On the Road: Taking a Peek at the Valleys in West Virginia

To see all posts from my June 30, 2015 visit to the West Virginia Black Bears (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

The reason that I dubbed this road trip “Virginias 2015” —  as opposed to “Virginia 2015 — was because it did indeed contain multiple Virginias. But the singular did not become multiple until the very last day of the trip, when I crossed the state line from Virginia into Maryland and then into the other Virginia.

West Virginia.

This was a scenic journey, full of steep hills and Maryland woodland and convenience stores that sell beet eggs (marking the first time I’d had a beet egg since visiting the Hagerstown Suns back in 2011). IMG_1548But I’m not here to write about beet eggs. I’m done with that, it’s ovum. I’m here to write about the West Virginia Black Bears, the newest entrant into the increasingly inaccurately named New York-Penn League. Actually, I already have written about the Black Bears, over on MiLB.com, and I’m going to borrow from that article a few times in this blog post. Starting now:

Over the last two decades, the New York-Penn League has expanded far beyond the two states in its name. The Class A Short Season circuit currently has franchises in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and, as of last month, West Virginia.

The NYPL’s first Mountain State entrant, which relocated from Jamestown, New York, has dubbed itself the West Virginia Black Bears. Specifically, the Black Bears represent the north-central metropolis of Morgantown and the surrounding community. Monongalia County Stadium, the team’s brand-new facility, is shared with West Virginia University’s Big 12 baseball program. The Black Bears, a Pirates affiliate, played their first game there on June 19.

The stadium is located on “Gyorko Drive,” named after local-baseball-hero-turned-San Diego Padre-Jedd Gyorko. “Gyorko Drive” isn’t on any maps yet and will probably not appear in your GPS device of choice. Your best bet is to set your coordinates for the Wal-Mart on University Town Centre Drive (in Granville, not Morgantown) and then just keep on driving right past the Wal-Mart (as it is always best to do). Eventually, you’ll make it to Monongalia County Stadium.

This was my first view of the stadium. Many superior views were to follow, but you never forget your first.

002Meanwhile, in the other direction, there was this vast expanse:

001Again, from my MiLB.com story:

Monongalia County Ballpark is located not in Morgantown but to the northwest in the comparatively miniscule town of Granville (pop. 2,508). The area in which the ballpark is located used to be coal mining country. It is currently surrounded by, well, not much.

Change is imminent. Granville’s University Town Centre — a sprawling assemblage of chain stores, restaurants and hotels — is located en route to the ballpark, and similar development is planned in the area surrounding the park. Black Bears assistant general manager John Pogorzelski said that there will soon be a new Route 79 off-ramp close to the stadium to accommodate the traffic generated by the new hotels, stores and, of course, baseball fans.

Pogorzelski and Black Bears general manager Matt Drayer both relocated with the franchise from Jamestown, New York, where they held the same positions with the Jammers. To say that West Virginia and Jamestown are two entirely different baseball atmospheres would be an understatement. It would also be correct. Here’s a picture of the Jammers’ home of Russell E. Diethrick Park, from when I visited late last August:
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Pogorzelski — whom I will henceforth call “John” — gave me a tour of the facility. We began by entering the external structure located beyond right field (to the left of Gate C). The smell of paint permeated the area, resulting in a visceral reminder that this ballpark is still very, very new. Here’s the home clubhouse, which is pretty small for a new stadium. Nonetheless, when we walked by, there was some ping pong-table acquisition chatter going on inside. There’s always room for ping-pong.

006The vast majority of the ballpark’s Black Bear population was out on the field, vigorously exercising thigh muscle.
007As you may have inferred from the above photo (but probably didn’t) the entire field (save for the clay pitcher’s mound) is artificial turf.

008The berm area is real grass, but the berm area (on both sides of the ballpark) is not yet open to fans because the hills are so steep. This is a very Hill-y ballpark, even on days in which I am not there.

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The Black Bears might compete on artificial turf, but they nonetheless have (and need) a groundskeeper. His name is Craig McIntosh.

011I wrote a short MiLB.com article about Craig and how he does his job, which can be found HERE. It is the first story that I have ever written that includes the term “mound fetish.” Craig also talked about how a big part of his job his job involves picking debris off of the artificial turf. Hence, rules:

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Monongalia County Ballpark has only 2500 fixed seats. There are no arm rests, at least for now, with John explaining that the initial choice was between arm rests and cup holders.

“We figured that people would need a place to hold their beer,” he said.

014We then walked up the stairs to the press box and suite level, which provides the best example of what is this ballpark’s best feature: The View.

IMG_1549Once again, I’m going to dip my blogging ladle into the supple pre-existing MiLB.com article well.

The unique topography of Monongalia County Ballpark makes for a somewhat awkward layout, but any minor inconveniences are made up for — and then some — by what is one of the best views in Minor League Baseball.

The ballpark faces to the southeast. That’s downtown Morgantown beyond left field (in both foul and fair territory), which gives way to the smaller town of Westover and, most prominently, the natural beauty which lays beyond the winding Monongahela River (not visible from the ballpark). There’s a reason that WVU’s sports teams are called “Mountaineers,” and, of course, within those mountains one can find black bears.  

There’s a lot of room in the press box — especially by New York-Penn League standards — and this is because the ballpark needs to accommodate the oft-larger WVU Big 12 baseball media contingent. (There are three radio booths — home, visitor and student — though the student booth isn’t used during Black Bears games.)

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021There are three suites, one of them being this 50-person group area.

022Behind the ballpark, on the first base side, is a WVU-affiliated medical facility. I guess, if you really wanted to, you could watch the game from here for free. You could also take a terrifying tumble into the abyss, if you’re not careful.

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At the time that I visited, the Black Bears front office had not yet moved into what will be their office. Like the player locker rooms, I was surprised at the relative smallness of the offices. Generally, new ballparks are more expansive.

033Nice view from this executive suite, however:

032As we got closer to the start of the game, fans started gathering outside the main gate.

037Most stadium main entrances are not located in the left field corner, as this one is. Take it away, MiLB.com story:

The home plate side of Monogalia County Ballpark is built up against a hill, and as such there is no home plate entry into the ballpark. This leads to a unique feature in that the main entrance, Gate A, is located in left-center field. Fans entering through the gate then embark on (what should be) a leisurely walk down the third base concourse to the seating area behind home plate.

038The evening’s ballgame, featuring the Black Bears taking on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, was not destined to start on time. The skies were threatening. Look closely and you can see that the tarp was on the field. (It’s better to have a mound fetish than the mound wettish.)

IMG_1552Another ballpark, another rain delay. Thus is life on the road.

Speaking of “life on the road,” I am writing this post from an undisclosed location in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Yep – a new road trip has already begun, and here I am still writing about the last one. Stay tuned for more from West Virginia, as well as what is sure to be a whole heck of a lot from this late July/early August jaunt through the Deep South.

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On the Road: Surf and Turf in Potomac

To see all posts from my June 29, 2015 visit to the Potomac Nationals (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

This is Tony Jaeger.

047Tony’s last name does not have an umlaut, but his name is pronounced as if it was the first two syllables of herbal liqueur Jagermeister (which does have an umlaut). He said that bartenders sometimes give him free shots of Jagermeister, which is good, because it’s not a drink that he likes enough to actually pay for.

But Tony wasn’t attending this Potomac Nationals game so he could drink, or at least that wasn’t the primary reason. He was attending it so he could eat. Specifically, he was to serve as my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). He was joined at Pfitzner Stadium by his girlfriend, Katie. They met on eHarmony, and have been dating for six months.

052Tony, an El Paso native, lives in Washington D.C. (about a 45-minute drive from “The Pfitz”). He works for a non-profit organization that aids those recovering from addiction, managing the property and also assisting with activities.

“I’ve watched him do bingo,” Katie said.

Katie, meanwhile, had been an elementary school teacher for the last decade. She recently resigned, however, saying that it’s “a longer day than I get paid for.”

Tony and Katie are both baseball fans. He has a share of a Washington Nationals season-ticket plan, regularly rides his bike to games and follows the team’s affiliates online. Katie, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, is a Baltimore Orioles supporter. She also supported Tony’s designated eating endeavors.

“I’m excited; he likes to eat,” she said. “And I like this stadium. It’s what baseball is really about. I’m glad we’re here.”

The three of us were standing in the Cafe Area, a concession and picnic area located just past the main entrance. The Cafe Area had a fairly wide-ranging menu, including, yes, a bacon boat.

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The Cafe Area also had a tremendous line, one so long that I have to show it over the course of two photographs.

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044We were in search of “The Codfather,” a fried fish sandwich obtainable at the tent on the left. There was no line to speak of at this tent, thank goodness. The mighty Ben’s Biz does not deign to wait in lines.

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This turned out to be a slightly trumped-up “Codfather,” as it included both cod and shrimp. It was topped with cole slaw. 046Here’s a shot of Jaeger:

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And here’s a short video:

“Thank God for the cole slaw, otherwise it’s just fried seafood in a hot dog bun,” said Tony, of the Codfather. “It’s good, tasty, if someone was looking for something substantial. I would add cocktail sauce.”

Okay, what’s next?

“Let’s look for the enigmatic,” it says in my notebook. I’m not sure who said that, but it captures our collective spirit at that moment. Specifically, we were looking for the enigmatic “National Burger,” which had been suggested earlier in the evening by P-Nats general manager Josh Olerud. But where could this burger be obtained? It wasn’t in the Cafe Area and it wasn’t in the same tent location in which we had located the Codfather.

As we bravely plunged into the crowded concourse area, our fates uncertain, I heard a voice call my name. It was P-Nats food and beverage manager Aaron Johnson, and in his hand was the mysterious National Burger. The enigmatic had been located, and all was right with the world.

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Johnson explained that the National Burger consisted of a pub burger topped with two slices of American cheese (one white and one yellow) and a Nathan’s hot dog. Beneath the burger, serving as the base, was a layer of french fries.

“Since our team name is the Nationals, we figured we’d do something all-American,” Johnson said.

Tony wasted no time getting down to business.

051 “Oh, that’s good,” he said. “I couldn’t taste the potatoes, but cheese, burger and hot dogs captures the taste buds. And it’s not falling apart. If there was [an eating] challenge with this, I’d do it. And I’d get it again, if I could find it.”

And with that, Tony had completed his designated eating duties. He and Katie were free to return to their seats, which were located right behind home plate (courtesy of the P-Nats).

“They’re excellent seats,” Tony said. “I was telling [Katie], ‘Baby, this is the closest you’re ever gonna see home plate.'”

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On the Road: Hanging with the Regulars, Watching the Irregular in Potomac

To see all posts from my June 29, 2015 visit to the Potomac Nationals (this is part two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

I’m running out of ways to introduce the second part of a blog post series. It almost always begins at the start of the ballgame, and this post is no exception: A baseball game had just begun; specifically a Carolina League contest between the Potomac Nationals and visiting Carolina Mudcats at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium.

As mentioned in the previous post, this is a stadium that faces west to a degree that is less-than-ideal.

041It was a Monday, but it wasn’t just any Monday. It was Dollar Monday — $1 general admission tickets and $1 hot dogs. This led to a much larger crowd than I was expecting, which was later announced at 5,137. The concourse can barely accommodate such a robust group of buck wiener seekers.

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Among the fans in attendance was Todd Headington, who asked for a photo and later tweeted the following. This is the first time I’ve ever been called a “MiLB Hero” and, yeah, I’m bragging about it.

But the real heroes are the guys on the field. I’m talking, of course, about that evening’s roster of Intern Olympians. There was some structure to all of this, with one team competing against another throughout the night, but who needs context to enjoy absurdity? 037I guess the blue guy won. 038The denizens of the non-descending dugout were unenthused by the proceedings. 040Uncle Slam, looking for a handout. 042The sun was oppressive at the beginning of the game, but as the evening wore on it turned into an incredibly pleasant night. Yes, not just pleasant, but incredibly pleasant. It’s easy to make jokes about the Pfitz being a glorified rec league field, but tell me you wouldn’t want to be sitting in the stands on an evening like this. I dare you. 056 I mean, really. 057And speaking of rec league fields, there’s one located just across the way. I took this photo through a chain link fence located on the third base side of the stadium. 053While there were plenty of open seats behind home plate, the bleachers were booming with $1 patrons. 060That was the view to my right. To my left was a front-office observation area of sorts. 059And straight ahead was Ken’s Place, a gathering place for a group of dedicated P-Nats fans. 062Would you believe that I wrote an MiLB.com story about the denizens of Ken’s Place? I’m sure you would. I don’t know why I phrased it that way. HERE is a link to the story, and here is an excerpt:

Ken’s Place [is] a standing-room-only gathering spot identified by a banner hanging on a chain-link fence that runs down the first base line. It has the atmosphere of a local watering hole, a largely male enclave where everybody seems to know everybody else. Within this convivial locale, the trash talk, in-jokes and beer flow freely. Ken’s Place is a longstanding tribute to die-hard P-Nats fan Ken Rostkowski, a mainstay at “The Pfitz” who passed away suddenly in 2007 at the age of 46.

“We’ve all been here a long time, at least 15 years,” explained Ken’s Place regular John Foot, whose name, he said, is spelled “just like a leg.” “Kenny passed away almost 10 years ago. We had all got to be pretty good friends with him. We all met through baseball.”

During my visit to Ken’s Place, something hilarious happened. For some reason, or perhaps no reason, Cookie Monster tackled Uncle Slam during a between-inning race. Uncle was Slammed to the ground, and his head popped off. I understand that headless mascots are one of Minor League Baseball’s biggest taboos, but as a conscientious journalist I have no choice but to share.

Moving on to a less-controversial topic, it was still a beautiful night! In fact, it just kept on getting more beautiful.  IMG_1539

IMG_1537

The P-Nats went on to secure a 7-2 victory over the Mudcats of Zebulon, North Carolina. But even more importantly, some interns won the Intern Olympics and some interns lost the Intern Olympics and therefore some of the winning interns hit some of the losing interns in the face with a pie of some sort.

064There’s not much that can be done after that, except maybe toss a few tennis balls in the direction of various on-field targets.  065Well, actually, there was still one more thing to do. These jokes don’t write themselves.

Good night from the Pfitz.

IMG_1543

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On the Road: Putzing Around the Pfitz in Potomac

To see all posts from my June 29, 2015 visit to the Potomac Nationals (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

The Potomac Nationals were the penultimate stop on this, my pen-penultimate road trip of the season. The P-Nats, as they are known colloquially, play in G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium. This facility is known colloquially as “The Pfitz.”

The Pfitz is located in Woodbridge, Virginia, part of the greater Washington D.C. area. Driving in this heavily congested area gives me Pfitz, but I allotted myself plenty of time to make the trip from Salem and made it to Woodbridge uneventfully. After arriving at the listed alliterative address of 7 County Complex Court, I parked my car in a lot largely occupied by Prince William County government vehicles. After changing my shirt (yep, yet another instance of stadium parking lot toplessness), I looked around and was at first confused as to where the stadium actually was.

001 Ah, yes, there it is.

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The Pfitz opened in 1984, and has not aged all that Orwell. P-Nats owner Art Silber has been working for years to finance a new stadium, an effort I covered in some detail during the offseason, and its days appear to be numbered. But despite the long-articulated deficiencies of this no-frills Carolina League facility, I was immediately charmed by it.
003Uncle Slam wants you to, per industry operating principles, enjoy an evening of affordable family-friendly fun.

004The main entrance of the stadium leads directly into the Cafe Area.

008The Cafe Area is locked in an unending staring contest with “The National Mall” team store.

011In the adjacent ticket office, I became acquainted with a triumvirate of recent P-Nats giveaway items: Wilson “The Buffalo” Ramos, Michael Taylor Flattop figurine and the Jayson Werth Beard-A-Rine. All of them make perfect sense and do not need to be explained.

IMG_1533To the right of the team store is a franchise Hall of Fame, which features some pretty big names.

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We now transition from big names to a small concourse.

017But the front office still finds ways to be creative within these confines. I’d never seen a photo booth at a Minor League ballpark before, and think it’s a great idea.

018I soon ran into Andrew Pollowitz,  recent Lynn University graduate and P-Nats intern.

019Pollowitz doesn’t dress like this every game, or at least I don’t think he does. The P-Nats were staging the “Intern Olympics” on this Monday evening, an event of great pomp and pageantry that required costumes such as the above. Weiners could be seen everywhere.

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Finally, mercifully, I made it out onto the field of play. The Pfitz is a minimalist amalgam of seats and bleachers.

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This, allegedly, is the best seat in the house.

024Here, we see a rare living example of the non-descending dugout.

025It was a beautiful day for baseball. That’s all I ever ask for.

027There is little relief from the sun, however, a situation that is exacerbated by the Pfitz’s less-than-ideal orientation. It’s not at Bakersfield (or even Batavia) facing-the-sun levels, but still pretty bad.

028The start of the game was still more than half an hour away. Thus, it was an ideal time to conduct an interview. This, here, is Thomas J. Rhoads, a Towson University professor and author of the recently-published The Call Up to the Majors: A Proximity-Based Approach to the Economics of Minor League Baseball.

029I’ll write an article based on my interview with Thomas, as soon as I get the chance (as you may have noticed, I’m having a real hard time keeping up with my travel schedule this season). But I’d recommend checking out his book if you’re interested in the business of Minor League Baseball (although, fair warning, it is priced at an academic rather than mass audience level). From the back cover:

This book explores the unique relationships between professional baseball teams and the unique ways professional baseball teams are organized in North America with a primary focus on how proximity can and does impact consumer demand. 

After taking the photo of Thomas seen above, I turned to my right and found myself in proximity to this quintessentially Minor League Baseball tableau.

Okay, enough stall-ing, it was time for the game to begin. The starters hustled out onto the field for the National Anthem.

032While the reserves took their sweet old time.

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As for me, I’ll take my sweet old time finishing up this Potomac Nationals blog series. It’s not like I’m leaving on my next trip in a couple of days or anything. Stay tuned…

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Dawg Days of Summer in Salem

To see all posts from my June 28, 2015 visit to the Salem Red Sox (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

We have now reached the third and final post in this Salem series and, if you’ve been following along so far this season, then you know that the third and final post is, invariably, dedicated to food. So what kind of concession items can you get at the Salem Red Sox’s home of Lewis-Gale Field? We’ll get to that in a moment.

I want to start, however, by highlighting something that you can sometimes get (but not on the Sunday afternoon in which I was in attendance): Baum’s BBQ truck, a vehicular food purveyor with an exalted reputation, sets up shop every Friday and Saturday night.

baum

Photo from baumsbbq.com

Salem Red Sox general manager Ryan Shelton is a native of Owensboro, Kentucky, a locale oft-referred to as “the barbecue capital of the world.” He told me that, with all due respect to Owensboro, Baum’s serves the best barbecue he’s ever had. I wish I had a picture of me eating it, to post right here. Use your imagination:

 

 

 

But, Baum’s or no Baum’s, the Salem Red Sox food show must go on. The first order of business, as always, was to meet with my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). At Lewis-Gale Field, that would be one Jennifer Frye.

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Jennifer and her family have recently moved to nearby Roanoke, with Jennifer taking a job as an environmental supervisor for the US Army Corps of Engineers. (Come to think of it, I should have asked her for information regarding “environmentally protected wastelands,” a term I was still confused about after hearing it applied to the portion of the Elizabeth River that runs behind the Norfolk Tides’ home of Harbor Park.)

Jennifer said that she volunteered to be the designated eater because she’ll “do anything for Minor League Baseball. It’s good to me, and I’m good to it.” Her two sons — ages 13 and 9 — did not materialize at any point  during her time with me at the concession stands, with Jennifer remarking that they were “worried that Mom’s gonna embarrass them.”

Fair enough, kids. But I guarantee that, when all is said and done, your childhood will have been greatly enhanced by having a Mom with a fun, adventurous and humorous spirit. This spirit was shared by the entirely non-embarrassed adults in Jennifer’s party — husband Jim, sister Justine, and her sister’s husband Jonathan (Justine and Jonathan live outside of Frederick, Maryland, reminding me that I have yet to make it to a Keys game).

039We began at Swine Drive Deli Dawgs, which offers a wide array of specialty frankfurters.

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On the Road: Comeback Scenes and Gossip Queens in Salem

To see all posts from my June 28, 2015 visit to the Salem Red Sox (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

As part one of this blog series concluded, a ballgame was ready to begin on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Salem, Virginia. Now, as we begin part two, the ballgame has just begun. These narrative stakes, they just keep escalating.

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The first batter of the ballgame was Lynchburg’s Luigi Rodriguez, who was greeted with the Super Mario Bros theme music. Rodriguez must have just ingested mushrooms, however, as he powered up and launched the first pitch of the game over the fence. And just like that, the Hillcats had the lead.

Rodriguez’s dinger just about fulfilled my baseball-watching quota for the day, so I commenced upon more ballpark wanderings. First up was a meeting with my designated eater. Following standard operating protocol, that will be documented in the following post. Stay tuned.

I then returned to the concourse, where I was able to immediately confirm that it was still a beautiful day for baseball in Salem. Both at Lewis-Gale Field…

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…and at the adjacent Mini-Fenway Wiffle ball field.

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It was also a beautiful day for collecting autographs from a canine mascot duo. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. That’s Misty on the left, and Mugsy on the right.

044I was glad that I hadn’t missed Misty, but I had missed the previous evening’s “Mullet For Men’s Health Night” promotion. I appreciate the team’s effort to make me feel included on this front (don’t touch the back).

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Business up front, party in the rear

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On the Road: Red Sox and Blue Ridge in Salem

To see all posts from my June 28, 2015 visit to the Salem Red Sox (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

I had a bit of a hard time finding Lewis Gale Field, the home of the Salem Red Sox (Class A Advanced affiliate of, believe it or not, the Boston Red Sox). Actually, no, let me contradict that first sentence, which is always the best way to start a blog post: The stadium itself was easy enough to find. But what I couldn’t find was an entrance, as the main parking lot had recently been pressed into service as the host site of the upcoming Salem Fair.

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Salem’s Lot

I deposited my rental car vehicle in the parking lot seen below, which soon became yet another parking lot in which I could be briefly be seen without a shirt on. (I’m still waiting for someone to snap a photo of me changing shirts in a stadium parking lot. You could sell it to TMZ or something.)

001From this location, it was a pleasant, gently sloping walk to the stadium.

002And, finally, here we are. Like Calvin Falwell Field at Lynchburg City Stadium, where I had been the night before, this, too, is a ballpark with a real mouthful of a name: Lewis-Gale Field at Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium. This facility opened in 1995, and has hosted Salem’s Carolina League franchise for the duration of that time. (The team was known as the “Avalanche” from 1995-2008, switching to the current Boston affiliation and Red Sox name the following season.)

004The “Lewis-Gale” portion of the stadium designation is the result of a naming rights deal with Salem’s Lewis-Gale Medical Center. And, you know what? I’m confused.

I’m often confused.

There is no hyphen in the “Lewis Gale” signage seen above, but on the Salem Red Sox website the facility is referred to as “LewisGale Field”. (Somebody ask Rob Neyer — can a ballpark gain admittance within the ranks of the embarrassing?) So take your pick: Lewis Gale Field, Lewis-Gale Field (as it is listed on Wikipedia, among other places) or LewisGale Field. There are no wrong choices, it’s simply about what you feel most comfortable with.

I don’t want my discursive and invariably self-indulgent dissection of moniker minutiae to distract from the main point here, which is, or should be, this: It was a gorgeous day, and this is an absolutely gorgeous ballpark. My expectations, whatever they were coming in, were immediately exceeded.

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A quick shift of position in a rightward direction results in an even better view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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I had a feeling that my first Salem Red Sox game was gonna be a good one, despite my dismay that longtime broadcaster Evan Lepler is no longer with the team. (To my disc-may, Lepler has since moved on to become an ultimate announcer. Ultimate as in frisbee. On the Salem Red Sox broadcaster timeline, he currently holds the status of penultimate announcer.)

Fortunately, the Salem Red Sox radio booth remains in good hands. On the left is lead broadcaster Kevin Burke, who returned to Salem after working there during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. On the right is number two broadcaster Brian Gardner. Photos of them in their radio booth location are invariably backlit.

011Kevin and Brian are joined in the booth by Scout the Koala and Joey the Kangaroo, gifts from the mother of Australia-born Salem starting pitcher Daniel McGrath. It serves as a reminder of sorts, to both McGrath and the broadcasters, that a contingent of Australian fans are actively following along.

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On the Road: Social Donut and Intimate Sausage in Lynchburg

To see all posts from my June 27, 2015 visit to the Lynchburg Hillcats (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

This is Jimmy “Salad Bar” Wright, pointing to a much younger version of himself. Jimmy served as the bat boy for the 1983 Carolina League champion Lynchburg Mets, a formidable squad that included Doc Gooden, Lenny Dykstra (who stole 105 bases) and, never forget, Jeff Bettendorf.

025Salad Bar — read all about how he got the name HERE — gave up his bat boy duties long ago. These days, he’s the concourse grill master at the Lynchburg Hillcats home of Calvin Falwell Field.

Here are the items he grills up on a nightly basis; salad is not part of Salad Bar’s repertoire:

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Clearly, my designated eater for the evening — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark specialties that my gluten-free diet prohibits — would have to sample some of Salad Bar’s salad-free specialties. He suggested the “Aloha Donut Chicken Sandwich” (topped with bacon and pineapple) and “The Smoke” (sausage topped with fried jalapenos and fried cherry peppers). And so it was.

It’s fitting that the Aloha Donut Chicken Sandwich has a prominent ma-hole-o.

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The Smoke Sausage, meanwhile, would like to wish you a merry crisp-ness.

027My designated eater for the evening was to be the wife-husband duo of Judi Muir and David Freier. There was just one problem, however. When it came time to meet with these individuals, the tarp was on the field and the rain was pouring down. So what to do? And where to go?

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It was eventually suggested that we set up shop in a concourse storage room. The same room, in fact, where the previously highlighted picture of the 1983 club proudly hangs. And. hey, the more the merrier! Judi and David are part of a boisterous Lynchburg rooting section that has dubbed themselves the “Litterbox,” all of whom sought refuge with us in our storage room-turned-dining hall.

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In the above photo, David and Judi are flanked left to right by Litterboxers Steve Horeczko, Matt Lohmeyer, Amanda Bowling, Lauren Liwen, Matt Liwen, Mike Our and Christine Rudy. Laura is pregnant (with a lil’ Litterboxer?) so it’s only proper that she got the seat of honor while the others stood or kneeled.

David and Judi, who moved to Lynchburg in 2003, both teach biology at Lynchburg College. They met in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, got engaged in 1994 and, finally, got married (on a whim, in a hot air balloon) in 2005. (Just for the fun of saying it, I wish they had then decided to go by the hyphenated surname of Muir-Freier). The Liwens are former students of David and Judi, and now refer to them as “life advisors.”

Minor League Baseball has been a constant in the lives of of the Muir-Freiers, with Judi reporting that they attend about half of the Hillcats games and also travel frequently to other stadiums in the area. Otherwise, she said, “we stay home with our four cats.”

I wish I had been able to see “The Litterbox” in action during the game, as they were equipped with a variety of (literal) bells and whistles.

034If you want the scoop on the Litterbox’s plethora of ballpark chants, rituals and in-jokes, then please consult this handy t-shirt (dating back to the team’s Pirates 1995-2009 Pirates affiliation).

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But, anyway, we were here to talk about food. Have at it, Muir-Freiers.

David then started in on the Aloha Donut Chicken Burger.

030“The sweetness of the pineapple with the barbecue sauce blends together well,” said David. “The donut, there’s no sweetness, it’s like a well-made bun. It melts in your mouth. It’s not like a doughy cake donut.”

David then passed this creation down the line, with each Litterbox member taking a bite (clearly, they’re a tight-knit bunch). All gave it high marks.

“The Smoke,” charred to a deep-black, generated no small amount of skepticism. In an email, Judi later mentioned that it looked like “something you would see in a Bones episode.”

032“It needs more condiments,” was Judi’s first impression. “It’s a good sausage. There are supposedly hot peppers, but I haven’t hit them yet. I think I’d have the sweet [sausage] again, over this.”

While Judi wasn’t too enamored with the smoke, she is enamored with her husband. David wanted to give it a try, and this is what resulted.

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Linked by love

Shortly after this heart-warming display, a dispiriting message was heard over the PA: That evening’s ballgame, which had been suspended in the top of the second inning due to rain, would be postponed.

The Litterbox, enthusiastic as they may be, were not able to reverse the team’s decision. There would be no more baseball in Lynchburg that evening, nor would there be any more food. But my time with the Litterbox, believe it or not, was not over. The next day, I’d see them cheering on the Hillcats in Salem.

Until then, I remain, in virtual form:

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: 25 Minutes of Baseball in Lynchburg

To see all posts from my June 27, 2015 visit to the Lynchburg Hillcats (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The third stop of my late-June jaunt through the state of Virginia was Lynchburg, home of the Hillcats (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cleveland Indians). The Hillcats play at Lynchburg City Stadium — also commonly referred to as Calvin Falwell Field — a facility that opened in 1938 and was extensively renovated prior to the 2004 campaign.

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As you can see from the above photo, which was taken from the parking lot, Lynchburg City Stadium is located within a hilly area (the team is called the Hillcats for a reason). The front entrance to the ballpark looms high above faded industrial facilities and lush expanses of foliage.

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The “Calvin Falwell Field” part of the stadium name equation is in honor of, yes, Calvin Falwell, president of the Lynchburg Baseball Corporation from 1966 until his death at age 90 in 2011. The Falwell name looms large in these parts, as Calvin was a relation of late televangelist Jerry Falwell. Falwell founded Lynchburg’s Liberty University in 1971, which has 14,000 students on campus as well as another 100,000 online students. (At no point in Lynchburg’s long Minor League history has the team been known as the “Moral Majorities,” though perhaps this would have been fitting.)

My evening with the Hillcats began in the office of general manager Ronnie Roberts, a 25-year-front office veteran who, the night before, had been honored with his own Major League-referencing “Wild Thing” bobblehead.

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For better or for worse, Ronnie long ago abandoned the bespectacled mullet look.
003Ronnie has an interesting story, as he landed his first Minor League Baseball job at the age of 41. At the time he was recently divorced and working an uninspiring white collar job, and, thus, decided that a drastic life change was necessary. He sent letters to teams all across Minor League Baseball, and Lynchburg responded with an offer to work as the groundskeeper. He relocated for the opportunity and now, 25 years later, he’s general manager and recent bobblehead honoree. (There should be an MiLB.com story about all this at some point. Stay tuned.)

While it’s not up to Pedro Bragan-levels of spectacular clutter, Ronnie’s office is chock-full of baseball mementos. He’s got his first baseball glove enclosed in a Plexiglas case, the top of which bears the following inscription:

Ronnie’s First Glove. Purchased in 1957 By His Mama and Daddy with S & H Green Stamps. Value in 1957: 10  Books of Stamps. Value Now: Priceless

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In 1957, when Ronnie got his first glove, Lynchburg City Stadium more or less looked like this:

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(more…)

On the Road: Pork, Pork, Pork and More Pork in Norfolk

To see all of posts from my June 26, 2015 visit to the Norfolk Tides (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

This, here, is the unassuming facade of ballpark restaurant Hits at the Park.

036Located far down the right field line at the Norfolk Tides’ home of Harbor Park, Hits at the Park is a full-service eatery open to all fans during all home games. An “all-you-can-eat” dinner buffet, featuring a rotating menu, costs $18.95.

That’d be the sensible option when it comes to dining at Hits at the Park. There is also, however, an insensible option: The “Salute to Pork” Challenge.

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The above platter consists of four BBQ pork sliders, four 4-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages, 12 pork wings (the equivalent of a full rack of ribs) and bacon and chili cheese tots. It’s five pounds of food altogether, and the challenge is to eat it in one hour or less. Those who do so receive the meal for free (a $60 value), as well as a celebratory “I Kicked the Big Pig” t-shirt and four tickets to an upcoming ballgame. Most importantly, successful pork-eaters attain enshrinement on the “Big Pig Wall-O-Fame” (located just inside the restaurant entrance).

Only three individuals have ever completed the challenge successfully.

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Yep, that dude on the bottom completed the challenge with just 30 seconds to spare. That must have been one of the greatest moments in Hits at the Park history.

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The “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame” has far more occupants. Whereas three have succeeded, several dozen had failed.

009Prior to visiting Harbor Park, I made sure to recruit a designated eater willing to take on the Salute to Pork Challenge. That individual was Andrew Lind, a writer for the local Tidewater News who covers, as he put it, “a little bit of everything.”

041Andrew volunteered to be the designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) after his college buddy Josh Samuels told him about it. Samuels, the director of social media for the Columbus Clippers, served as my ballpark tour guide when I visited the Clippers last season. (Lind and Samuels are also pals with 2014 Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journal-writer Darius Thigpen, now with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Minor League Baseball is a small world sometimes.)

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Josh Samuels: Pork Challenge Instigator

“He’s never been a good influence on my life,” said Andrew, of Josh.

A good rule of thumb: If signing a waiver is a meal prerequisite, then it’s probably a meal you don’t want to have in the first place.

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But Andrew was up for it, regardless. He said that he hadn’t made any specific preparations for the Salute to Pork Challenge, other than to arrive at the ballpark on an empty stomach. His strategy was simply to “put the tater tots off for last” and to not touch the coleslaw.

As it turned out, Andrew would not be undertaking this challenge alone. On the left is one Tyler Rosso, a video intern for a local television station. (And yes, that garbage can is placed between them just in case a so-called “reversal of fortune” occurs.)

044Tyler’s late entry into that evening’s Salute to Pork Challenge was, quite frankly, the most baffling moment of the season for me. He just plopped down and took a seat, and since he had media pass I assumed he was one of Andrew’s Tidewater News cronies. Andrew, meanwhile, thought he was somebody I knew. After a few awkward moments, it was revealed that Tyler didn’t know either of us and had simply decided to participate after overhearing a conversation about it in the press box.

I was like “Well, okay, but you do realize that I’ll be documenting this entire event and you’ll be a part of it no matter what happens?”

Tyler assented with an affable shrug, like “Whatever you need to do, dude. I’m just here to eat some pork.”

Well, okay. The more the merrier.

The Pork Challenge platters were brought to our dimly-lit corner location with great fanfare.

IMG_1483In the below video, executive chef Steve Gillette, the mastermind behind the challenge, takes the mic and lays out the rules for everyone in the restaurant. This surreal situation now seemed even more surreal. Tyler isn’t even sitting at the table in the video. Was he a figment of my imagination? He sure seemed like it at the time.

Meanwhile, Andrew’s girlfriend Kayla can be seen sitting next to him. As soon as the Pork Challenge began, however, she went AWOL. (Probably a good decision.)

“I feel bad for him,” said Kayla. “It’s going to be a rough night if he finishes.”

Chef Gillette was expecting this to be an entertaining disaster. You can just see it in his eyes.

IMG_1479Andrew, meanwhile, seemed to be appealing to a higher power. I’d love to see this picture turned into a stained glass panel.

046The Pork Challenge officially began at 7:42 p.m. Alright, guys. Have at it.

Now underway, Andrew displayed a momentary burst of confidence.

“The sad thing is, after all this I’ll probably go home and want a snack,” he said.

Cory Evans of Ovations Food Services, seen on the left in the below photo, was the first person to attempt the “Salute to Pork Challenge” after it was devised by Chef Gillette.

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“I didn’t tap out, I just ran out of time,” said Cory of his attempt, before turning his attention to the evening’s competitors. “A helpful hint: Don’t drink too much water. Just sip it.”

“It’s the potatoes that get you,” added a nearby waitress, speaking in an emphatic Southern drawl.

But despite such helpful hints and overall moral support, this was a fundamentally lonely endeavor. It is times like these that try men’s souls.

047The game going on outside seemed a million miles away.

052“15 minutes into the Pork Challenge, Andrew has eaten all 12 wings. Still much meat to go.”

At 8 p.m., Andrew requested ranch dressing.

“It might be heavy, but it will give flavor when you need it,” he explained.

“I’d recommend a little piece of the kale,” countered Tyler. “There’s a lightness to it.”

12 minutes later, Andrew again chimed in.

“The worst part is the chewing,” he said. “The only way to cut down on that is to swallow bigger pieces, but that’s not gonna help you at all.”

We had now reached the half-way point. Andrew’s platter had congealed into a monolithic pork mess.

Both competitors, in it for the long haul, decided to stand up and stretch.

“I wish that I had gotten super-drunk before I did this,” said Andrew. “Then it’d go down easy.”

“This would be a good challenge for a stoner,” added Cory.

Chef Gillette stopped by again as well, telling the competitors to ‘Just close your eyes and throw down. Don’t stop. Don’t even listen to what I’m saying.”

053Good advice, but before re-engaging Andrew engaged in some light calisthenics. Gotta get the blood flowing.

055Cory, a Pork Challenge veteran, now assessed the scene.

“You’re looking pretty good for the halfway point,” he said of Tyler.

Andrew, however, was a different story.

“I’m worried about you. But you’ll both sleep very, very good tonight. I can tell you that much.”

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Despite Cory’s positive assessment, Tyler had reached his limit. With no warning whatsoever, he quickly reached over and made good use of the trash can. I snapped a picture of this, nothing graphic, but Tyler has gotten in touch with me to ask that I not use it. Okay, but there’s a lesson here:

If you don’t want anyone to take a picture of you vomiting, then don’t jump unannounced into an eating challenge taking place in a public location and, furthermore, being documented in detail by a member of the media.

Tyler, eliminated.

“I think it was the sausage that got me,” he said.

057This was all too much for Andrew, who immediately got up and moved to the next table lest he be the next to evacuate.

“Oh, I gotta move,” he said. “If I see it, then I’ll be the next one to do it.”

IMG_1490We were now in the homestretch.

Tyler, ever an enigma, declined to take his leftovers and quietly went back upstairs to resume working. Once again, I found myself wondering if he had ever been there at all.

“He don’t want no memories of that,” said a Hits at the Park waitress as she removed the remains of Tyler’s plate.

Andrew, meanwhile, had hit a wall.

“I’m seeing stars, and it threw me off when he threw up,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the same thing.”

But yet, he carried on, moving on to the tater tots because he “couldn’t deal with the meat anymore.”

058It was all for naught, however. Andrew simply could not finish in time. Good effort, though, as he made it about three quarters of the way through and had some pork sliders to take home and enjoy later.

So that’s how it all went down (and, in one instance, came back up). Congratulations to Andrew Lind, a proud member of the “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame.”

“Never again,” were Andrew’s final words on the topic. But also: “No regrets.”

(Click HERE to read Andrew’s first-hand account of the experience.)

059And congratulations as well to the mysterious Tyler Rosso. You made the night more interesting, Tyler, and I’m glad you stopped by.

061benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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