Mysteries Revealed in “108 Stitches”

During the 2012 season, the Orem Owlz became the first Minor League team to welcome Larry “Soup Nazi” Thomas to the ballpark for a promotional appearance.

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Photo: Orem Owlz

Then, the following season, the Owlz gave away 5000 pairs of team-logo sunglasses as part of a “most people wearing sunglasses at night” world record attempt. (The blue balls were part of a different promotion. Please ignore the blue balls).

owlz_promos_nbqtshzb_dz7aciy6These two promotional endeavors, different as they may seem, have one thing in common. This:

108108 Stitches  is a low-budget baseball comedy, executive produced by Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky and produced and co-written by his son, Jake. A raunchy and ramshackle underdog sports comedy (think Major League or Animal House), 108 Stitches involves the exploits of a fictional Orem-based collegiate baseball team. The players wear the uniforms of the real-life Orem Owlz (Class A Short Season affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels), and the baseball scenes are shot at the so-called “Home of the Owlz,” located on the campus of Utah Valley University.

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The Owlz are not what they seem.

The above fictional squad is coached by one Scott Deshields (esteemed character actor Bruce Davison); meanwhile, assistant coach Kassem Bosco is played by — wait for it — Larry “Soup Nazi” Thomas. So that’s why he was in Orem in the first place!

coachesThen, later in the film, the Owlz’ “most people wearing sunglasses at night” record attempt is incorporated into the plot. It’s life meets art, or something like that.

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Photo: Orem Owlz

The movie also features cameos from Owlz mascots Hootz and Holly, but unfortunately does not reference Holly’s 2012 pregnancy announcement.

Speaking of procreation, Roger Clemens has declared, somewhat incomprehensibly, that “If Animal House, Bull Durham and Major League had a threesome, 108 Stitches would be its kid.” Also, somewhat incomprehensibly, Clemens has a cameo late in the film. Here’s the trailer, which features Clemens, Hootz, Holly, the Soup Nazi, 3D Glasses and, of course, more:

If you’re interested in checking out the film, it it available for streaming via virtually every streaming platform known to man. Click HERE.

If you are desirous of even more Minor League “cinema,” then click HERE to see Lake Elsinore Storm mascot Thunder riding a dirtbike. Or, hey, how about this: Fresno Grizzlies mascot Parker provides the mascot perspective on a hot-button social issue.

Or if lip-syncing front-office members are more your thing, then how about this video courtesy of the Tulsa Drillers?

In the Academy Awards of my mind, which take place biannually for some reason, these are all statuette-worthy efforts.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

For Thanksgiving, a Baseball Miracle

Baseball Miracles is a 501c3 foundation, headed by White Sox scout John Tumminia, that describes itself as follows:

[We are] a team of baseball and softball instructors who join together to teach boys and girls with economic and environmental disadvantages throughout the world. We strive to reach out, especially to youth who have never played the game. At no cost, we provide instruction, gloves, bats, hats, shirts and memories. In reaching these objectives we receive no financial compensation but we do seek and search out sponsorship to get us to our destinations. Our mission is to serve others with joy by having fun, like when seeing a child hit and catch a ball for the first time. 

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I’ve written about Baseball Miracles several times in the past, most notably in this 2013 MiLB.com feature story. That piece mentioned Baseball Miracles’ excursions to the Dominican Republic and South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian reservations, and since then the organization has only grown more global in scope. At the end of October, representatives from the organization — including Minor League pitchers Mike McCarthy and Virgil Vazquez — traveled to South Africa and worked with young orphans at the Stinkwater Nursery:

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photo: Gerrit Van Rensburg

McCarthy gives a gum-chewing demo:

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Photo: Todd Bliss

Vazquez and his pupils:

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Tumminia and friend:

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Photo: Gerrit Van Rensburg

The bottom line, as I hope the above text and pictures have made clear, is that Baseball Miracles is an organization well worth supporting. Baseball equipment (in general) and gloves (in particular) are needed for the children who participate in these camps, and Tumminia emphasizes that monetary donations are greatly appreciated as well. If interested in donating money or equipment please email him directly at jtumminia@chisox.com.

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John Tumminia: founder of Baseball Miracles and member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame

Next up for Baseball Miracles is a 2015 trip to Comayagua, Honduras. On the cusp of Thanksgiving — and the holiday season at large — why not lend a hand to a cause that should appeal to those who work in baseball as well as those who simply love the game?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and mine and everyone. I’ll be back in the office on Monday, ready for a week filled with re-branding unveils and Winter Meeting preparations. And, of course, if you’re going to be in San Diego for the Winter Meetings then let me know. I’ll be happy to make your acquaintance.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Looking for a Job at the Winter Meetings? Want to Write About It?

The Baseball Winter Meetings is scheduled to take place from December 7 through December 10 in by-all-accounts beautiful San Diego, California. As always, a primary component of this sprawling and multi-faceted event will be the annual PBEO Job Fair, in which professional baseball aspirants seek to secure a coveted position within the world of, yes, professional baseball.

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Looking for a job at the Winter Meetings is a fraught, exhilarating and often maddening proposition, as hundreds of seekers vie to land a professionally, geographically and economically appropriate position. Some are content with securing an internship — anything to get that proverbial foot in the door — while others have already gone this route and are now intent on full-time employment. Some are just out of (or still in) college, while others are taking a leap of faith by trying to break into baseball after having started out within a different line of work.

Every story is unique, is what I’m saying, and these stories are well worth sharing. In 2014, as during the previous two Winter Meetings, I am planning on running a series of Job Seeker Journal guest posts on this blog (these will also be compiled and featured daily on MiLB.com). Are YOU attending the Winter Meetings as a Job Seeker? If so, are you interested in joining this group of distinguished individuals?

2012Clint Belau, Chris Miller, Eric Schmitz, Linda Le

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2013Kasey Decker, Ian Fontenot, Meredith Perri, Alex Reiner
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2014: You?

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If you are interested in sharing your 2014 Winter Meetings job-seeking experience on this blog and MiLB.com, then please get in touch — benjamin.hill@mlb.com — with the following information:

– Name, age, hometown, college, Twitter handle (if applicable)

– Prior Sports Industry Experience (if applicable)

– Why do you want to work in baseball?

– One random fact about yourself (this can, literally, be anything)

Emails must be received within one week from today: the deadline is Tuesday, December 2 at 12 p.m. EST. Three individuals will then be chosen (selected by myself, with input from an esteemed group of MiLB.com colleagues), and introduced to the public in December 5’s “Minoring in Business” feature on MiLB.com. Journals will begin running the following week — one entry covering each day of the Job Fair, followed by a final post in early 2015 explaining how everything panned out.

Job-seekers, I hope to hear from you! This is a great opportunity to share your unique perspective on a baseball career rite of passage, and, who knows? The exposure you get from these journals could be just what you need to separate yourself from what is always a crowded field of candidates. Good luck, and hope to hear from you!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Shuckin’ with Buck in Biloxi

On Monday evening, Biloxi’s new Southern League franchise announced that it will go by the name of “Shuckers.” This is nothing to do with an action that is often performed in tandem with jivin'; rather it is an homage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast city’s thriving seafood industry. Oysters, which must be shucked by, yes, shuckers, are a big part of this industry.

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My MiLB.com story on the new name was published on Monday evening, in conjunction with the team’s official announcement. The story includes a cornucopia of quotes from Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers, who held the same position in the team’s previous home of Huntsville, Alabama.

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

If you’ve ever spoken with Buck, you know that he’s never at a loss for words. In fact, I would go so far as to dub him “the most loquacious dude in the industry.” This was certainly the case when I spoke with him for my MiLB.com story. In fact, I ended up with a veritable novella’s worth of surplus verbiage. Being a conservationist at heart, I figured that I’d now share some of this surplus with you, the presumably interested and undeniably attractive reader.

On capitalizing on the Shuckers’ name:

Milwaukee, our parent club, has the sausage race. In Huntsville we did a superhero race. Here in Biloxi, we can do a seafood race. The sky’s the limit! (Note: Buck said “the sky’s the limit” a half-dozen times during our conversation.)

Maybe we can call up Smuckers — get a mascot that’s a jar of strawberry jam. The sky’s the limit….I guarantee you, if we take our staff to a beachside bar, get a pizza and some barley sodas and start brainstorming, we’ll come up with a big list of ideas.

I’d love to get Blue Oyster Cult out here to play a post-game concert. They’re my favorite rock band of all time.

On the potential negative of naming the team “Shuckers”:

You can take any name and turn it into something perverse. This is a local name with a local logo, and it’s reflective of the Gulf Coast. We didn’t have Willie-Off-the-Pickleboat design this. It’s professionally done, and we’re really proud of it. This whole thing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. New team, new name, new stadium. Everything’s brand new. This is Christmas, New Year’s, Mardi Gras and your birthday all rolled into one.

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On the Shuckers’ ownership group, which is headed by Ovations Food Services president Ken Young (whose portfolio also includes the Albuquerque Isotopes and Norfolk Tides):

This isn’t their first rodeo. We’ve had members of the Albuquerque staff out here, and they’ve helped tremendously. It’s been a great team effort. Ken owns Ovations, so you know the food here is going to be first class. We had Ovations when I was working in Brevard County [Buck was GM of the Manatees] and I’m happy to be back in that family. We have to think that the sky’s the limit. I’m not gonna tell them “Serve this, serve that.” They know what they’re doing. I expect shrimp po’ boys, oysters, all that kind of stuff. The concession stands will reflect the flavor of the Gulf Coast.

On keeping the Shuckers name a secret: 

The Albuquerque staff took the lead on ordering the merchandise. Thank God, because we’ve had so much to do. So a lot of the merchandise was shipped there first, because we didn’t want a box showing up here that said “Shuckers” on it. But we worked really hard to keep the name off of any boxes or labels; we needed the whole thing kept under wraps. All you want to do is reward the locals. If you reveal the name, then you took the prize away, you took the present away. It’s like showing a kid his Christmas presents two days early. You took the joy away. We’ve had people from all over trying to find out the name. I just told everyone “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Lie, deny and counter-accuse. It’s the military way. [Buck is a former airborne infantryman, who took part in the 1989 mission to apprehend Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.]

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On the perks of operating in Biloxi: 

We’re right across from the beach, and the team hotel is 100 steps away. We’ve got night life, gambling, clubs, concerts, shows and everything else. This is a good destination. Teams are going to like coming here. We’re going to have the best home record in the league, because the guys on the visiting team, they’ll all have sunburn and will be tired from having spent the night at the casinos.

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So what do you think of the “Shuckers” name? Your feedback is always welcome, via whichever medium you might choose to deliver it.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

The 500 Club, Minor League Baseball, and You

During the season I write a column called “Crooked Numbers,” which recaps the most absurd and improbable events to have taken place on a Minor League Baseball field over the past month. I enjoy writing it, as it allows me to indulge the quirkier and more obsessive side of my baseball-writing personality.  This, in turn, encourages others to get in touch so that they may share their own quirky and obsessive baseball observations.

crooked

Which leads me to today’s post, which concerns an email I received from veteran sports announcer Jarrod Wronski in late April but didn’t have the chance to share until now. These emails used the occasion of Albert Pujols’ 500th Major League home run as a launching pad into all sorts of Minor League Baseball ephemera. I think baseball fans possessing a robust quirky and obsessive side — of which there are many — will enjoy this.

Pujols during his Minor League days.

Pujols during his Minor League days.

Wronski writes:

With Albert Pujols hitting his 500th home run on April 22, here are some interesting notes in regards to the home run:

Pujols becomes the second Potomac/Prince William franchise player to hit 500 Major League home runs; he did it against the Washington Nationals who are now the affiliate for Potomac. Pujols, who played for Potomac in 2000, joins Barry Bonds (’85) as the other former player to call Woodbridge home before heading to the bigs to hit 500 career home runs.

Bonds/Pujols become just the second pair of Carolina League organization mates to each hit 500 home runs in their Major League career.  Jim Thome (1990) and Manny Ramirez (1992) are the others; they played for the Kinston Indians. Now, here’s where it gets interesting: Kinston moved to Zebulon, North Carolina, where the Mudcats began as a Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is the same organization that moved to Woodbridge, becoming the Prince William Pirates, whom Bonds played for.

The only other Class A Advanced team to have more than one former player with 500 or more career home runs is Modesto: Reggie Jackson (1966) and Mark McGwire (1984-85).

Another interesting note regarding these three  Class A Advanced teams is that someone actually worked for all three organizations, and did so in consecutive years. That person worked for Modesto in 2002, Carolina in 2003 and Potomac in 2004.  All three of those teams went to the playoffs, with Carolina winning the Southern League championship.  That person? Me.  I was the P. A. announcer/music person/game producer and worked in the front office for Modesto, worked in the front office, emceed and did fill-in P. A. work for Carolina, and worked gameday as the P. A. announcer/music person for Potomac.

Tacoma has had three former players hit 500 or more career home runs: McGwire (1986), Alex Rodriguez (1995 -’96) and Willie McCovey (1960). The Pacific Coast League has had nine different players “start” their careers here and go on to reach the 500 home run milestone.

Here’s a list of other Minor League teams who had more than one player go on to hit 500 Major League home runs:

Minneapolis Millers (American Association): Ted Williams (1938), Willie Mays (1951)

Burlington Indians (Appalachian League): Jim Thome (1990), Manny Ramirez (1991)

Canton-Akron Indians (Eastern League): Jim Thome (1991-’92), Manny Ramirez (1993)

Charlotte Knights (International League): Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez (1993). This marked the ONLY time in Minor League history that two players to hit 500 or more home runs in the Major Leagues played on the same team.

Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League) Raphael Palmeiro (1985) and Albert Pujols (2000)

Tulsa Drillers (Texas League) Frank Robinson (1954) and Sammy Sosa (1989)

Keep in mind that during this research— with the help of Baseball Reference — I used only teams these players played for before gaining two full years of experience in Major League Baseball. The Pujols/Bonds connection is memorable because Bonds played in the first Minor League game that my dad ever took me to. My dad told me about his dad, Bobby Bonds, and we wound up moving close to the field near the end of the game so that I could see Bonds play close up.  Then, in 2000, I saw Pujols play for Potomac during a weekend visit to Myrtle Beach. My parents were there on vacation, and the team I was working for at the time (the St. Petersburg Devil Rays) were in a lame-duck season so I used it as a chance to interview with the Pelicans.

So there you have it. Thanks to Wronski for sharing this fascinating information. It’s a little dense, to be sure, but if there’s one thing I know about my readers it’s that they, too, are a little dense. We’re all in this together, so get in touch anytime.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Where to Begin?

For the past six months, the material on this blog has been almost entirely devoted to “On the Road” stadium visit recaps. I hope that you enjoyed reading these posts, and if you haven’t read them then I hope that you might soon take the time to do so. But now it’s time to move on, psychically unencumbered, to something that I haven’t done for a while: a full-to-bursting Ben’s Biz Blog bouillabaisse!

This will be the first in a randomly occurring series of posts in which I dig into my email vault of blog-worthy items from the season that was. Let the randomness begin! Randomness such as, oh, I don’t know, a Durham Bulls fan tweeting in the guise of a Game of Thrones character.

Some context regarding the above Twitter outburst, courtesy of the Durham Bulls’ “Hit Bull Win Blog.”

Mur Lafferty, or @mightymur as she is known on Twitter, is a Campbell Award winning author who covers games from a very unique perspective — through the eyes of Game Of Thrones character Sansa Stark. She calls it #Sansaball and being the nerds that we are (see Star Wars Night jerseys), we look forward to this every time she’s in the building.

She seemed to be in the building a lot during the 2014 season, as evidenced by tweets containing the #Sansaball hashtag. Tweets such as these, and so on and so forth:

This begs the question: if YOU were to tweet as a television character during Minor League Baseball games, who would it be and why? (I’d go with Chris Peterson from Get A Life.)

Minor League front office types often boast that they are in the “memory-making business,” and, well, images like this sure make for a great memory:

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That picture was taken way back on Opening Day, as Richmond Flying Squirrels mascot Nutzy entered the building in a most memorable fashion.

The evening also ended memorably. Flying Squirrels team president Todd “Parney” Parnell did his best Johnny Cash impersonation by jumping through a ring of fire.

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Moving on from Johnny Cash to the Beatles, it’s now time to take a look at “A Day in the Life” of a Minor League employee. This video was made by Greg Monahan, the Lansing Lugnuts on-field host and a graduate student at Michigan State. It was made as part of a school project, and it is well worth your time.

And that will be it for today. Now that I’m back from vacation and all of my road trip content is in the rear view, this blog is officially in offseason mode. I’ve got plenty of material to share, but am always looking for more. If there’s something that you’d like to see covered, or if you are interested in potentially writing a guest post on a relevant Minor League topic of your choice, then please get in touch. Like Richard Marx, I will be right here waiting for you.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: It All Comes to an End in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

(Also: I will be on vacation through Monday, November 17. Please take this opportunity to get caught up on all of my 2014 in-season content. And if you have suggestions regarding offseason topics that I may wish to pursue, then please get in touch. Your feedback is always appreciated.)

The first Minor League game that I ever went to was in 1989, when I saw the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons play at Lackawanna County Stadium. The Red Barons were a Philadelphia affiliate, and as a fanatical young Phillies fan, I loved seeing players in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre whom I might one day see play in Philadelphia. I also thought it was really cool that Lackawanna County Stadium was designed as a mini-Veterans Stadium, so that players who got the call-up to the Phillies would already have a good sense of the field layout as well as the unforgiving nature of the artificial playing surface.

I attended Red Barons games on a semi-regular basis over the next half decade or so, one of the primary perks of my grandparents having bought a house in nearby Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania. I remember cheering on the likes of Greg Legg, Steve Scarsone and Jeff Grotewold, and occasionally seeing rehabbing Major Leaguers such as Darren Daulton and, on one memorable day, Darryl Strawberry (suiting up as a member of the visiting Columbus Clippers). These are my first, and still some of my best, Minor League Baseball memories.

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At one time in my life, I had a Red Barons pennant hanging in my bedroom

Some two decades later, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre still has a Triple-A team. This much has remained constant. But the franchise has switched affiliations (from the Phillies to the Yankees in 2007) and rebranded itself twice (becoming the Yankees in conjunction with the 2007 affiliation switch and then adopting the “RailRiders” name prior to the 2013 season). Furthermore, the team is playing in what is essentially a new ballpark. Renovations to Lackawanna County Field (now called PNC Field) were so extensive that the team was forced to spend the entirety of the 2012 season on the road. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball experience of my youth is no longer. The franchise is now ensconced with a whole new epoch and on Sunday, August 31, I finally got the chance to see it for myself.

*  *  *

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was the 10th and final stop of my fourth and final road trip of the 2014 season. Finally, the end was in sight, and it seemed fitting that my travels would end with the franchise where my relationship with Minor League Baseball began.  I arrived at the ballpark in the late morning, and was greeted not by a parking attendant but by a “Director of First Impressions.”

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First impression: you should tuck in your undershirt

“Director of First Impressions” and other whimsical approaches to customer service can be attributed to team president Rob Crain, who came aboard in 2012 and oversaw the stadium renovation and rebranding efforts that occurred prior to the 2013 season. He had experience with that sort of thing, having previously been a part of similar endeavors in Omaha (during the 2010-11 offseason, the Omaha Royals moved to a new ballpark and named themselves the “Storm Chasers”).

It was approximately two hours until the start of the game, meaning that I had the parking lot practically to myself.

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I wasn’t the first one to arrive, however. These fans were already in line, presumably so they could obtain one of the team-logo toothbrush holders that were to be given away.

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Which, by the way, looked like this. (I’m not sure where the toothbrush is supposed to go, but whatever. I’m sure those in the know will bristle at my ignorance.)

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I met Rob Crain outside of the ballpark, and he gave me a tour of the facility. Let’s begin.

*  *  *

This mural depicting Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history and culture, was painted by local artist Evan Hughes. (His was the winning design in a contest staged by the RailRiders prior to this season.) The mural runs alongside the steps that lead to PNC Field’s Mohegan Sun Club, a private second-level club and suite area.

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Outside the entrance to the Mohegan Sun Club, I happened upon this curious sight.

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The RailRiders were set to play the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and in response the team was roasting a pig and selling the resulting “IronPig Sandwich” for $7.50.

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The RailRiders had already lost the “IronRail” head-to-head season series with Lehigh Valley, and both teams had long been eliminated from playoff contention, but there was still something to play for: the battle to not finish in last place!

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The playing field is one of the few things at PNC Field that is not new. The days of this ballpark bearing a distinct Veterans Stadium resemblance are long, long gone.

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For the record, Rob was very enthusiastic about the drink rail that wraps around the entire concourse. I think he used the term “Trex-style decking,” and I was like “How can T-Rex even hold a drink when he’s got those tiny baby arms?”

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One of the coolest things about this “new” ballpark is the extent to which the natural landscape is incorporated into the outfield concourse. This is the Railhouse Bar.

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Booze with a view.

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And this picnic area is called “Oak Grove.” The trees are lit up at night, but, alas, I was there during the day.

“I’m not sure if the trees are oak, but that’s what we call them,” said Rob. “I’m no arborist.”

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Stay off of the rocks, please.

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Actually, on second thought: have a seat:

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The rocks have eyes!

$2 buys three shots on the Porcupine Putt Putt.

“If you’re wondering, it goes to the left,” said Rob.

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“We wanted the biggest, tallest, most intense visual we could find,” said Rob, explaining the thought process behind this gargantuan Fun Zone offering.

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The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons/Yankees/RailRiders have retired two numbers over the course of franchise history. Greg Legg, No. 14, was not honored simply on the strength of his name, but because he played for the Red Barons from 1989-94. All told, Legg played 11 seasons in Triple-A, all within the Phillies organization, and he has since spent the last two decades coaching and managing within the Phillies system. Dave Miley, No. 11, has managed the club since 2007. He is the only manager Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has had during its time as a Yankees affiliate.

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On the third-base side of the concourse, one finds this Midway-style attraction.

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Ribbet Riders in action, featuring president Rob.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Frogs, but it was time to move on. The Laurel Line Grill is named after the Laurel Line trolley route. Did you know that Scranton is the birthplace of the electric street car? And that’s why the team is called the “RailRiders” in the first place? Well, now you do.

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I’m not sure that I had ever seen this before: add peanuts for $3.00.

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The Birthday Burrow is where all the cool Scranton kids have their parties.

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During our lap of the concourse, Rob was in full taking-care-of-business mode. In addition to augmenting my tour with various ballpark facts, I witnessed him pick up stray pieces of litter, radio a co-worker about a broken armrest in section 11 and constantly monitor the weather via an app on his cell phone. A storm front was in the vicinity of the ballpark, and it was an open question at whether it would wreak havoc or steer clear.

In the meantime, Rob and I went upstairs in order to check out the aforementioned Mohegan Sun Club.

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The four-top tables placed outside are in the shape of blackjack tables.

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The elevated view from the second level makes it easier to appreciate the artistry of the groundskeeper.

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The suite hallways are decorated with photos of Yankee greats.

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In the suites, one finds induction heaters mounted inside harvest tables. Other teams are gonna have to step up their food-heating game!

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There are 18 suites overall, identified by glowing signage modeled after that which can be found at Yankee Stadium.

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Back on the concourse, pitcher Nick Rumbelow and second baseman Robert Refsnyder (separated at birth?) were in the midst of a 20-minute pregame autograph session. Refsnyder didn’t know it then, but weeks later he would win a MiLBY for Top Home Run Video.

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The RailRiders’ press box and control room are located on the concourse level. Twenty-one games are broadcast on local television each season, with most of the equipment needed for such an endeavor found here.

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With the game about to begin, I bid adieu to President Crain (for the time being) and wandered back to the outfield concourse. One of the coolest features of this area is the primo view it affords of the home and visiting bullpens. Here, IronPigs pitcher Sean O’Sullivan gets in some final tosses before taking the mound.

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The RailRiders’ relievers struck a casual pose.

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But the IronPigs’ bullpen denizens were even more relaxed. Dude on the left is all, “Man, it’s the penultimate day of the season. I’m not even gonna put on pants.”

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*  *  *

With the game under way, I recommenced wandering, and, soon enough, my wanderings led me to this trio.

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My conversation with the above trio led to an MiLB.com article, excerpted below of context:

Junichi “Jay” Inoue, Yu “Buffalo” Matsumoto and Tetsuhiro “Freddy” Usui were visiting the RailRiders from Sendai, Japan, as part of a tour of American sporting venues. All three men work in the “enterprise department” of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team commonly referred to simply as “Rakuten” — and they were in America on business.

Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui wanted to learn about how professional sports teams operate in the United States. The hope was that, after careful observation, they could apply some of these American ideas to the Rakuten baseball experience.

This trio of international travelers was accompanied to PNC Field by Morris Morioka, a native of Japan who has just completed his second season as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager of marketing and promotions. Two years ago, Morioka and IronPigs promotions director Lindsey Knupp traveled to Japan to share ideas at sports promotional seminars in Tokyo and Sendai. While in the latter city, they met Usui, who kept in touch with Morioka and solicited his help in planning a trip to the United States.

Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui had an interesting array of paraphernalia, including this Masahiro Tanaka golden bobblehead.

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This concessions brochure was fascinating.

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And, yes, your eyes do not deceive you. In the bottom right hand corner, Andruw Jones is eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.

*  *  *

After parting ways with my new Japanese friends, I returned to the pig carving station to see how things were going. A significant chunk of this unfortunate fellow was now missing.

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I abstained from the pig, but, seeking sustenance, did procure an order of nachos. These were obtained from a concession kiosk sporting the incredibly creative name of “Nachos.” They were delicious.

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Nachos consumed, I reconvened with President Rob to continue my tour. As we proceeded into the guts of the facility, I offhandedly mentioned that the game was “flying along.” Without missing a beat and without even turning around, Rob raised a finger in the air and said “Don’t jinx nothing.” Clearly, I had broken a baseball taboo: never comment on how quickly a game is proceeding. This will anger the baseball gods, who will respond with a rain delay and/or extra innings.

Anyhow, this is the visitors’ locker room. It is perfectly adequate.

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The refrigerator in the nearby kitchen area was covered with signatures, sayings and off-color baseball poetry. One man who added his name to the mix this season was peripheral Duck Dynasty character Mountain Man.

Mountain Man was not just here this season, he was everywhere. 

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While the visiting clubhouse is adequate, the home clubhouse is spectacular. Rob mentioned that such deluxe accommodations aid the Yankees in their efforts to sign six-year Minor League free agents and fringe MLB veterans who might end up spending some or all of the season at Triple-A.

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The weight room:

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The former auxiliary clubhouse is now used as the groundskeeper’s area. Be jealous, other Minor League groundskeepers.

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When we emerged back on the concourse, T-shirts were being launched. Note that image on the videoboard, as that’s one impressive-looking gun.

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Later, a Honda Fit was given away to a fan who had correctly guessed the number of baseballs filling the trunk of said vehicle.

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Those who did not win a Fit could still obtain a fitted cap at the team store. There were some interesting specimens therein.

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Meanwhile, on the field, the game continued to fly right along. The RailRiders held a 1-0 lead through seven innings, with Tyler Henson leading off for the IronPigs in the top of the eighth.

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Henson was greeted with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” as he strode to the plate, and he promptly deposited a fat-bottomed offering from Rumbelow over the center-field fence to tie the game, 1-1. In the bottom of the eighth, Lehigh Valley’s Hector Neris was summoned from the bullpen. I found it odd that a Philadelphia-affiliated pitcher was greeted with the Rocky theme while pitching on the road.

But that’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for ya. It’s a land of divided loyalties.

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Rob’s efforts notwithstanding, apparently I had jinxed this ballgame’s ability to conclude at a rapid pace. For in the bottom of the eighth inning, the rains came.

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A tarp snafu resulted in the right side of the infield getting completely waterlogged.

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I was certain that the game would be called immediately, but this was not the case. A protracted rain delay then followed, indefinitely extending my season-ending road trip. I entertained myself by watching “Baseball’s Best Blunders” on the videoboard until, finally, mercifully, the following message was broadcast to the fans.

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Finally, my 2014 ballpark travels were complete. Just before exiting PNC Field, I thrilled to one last instance of creative Minor League Baseball sponsorship.

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But as much as I was looking forward to finally returning home, I nonetheless was overtaken by a pervasive melancholy upon leaving the ballpark. In 2014, I would be “On the Road” no longer. Seeking to postpone my inevitable offseason existential crisis for as long as possible, I shuffled about at a snail’s pace and snapped photos of anything that even seemed remotely interesting.

Hey, Gene Schall! I remember seeing him play back in 1993.

119Depressed wandering stadium selfie.

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Finally, at approximately 5:30 p.m., I officially closed the book on this season’s travels.

Thanks to all the teams that hosted me, the fans I met and, most importantly, everyone who has taken the time to read this season’s crop of MiLB.com articles and blog posts. I really appreciate it. Get in touch anytime, and stay tuned later in the month for the start of offseason content as well as odds and sods left over from the road. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: So Close and Yet So Far Away in Hudson Valley

Over the last five seasons my Minor League Baseball ballpark travels have taken me to every corner of the continental United States, from El Paso, Texas to Everett, Washington to Burlington, Vermont to Fort Myers, Florida. Yet it wasn’t until this season-ending trip of 2014 that I visited the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are located just 75 miles north of my home base of New York City.

Finally, on August 30th, I rectified this egregious omission. Welcome to Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.

IMG_0791Construction on Dutchess Stadium began in January of 1994, and, somewhat miraculously, completed in time for the start of the 1994 New York-Penn League season. (The construction crew, like a good entomologist, was able to make adjustments on the fly.) Dutchess Stadium has hosted the Renegades for the duration of their existence, after the franchise relocated from Erie, Pennsylvania following the 1993 campaign.

While Dutchess Stadium boasts an ample parking area, be forewarned that traffic into and out of the ballpark is very slow moving. Don’t let that get to you, though. Just take a deep breath and take in the mountain view.

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The Renegades are owned by the Goldklang Group, whose baseball portfolio also includes the Charleston RiverDogs, Fort Myers Miracle, independent St. Paul Saints and wood-bat collegiate Pittsfield Suns. The Goldklang Group’s executive roster features the likes of Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, but I was disappointed to find out that neither man had traveled to Dutchess Stadium on this evening to give me a proper Hudson Valley welcome. “Don’t they know who I am?” I bellowed to no one in particular. “I am the mighty Ben’s Biz!”

Goldklang Group vice president Tyler Tumminia is the mastermind behind the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, and plaques featuring the inductees are displayed at each Goldklang Group ballpark. At Dutchess Stadium, these plaques are located just outside of the main entrance.

IMG_0793It’s not hard to discern Tumminia’s motivations for establishing the PBSHOF — her father, John, a veteran White Sox scout and global baseball humanitarian, is one of the inductees.

IMG_0794 Meanwhile, I had my own scouting to do. The view from the inside.

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If you like inflatable cacti — and who doesn’t? — then you’ll love the team’s Fun Zone.

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If you don’t like cactus then you are Nopal of mine

Heading down the third base line, one encounters this bit of creative landscaping. I just wish that dessicated cow skulls and tumbleweeds had also been incorporated into the design.

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Renegades players prepared for their imminent New York-Penn League contest by congregating in the outfield and staring blankly into the middle distance.

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While, down the first base line, an unruly mass of pre-game guests began to congeal.

IMG_0803Fortunately, I had some help making sense of the chaos. Sandy Tambone, a local photographer who often works Renegades games, introduced himself to me prior to the game and, throughout the evening, helped me make sense of what I was seeing. For instance, in the above photograph, you can see a woman wearing a crown. That would be Miss Hudson Valley, one April Maroshick, who soon had to handle the awkward task of throwing out a first pitch while wearing a skirt, sash and high heels. (I would be happy to attempt this at a Minor League game in 2015. Get in touch.)

photo: Sandy Tambone

photo: Sandy Tambone

Nadia Manginelli, also known as Miss Westchester, threw out a first pitch as well. While she might Miss Westchester, she did not miss her home plate target.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

During my pregame peregrinations Sandy introduced me to the Hanson Sisters, a pair of Hudson Valley superfans who are not actually named Hanson but are in fact sisters. I wrote a story about them that appeared on MiLB.com last month; click HERE to learn all about the sisters’ well-honed raccoon-centric ballpark antics.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

I also spoke with Glenn Looney, a veteran usher.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

2014 marked Glenn’s 18th and final season as an usher at Dutchess Stadium, but he will continue to participate in the Renegades’ host family program.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Glenn of his impending retirement as an usher. “But part of the reason [I’m retiring] is because I’m getting a new hip. I made sure to schedule the surgery after the playoffs, though. But now I’ll have time to sit in section 203 with the other host families, having a beer and watching my kids play baseball. I’m looking forward to it. Yesterday the score [of the Renegades game] was 3-2 and I had no idea what happened. I was working.”

By “my kids” Glenn meant the players that he’ll be hosting during the baseball season. I’ve heard that terminology used frequently when talking to host families, which speaks to the level of commitment and loyalty that develops as a result of these endeavors.

Left once again to my own devices, I resumed my aimless ballpark wanderings. Several Midway-style games had been set up in the “Corona Cantina” as part of the evening’s carnival theme.

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Among the carnival games was this strength-determiner, which featured an insulting and not entirely politically correct set of benchmarks (the first five were “softy,” wimp,” “girly man” “sissy,” and “assistant general manager”). Also, I have no idea whether that basketball shot made it in or not. It shall now linger on the rim for all eternity.

IMG_0808The team’s concession-area signage is similarly carnival-esque.

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Getting a leg up on the competition

The game I attended was on a Saturday night, the penultimate home game of the 2014 season. A robust crowd had filed in at this point, and many fans went straight to the concession stand.

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Wade-ing in line

It is perhaps to be expected from a team operating within the exorbitant orbit of New York City, but the Renegades’ concession items were on the pricier side. An order of nachos (just chips and processed cheese, no other toppings) was $5.50, and a 22-ounce soda went for $4.50. Perhaps also to be expected from a team in the greater NYC area, security procedures were more rigorous than at any other Minor League ballpark I had ever been to (including Brooklyn and Staten Island). Security personnel wielding hand-held metal detectors greeted fans at the gate and dog-toting officers from the Dutchess County sheriff’s department were on the premises as well.

IMG_0814Somehow this wildly gesticulating freakazoid made it past security, attracting children who came to the ballpark wearing the same shade of blue.

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If this blue dude is indicative of the Renegades’ customer service approach, then let it be known that they will bend over backwards to fulfill your needs.

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Truth be told, I developed a mild obsession with this aqua-hued creature. In this panoramic photo, he reveals himself to be a shape-shifting entity capable of dividing himself into a half-dozen separate organisms.

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Regretfully, and with no small amount of effort, I wrested myself away from the Blue Man Group.

A Minor League Baseball game was about to begin!

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The Renegades get pretty creative with their between-innings contests, which are overseen by Rick “Zolz” Zolzer.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Zolz paces around the concourse throughout the whole game, handling both PA duties and on-field emcee duties. The only other locale in which I saw such multi-tasking in action was Charleston, which, not coincidentally, is also part of the Goldklang Group empire.

I didn’t get the name of this particular contest, but it involved guessing song lyrics which were played over the PA in a monotone robotic voice. I can’t believe that these guys couldn’t guess this one, and it only got worse! They later failed to identify “New York, New York.”

There was also a putting challenge at one point. Two guys, one shirt.

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Later in the game I witnessed “Pie Wars.” Ostensibly this is a trivia contest, but really it seemed like an elaborate excuse for Zolz to mercilessly pick on one of the contestants. Check out the acerbic absurdity.

You can take away his dignity, but you can’t take away his smile.

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I have no idea what is going on in this photo. Maybe an on-field Heimlich maneuver demonstration?

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On-field shenanigans are all well and good, but I had other things to do. Namely, it was time to meet the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

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The above two individuals are Kathleen Fleming and Josh Gladstone. Josh is a fellow Major League Baseball Advanced Media employee, though his work and mine don’t often intersect. “Managing Producer” is his job title, though I generally refer to him as “guy who is always talking about technical things I do not and probably never will understand.” Nevertheless, I think he’s an HTML of a guy.

At the time this game took place, Kathleen and Josh were engaged to be married. And now, thanks to the inexorable passage of time, they are husband and wife! Congratulations, guys! Let me treat you to an array of concession offerings at a Class A Short Season Minor League Baseball game. Really, it’s the least I could do.

“I’m one of those obnoxious foodies who posts a photo of a tray of oysters,” said Josh.

“On our ‘Save the Date’ invite, we’re literally stuffing pie into our mouths,” added Kathleen.

Clearly, I was dealing with a couple of discerning gourmands.

Kathleen ordered a portabello-and-swiss burger, obtained from a made-to-order concession kiosk located on the concourse behind home plate.

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Josh opted for a nacho cheese-slathered hot dog. (In a feat of perhaps unparalleled gastronomic ingenuity, he then opted to put the potato chips directly onto his hot dog.)

IMG_0831The lovebirds have at it.

Kathleen, unfortunately, was unimpressed.

“Portabello and Swiss, both of which are cold,” she said. “I did not expect that. It was grilled…at one point. It tastes good, but I’m sorry: Cheese on a hot sandwich that’s not at least nominally melted? At least make an attempt.”

Josh had a better experience.

“Plus one on the ridged potato chips. If it’s not Ruffles, it’s a strong rival,” he said. “The hot dog is well-cooked, and I like a heavier, well-cooked dog. The chips on the dog give it a nice crunch. It tastes like America.”

Earlier in the evening I had noticed that the “Curious Traveler Eatery” featured a “Kegs and Eggs” special: scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and a beer for $7.

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Being a curious traveler myself, I quickly procured this Minor League Baseball culinary rarity so that Josh and Kathleen could (hopefully) enjoy it.

“I am excited about Kegs and Eggs because my favorite time to eat breakfast is anytime but breakfast,” said Josh.

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Kathleen may have dabbled a bit, but it was Josh who ended up doing most of the Kegs and Eggs heavy lifting. Sorry, ladies. He’s taken.

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“This is a summer camp-quality scramble,” said Josh.

“Uh, is that a good thing?” I asked him.

“You can leave that up to the reader to decide. I, for one, have fond memories of summer camp,” he replied.

And with that, we say goodbye to Josh and Kathleen. Any final words?

“We’re getting married on October 12, and interested parties can find our registry at joshandkathleen.com,” said Kathleen, not realizing that this post would not appear until two weeks after their nuptials. “Maybe strangers on the web will contribute. ‘Oh, those people with their portabello burgers. They’re adorable.'”

“This is the best baseball experience we’ve had all season,” added Josh, who had not been to a baseball game in 2014. “I like food of all kinds, and I’m always excited to check out a new venue. This was my first visit to the Renegades, but it will not be my last.”

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I may be posting these final “On the Road” missives of 2014 at a glacial pace, but the game itself was moving quicker than a jackrabbit dancing on a bed of coals. By the time I parted ways with Josh and Kathleen, it was already the top of the eighth inning. The crowd was fully settled in and the stands were packed.

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With everyone safely ensconced in their seats, this usher had plenty of time to pose with visiting regional beauty pageant royalty.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

In addition to taking the above photo, Sandy introduced me to Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. His personal grooming > my personal grooming.

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Molinaro has been a strong advocate for the Renegades, to the extent that the team gave away Molinaro bobbleheads in 2012. Prior to this season Dutchess Stadium, a county-owned facility, installed a new artificial turf playing surface and Molinaro has been a key supporter of efforts such as these. Here’s one more photo from Sandy Tambone, depicting the official public debut of the new playing surface. Clearly, it is a cut above.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Anyhow, the visiting Connecticut Tigers defeated the Renegades by a score of 3-2, in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 15 minutes to play.

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The game was over, but there was still a four-part suite of post-game entertainment.

Part One: Space Invaders — Live!

Part Two: Fireworks

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View from the rafters

While the fireworks show was going on, I ducked into the temporarily deserted men’s bathroom to document the wall art found therein.

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This falls under the “general interest” category

Part Three: Launch-A-Ball

IMG_0859Part IV: Dance Party!

On my way out of the ballpark, I noticed this dismembered action figure abandoned on a concourse table. That’s a metaphor for something, I just don’t know what.

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Good night from Hudson Valley.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Three Times the Fun in Tri-City

August 28th was the last Friday of the regular season in Minor League Baseball, representing one of the final opportunities to pull out all of the promotional stops in the service of a celebratory evening of end-of-summer National Pastime action. That was certainly the Tri-City ValleyCats’ approach on this evening, an approach that extended to the imminent arrival of esteemed Minor League Baseball scene chronicler and gratuitous third-person referrer Benjamin Hill.

In a nod to my gluten-free diet (the result of a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis), the team released this video in advance of my arrival. No glutes!

I arrived at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in the mid-afternoon to ensure that I’d have enough time to fully experience everything that the ValleyCats had planned for me on this glutes-free evening. “The Joe,” as it as referred to colloquially, opened in 2002. Not coincidentally, 2002 was also the first season of the ValleyCats’ existence after the franchise relocated from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of the ValleyCats, the last Minor League team to have played in the Tri-City (Albany, Troy, Schenectady) region was the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League. That team re-located to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1995 and now plays in Richmond as the Flying Squirrels.

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The Joe is located on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, an institution of higher learning affectionately (or would that be derisively?) known as “Harvard on the Hill.” This was not my first time attending a ValleyCats game, but it had definitely been a while. In 2008 myself and a contingent of MiLB.com staffers visited The Joe to see the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, and while there I wrote a “fan experience” article that served as a precursor to the “On the Road” material that now dominates my professional existence.

This time around I was met at the entrance by Ben Whitehead, the account executive who appears in the “glutes” video posted above at the two-minute mark. Whitehead gave me a tour of the facility, which began in the ticket office (the exterior of which you can see in the above photo.)

009From there, it was on to the team store. Note the signage, which elucidates the region’s professional baseball history. The Schenectady Frog Alleys are not included in this regional round-up, but Tim Hagerty’s much-recommended Root for the Home Team: Minor League’s Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Tean Names and the Stories Behind Them includes a page dedicated to this oddly-named squad.

“The city of Schenectady is where the Hudson River and Mohawk River converge, leaving plenty of opportunities for reptiles and frog alleys,” writes Hagerty in the book.

011In the team store, one can buy jars of Helmbold’s hot dog sauce. New York state is home to many regional frankfurter purveyors, as I learned on this trip, and Troy in particular is known for its unique take on the hot dog.

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Shelf, shadows, sauce

The ValleyCats won the New York-Penn League championship in 2013. This season, the trophy was displayed in the team store for all to admire.

012Championship trophy selfie! Or, as I like to call it, a selphy:

013On the day I visited, the ValleyCats had already clinched the NYPL’s Stedler Division. A playoff ticket sale campaign had been launched with the tagline #unomas, but this drive for “one more” championship was thwarted in the best-of-3 finals series by the State College Spikes. In 2015, the trophy seen above will reside there.

017Ben and I then swung by the promo supply room, which, for those keeping score at home, contains a bongo.

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I really got lucky with the weather on this trip. Once again, it was a beautiful day for Minor League Baseball in the Empire State.

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During every game this season the ValleyCats ran “sixth-inning selfie” photos on the videoboard, submitted to the team via MiLB.com’s Inside the Park app. I posed for a photo and ended up looking like a silent movie villain.

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028Also on the concourse is Food’s on First, perhaps the only concession stand in Minor League Baseball to be named after a comedy routine. (The concession stand on the opposite side is called the “Hot Corner,” but “I Don’t Know” what it should be called.)

030Brown’s Brewing Company, a Troy-based brewery, sells its beers at this location (including a team-specific “ValleyCats Ale”). Apparently this is also a pre-game hangout spot for silver-haired game-day employees.

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The pre-game silver-haired hangout scene was slightly less robust at Vamos Tacos (a play on the team slogan of “Vamos Gatos,” which is Spanish for “Go Cats”).

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Buddy’s Grill serves the upstate New York specialty of salt potatoes (also available at Minor League stadiums in Buffalo and Syracuse), as well as the Binghamton-based treat that is the spiedie (marinated cubes of meat, served on bread).

033This is the view from “The Porch,” a seating area added in 2009 in place of the grandstand seating that had previously existed there.

036While in the Porch, I took the opportunity to get a little writing done. (Seriously, there is a line in my notebook which reads “I am working hard in the Porch. Seating area down RF line.)

037I had no problem gaining access to these special stadium seating areas, for the team had given me this (I haven’t taken it off since).

“We almost called it ‘Benjamin’s Button,'” said Ben.

035To my right stood one of the steepest berms in all of Minor League Baseball. Note that the right field foul pole is sponsored by DDperks.com, which is not to be confused with the Auburn Doubledays’ “Double D Booster Club.”

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On the other side of the concourse, there is a general admission Tiki Bar.

043 As batting practice took place on the field, ValleyCats pitcher Joe Musgrove could be found running on the stadium stairs.

041Musgrove wasn’t the only individual at The Joe exuding a profound passion for improvement. ValleyCats chef Jason Lecuyer, seen in the glutes-adverse video that leads this post, has overseen many additions to the ValleyCats’ culinary scene.

“Our goal it to create a dining experience,” he told me. “We use fresh ingredients as much as possible, because as an organization we want to be known for our food. We think we have the best food in the New York-Penn League. We want to take it to another level.”

One way in which Lecuyer has “taken it to another level” is via the addition of a brick pizza oven on the concourse. The oven was procured prior to this season from “a guy in Vermont,” and the team sometimes brings it to local food festivals and community events so that attendees can enjoy a “taste of the Joe.”

045I can’t eat pizza these days (on account of the glutes), but I can make it. First I donned some rubber gloves, utilizing the technique I had learned from my pal Dr. Peter Lund the previous Monday in Erie.

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Checking the temperature (the oven can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but it is generally in the 700 degree range).

046Adding the sauce. (Not pictured: adding the cheese.)

053Ready to bring the heat.

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055Several minutes later.

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The finished product, boxed and sliced.

059I could not eat the finished product, of course. That’s what I have a designated eater for! (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

This evening’s designated eater was a gentleman by the name of Kyle Wirtz. He lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and works as a personal trainer. He attends ValleyCats games on a semi-regular basis, however, as his in-laws live in nearby Watervliet, New York.

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“I’m a trainer by trade, so I’m really going to have to work this one off,” said Kyle, a long-time reader, first-time designated eater. “My buddies will bust my chops. ‘You know what you do for a living, right?'”

Too late to turn back now, Kyle.

061“I’m coming from Connecticut, where New Haven is known as the pizza capital,” said Kyle. “But this is pretty good. You guys did a nice job.”

Kyle would end up accompanying me throughout the majority of the evening, and in this way he became more of a “designated fan” than simply a “designated eater.” This gave me an idea for the 2015 season: When visiting teams who have devised a full slate of activities for me, I may just recruit a “designated fan” to come along and participate in the entire experience.

Ben, Kyle and I traveled down the third base concourse to visit the “Top of the Hill Bar and Grill” in left field. Ben told me that, in honor of my visit, it had been unofficially renamed “Top of the Benjamin Hill Bar and Grill.” Okay, sure, I’ll take any ego boosts that I can get. It serves as fuel for the long, cold offseason.

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067The view of the playing field, from seats located directly beneath the scoreboard.

066In the above picture, you may have noticed that there is a TV installed into the back of the scoreboard. A closer look:

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Long-time Ben’s Biz Blog readers may recognize the individual shown on the screen above. That’s ValleyCats broadcaster Sam Sigal, who, in 2012, while working as an intern for the Trenton Thunder, picked me up at the Trenton train station while wearing a hot dog suit. It was raining at the time, making this image all the more memorable.

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While hanging out in the Top of the Hill area, Kyle and I enjoyed some Nine Pin cider. Nine Pin is a local company that uses New York apples. The resulting cider is crisp and tart, free of the cloying sweetness that can make ciders unappealing. I give it an enthusiastic bottoms up.

071The pregame festivities were about to get underway, so Kyle and I hopped into a Jeep and rode to the field in style.

072Riding in this vehicle, Kyle and I had a great view of Southpaw’s feet, as well as his oversized championship ring.

080 075Just look straight ahead, Kyle. Everything will be fine.

077Views from the road:

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Joe Tuschak smiles for the camera

After extricating ourselves from the vehicle, Kyle and I wandered around the playing field. A pig was there to greet us.

086I love this dude in the sunglasses and bucket hat, who seems to approach autograph collecting as if it were a furtive back alley transaction. As Zach Davis puts pen to paper, this dude is keeping both eyes peeled for the fuzz.

088An absurd number of ceremonial first pitches were thrown out on this balmy summer evening, most of them by purple-clad members of various University of Albany sports teams. Most, but not all.

Ben Hill 1st Pitch (2)Biz Blog history was then made, as Kyle became the first designated eater to ever throw out a first pitch. (It was a great year for designated eater milestones. The previous month Greg Hotopp became the first designated eater to receive his own media credential, courtesy of the Indianapolis Indians.)

DE 1st PitchKyle’s first pitch was expertly delivered, befitting his status as a former pitcher for Manhattan College. In 2005, he led the Manhattan Jaspers with 22 appearances, picking up one of his wins against my Dad’s alma mater of Lafayette.

Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf

Kyle Wirtz, some eight years before achieving designated eating glory. (Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf)

Kyle’s career didn’t progress beyond the collegiate ranks, but his roommate was former Minor League (and current indy ball) pitcher Chris Cody. His Jasper teammates also included future Cardinal farmhands Nick Derba and Mike Parisi (who pitched briefly in the Majors).

“I was the mediocre one of my group,” said Kyle. (He was also, through no fault of his own, the Wirtz one of the group.)

There were 14 ceremonial first pitches overall, a new ValleyCats record. Oh, the glory of it all!

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Some merely witness history. Others shape it.

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ValleyCats players were then introduced one-by-one as they took the field. Unlike Southpaw, this is not a team that runs out to battle with its tail between its legs.

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With the players in position, it was time to “Play Ball!” Take it away, tentative young girl!

More than three hours after I arrived at the ballpark — and, now, more than 2,000 words after I began this blog post — the game was underway.

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I said it once and I’ll say it again: It was a beautiful night. Not just for baseball, but for being alive.

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First pitch duties complete, Kyle resumed his designated eating duties. Here, after obtaining some Vamos Nachos, he formally introduces himself.

The nachos, ready for their close-up:

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“These are some of the better nachos I’ve had at a ballpark,” said Kyle, who preferred eating nachos to giving his opinion on nachos.

I agreed with him — all of the ingredients were fresh, and there was no artificially-processed cheese product goop to be found. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nachos are naturally gluten-free if you use the right chips and cheese, and they are delicious. BETTER NACHOS EQUAL A BETTER MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE.

That nacho soapbox is mine. I’ll get it off it now, so that this overstuffed narrative can move on. Up in the press box, I joined erstwhile rained-upon hot dog Sam Sigal for an inning on the radio broadcast.

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I also spent some time operating the team’s scoreboard, which, at 17″ by 36″ is the largest primary scoreboard in the New York-Penn League. Apparently, this cow is some sort of control room mascot.

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A near-sellout crowd had filtered into The Joe by this point.

111 Kyle and I soon returned to ground level, so that Ben Whitehead could assemble yet another round of concession stand offerings for us. A panoramic view from our picnic bench location:

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Ben soon returned with this smorgasbord: salt potatoes, apple nachos (apple slices topped with peanut butter, Craisins and chocolate chips), chicken Spiedies (sans bread) and a  Mexican-inspired salad that I unfortunately forget the name of.

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Both the salad and the apple nachos had been obtained at “The Healthy Zone.”

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Kyle praised the salt potatoes, saying that this upstate New York specialty was something that his Mom made every week.

“It’s a quality side,” he said. “A real staple for me when I was a kid.”

The spiedies and salad received high marks from both Kyle and me, but Kyle was most enthusiastic about the apple nachos.

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“I don’t know, maybe I’m straight edge,” said Kyle. “But these are really, really good. It can be tough to eat right in the summer, but these are outstanding. So simple, yet so good.”

119As Kyle enjoyed a heaping plate of apple nachos, a fine mist was wafting through the playing field. These two occurrences were not related.

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One aspect of the ValleyCats’ experience that is not to be mist is the nightly mascot pitting the mayors of Troy, Albany and Schenectady against one another. I was assigned the role of Schenectady city boss Gary R. McCarthy, and in this photo I’m standing alongside my bespectacled colleague mayor Lou Rosamilia of Troy.

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The two of us, along with Albany head honcho Kathy Sheehan, concluded our back room dealings and headed out into the New York night in order to mingle with our constituents.

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I just signed this baseball as “The Mayor,” reminding me of the time I was in Inland Empire dressed as a molar and signed baseballs as “Tooth.”

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I’m a large-craniumed representation of Gary R. McCarthy, and I approve this message.

132Here’s how the race went down. That whole “digging in the dirt” sequence is not a Peter Gabriel reference, but a nod to the Diamond Dig that was to be one of the evening’s post-game festivities.

The race was followed by even more mingling with the hoi polloi. At this point I was feeling kind of light-headed and out of breath, yet another reminder that if I’m going to continue to do this mascot racing stuff into middle age (and beyond?) then I really need to exercise more during the offseason.

140After changing out of my mayoral duds, Kyle (who had been hanging out with me ever since I made him a pre-game pizza) and I ran into Ben Whitehead in the office. He was dressed as his “Big Tex” alter-ego.

142The Big Tex origin story, in the words of Ben:

As an Astros affiliate, we thought it’d be a nice tribute to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after our 7th inning stretch. Being that I have family in Texas and my wife is from the Houston area, I had all the necessities – Texas flag, cowboy hat, boots, “Everything is BIGGER in Texas shirt” and other Astros gear — so I decided to jump on top of the dugout dressed to the nines and sing. Instantly, it became a thing.

143Unfortunately I missed Ben’s routine. After he left the office I parted ways with Kyle as well, who had to leave due to familial obligations. Thanks, Kyle, for your exemplary work as not just a designated eater but a designated fan. We’ll always have the memories!

Changing the pace considerably, my next task was to head back out into the stands meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It would have been awkward to document this portion of the evening, but it was nice to meet them! They live in Troy, where my girlfriend, Rebekah, grew up, and more detail on the personal-professional confluence can be found in this blog post featuring my city of Troy-based explorations.

So, yeah, in a nutshell: This was turning out to be a very long night in the midst of a very long road trip, and at this late juncture I was beginning to lose a little steam. Like, what’s even going on here? A hot dog on a bike is being pursued by a hot dog in a car? It’s all a bit blurry.

147I went back to the Top of the (Benjamin) Hill Grill to collect my thoughts.

153No thanks, guys, this time a ride will not be necessary. I’ll walk.

148I spent the final inning of the ballgame with the “Vamos Gatos” fan group, a contingent of enthusiastic ValleyCats supporters located behind home plate (the “Vamos Gatos” crew includes none other than Santa Claus, who apparently spends his summers in upstate New York). Follow them on Twitter @VamosGatosCrew.

The Vamos Gatos crew had much to cheer about, as the home team emerged with a 3-2 win.

156But a night at the ballpark does not conclude with the cessation of on-field play. That’s just not how it works in the world of Minor League Baseball, especially on a Friday night. Next up was a post-game Diamond Dig, in which female fans were given wooden spoons and invited onto the field so that they could hunt for a valuable piece of dirt-submerged jewelry.

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And they’re off!

159Try as I might, my Diamond Dig photographic efforts paled in comparison to my 2012 efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, still, these are always fun to watch. Several minutes (and many increasingly obvious emcee clues) later, this woman emerged with the diamond.

162An acceptance speech soon followed.

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Launch-A-Ball was the next item on the agenda. A popular pastime among the front office staff gathered on the field was to pelt tennis balls at this hapless inflatable referee.

165Meanwhile, I logged some quality time with Chef Lupos, New York’s preeminent spiedie marinade purveyor.

167Finally, there were fireworks. Or, if my photos are to be believed, intimations of fireworks.

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Racing to fertilize the egg?

Finally, after this action-packed slate of post-game programming had concluded, I got the chance to meet with fellow baseball writer Steven Cook.

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Steven writes the Greatest 21 Days blog, an ongoing attempt to profile all of the Minor League players featured in the 1990 CMC card set. It’s a quirky, obsessive and illuminating writing project, and I recommend it. Steven took photos of Brooklyn Cyclones coach Tom Gamboa during the ballgame, in preparation for an interview that occurred the next month. (The full list players he has interviewed can be found along the right side of the blog.)

Upon saying goodbye to Steven, I headed out of the ballpark (some seven hours after I had entered it). Thanks to the ValleyCats for their prodigious hospitality, as this was a truly memorable evening.

That’s all folks! Pig out.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Doubledays on a Night in Auburn

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

Thus far, my blog dispatches from this season-ending Empire State excursion have been rather dense affairs. Epics, even. If these posts were converted to song form, they would be a series of monolithic dirges possessing little to no melodic pop sensibilities. Therefore, I think that what we need now is a good palate cleanser, the blogging equivalent of Black Sabbath inserting “Laguna Sunrise” into the back section of Vol. 4. 

With that said: Welcome to Falcon Park, home of the Auburn Doubledays.

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The Doubledays, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Washington Nationals, were the third of five New York-Penn League franchises that I visited on this trip. Like my previous stops in Batavia and Jamestown, Auburn is a “classic” NYPL environment: a community-owned team operating in a small market and playing in a simple, no-frills facility that is actually located in one of the league’s namesake states. Falcon Park is almost identical to Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, and the similarities don’t end there. Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing a stadium built in 1937 on the same site; Falcon Park opened in 1995, replacing a stadium that was built in 1927 on the same site.

Also like Dwyer Stadium, Falcon Park is located in a quiet residential neighborhood.

097You’ve gotta love baseball environments like this, where, if you get there early enough, you might be able to mingle with players as they obtain a pre-game snack. This pair of hungry Muckdogs appears to be Ryan Cranmer (25) and Brad Haynal (16).

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Setting the scene.

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A closer look under the bleachers. Hula hoops and folding chairs, what more do you need in life?

108The Doubledays name is, of course, a reference to Auburn native, Civil War general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday. Hence, Abner the mascot.  Abner’s #96 jersey is a reference to the first year in which Auburn’s NYPL team was named the Doubledays.

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This team employee was setting up a video camera in a most seductive way.

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Early arriving fans were in full compliance with this piece of signage.

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Future Doubledays?

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The Doubledays have been an affiliate of the Nationals since 2011.

111This relationship will continue through (at least) the 2016 season, as prior to the game representatives of both teams made the announcement that the Player Development Contract (PDC) between the two clubs had been extended.

114There was also a pre-game awards ceremony honoring the team’s best players (as voted on by the players themselves). Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, standing on the far right, was named team MVP. The gentleman in the plaid shirt is Auburn baseball fixture Art Fritz, who serves as the team chaplain and director of the Double D Booster Club (please, keep your “Double D Booster Club” jokes to yourself).

113Former MLB pitcher Tim Redding now serves as the Doubledays pitching coach, marking his return to the team with which he made his professional debut in 1998. Redding threw a no-hitter for Auburn that season, but apparently did not have any mementos of it. Enter Marshall Trionfero, a Doubledays fan who took it upon himself to assemble this tribute to Redding’s moment of glory. I ran into Trionfero while wandering about before the game; he presented this collage to Redding later in the evening. (Redding no-hit the St. Catherines Stompers, who played in the NYPL from 1986-99. They were based in Ontario, the fourth and final Canadian team to have played in the circuit.)

109Meanwhile, it was time for the evening’s ballgame between the Doubledays and Batavia Muckdogs to begin. Oh say can you see that it was a beautiful evening for baseball?

116When I entered Falcon Park, the ticket taker greeted me thusly:

“Welcome to Falcon Park. Tonight we have $1 hot dogs, $1 soda and $1 beer with a government-issued ID.”

As the game began, it seemed that most of the fans in the ballpark were taking advantage of these economically prudent food and beverage specials (also, the evening featured a combo meal deal: hot dog, pretzel and soda for $3).

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The stands were a far more pleasant place to be.

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This photo, it just speaks to me.

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Shortly after the sun set, I spent several innings speaking with New York-Penn League historian Charlie Wride. Charlie has enjoyed a long and varied career within the world of Auburn professional baseball, and my feature story on him can be found HERE.

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Nighttime at Falcon Park is quite similar to daytime at Falcon Park. It’s just darker.

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Here, we see a contingent of Batavia Muckdogs hanging out in the visitors bullpen. This is fairly similar to their home environment, save for the fact that they don’t have a place to stash their bikes.

128No one volunteered to be my designated eater while in Auburn (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Nevertheless, I waited in line and obtained a hot dog and fries, just so that you, the reader, could see it. Like the nearby Syracuse Chiefs, the Doubledays’ sell Hofmann’s hot dogs at the ballpark. It may have been an off night at the concession stand — they definitely seemed understaffed — but this hot dog was not cooked properly. Half of one side was charred, while the remainder of the dog seemed to have barely touched the grill at all. But, on the plus side, the fries were good and the price was right.

131Meanwhile, the game was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip.

IMG_0262Batavia eked out a 3-2 victory in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 26 minutes to complete. There were only four games left in the season after this one, and both teams were already eliminated from postseason contention. About the only thing they were playing for, standings-wise, was third place in the NYPL’s Pinckney Division. (The Doubledays ultimately won this less-than-riveting battle, finishing a half-game above the Muckdogs with a record of 34-41.)

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Following the ballgame, and following established Minor League Baseball tradition, tennis balls were thrown onto the field by fans desirous of winning a prize.

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The fans then streamed out of the ballpark and into the Auburn night. A profound stillness soon pervaded through the atmosphere. The asphalt was empty, the bullpens abandoned and the pitch speed frozen at 69.

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Good night from the home of the Doubledays.

145benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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