Time for a Do-Over?

Over on MiLB.com you can read my round-up of the 2014-15 Minor League re-branding season, featuring 11 new team names and/or logos. In conjunction with this, my latest journalistic masterwork, I decided to take a look around the Minor League landscape in order to subjectively determine the team from each league that is most in need of a makeover.

We’ll start at the top of the Minor League ladder and work our way down. Perhaps, come this time next year, some of these clubs will have opted to update their iconography. Whether you agree, disagree or couldn’t care less, feel free to tell me so in the comments or on Twitter (@bensbiz).

International League: Louisville Bats (current logo in use since 2002)

bats

This logo is a little too reminiscent of Batman, so maybe it’s time that Louisville Gotham selves another one.

Pacific Coast League: Fresno Grizzlies (current logo in use since 2008)

frezThe Grizzlies are actively embracing their post-San Francisco identity, but the orange and black color scheme still screams “Giants affiliation!”

Eastern League: Portland Sea Dogs (current logo in use since 2003)

portlandThe “Sea Dog” in question looks like a Puritan-era rulebreaker, locked in the stockades so that all may ridicule him for his misdeeds.

Southern League: Mississippi Braves (current logo in use since 2005)

mbravesI guess there’s not much that can be done when you share the name of the parent club. Atlanta affiliates are a pretty strait-laced bunch.

Texas League: Midland RockHounds (current logo in use since 1999)

midlandThis ‘Hound looks like he would have been pals with Canseco and McGwire during their “Bash Brothers” days.

California League: High Desert Mavericks (current logo in use since 1991)

hdYou may not be able to set your watch to this logo, but at least you can hang your hat on it.

Carolina League: Carolina Mudcats (current logo in use since 1991)

mudcatsThis reminds me of the Sea Dogs’ logo. What did these poor creatures do to deserve permanent entrapment within a letter of the alphabet?

Florida State League: Tampa Yankees (current logo in use since 1994)

tampaThis is the Minor League logo equivalent of having a no-facial hair policy.

Midwest League: Lansing Lugnuts (current logo in use since 1996)

lansing

As was pointed out to me when I visited Lansing: That’s not a lugnut. It’s a bolt.

South Atlantic League: Kannapolis Intimidators (current logo in use since 2001)

kannapWhen it comes to this logo, my mind says “No” but my heart says “Yes.” I (not-so) secretly love it, despite, or perhaps because, it is inherently insane.

New York-Penn League: Brooklyn Cyclones (current logo in use since 2001)

cyclones

The Cyclones seem to do everything right, so I may as well give them a hard time for not updating the logo they came into existence with.

Northwest League: Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (current logo in use since 1997)

skvFor my thoughts on this, see: Intimidators, Kannapolis

Appalachian League: Johnson City Cardinals (current logo in use since 1995)

jccNot sure where this one falls in the bird-logo pecking order.

Pioneer League: Helena Brewers (current logo in use since 2011)

hbAs someone with celiac disease, I find this logo offensive.

In closing, I’d like to offer a tip of the cap to Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.net. It’s a great source of info.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Why I Love the Mobile BayBears

It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Brittany Callahan, who has spent countless hours at the Mobile BayBears’ home of Hank Aaron Stadium. Her father, Mike, spent 13 seasons as the team’s assistant general manager.  

To see other “Why I Love” guest posts, click HERE. And if YOU would like to write a “Why I Love” guest post, email me at benjamin.hill@mlb.com

(All photos from the Ben’s Biz collection, unless otherwise noted)

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Why I Love the Mobile BayBears, by Brittany Callahan

What is your first thought when I mention the city of Mobile, Alabama? The home of Mardi Gras? Maybe. White sand beaches? Possibly. College football dominance? Probably. Baseball, most likely, is absent from your list. But what is surprising to many, however, is that Mobile has played a huge role in baseball history. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, Mobile claims more Hall of Famers (five) than any other city in America. Those Hall of Famers — Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams — play a large role in making Mobile one of the most storied cities for baseball in the country.

A concourse sign honoring Ozzie Smith, one of five Mobile-born Hall of Famers

A concourse sign honoring Ozzie Smith, one of five Mobile-born Hall of Famers

Mobile’s rich baseball history can be seen before you even enter Hank Aaron Stadium, which the Baybears — Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks — have called home for eighteen years. In the shadows of the stadium sits Hank Aaron’s Childhood Home and Museum. Yes, you read that correctly. Partnering with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Major League Baseball, a few select BayBears staffers relocated the home that Mr. Aaron and his siblings grew up in, from its original location just a few miles away to the stadium grounds. Upon relocating, it was transformed into a museum which houses artifacts from the Aaron family as well as mementos from Hank’s journey from childhood to Home Run King. For those who want to see this remarkable piece of Mobile baseball history, tours are available before and during games as well as in the offseason.

The Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum

The Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum

hofers

Bob Feller, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron and Rickey Henderson, attending the opening of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum

The BayBears continue Mobile’s tradition of excellence by being perennial playoff contenders, with many of their alumni making an impact in the Major Leagues. The BayBears were originally the Double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres and, during that time, they won two Southern League championships. They also sent players such as Jake Peavy (who calls Mobile home), Josh Barfield, Jason Bay and Adam Eaton to “The Show.”  In 2007, the BayBears switched their affiliation to the Arizona Diamondbacks, going on to to win back-to-back Southern League championships in 2011 and 2012. They advanced to the championship series again in 2013, attempting to earn a three-peat (something that had only been done once before in the league) but ultimately lost in the decisive fifth game. Some recognizable BayBears to have debuted in the Majors since 2007 include Max Scherzer, Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez, Gerrardo Parra, Mark Reynolds and Paul Goldschmidt.

gold

Paul Goldschmidt, smiling BayBear. MiLB.com photo

With the recent addition of baseball legends such as Tony LaRussa, Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks staff, it is not uncommon to see these famous faces walking the concourse of Hank Aaron Stadium to scout their players and coaches. Mr. Hank Aaron has even sat within his namesake stadium to take in a few ballgames while visiting his hometown.

Mobile has been a hotbed for baseball, and notable baseball players, for decades. Now, the BayBears have taken the reigns in leading the sport into the 21st century. I would be hard pressed to think of another Minor League stadium in the country where you can catch future Major League standouts in the hunt for another championship while bumping into Hall of Famers and (in my opinion) a man who can still claim to be the all-time Home Run King. Go BayBears!

Thanks to Brittany for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2010 article on the opening of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Pictures of New Ballpark Food Items

It’s that time of year again, that time of year when I fulfill my journalistic talent to its full potential by posting pictures of new Minor League ballpark concession offerings.

Following standard operating procedure, we’ll begin with the West Michigan Whitecaps’ annual Fan Food Voting contest.

Through March 6, the masses can vote for one of the following 10 items. The winner will be served at the team’s home of Fifth Third Field in 2015, joining perennial favorites such as the Baco and, of course, the Fifth Third Burger.

west michigan food

First Row: Beer-a-Misu (scoop of tiramisu gelato added to craft beer), Cheesy Does It (hamburger with a cheese bun), Cotton Candy Curveball (cotton-candy wrapped Twinkie), Crispy Pig Chips (pork rinds with all the standard nacho fixings)

Second Row: French Fry Pizza Pie (self explanatory), Hot-to-Tot (tater tots with buffalo chicken and bleu cheese), Kat Dog (Kit-Kat bar inside of a hot dog), Picnic on a Stick (fried chicken, tater tots and pickles on a stick, fried in cornbread batter)

Third Row: The Legend of Pickle Hollowed (a hot dog inside of a hollowed out pickle, deep fried), Weenie Panini (hot dog stuffed panini)

For the record, here’s a picture of the Baco (taken during my 2013 visit to West Michigan)

baco

Keeping within the Midwest League, we now move on the Appleton-based Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. On Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers sent the following tweet:

“This,” in this case, was this:

Then, on Friday, the T-Rats executive chef unveiled this. It’s a bacon cheeseburger enveloped within a funnel cake.

No matter what your opinions are regarding hyper-fattening, internet-baiting Minor League cuisine, there is no doubt that chef Hansen knows exactly what he’s doing. I learned this first-hand in 2013, during a visit to the T-Rats’ home of Fox Cities Stadium. Hansen does high and low cuisine with equal aplomb; in his world sesame tuna on endive with pineapple salsa coexists peacefully alongside jerk chicken wings and a Philly cheesesteak.

097 —

Heading east, we find that the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have recently unveiled some new creations as well.

Pork Parfait: “Layers of mashed potatoes, pulled pork and cheese sauce topped with green onions.”

pp

24-inch Frankfurter, “topped with chili, beer cheese, bacon, onion straws.” It is cut into four pieces; sharing is encouraged.

frankBut this, this is my favorite:

bacon

Finally, the Oklahoma City Dodgers will have more than a new name in 2015. The entity formerly known as the RedHawks will also offer these new concession items.

Actually, disregard the “finally” in the above item. As this blog post was being written, the Asheville Tourists unveiled this:

That looks great and all, but can it compete with a deep-fried Moon Pie?

067

(Ben’s Biz file photo)

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Book Review: Nine Bucks A Pound

In 2014, as Opening Day approached, I abandoned my long-time policy of reviewing the books I received in a timely manner. Timeliness is always a priority, of course, but I can’t get them to all while also maintaining my even longer-time policy of reading books that aren’t about baseball.

That said, I still make a dedicated attempt to read the books that are sent to me — it just might take a little while. Case in point: last month’s “Ben’s Bookshelf” MiLB.com article, in which I belatedly reviewed three exemplary MiLB-themed books. Further case in point: this blog post, which is dedicated to my thoughts on James Bailey’s 2014 novel Nine Bucks A Pound. (An article about Bailey’s Durham Bulls-focused debut, The Greatest Show on Dirt, can be found HERE.) 

nine

“[The lies] came so fast and furious lately they passed through his lips like carbon dioxide…Too many to count. If each one were a brick, the walls would be so high he’d have to tilt his head back to see the sky.”

The above passage, which closes out a chapter late in James Bailey’s second novel Nine Bucks a Pound, speaks to the heart of the predicament faced by protagonist Del Tanner. Most individuals who find themselves in such situations are sociopaths; a knack for distortion, obfuscation and untruth being a defining characteristic. But Del Tanner is no such individual. He is simply a Minnesota Twins farmhand who possesses marginal, by professional standards, talent. In order to keep his baseball dream from flickering out in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, the Washington state-bred first baseman — a “contact player at a power position” — resorts to steroid use. (The “nine bucks a pound” of the book’s title is a reference to the benefits of Propionate, as Del’s first $180 injection cycle nets him 20 pounds of pure muscle.)

Del is joined in this endeavor by his gleefully immature teammate/roommate Ryan Edsell, their efforts aided and abetted by agent Ian Wicker. Wicker’s motivations are similar to those of his clients, as his professional legitimacy is wholly dependent on having one of them make it to “The Show.” These are quietly desperate people playing a quietly desperate game.

Nine Bucks a Pound follows Del’s career from 2003 through 2010, as he transitions from Minor League roster filler to top prospect to Major League success story. Steroid use plays no small role in his unexpected ascension, but throughout the book the question lingers: Was it worth it? His lies, and the paranoia that accompanies them, place a dark cloud over all that he has accomplished.

Bailey ably handles the above scenario, working to humanize a subset of the baseball community that has been generally been treated with a dismissive scorn. Steroid users may be cheats, frauds, disgraces to the game, or [insert your preferred epithet here], but their detour into chemical enhancement is most likely motivated by the same fears and insecurities that haunt all of us: Fear of failure, fear of being left behind, fear of losing that which defines them. Could it be that they are worthy of our pity? Of our forgiveness? Bailey does not shove these questions down the reader’s throat; they arise simply and organically as the story unfolds.

As a former Baseball America correspondent (and book reviewer), Bailey is well-qualified to tell such a story. He is familiar with the Minor League locales through which Del ascends, as well as the various personalities — agents, scouts, host families, coaches, players and assorted hangers-on — that populate the landscape. Additionally, Bailey did his research, speaking to (unnamed) former players about the drug testing process and to trainers about workout regimens. Nine Bucks A Pound, though a work of fiction, seems real.

Bailey’s emphasis on Del’s personal life — including his somewhat unorthodox parental relationship with dad, Milo, and mom, Gwen — illustrates the psychological cost of living a full-time lie. But my primary criticism of Nine Bucks A Pound is that such a large portion of the narrative is dedicated to Del’s oft-tumultuous relationship with his high school sweetheart, Dana. Bailey is adept at describing the difficulties of maintaining a romantic partnership while living according to the rigorous demands of the baseball schedule, but I never took to Dana as a character. She, in my view, was selfish and materialistic, and I found her and Del’s relationship to be rooted in immaturity and the fear that often results from such an emotional state. I never found myself rooting for them to succeed, because part of life’s growing-up process is the realization that (in most cases) your first love is not equipped to be your life’s love. The lack of an emotional investment in this key plot element resulted in a detraction from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Requisite penultimate paragraph griping aside, Nine Bucks A Pound is well worth purchasing. In providing the perspective of a steroid user, Bailey humanizes the demonized. Yet, he also illustrates the severe consequences, both professional and personal, of their transgressions. As Del Tanner learns, the choice to play dirty is a comparatively easy one. The hard part is coming clean.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Why I Love the Charleston RiverDogs

It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explain what it is they love about their favorite team and why. Today’s guest writer is Paul Worley, a long-time supporter of the “abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club.” 

To see other “Why I Love” guest posts, click HERE. And if YOU would like to write a “Why I Love” guest post, email me at benjamin.hill@mlb.com

Why I Love the Charleston RiverDogs, by Paul Worley

(All photos by Paul Worley, unless otherwise noted)

Charleston sunset, as seen from the RiverDogs' home of Joseph P. Reilly Ballpark (Ben's Biz file photo)

Charleston sunset, as seen from the RiverDogs’ home of Joseph P. Reilly, Jr. Ballpark (Ben’s Biz file photo)

Despite what the tourist brochures may tell you, Charleston, South Carolina, is largely a screen for the projection of history. Little could be said to still happen there. The city has stepped outside of the flow of time, as intentionally anachronistic horse-and-carriages echo down streets that are hardly large enough to accommodate the late-model sports cars owned by the men and women who fly back twice a year to take in a bit of salt air from meticulously reproduced antebellum verandas.

As someone who left Charleston to go to school in the mid-’90s, I return home to find that others have moved in, knocked out the walls and rearranged the furniture. Everywhere, that is, with the exception of the ballpark. Bill Murray (yes, THAT Bill Murray, a.k.a. the RiverDogs’ Director of Fun) and the rest of the Goldklang Group brought changes to the team, but as much as possible they have really left things the same. That’s why I love the RiverDogs.

The narrator of Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s 1979 short story about Charleston baseball in the 1930s spends his time in-between innings observing a little train over the outfield fence at College Park, one of the oldest Minor League parks in the country and the RiverDogs’ original home. He tries to catch it coming or going, but never can. He looks up and it’s there, or looks up and it’s gone. The train is either at the station or it isn’t. The train never moves or changes, but it does. It’s an apt metaphor for the team.

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In my lifetime, the abstraction otherwise known as the Charleston baseball club has had several names: Patriots, Pirates, Royals, Rainbows and RiverDogs. Before that, the club was known as the Rebels, the Palmettos and the Quakers. Pro baseball in the city was founded in 1886 by two teams: a member of the Southern League of Colored Baseballists called the Fultons; and a Southern Association team known as the Seagulls. Unlike most teams then, the genealogy of the Riverdogs doesn’t lead us back to a single man or single team, but to the segregated legacy of the Jim Crow South that, through baseball, results in a kind of unity. White and black, they’re all founding fathers of Charleston baseball.

The RiverDogs play at Joe Riley Park, shortened by most fans to “The Joe.” Built in 1997, it’s among the new wave of parks whose architects, taking a cue from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, wove the park into the city. From the backside you can look out over the marsh leading onto the Ashley River with Citadel faculty housing tucked beneath a few oak trees on the shore off to the right. The outfield fence is lined with trees hiding the river just beyond with a tall building or two finishing out a modest skyline.

2

While the RiverDogs go to great lengths to capture the attention of the casual fan, the team has etched South Carolina’s baseball history into the park itself. Camden’s own Larry Doby has his number 14 retired out on the centerfield wall, the forlorn hero of Pickens County, Shoeless Joe Jackson, has a small beach named for him just beyond the right field foul line and there is a “Scouts Hall of Fame” located along the main concourse. Every year, during “Larry Doby Heritage Weekend,” the team hosts members of the Cannon Street All-Stars, an all-African-American Little League team from Charleston who, in 1955, were denied the opportunity to play in the Little League World Series because they’d won all of their games in the segregated South by forfeit.

3

Before they were a Yankees affiliate, the RiverDogs were one of the original franchises associated with my favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays, which means I cheer for certain “Yankees as Riverdogs” while still hoping that New York’s American League baseballers finish somewhere north of 100 losses. After all, while they come and go and by definition are trying to get somewhere else, it’s the players who make the Charleston experience meaningful.

Hall of Famers, all-time greats and MVPs have played with the Charleston club, and their names are easy enough to find. I’m a big fan of former RiverDogs catcher Francisco Arcia, who, during a “kids day at the (water)park” a few summers ago, walked around the bullpen area with a Super Soaker hosing down everything within 100 feet of him.

4

Dante Bichette, Jr. once impressed me with his knowledge of vintage minor league uniforms (I was sporting a Durham Bulls jersey from the mid-1990s signed by former RiverDog and Bull Elliot Johnson). I particularly enjoy talking smack to players in Spanish, and I’ll forever remember the pitcher (name withheld) who turned around to me in the middle of a game and asked me bluntly, “Y tú, ¿quién eres?” My scorecard from that game notes that this conversation lasted from two outs in the top of the fourth until the seventh inning stretch. My favorite Charleston ballplayer of all-time is the late Tom Saffell. His best memory of playing in Charleston occurred during the 1946 season, while running from first base to second on a routine ground ball. The shortstop, having made the pivot and overanxious to get the runner going to first, drilled Saffell, who was trying to break up the double play in the usual way, square in the head. This happened twice in the same game. There should be a plaque somewhere in the park to honor Saffell and the bungled routines that make life memorable.

Players present constantly intersect with players past, and you get the impression that if you could read them correctly, 30-year-old scorecards and discarded tidbits from the news would reveal tomorrow’s starting lineup. Walt “No Neck” Williams managed the Rainbows, so it’s unsurprising that Mason Williams, his nephew, would one day turn up in the RiverDogs outfield. Rob Refsynder had a few choice words for University of South Carolina fans after his Arizona team defeated USC in the 2012 College World Series, so naturally Charleston was his first stop after the Yankees drafted him. If L.J. Mazzilli is starting for the visiting Sand Gnats, expect Lee Mazzilli to materialize in the park. When Dante Bichette, Jr. was with the team, you could look up during the inevitable late August thunderstorm rain delays and find Dante Bichette, Sr. seated two rows up from you, eating a hot dog, drinking a Diet Coke and waiting out the rain with the rest of us who never played an inning beyond Little League.

5

During the South Atlantic League All-Star Game festivities that were held in Charleston in 2012, I had a chance to speak with the Director of Fun himself. He told me that slip-and-sliding on a tarped field during a rain delay is the best thing in the world, and that if I ever got the chance I should go for it. In honor of Rubin, Saffell, and Arcia, and Cannon Street, and the Fultons and the Seagulls, the next time I’m in Charleston I’ll take him up on it, if only to tell the cops who arrest me, “With God as my witness, Bill Murray told me it was all good.” Because it’s better than good, and it’ll always be home. That’s why I love the Charleston RiverDogs.

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Thanks to Paul for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Charleston RiverDogs experience.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Notable Nuggets and Meaningful Morsels

It’s been a busy week here at MiLB.com HQ, at least by February standards. We had a stadium groundbreaking on Tuesday, a logo unveiling on Wednesday, and today marked the appearance of my feature story chronicling the Potomac Nationals’ attempt to privately finance construction of their new ballpark.

Through it all, I was surrounded by wispy strands of Minor League Baseball ephemera. I always am. What follows is my attempt to compile these recently appearing items into something resembling coherence. Wish me luck.

Remember last April when I wrote an article detailing the various team-branded beers that can be found across the Minor League landscape? No? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Kane County Cougars are the latest team to throw their stein into the brewing game:

So, yeah, fans can vote on what the beer should be named. Two of the choices are rather generic and more or less interchangeable; the other choice is not. If that option wins, then expect plenty of jokes like this to follow:

I’ve written several times in the past about the Holiday League, a theoretical professional baseball circuit featuring, yes, holiday-themed teams. The project, overseen by designer John Hartwell of Hartwell Studio Works, unveiled its latest entity this week: The Bourbonville Krewe.

bourbonville

This entity, unbeknownst to most, has been in existence for 40 years. From the press release:

In a carnival atmosphere full of masked performers and festooned floats at Flambeaux Field, the Bourbonville Krewe unveiled a special fortieth anniversary logo and announced plans to celebrate the milestone throughout the coming season. “We’re gonna have ourselves one season-long party,” Owner Rex Proteus proclaimed. “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

A parade of former players was on hand for the kick-off event, including the legendary Balthazar “Babycakes” Gateaux. The Krewe’s all-time home run leader, Gateaux entertained the throng of gathered fans with a wild reenactment of the day in 1983 when he walloped three round-trippers, then wrestled a gator that had crawled into right field. 

There are 160 affiliated Minor League teams, only two of which have crossed threshold of 100,000 Facebook likes. Those teams are the Toledo Mud Hens and El Paso Chihuahuas, and now the San Jose Giants are gunning to be the third:

10980747_10153637588809616_1652541321553341602_nSez the team:

[W]e are hosting a 100,000 Likes Promotion. Share photos with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat showing your favorite memories and orange and black pride, using #SJG100K to enter. One lucky fan will walk away with the biggest prize in the organization’s history[.]

I’m hoping that it is, literally, the biggest prize in the organization’s history. Like, a topiary maze in the shape of the team’s logo or something of that nature.

Last season, I visited the Midland RockHounds home of Security Bank Ballpark. One of the highlights of that visit was seeing the team’s concourse train take laps around the stadium. In 2015, the team is adding another concourse attraction.

Peters later informed me, that, due to “safety reasons,” the concourse train would not drive straight through the fountains. Oh, well. A man can dream.

Speaking of dreams, one of mine has finally come true. Enigmatic Wisconsin Timber Rattlers announcer Chris Mehring has appeared as a guest on the latest episode of “Between Two Berms.” Mehring can out-deadpan anyone, even host Sam Merle.

And that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for your support, be it continued, sporadic, or barely discernible.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Why I Love the Syracuse Chiefs

It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Jared Wicks, a Syracuse resident who, over the past decade, has become an ardent supporter of his hometown Chiefs.  

To see other “Why I Love” guest posts, click HERE. And if YOU would like to write a “Why I Love” guest post, email me at benjamin.hill@mlb.com

Why I Love the Syracuse Chiefs, by Jared Wicks

(All photo courtesy of Jared Wicks, unless otherwise noted)

NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs (Ben's Biz file photo)

NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs (Ben’s Biz file photo)

Growing up in Syracuse, New York, I was taught that there were two teams to root for: Syracuse University basketball and Syracuse University football. If you insisted on watching baseball, then there were New York Yankees games on TV. I was also taught that my family’s income level would only permit attending a few sporting events each season, and always in the upper, upper deck.

In my youth I was familiar with the Chiefs. But, like many people in the area, I never thought much of them. That changed during the 2004 season, when I was 17. I received some free tickets from my sister, so my friends and I decided to head to the ballpark. Why not? The list of things to do in the area on a minimum wage budget were few and far between. That night, after the seventh inning, my friends and I sneaked down to the lower level seats and watched a man named Russ Adams play for Syracuse. He made an impression on us, largely because of the PA announcer’s introduction of “Ruuuussss Ad-dams.” Then, just a few days later, my friends and I were at a local sports bar watching the Toronto Blue Jays play against the New York Yankees. Up to plate came a man whom I had recently been just a few feet away from. Yes, Mr. Ruuuuussss Ad-dams.

Ever since that day I’ve been a die-hard fan. The Chiefs have, without seeming to even try, made me feel important while providing top-notch entertainment. I am certainly not rich, but when I’m at NBT Bank Stadium it’s hard not to feel that way. For a small price, you can sit just a few feet away from the baseball stars of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Chiefs became my little secret, but it wasn’t long before all of my friends took to the idea of going to games. In the central New York area there aren’t too many entertainment options on a summer night, and it doesn’t get much better than being at the ballpark watching players competing within the highest level of the Minors. From my vantage point in section 105, row 1, I’ve gotten a chance to watch Jayson Werth, Vernon Wells, John Smoltz, Josh Beckett, Melky Cabrera, Bryce Harper and many, many more. I can hear, smell and see everything, and maybe even get to hear the players say “Thank you” after I scream out “Good luck.”

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Stephen Strasburg pitching for the Chiefs in 2010

In all the time I’ve been going to games, one of the most important aspects has been getting a chance to meet and become friends with some great people. Unlike bigger sports franchises, Minor League Baseball provides an intimate atmosphere. I have gotten to know many season-ticket holders and fans on a first-name basis — or should I say on a nickname basis? One of my favorites is former season-ticket holder Michael Kendrick. (Or, as we liked to call him, “K Dad.”) Kendrick came to every game from 2005-13, and during this time he was responsible for hanging the strikeout “Ks” for the Chiefs pitchers. He also was known for his heckling of players, which he peppered with unique and obscure facts. He might mention a player’s interests outside of baseball, or call former Yankee prospect Shelly Duncan by his real name (it’s David).

And then there’s Dave, who sits in section 207, row 1 at every single game (and many road games, too). While quiet in nature, Dave boasts a vast knowledge of not just Syracuse Chiefs baseball but also politics, social issues and other areas of sports history. And of course I have to mention Lloyd “The Suspect” Broadnax. We call Broadnax “the suspect” because of the catchphrase he uses while heckling the opposing team: “You’re not a prospect, you’re a suspect!”  Broadnax doesn’t stop his heckling for even one minute during the game. The writer of this blog, Ben Hill, learned that this past season. Hill was trying to interview him, and during the interview Broadnax would only answer his questions in-between pitches.

(That article can be found HERE).

Jared Wicks, center, dressed as an umpire. Lloyd "The Suspect" Broadnax is in the white Chiefs jersey.

Jared Wicks, center, standing next to Lloyd “The Suspect” Broadnax (in white)

As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to love the Chiefs, management at the ball yard changed hands prior to the 2014 season. Jason Smorol was named general manager, and everything that I always said I would love to do if I owned a Minor League team came to life during his first season. Smorol brought an unmatched energy to the ballpark, introducing great games, promotions, deals and themes that made you not want to miss a single game.

One night, during a rain delay, the Chiefs set up a free miniature golf course on the concourse. I mean, how cool is that?

2014-06-24 20.19.07

One promotion that I really became a part of was Tattoo Night. This promo offered me a chance at two great things: One, to get a free Syracuse Chiefs’ logo tattoo, courtesy of the Chiefs and sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City. Two, that very tattoo now grants me free admission for life to all Chiefs games.

2014-07-01 17.09.10

Regardless of the tattoo, the Chiefs are well worth the five dollar cost of admission. They have provided me with years of not just entertainment, but memories. Summer nights with friends, enjoying dollar hot dogs, talking about work and family, watching fireworks, laughing at monkeys dressed as cowboys riding dogs and even seeing things like a perfect game by Columbus Clipper Justin Germano and a four-homer game by the Chiefs’ Michael Aubrey. And last season I — and the whole city — was provided with a real chance to get excited. The Chiefs made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and won their first division title since 1989.

Being a fan of the Chiefs has also given me an opportunity to visit other great cities, simply by following the team. Day trips to Rochester, Scranton and even Cooperstown to see them play have allowed me to explore those cities.

18 May 2008- Cooperstown 001

Shopping, zoos and landmarks lead to great day trips, which still cost under $100 for two people (including game tickets, gas and food). I even got a chance, in 2011, to watch the Chiefs play the Pawtucket Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston. The seats we had would have cost $150 face value at a Red Sox game, but they only cost me $22 and that was for a doubleheader.

2011-08-20_20-35-32_675

The cuisine at any ballpark is great, superior to any other sports option in Syracuse. The Chiefs sell Hoffman’s Hot Dogs, a central New York staple, a dog so good that Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim and Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach became investors. The Chiefs sell these hot dogs at the same price that it would cost you to make one at home and, on Thursdays, for even less than that. My love of all things Canada is satisfied with poutine, and there are also pulled pork sandwiches, salt potatoes (a New York specialty) and even a burger with a hot dog on top of it.

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Poutine, Bens Biz file photo

I have recently changed my goals in life, from working as a correction officer to returning to school. I now want to work in sports, preferably Minor League Baseball, and it’s all thanks to the Chiefs. I love this team because they love me right back. Unlike at Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field, there is something to be said for watching a sports team whose staff knows your name, whose ushers know your seat and whose players smile when they hear you say something funny.

While other sports fans in New York may struggle to obtain custom license plates of their favorite teams — they’re all taken — GoChiefs was available for me as a way to show my pride. Summer is meant to be spent outdoors, and in central NY there is no cheaper or better option than the Syracuse Chiefs.

2013-06-03 17.17.41

Thanks to Jared for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2014 “On the Road” post detailing my Syracuse Chiefs experience. Jared even makes a cameo: 

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Opening the Floodgates

This week I have been aware of a distinct shift in the tone and tenor of the national Minor League Baseball conversation. Valentine’s Day promos and borderline insane snow-related ticket deals are on the way out, as the primary focus is now on the 2015 season that soon will be. Promotion schedules are being released at a rapid clip, and as a result Opening Day know feels like a tangible thing as opposed to a vague abstraction.

What I’m trying to say here, as always, is that I have a bunch of random new Minor League promos to share with you. So share them, I will:

My prediction is that, by the end of 2015, we’ll be so sick of 30th anniversary Back to the Future celebrations that a future pop culture Terminator will go back in time in order to insure that the movie doesn’t get made at all. But for now, let’s celebrate this rising promotional trend. The Biscuits will be wearing these theme jerseys on June 27, for example:

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Knights will have a Delorean on the premises.

charlotteknightsd

While currently lacking a distinct visual to go along with it, the Bowie Baysox announced that, on July 19, they will be giving away a Babe Ruth bobblehead in which he is wearing the uniform of the 1914 (Minor League) Baltimore Orioles. This is, in a word, great.

bb

(As for that “Touch a Truck” event, my hope is that the Baysox release a promotional “trailer.” For far more truck puns, courtesy of myself and several Minor League broadcasters, go HERE.)

Also lacking a distinct visual, but also great, is this August 6 eggs-travaganza in Toledo:

Bacon & Eggs Night

Fans will have a sizzlin’ good time at the first ever ‘Bacon and Eggs Night’ at Fifth Third Field. Things will heat up when the Hens take the field wearing egg-themed jerseys and hats against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who will be wearing their popular bacon-themed jerseys.

Thanks to a “last-minute” recruiting day commitment, the Bowling Green Hot Rods are pleased to announce that Ickey Woods will be visiting the ballpark on August 15. Per the team:

Woods will sign autographs, mingle with fans, and showcase his signature celebration….His appearance will be joined by specials on cold cuts, and Woods will lead Bowling Green Ballpark in an attempt to break the record for the most “Ickey Shuffles” done simultaneously in one location.

ickey

The Sacramento River Cats are capitalizing on on our nation’s apparently insatiable appetite for ’90s pop culture nostalgia via this “Legends of the Hidden Temple” theme jersey:

Speaking of ’90s nostalgia, you probably heard about this one already. The Brooklyn Cyclones are staging “Saved By the Bell Night” on June 24:

saved_cyclones_960x540_b16ffj5t_f8wopua5

You’ll have to use your imagination for now, but the Richmond Flying Squirrels are giving away Joe Panik “Panik Buttons” on July 21.

Star Wars promotions have become an epidemic throughout Minor League Baseball. The Buffalo Bisons, one of many teams to tie a theme jersey into the evening’s attractions, will be wearing “Jedi Robes” on July 18.

jedi

In what is certainly one of the cruder promotions of the year, the Midland RockHounds are wearing these black gold-splattered duds during August’s “Oil Field Weekend.”

oil

(For what it’s worth, I am a much bigger fan of locally-oriented theme jerseys such as that shown above. Pop culture jerseys have their place, but as a general rule I believe that clubs should give precedence to that which highlights the uniqueness of their own community. And, certainly, Midland is a unique baseball market.)

Finally, we have the Lakewood BlueClaws. On May 22, two days after David Letterman signs off from the airwaves, the team is staging a promotion in honor of the iconic late night host. If you’re wondering why they would do such a thing, then simply consult the BlueClaws’ Top 10 List.

Letterman

This post represents a mere smattering (is there any other type of smattering?) of the notable promotions that will be staged in 2015. Stay tuned, as there will be (too) much more where this comes from.

Can Minor League Baseball be stopped? No, it cannot be stopped.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

The RubberDucks Shoot Down Brian Williams

April 27, as you well know, is “National Tell A Story Day.” The Akron RubberDucks, seeking to commemorate this beloved annual occasion, were recently struck with a burst of inspiration: Why not pay tribute to disgraced NBC news anchor Brian Williams, a man who has recently proven himself to be a storyteller par excellence?

And here we go, the first Minor League promo to be inspired by the Lies of Brian, live and direct from the (Sa)Tire City. It is sure to anchor the RubberDucks’ promo schedule, and if you don’t like that they’re doing it, I simply refer to you this piece of apparel that can be found in the team store:

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And now, in the interest of maintaining my own impeccable journalistic credentials, I will now unquestioningly quote the team’s press release at length:

[Brian Williams Pants on Fire Night] will feature an array of storytelling-related fun. Highlights include:

  • First 100 fans will receive a pair of suspenders upon entering Canal Park
  • On-field contests, including “To Tell the Truth” and “Two Truths & a Brian Williams,” also known as “Two Truths and a Lie”
  • In honor of National Tell a Story Day, a fan named Brian Williams will read tall tales
  • A between-inning chance for fans to audition to be the next television news anchor on the video board, with the fan-voted winner’s video sent to NBC
  • A pair of pants from Brian Williams will be burned in a “pants on fire” ceremony
  • Any fan in attendance named Brian Williams will have a chance to throw out a ceremonial first pitch 

I’m guessing that the suspenders will help suspend fans’ belief that such a ridiculous promotion is actually taking place. I would also like to know how, exactly, that the RubberDucks’ plan to obtain a pair of Brian Williams’ pants for the on-field “pants on fire” ceremony. Did they have just so happen to have a pair lying around, right next to Brokaw’s blazer and a pair of Cronkite cuff links? I heard a rumor they also might have a pair of Dan’s underwear, but I’d Rather not go there.

Either way, I’m looking forward to April 27. Here’s hoping the RubberDucks actually go through with this promo, and don’t later claim that the idea had, in fact, been shot down.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a more good-natured media-themed Eastern League promo announced in the late afternoon of February 10, the Trenton Thunder would like you to know about this:

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Further strengthening my Pulitzer credentials, I once again defer to the press release in lieu of any journalistic legwork whatsoever:

Last night, Mercer County native Jon Stewart (Lawrence, NJ) announced his plans to leave Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” after a historic run as the show’s anchor for over 16 years. Stewart mentioned that he had looked forward to having dinner on a school night with his family and that he had heard from multiple sources that they “are lovely people.”

Your Thunder proudly extend an official invitation to Mr. Stewart to enjoy a game in the family-friendly environment of ARM & HAMMER Park.

Stewart, a well-known Mets fan, is welcome to attend the Binghamton Mets’ only visit to ARM & HAMMER Park during a four-game series beginning on July 23. That weekend the Thunder will giveaway CC Sabathia bobbleheads presented by TD Bank (July 24 to the first 2,000 fans ages 14 and over) and have two opportunities to watch fireworks shows (July 23 and 25). On Sunday July 26, the first 1,000 fans (age 14 and over) through the gate will get a duffle bag, and after the game, kids can run the bases courtesy of TD Bank.

My sources (aka “the voices in my head that compel me to keep writing nonsense long after people have stopped reading”) tell me that the Thunder briefly considered extending a similar invite to Stewart’s The Daily Show predecessor. That idea, however, was Kilborn.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Guest Post: Why I Love the Durham Bulls

It’s time for another “Why I Love” guest post, in which a Minor League fan explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Ken Childs, a proud resident of Durham, North Carolina and, therefore, a proud fan of the Durham Bulls. 

To see other “Why I Love” guest posts, click HERE. And If YOU would like to write a “Why I Love” post, email me at benjamin.hill@mlb.com.

Why I Love the Durham Bulls, by Ken Childs 

(All photos courtesy of Ken Childs)

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Opening Day, 2014

I’ve been a resident of the beautiful city of Durham, North Carolina my entire adult life.  The city has transformed over the last 14 years from what was almost an afterthought of a place into a bustling center for local restaurants, shopping and the arts.  And in the middle of all that growth has been (and always will be) the Durham Bulls.

You’ve probably heard the name: There was a little indie movie made about the Bulls in the 1980s that did okay.  The players who have come through here have shaped the Major League Baseball landscape for quite some time. The Bulls have been a consistent model of how teams should be run, and that has been shown in their continual trips to the Governors’ Cup playoffs. The list of “what’s not to like” about the Bulls, their home of Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) and their organization as a whole wouldn’t be long enough to fill out an index card, let alone this space, so we’ll go with “what there is to like” and ramble on for a while all about it!

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The view atop the “Blue Monster” in left field

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995, is considered “older” now, at least when compared to the Minor League Baseball building boom that’s come about over the last decade or so. Nonetheless, you likely won’t find a nicer stadium anywhere. On any given summer night, on the corner of Blackwell and Jackie Robinson, you’ll find families, friends, couples and desperately single guys alike settled in the beautiful 10,000 seat stadium to take in not only great baseball, but great entertainment in general. And the building itself is what those new stadiums aim to be. You want your Minor League park to be a smaller version of a Major League stadium, downtown, near lots of restaurants and things to do both before and after the game?  The DBAP has long been that, before most new stadiums were even a glimmer in an architect’s eye.

The DBAP has its own little quirks that make it like no other: There’s the bull (of Hit Bull, Win Steak fame), Jackie’s Landing (the nicest bar in Durham), the Blue Monster, the grass in the outfield entire families sit on to enjoy a game on a weekend evening and no other shortage of things that make it unique.

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For a facility of its caliber, and a team of its caliber, the Durham Bulls are just about as budget-friendly as their mascot, Wool E Bull, is family-friendly (the “E” is short for “Education”…seriously).

Peek-A-Bull

Peek-A-Bull

The Bulls offer dollar hot dog nights, the best fireworks show anywhere (your town’s 4th of July show pales in comparison, I promise) and lots of great coupons and deals to get in on the cheap. And, even if you don’t, the most expensive ticket in the place is $15.  Admit it: in the past, you’ve spent a lot more on a lot less.

Section 114, Row A

Section 114, Row A

So that’s what there is to love, in general, about the Durham Bulls. Now, why do I love them? For starters, they’re my hometown team. At heart I’m a Chicago White Sox fan, and their Triple-A team is down the road in a lesser city in North Carolina playing in the same International League division. But when they come to town, you can only root for one team, and that’s going to be the hometown one (even if the Bulls are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays).

At heart I’m a “people person” kind of guy, and the Bulls’ entire staff are the same way. From Jatovi (the Bulls on-field announcer and master of ceremonies) to general manager Mike Birling and everyone in between, there’s not a single person who won’t go out of their way to help a fan make his or her experience amazing. I’m not a needy guy, but anytime I’ve ever had any issue with anything, there was someone there in a Bulls shirt to lend a hand.

I’m also a sucker for food and cheeky events, and the Bulls have me covered that department as well. There’s Food Truck Rodeo night, where all of Durham’s best food trucks (and we have many) line up in right field. There’s craft beer night, ’80s night, ’90s night and the always popular Bark in the Park night.  The concessions have everything from traditional ballpark food to taco stands to what is truly some of the best BBQ anywhere. So, whatever you’re in the mood for, DBAP most likely offers it. The on-field action is always great, but sometimes it’s that little extra fun in-between innings that makes the night special.

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Food Truck Rodeo

Bark in the Park

Ken Childs (right) and his dog, Deacon, at Bark in the Park Night

And, of course, there’s the baseball itself. The roster is generally made up of outstanding players who are also outstanding people. Hardly ever do you see a player skip a chance to sign an autograph, grab a picture with a fan or flip an extra ball to a kid in the first few rows. Great players like David Price, Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Craig Albernaz, Desmond Jennings and so many more have spent substantial time here in Durham, and this has led to the knowledge that, at any given ballgame, you’re seeing the future of baseball right before your eyes.

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Wil Myers thrills a young fan

A moment with Craig Albernaz

A moment with Craig Albernaz

The Bulls are always in the hunt for the playoffs, and since moving to Durham in 2001 I’ve seen them win the International League championship four times. Baseball is always a little bit more fun when your team is winning, and that is rarely a problem here in Bull City.

The Governors' Cup, awarded to the IL's championship team

The Governors’ Cup, awarded to the IL’s championship team

In short, there are a lot of baseball teams out there, but none are as great as the Durham Bulls. Candlesticks always make a nice gift, but Bulls tickets might be just a little bit nicer.

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The iconic Lucky Strike tower, towering over DBAP

Thanks to Ken for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Durham Bulls experience.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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