Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my rollicking report from Gwinnett.
While traveling this country each summer, it is generally my intent to not visit ballparks in which I have already set foot. I don’t like redundancy as redundancy is something I don’t like, particularly when there are still a couple of dozen ballparks that I have yet to visit once.
But there are exceptions to every rule. I first visited the Gwinnett Braves in 2010 — getting termites in my pants and eating Knucksie sandwiches — and last month I visited them again. It’s just how the schedule worked out, and I make no apologies (primarily because no one has asked for one).
And, redundant or not, I was happy to visit Gwinnett again. I’ve always respected the operating skills of general manager North Johnson (and not just because he has the best front office name in all of baseball), and this season Brandon Apter had joined on as the director of promotions. I had been in touch with Brandon on a regular basis during his previous stint with the Frederick Keys, and knew that he would do his best to make my evening in Gwinnett a spirited one.
So let’s get to it, lest it get to us!
Some quick facts:
– The Gwinnett Braves are the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
– The Atlanta Braves own the Gwinnett Braves.
– Gwinnett County is a suburb of Atlanta.
Given the above three circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the G-Braves’ home of Coolray Field is heavy on big league Braves iconography. The banners in the above photo feature Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox and….is that Dale Murphy? It’s kind of hard for me to tell. Let’s just say Dale Murphy.
It’s not hard to find a parking space, as Coolray Field has vast swaths of asphalt that are ready and waiting for the sweet, soft tread of your automobile.
The hoi polloi was lined up early on this particular Saturday, as Mike Minor bobbleheads were on the giveaway docket.
The view from the concourse as the gates were opened.
The view of the field as the gates were opened. It was a beautiful day, the clouds billowy as all get out.
I don’t have any pictures of the Mike Minor bobbleheads that were given away, but I do have a photo of an oversized Rochester Red Wings hat. This was to be used as part of a villain’s outfit in the next day’s Superhero promotion.
I knew that I would be busy during the game itself, so I used this little window of time to take a quick lap around Coolray Field.
Here’s Niekro’s, named after legendary Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and serving a sandwich named after Niekro’s signature pitch.
The knuckleball was the signature pitch and the “Knucksie” is the signature sandwich. Here’s my 2010 file photo of the Knucksie, which is described as “House smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw, and served on a toasted corn muffin.”
I’ll seize this brief window of opportunity to gratuitously mention that, in 1979, 40-year-old Niekro went 21-20 over 44 starts for the Braves. He threw 344 innings and tossed 23 complete games, just one of which was a shutout. 1979 was the third of three consecutive seasons in which Niekro pitched 330 innings or more.
Of course, pitching that frequently, Niekro would get shelled on occasion. Please allow that observation to serve as your segue into this photo of a peanut kiosk.
In this photo inflatable Chopper looks likes an unworthy supplicant, beseeching God.
It has taken longer than originally planned, but a large-scale development project is soon set to kick off at Coolray Field. The Views would be a good place to live, so long as you’re really into Braves-affiliated Triple-A baseball.
The views in the other direction are pretty good as well.
Hey, it’s Chopper, taking the time to pose with his favorite obscure sportswriter.
With the game about to begin, I headed down to the playing field. This groundskeeper was in a staring contest with third base, entering its third hour.
But more interesting to me was seeing my old friends Baldy, Shades, and Martinez. Here’s hoping that TNT picks up their show for a second season.
I was on the field because I had been invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my newly acquired GoPro headstrap while doing so, but the resultant footage was too shaky to use (I’m learning, slowly but surely. Basically, the camera was affixed to the base of my skull too loosely).
My pitch was a perfect strike. And even sans-GoPro footage, I have proof! Just hit play…
I’ll reference a few other elements of that video a bit later on. But, for now, I’d like to mention that the G-Braves players were wearing specialty Doctor-theme jerseys on this evening. The jerseys were auctioned off via a silent auction during the game, with proceeds benefiting the Gwinnett Medical Center.
I had made a plan to spend most of the game with Brandon Apter and his promo team, more or less embedding myself as a promo intern of sorts. Here’s Brandon. He and I both grew up in the Philly suburbs. (I went to Wissahickon, he went to neighboring Upper Dublin. Wissahickon is notable in that its 1992 seventh-grade baseball team went undefeated, led by the leadoff efforts of diminutive on-base machine Ben “Future Obscure Baseball Writer” Hill.)
I started off by shooting the t-shirt gun into the crowd, a task that always gives me anxiety because I am perennially fearful of disappointing people. (For the Ben’s Biz completists out theee, the t-shirt gun shooting begins at the :12 second mark in the above video.)
With the game underway…
Brandon and I then took a leisurely stroll through the tunnel located down the first base line. Cans awaited.
More specifically, the above three upside down individuals compete in the SATA (Southern Aerosol Technical Association) Can Race. The contestants are Stubs (shaving cream), Sunny (sunscreen), and Bugs (insect repellent). The purpose of the race is to raise awareness of both aerosol recycling options and inhalation abuse. A side benefit is that the cans often get to beat the crap out of each other.
I prepared for battle, slowly transforming myself into the guise of Stubs.
As is often the case when I run a mascot race, I simply hung back and let the carnage happen elsewhere. This photo shows Stubs (me) just after he won the race, after Sunny and Bugs (bottom left corner) had been knocked out of the running.
As for how that happened, watch the video. The Can Race intro bit starts at 1:12, but pay particular attention to what happens at the 2:00 mark.
Bugs, aka promo intern Taylor Boone, took a shovel to the head! Chopper was the culprit; Chopper is a Jerk. For you, Chopper:
These Can Races are downright Cronenbergian, in that they have a History of Violence. I wrote about this in far more detail over on MiLB.com, the official website of
Missing Letters Bureau Minor League Baseball. That article also contains this video, of a can race that had taken place the previous month.
Jessie the promo intern gets clobbered at the finish, but she lived to tell the tale. This is a must-watch.
Chopper’s shovel of death, hanging demurely in the so-called “Area of Refuge.”
I’m not exactly sure what that room is a refuge from. Maybe the pervasive litter in the visitor’s dugout?
Rahl and Rohlfing soon had a front row seat for this wing-eating contest.
The dude in the camo shorts ended the contest with the wing-eating equivalent of dropping the mic.
Exciting conclusion of Gwinnett Braves wing-eating contest. https://t.co/6d0GXa6n6M
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 8, 2014
My next failed attempt at gathering GoPro footage occurred at the end of the fourth inning.
I ran around the basepaths, putting two identical pieces of a baseball uniform on each base. This was the set-up for the “Dress Around the Basepaths” contest, in which a couple of kids race each other around the basepaths. Of course, they have to stop and put on an article of clothing at each base.
After witnessing this spectacle, I was inspired to go upstairs and put on a new article of clothing myself.
Gwinnett Braves Doctor’s Jersey, as worn by Ben’s Biz. Let’s start the bidding at $1.29.
Modeling stint complete, I returned to the field in time to witness a car washing contest.
The kid on the left had a far better technique.
The above contest took place at the end of the fifth inning. Three outs later, it was time for the Dave & Buster’s “Eat, Drink, and Play” competition. Eat a hot dog, drink a cup of water, do the dizzy bat and then sink a basketball shot. Good job out there, kids. I can’t remember which of you won.
Finally, it was time for a game of “Guess the Pizza Topping” atop the dugout roof.
I find this to be one of the more hypnotic entries in my Vine catalog.
“Is it raisins?”
Good showing by a guy guessing a pizza topping. https://t.co/50uXmdKyGf
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 8, 2014
And that was about it for the various between-innings hi-jinx and tomfoolery. Apter, like myself, is a Phillies fan by upbringing. His tomahawk chop was strictly perfunctory, and, most likely, damaging to his soul.
These kids, they were cheering after their Dad won a Price is Right-inspired “Hi-Lo” game.
Shortly after this moment of triumph, the game resumed.
And shortly after this resumption, it was complete. The G-Braves lost by a score of 3-2, and then had to remain on the field while they were matched up with the individual who had bid for their Doctor-theme jersey.
Nothing left to do now but throw some tennis balls into a plastic pool. You know how we do.
Most of these attempts were unsuccessful.
The G-Braves generally have high production values, but this goodbye message isn’t exactly racking up any points in the style department.
I hope to come back soon. I already miss my pal Stubs.
Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!
July 18: Akron RubberDucks
Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows
July 19: West Virginia Power
July 20: Columbus Clippers
July 21: Indianapolis Indians
Designated Eater: Tim Mullin
July 22: Louisville Bats
July 23: Lexington Legends
July 24: Dayton Dragons
Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie
Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Rome, containing information NOT included in this blog post.
Apologies for the most obvious “On the Road” blog headline of all-time, but how could I resist? For on my latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, the stop after Huntsville was indeed Rome. And when in Rome, it’s pretty much mandatory that one makes cliched “When in Rome” observations. But why? How did this saying come to be? Since I’m backlogged on the blog and in a time crunch to write a lot of posts before my next trip (kicking off in Akron on July 18), clearly the best use of my time would be to look up the origins of this saying.
Okay, got it! “When in Rome” is an abbreviated portion of a saying attributed to Aurelius Ambrose, who, per Wikipedia, was “one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century.” Again, per Wikipedia:
Ambrose displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”
Follow the custom of the church where you are. Those are words to live by, and a philosophy I certainly apply while visiting Minor League stadiums.
When in Rome, Georgia, this is the place to see South Atlantic League baseball action. Welcome to State Mutual Stadium, land of the free (parking, with a media credential) and home of the Braves.
On many of my stadium stops, I know more or less what to expect. I’ve had contacts with the team in question for many years, they know who I am and what I do, and it’s full speed ahead from the moment I step inside. But, in Rome, I didn’t know quite what to expect. They are not a team I’ve had occasion to cover on a regular basis, and while the front office was very welcoming in advance communication it was still a mystery to me regarding what the evening would bring.
Spoiler alert: it brought a lot.
First things first, I got the lay of the land. As you can see, this is a solid but not immediately spectacular Minor League facility. In a nutshell, it’s what you’d expect an 11-year-old Class A stadium to look like: a capacity of 5000, 14 suites, and a good but not great videoboard. The concourse provides ample vantage points down the baselines, but it is not 360 degrees nor is it entirely “open.” (Many of the concession, souvenir, and informational kiosks are located behind home plate, isolated from the field of play.)
I met up with assistant general manager Jim Jones and this group of people. They had won a Facebook essay contest on why they should renew their wedding vows at the stadium, and they were at the ballgame to, yes, renew their vows.
Our motley crew soon proceeded onto the field, as the ceremony would take place just behind home plate.
Well, okay, it was just me who proceeded onto the field. The four couples were driven to the ceremony in a grand golf cart procession.
The following group of photos were taken by Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.
While Mr. Hess took some great photos, he largely missed what was obviously the best part of the ceremony: me serving as the official witness. This is a task that was very important and took the utmost concentration, as I had to stand beside “Elder Kevin” and, well, follow the custom of the church where I was.
You can kind of see me in the above photo. But being the Greatest Minor League Baseball Blogger of All Time has its perks, as I was spotted by someone in the crowd as well.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 6, 2014
As for @gondeee, we’ll meet him later. And if you want more specifics about this stirring ceremony, then read my article on MiLB.com.
But for those intent on contributing to my rapidly approaching obsolescence by prioritizing the photos, then scroll on. Again, these are courtesy of Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.
As the game began on this mercifully rain-free summer evening, I was in the press box. I don’t know why, but I’m sure there was a reason.
The stadium is located within a rather nondescript area of Rome.
In fact, all I saw while en route from the hotel to the stadium were chain stores, chain eateries and billboards exhorting the importance of proper Christian living. But the next day I had the chance to visit downtown Rome proper, and it was a charming and exuberant area that I would encourage anyone to visit (you know, when in Rome).
Beastie Boys reference?
But, anyway, there was a game going on. And me? I’m here to write about the game that was going on.
Nah, just kidding. When I’m on these trips I never have time to watch the game. All I do is run around like the proverbial chicken with its proverbial head proverbially decapitated. Next on the docket was to meet the evening’s designated eater — you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.
Joe Webster, ladies and gentleman. The most enthusiastic designated eater of all time.
Joe is 16 years old, and lives in nearby Dallas, Georgia. He’s an aspiring broadcaster, and currently writes sports articles for his hometown Dallas-New Era newspaper. He was in frequent contact with me prior to my visit, just to make sure he knew he’d be in the right place at the right time. Joe was psyched, in other words, and I appreciated his enthusiasm.
We met at Bubba’s BBQ Barn — where the elite meet to take a seat and get some eats.
Joe and I ordered a BBQ Sundae, fried bologna sandwich and a BBQ plate (you know, when in Rome). None of these items were served to us on Frisbees, though that is apparently the standard operating procedure for certain delicacies.
Here’s Joe and I, with Joe just about to chow down.
Joe began with the BBQ Sundae, a layered vertical concoction. Starting from the bottom: Cornbread, pulled pork, cole slaw, more cornbread.
Excuse this break in regularly scheduled programming, for just as Joe was digging in to the sundae I noticed that the “Renew Your Vows” couples were taking part in a between-inning interview.
I used this occasion to ask Martha and Bill Sims for an interview. They obliged, and some of that conversation is in my linked-to-twice over MiLB.com piece. Okay, three times over.
Joe ably served as a bodyguard during this interview, should any foul balls come in the Sims’ direction. While none came within threatening distance, Joe nonetheless almost chased one down that had landed about 100 feet away. Joe was enthusiastic.
But now, back to Joe and his BBQ Sundae.
Joe’s multi-pronged approach to the BBQ Sundae spoke to his frustration with it. He said that he “wasn’t enthralled” because he “wished it was layered better. It’s a good thing they give you a long spoon, because it’s hard to get down in there.”
More traditional, at least in regard to preparation technique, is the fried bologna sandwich. This is a comparatively rare ballpark food item, though I can remember the Danville Braves and Jackson Generals serving them as well. Any others?
Have at it, Joe.
Joe liked the bologna because it was “different than normal ballpark food.” But I got the sense that he wouldn’t have ordered it on his own. In my experiences, the people who like fried bologna sandwiches are the people that grew up eating fried bologna sandwiches. It’s a comfort food.
At this point a special guest arrived in the form of Twitter’s very own @Gondeee, the individual who had taken the photo of me serving as the wedding witness. @Gondeee was toting a BBQ Sundae and, unlike Joe, he was very much a fan of this concoction.
@Gondeee’s real name is Martin Gandy, and he writes the “Chop County” blog. He told me’s a “tech guy by trade” and that his job involves frequent calls to India.
“Every time I call they’re like ‘Oh, Ghandi” and then I get the best tech support ever,” he said.
While we were talking, Joe was digging into his BBQ plate.
That look of bliss says it all. Joe was a fan.
But I had to depart from Joe, at least for the time being, as I had been invited to ride along in the “Redneck Rummage Sale Trailer.”
“It’s not a bad way to start a Friday,” said on-field host Matt Hayes. “On a trailer surrounded by beautiful women.”
The Redneck Rummage sale is a popular recurring event held in the parking lot of the stadium, and it is what it sounds like. There’s lots of junk for sale, and it’s generally very cheap. The trailer takes a nightly lap around the field between innings, as a way to promote the event.
While my attempts to film this ride with my brand-new GoPro were woefully unsuccessful, I did end up with the following scoreboard footage.
I also ended up with the following photos.
Joe and I had missed out on the shrimp bucket, apparently. And what better place to enjoy a shrimp bucket than by sitting in a motorboat? The Coosa River is back there somewhere, should anyone want to commandeer this boat in order to place it in a more natural environment. Sitting man, as framed by a bronze leg kick. A beach ball had been set loose upon the crowd, and I don’t know why. These kids, meanwhile, were in their own private ballplaying universe. I think there was a Chik-Fil-A ad on the other side of the foul pole. Get it? Fowl pole? Back on the other side of the stadium, a top-level view of the front entranceway. Roxey and Romey are an item. Did you know that? Back on the concourse, I snapped this photo of condiments, fruit, and a chicken. As it so often the case during these sort of circumstances, their job was to dance. Vine time!
Henry the Hot Dog, ladies and gentlemen. Or at least I think his name was Henry. Bill and Martha Sims, that delightful married couple whom I mentioned earlier, came to the game with lots of family in tow. In retrospect this was not the best angle in which to take a group photo, but it’s what I got. Hello, Sims family! Down on the concourse, manning the Fan Services booth, I ran into Kasey Decker. Yes, Kasey Decker of Winter Meeting Job Seeker Journals fame! Her long and winding path through the industry has brought her to Rome.
The game was winding down, so I reconvened with Joe and we got some dessert at “The Sweet Spot. Joe wanted a “Banana Stick Sundae” but they were out of banana and a “stick sundae” didn’t sound as good. He got a swirl with Oreo instead, and ate it while boldly gazing into the future. “It’s good. It’s ice cream,” said Joe.
But Joe was far more excited by the presence of All-Star Game ballots. Apparently, if he voted for B.J. Upton 250 times, he would be eligible to receive a B.J. Upton bobblehead at an upcoming Braves game. Joe was ready to vote 250 times and then some.
“People think I’m insane, but it’s okay,” he said. I hope he carries that attitude into adulthood, because it’s a good attitude to have.
And that, as they say, was that. Goodnight from Rome, Georgia, where I did my best to follow their customs. —- Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a Designated Eater at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch. YOU can be the next Joe Webster!
July 18: Akron RubberDucks
Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows
July 19: West Virginia Power
July 20: Columbus Clippers
July 21: Indianapolis Indians
Designated Eater: Tim Mullin
July 22: Louisville Bats
July 23: Lexington Legends
July 24: Dayton Dragons
Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie
Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the scrappy, more succinct, offshoot of my long-running “Crooked Numbers” column on MiLB.com.
For the uninitiated, Crooked Numbers is a monthly round-up of the the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. The June 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com today — read it or die trying– and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness.
Brevity is key! Let’s get to it.
Ownership — Brad Golder, broadcaster for the Great Lakes Loons, recently got in touch to let us know that South Bend’s Daniel Palka has gone 4-for-4 this season against Great Lake’s Victor Arano — with four home runs! Arano has allowed as many home runs to Palka as he has to the rest of the Midwest League combined.
Out and Not Proud — Speaking of the Loons, the team’s Josmar Cordero had a night to forget against Lansing on June 7. For Cordero was thrown out at the plate not once, not twice, but thrice! In the third inning Cordero pounded a one-out double, but was thrown out after attempting to score on Spencer Navin’s double to right field. In the seventh, Cordero singled, advanced to second on a single, and then was thrown out attempting to score on Brandon Trinkwon’s single to right field. Then, in the ninth, Cordero was out at home on a 2-1 putout, after attempting to score from second on a wild pitch. That would have given the Loons a 10-9 lead, but no matter. Cordero was one of three Loons batters to score in the 11th (he scored on a bases-loaded walk, so it was impossible for him to get thrown out), and the Loons held on for a 12-10 win.
A Conundrum — Cordero might want to follow the base running strategies that Lansing Lugnuts employed on June 30. Team broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, a cerebral and loquacious man, presents us with the following headscratcher:
The Lugnuts doubled three times in the fourth inning of June 30th’s game against Great Lakes, had no one tagged out on the bases, and scored one run.
Apparently, this is because Lugnuts baserunners are only able to advance one base on a double. From the game recap:
Mitch Nay doubles (16) on a fly ball to center fielder Malcolm Holland.
Derrick Loveless flies out to left fielder Jacob Scavuzzo.
Dawel Lugo doubles (11) on a fly ball to center fielder Malcolm Holland. Mitch Nay to 3rd.
Dickie Joe Thon doubles (12) on a fly ball to right fielder Alex Santana. Mitch Nay scores. Dawel Lugo to 3rd.
Rapid Misfire — The Modesto Nuts made three errors during June 24’s 14-3 loss to San Jose, and they made them all on the same play! While I’m a little unclear as to the exact sequence of events, some clues can be ascertained via the MiLB.com game recap. Runners were on first and third when the ball was hit, and then:
Ben Turner reaches on a fielding error by pitcher Devin Burke. Brian Ragira scores. Elliott Blair scores. Ben Turner to 3rd. Throwing error by pitcher Devin Burke. Throwing error by left fielder Matt Wessinger.
A bit more crookedness occurred later in the game as well. In the bottom of the sixth, San Jose’s Trevor Brown had a three-run home run transformed into a two-run single, after he was called out for passing a runner on the bases during his home run trot.
A rip in the space-time continuum — John Dreker of PiratesProspects.com recently contributed the following bit of information. See if you can follow:
Altoona played a doubleheader on [June 20], completing a suspended game from June 11th before their regularly scheduled game. The first game had an odd occurrence, made even more odd by what happened in the second game. On [June 18] Alen Hanson went 0-for-4, breaking his 12 game hit streak. On [June 20], he extended that hit streak to 13 games by collecting two hits in the suspended game. Since the stats count towards June 11th, the streak that was snapped two days earlier, got one game longer. Hanson had two hits in the nightcap, but those stats counted towards June 20th.
One Fish, Two Fish — Via Twitter, I recently was informed of the following:
@bensbiz Crooked Number Submission: in June 23rd game vs Billings Great Falls had Zach Fish and Zach Fisher batting 4th and 5th in the order
— Adam Luther. (@AdderallLou) June 24, 2014
For what it’s worth, the next day Great Falls batted Zach Fisher fifth and Zach Fish sixth.
Putting It Down — In the 10th inning of June 6th’s game between Buffalo and Syracuse, Andy LaRoche laid down a sacrifice bunt. This was his first sacrifice bunt in the Minor Leagues since 2004, a period in which LaRoche played some 700 games and logged over 2500 at-bats. In that 2004 season, LaRoche laid down two sacrifice bunts for the Columbus Catfish and two more for the Vero Beach Dodgers. Both of those franchises are now defunct.
Your Alex Freedman Email of the Month — Those in the know know that Crooked content is never complete until we hear from Oklahoma City RedHawks broadcaster Alex Freedman.
So take it away, Alex! (And be aware that this first item of his is a stone-cold Crooked classic.)
– On June 13, the RedHawks were trailing Las Vegas 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Austin Wates led off the inning with a pinch-hit single. He would advance to second, third, and eventually scored on three wild pitches…by three different pitchers! (Miguel Socolovich, Scott Rice, and John Church) The RedHawks would go on to win 6-5 in 12 innings.
– Speaking of that win on the 13th, the game ended with a walk-off home run by Gregorio Petit. It was the team’s first walk-off home run in nearly two years (July 3, 2012). Naturally it didn’t take quite that long for the team’s next walk-off homer. Domingo Santana hit a three-run shot to beat Omaha 8-5 on June 27—a span of five home games. Each of the last three fireworks nights at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark have resulted in walk-off wins.
-The RedHawks and Tacoma Rainiers played three consecutive extra-inning games June 21-23. It was just the second time in RedHawks team history this had occurred, and the first time since the team’s inaugural season in 1998. Tacoma won all three games by one run.
Thanks, Alex, and thanks to all who contributed to the column over the last month. Regularly-scheduled road trip content will resume next week, with dispatches from Rome, Hickory, Charlotte and Hickory still to come! Then, on July 18th, I hit the road again. Get ready, Akron!
Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Huntsville, containing information NOT included in this blog post.
One of my most anticipated stops on this, my latest and therefore greatest ballpark road trip, was Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium. The Stars are currently playing their final season, as the franchise will move to Biloxi in 2015 and compete as either the Black Jacks, Mullets, Schooners, Shrimpers, Shuckers or Beacon (these are the finalists in the ongoing “Name the Team” contest).
Joe Davis is undoubtedly a dump, but dumps have character and I have always enjoyed visiting. In fact, Huntsville was one of the first places I ever visited in my “traveling ballpark writer” capacity. I went there in 2009 in order to participate in and write about the team’s attempt to play the longest game of Wiffle Ball of all time.
That game of Wiffle Ball never happened, due to a rainout. (But I did get to see an on-field sword swallowing demonstration, because obviously a sword swallower should be on the premises during a Wiffle Ball world record attempt.)
And, five years later, on June 5, 2014, the game in which I was supposed to attend didn’t happen either. While the weather had been pleasant during my drive from Chattanooga to Huntsville, things took a turn for the worse shortly after I checked in to my hotel.
On second thought… https://t.co/OEt7dFPG8a
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 5, 2014
My concern was justified. After the torrential downpour and frightening lightning subsided, I dutifully drove over to the ballpark. You know, just in case. There were a smattering of cars in the parking lot, and tickets were still being sold.
The women at the ticket window were very welcoming — after all, this was to be my special night! Huntsville Stars GM Buck Rogers had declared June 5 to be “Ben Hill Day” at Joe Davis Stadium, with free admission to any fans residing in Ben Hill County, Georgia. Ben Hill is about six hours away from Huntsville, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anyone to take the Stars up on the offer, but with the weather being what it was it was now a virtual guarantee that the good people of Ben Hill had stayed home. I just hope they did so of their own free will, and not because they were in jail.
Also nowhere to be found was Buck Rogers himself. Buck has been named general manager for the new team in Biloxi, so he’s splitting the remainder of this season between there and Huntsville. He, his wife Babs (an essential Stars staffer as well) and several other front office members were in Biloxi, making an already quiet Joe Davis Stadium that much more quiet. (For those who don’t know Buck, he’s a very loquacious guy.)
Rogers and crew had picked a good night to be out of town. Within three minutes after I arrived at Joe Davis Stadium, word filtered in via the omnipresent staff walkie-talkies that the game had been “banged” (industry slang for “postponed”).
Come back tomorrow, Huntsville Stars fans.
But for me, there would be no tomorrow. At least not in Huntsville. While I briefly considered modifying my itinerary and sticking around for the following day’s doubleheader, the weather wasn’t looking good for that one either. With a heavy heart, I made the executive decision to proceed to the next day to Rome, Georgia, as I had originally planned.
The game wasn’t happening, but that didn’t mean that I had to leave Joe Davis Stadium. “Why not wander around and get a few final photos?” I said to no one in particular.
The Stars are called the Stars because of Huntsville’s rich aeronautic past and present. The fact that the GM is named “Buck Rogers” is just a coincidence, however.
What isn’t a coincidence is that the signage around the stadium is in a NASA-style font.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign next to “Stars Radio” declares this section of the ballpark to be a “horn-free zone.” Casio, the team’s PA announcer, told me that he had never heard a horn in the stadium before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Yes, when I was wandering around Joe Davis Stadium I ran into a guy named “Casio” (given name: Matt Mitchell), and ended up writing a story about him. Rainout or not, this is something I had been planning on doing anyway. Casio is a local celebrity!
The view from the press box.
Up in the pressbox, I was reminded of a Tweet that had been directed at me the previous week. The guys at Cespedes Family BBQ were on a road trip with a somewhat similar itinerary to mine, and had been in Huntsville several days before.
— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) May 29, 2014
Thanks guys. I held on to the card, filing it in my Rolodex under sub-category “individuals who have never invited me on their podcast even though I am the greatest Minor League blogger of all time and most underrated sports media entity of the last five years.” This is the second-biggest sub-category in my Rolodex, right behind “sports media professionals who never respond to me on Twitter even though that joke I tweeted at them was really clever and funny and clearly the best use of my time.”
If it sounds like I have a chip on my shoulder, it’s because I do!
Sorry, I’ve been a bit obsessed with wordplay lately. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to M&M.
That M&M is a bibliophile because he’s, well, red. He does most of his reading in the bathroom, but didn’t think it was funny when I nicknamed him “John Candy.” (Also, I’m going to file an expense report for the $2.50 I spent on the chips and M&Ms. Clearly it was a justifiable business expenditure.)
Anyway, I was writing about Huntsville. The game was rained out, Casio had been talked to, business cards had been found, and there was nothing left for me to do but go back to the hotel room and sulk in a desultory manner. (Is there any other way to sulk?)
I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to provide more on the Huntsville Stars in this, their final season, but at least I’ve written about them plenty in the past. Click ‘em all!
I too, will miss Joe Davis Stadium, and this is the one moment I will never forget.
I have now visited AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, on two occasions. On neither of those occasions did I see an actual Southern League baseball game. The first such occasion was in 2010, as a torrential downpour began just before game time and resulted in a rainout. I was still at the ballpark long enough to get a blog post out of it, which you can peruse HERE.
I visited AT&T Field again earlier this month, and this time there wasn’t even a hint of a game. The Lookouts had completed a homestand the day before, but — hey! — when in Rome. Why not stop in and say hello?
AT&T Field, which opened in 2000, is located in downtown Chattanooga. I parked my rented Volkswagen Bug on Chestnut Street, safeguarded all valuables, exited the car, began walking, and, soon enough, made a quick left on “Power Alley.” (This is a common feature of modern day Minor League ballparks, in that they are located on streets that have been re-christened with a baseball-themed name. This can wreak havoc if you are getting to the ballpark via GPS, which may not have been programmed to recognize “Home Run Drive” or “Fastboulevard” or “Respect the Game Lane” or what have you.)
Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.
Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.
Somewhat mysteriously, this trolley was idling in the parking lot unattended with its doors open. While I did not commandeer it for my own usage, I did hop aboard and take this world-exclusive picture of the interior.
Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.
As for the stadium itself, it’s a solid if unspectacular turn-of-the-century model. It’s efficient, reliable, and looks pretty good, but if it was hanging out with other Minor League ballparks at a Minor League ballpark social function it would blend in with the crowd pretty easily.
Once inside the ballpark, I met up with Dan Kopf (media relations manager) and Alex Tainsh (corporate sales). They insisted on being referred to as “esteemed tour guides.” Kopf is the guy on the right and, for the record, “Kopf and Tainsh” would be a good name for a basic cable show about crusading maverick lawyers.
It was a pretty sleepy afternoon at the ballpark, given that the Lookouts had concluded a homestand the day before. I was poking around for something to write about (as in, for an MiLB.com article), but that’s tough to do when very few people are around and not much is going on. However! My esteemed tour guides said that, should I ever actually do my job properly and see an actual Lookouts game, Wanda Goins would be a good person to write about.
Wanda is a veteran program vendor, so well known that on the rare occasions in which she cannot attend the team plays a recording of her. And, like any Minor League celebrity worth her salt, she has been the recipient of her own bobblehead. (Which reminds me, when am I going to be honored with my own bobblehead?)
Anyhow, if you want a Wanda Goins bobblehead (and cd!), it can be currently be had for the (not-so-low) price of $75 on eBay.
But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.
As you’ll see in the picture below, AT&T Field lacks an open concourse. For all I know, it may have been the last Minor League stadium to have been built without this feature (prove me wrong, readers. You always do.) In looking around for more info, I came across this Ballpark Digest tidbit about how the stadium was funded:
Frank Burke bought the Lookouts in the mid nineties but felt the team had to have a new stadium to stay in Chattanooga. In the fall of 1998, Burke announced that he and his ownership group would build a privately funded ballpark if the team could sell 1,800 season tickets. The 1800th ticket was sold on January 28, and construction of the park started in late March 1999. The Lookouts ended up selling over 2,200 season tickets.
Is that the only MiLB stadium to have been funded in such a manner? The only other completely privately-funded stadium I can think of, at least within the past two decades, is the West Michigan Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Ballpark. (Note: I have since been informed that the Lexington Legends privately funded their ballpark in 2001.)
Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.
My esteemed tour guides told me that there used to be a cannon positioned in the outfield, which would make loud exploding noises after home runs. However, the shells for this cannon are no longer commercially available. (I blame Obama.) There is a home run choo-choo train, however.
It hasn’t happened yet, but any Lookout batsman with the wherewithal to blast a ball through the crook of this angled dirt-scoop receives a cool $500.
My esteemed tour guides told me that this block of outfield seats did not have a name. I was surprised they weren’t called “The Lookout Seats” or “Lookout Landing” or something like that.
There is a “Lasorda’s Landing,” however. Tommy doesn’t have any deep personal connections to Chattanooga, but the Lookouts are a Dodgers affiliate so there you go.
And, well, that’s all I’ve got. Upon bidding adieu to my esteemed tour guides I trekked back down the hill to Chestnut Street, and noticed that there is a movie theater right there on the corner. Minor League Baseball teams are in a mortal war with movie theaters! Both want to procure as large a portion of your “family-friendly entertainment” expenditures as possible, and there’s only so much to go around.
Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece on Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, containing information NOT included in this blog post.
My latest (and therefore greatest) Minor League ballpark road trip kicked off in Chattanooga, home of the Lookouts. I did not see a Lookouts game, however, as they played an 11:05 contest on the day that I arrived and I was unable to make it to the ballpark on time. (My fault, as I had not noticed that anomalous game time when I booked my flight.) However, all was not lost. Far from it.
For being in Chattanooga means being able to visit Engel Stadium, which served as the home of the Lookouts from 1930-98. In the decade following the team’s departure — they now play at AT&T Park in downtown Chattanooga — Engel Stadium fell into a state of extreme disrepair. In 2009 a concerned group of community activists formed the Engel Foundation, with the quixotically noble goal of restoring this classic facility to its former glory.
I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, where I got to know Foundation president Janna Jahn and her ragtag group of supporters. I then wrote about Engel again in 2013, after the stadium stood in for Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42. And now, here I am writing about Engel again.
I drove to the stadium immediately after arriving in Chattanooga, marking my first excursion in the black Volkswagen Beetle that was assigned to me by fine folks at Avis. Jahn was already at the stadium waiting for me, and for the next hour or so we ambled through this historic facility as I got up to speed on the latest news.
From the outside of Engel Stadium, it’s hard to get a sense of the beauty that lurks therein.
But once you step inside, it’s a different story.
My MiLB.com piece detailed the specifics of the recent improvements to Engel, but what it boils down to is this: much has been done, and there is so much more to be done. To name one of many examples: Engel Stadium once had what was billed as “the world’s largest scoreboard,” seen in the photo below, and Jahn said that, long term, the Foundation would love to install a replica.
But one thing at a time. A more pressing concern at the time that I visited was removing the dead bird from the netting behind home plate.
A closer view.
The grandstand looked immaculate, and the press box had recently been restored to its ’30s-era parameters and bestowed with a brand-new instrument.
The view from the press box.
This office area, located down the third base line, is now referred to as “The 42 Room.” Some of the film’s locker room scenes were shot here, and it is now filled with production photos and paraphernalia.
From there, we took a nice stroll across the outfield.
I took this photo using the MiLB Instagram account. It was the first Instagram photo I ever took, and also the first time I used a filter of any kind.
Engel Stadium received a laser-graded infield, courtesy of the 42 production team. The outfield remains the same as it ever was.
For the filming of 42, the dugouts were modified to resemble those of Ebbets Field. Then, after the filming, they were changed back to their original state (more or less).
If you’ve never spent time in the bowels of an 80-something-year-old facility…well, this is what it looks like:
There’s a poignant scene in 42 in which Jackie finally loses his cool, going on a bat-smashing rampage in the tunnel leading onto the field. That tunnel, now inaccessible, was here:
Which stadium has the worst bathroom facilities? Engel Stadium, or Burlington Athletic Park (home of the Appy League Royals) circa 2011?
Have you staked out your position in this great American debate, and able to articulate it? Great. Then let’s continue.
A day or two before I visited Engel, the stadium had been vandalized (chalk it up to a security system malfunction).
It’s hassles like these that really give me a lot of respect for the Engel Foundation volunteers. They have full-time jobs and busy lives but nonetheless must repeatedly drop what they are doing in order to deal with hassles such as the above. As Engels’s 21st-century prominence continues to grow, it is my hope (and, I’m sure, theirs) that sufficient funds will become available to pay for a full-time facilities manager.
The vandalism seemed to be limited to the above graffiti as well as a smattering of smashed fluorescent light bulbs. I found it interesting, that in the midst of the all this juvenilia, there was what seemed to be a heartfelt nod to Jackie Robinson. Even vandals have respect for one of the all-time greats!
The damage was cleaned up promptly, as one week after I visited Engel Stadium hosted the Southern League Home Run Derby. This picture is from the Lookouts Facebook photo album.
But as for me, it was time to depart. Until next time, Engel:
Welcome to Crooked Nuggets, the lovable offshoot of my long-running “Crooked Numbers” column on MiLB.com.
For the uninitiated, Crooked Numbers is a monthly round-up of the the weirdest, wildest and most anomalous things to have occurred on a Minor League Baseball field. It was inspired by my childhood infatuation with the writings of Jayson Stark, whose work then ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 2014 marks the sixth season of the column; it is also the sixth the season in which the column has gone unacknowledged by Stark.
The May 2014 edition of “Crooked Numbers” appeared on MiLB.com on June 4 — check it out! — and this post contains even more instances of Minor League Baseball on-field weirdness. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!
Let Crooked Reign — A left fielder and right fielder getting charged with an error in the same game is a rare occurrence. But much rarer is a left fielder and right fielder making an error on the same play. Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto witnessed, and then wrote about, this freakish occurrence: “How can the LF and RF both make an error on the same batted ball? How could they even both touch the ball on the same play? The answer is: overthrows.” Click HERE to have Curto explain it all, as part of a blog post devoid of the Pavement references he is fond of making. All I can say is that this was certainly a play that did not “Brighten the Corners.” Both fielders should “Cut Their Errors.”
Stone is the Way of the Balk – On May 9 the Bowling Green Hot Rods clawed back from a 10-1 deficit against the Lake County Captains, scoring nine unanswered runs in the seventh and eight innings to tie the game 10-10. But this impressive comeback was all for naught. Stone Speer entered the game for the Hot Rods with one out and the bases loaded in the 11th inning, and promptly balked in the winning run. He did not throw a single pitch in the ballgame.
Sweetest City in Alabam’ — The Mobile BayBears beat the Birmingham Barons on May 2, in a 17-inning ballgame that took five hours and 25 minutes to complete. Time-wise, this was the longest game in the 129-year history of the Barons. The teams combined to use 16 pitchers in the ballgame, with 14 appearing over the course of the final 10 innings.
Speed King — The Birmingham Barons are the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Just one rung down the organizational ladder are the Winston-Salem Dash, who played their shortest-ever game this month. For more on this 108-minute tilt, hurry up and click HERE.
Stayin’ In — If you picked the Arkansas Travelers in your office’s “Last Minor League Team to Hit a Home Run in their Home Ballpark” pool, then congratulations! It took until May 10 for a Travs’ player knock one out of Dickey-Stephens Park, when Brian Hernandez accomplished the feat. As of this writing (June 18), the Travelers have hit just eight home runs at home. On the road, they have hit a comparatively Herculean but otherwise anemic 24.
Broken Home — The Travelers are one of four teams in the Texas League’s North Division, where no one seems to enjoy playing at home. All four clubs in the division finished the first half with a losing record at home. The winning percentage of all four teams was higher when playing on the road.
(note: I am not a fan of Papa Roach. They are one of the worst bands of all time.)
Celebrating our Smitherences — Per my MiLB.com colleague Tyler Maun:
While perusing the box scores [on May 16], I came upon this oddity: Hickory and Charleston played a DH, and three different Smiths recorded decisions.
Game 1:Save for Charleston’s Chris Smith
Game 2: Win for Hickory’s Tyler Smith, loss for Charleston’s Caleb
Your Josh Feldman Tweet of the Month — Feldman is the broadcaster for the Kannapolis Intimidators. Maybe this will be a recurring feature. Maybe it won’t be. But, anyway, check out Feldman’s observation regarding what Kannapolis pitcher Andrew Mitchell accomplished on May 18 against Hickory:
Weird stat from Sunday: In 7th, Andrew Mitchell threw 12 pitches (1 strike) and got out of the inning (C Jeremy Dowdy threw out 2 runners).
— Josh Feldman (@BigTexJosh) May 19, 2014
Movin’ On Up — During a late morning game on May 22, Addison Maruszak played right field for the Reading Fightin Phils. He was promoted later that day, and played third base for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs that night.
It’s So E-asy — On May 26, the Salem Red Sox committed seven errors and still managed to defeat the Potomac National by a nine-run margin. The next night the Red Sox made just one error against Myrtle Beach, but lost by six.
Whole Lotta LOB — May 27th was a tough night for Visalia Rawhide pitchers, as a half dozen hurlers combined to allow 19 hits and nine walks to the Bakersfield Blaze. Yet the Rawhide won the game, 11-9, largely due to the fact that the Blaze left a staggering 19 runners on base in the ballgame (at least one in every inning). Rawhide announcer “Devastating” Donny Baarns reports that:
“Only one Major League team has stranded more (Yankees, 20, in 1916). No MLB team has ever left 19 in a 9 inning game; 6 have left 18. The Cal League left on base record is 21 (5/17/95, San Jose vs. Rancho).”
Time After Time — From May 20-28, the Durham Bulls played eight games with eight different start times. On May 20th, they faced off at home against Louisville at 1:05. This was followed by a four game set in Columbus, with games beginning at 6:35, 7:15, 7:05 and 6:05. The Bulls then went on to Toledo, where the starting times for the first three games were 6:00, 6:30, and 10:30.
And that, folks, is all I’ve got for the month of May. Thanks for getting crooked with me, and, as always, get in touch if you are a witness to the weirdness:
Dispatch from Back Home. June 18, 12:47 p.m. — After a week of blog silence, I figured it would be prudent to provide an update for you, my presumably loyal and undoubtedly physically stunning reader.
I flew from Charlotte to New York City on the afternoon of June 11, marking the conclusion of this latest and greatest road trip. My last acts in Charlotte were to get some ultra-tended brisket at Bobbee -O’s BBQ and and visit Manifest Discs.
Bobbee-O’s is an unassuming spot nestled in a strip mall. My photo of the exterior is horrible, but the brisket was indeed exemplary.
As for Manifest Discs — wow. You don’t see too many places like this around anymore, a wall-to-wall emporium of physical media in a digital age.
I picked up three used CDs: Sparks “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins”, Nilsson “Schmilsson” and Toby Keith “Shock ‘n Y’all.” There’s a lot I could say about Sparks and Nilsson, but since Toby Keith is a bit of an outlier here I’ll explain: in 2004 I was at a record store in a mall near my Pennsylvania hometown. The only album they had on cassette in the entire store was “Shock’n Y’all”, and there was just one copy. I bought it because I thought it might be the last cassette ever sold in the history of this mall. There is no way for me to verify if this was indeed the case, but I bet it was and no one can tell me otherwise.
Well, even though I bought it as a joke I ended up really liking “Shock’n Y’all.” I listened to it all the time in 2004, a year that was largely spent as a third grade assistant teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. 2004 was a long time ago.
Anyhow, I’m back in NYC and have spent the past week cranking out articles for MiLB.com. For your edification, here’s everything that has appeared on the site since I hit the road on June 4. Please read and, if so moved, promote:
June 4 — “Crooked Numbers,” recapping Minor League Baseball’s strangest on-field occurrences in the month of May.
June 6 — “On the Road: Chattanooga,” about the ongoing efforts to restore and revive 84-year-old Engel Stadium. Engel was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts through the 1998 season.
June 9 — “On the Road: Huntsville” — The Huntsville Stars game was rained out, but I still landed an interview w/ PA announcer/stand-up comic Matt “Casio” Mitchell.
June 10 — “Promo Preview,” leading with the Inland Empire 66ers’ gory “Zombie Apocalypse” theme jerseys. For some reason, a photo of the jerseys was not included with the article. So here you go:
June 11 — “On the Road: Rome” I served as the “official Minor League witness” during a pre-game “Renew Your Vows” ceremony, and later interviewed one of the couples who took part.
June 16 — “On the Road: Gwinnett” — A behind-the-scenes look at the G-Braves nightly Can Race. Mayhem sometimes ensues, as seen in the video embedded within the piece.
June 17 — “Promo Preview” — This week’s edition leads with Charleston RiverDogs broadcaster Sean Houston, who will call the entirety of Thursday’s game while walking on a treadmill.
June 18 — “On the Road: Charlotte” — My attempt to explain the recent history of the Charlotte Knights via the experiences of veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell.
There is still one more “On the Road” article to come (Kannapolis!), and next week I will begin posting my “On the Road” blog posts. So, yeah, there is a LOT more road trip content to come. But — PLEASE — do not assume that inactivity on the blog means inactivity in general. I’m writing up a storm these days, trying to do a good job of it, and doing it all for you.
Oh, and I still have to do a “Crooked Nuggets” blog post for the month of May. I think I’ll write that this afternoon, and post it Thursday or Friday. I’m telling you, some of the facts contained therein will be Shock’n, Y’all.
Dispatch from the Road. June 11, 11:05 a.m. — Sorry that it’s been two days since I rapped at ya, but life is hectic on the road. I am currently at a Spring Hill Suites in Concord, NC, after attending the Kannapolis Intimidators game last night. Upon further review I should have just stayed two nights in Charlotte, as this hotel is only about 12 miles from the one in which I was in yesterday. Live and learn.
Anyhow, when we last left off in this narrative, it was a Monday morning in Hickory and I was soon to be on my way to Charlotte. I made a brief stop in downtown Hickory:
And then it was on to Charlotte. The first thing I did was stop at a record store. Lunchbox Records, to be exact.
This place was solid. I finally picked up the new Wovenhand lp (“Refractory Obdurate,” for those keeping score at home), and also got a Richard Bishop/Sun City Girls leftover Record Store Day Release as well as a used copy of the Fine Young Cannibals “The Raw and the Cooked.” (I’ll always have a soft spot for that album.) I got some others too, but you’re already bored with my self-indulgence.
My hotel in Charlotte was walking distance to the ballpark so, yes, I walked to the ballpark. BB&T Ballpark, despite its uninspiring name, is an inspiring ballpark.
The next day the Knights played at noon, so once again I headed to the ballpark.
It was “hot as fish grease” during this afternoon matinee, as I heard one of the security guys at the stadium remark. The game was also a blowout, with the Knights losing by a score of 14-2. The heat and lack of competitiveness made me wish for a merciful end to the ballgame, but I got some good perspective from a woman named Dorothy who was working one of the ballpark elevators:
“Everybody out there is wishing for the game to be over,” she said. “Doing that, you ain’t doing nothing but wishing your life away.”
I think about that a lot on these trips. I love doing them, but I get stressed out and wish for them to be over and romanticize my NYC home. But in doing this, all I am doing is removing myself from the present and speeding myself along on the road to death on which we all travel.
Speaking of death, after the Knights game I checked out their old home in nearby Fort Mill, SC. This place is in a state of decay, and will eventually be torn down.
And then it was on to Kannapolis for my third ballpark and second ballgame of the day. I’m really glad to have closed the trip here, as it was the most enjoyable place I’ve been to in a while and the sort of ballpark that I’d love to come back to strictly as a fan. New ballparks are great and all, as are ridiculous promos and on-field games, but an Intimidators game on a Tuesday night is a quintessential Minor League Baseball experience.
More on Kannapolis to come. More on EVERYTHING to come. But, for now, it’s time to travel back to NYC. One of my cats has been sick lately, but word is that she’s now on the mend and I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I missed you, Little.
Dispatch from the Road. June 9, 11:23 a.m. — I’m at the Crowne Suites in Hickory, which is kind of a weird place. It’s a large establishment and largely deserted, and as I sit here I’m imagining that I might be the only living person in the entire place. The others are actually spirits, fluctuating throughout different planes of reality and advancing an agenda that will not become clear to me until it’s too late.
No disrespect to the Crown Suites, though. I got a clean, comfortable room at an unbeatable price.
As for yesterday, there wasn’t much to it. The drive from Gwinnett to Hickory was four hours (including a stop for some Mexican food, the last refuge for the gluten-free), and the highlight of the drive was glimpsing a sign that said “F. Hugh Atkins Highway.” Really? What do they have against the Atkins Highway? Also, I heard Aerosmith’s “Big 10 Inch” on the radio, which isn’t as cool as when I heard “Round and Round” on my last trip, but, still, I’ll take it.
I made my way to L.P. Frans Stadium shortly after arriving in Hickory. Hello, Crawdads!
I once again threw out a first pitch while wearing my GoPro, and this time I think the footage came out alright. The evening then rolled right along until a massive thunderstorm descended upon in the ballpark in the sixth inning. As I scurried for shelter, I slipped on the slick concourse cement and ended up sliding into the Crawdads Cafe as if it was home plate. A lot of people saw it happen, and acted appropriately concerned, but I’m sure they all thought it was hilarious.
Anyhow, the game was called in the sixth inning. This hasn’t been the best trip, weather-wise, but still I persevere.
— Stephen Johnson (@_South_) June 9, 2014
And now it’s on to Charlotte. They’ve got a new ballpark there, I think.
Dispatch from the Road. June 8, 9:57 a.m. — I’ve got to keep this brief. I’m in Buford, Georgia right now (minutes away from the Gwinnett Braves) and have to get to Hickory, NC this afternoon. The Crawdads game is at 5 p.m., and factoring in a stop or two along the way it’s gonna take me 4+ hours to get there.
As for yesterday, I spent an hour or two in the early afternoon poking around downtown Rome. This was a very pleasant surprise, as until heading to Rome’s Broad Street my only impression of the town had been that it’s a huge strip of chain stores and restaurants.
Then it was on to Lawrenceville, Georgia, home of the Gwinnett Braves. Since I visited Gwinnett about four years ago, I took a different tact with my game coverage and more or less immersed myself with the promo crew. Lots of interesting/weird/funny stuff occurred, though I am a bit dismayed at the moment that my GoPro footage didn’t come out well. I was wearing the headstrap, and the camera must not have been mounted on tightly enough or something because the footage is very shaky. I wore it while throwing out the first pitch, which was a perfect strike. This is the future of media, if I can do it properly.
Either way I’ll keep fighting.
Got some Rhys Chatham and Neneh Cherry lined up for the car ride. See you in Hickory.
Dispatch from the Road. June 7, 12:15 p.m. — Currently writing from the lobby of a Country Inn and Suites in Rome, Georgia. But let’s take it back to yesterday…
The day began in Huntsville. The previous night’s Huntsville Stars game was rained out, so I had to move on without without seeing this esteemed Southern League franchise in their final season. Sadness was lodged in my bosom, alleviated somewhat with an early afternoon stop at the Lowe Mill. This once-dilapidated industrial setting has been converted in a thriving complex of stores and artist studios.
I was there to specifically to, yes, visit a record store. Vertical Records!
After picking up a copy of Lou Reed’s “Mistrial” for $6, I moved on towards Rome, Georgia. It rained the entire drive, and I was wary of yet another postponement. But the skies cleared (for good, as it turned out) around 5 p.m., and the game went on without a hitch.
The Rome Braves are a lot of fun! I served as the official witness at a Renew Your Vows wedding ceremony, and later got to ride around the field in the “Redneck Rummage Sale” trailer. Hey, when in Rome!
Dispatch from the Road. June 6, 10:38 a.m. — Greetings from Huntsville, Alabama. Regrettably, last night’s Stars game was rained out. The forecast doesn’t look much better for today, so it is with a heavy heart that I’ll be moving on to Georgia (for a Rome Braves game, though the weather isn’t looking too great there, either).
Yesterday began in Chattanooga. After a quick lunch at “Sticky Fingers BBQ” (not to be confused with Sticky Fingaz of Onyx fame), I made a brief cameo at the Lookouts current home of AT&T Field.
I’ll have more on that visit in a future blog post. It was then on to Huntsville, but on the way I called an audible and drove to the top of Lookout Mountain. It turned out to be in Georgia; it is very easy to cross state lines in this part of the country. Here’s the view from the observation deck of the Lookout Mountain incline (billed as the steepest in the world).
More on that later, hopefully. I made it to Huntsville later in the afternoon, and when I arrived rain wasn’t on my mind at all. But just as I was about to leave — BOOM!
On second thought… https://t.co/OEt7dFPG8a
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 5, 2014
I still made my way to the stadium, but about five minutes after I arrived the game was called.
Back in the hotel room, I wrote this MiLB.com story about the ongoing Engel Stadium restoration efforts in Chattanooga. This is the third time in four years that I’ve written about Engel, because it is an IMPORTANT STORY THAT DESERVES RECOGNITION WITHIN SPORTS MEDIA AT LARGE. Look, I know my niche is rather obscure, but it gets a little frustrating when pieces gain no traction outside of this insular universe. I know the audience is there. I just know it. It’s like God — you can’t prove it, but you never lose the faith.
Shortly I’ll be on to Rome. Hopefully I can make a quick stop at Huntsville’s Vertical Records before rambling on. Today’s goal, music wise, is to listen to the new Sun Kil Moon, “Benji” all the way through without crying. I don’t think it can be done; this song is just one of MANY tearjerkers.
Dispatch from the Road. June 5, 9:15 a.m. — Trip #2 of the season is now in full effect. I arrived in Chattanooga yesterday evening, and immediately paid a visit to historic Engel Stadium.
The Engel Foundation, who I have written about in the past, are doing great work to preserve and promote historic Engel Stadium. They’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I’ll be writing a MiLB.com piece on their efforts, and the stadium in general, in short order.
Last night I stayed at The Crash Pad in Chattanooga, a quirky, clean and efficient) hostel. Usually I stay at team hotels on these trips, so this was a nice change of pace. Several great bars and restaurants were nearby, and there was a feeling of energy and renewal throughout the area. It’s kinds of beautiful, the juxtaposition of 21st century creations such as the Crash Pad with decaying structures from a previous era of the city’s history.
The nearby Choo Choo Hotel, which, of course, used to be a train station.
I’d recommend visiting Chattanooga. I really would. Today I’ll stop by the Chattanooga Lookouts’ current home of AT&T Field for a brief tour, and then drive on to Huntsville for an evening with the Stars. Wish me luck.
June 3: If you are reading this, then I am back on the road. Or, more accurately, the road is back on me. Things are slowly coming into focus.
Here’s the itinerary this time around:
June 4: Chattanooga*
June 5: Huntsville Stars
June 6: Rome Braves
June 7: Gwinnett Braves
June 8: Hickory Crawdads
June 9: Charlotte Knights
June 10: Kannapolis Intimidators
*due to a scheduling snafu, I won’t be there in Chattanooga in time for that morning’s 11:05 a.m. Lookouts game. I will be visiting the Lookouts’ former home of Engel Stadium, however.
I will be up to my usual antics on this trip, hustling from place to place and writing, shooting, and tweeting along the way. As with my previous trip this season, I will not be writing blog posts until I return home. I will, however, update this post with information on my current location as well as links to whatever MiLB.com articles that may have appeared.
As always, get in touch with suggestions regarding things to do/people to talk to while on this trip. I am always open to your suggestions. And, if someone is interested in being a designated eater in Huntsville, Hickory, or Kannapolis, then let me know. (Designated eater = individual who eats the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)
Finally, here’s a map from my last road trip. Click on it, and you will be re-directed to an article that includes a version of this map that will link to all articles and blog posts from that trip. It is your duty to read every one of them. Or at least skim one or two.
Thanks for your continued support, and hope to see you on the road. Get in touch anytime.
My sixth and final stop on this, my first road trip of the 2014 season, was Round Rock, Texas. The Express, Triple-A affiliate of your Texas Rangers, are one of Round Rock’s (and the greater Austin area’s) top attractions.
The Express play at the Dell Diamond, which was built by legendary train robber Sam Bass in 1877 for use as a hideout from the law (either that, or I have misread the Wikipedia entry). These days, the trains are safe from the likes of Mr. Bass. This one sped past as I was entering the stadium, unencumbered from the constant threat of a hostile takeover.
As for the team’s name of “Express,” that’s a nod to the nickname of team co-owner Nolan Ryan. ( It costs $8 to park at Dell Diamond, a rather high rate by MiLB standards, and the comparative exorbitance of that fee is particularly striking in light of the fact that Ryan issued a Major League-record 2,795 free passes during his career.)
Upon entering the stadium I was greeted by Express director of communications Jill Cacic, who immediately led me and my guest for the evening (you’ll meet him later) on a tour of Dell Diamond.
Upon further investigation, it appears that Dell Diamond opened not in 1877 but in 2000. For the first five seasons of the Express’s existence they played in the Double-A Texas League. That team relocated to Corpus Christi in 2005, becoming the Hooks and staying under the Ryan-Sanders ownership mantle, while the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League relocated to Round Rock and assumed the identity of the Express. Make sense? It’s kinda like that time that the Carolina League Kinston Indians re-located to Zebulon and assumed the identity of the Carolina Mudcats, while the Double-A team that had been the Mudcats relocated to Pensacola and became the Blue Wahoos. That’s the sort of comparison that everyone knows and relates to and can understand right away with no confusion whatsoever.
Anyhow, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know is this: there are a lot of Golden Chicks in the Dell Diamond dugout.
A cool quirk — or a #cooquirk, to use the internet parlance of the day — of the Dell Diamond is that the players enter and exit the field via this staircase located down the left field line. The purpose of this is to promote fan interaction with the players; like it or not, they’re gonna have to mingle with the hoi polloi. (The Corpus Christi Hooks’ home of Whataburger Field utilizes a similar strategy, except that the player entrance is located amid the third base stands as opposed to straightaway left field.)
At the top of the stairs one finds the entrance to the clubhouse. And, yes, players interacting with fans.
The view from the player’s entrance. It’s a long way to the Golden Chicks.
After going up the stairs we went right back down the stairs. Such is life. The purpose of our descent was so that I could be interviewed on the field by Express director of entertainment Ballpark Rob Runnels.
So we meet again, Ballpark Rob. My appearance has degenerated since the last time that I saw you.
Rob and I spoke about life, love, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept, pre-code Hollywood, DIY pickling techniques, the deleterious effects of clickbait on social discourse, maintaining a connection with God amid an increasingly secular society, and Minor League Baseball.
My time on the videoboard, and on the field, continued beyond the interview. Next up was a ceremonial first pitch. The pictures tell the story.
Fortunately, there weren’t too many people who witnessed my bounced first pitch. It was a Monday evening, and as the game started the crowd was rather sparse.
Nonetheless, the Express are averaging 7,985 fans per game this season, best in the Pacific Coast League. It is a fact of life that I always visit teams on off nights, and they always make sure to tell me so.
It’s not the size of the crowd that matters anyway, it’s how you use it. Spike, he always does his best to entertain.
Speaking of Spike, one Spike Owen is on the Express coaching staff and Steve Buechele is the manager. As someone who collected baseball cards between the years 1986-1992, I am very familiar with these names. You probably are too.
With the game underway, I did what I do best: not watching the game. Instead, our ballpark tour resumed. Later, guys.
All of the Express’s food and beverage options are now handled in-house, via the newly-created Ryan-Sanders Sports Services (RS3 for short). I’ll have more on that later, but, for now:
This is the “Brew @ The Rock” bar, which features 16 beers on tap.
Those pieces of wood affixed to the bar are used as serving containers for “beer flights” ($8 for four four-ounce glasses), and they’re made out of baseball bats. I’m not sure when, but it’s a guarantee: other teams will steal this idea.
Teams will not, however, use this sign as a template. There’s a semi-colon where the comma should be, which completely changes the sign’s intended meaning.
Triple-A rosters are often comprised of veteran guys, who are for more likely to have wives and families than any other level of the Minors (guys at other levels of the Minors are far more likely to have video game systems, a dozen pairs of flip-flops, and the Tinder app on their phones). Hence this room, reserved for the families of the players.
There are plenty of other places in which to lounge at the Dell Diamond. These rocking chairs are available to anyone with a berm ticket, for an additional cost of $5 (first come, first served).
The members of the Express bullpen like to put their feet up as well.
As do the grounds crew.
RS3 also offers sports turf services throughout Texas, so this storage area has room for equipment above and beyond what is need to maintain their field. (When I post pictures such as these, I imagine MiLB groundskeepers in less lavish environments pounding their fist on the desk, spitting coffee onto the computer monitor, and yelling obscenities).
Looping around the stadium’s exterior, we soon came upon the player’s parking lot. You can generally tell which cars belong to players; there’s all sorts of overcompensation going on.
The owner of this vehicle possesses what very well may be the most bird poop-splattered Mercedes in all of Minor League Baseball. Get in touch if you are aware of any competition in this category.
The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.
All of the above apply to Ben’s Biz Blog, which, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time as well as most underrated entity in all of sports media. You know this. Tell a friend.
You don’t see this at most ballparks.
Earlier on this trip, I visited the Midland RockHounds and made a note of the huge rock sitting just outside of the stadium. Flipping the script, the Express have a huge rock inside of the stadium. Fitting, as they are one of the boulder teams in Minor League Baseball.
If you’re not into sitting in front of a big rock, you can go swimming instead. I’m not sure if one can stand in this swimming pool or not. Guess that deep ends.
Our lap of the stadium complete, it was once again time to return to field level. Hola, Spike.
I was back on the field in order to compete in a between-inning shirt shag, in which I was tasked with catching t-shirts (launched from a slingshot) with a net.
I missed the first one due to lack of skill, as it clanked off the side of the net. I caught the second.
The third one was a soft launch, and I had to hustle for it. This photo makes it appear as if I might catch up to it, but I didn’t.
And what’s this? STOP THE PRESSES — full video documentation.
Okay, fine, whatever. Another on-field failure. But there’s no crying in Minor League Baseball blogging, a fact of life when you’re born with defective tear ducts.
Time to eat! My designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was Austin resident Phil Boyd.
Phil and I were friends (and, for three years, roommates) at the University of Pittsburgh. We initially bonded over a shared love of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his band Shockwave Riderz had just gotten off of a tour in which they opened for the Blues Explosion. Check out these Shockwave Riderz oscillations, and then cop some music here! It’s an In the Red Silver Apples synthscuzz Suicide attempt, like Dirty Beaches once the sleeping pills wear off.
Round Rock turned out to be a very good location in which to be a designated eater. As mentioned before, the team is now doing all of its concessions in-house, and executive chef Ed Ebert and food and beverage director Jay Kudla were psyched to show off their new creations.
What’s up, guys?
I wrote a MiLB.com feature about the concessions, and will try my best not to be overly redundant here. Each concession area is now a standalone, separately-branded entity, and there are a ton of options. Our first stop was the Metro Deli, which has three sandwiches named after Texas icons.
You’ll also notice the words “gluten-free market” on the above sign. The Express cater to gluten-free diets whenever possible, and the staff is fully trained as regards food handling procedures as well as the specific ingredients in each item. They’re doing it right.
While my photo documentation is poor (by this point my camera batteries had died and I was fumbling around with an iPhone), Phil ended up with a McConaughey.
My notes regarding Phil’s opinion of this sandwich were much like McConaughey himself: kinda hard to comprehend. In a nutshell, he liked it but wasn’t blown away.
Meanwhile, I was trying my hand at the Big Kahuna Dog — a quarter-pound Nolan Ryan beef hot dog topped with mango salsa, pineapple mustard and avocado and served (for me) on a gluten-free bun. On the side are house-made sea salt and pepper chips (when the Express say that everything is made on-site, they really mean it. There are no bagged chips to be found, and homemade is MUCH better).
The gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately (such is life, gluten is a binding agent) but this is a great dog and indicative of the Express’s attention to detail. Ebert and Kudla can (and will!) explain every component of every item in exacting detail. The result of this approach is food items that are uniformly fresh and flavorful.
Also available from the 50’s diner-themed “Fairlane’s” concession stand (or “storefronts,” as the team now calls them) is the James Dean hot dog. It’s topped with bleu cheese slaw and Frank’s Red Hot:
“This is a classic Buffalo wing flavor, and the bleu cheese slaw is great,” said Phil. “This is a good dog, man.”
Also named after a 50’s icon, but far less traditional, is “The Elvis.” Banana and peanut butter on a bun, drizzled with honey.
The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.
“The cool thing about it is that’s dessert, but not that unhealthy,” said Phil. “It’s so cool to have a dessert that’s not, like, a ton of ice cream.”
And then there’s this: the Grilled Cheese Dog. No explanation required.
Man, I wish I could have tried this one. But this garlic fries on the side are EXCEPTIONAL. Much crisper than your usual garlic fries, and seasoned to perfection.
Here’s Phil watching the game with the Grilled Cheese Dog, his steadily growing array of food items laid out in front of him.
“The dog is the first thing you notice, but it’s followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor,” said Phil. “It’s a fun idea.’
Hey! Remember back in 2010, when “Rojo Johnson” made a relief appearance at a Round Rock game? If not:
Rojo is now back at the ballpark, in the form of “Rojo’s Southwestern Hideaway.”
Lots of great gluten-free options here, such as this “Taco Flight” — pork carnitas and chicken verde with shredded romaine, cotija cheese, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.
In lieu of a written opinion, a picture:
Even better were the nachos, which are some of the best to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball. Red, white and blue tortilla chips, pork, “Queso Rojo,” jalapeno, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Things like this represent the best kind of gluten-free ballpark options, in that they are naturally gluten-free as opposed to a compromised consolation prize.
Next up for Phil was the beer shake, available at the Frozensational Tiki Bar. This is a Convict Hill oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream.
“You’re gonna want a straw with that,” said either Ebert or Kudla (my notes are unclear). “This is not a beer with milk in it, it’s a milkshake with a shot of beer.”
And — yes! — a gluten-free beershake was concocted for me using Redbridge. Cute hair, bro:
By this points most of the concession stands (or, sorry, “storefronts”) were shutting down. But we weren’t done yet. Here, Phil “The Bottomless Pit” Boyd poses with a brisket BBQ plate from the South Side Market (a third party vendor that has a restaurant in Elgin, Texas).
Once again, a picture says more than words ever could.
RS3 has come very strongly out of the gate, and the long-term plan is, as Kudla said “to make it salable and take it elsewhere.” Could the Grilled Cheese Dog be coming soon to a ballpark near you?
This extensive food tour brought us right through to the end of the game, but it was worth it. The only thing I regret is that Phil and I missed seeing this:
That dude clearly put a little too much herb mayo on his Willie Sandwich.
In keeping with the theme of this Texas-sized road trip, I arrived in Corpus Christi shortly before the game began and didn’t really have any time to get the lay of the land. But my first impression of Corpus Christi was that it was a pretty swanky place, at least in the waterfront area where my hotel was located. On these trips I am used to staying in nondescript establishments located within homogeneous swaths of depressingly generic chain establishments. But the Corpus Christi Holiday Inn was 20-something stories tall and located right on the water, definitely not a typical Minor League hotel!
The view from my room:
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to access the balcony. How’s this for some strangely-worded hotel room signage?
“We would like to make you aware”?
This grandiose sense of scale carried over to the ballpark itself, which opened in 2005. Welcome to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.
This statue, sporting the disappointingly generic title of “For the Love of the Game,” is 22 feet tall. Is it the biggest statue in all of Minor League Baseball? I don’t know, you tell me.
I wrote about this statue, and many other aspects of the Hooks experience, over at MiLB.com. Please read it, as I am going to do my best not to be redundant when it comes to what I cover here in this blog post.
As you’ll see in this photo, and throughout the post, the landscape surrounding Whataburger Field is rather cluttered. There are cranes, ships, bridges, train tracks, wind turbines (and more). Much of this industrial activity is affiliated with the Port of Corpus Christi, which, per Wikipedia, is the sixth largest port in the United States as regards cargo volume.
The wood beams incorporated into the stadium’s facade (as well as the corrugated steel paneling along the upper suite level) are architectural nods to the cotton warehouses that used to permeate the region.
During the days when cotton reigned, baseball in Corpus Christi was more apt to resemble this.
The AutoNation Club group seating area features this view of Harbor Bridge (it’s much prettier at night, as you shall soon see).
There are a lot of Minor League groundskeepers out there would will kill (with their bare hands, if necessary) for storage space like this.
Another perk of groundskeeping in Corpus Christi, as detailed in my MiLB.com piece:
Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn’t receive much rainfall, but what Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers calls “an incredibly effective drainage system” plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel.
Tanks, a lot:
Cotton presses, still standing in their original location, flank each side of the (brand-new) scoreboard. The “Bam Bam” sign below the window commemorates a batting practice home run hit by Hunter “Bam Bam” Pence while he was with the Hooks.
The boilers that once drove the presses now serve as the backdrop for an outfield basketball court.
Beyond the boilers one finds this youth field, which has games taking place at 5:45 most days of the week. On the day I attended, the Challenger League was in action.
And here we have a rock wall, which has not yet achieved sentience.
The view from the 407 Club, so named because it sits just beyond the deepest part of the ballpark.
Even deeper, but not part of the ballpark proper:
The Hooks’ Splash Zone is a bit more modest than the water park seen above.
The view from the right field entrance.
After taking this lap of the surroundings (thanks to Matt Rogers for the tour), I went down to the playing field for a pre-game interview with Hooks broadcaster Chris Blake.
No pictures of this interview exist, but rest assured that I was charming and witty and incredibly knowledgeable. That’s Chris there on the left, and that guy on the right is wearing a poncho in celebration of Cinco De Mayo. This photo also provides a good view of the cotton press as well as the team’s new scoreboard.
The dugouts are sponsored by the Downtown Marina Holiday Inn, who would like to make you aware that the balconies are not accessible.
A pre-game autograph session featuring both players and mascots.
And, yes, that is an anthropomorphic hook wearing a poncho. I don’t think that I had ever seen that before.
As the game began, I was in a storage area among “Only in Minor League Baseball” accoutrements such as a super-sized order of Whataburger Fries.
Greetings from Corpus Christi https://t.co/0GERpnzXH6
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I started off strong, but at some point during the race my foot slipped off of the pedal and I never regained my speed. I finished in second (of three).
Many of our adventures together throughout the evening were chronicled on the videboard, but the video I obtained lacked audio and I have decided not to use it. Hopefully these pictures will suffice, please send any complaints regarding my subpar content to email@example.com
Ballpark Chuck and I then adjourned to the outfield for the “Whataburger Fry Shuffle” contest. (Similar to a cap shuffle or what have you). For participating in this contest, I received an oversized Whataburger t-shirt. Please, pay no attention to my emerging manboobs.
Our ballpark journeys now segued into a now common segment of the Ben’s Biz Blog “On the Road” experience. It was time to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Say hello to Javi Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach in Corpus Christi. Javi was at the ballpark with his wife, Megan (also a teacher), father Jaime and son James (that James and Jaime in the background).
“I just love Minor League Baseball, and reading the different blogs,” said Javi. As for his designated eating duties, he remarked that “My wife couldn’t believe it, but she said ‘If if it’s going to be anyone, I guess that it’d be you.”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
Yes, “The Babe.” Created last season in response to MiLB.com’s “Food Fight” competition, “The Babe” is cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger wrapped in bacon.
“The cheddarwurst makes it so it’s not as dry as you would think,” said Javi. “And anything wrapped in bacon is a can’t miss. This is Texas, so when you put those meats together it’s good stuff.”
Next up was the Taco Dog — a hot dog in a crispy corn taco shell in a soft flour tortilla, topped with ground beef and pico de gallo.
Javi simply remarked that this was a “good doubledecker, there’s a lot going on.” We then moved on to the mac and cheese dog, which I failed to take a good picture of.
“This is good, but it could use a little ketchup,” said Javi. “Some people say that’s sacrilegious, to put ketchup on a hot dog.
At one point Javi attempted to enlist 14-month-old James as a designated eater, which would have made him the youngest designated eater in the history of designated eating. James was having none of it, though.
Thanks to Javi and his family for taking the time to do some designated eating! When I asked if it was embarrassing to sit at a table and have someone take pictures of him eating, he said “Nah, I’m a teacher. You have to embarrass yourself in the classroom every day.”
That’s the spirit!
For the record, Whataburger Field has its own Whataburger (which the locals pronounce “Waterburger.”) The fast food franchise began in Corpus Christi, and still has its headquarters there.
Enshrouded in the shadows, one can also find Nolan Ryan’s “Smoke 5714″ BBQ stand. (The Hooks were originally owned by Ryan-Sanders. Nolan Ryan struck out 5714 batters over the course of his 63-season career.)
And don’t forget. There was a game going on! There is always a game going on.
As alluded to previously, the Harbor Bridge is beautiful at night.
Ballpark Chuck and I had made our way back down to the playing field so that I could emcee a “Finish the Lyrics” competition. Madalee and McKayla ably finished the lyrics (of a pop song I can no longer recall); fun was had by all.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I then emceed a Dizzy Bat Race, because why not? I wish I had proper video of this, as my comedic chops were on point for a change.
Taking a phone call while the contestants spin.
After the Dizzy Bat Race, I interviewed Hooks super-fan Tammy Tucker about the myriad ways in which she supports the team. You can read that interview HERE.
You don’t need a fancy lens to get a good picture of Harbor Bridge.
With the game just about over, I made a pit stop at the press box. Like seemingly everywhere else at Whataburger Field, there is plenty of room to move.
The Hooks do not acknowledge the existence of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
A unique aspect of Whataburger Field is this radio studio, located on the ground floor of the stadium and visible to fans. Here, outfielder Mark Wik does a post game interview with Chris Blake after homering in his Corpus Christi debut. I’m not sure of the machinations that led to Wik being in Corpus Christi, but he came straight from extended Spring Training, played two games with the Hooks, and then went to Class A Advanced Lancaster and played two games there. He is now back in extended Spring Training (I think), and will most likely appear again with Class A Short Season Tri-Cities once their season begins. What a life.
As I observed this interview, a man I had met previously in the evening, one Douglas Calhoun, tapped on the window and waved a ball and pen at me. I assumed he wanted me to get Wik to autograph the ball, but he wanted my autograph (!!!) I was happy to oblige.
If you would like me to sign an autograph for you, then get in touch. I am a very accessible celebrity.