Results tagged ‘ California League ’

On the Road: Concluding a Banner Island Day in Stockton

Part One of this rambling Stockton blog saga began hours before game time amid Highway 4 farmland, and then proceeded all the way until said game began at Banner Island Ballpark.

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Let’s zoom in for a closer look.

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In the above photo, beyond the small squadron of retired jerseys, stands Ports president Pat Filippone. Filippone has reached the MiLB mountaintop by having a concession stand item named after him (the Filippone Salad, as you may recall from the last post), and I am holding out hope that, one day, a team may see fit to offer a gluten-free “Ben’s Biz Burger.”

I momentarily forced such egocentric concerns out of my mind, in favor of the task at hand: wandering. After about 25 seconds of such, I found myself in the company of this triumvirate of gentlemen.

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These guys were on the concourse extolling the virtues of Tapgift, a Redwood City-based start-up whose product allows its users to send and receive gifts in real time. The Ports are the first Minor League team to have partnered with Tapgift, meaning that users can buy concession items for people at the game even if they themselves are not there.

In the above photo, on the far right, stands Mack Cage. In addition to having the toughest-sounding name of anyone I have ever met, Cage co-founded the company. He told me that the idea for Tapgift came about when he and his friends were at a Raiders game, wondering how they could make an absent friend “pay for the beer we’re drinking.”

“That was the genesis of it,” he continued. “I didn’t think we’d actually do it.”

But do it they did, and shortly after talking to Cage I received a Tapgift presenting me with peanuts and a soda. Pretty cool concept, I must say. There have been over 3,000 Tapgift downloads at Banner Island Ballpark this season, and San Jose State football is next on the docket.

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Next up on the docket was to meet with “designated eater” Lee McEachern, who had been recruited to consume some of the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Lee, a long-time reader, hod volunteered for designated eating duties because it was “a chance to meet the famous blogger Benjamin Hill…and fried asparagus.”

We’ll get to that fried asparagus eventually. But first, here’s Lee, shortly after meeting famous blogger Benjamin Hill.

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And, yes, Lee is a Giants fan and his Cal League affinities lie with San Jose. The Ports are an A’s affiliate as well as inter-division rivals with San Jose, and as such Lee’s food should have been poisoned.

Joining Lee was his neighbor Jamie, a music major at Chico State who says that, due in part to Lee’s influence, she is now “a baseball freak.”

094“I’m checking scores all of the time, checking in on my favorite players,” said Jamie. “I’m a big Jeff Arnold fan. He’s my boy.”

This is Arnold’s picture on his MiLB.com player page. I think he’s now my favorite player too.

San Jose catcher Jeff Arnold

San Jose catcher Jeff Arnold

The three of us got acquainted in this shaded Banner Island Ballpark locale.

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And soon enough, food appeared. Clockwise from the top, we have a turkey burger on a wheat bun, nacho cheese pretzel burger, fruit cup, and a Caesar wedge salad.

097Those latter two options were gluten-free, and the Caesar wedge was of particular interest to me. You squeeze lemon on the wedge, dip it in the dressing and then sprinkle on Parmesan cheese — a nice mix of flavors, and yet another example of something I never would have paid attention to in my pre-gluten-free days but that is, in actuality, really quite enjoyable!

But, anyway, gluten:

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“The nacho pretzel burger is surprisingly good, the burger’s juicy and the bun is soft,” said Lee.

“It is surprisingly good,” said Jamie. “I didn’t think that the nacho cheese would work well with it, but it does.”

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The turkey burger generated a less enthusiastic response.

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“The turkey seems too salty,” said Lee. “I’m not trying to sound rude here, but it’s like it they know it’s bland and they’re trying to liven it up with too much seasoning.”

“I agree,” said Jamie. “It tasted kind of funny.”

“I have a wrap posed for you,” added Lee.

And what do you know? He did:

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“[The wrap] is really good, but it could use a little more even distribution,” said Lee. “As it is, it’s like ‘here’s the meat, and here’s the vegetables.”

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But there wasn’t time for further pontificating, because — what? — more food had arrived and this time it was of a deep-fried variety.

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What we’ve got here is not a failure to communicate but, rather, three more specialty items. From left to right: deep fried cheesecake (typically only available after the seventh inning), deep-fried asparagus, and a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The asparagus, served with hot sauce, ranch dressing, and Parmesan, is a Ports specialty that I longed to try and maybe I did just a little bit please don’t tell the gluten-free police.

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Jamie was decidedly in the pro-asparagus camp, but Lee, ever the critic, was conflicted.

“I love asparagus, but I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. I came in with my expectations too high,” he said. “But it’s something that you have to get if you’re here, just to say that you’ve had it.”

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The deep-fried peanut butter and jelly drew a bit of a confused response, with Jamie saying it was “interesting” and “something to have once” but that “the texture of the peanut butter and jelly has changed from being fried.”

The interior:

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The cheesecake was received rapturously, however, with Lee stating that it was “a winner — warm, melty, gooey, and perfectly fried.”

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And the hits just kept on a comin’! For post-dessert, Lee and Jamie were served deep-fried pickles (or “frickles”) and buffalo popcorn chicken. Man, this looked good.

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Just keep eating, guys. It is your job.

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“Frickles is just a weird word!” said Jamie.

“God, this is filling,” said Lee. “But they do know how to fry here. It’s crispy and not too greasy.”

At this juncture a hearty thanks should be given to Nick Jackson of Ovations food services, who coordinated this never-ending stream of fine concession items. I’d also like to commend Lee, who perfectly followed my instruction to “bite into a frickle so that the frickle looks like Pac-Man and then hold this Pac-frickle in front of you while closing your eyes.”

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And then, finally, there was this. A brat. It seemed to show up out of nowhere.

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The brat afforded Lee with one final opportunity make photographic history.

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“Don’t order a brat after a pretzel burger, turkey burger, buffalo popcorn, cheesecake….” said Lee, before fading into a a brief bout of incoherence. “This is great, though. Maybe even better than the pretzel burger.”

“What?!” replied Jamie, giving me an excuse to use my favorite non-standard punctuation mark.

I let them argue that one out among themselves, as I had places to go and people to see. This concession cavalcade had taken some time to digest, and the game was now half over.

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My next order of business was to compete in an outfield “MVP Catch,” which entailed standing in right field and attempting to catch balls launched via slingshot with a net. I felt an added pressure while doing this, because I had just been informed of the various celebrities who were watching me.

And, yes, I failed in front of Mr. Steckler and Ms. Jensen (adult entertainer, model, actress, friend, believer). I should have recruited Mr. Steckler to document said failure, because this is all I’ve got.

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123But there was no time for mourning. Remember in Part One of this post when I got that wild smoking “Volcano Splash” drink? This time around I stopped by for the Filipino snack known as Lumpia.

125Lumpia is the Filipino version of a spring roll, and I could not immediately ascertain whether or not it is gluten-free. I did give it a try, however, because it looked delicious and subsequently tasted delicious.

Also, I may or may not have fallen in love.

126But another obligation was imminent. One always is.

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128During the seventh inning stretch, Splash and I threw packages of “Hello Panda” chocolate cream cookies into the crowd.

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"You've got to catch that, bro."

“You’ve got to catch that, bro.”

With the evening winding down, I made a final lap around the ballpark. On the concourse I came across this photo of Stockton native-turned-Ports pitcher-turned-perfect game hurler Dallas Braden.

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In case you forgot — Braden has Stockton’s area code tattooed on his abdomen.

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Photo by, yes, George Steckler

Night views:

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142And let it be known: Tabasco Fried Asparagus is a thing!

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In the ninth inning I joined indefatigable ballpark travelers Rex and Coco (who appeared in Part One of this post), and watched the end of the ballgame from their visiting dugout vantage point.

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Ballgame complete, Rex took a photo and Coco tallied up her scorecard. That’s how they roll.

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And, whoa, I would have forgotten, but Rex reminded me to do a #cupdate.

All you #cupdate fans out there should be grateful to Rex for his collectible cup vigilance.

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And that’s all I’ve got, folks. Time to pull up the anchor and move on. I hope that I have been able to convey that Banner Island Ballpark is a very nice place to see a ballgame. That’s all you need to know, really.

photo: Joe Price

photo: Joe Price

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: By Land and By Sea in Stockton

Usually, when writing these “On the Road” reports, I begin with my arrival at the stadium in question. But in the case of Stockton, let’s back things up a bit. This dispatch is instead going to begin with my arrival in the town of Stockton itself, as before heading to the ballpark I met with Stockton sports development director Tim Pasisz for brief tour of the city.

I wrote about this tour in an MiLB.com piece, along with some mild editorializing about how every city, no matter how embattled or beleaguered, is worth visiting. This fundamental belief has guided my approach to this job, and is one of the reasons that I like Minor League Baseball to the degree that I do: it helps contextualize American travels, giving one the impetus to visit places that they otherwise wouldn’t.  I will spare you any further editorializing however, in lieu of that which you came to see.

Pictures!

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That probably wasn’t the first image you’d expect to see in this post, but it shows the fertile Central Valley farmland that is in abundance just outside of Stockton proper. Said farmland is just a short drive away from the largest inland port in the country, whose existence has, of course, provided the inspiration for the name of the city’s Minor League Baseball team.

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Meanwhile, the combination of the city’s agricultural and nautical features has resulted in this alternate logo, in which a dockworker (Five O’Clock Dock, if you want to get specific) brandishing a piece of asparagus.

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Putting the “pee” in Ports

Hence, offerings such as the following are served at the Ports’ current home of Banner Island Ballpark.

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We’ll get to such things a bit later on (as in, the next post) but first let’s take a look at the facility that the Ports competed within before moving to their aforementioned current home of Banner Island Ballpark.

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That’s Billy Hebert Field, named after the first professional baseball player killed in action during WWII. The Ports played here from 1953-2004, but even in the absence of Minor League Baseball the stadium is still thriving. It is currently leased out to a private company that rents it out for amateur baseball and softball tournaments and the turf, it is artificial.

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Located nearby is the idyllic campus of the University of the Pacific. The campus’s Burns Tower is an impressive edifice, but as an alum of the University of Pittsburgh I have to say that it’s no Cathedral of Learning.

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Across the way is the Morris Chapel, which has a mammoth wedding wait list. Basically, if you want to get married here, book it now and then hope that you’ve got somebody when the day comes. (I booked myself for November 2015, ladies, so let me know if you want to get in on that.)

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But such a cart-before-the-horse mentality is erroneous, To get your mind right, head to Stockton’s gritty industrial southeast quadrant and visit the Wat Dharmararam Cambodian Buddhist Temple. I was only here long enough to get a superficial sense of what was going on, but, basically, moments from the life of the Cambodian Buddha are told via a series of boldly-colored larger-than-life statue vignettes.

This was one of the most unique places I’d ever visited whilst out here “on the road.”

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Consider that surreal spectacle the appetizer. The main course, as it always is on this blog, is Minor League Baseball. Banner Island Ballpark is located along the Stockton marina waterfront, adjacent to the Stockton Arena.

038The Stockton Arena is the home of the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder. Did you know that ECHL used to stand for “East Coast Hockey League” but is now an “orphan initialism” in that it stands for nothing at all? Other examples of “orphan initialism” include AT&T and ESPN and you heard it here first: if I ever have the wherewithal to start a record label, I’m naming it “Orphan Initialism.”

Marina scenes:

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Beyond Banner Island Ballpark lies this undeveloped expanse, as good a comment as any on the economic paralysis that seized Stockton in the wake of the 2007 collapse.

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The light, log and barrier are part of a conceptual art piece entitled “Do Not Pass Go.” My interpretation was that modernity (the lamppost) and traditional agrarian means of subsistence (the log) are blocked from reaching their potential by the myriad challenges currently facing the city (the barrier). But if and when they find a way around it, then the sky’s the limit.

The above paragraph is, of course, not true. But what is true is that I headed westward, working my way around the stadium’s perimeter in search of more and better vantage points.

043There were impromptu gatherings all along the waterfront, such as the following.

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Among those gathered were members of the Ports’ Silver Sluggers club, doing a little tailgating in the shadow of abandoned factories.

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Somehow, in my mania to get close to the illuminated edifice that is Banner Island Ballpark, I neglected to get a shot of the exterior. The next shot on my virtual photo roll is this, featuring fellow Minor League travelers Rex and Coco Doane.

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Rex and Coco, like myself, are based in Brooklyn. But here we were in Stockton on separate road trips, similar to that time in 2011 when we were in Winston-Salem on separate road trips.

(Shortly after this picture was taken, Rex let it be known that legendary b-movie director/producer Russ Meyer is buried in Stockton! Breast In Peace, Russ Meyer, the next time I visit Stockton I will be sure to make a pilgrimage.)

 I may have neglected Banner Island Ballpark’s exterior, but I had the interior covered.

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Shortly after arriving at the ballpark, I met up with Ports senior director of marketing Jeremy Neisser. Jeremy has been a strong supporter of the Ben’s Biz empire over the years, providing me with content related to my two all-time favorite topics: sexagenarian boxing and abdomen-based area code tattoos. So when he told me that he had something to show me, I knew that it would be in line with my sensibilities.

We proceeded through a vast expanse of cultivated greenery, and then beyond the outfield fence.

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And then, lo and behold, there it was: the Banner Island Ballpark Bullpen Memorial. Written upon this concrete wall are the names of every Ports players who has ever been a member of the bullpen, with a star indicating an eventual Major Leaguer.

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But at the moment that I was out there were no players to be found. Just detritus.

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Remember, Ports fans: dial #1947 for all your bullpen needs.

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Above the bullpen, there is a quality group seating area.

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The above location would be a good spot to enjoy some Kinder’s BBQ and,  as you can see, one of the options is a salad named after Ports president Pat Filippone. That salad sounds pretty good, and has a fairly high gluten-free probability.

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But perhaps a better location to enjoy BBQ would be this, which I’m going to go ahead and name the “Kinder Garden.”

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Awkward manchild alert!

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I emerged from this siesta in time to see a lone player make the desolate walk from the clubhouse.

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He went his way, I went mine, and within moments I came across this most unique concession stand.

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Run by a very friendly Filipino family (my notes are somehow devoid of their name), this kiosk is highlighted by the dry ice-based “Volcano Splash.” They insisted I try one, and who was I to disagree?

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This is a rare drink, in that its “fun facts” could double as a high school chemistry lecture.

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If he was back in the confines of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium, Blaze announcer Dan Besbris probably would have been smoking and drinking right along with me. But in Stockton, he was on his best behavior.

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I was in the press box in order to do a pre-game interview with Besbris’s Stockton counterpart, Mr. Zack Bayrouty. Here he is bracing himself for the night’s action.

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In exchange for doing the interview, I received this gift.

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“e no-alez in Sacramento ounce,” reports insane man

And, don’t worry, there’s plenty where that came from. Next to five boxes of “Hello Panda,” one could find nine boxes of Stauffer’s Animal Crackers.

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“That’s the best [sponsorship] deal that Minor League Baseball has ever done,” Bayrouty told me, pointing toward the boxed bounty. “Those have provided snacks for all of the broadcasters.”

That’s all well and good, but for my part I would rather have been given an inflatable bottle of Tabasco.

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Inflatables in the press box were joined by inflatables in the background, as various Ports warmed up prior to the ballgame.

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I was on the field in order to add to my impressive string of first pitch failure. After bouncing it in Modesto, this one was high and away.

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Fleeing the scene: 082

Apprehended:

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Splash liked my first pitch, but only because Splash has never not liked anything in the history of being Splash.

084 For those keeping score at home: three nights in a row I threw out a first pitch, and three nights in a row the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by professor Joe Price.

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Joe did better with his anthem rendition than I did with my first pitch.

“I’d give myself an A- on that one,” he said. “There were three notes where my pitch was off.”

And with that, there was nothing left to do but “Play Ball!”

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There will soon be a Part Two of this post and, wouldn’t you know it? It’s going to pick up right where this one left off.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Nutting but a Good Time in Modesto

When I am on these Minor League road trips I have become accustomed to showing up at a ballpark and being told “Too bad you’re here on a [insert day of the week]. Our best days are [insert different day of the week].” But when I arrived at Modesto’s John Thurman Field on a recent Tuesday, Nuts GM Mike Gorrasi took this familiar sentiment into bold new territory.

“Of the 70 games in which you could have attended, this would have been my 70th choice,” he said.

This is because Modesto schools, due to some Un-American-seeming directive that may or may not have a valid justification behind it, were starting the very next day. When the first day of school looms families aren’t exactly inclined to take the kids to a Minor League Baseball game, but the sparse attendance certainly didn’t detract from my time at the ballpark. Far from it! John Thurman Field is a relatively no-frills facility, but regardless of whether or not the school year is looming ominously it’s certainly worth visiting and I hope that the remainder of this post adequately justifies this sentiment.

I didn’t have a compass on me, but I’m pretty sure that I entered the stadium while walking in a westerly direction.

008I’m a man of the people, and these inherently populist tendencies generally cause me to reject overly opulent surroundings. But the Nuts had set aside a suite for me, and who was I to disagree?

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Meanwhile, next door in the press box, onfield emcee Michael “Mike on the Mic” Smith was deep in conversation with a man who was asleep. Nothing can stop Mike on the Mic!

013 Down on the lower level, the scene was luminous.

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At this juncture I was with Nuts front office staffer Robert Moulette, who told me “I have to escort you to your chariot.” The meaning behind this cryptic statement shall soon be revealed, but until then please enjoy the photos I took while being escorted to said chariot.

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Moulette and I then passed beyond the left field fence, where the chariot was revealed.

A 1959 Corvette! The Nuts had arranged for me to ride the Corvette en route to the mound for a ceremonial first pitch.

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The Corvette came out of left field, but this first pitch delivery method didn’t come out of left field. As famously depicted in the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti, Modesto is a hotbed of classic car culture and every year the city hosts an “American Graffiti Car Show and Festival (George Lucas was the grand marshal at this year’s edition). The Nuts, for their part, annually host a Graffiti Night promotion and as such they have copious contacts within the classic car community.

The owner and driver of the car was a friendly, soft-spoken man by the name of Gene Carranza. He told me that cars were a post-retirement hobby of his, and that he’d restored the Corvette himself. I felt like a doofus being driven around like some sort of beauty queen or politician, but this was a great experience and certainly a very memorable way to be transported to the mound.

photo: Joe Price

photo: Joe Price

The first pitch itself was not so memorable, as I bounced it (I am now suffering from a full-on case of ceremonial first pitch Steve Blass disease).

IMG_9570On the plus side — the first pitch led to this memorable photo op: ceremonial first pitch catcher Brian Humphries (or at least I think that’s Brian Humphries), me, Al Almond, Wally the Walnut.

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The game was about to begin, and on a more representative night the ballpark would have looked like this.

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Don's Mobile Glass Party Deck (3)

But all things considered, the crowd wasn’t too sparse. Maybe 69 nights are better (they generally are), but it was a beautiful evening and time for some California League baseball.

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Some Modestans opted to spend their evening amid the company of smaller balls, however.

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With the game underway, I retreated to the private suite so that I could rendezvous with the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Welcome, Joe and Bonnie Price!

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You may remember Joe from one of my Fresno dispatches, when he sang both the first and fourth stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner. He sang the National Anthem in Modesto as well and then went on to Stockton the next day and did it again. In the above photo he and Bonnie are wearing “Anthem Tour” shirts, which commemorate their season-long 2011 road trip during which Joe sang the National Anthem at over 100 ballparks.

But with singing duties complete, Joe and Bonnie were now free to sample the finest cuisine that John Thurman Field has to offer. They were joined in this endeavor by Jon Fischer, a good friend of mine dating back to middle school who showed up in Modesto simply so he could experience the ramshackle nightly improvisation that is the Ben’s Biz traveling roadshow. Jon now lives in San Francisco, where he teaches, curates art shows, blogs about his various creative endeavors, and wears t-shirts that display startling amounts of chest hair.

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Within moments, this unlikely triumvirate of gluten-tolerant suite denizens was faced with the following.

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Have at it, guys.

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As for what they were having at, the Super Pretzel is a jumbo pretzel whose negative space is filled with a variety of meat toppings (BBQ chicken, pulled pork, and tri-tip).  Chili and nacho cheese is served on the side, resulting in an “appetizer” that could serve as a meal and then some. The general consensus was that the meat toppings were well-seasoned and appropriately succulent, and the flavor of the chili surprisingly complex given that it was served in a plastic cup like some standard-issue condiment. The pretzel didn’t fare as well in the taste testing, however, as its best days (or day) seemed to be behind it.

“The pretzel is a little dried out,” said Jon.

“You’re not supposed to hear yourself eat it,” added Bonnie.

But on the whole the Super Pretzel was positively received, because on the holes were very tasty toppings. Pretzels have been a hard thing for me to give up in these post-gluten days, but there was no time to mourn. Because in addition to the Super Pretzel there was this:

As that comically inept Vine more or less conveys, this was nothing more and nothing less than bacon on a stick. Or, more specifically, bacon with brown sugar, maple syrup, and BBQ sauce. A product of Modesto’s Greens Market, it is thick, juicy, tender and altogether spectacular, one of the best concession items that I sampled all season. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a photo with just the bacon because my presence, it only detracts.

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Leaving Joe, Bonnie and John within their luxury digs, I headed back down to the concourse in order to investigate a certain piece of signage.

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This feline radio station mascot is surprisingly apprehensive and contemplative looking, not as fiercely resolute as one would expect. This KAT, like mainstream country in general, seems to suffering from an identity crisis. (The formula: pay hollow lip service to the legacy of Hank Williams while creating music that sacrifices Hank’s emotional complexity in favor of uber-condescending “pick-up truck, chewing tobacco, swimming hole and bonfire party” pop constructs that sound as if they were written by city slickers who’ve made a living on the conceit that the rubes don’t know any better. Rise up!)

And speaking of signage, here’s a concession stand pricing rundown. (The Super Pretzel was a suite-only item, I believe, while the bacon on a stick is available elsewhere in the facility.)

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My lackluster signage investigations didn’t last for long, as I soon returned to the field of play.

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And — look! — it’s Mike on the Mic!

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Mike’s name may not be original, but he is.

“I’m aware of two other Mike on the Mics [in Minor League Baseball], but I consider myself to be the most unique,” said Mike, now in his fourth season. “I’m just a man of the people, and make sure everyone’s having a good time. I have more energy and enthusiasm than anyone I know.”

Mike and the on-field promo crew had invited me to be a part of the next on-field promotion, launching t-shirts into the crowd via slingshot. This is an activity that I deeply enjoy.

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Al and Wally were on the field with me, but apparently they are a couple of omniscient nuts. The legume duo were up in the suite when I returned, engaging in one of their patented mascot dance parties.

They were also engaging in what can only be described as shenanigans.

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Being force-fed bacon on a stick by an anthropomorphic nut isn’t exactly my idea of a good time (although it is pretty close), so I headed back out for a bit more wandering and almost immediately ran into this character.

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That’s ballhawk Nick Badders, a Bay Area native who was on his way to snagging a career-best 13 baseballs on the evening. I had never written about a Minor League ballhawk before, so I rectified that situation by composing an MiLB.com piece about Nick and his hobby. You can read that HERE, and then you can go ahead and check out Nick’s account of the evening HERE (he even has a Vine video of me bouncing my ceremonial first pitch).

After interviewing Nick I was re-joined by Mike on the Mic, who was once again including me as part of the between-inning proceedings.

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I was a contestant in a videoboard trivia contest. A clip from a movie (American Graffiti, naturally) was shown on the screen, and I was then tasked with answering a question regarding what it was that I had just seen.

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The answer, I did not know, so there was nothing to do but grin and bear it as I suffered what was approximately my 125th ballpark failure of the season.

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Still single, ladies.

Back in the suite I alleviated my frustration via the consumption of pulled pork on a tapioca-based gluten-free bun.

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You can see Bonnie enjoying some St. Louis-style ribs there in the background. Jon, meanwhile, was enjoying them in the foreground.

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Simply the chest

The ribs were a popular item, and Bonnie, pointing to a stain on her shirt, lauded them for their “decorative appeal.” Joe, meanwhile, raved about the this chicken wrap.

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“One of the good things about the wrap is that it’s not simply lettuce, it’s radicchio,” he said. “It adds more body and flavor and adds a crunchy nip to it. Not a full bite, just a nip.”

Given that the Nuts are named the Nuts I was expecting the Nuts to have voluminous amounts of Nuts throughout the ballpark. This wasn’t exactly the case, although they did produce these limited edition delicacies when they hosted the 2011 California vs. Carolina League All-Star Game.

085Our ragtag group soon migrated next door so that Joe and I could lead the crowd in a poorly-documented but satisfying-in-the-moment rendition of the seventh inning stretch.

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I then stuck around for an inning on the radio with Nuts broadcaster Alex Margulies.

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By the time I returned to our palatial estate, said ragtag group was well into a dessert of “chimis” (cheesecake, raspberry and dulce de leche) and baked smores.

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My documentation skills were starting to wane at this juncture of the evening, but please let it be known that Bonnie exalted the Raspberry Chimis above the Dulce De Leche because the latter was “sweet on top of sweet” and hence too sweet.

Also let it be known that a baseball game transpired during the course of all of this nonsense. The hometown team, desirous of victory, emerged with just this.

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And with the cessation of play comes the cessation of this blog post. Take it away, Mike on the Mic!

Thanks, Mike on the Mic. Ben on the Blog is now over and out.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: On Top of the Action in Visalia

Part one of this current mini-saga was good for what Visalia, as it detailed the charming quirks, historical markers and reptilian wrath appeasement efforts to be found throughout Rawhide Ballpark. We now pick up where we left off, with the game having just begun.

A modest Sunday evening crowd had filtered in, many of them settling atop the gunite slab of a grandstand (Rawhide Ballpark has just fewer than 2000 fixed seats, the smallest total in affiliated professional baseball).

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The ballpark features minuscule amounts of foul territory, meaning that concourse vantage points are very close to the action. And the dugout view is particularly unique, in that you can look straight down on the players below.

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As for looking down into the dugouts, this Vine video should illustrate my point. (Also, I like that it captures an audio snippet of someone saying “Colt 45.” I have no idea what this was a reference to as neither guns nor malt liquor are sold at the ballpark.)

The up close and personal nature of the ballpark also means that you can hear just about everything that is said. While I was standing here Rancho Cucamonga hitting coach Johnny Washington, who was coaching first base at the time, ambled over to the dugout and said something to the effect of “Did you check the [expletive deleted] outfield? That’s a [expletive deleted] horse [expletive deleted] lead. That’s [expletive deleted] terrible! C’mon!”

Kids, take it from me: if you want to take your profanity game to the next level,  then hang out near the dugout at Rawhide Ballpark when the Quakes are in town.

But let’s take things back in to the realm of the family-friendly. Here’s Tipper, the Rawhide mascot (I’m kicking myself now, for neglecting to include him in one of my boVine videos).

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A local cheerleading squad was on hand, performing before the game as well as several times during it. Between routines they practiced on the Pasture, which increased the evening’s “charming Americana” factor by 1.5.

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A photo collage along the front entrance gates features this absolutely classic moment, from the Rawhide’s absolutely classic “Belle of the Ballpark” promo. (I wrote about the 2011 iteration HERE).

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The above photo is across the way from, yes, the best gunite-coated dirt slab to be found in all of Minor League Baseball. Here’s yet another look at it:

080But back to the concourse, because I’m not quite sure how I got away from there in the first place. Looking across the way toward the home dugout, I was intrigued by what looked like a painted white cross on the wall. While trying to land a picture of the cross, I instead got this image of crotch-grabbing in action.

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And, yes, that is a large white cross painted on the dugout wall. I forgot to get the background story on why it’s there, but it seems out of place within the ostensibly secular confines of the ballpark. (This picture also gives a good indication of the extent to which the concourse is literally atop the dugouts.)

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Perhaps the most famous denizen to be found within the home dugout is batboy Les Kissick. He’s held the job for 14 years, and when I first posted the following Vine video it was met with a stream of responses from Visalia diehards along the lines of “Les!!! He’s the best!!!”

Meanwhile, one could find guest emcee Chad Stafford, a DJ on Visalia country station KJUG, patrolling the concourse.

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Chad had another duty to perform on this particular evening, as the Rawhide had recruited him to serve as the designated eater. (You know, the individual who consumes and critiques the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.) He and I soon adjourned to the Hall of Fame Club, where food and beverage director Chris Lukasiewicz was waiting with an array of items.

Welcome Chad and, yes,  welcome giant pretzel.

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That’s the Texas Twist, a 24 ounce monster whose holes are filled with warm cups of nacho cheese. Chad gave it a try and reported that “it might be a little too salty, but it’s soft on the inside. For one person it’s a bit excessive, but it’s great for a lot of people to share.”

There’s no doubt that this would be way too much pretzel for one person, but nonetheless the Rawhide have devised a “Texas Twist Challenge” that is open to all fans. Lukasiewicz carved out six seconds of his life in order to offer the following explanation:

Meanwhile, I was presented with this off-menu offering, which Lukasiewicz often prepares for the gluten-free girlfriend of a Rawhide front office staffer.

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That’s a “Fajita Dog” bratwurst with garlic aioli sauce atop a bed of peppers, onions, melted Montery Jack cheese and fries which have themselves been tossed in fresh minced garlic.

I approve!

Chad, meanwhile, approved of the burger that had just been presented to him.

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That’s the “Cowboy Burger,” to be exact, topped with Kinder’s BBQ sauce, cheese, three slices of Applewood bacon and two onion rings.

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Chad, a BBQ aficionado, said that he liked the Cowboy Burger because “the onion rings are great and whatever cheese they use is perfect for it.”

But as for what cheese that is, I neglected to find out. It shall always remain a mystery.

Less of a mystery is this, the final item to be highlighted:

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Those nachos are of the “loaded asada” variety: nacho cheese, shredded cheese, salsa, dried onion, jalapenos and your choice of meat.

“The salsa, that’s the kicker,” said Chad, who’s been a presence on the Visalia airwaves over the last eight years. “And it’s all covered, which is just how I like it.”

Also all covered is the food portion of the evening. Thanks to Lukasiewicz and thanks, of course, to Chad.

Out on the concourse I struck up a conversation with Rawhide community relations manager/Hispanic marketing manager/on-field emcee Jesus Romero (he of the gluten-free girlfriend). As you can see, Jesus is loyal to his employer.

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With the game in its final third, I slowed my pace and did a final lap around the ballpark.

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I then settled into a seat in Row M, the highest vantage point available at Rawhide Ballpark (save for the skyboxes).

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Or, if awkwardly conceived panoramas are more your thing:

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The ballgame was tied entering the bottom of the ninth inning, meaning that it time for a visit from Jesus Romero and the Rally Squad.

The Rally Squad are great at their jobs, as in the bottom of the ninth inning this place was rocking! Visalia fans know how to support the hometown team.

And with the place a rocking the Rawhide offense came a knockin,’ as Tom Belza singled to lead off the inning and, two batters later, scored on a Sean Jamieson single. It was a good day to be a Rawhide fan and, thus, a good day for me to have visited.

As the crowd filed out I paid one last visit to team broadcaster/historian/reptile hex articulator Donny Baarns, whose computer screen displayed a list of dozens of ways to say “here’s the pitch.” Perhaps he should get a copy of The Baseball Thesaurus?

100As Donny took his listeners through the ups and downs of the ballgame, I watched the last “run the bases” straggler finally reach home plate.

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And that was all that she wrote (she being me, of course).

Gunite from Visalia!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Gunite for Greatness Amid Reptile Dysfunction in Visalia

“Structurally unique, I guess you’d call it.”

That’s how Visalia Rawhide broadcaster Donny Baarns summed up Rawhide Ballpark, his place of employment since 2008. And with Donny, I would agree. This place is structurally unique.

020At its core, the ballpark (known as “Recreation Park” for the majority of its existence) is as no-frills as they come. The current grandstand, built in 1963, is little more than a huge mound of dirt repurposed from Route 198 construction efforts poured over with concrete and gunite. I don’t know much about gunite (Baarns told me it was “all the rage in the ’60s, apparently”), but it appears to be a construction method in which concrete is shot out of a hose. Who Pneu?

The grand gunnite structure seen above faces outward toward this idyllic (at least at that moment) intersection.

021On the inside, there’s a whole lot more than just an outsized gunnite slab. A series of renovations over the years 2003-2011 has given the ballpark a second life and then some, with a 360 degree cavalcade of new wild west and/or dairy-themed additions.

Here we are in “The Pasture,” a grass seating area wrapping around the right field foul line.

022Behind that is the Toyota Terrace, Kids Corral, and Alliteration Alcove.

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024Within this area, one can secure a unique visitor’s bullpen vantage point. Or, as I like to call it, a VBVP.

025A vast expanse of grass, as seen through the chain link.

027Looking homeward, sans-link:

028There is a small parking lot behind the terrace, and a quite verdant lot at that, but vehicular occupation of this area will soon cease to be as the Rawhide are partnering with the local Rotary Club and turning it into a “Splash Pad” that will be open to the public on non-game days as well.

029This sign shows the distance from Visalia to other Diamondbacks affiliates as well as the distance to the parent club. Of course, the “Yakima” sign is no longer valid as that franchise has since moved to Hillsboro (the concluding  stop on this very road trip). Also, I find it interesting that there is a “Visalia 0″ sign. I mean, isn’t that implied? That when you are in a certain location then you are zero distance away from it? Right now, I am 0 miles away from writing this blog post although I was I wish I was .25 miles away playing pinball in my local laundromat.

Anyhow, signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.

031The above sign shows the formidable distance to Cooperstown, but the Rawhide’s “Hall of Fame Club” is a much less daunting journey. It’s just a hop, skip, and and 100 foot jump away.

033That Kirby Puckett quote is in such a prominent position because Kirby is the lone Visalia player to have been enshrined in Cooperstown. He played the entire 1983 season as a member of the Visalia Oaks (his lone full Minor League campaign), and hit .314-9-97 and stole 48 bases over 138 games. A more recent assortment of notable Visalia alumni can be seen in this photo collage located to the right of the bar.

034Further historical perspective can be gleaned while watching the ballgame through the Hall of Fame Club windows, as the tabletops are adorned with a chronological array of press clippings.

038Or, if gunnite slab views are more your thing, you could take a seat here.

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Fans of chronology, gunnite, and the intersection of the two will really and truly love this ballpark. (I’m hoping that this appears as a pull quote in future Rawhide promotional materials)

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As will fans of history in general. Baarns (who, given his name, should really be working in Double-A), has worked hard to research and publicize the rich history of Visalia baseball. He gave a speech about just this at the 2011 Baseball Winter Meetings, which soon led to this impeccably written MiLB.com article.

For one final bit of history, we go to the Visalia Hall of Fame located along the concourse on the first base side.

060The Hall of Fame, established in 2009, features plaques created by a skilled local craftsman.

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The final plaque features not a player, but a team.

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Would you believe that even though the Cal League only has 10 teams, and that, currently, six of those teams make the playoffs every season, 1978 marks the last time that Visalia has won a championship? After some diligent research, the team was able to ascertain that this prolonged title drought (and a long string of bad luck in general) can be attributed to the vengeful ghost of Joe Charboneau’s pet alligator. His name was Chopper.

This curse is totally legit, as I discovered, and for far more please read my MiLB.com piece that is dedicated to this subject and this subject only. Those who are truly serious about appeasing this spiritually unsettled deceased reptile can buy these shirts in the team store.

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Meanwhile, this Chopper replica can sometimes be seen lurking about the Pasture.

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Rawhide GM Jennifer Pendergraft told me that she always wanted a pet alligator and, thus, wanted to get one for the ballpark. 

“But it turns out that they’re highly illegal in California,” she said. “And I didn’t want to have PETA coming after us.”

Those seeking refuge from alligators, or the ghosts of alligators, or whatever it is that’s going on right now, would do well to visit the Fan Dugout. Here, there is no afterlife turmoil to be found.

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The Rawhide have what just may be the least amount of foul territory in all of Minor League Baseball, and as such these seats might be closer to the action than anywhere else. (I know that the Asheville Tourists, among other clubs, would beg to differ). At any rate, these dugout seats are available for groups of 20-25 and Baarns noted that they are “great for softball or Little League teams.”

The view, obscured:

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Moving back to the concourse, one can visit the Watering Hole in order to satiate any lingering food and beverage needs.

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One of those food options is tacos, which, pictorially, look delicious.

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From there, our tour moves across the way to the Snakebite Saloon — because nothing says refreshment like dying a slow and agonizingly painful death as poisonous venom courses through your system! (The establishment’s slogan, if my notes are to be believed.)

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The prices at the Snakebite Saloon seemed reasonable enough to me, but either way they’ve got you over a barrel.

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 Take these broken wings and learn to fly because in the nearby Cold Zone they have misters, Mister.

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At this juncture of the evening the gates were open and it was nearing game time.

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Baarns and I headed up toward his press box abode, but not before one final tour stop. To once again paraphrase my favorite insufferable protest chant: this is what a Class A Advanced Skybox looks like:

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The view toward the field:

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And the views from behind:

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On the cusp of game time, I retreated to the Rawhide commissary and furtively ate some Buffalo Wild Wings (gluten-free!) like a scared chipmunk.

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And with that moment of dignity, I’ll conclude Part One of this Visalia blogging saga. Hopefully Part Two will be Gator than the sum of its parts.

068benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Wieners and Weirdness Abound in Bakersville

I’ve seen and done so much on this west coast road trip, but yet again here I am, in some random hotel room (this time a Days Inn in Klamath Falls) writing about my evening at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium. Already I’ve written this MiLB.com piece about the Blaze (“exemplary,” crowed the New York Times), and this blog post (“good,” noted USA Today), and now here I am with this:

BAKERSFIELD BLAZE BLOG POST, PART DEUX (that’s French for Three Times One Minus One)

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When we last left off, the game had just begun. And when a Blaze game begins, you can count on pre-med student turned Class A Advanced broadcaster Dan Besbris to keep you abreast of the action.

As Besbris compassionately elucidated the faults of a hometown player, a voice of an even more striking nature could be heard on the concourse. “Froggy,” the team’s assistant clubhouse manager was selling programs.

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I really should have done a Vine video featuring Froggy, as his nickname is indeed an accurate descriptor of the sound of his voice. At one point in the evening I began to walk toward him to do just this, but he was in a contentious-seeming discussion about clubhouse ice (or lack thereof) and I felt uncomfortable interrupting. I did learn, however, that Froggy is a Game Show Network aficionado, that Bobby Bonds taught him to do the YMCA, and that, most impressively, he got married at Sam Lynn’s home plate last season.

Speaking of plates, it was time to put food on them. The evening’s designated eater was a long-time Ben’s Biz reader by the name of Charles Pannunzio, who came to the ballgame with his wife Christina Hennessey. (The designated eater is, of course, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Pannunzio had volunteered for the “honor” via email, and he and Hennessey were ready to go.

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Charles and Christina live in Torrance, CA, and during the season a common question in their house is “What games can we see this week?”

“We go to college, Minors, Majors, everything,” said Charles.

“We even went to a game in Tijuana!” added Christina. And, indeed, they did!

But tonight they were in Bakersfield, the Tijuana of the Cal League. Blaze food and beverage director Bruce Gerber was ready for them, bestowing Christina with a Farmer John’s Polish Sausage (with Hollen’s mustard, a California brand I had never seen before) and Charles with the brand-new “Blaze Burger” (A burger topped with a mound of pulled pork and jalapenos).

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Christina praised the sausage, saying “I’d get it again,” but the Blaze Burger is what elicited the most attention.

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“It’s overwhelming in that it’s more of a BBQ sandwich than a burger,” said Charles. “I couldn’t imagine any more condiments being on it.”

“We really need napkins!” added Christina. And indeed, they did! (Meanwhile, instead of helping them, I drank a gluten-free cider).

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Napkins were soon acquired, as were a plate of tacos.

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And, also, a tri-tip sandwich.

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This round of offerings was not as successful. Christina liked the salsa (Phillip’s, a local brand), but said that overall the tacos were “cold and bland.” The tri-tip, meanwhile, was said to “taste like the grill, like they’re trying to cover up a bad flavor.” (I sampled the tri-tip as well, and would agree that it was less than stellar.)

Meanwhile, Gerber was kind enough to bring out a hot dog on a gluten free bun along with a wide array of (mostly meaty) toppings.

Here’s a picture of the hot dog, which includes a video still of me ogling the creation (it tasted good, but the gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately).

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Heater is a fan of weiners, gluten-free or otherwise.

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Heater also enjoys harassing designated eaters (I think it says that in his bio, even).

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But this segment of the post, like Heater, is dragon on too long. Let us bid adieu to Charles and Christina, who recommend that you order a Blaze Burger the next time you’re at Sam Lynn Stadium. (As you can see they also got ice cream in a helmet, and I was derelict in my duties by not documenting this.)

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In my aforementioned Bakersfield Blaze MiLB.com piece (which Lewis Lapham said “is to the zeitgeist what an expert poacher is to the African rhino”), I talked about the many strange and unique moments that are bound to occur at Sam Lynn on any given night. Many of these moments take place during the between-inning breaks, thanks to the off-kilter humor of Spanish anarchist turned poolboy turned wannabe drawbridge operator turned Blaze assistant general manager Philip Guiry (who had recently returned to the club after serving a suspension for using “performance-enhancing jokes” that had all been lifted from Family Circus comic strips).

All of the above paragraph is true, save for my critical accolades, and it is also true that the Blaze have often fielded a line-up this season consisting of four players named Juan (Perez, Silverio, Duran, Silva). During one inning break, Guiry asked a multiple choice trivia question (“What Blaze player hit a grand slam yesterday?”) and all of the choices were named Juan. The contestant, a Girl Scout, chose the right Juan and Guiry then gave her a box of cookies because “no one ever gives a Girl Scout cookies.”

(For those who were Juan Duran, the correct answer was Juan Duran.)

Later in the evening was the Dizzy Bat Race, a Minor League Baseball staple. The Blaze stand out, however, as Guiry lets the contestants spin (and spin and spin and spin and spin) for an agonizingly long time. In this Vine video, he makes small talk with the mascots — “Panda’s a big golf guy” — before even beginning his countdown.  “We don’t care much about the race,” Guiry told me. “Just the dizzy.”

Please note that in the above video, the kid on the far right (who inexplicably identified himself as “Habib”) is using a broom. And I have no idea what song is playing, but let it be known that these days most of the between-innings music played at Sam Lynn is ’90s southern hip-hop (lots of No Limit stuff, and at one point I heard “Tootsie Roll” by the 69 Boyz). But in this particular Vine, you’ll hear “Sexy Back.” This is because mascot Heater decided to show the crowd that he is sexy all over by streaking across the outfield. Also, please note that he is followed, inexplicably, by a square pixelated ghost.

And speaking of wieners, which we kinda sorta were, there was, of course, the Wiener Launch. Watch it HERE, as I cannot embed an MiLB.com video on this MiLB.com blog. Here’s Guiry, post-weiner launch, surrounded by his adoring fans.

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Of course, in the midst of all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

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Did you know that, at 354 feet, Sam Lynn features the shortest center field fence in all of Minor League Baseball? Or that the giant green sunscreen wall in center field was built in November and thus at the wrong angle to most effectively block the summertime sun? Or that Sam Lynn used to have “sun delays” during the moment in the evening when the sun was shining through the gap between the sunsreen and the outfield wall? (This gap has since been filled in with plywood).

It’s true. All of it true. It’s also true that this ballgame soon came to an end, with the Blaze emerging victorious. Here’s Besbris doing his signature “Who loves ya, wall?” catchphrase after the win.

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Win or lose, the Blaze players and coaches (including superstar manager Ken Griffey Sr) have to proceed through a gauntlet of autograph seekers en route to the clubhouse.

Come Juan, come all

Come Juan, come all

The game was over, but the evening was not. Girl Scouts, prepare to sleep over!

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It was during this portion of the evening that I met Ryan Salisbury, who, during the game, was donning the Heater suit. At one point late in the contest, Ryan was handed an envelope from an anonymous benefactor. The outside read “End of Season Bonus 2013,” and inside was a $10 bill. These are the sort of things that just seem to happen in Bakersfield.

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Ryan is a San Francisco resident (by way of Pensacola and Philly) who currently makes a living as a bike messenger. He doesn’t have a car, so when it comes to commutes he has to improvise.

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See, these are the lengths that people will go when a MiLB blogger is in town (me, I think). Ryan and his dog, F.D. (“it stands for what you want it to stand for”) eventually got a ride from a musician/landscaper who apparently once worked for one Jerry Garcia. As for me I’m grateful to be finishing up this blog post, and also grateful to not be dead. For Sam Lynn, in addition to everything else about it, houses some sort of homemade nuclear reactor in a concourse storage shed.

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Just one more reason to build a new ballpark, I suppose, but for all its faults (and there are many) a lot of people are going to miss Sam Lynn when it is finally gone. I for one, am going to miss writing about it, but soon it shall be time for me to write about Visalia and the many wonders to be found there. To whet your appetite, please read this MiLB.com piece about how the Rawhide are haunted by the ghost of a dead alligator. 

Weirdness abounds.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Trying Not To Stare at the Sun in Bakersfield

Today marks the beginning of another deluge of road trip content, this time from the west coast, and to begin I’ll let you in on a little Minor League Baseball writing secret:

Instead of referring to a stadium as “past its prime,” “dilapidated,” “outmoded” or “ratchet,” it is a good idea to use the word “venerable.” This adjectival euphemism bestows a grace and dignity upon the facility that these other words lack, while still hipping the in-the-know reader to the fact that it has seen better days and then some.

So, with that said, let it be known that Bakersfield’s 72-year-old Sam Lynn Stadium is the most venerable stadium in all of Minor League Baseball.

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Sam Lynn currently hosts the Blaze of the Class A Advanced California League, two classifications below the tire shop located directly across the street.

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Upon turning onto the road that leads to the stadium parking lot, one passes a different sort of baseball facility. These are the Bakersfield batting cages, open to those who have not yet been drafted by a Major League organization as well as those who never will be.

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Ringing the perimeter of the parking lot, on what is either the north or south side (I left my compass at home) is some sort of armed forces facility. I wish I could tell you what sort, but that would have required reportorial initiative well beyond my pay grade.

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But as for Sam Lynn, there is no directional confusion. To get to Sam Lynn, you walk west.

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Before it was dumb-downed for an increasingly unsophisticated American audience, the main entrance to Sam Lynn was known as the “Menage a Trois.”

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The above sentence may or may not be true, and most likely isn’t. But, at any rate, by the time I arrived at the stadium there were already a considerable amount of people waiting to proceed through the Three-Way.

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Will Call: located at the base of a tree, apparently

My status as America’s 1456th most well-known sports blogger allowed me to proceed past the hoi polloi, and soon I came face to face with that which I alluded to earlier. This is, perhaps, Sam Lynn’s single-most defining characteristic: IT WAS BUILT FACING THE SUN.

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Sam Lynn is the only ballpark in Minor League Baseball that “enjoys” this distinction, which forces the Blaze to start their games at 7:30 if not later. The denizens of the press box have learned to adapt to this strange reality.

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“Strange reality” describes nearly everything about the Blaze and their operation. For far more on the surreal nature of Sam Lynn (or at least what I perceived to be the surreal nature of Sam Lynn), then please check out my MiLB.com piece. (THIS IS AN ORDER.)

In case you didn’t know, the Blaze are a Reds affiliate.

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And, also in case you didn’t know, last season Billy Hamilton stole 104 bases with the Blaze while en route to an all-time professional record of 155.

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That cushion was being used by Dan Besbris, pre-med student-turned-Blaze broadcaster. Here, he and lawyer-turned-Blaze general manager Elizabeth Martin enjoy a pre-game beverage.  That’s just how they roll in Bakersfield.

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At the right hand side of the press box resides official scorer Tim Wheeler, who hasn’t missed a game since he began doing the job in 1995. And not only that! Wheeler also reported that he’s “never left the press box to take a leak” during a game either.

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The scoreboard, like pretty much everything else about Sam Lynn, is  venerable. And, also, it’s haunted.

“The board is possessed,” said Besbris. “In the seventh inning, a seven comes up no matter what we do.”

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Mysterious sevens notwithstanding, Wheeler does a yeoman’s job of operating the scoreboard (although, admittedly, I don’t know what a yeoman is or what sort of job he would do). His operating module is a work of art, adorned with press clippings, souvenir detritus and the phone numbers of relevant league personnel (including that of legendary California League historian/statistician Bill Weiss, who passed away in 2011. “I keep it there just because I like to see his name,” Wheeler told me).

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The Blaze press box was a fun place to be, featuring more Gallo’s humor than a comedy show catering to low budget oenophiles. But duty, as she so often does, was calling me in her soft yet persistent singsong voice.  With the sun just beginning to descend behind the giant wooden sunscreen in center field, I proceeded to the mound and threw out a first pitch.

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The good news on that first pitch was that I didn’t bounce it. The bad news was that it was significantly high and would have  hit an average-sized right-handed hitter in the jawbone (presuming that said hitter was somehow unable to move out of the way of a 47 mile an hour offering). The first pitch was caught by Blaze reliever Jimmy Moran who, upon meeting me, said “Hey, the guy who writes for Minor League Baseball!”

Also, I’m the guy who didn’t try his shirt on before buying it. Somehow I’m still a “small” at Uniqlo, because I look like a total fool in this medium.

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 Jimmy Moran is now my favorite player in the California League. Not only did he recognize me, but he later tweeted the following.

I left the playing field expecting a rapturous reception, but instead everyone’s attention was on the mascot. This is Heater:

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And this is a creature that, until being reappropriated by the Blaze, had only been associated with particularly traumatic psycilobin experiences. Its name is Torch.

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Meanwhile, the playing field was downright incendiary looking. If you look closely, you can see that there are players on that field stretching.

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The fans down the first base line were making like Eleanor Friedberger:

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Other fans, meanwhile, escaped the descendant wrath of the fiery orb by stocking up on provisions.

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Give us a taco we demand or close down this taco stand!

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But for the players, and those watching the players from an intimate vantage point, the waiting was about to come to an end.

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The crowd was instructed to rise, with an additional instruction to the gentlemen to please remove their hats, so that we could honor our country by listening to an instrumental version of the National Anthem played over the PA.

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And with that, the game was finally, mercifully, underway! And with that this post has finally, mercifully, drawn to a conclusion! Stay tuned for part two, featuring designated eating, dizzy bat small talk, nuclear storage and poolboy anarchism. And, of course, make sure to read my Blaze article on MiLB.com.

Until then, thank you for reading the most venerable blog in all of Minor League Baseball!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: “2 Hours and 43 Minutes of Bliss” in Lake Elsinore

The final team on my “Hill in the Desert” road trip itinerary was the Lake Elsinore Storm, that irreverent crew of Cal League contrarians and trendsetters. My day started not at the ballpark, however, but “Annie’s” — a popular local breakfast and lunch spot. I had been invited there by George and Ryan Bethell, loyal members of the Storm booster club and readers of this blog ever since the latter was featured in a post on fish tossing.

Upon being introduced as a first-time Annie’s patron, I was greeted with a handshake from waitress Wendy. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a newbie!”, she yelled, and the entire restaurant broke out in applause. Then a lobster hat was placed atop my head. Standard operating procedure.

That gentleman in the background is Storm manager Carlos Lezcano. George and Ryan introduced him to me, a gesture that helped to facilitate my clubhouse interview attempts later that afternoon.

I then booked into the Storm’s team hotel, a refreshing change of pace from the generic string of interchangeable lodging houses I’d become accustomed to.

This place doesn’t have the greatest reputation among Cal League players and personnel (pitcher Dirk Hayhurst issued some strong condemnations in his “Bullpen Gospels” memoir), but it has been recently renovated and I found it to be completely acceptable (the excellent internet connection sure helped). But I wasn’t on the road to write about hotels (or to gamble) — I was there for baseball!

The Diamond sure is a great place to watch some.

Like all of the ballparks I visited on this trip, there was plenty of room to move on the inside and out.

Once inside, there is the feeling of being watched.

Those eyes are everywhere!

Even between elevator buttons

And lording over the restroom

The bathroom features induction lighting and waterless urinals, two of many eco-friendly elements to be found around the ballpark. The Storm have been leaders in this area, and are the originators of the “Going Green” promotional nights that have since become common around Minor League Baseball.

Green is one of many clothing colors available in the team store. The Storm have one of the best-selling logos in all of Minor League Baseball (read about it in my MiLB.com piece), and offer a dizzying number of eye-centric clothing choices.

An item available through the club's "Storm Thredz" clothing line

Out of the store and into the open air, some shots from around the ballpark while waiting for the gates to open.

Concessions, where are concessions? Where do you need to be, if you want to eat? (sung to the tune of “Obsession” by Animotion).

Oh, here they are!

The Storm have a fully-operational restaurant on the premises — the Diamond Club. It was closed on on the day I was there due to the team’s “All-You-Can- Eat” Fat Tuesday promotion, but it’s a pretty swanky joint.

I was particularly interested in trying “The Homewrecker,” best explained via t-shirt.

Here’s concessions general manager Arjun Suresh pulling it out of the oven.

Team president Dave Oster, Suresh, and executive chef Steve Bearse marvel at their creation.

The four of us went to the vacant owner’s suite to give it a try. It was delicious! And since it can be easily shared, it’s a bit more justifiable than other recent over-sized items unveiled throughout the Minors.

But my homewrecking companions soon departed (to, you know, do their jobs). After an inning of solitary luxury in the owner’s suite, I went downstairs to watch a couple of innings with the Bethells. They sit just to the left of the screen behind home plate, providing fantastic views.

I had a tough time getting a good shot of it, but the Storm did indeed retire Wild Thing’s #99 as part of their recent “Sheen-Co De Mayo” promotion.

While with the Bethells, I witnessed two top-notch elements of the Storm game entertainment experience. First up was a skit featuring Thunder the mascot. He took the field in order to play fetch with the batboy, who decided to have a laugh at Thunder’s expense by faking a throw. This enraged Thunder, who stole the batboy’s shoe and ran into the dugout. The action then switched to the videoboard, where Thunder was seen abusing the shoe in a number of ways (slamming it in a locker, cooking it in a pot, attempting to flush it down the toilet, etc). Finally, the shoe was thrown out onto the playing field with the humbled batboy limping to get it.

I detailed all of the above because it was an excellent example of a team going above and beyond with their game operations. Even on a cold Tuesday night in a front of a sparse crowd, an effort was made to do something thoughtful, fun, and original. The little things go a long way.

My pictures of Thunder came out very poorly. Thankfully, George Bethell sent over this one. It is of Thunder and his Mom Thunderella:

Also courtesy of Bethell, here’s the Grounds Crew Gorilla.

On Tuesday, the Gorilla was upstaged in a dance contest by a younger, more nimble female gorilla (once again, my pictures were horrible). This enraged him, so he darted into the visiting dugout and then up the hilly berm area. At the top of the hill, he picked up a portion of the fence separating the berm from the concourse and threw it with all his might. The aftermath:

At this point I was thoroughly frozen (note to anyone visiting southern California in May: bring a jacket!), so I decided to visit announcer Sean McCall in his well-appointed play-by-play palace.

Help yourself to a pocket schedule and a toothbrush

Most announcers don’t like to be bothered during games (and I can’t say I blame them), but McCall is uber-hospitable. “Soda, water, beer?” he’ll ask, gesturing to his fully-stocked refrigerator. “Make yourself at home.”

Two unexpected guests in the booth were the mother and aunt of pitcher Hayden Beard, watching him play in person for the first time since a disastrous outing in 2006.

Beard breezed through the eighth inning, to the relief of his extremely nervous family members. Afterwards, mom Vicki spoke with me about how she works as an official scorer in Australia. This is not uncommon, as women make up the majority of scorers in her country. “Men do the on-field stuff, women keep score,” she told me.

McCall is the dean of Cal League broadcasters, and extremely entertaining to listen to. He combines a polished and professional technique with deadpan, absurdist humor — the Harry Nilsson of Minor League broadcasters, perhaps. Sample banter, after a bit in which he shared notable sports moments that had occurred on May 17: “This day in history brought to you by me, reminding you to say please and thank you (pause) Thank you.”

The title of this post is also a McCall quote, uttered upon the conclusion of the ballgame (a 12-1 win over the no-longer voodoo-enhanced Inland Empire 66ers). It was indeed two hours and 43 minutes of bliss.

As for me, my time out west was approximately 190 hours of sleep deprivation and anxiety. But no complaints! It was an honor and a privilege and I thank everyone involved for their hospitality. I’m already plotting the next one.

But, for now, I am ecstatic to be back within NYC’s comforting embrace. And since my return, one of my cats has made a new friend.

Please get in touch, at any time and for any reason. Any reason at all.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Chasing the Bull and Passing the Hat in High Desert

The one-hour drive from Lancaster (home of the JetHawks) to Adelanto, CA is an appealing one. The Pearl Blossom Highway is surrounded by vast desert expanse, and towns like Little Rock feature vibrantly-hued emporiums of Americana such as Charlie Brown’s Farms as well as shack-sized stores selling both cell phone accessories and beef jerky.

I would have liked to take pictures of all these things, but I was in a rush. My personal itinerary featured a day game after a night game, and I had to make it to Stater Bros Stadium for Sunday’s Class A Advanced matinee between the hometown High Desert Mavericks and visiting Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

The above sign, located on the right field outfield wall, epitomizes the Stater Bros experience — charming, but past its prime. In some ways being past its prime is part of the charm, such as this trailer parked outside the stadium.

But in other ways, the stadium is screaming for a face lift and some TLC. For example, just to the right of the main entrance sits an abandoned box office:

And immediately to the right of this is a bulletin board displaying flyers for a pair of concerts that took place in 2002 (!), helping to solidify the impression that this is the land that time forgot. The stadium, a city-owned facility that cost $6.5 million to build, has housed the Mavs since their inaugural 1991 season (the team relocated from Riverside,CA). Attendance was excellent in the early going, with the Mavs regularly leading the league en route to shattering the million fan milestone in 1996.

But attendance took a significant hit with the closing of a nearby Air Force Base, and further commercial development around the area never materialized. Original owners Brett Baseball sold the team to Main Street Baseball this past offseason, and the Mavericks long-term future is very much in question.

But I”ll save this kind of info for an upcoming MiLB.com piece. While Stater Bros. Stadium may be lacking in bells and whistles (literal and otherwise), it still offers a considerably charming small-town Minor League Baseball experience.

The long view:

Outfield signage still available!


Picnic Area

The National Anthem provided a cute moment, as the young girl singing it (on the far left) paused at the word “ramparts”, looked up at the team employee standing nearby and said “Uh, I forgot.” After a quick prompt she finished strong, to rousing applause.

My trusty camera, while compact and easy to use, is not the best when it comes to the zoom feature. But one can get so close to the action at Stater Bros that I was able to get shots such as the following. This is the first swing of the ballgame, in which Rancho’s Ramon Jean blasted a ground-rule double to left-center.

Also close to the action are the visiting relief pitchers, who have no escape from kids playing on the first base-line berm.

I was especially impressed with mascot Wooly Bully, a committed performer with excellent improv and physical comedy abilities. The skill of those wearing the suits varies wildly around the Minors, but this one was a winner.

And he’s a fearless bull, too, repeatedly getting the fans to yell “charge!”

At one point later in the game, the following announcement came over the PA: “Your attention, please. Wooly Bully, would you get off the field, please?”

I’m not sure exactly what Wooly was doing that caused this reprimand, but I do know he was preparing for a dash across the diamond with hundreds of kids in hot pursuit.

Up on the concourse, the scene was pretty sedate. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the team’s “Sky Boxes”, which seem influenced by 1970s Eastern Bloc architecture (Bull-shevik architecture, perhaps).

The Sky Boxes allow for nice views of the no-frills scoreboard:


I was almost offended by the fact that James Jones didn’t have something by Jim Jones as his walk-up music. “Everybody Jones” would have been an especially apropos choice. Make it happen, James!

But to return to more relevant matters…

Pillars on the concourse showcase each season’s Opening Day line-up (through 2000). Was 1991 really this long ago? If so, then maybe it’s time for me to finally take The Simpsons Sing the Blues out of my Discman.

Main Street Baseball took control of the team at too late a date to implement major changes for 2011, but concessions were switched from in-house to outside vendor PSC.  General Manager Eric Jensen (a former Mavericks clubbie) told me that this has resulted in increased quality and profit.

I asked the (not at all friendly) guy working the stand what a “McOwen’s Masterpiece” was, and the answer had something to do with two hot dogs, chili, cheese, cole slaw, and who knows what else. I was still digesting last night’s “Stealth Burger,” at the time, so this was all too much for me to process.

Also available on the concourse: kettle corn and shaved ice with a DIY flavor station.

One of the most charming aspects of the Mavericks experience is that the team “passes the hat” after each home run. A comically oversized cowboy hat, as it were.

Vincent Catricala and Daniel Carroll both homered as part of the Mavs’ 10-4 win. The former earned $50.68 for his efforts, the latter $53. In the world of Minor League Baseball, that’s a nice chunk of change — a couple of steak dinners in place of another dire set of choices at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. (Meanwhile, I’m dealing with the culinary options of Adelanto’s Hawthorne Suites — sunflower seeds and Dr. Pepper is what’s for dinner.)

To sum it all up, High Desert is a situation worth following. It will be interesting to see what changes Main Street Baseball has in store for the team in 2012, as this is the same group that has found success in Quad Cities. But without a significant re-investment in this ballpark, it seems unlikely that there is a long-term professional baseball future in Adelanto (but, again, I’ll save such pontificating for my MiLB.com persona).

Instead, I’ll leave you with one last glimpse from the lap of luxury.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Go West, Young(ish) Blogger

The title of today’s post is more than just a belabored play on an already mangled and misattributed quotation. It is also my way of telling you that I’m on the cusp of 2011’s first road trip!

Motivated by wanderlust and an unbeatable rental car deal, I’ll be checking out the new-for-2011 Tucson Padres before moving on to a quartet of California League teams. The itinerary:

May 11-12: Tucson Padres

May 13: Writing/Travel Day (although who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to get to a ballpark by nightfall).

May 14: Lancaster JetHawks

May 15: High Desert Mavericks

May 16: Inland Empire 66ers

May 17: Lake Elsinore Storm

I’m psyched to be making my first California sojourn as a so-called professional, and to once again get behind the wheel of a car after yet another prolonged stint of NYC public transit emasculation. Now comes the part of the post where I earnestly implore YOU to please get in touch with suggestions as to who to talk to, where to visit, what foods to try, etc. I of course have some ideas of what to write about, but as usual much is to be determined. Your feedback is much appreciated.

In particular, let me know if you have any interesting California League stories/memories. It seems like surreal things happen out there on a regular basis.

And driving a car again will no doubt lead to profound sticker shock at the pumps, something I mercifully don’t have to deal with on a daily basis here in NYC. But two teams are doing their part to ease the burden: the State College Spikes and Charlotte Stone Crabs. From the former:

From May 9th through May 20th, the Spikes will provide fans a chance to save at the pump when they take advantage of any one of seven ticket offerings. Highlighting the “Spikes Fuel Perks” ticket promotion, any fan that purchases new season tickets will earn a $100 gas card per seat bought!  


And the latter: 

Throughout the Stone Crabs season, fans will have the opportunity to purchase two reserved seats to any Stone Crabs game, along with two hot dogs, and two sodas for only $26. In addition to the ticket package, fans will receive a complimentary $5 gas card from RaceTrac convenience stores, while supplies last.

In completely unrelated news, I received the following email yesterday from Lowell Spinners groundskeeper Jeff Paolino:

I am reaching out to you to see if there is any way to find out if there are any other Military members who are currently Active or Reserve other than myself working in Minor League Baseball? Reason being, I would like to get a group initiative together throughout  MILB as representatives of both baseball and the Military.

This seems like a worthwhile endeavor, but I was unable to assist. So if you fit the above criteria (or know someone who does) then contact Jeff at jpaolino@lowellspinners.com And spread the word!

And, finally, congratulations to Pawtucket Red Sox announcer Dan Hoard — the new radio voice of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

Enjoy your weekend! For the next two days, it’ll be all we’ve got!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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