numbers even are. Pretty tame month and probably not worth inclusion in the main column anyway.

 *Between July 10-12, the RedHawks played four straight games in which one team was shutout. (Includes a doubleheader on the 12th.)

           July 10: W, 7-0

            July 11: L, 11-0

            July 12 (#1): L, 9-0

            July 12 (#2): W, 5-0

 *Along the same lines, the RedHawks pitched three shutouts July 8-12.  They had pitched three shutouts all season up to that point.

 *The RedHawks won the final four games of the month, scoring four runs each night

Thanks to Alex, as always, for the contribution. If you would like to work your way up the Crooked Numbers contribution ranks, perhaps to a sentinel or even an arch-duke, then please get in touch. The journey of 429 miles begins with a single step.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Synagogues, Sausages, and Psychological Warfare in South Bend

This Midwest League trip featured two teams in Wisconsin, four in Michigan, and then, finally, one in Indiana. That lone Indiana entity  was the South Bend Silver Hawks, occupants of Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium (known as “Coveleski Stadium” for short and “the Cove” for shorter). The Cove was but a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and betwixt the two locations one can find what is (allegedly) the world’s largest chocolate store.

I did not have time to visit.

009

But outside of said chocolatier, the walk to the stadium was rather barren.

010

But, soon enough, out in the distance, on the horizon, the Cove appeared to me like a vision before my unbelieving eyes.

011

I walked toward this inflatable creature with awe-filled reverence.

012

I was so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity.

013

This back entrance is one of many additions and improvements that have been made to the Cove over the last two years, some funded by the city and others funded by new owner Andrew Berlin. By all accounts the 26-year-old stadium had taken on a feeling of neglect and decay in recent years, but these days it is imbued with a spirited sense of revitalization.

Shockingly, opposite the back entrance one can find a front entrance. I walked over in that direction so that I could document one of the most well-marked handicapped access curbs in Minor League Baseball.

014

As you can see, it was a really beautiful evening in South Bend! Why wasn’t I aware of this beauty at the time that I was documenting it? Why do I only see such beauty retroactively? Why am I still writing instead of posting a picture?

015

017

I was on the field in order to conduct an interview in the visitor’s dugout.

016

This interview, like most interviews I do, was tinged with a patina of ridiculousness. I grilled Bowling Green Hot Rods catcher Geoff Rowan on the Silver Hawks’ pink visiting locker rooms, and he was a good sport about it.

018

The results of this interview can be read HERE.  As for the pink locker rooms, we’ll get to those in a moment. But first, Silver Hawks president Joe Hart gave me a brief tour of the concourse and the many recent improvements and additions to be found therein.

Outdoor suites with waitress (or waiter) service:

019

The Silver Hawks have installed lava heaters all around the concourse and a fire pit in the outfield , but such heat-providing amenities are of no use in the summertime. On the other end of the spectrum, there are fans for the fans.

020

There is also an outfield splash area, complete with changing room.

021

024

Did I mention that it was a beautiful day?

023

025

The outfield “Party Patio,” featuring four person tables separated by lava heaters. This kid, he appears to be waving at me.

026

In the above photo, there are two interesting buildings of note. In the background is a massive Studebaker factory, now shuttered, that at its peak employed 21,000 people. In front of that is old Union Station, which has since been converted into a private data center run by Global Access Point. 

This is the back view of the back entrance, with Hart reporting that the team is still working to educate fans on the existence of this entrance. Currently 35% of fans enter the stadium through the back, with the remaining 65% remaining staunch front entrance way adherents.

027

Fun Zone!

028

Tiki Hut!

029

A whole bunch of stuff!

031

But perhaps most worthy of gratuitous exclamation points is the abandoned synagogue-turned-team store located in left field. I’ve already written a feature about it on MiLB.com that I’d encourage you to check out, but as you can see it’s a most eye-catching structure (note the star of David on the far left).

030

Beneath a refurbished chandelier, fluorescent t-shirts implore its potential wearer to consider his or her hawksomeness factor.

033

Not sure where this falls on the delightfully irreverent/irredeemably tacky divide, but I have a feeling it’s closer to the latter of the two.

035

The upstairs portion of the store, used as a storage area and not open to the public, is presided over by mannequin sentinels.

036

This might be the best picture I took all evening:

039

037

The mannequin sentinels were kind enough to allow me to document their daily view.

038

Beautiful views, both inside and out.

040

042

At this point the game was underway, so Hart and I and various other members of our impromptu entourage visited the pink visiting locker rooms. As mentioned before this is something that I’ve already written about, so for more context and commentary please click HERE.

Manager’s office:

044

Trainer’s room:

045

Lounge area:

048

Bathrooms! Showers!

050

051

And finally, the luxury and splendor of the Silver Hawks’ home digs.

055

And with that, we moved on. Moving on is what life is all about.

It’s (not so) lonely at the top.

060

061

Down and up, up and down. Soon enough we were back on the concourse, for what turned out to be a prolonged exploration of the food and beverage choices. The evening’s scheduled designated eater, a local radio DJ, was a no-show after getting stuck in Blackhawks championship-related traffic on the way back from Chicago. In his place stepped co-worked Carl Stutsman, a native of Elkhart, Indiana who currently serves as the assistant program director at “Michiana’s News Channel” 95.3 WTRC.

As the “designated eater,” it was Carl’s job to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Like designated eater Keirsh Cochran in Lansing, Carl had opted to bring his girlfriend to the game. But unlike in Lansing, Carl’s girlfriend, Paige, chose to remain anonymous.

Welcome, Carl — already in action!

 063

The Silver Hawks are a client of Professional Sports Catering, the Lansing-based MiLB concessionaire whose offerings were well-documented during my time with the Lugnuts. Well, it’s time to document some more! In the above photo, Carl was biting into a “jalapeno popper” burger, one of the selections available at Burgertopia.

062

Damn you, gluten! That thing looked good and I would have loved to have had one.

 065

“It’s not overpowering, and the cheese really smooths everything out,” reported Carl. “The burger is cooked to a perfect medium rare and, oh, by the way, the pretzel bun is the best part.”

This portion of the evening was overseen by Silver Hawks food and beverage director Ben Hayes (one of two Ben Hayeses in Minor League Baseball, along with the president of the New York-Penn League). Hayes, like his PSC counterpart Brett Telder in Lansing, is extremely passionate about his job and seemed delighted to have the opportunity to showcase his work.

I didn’t get a good picture of Hayes, unfortunately, but he’s clearly a regular at the gym and speaks at a fast pace with relentless energy and enthusiasm. He would make a GREAT infomercial pitchman, and I request that he star in a series of offseason videos highlighting the Silver Hawks food options. So, anyway: Ben Hayes ladies and gentleman.

Ben Hayes:

068

“It’s fun knocking out the basic stuff for large groups of people, no doubt about it, but working with high-end ingredients is the best,” said Hayes at one point, shortly after extolling the virtues of a “deconstructed ceviche” he made for team owner Andrew Berlin. “I can put jalapeno caviar on top of a hot dog!”

In the above photo Hayes is about to dish out some selections from the team’s new stir-fry stand. General Tso’s and Mongolian (Ribeye) Beef,

069

As modeled by Gutsman:

073

Ballpark Chinese is certainly a unique offering, but even more unique is what Hayes came back with next: Duck sausage with Cajun seasoning, produced in nearby Middlebury.

075

Those in the know put Stanz Belgian Style Mustard on their duck sausage.

074

Gutsman raved about the sweet and spicy taste of the duck sausage, and soon I was able to as well as Hayes brought one over sans-bun. And, sans-bun, you can perhaps get a better sense of how good this thing looked.

076

DISCLAIMER: Even if it was sans-bun, I am not 100% sure if the above sausage was gluten-free. Sometimes temptation gets the better of me in such situations, and I’m sorry.

Either way, I look like a moron holding holding this Stanz-drenched duck sausage.

077

It seemed that everytime I looked across the table at Carl, he had somehow acquired more food. Kettle corn! Regular popcorn! Philadelphia Steak Nachos!

078

The Philadelphia steak nachos were perhaps not completely authentic, in that provolone was the cheese of choice (as opposed to Whiz).  Nonetheless, they looked delicious and Carl and Paige certainly seemed to enjoy them.

But Carl — or more accurately, Hayes — could not be contained. Next up was a Mac and Cheese Dog. Carl praised the “fluffy” mac and steamed bun, but nonetheless reported that “the hot dog is the best part.”

079

Like Keirsh Cochran before him, Carl was a skinny guy who could really pack it in.

As he did so I experimented with unorthodox flavor combinations, as legs paraded by in the background.

082

But all good things must come to an end. Thanks to Hayes for the culinary hospitality, and thanks to Carl for wolfing it all down.

Carl signs off:

The ballgame was moving on with remarkable alacrity. There was nothing left to do now but document a beautiful evening as it turned into a beautiful night.

083

Glow sticks for sale:

085

087

088

089

This concourse bubble machine was extremely popular. The kids couldn’t get enough of it!

092

Out there by the bubble machine, I spent six seconds of my life providing a #cupdate. Mind you, this is six seconds of my life that I’ll never get back.

Panorama!

IMG_0495

Almost as soon as the game was completed, the stadium’s lighting situation changed dramatically. This…

095

changed to this. Glowsticks and fireworks!

096

098

But that’s not all, because that is never all. Run the bases, kids. Run those goshdarn bases.

102

South Bend was my last stop on this road trip, and I guess at this juncture I was starting to get a little loopy.

And as my evening in South Bend progressed, things only got loopier. I swear, that bus followed me across the Midwest.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: The Beginning of a Blogstravaganza in Great Lakes

The second stop on my Midwest League road trip was Beloit, MI while destination number three was Midland, MI. Those two locations are quite removed from one another, both psychically and geographically, and getting there required an arduous day of travel that included roadside distractions, a seemingly interminable slog through the city of Chicago, an hour lost due to the vagaries of the Central/Eastern time zone divide, and a pleasant hour and a half cruising on rural Michigan roads while listening to the West Michigan Whitecaps radio broadcast (Ben Chiswick on the play by play).

I arrived in Midland late that Monday night, and was shocked — shocked! — to discover that the price of a Jameson on the rocks at the Buffalo Wild Wings near my hotel was just $3. That was a pleasant way to unwind from the day of travel, and the next morning I woke up ready for a full to bursting day of Midland exploration. The results of these explorations — the Alden B. Dow House! Midland Center for the Arts! Dow Gardens! The Tridge! — are already chronicled in a full-to-bursting “Farm’s Almanac” piece on MiLB.com.

midland farms

But the above mentioned attractions were but an aperitif, as the main course was, of course, Dow Diamond. This facility houses the Midwest League Dodgers affiliate that is the Great Lakes Loons, who seem content to remain sedentary despite possessing the ability to fly:

050

Just to the left of this outfield entrance are a set of solar panels, 168 to be exact. Loons marketing and entertainment VP Chris Mundhenk later explained to me that the panels don’t directly power the facility, but the energy generated goes back into the grid and is roughly equivalent to the amount needed to run the videoboard over the course of a season.

048

Upon entering, one finds a a more primitive power source.

052

Those fire pits are certainly appreciated on chilly nights in April and May, but totally unnecessary on the late June evening in which I was in attendance. The weather was downright gorgeous.

053

054

The Dow Diamond has plenty of open air seating, as well as plenty of room for open air eating. My first order of business was to rendezvous with the evening’s Designated Eaters — y’know, the people (or person) that I recruit at each ballpark that I visit to sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

In what was to soon become a trend on this trip, the Loons had arranged for local morning radio DJs to serve as the Designated Eaters. Meet Johnny and Blondie of 96.1 WHNN, who have been doing a show together for 12 years (Blondie began as a producer and later became a co-host, remarking that she ended up with Johnny because she “drew the short straw.)

Given that their show starts at 5:30 a.m., Johnny and Blondie don’t go out in the evenings very often. But apparently a complimentary ballpark buffet was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

056

In the above pic, this esteemed morning team are toasting with a pair of Michigan Cherry Chicken Wraps. Yes, a Michigan Cherry — I had not known this before visiting, but cherries are a common crop in Michigan and therefore both beloved and ubiquitous.

“It’s light and refreshing, not like nachos and hot dogs that just lie there in your stomach,” said Blondie.

While waiting for the next entree, I asked Johnny and Blondie what it was they generally talked about on the air.

“Everything from sex to sports,” said Blondie.

“A lot of sex,” emphasized Johnny.

But the sex talk was going to have to wait, as a Macstravaganza had arrived.

057

The above items can be found at the “Mac Mac Mac Mac Gone!” concession kiosk:

MacList

Johnny and Blondie were intrigued:

058

They had plenty of help, as this was a family affair (while Blondie is Johnny’s “work wife,” his real wife is there on the left).

060

The consensus was that the BLT was the best and lobster the runner-up. Round three awaited, but in the meantime I had a pair of duties to attend to on the field.

First up was a pre-game interview on the field with voice of the Loons Brad Golder, broadcast over the stadium as well as the FM radio waves. The Loons actually own their flagship station (ESPN 100.9), and the station’s office is located in the stadium itself. I’ll have a bit more on that later, but first, please endure this sustained stretch of narcissism.

Golder and I on the set:

DSC_0007

DSC_0018

Hearing my voice broadcast over the stadium PA is always a bit nerve wracking, but I enjoyed the interview due largely in part to Golder’s lively and well-prepared line of questioning. I don’t know how long it lasted  — four minutes? 400? — but it flew by as quickly and assuredly as a Loon in its prime.

Next up was a ceremonial first pitch, which was documented better than any first pitch I have ever thrown (my compliments to the photographer, I’m sorry that I don’t have your name).

063

Seriously, I think I’m going to have this made into a flip book!

JUN_8659

JUN_8660

JUN_8661

JUN_8662

JUN_8663

JUN_8664

JUN_8665

JUN_8666

JUN_8717

Yep, I threw a perfect strike. It was one of the highlights of my career thus far.

DSC_0060

Nice career highlight, bro.

By the time I arrived back on the concourse, Johnny, Blondie and crew had already devoured most of their latest round of food offerings. Apparently a prime rib sandwich as well as a pastrami sandwich had been placed before them, but somehow this is the only photographic evidence that remains.

065

Dive In

And, yes, since you can see it in the above picture I may as well get one of my more recent contractural obligations out of the way and provide a #cupdate. The collectible cup that Johnny is holding in the above pic is for beer:

IMG_0441And this? This is for soda.

IMG_0428

Finally, I’d like to note that I was too busy running around to indulge in any concessions during the ballgame, but the Loons are one of the few teams I’ve encountered who make a note of all of their gluten-free ballpark options. Check it out!

And as for the food in general? Well, I’m going to let Johnny and Blondie have the final word.

And I’m going to go ahead and let that be the final “word” of this post as well. Stay tuned for part two of this Great Lakes Loonstravaganza, coming soon!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Ben’s Biz Backlogged Blog Bonanza

When I’m on the road I always have so much to write about, both here on the blog and over at MiLB.com. This content overload is a good thing, but one negative aspect of it is that I can’t devote enough of my attention to that which is taking place outside of the places I visit.

C’est la vie, as the French say (when they’re giving examples of the cliched French terms that Americans actually know).

But right now? Right now I’m not on the road, nor do I have any more “On the Road” content. Therefore, today will be the first in a short series of bouillabaisse posts, in which I jump haphazardly from item to item with startling rapidity. Commence organized chaos and — warning! — some of this material is rather dated. I’m working my way through this backlog in chronological fashion.

Apropos of nothing — is R.A. Coon the best front office name in Minor League Baseball, or does Lexington’s Ty Cobb retain that honor?

(Regardless, THIS is the best blog post written by a Minor League broadcaster about someone named R.A.)

You may have seen my recent MiLB.com article about the Jacksonville Suns’ Casey Challenge, in which team president Peter “Pedro” Bragan challenges area school students to memorize the poem.

Well, speaking of the Bragans, did you know that the Suns gave away a “talking bobblehead” of Pete Bragan, Sr., the iconic team owner who passed away last season?

It really talks. Listen!

(And speaking, as I was, of “Casey at the Bat” — my favorite rendition, by far, is Tug McGraw narrating the poem while backed by Peter Nero and Philadelphia Pops Orchestra. I have it on record, and if anyone would like to assist with the LP-to-computer uploading process then let me know because I need to share it with the world at large.)

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs have long had an almost maniacal propensity for pig-related puns (the Pork Illustrated game program, for example, or a conference room for “Boar”d Meetings). These days, said puns are practically avant-garde.

The team has named its frozen yogurt bar the “Soo’eyte Spot.” You figure it out.

I have no idea how or why this happened (and it seems to have happened on multiple occasions), but the Erie SeaWolves are most likely the only team to have a Dr. Batboy.

I would like for there to be a band named “Dr. Batboy.”

Meanwhile, via Visalia broadcaster Donny Baarns, this photo of multi-generational intolerance:

And, that’s it for now. Much more where this came from, as soon as time allows.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Grinnin’ and Baronin’ It in Birmingham

Welcome back! When the previous post had concluded, a Southern League baseball game had just broken out at brand-new Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.

IMG_0672

With the game underway, it was time, of course, for a trip to the concession stand. You probably know the drill by now — my gluten-free diet prohibits me from enjoying most ballpark food items, so at each stadium I visit I recruit a “designated eater” who samples the cuisine instead. In Birmingham this individual was Abby Southerland, a University of Alabama graduate now in her second season as a media relations intern.

IMG_0686

Despite the fact that Abby was a team employee and I the world’s most talented, beloved and universally respected Minor League Baseball blogger, we were left to the wolves when it came to food procurement. The Barons hadn’t had much time to prepare after moving in to the new ballpark, and the lines at the concession stands were long and slow moving.

Like the Davies brothers waiting to use the treadmill, there were still some Kinks to work out.

IMG_0677

A new location of Alabama’s iconic Dreamland BBQ now exists in Regions Field’s outfield entertainment area, but it wasn’t yet open on the night I was in attendance. So Abby and I instead braved the line at Piper’s Pub and Grill, which, as a consolation prize, featured several items that incorporated Dreamland ingredients.

IMG_0678

We ended up with this array:

IMG_0679

Item Number One, on the far left, is the Magic City Dog (Magic City is Birmingham’s nickname, but you knew this). This item is comprised of a 1/4 pound smoked sausage, cole slaw, BBQ sauce, and spicy brown mustard.

IMG_0680

Abby gave it a go:

IMG_0682

Abby’s take: “The spiciness of the mustard gives it a kick, and the cole slaw gives it a real Southern feel. And then the sausage, that’s classic, so altogether this is a good ballpark food.”

Next up was the Dreamland BBQ Nachos:

IMG_0681

“You come to Birmingham, you want good Southern food, you go to Dreamland. That’s what people will tell you,” said Southerland, a Birmingham native. “This is a good finger food, one of those things you just have to try.”

IMG_0685

As for me? While people are often deeply sympathetic to my gluten-free circumstances, I’m always like ‘Nah, it ain’t that bad” and explain that there are always options. My attempt to consume a small orb of concourse luminescence turned out to unsuccessful…

IMG_0687

but I had no problem with this pickle. More teams should sell pickles!

IMG_0689

New online dating profile pic

It took a while for me to get the pickle out of my mouth, but once I did I looked up and realized that a dual no-hitter was going on.

IMG_0690

The first hit of the game occurred almost immediately after I took the picture. That’s how these things work.

But anyway, with the concessions portion of the evening out of the way — thanks, Abby! — I was pretty much left to my own devices. Just an ineffectual man wandering around with an ineffectual plan, of no concern to the stadium’s elite and hoi polloi alike.

I took pictures, I did.

IMG_0691

IMG_0692

Like Dreamland BBQ, this “Power Force” batting cage wasn’t yet open on the night that I was in attendance. But it’s pretty unique in that it’s the batting cage the players will use, and fans can then take their hacks during the game.

IMG_0694

But who wants to be in a cage on such a beautiful night?

IMG_0696

This outfield play area, manned by a gameday employee (on the mound) is really cool.

IMG_0697

It was all very vague, but earlier in the evening I’d been told that I was to be a participant in some sort of between-inning tomfoolery. This allowed for a stop at my favorite area of any ballpark: the promo closet.

IMG_0700

Turns out that I was selected as a Chicken Dance participant. I mean, sure, whatever, dude’s got to make a living. I gave my camera to a promo intern to document my fowl maneuvers, and I guess she thought I wanted her to take a picture of me right there and then.

Oh, hello.

IMG_0701

She also took a picture of her and a friend, who now achieve internet immortality by appearing on this blog.

IMG_0703

I think this picture  sums up my enthusiasm for this particular iteration of the Chicken Dance.

IMG_0706

If you’re one of those people who is obsessive about team store ceiling height, then you’re going to want to contact the Barons for the specific dimensions of this imminently airy retail operation. It’s vertically proficient!

IMG_0707

Segues are for losers. Long streams of disconnected images, on the other hand? That’s where it’s at!

IMG_0708

IMG_0709

IMG_0713

Oh, hey, look, the Barons won! I had barely noticed.

IMG_0714

And when the Barons win, you win! And when something is free, you don’t have to purchase it! Who knew?

IMG_0715

The game may have ended, but this post (and, by extension, this seemingly never-ending stream of road trip coverage) is going to keep right on going. I spent that night in the Birmingham Sheraton, and, as you can see, I loved it there:

 

That morning was an 11 a.m. Education Day game or Kid’s Day game or Kidpacalypse or whatever you want to call it, so back in the rental car it was for one final stadium drive. I was a bit late in arriving, and the parking lot I had utilized the day before was full. I  then circled around construction sites and detour signs and dead ends until I began to feel like I was trapped in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

121

So close, yet so far

I eventually found a spot about 11/32 of a mile from the ballpark, and upon entering the stadium found myself in the midst of madness. My take on Kid’s Day promos can be summed up thusly:

Kids were everywhere, most of them shrieking like insects out of Hades, but looking on the bright side it was a beautiful day. Here’s another barrage of photos for you, largely unencumbered by words.

124

125

introspective mascot

introspective mascot alert

128

Can’t get no relief

  131

A great way to spend three innings or so.

132

133

This shot of the first base concourse  illustrates Regions Field’s impressive (and imposing) steel warehouse motif, as well as its altogether Brobdingnagian dimensions.

137 For one inning there toward the end, I actually sat down and watched the game like a normal person. It didn’t feel right.

139But you know what does feel right? Bringing this blog post to an end. Eight MiLB.com features, 10 blog posts, and two dozen Vines later, road trip number one of the 2013 season is now officially in the books.

Thank you for reading. Next time I file an “On the Road” dispatch, it will be from the great state of Wisconsin.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Sounds Like a Good Time in Nashville

I visited Nashville’s Greer Stadium on Thursday, May 9th. The Sounds were expecting me:

126

Two days later I was asked by another writer, via Twitter, my thoughts on the ballpark and my 140-character summation was as follows:

“It’s a bit of a dump and inadequate for the needs of such a large market…BUT…it’s got a ramshackle charm that I really enjoy.”

I stand by that sentiment, which isn’t surprising since said sentiment is, as I type this in a Savannah hotel room, less than 24 hours old. Greer Stadium — 35 years old and showing its age — is no one’s idea of an ideal facility (especially in a major market that boasts the NFL, NHL and a plethora of top-flight cultural attractions). But until that far away and as of now theoretical day when a new downtown stadium gets built, this out of the way anomaly will have to do. And I, for one, think it does just fine. If you like ramshackle charm — yes, three paragraphs in and I’m already quoting myself — then I think you’ll like it too.

036

037The area surrounding the stadium is rather hilly (Fort Negley, built by occupying Union forces during the Civil War, sits adjacent), and while walking in and around Greer one often has the feeling of  not being totally on the level. Upon entering the stadium the concrete slopes downward quite sharply, which, on this particular occasion, led fans directly to a box of underwear.

042

The briefs were being given away by Gildan, a Triple-A baseball sponsor, who were asking fans to take Instagram pictures during the game tagged #gildanfavorites. What a life this gentleman in the middle of the picture has had — from serving in Korea and Vietnam to being given free underwear at a Minor League Baseball game as part of a social media initiative. I bet he was Instagramming all night long.

043

From the concourse to the press box, where I took the first of many photos that includes Greer’s iconic guitar scoreboard. No strings attached!

038

041

Per the team: The guitar-shaped scoreboard is a fan favorite for all who come to Greer Stadium. Its total width is nearly 116 feet — 60′ (guitar body), 36′ (scoreboard/neck), 19.6′ (turning key section). The height is 53′ and depth is 24″.

The vast expanse of seats, just waiting for the throngs of “Throwback Thursday” fans ($5 admission w/coupon and $2 beer, soda and concession items, all while the team wears its throwback blue jerseys).

039

Some of these seats are in better shape than others. These, down the third base line, are a tad sunbleached.

046

I briefly ascended to the top of the stadium to check out the view from Slugger’s (a bar and restaurant open to all fans).

047

049

These elevated meanderings were cut short however, as I had urgent business to attend to on the ground level. My media pass was contingent upon being a contestant in the nightly Tire Race.

057

As the game began, I, media relations director Alex Wassel, and my fellow tire race qualifiers were crouched in the aisle while waiting for our  big racing moment. I took a few pictures from this vantage point.

The National Anthem, as sung by a burly trio known as The Kentucky Lineman (far left, their arms around one another).

052

053

With the game underway, it’s time to play a game within a game called “Can you name that Fresno Grizzlie head”? There are nine heads in this picture, please list who they belong to (left to right) and leave your answer in the comments section. There is no prize, and I don’t know the answer, but, please, just do it, just because.

055

Throwback Thursday, underway!

056

The fans, from the get-go, were rooting for Fresno to go down in de-feet.

060

With that burst of photographic artfulness out of the way, I handed my camera to Wassel so that he could document the tire race exploits.

What, me Ozzie?

063

How it went down:

064

065

066

Yes, that dude totally wiped out at second base and still won.

I checked my phone after the race and saw that I had an urgent text from one Heather Beshore: “I’m hungry!”

Heather was to be the evening’s designated eater, and if you’re new to the blog (the most underrated enterprise in all of sports media)  then let me explain: I have recruited a “designated eater” at each ballpark that I visit, and this individual is tasked with eating the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet does not allow (I was diagnosed with celiac disease last season. Waaaah).

I was put in touch with Heather after recieving an email from her boyfriend, Chris, who is also eating gluten-free these days. She’s a Florida native who came to Nashville for grad school and then decided to stay, and her job currently has something to do with 401K plans (she didn’t provide many details, in favor of eating a hamburger).

“Chris is from Wisconsin and he loves the Brewers [the Sounds' parent club], so when he comes here he’s really into the baseball,” said Heather. “Me, I just come for the food!”

True to form, then, Chris opted to stay downstairs and watch baseball while Heather and I went up to Slugger’s.

070

Heather B, not to be confused with the season one Real World star of the same name

That’s Heather with an “Ozzie Burger” and a Blue Moon, which we had procured at the concourse-level Bullpen Burgers. (Her favorite Greer Stadium food option, The Dog Pound, was unfortunately closed for the evening).

Not available!

Not available!

So, yes, the burger it was. It was falling apart from the get-go.

072

As for the Ozzie Burger, Heather was non-plussed.

“I’d give it a 5 or a 6,” she said. “It’s juicy, and a little messy, but it lacks the spice and charm of a home-made burger. It’s a little too generic.”

She also helpfully explained that, even though the burger is named after Ozzie the mascot, “it does not taste like cat.”

BUT! She then raved about a prior experience with Slugger’s BBQ Pork Nachos, so I grabbed an order of those as well.

074

Heather, as you can see, was hesitant to be documented in mid-bite. That’s fine! This whole “designated eater” thing is an experiment, and for now I don’t really have any rules with it. I’m just glad people are willing to do it, and it’s been a fun way to meet a new person at every ballpark. Heather was relaxed and engaging and had a great sense of humor about the whole thing.

She also had a lot of nachos (okay, I may have had some as well, trying to avoid the gluten-ous processed cheese).

075

“I’m still very happy even though I’m full,” said Heather. “I’m happy I had food, and I’m happy I ate it.”

Well said!

Okay, back to the game action.

076

The usual shenanigans:

077

Scooter vs. the Scoreboard (long-time readers and/or Appletonians might get that reference).

080

I may have totally misheard, but I’m pretty sure these bullpen denizens were debating the merits of various Norman Lear-produced sitcoms.

083

“Dude, Maude is the best spin-off of all-time.”

Following Ozzie’s pawprints, I took a walk through the concourse. Although I missed the chance to take a picture of them, I soon was greeted by two goofy white kids about 12 years of age.

“Hello, sir, I am Chief Keef,” said one.

“I am Waka Flaka,” said the other. “Please buy my album.”

But anyway. Pictures of the ramshackle charm in full effect.

084

090

092

095

Let it be known that, on this particular evening, the Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Southern Division was as close as it could possibly be. Almost.

096

Those teams, like these people, are back-to-back-back-to-back.

097

My wanderings led me to the other side of the ballpark, shockingly enough, and, even more shockingly, a game was still going on.

101

104

The Greer Garden has seen better days, it appears.

113

Despite being a decent crowd overall, it was totally deserted in this beyond-the-outfield area. I made a Vine video expressing my profound feeling of isolation, and hope that you may devote six seconds to it. (Follow me on Twitter — @bensbiz — to see all Vine videos as soon as they are posted).

106

Back in civilization! I love the enthusiasm of these women, who were playing a “Choose the Box” game that netted Becky (in the Pirates jersey) Sounds tickets and a Burger King gift card. So much emotion!

114

115

Rat Patrol in the house!

116

(Later in the evening I saw a member of Rat Patrol in the restroom, so I lingered by the sink so that I could ask a few questions about the organization. But, of course, the dude opted not to wash his hands and, looking back, it was very naive of me to have assumed otherwise.)

On a similarly rock n roll note: the day before, Jack White had been in attendance along with employees of his Nashville-based Third Man record label. (Also, a record-pressing plant is located across the street from the stadium!) This picture later surfaced on Third Man’s Instagram page, although it was free from any underwear-related taggings:

white

I spent the last two innings with Adam Hayes, a video intern for the Milwaukee Brewers who, using a thing called technology, extensively documents every Sounds home game.

118

119

For more on Hayes and how he operates, read my MiLB.com story! That is not a request, but a demand.

The game concluded with an 11-7 Sounds victory, and as the stadium was emptying out I ran into Dave Clark and Doug Cornfield, from the Dave Clark Foundation. You may remember them from my Fort Myers visit from last season, and/or my story on the “Special Needs Baseball Camp” for disabled youth. They were in town to run a disability camp at Greer Stadium over the weekend –a worthwhile cause, and more will be held at Minor League parks throughout the season. Always worth supporting!

124

So, anyway, to sum it up: If ramshackle charm is your thing then get thee to Greer!

127

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Jack of All Trades, Master of One

Last week I wrote a piece on Aaron Goldsmith, who, at the age of 29, has landed a job as the Mariners #2 radio announcer after just six seasons in the Minor and independent leagues. Here’s the “cover” art:

goldsmith

Of course I’d encourage you to read the story, but the reason I’m bringing it up here in this blog forum is because I’d like to share a notable “outtake” from my conversation with Goldsmith. When I asked him his thoughts on why the Mariners hired him (out of 160 applicants), he replied that “first and foremost I hope they liked the way I call a game.”

While this should go without saying, he then remarked about an aspect of his hiring that was perhaps more unexpected.

“I have experience doing things outside of the broadcast booth, social media, creating web content, podcasts and video interviews,” said Goldsmith. “[The Mariners] were very interested in my ideas and thoughts regarding what worked and what hadn’t worked within that realm.”

Major League organizations are far more fragmented and specific in their employee responsibilities than their Minor League counterparts, and Goldsmith won’t be expected to be a technological jack-of-all-trades like he was during his stints with the Frisco RoughRiders (2010-11) and Pawtucket Red Sox (2012). Nonetheless, these skills appeared to have played at least some role in his acquisition of a much-coveted big league job and as such I believe his example in this realm can and should be one to follow.

45

A postage-stamp sized representation of Aaron’s PawSox blog

On a personal level — over the years I have become acquainted with dozens (hundreds?) of Minor League broadcasters and, certainly, Goldsmith was among those who stood out due to his proactive approach to online communication. He started Frisco’s “Riders Insider” blog in November 2010, which almost immediately established itself as one of the most informative and oft-updated blogs in Minor League Baseball. Upon getting hired with Pawtucket Goldsmith began “45 Miles From Fenway,” which in January 2013 was the highest-ranked MiLB team blog (coming in at #23 overall on MLBlogs monthly “Latest Leaders” list).

Success in such endeavors means nothing if you can’t call a baseball game, of course. But, nonetheless I believe that maintaining a strong presence in these supplementary areas (blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc) is a crucial way to increase your visibility and, therefore, your reputation within what is quite possibly the most cutthroat occupation in all of Minor League Baseball.

I’m getting a little uncomfortable up here on this soapbox, so now seems as good a time as any to beat a hasty retreat. But, before I do so, let me reiterate that I am course interested in your opinion on this and all MiLB-related matters.

Especially broadcasters: do you believe that the development of these secondary skills is now a prerequisite of your success? Or can one still rise to the top on game-calling prowess alone?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Bud, Butch, Moses and Moe: A Brief Guide to MiLB.com’s Black History Month Coverage

February, as you know, is Black History Month. And each February from 2006-11, MiLB.com ran a series of articles spotlighting the trials, tribulations and triumphs of black players within and around the world of Minor League Baseball.

bhm

All told nearly 40 Black History articles ran on the site during these six seasons, and a full list can be found as a sidebar in the 2011 articles. (Click HERE for an example.) The “Black History Month in the Minor Leagues” series was “retired” after that season because it was becoming too difficult to find article topics that hadn’t been done before, but the content lives on.

This February MiLB.com is running a Black History Month story each and every day — today’s features pioneering umpire Emmett Ashford — and this represents as good a chance as any to re-visit what I believe is a fascinating and easy-to-overlook aspect of baseball (and American) history. Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, and deservedly so, but racial integration was happening throughout the Minor Leagues from 1946 onward and often in far more obscure circumstances. Did you know, for example, that Jackie was one of five players to integrate the Minors in 1946? He was joined on the Montreal Royals that season by Roy Partlow and John Wright, while future MLB stars Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella were suiting up for Class B Nashua.

wright

I was fortunate enough to research and write a dozen Black History Month articles, on some of the aforementioned topics as well as 1949’s wave of black standouts at the Triple-A level, the “minor” Negro Leagues, the bizarre saga of perennially-unpromoted Midwest League superstar Moe Hill, the overlooked career of 39-year-old “rookie” Quincy Trouppe, Nashville legend Butch McCord (who I interviewed in 2006, approximately five years before he died in 2011 at the age of 85), and the accidental legacy of Jimmy Claxton (first black player to appear on a baseball card).

trouppe

Quincy Trouppe (l), who made it to the Majors as a 39-year-old “rookie” in 1952.

But for whatever reason, the aspect black baseball history that I find most fascinating involves those from the late 19th and early 20th century who played in “white” leagues. While racism was of course prevalent during this time, formal color barriers did not exist and at least 30 black players suited up within the Minors. One of these players was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 and, as such, has long been identified as the first black player in Major League history. But there’s far more to that story! Walker was also a lecturer, entrepreneur, newspaper publisher, racial theorist and inventor who, in 1891, was acquitted by an all-white jury on a second-degree murder charge.

moses

Moses Fleetwood Walker (left), when he was a member of Oberlin College’s baseball squad.

 Finally, there is Bud Fowler, the subject of the first Black History Month article that I ever wrote. This was in February of 2006, when MiLB.com was in its first offseason and I was a part-time employee with, quite frankly, very little to do.

I spent my time that month by getting absolutely obsessed with Fowler’s sprawling career (1879-1904), which he spent entirely within the world of “white” baseball. The Cooperstown native (!)  played within 13 different leagues —  in 22 states as well as Canada — and was rarely in the same locale for more than a year at a time. After scouring the internet for every last scrap of info I could find and then making several trips to the main branch of the New York Public Library, I wrote a 5000+ word piece on Fowler that remains the longest thing I’ve ever written (or probably will write) during my time producing content for MiLB.com. Read it HERE.

fowler

Bud Fowler, one of my all-time heroes, is second row on the far right.

Sometimes I dream of writing a book called “Bud Fowler’s America,” a biography/travelogue that would intertwine his career with the histories (baseball and otherwise) of the various cities and towns that he played in. (Please don’t steal my idea, as it is something that I like to think about while not compulsively checking my Twitter feed.)

AND STOP THE PRESSES! Not even an hour after writing this, as I was compulsively checking my Twitter feed, I came across the news that the village of Cooperstown will be honoring Bud Fowler on April 20th (the 100th anniversary of his death). This will be occurring in conjunction with SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) annual 19th Century Base Ball Conference, which is being held in Cooperstown from April 19-21. Mayor Jeff Katz reports:

Cooperstown, New York, honors its own forgotten pioneer, Bud Fowler, on April 20, 2013, with the naming of the entrance into legendary Doubleday Field “Fowler Way” and the installation of a permanent plaque in the brick wall of the first base bleachers. Fowler (born John W. Jackson) is recognized as the first African-American player in organized professional baseball, playing for over two decades in the nineteenth century despite facing constant racial discrimination.

I may have to be in attendance for this. I really think that I oughta be.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Looking for a Pizza the Action

This past September, I wrote an article on the Lake Elsinore Storm’s sizable fleet of surreal costumed characters and what they add to the ballpark experience. Here are the first two paragraphs of that article, in the hope that it may jog your memory regarding what it is I’m talking about:

A gorilla being pummeled with foam noodles before escaping over a 12-foot fence. … A 6-foot chicken racing across a vast expanse of grass alongside an equally oversized squirrel. … A pink rabbit emerging from a secret door, gyrating furiously before disappearing from whence he came. … A cup of ice cream dancing joyously alongside a banana, whose presence greatly excites the aforementioned gorilla.

The above may sound like the disconnected fragments of a particularly surreal fever dream — and they very well could be. But “particularly surreal fever dream” also might be the best way to describe the between-innings entertainment at a Lake Elsinore Storm game, which includes all of the eccentric characters mentioned above and many, many more.

If YOU want in on that action, NOW is the time to act. Last week, the Storm announced that they’re “looking for local talent to join our crazy cast of on-field characters this season.”

storm

Per the team:

Do you have what it takes to join the likes of the Fastest Squirrel in the World and Grounds Crew Gorilla? Create a 30-second video of you as a character of your choice. Upload it to YouTube and send the link to promos@stormbaseball.com. We’re looking to be wowed, so aim for our faces.

That “aim for our faces” remark is a reference to the team’s Rally Cop character, who was known for throwing his “softee balls to your face.” (Those are the team’s words, not mine). The team’s plea for performers is motivated at least in part by the sad fact that the Rally Cop is no longer. Storm staffer Robbie Gillett, the Rally Cop’s alter-ego, is no longer with the team.

So long, Rally Cop — we hardly knew ye!

The Storm aren’t the only team searching for new blood these days. The Lexington Legends currently have an opening in their front office, and one of the candidates has found a creative way to plead his case.

Legends_HireMe_photo (2)

This bit of pizza-based advocacy made a strong impression with the Legends staff, with broadcaster Keith Elkins marveling that it’s “the first edible application that we’ve received.” Ty Cobb, the Legends’  director of creative services, wrote that Dan “will certainly receive full consideration” when it comes to which candidates the team decides to interview. My guess is that Dan has made himself the front-runner in the team’s employment sweepstakes, but who knows? Maybe another candidate will soon utilize a dessert-based medium as a means of self-promotion — that would really be the icing on the cake!

Going out on a high note since 2007,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 439 other followers