Results tagged ‘ designated eater ’

On the Road: Exploring the Past in Jacksonville

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jacksonville Suns (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

On the eighth and final stop of my season-opening Florida ballpark road trip, I finally busted out of the confines of the Florida State League. Specifically, I headed north to Jacksonville to see the Suns. This was a significant stop for me. Not only was it the culmination of a fairly grueling road trip, but I have now visited every Minor League ballpark in Florida (the entirety of the 12-team Florida State League as well as Pensacola and Jacksonville).

Sunshine State, complete!

010The Suns, Double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins, have played at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville since 2003. But we’ll get to that facility over the next two posts of this series. My afternoon started with a (metaphorical) trip back in time, to a living relic from Jacksonville’s baseball history: J.P. Small Park.

019For a little bit of background on this truly historic facility, I refer you to this plaque.

037To save your eyes, I’ll type it out:

This site had been the location of baseball and other sports for [over] 100 years. 

The location has been known at different times as Barrs Field, the Myrtle Avenue Ball Park, Joseph H. Durkee Memorial Athletic Field, and since 1980, James P. Small Memorial Stadium. 

The current steel and brick grandstand has basically the same appearance as it did when it was originally designed and constructed in 1935. For 20 years this structure served as the center of professional baseball until a new municipal stadium, the Gator Bowl, opened in 1955. 

The ballpark is located in Jacksonville’s Durkeeville neighborhood. It was originally constructed in 1912, on land owned by neighborhood namesake Joseph H. Durkee. Between 1914 and 1922 it hosted Spring Training for a variety of Major League clubs (Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Athletics). Minor League teams played there intermittently between 1921 and 1961, including the 1953 South Atlantic League Braves. This team, one of the South Atlantic League’s first integrated squads, included Hank Aaron on the roster. Negro League baseball was played here as well, in the form of the Jacksonville Red Caps.

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035I was driven to the stadium by Suns director of security Rob Schoonover (a 33-year law enforcement veteran) and his wife, Jeanne. The visit to J.P. Small Park was motivated by a desire to simply see the facility, but as luck would have it a game was being played there that afternoon. Trinity Baptist College was in the final stages of an 8-2 victory over Edward Waters.

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There was game day entertainment and everything.

031After the contest concluded, I wandered out on to the field.

027The dugouts are small and muddy, so most of the teams’ baseball equipment ended up scattered about the area.

028After the game, Schoonover introduced me to Nick Malpress. He’s been a J.P. Small Ballpark fixture for over 60 years (!)

034Malpress worked as a clubhouse assistant for the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, “shining shoes and getting stuff together.”

“Henry Aaron met his wife here,” he told me. “He and Felix Mantilla were coming out of the dressing room and he saw [future wife] Barbara Lucas walking down the sidewalk. It was just one of them things.”

The ballpark’s current dimensions are a quirky 341 to left, 371 to center and 285 to right, but Malpress remembered players “hitting the ball across the street, when there was a wooden fence all the way around. Hurricane Dora tore that fence down, yeah.”

Malpress has gone on to umpire countless high school and college games at J.P. Small Ballpark, and he attends nearly every Jacksonville Suns game held at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. But baseball’s not the only sport he’s involved with, as a Google search of his name reveals that he’s spent two decades on the Jacksonville Jaguars “Chain Crew.” He’s a Jacksonville sports icon.

Okay, it’s time for me to move the chains. This post is is the first down; stay tuned for two more, live and direct from the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

This quick afternoon detour to J.P. Small Ballpark was an enjoyable one.

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On the Road: Sea Cows and Eat a Burger in Brevard County

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Brevard County Manatees (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

If you’ve been keeping up-to-date with this series of Florida ballpark posts, then you know there has been a recurring culinary theme: Florida State League concessions don’t go too far beyond the basics.

This is more or less true at the Brevard County Manatees’ home of Space Coast Stadium, although the team does have a few wild cards on the menu.

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In addition to staples such as hot dogs, burgers, Italian sausage, french fries, popcorn and nachos, the Grand Slam Grill offers blackened mahi tacos and fried as well as “Bang Bang” shrimp.

On the Friday evening that I was in attendance, they also offered this:

IMG_0403My designated eater — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark foods that my gluten-free diet prohibits — was one Enrique Cortes.

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I wish I had a picture of Enrique that showed him in a non-eating pose. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was off of my game during my evening in Brevard County. The opportunity, it passed me by.

Anyhow, Enrique was attending the game with his wife, Lynette, and their son Enrique Jr. Enrique Sr. has been an art teacher at Palm Bay Elementary School since 2002. After graduating college with an art degree, he said that his master plan was to “get into the museum side of things.”

“I thought I’d just teach for a little bit,” he said. “But I never left. I enjoy it. You get to draw with kids all day. You can’t beat it.”

Enrique also serves as a coach for his son’s “machine-pitch” team, and he regularly attends Manatees games at Space Coast Stadium as well as Major League games in both Tampa and Miami.

As for why he wanted to be a designated eater, Enrique said that “I thought that it would be different, a new experience. I’m always looking for new experiences in the baseball world.”

Okay, great. But my issue was finding the ideal point in the evening for Enrique to get this experience. He was flexible, and my plan was to coordinate with the Manatees’ staff so that Enrique could be given a nice spread of concession stand highlights. This was not to come to fruition, as the front office was running around like maniacs (read the previous post to find out why) and the concession stand was slammed all night long.

By the time the seventh inning stretch rolled around, it was time to take matters into our own hands. Or, more accurately, Enrique took matters into his own hands. He corralled a coterie of Palm Bay East Little League players — it was Little League Night at the stadium — so that they could star in this rollicking Vine video.

Enrique and I then visited the Grand Slam Grill, ordering the “No Wake Zone Burger” from a no-nonsense, exhausted-looking woman with a name tag that said “Margot.” The game was nearly over at this point; we were fortunate that the concession stand was still open, and here we were ordering some convoluted new special item. Margot shot us an “Are you kidding me?” look before asking, “Do you know how to dial 911?”

The No Wake Zone Burger — two quarter pound burgers topped with crispy fried onions, bacon, tomato and blue cheese — is indeed a heart attack waiting to happen.

IMG_0433A closer look:

IMG_0436Have at it, Enrique. Have at it:

“That’s very good, a real juicy burger,” said Enrique. “The blue cheese gives it tangy-ness, a sweet bitter combo, just the right mix. It almost feels like I’m eating an egg in here.”

Nearly a month has passed, and I’m not quite sure what he meant by that last part.

Anyhow, here’s Enrique Sr. enjoying the burger as Enrique Jr. looks on.

IMG_0438“This is definitely something I would enjoy eating again,” he concluded. “I’d pay the extra bucks for it. There’s the saltiness of the burger, the crispiness of the onions. Good burger.”

Oh, and just so that I don’t get excoriated by all of the merciless #cupdate fiends out there, here are some pictures of the Manatees’ current collectible cup.

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IMG_0440And that does it. Literally, as at this point in the evening the game was over.

I’ll let Enrique have the last word. Given that the Manatees’ long-term future in Brevard County is uncertain, he had this to say:

“I hope the Manatees stay in Brevard County. I hope they don’t have to move. I fear the worst. I’ve enjoyed the past 21 years; I was here when they first started. I’d be sad to see them go. But it’s baseball, and it’s a business. I just want Enrique Jr. to have a team to root for.”

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Getting Some Bang for the Buck in St. Lucie

To see all of my posts from this visit to the St. Lucie Mets (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

We’ve reached the final installment of this St. Lucie trilogy, which could mean a lot of things, but in this case only means one thing: It’s Designated Eater Time!

You know the drill by now, but if not: The Designated Eater is an individual I recruit at each ballpark I visit, and this individual is tasked with eating the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

In St. Lucie, this individual was Jay Meyer.

045Jay, originally from New York, moved to Boca Raton when he was 5 years old. He’s been a Minor League Baseball fan for over 20 years, going back to the days of the Fort Lauderdale Red Sox, but the St. Lucie Mets have long been his favorite squad. As you can see from his shirt, he has St. Lucie team pride.

Jay graduated from Florida State University medical school and is doing his residency at West Virginia University in Morgantown. His ultimate goal is to be a pediatrician. He said that he had been “going through baseball withdrawal” in Morgantown, a situation that should be alleviated next month when the New York-Penn League’s Morgantown Black Bears begin their inaugural season. Nonetheless, Jay says that the Sunshine State is where his heart is.

“Eventually, I want to come back home to Florida,” said Jay. “It’s what I know.”

OK, time to set the culinary scene with my evocative words and even more evocative pictures. Jay began his designated eating journey here, near the Tiki Bar.

027Just around the corner from the Tiki Bar, there is this concession stand.

046It was Buck Night — or was it Dollar Night? — at Tradition Field. Jay took full advantage.

Yep: Five hot dogs, five bucks. Jay was pleased with this arrangement.

038Specifically, these are Nathan’s Hot Dogs.

“They’re good. They’re Nathan’s,” said Jay. “It’s not the same as the [original] New York Nathan’s [in Coney Island], but for $1 you can’t lose. But it doesn’t have the same texture, the same skin, as the original Nathan’s. But it’s still good.”

Jay also enjoyed, or at least tolerated, an order of Nathan’s fries (he can be seen holding one such fry at the top of this post). My attempt at a closeup didn’t work so well, but here you go:

050“The fries are not as good as [the original] Nathan’s,” said Jay. “I like ’em more crunchy and hard.”

While Jay was indulging in his hot dogs and fries, I went and procured myself a Taco in a Helmet. At $6, the Taco in a Helmet is kind of a hard sell on dollar night, but dollar-night promos rarely include a decent gluten-free option and that’s what I was looking for.

Tortilla chips topped with ground beef, salsa, jalapenos, sour cream, lettuce and shredded cheese, modeled by a 30-something baseball writer who is — yes, ladies — single once again.

037Taco in a Helmet — ready for its closeup.

041When you’re done, turn it around and  — Bam! — souvenir.

044Speaking of souvenirs, here’s a #cupdate for all you cup-collecting fiends who will otherwise hound me day and night with your cup-related requests.

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043Finally, dessert! I don’t think I’d ever seen this at a Minor League ballpark before.

049The above photo depicts “Dirt in a Hat” — chocolate pudding with Oreo crumbles and Gummy worms.

051“I like it. It’s good, a perfect way to end the game,” said Jay. “It’s a good combo, the Oreos and the pudding are crunchy and creamy and then there’s the sweetness of the worms. It’s a win-win.”

And that’s when Jay and I parted ways, as he was enjoying the sweetness of the worms.

053Thanks for everything, Jay. You performed your designated eating duties with aplomb and verve.

And thanks for everything, St. Lucie. I really enjoyed my evening at Tradition Field.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Visiting an Historic Destination in Vero Beach

To see all of my posts from this visit to Historic Dodgertown (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The fifth stop on this, my first Minor League ballpark road trip of the season, was Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Historic Dodgertown, which opened in 1948 without the “Historic” designation, is a former naval barracks converted by Branch Rickey into the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Spring Training home. Its creation was largely motivated by the desire to provide the team with a racially integrated training site.

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The sprawling grounds of Dodgertown — words which should be a refrain in a Bruce Springsteen song — include Holman Stadium.

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This facility hasn’t hosted a Minor League Baseball team since 2008 (RIP Vero Beach Devil Rays), but it comes alive each April 15 for the annual Jackie Robinson Celebration Game. The 2015 iteration of this game was to feature the Brevard County Manatees and St. Lucie Mets. This is what I was in Vero Beach to witness.

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On the Road: Dining at the Dean in Jupiter

To see all of my posts from this visit to Roger Dean Stadium (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Florida State League food options are generally quite spartan. While many teams in the industry are known for their overstuffed culinary bombast, those in the FSL often adhere to an austere minimalism. The league is a Terry Riley in a sea of King Crimsons.

But enough with the alienating and indulgent references. I’m here to write — and you’re hear to read — about the food offerings at Roger Dean Stadium (home of both the Jupiter Hammerheads and Palm Beach Cardinals). Once Major League Spring Training is in the rear view, the facility tones downs its concession offerings considerably. This makes sense, because a typical Florida State League crowd is approximately 1/8th the size of those who flock to the stadium to watch the big leaguers play exhibition games in March.

On the night I was in attendance — April 14, for those keeping score at home — the Jupiter Hammerheads were in town. And my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was a young go-getter by the name of Stephen Goldsmith.

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Stephen, a native of Princeton, New Jersey, is a senior at Boca Raton’s Lynn University. In fact, he’ll be graduating on Saturday (May 16) with a degree in sports management. (Lynn’s sports management program is run by professor Ted Curtis, a hands-on individual who annually brings groups of students to the Winter Meetings so that they may experience the machinations and maneuverings of the baseball industry firsthand. In this capacity, he and his students regularly makes appearances on this blog.)

This marked Stephen’s second game at Roger Dean Stadium. He said that he signed up to be a designated eater simply for the “chance to do something new when attending the ballgame.” Stephen will soon be garnering plenty of new baseball experiences, however, as upon graduating he’ll move to Ohio in order to begin an internship with the New York-Penn League’s Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

Our journey began in the quiet concourse of Roger Dean Stadium.

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The Island Grill was the only game in town, concessions-wise.

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The sky was the limit for Stephen, who was the beneficiary of this bit of front office largesse. When Ben Hill is in town, he gets “whatever he wants, all night long.” It says so in my rider.

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We simply ordered everything that was on the menu: a “Dean Dog,” brat, “Super Nachos” and Italian sausage.

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Have at it, Stephen:

Stephen was able to masticate so unselfconsciously because we were in a secluded area of the ballpark. The only people around were some kids having a catch.

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Oh, and a couple of his friends were on hand as well. That’s Morgan Goldstein on the left and Zachary Umanski on the right, both of whom, like Stephen, attend Lynn University.

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Umanski, for the record, has now made two appearances on this blog. I’m sure he’ll be putting this on his resume.

IMG_0547 Okay, Stephen. What did you think about the bounty that had been laid before you?

“I’m a big sausage fan. I’ve had a lot of sausage,” he said. “I think this one was cooked really well. The brat was really good, too, especially in the middle portion. Just a smooth taste, and the addition of the mustard makes it that much better. The Dean Dog, it was a regular hot dog. Usually I have a hot dog with mustard but I wanted to try it with ketchup. It tasted fine.”

As for the “Super Nachos”?

“Eh, they’re just nachos.”

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Oh, and there was Carly’s Italian Ice for dessert — which I, for one, greatly enjoyed.

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I’m not sure that Stephen enjoyed the Italian ice, however. He seemed to be in a state of deep regret.

“It was good, and very filling,” he said. “I would have liked my taste buds to have been more challenged, though, because I can get a hot dog on the street.”

048Nearly a month has passed, so I hope Stephen is feeling a little better these days. And keep an eye out for him at the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ home of Eastwood Field this season. His opinions on sausage are worth listening to.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Never Done Eating in Dunedin

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my posts from this visit to the Dunedin Blue Jays (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Florida State League concession menus generally don’t go too far beyond “the basics.” This was certainly the case in Dunedin, especially since I attended on a sleepy Monday. (See the first part of my Dunedin report HERE and part two HERE.)

But, nonetheless, I had a designated eater to appease. (You know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)

This guy, specifically. In a designated eating first, he even brought along his own bodyguard.

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The scowling individual stuffing a hot dog down his gullet is Mike Lortz, a self-described “Minor League Baseball aficionado” who was a key contributor to the now-defunct Bus Leagues Baseball website. He also provides deep analysis of the Tampa Bay Baseball market via his accurately-named Tampa Bay Baseball Market blog. He’s also an “occasional stand-up comic” and a “current business student at the University of South Florida.”

The scowling individual standing behind Lortz is Jeff Perro, a former Minor League Baseball clubhouse attendant who can be found on Twitter via the accurately-named handle of @MiLBClubbie.

D-Jays assistant general manager Mike Liberatore, taking control of a potentially volatile situation, presented Mike with a selection of grilled meats.

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Seen above, from left to right, is a brat, Polish sausage and hot dog. Directly above that triumvirate, please find a cheeseburger.

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Mike was psyched to get underway. This fervor and dedication is common among designated eaters, who often approach their duties as if it was the defining moment of their lives.

Now that the moment had arrived, Mike found it impossible to contain himself:

After giving him an hour or two to collect his thoughts, Mike shared some of his opinions.

“It was an average ballpark cheeseburger. I threw a little ketchup on it. I figure you’re here, you want to know the details.”

“The brat had a little bit of spice to it. It was well cooked, and so were the peppers and onions.”

“The Polish sausage is really very juicy. I sound like a third grader here. You can take the ‘really’ off. But, this meal is bringing me back to my adolescence.”

“The hot dog is like the burger, typical ballpark fare. But it’s a thick frankfurter. Not chintzy.”

“It’s all good, man. I got food. Beer, food and baseball, who could ask for anything more?”

And with that, I left Mike to enjoy the rest of his meal in peace.

048 I then turned my attention to Perro, who is a permanent fan of Minor League Baseball. MiLB Life!

051Mike, meanwhile, has since provided his own designated eater perspective. He, at the least, is a self-aware beast:

There was only way to slow down the beast, the people decided. They had to sedate it with food. They clamored to their kitchens, grilling as much meat as they could. They killed cows, chickens, and hot dogs and threw their meat on the grill. Then they garnished the servings with bread and peppers and onions. Everything a beast likes to eat.

They placed their pile of food in front of the monster. With a voracious appetite, the monster gorged on the offerings.

The beast was eventually satiated, the concession stands finally shut down for the evening. This represented my time to shine:

Bam! Nailed it! And the best thing about that joke was how original it was. No one had made it before; it is mine and mine alone.

Anyhow, that’ll do it for this rollicking trilogy of Dunedin Blue Jays blog posts. I had a great time at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium — low attendance and minimal amenities notwithstanding, it is one of my favorite places to see a game in the Florida State League.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: More Than a Taste in Tampa

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my posts from this visit to the Tampa Yankees (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Before visiting the Tampa Yankees, the advanced intelligence I received regarding their concessions was that they didn’t go too far beyond the basics. And, okay, that’s fine. As the late Bill Valentine would have told you, the basics are what most people want. The basics have the highest profit margins, the basics are what teams should focus on.

But from my perspective, that’s kind of boring. When I recruit a designated eater — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits — I want, whenever possible, to focus on the regional specialties. Be it spiedies in Binghamton or BBQ in Birmingham, I want to highlight the food in a way that illuminates what’s popular in the surrounding community.

And, as it turned out, that’s just what I got in Tampa. April 12’s ballgame was originally scheduled as an early afternoon tilt, but pushed back three hours so that the team could host the annual “Taste of South Tampa.” 2015 marked the 10th time that this event had been held, but the first time in which it was staged at the Tampa Yankee’s home of Steinbrenner Field.

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Taste of South Tampa, held on the concourse, ran from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets to the event also included admission to that evening’s 5 p.m. Tampa Yankees game. Dozens of food and beverage vendors were on hand, distributing their signature items to all comers. Also on hand was Brian Cochrane, my designated eater for the day.

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Brian hails from Patchouge, New York, a town on the south shore of Long Island. He moved to Tampa two years ago, and now works at Hillsborough Community College (which is more or less located next door to Steinbrenner Field). He’s a “clinical supervisor for the diatetic technician program,” which, translated, means that he “works with students who do internships, coordinates who goes where, and offers academic guidance.” In his down time he’s become a huge fan of the Florida State League in general and the Tampa Yankees specifically.

Brian said that he wanted to be the designated eater because “if it’s free, it’s for me.” Also, it meant that he got to “have fun, and showcased on a blog and website I enjoy looking at. It’s great to be involved with something you only usually read about.”

“But, Brian,” I asked him. “Won’t gorging yourself on food run counter to the creed of the dietetic technician?”

“Let’s just say that this is my cheat day,” he replied. “Balance and moderation, but not today.”

Brian was ready to donuts, in other words.

Things started off relatively healthily, actually, with the literal and figurative mouthful that was “Scottish smoked salmon with lemon dill sauce on quinoa salad and a fresh Louisiana kale salad” courtesy of the Rollin’ Oats market and cafe.

(Also, this was gluten-free! So that meant I could — and did — indulge as well.)

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“The salmon, you can tell that it’s fresh,” said Brian. “Great nutrition.”

Next up was “Cheesy Crab Nachos” from Pincher’s seafood shack.

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“I think that there should be more crab,” said Brian. “These are very clam chowdery.”

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From then it was on to crab cakes, lollipop chicken and beef wellington from The Fox “cool” jazz club.

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“The chicken was good,” said Brian. “The others tasted like microwavable frozen food.”

By the time I glanced up from my notebook, Brian was lost in the crowd.

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After momentarily mistaking him for a guy advertising his preference for nearby females…

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…I found him chowing down on a pulled pork sandwich from the Doubletree Hilton Player’s Club.

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Brian, who was turning out to be a tough-but-fair food critic, said that the “pork-to-bun ratio” was lacking and that it was also “kind of dry.”

Things turned around after visiting the Carmel Kitchen and Wine Bar, which offered a veggie crisp (gluten-free!) dipped in chickpea hummus and served with gazpacho.

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“This is homemade, crisp and the soup is pleasing,” said Brian. I concurred — while my options were obviosuly more limited than his, this was the best thing I tasted at the event.

But there was no time to reflect. Brian wanted more and Brian would not be denied. Here we have pita bread with potato salad from Louis Pappas Market and Cafe. 014

“The pita bread is a little rough, a little chewy,” said Brian. “But this has good flavor and texture.”

From Louis Pappas, it was a proverbial hop, skip and a jump to the Cuban sandwiches offered by The Press Box. This had ham, pork, salami, mayo, mustard, pickle and Swiss cheese.

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“They used good ingredients, and the meat is cooked well,” said Brian.

In the first photo of Brian I used in this post, you’ll note that he was carrying donuts. These, for the record, were from Perks Donut Bar and Brian gave them a muscular endorsement. He then moved on to the items seen briefly in the above Vine video — a pulled pork hamburger from American Eats and some chili and chips (the origin of which I cannot ascertain). The whole thing was a whirlwind, really. We had been at the event for an hour at this point and, as it was nearing 4 p.m., it was beginning to wind down.

When Brian stopped by Beef O’Brady’s to get some wings, the servers there ended up giving him 15 or so. Everything must go!

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And that was it for the Taste of South Tampa.

Thanks to Brian for being such a good sport, and to the Tampa Yankees for granting us both full access to the event. Now that Brian’s finally done eating, the next series of posts on the blog will focus on Dunedin. That, my friends, is a joke that never gets old.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Designated Eater: Joe Mynaugh in Bradenton

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my posts from this visit to the Bradenton Marauders, click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

As many of you know, in 2012 I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Therefore, I recruit a designated eater at each ballpark I visit, and this individual is tasked with eating the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. At the Bradenton Marauders’ home of McKechnie Field, this individual was a man by the name of Joe Mynaugh.

Hey, Joe. Where ya going with that bun in your hand?

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Joe is no stranger to the world of Minor League Baseball. He grew up in Aberdeen, home of the New York-Penn League IronBirds, and served as the team’s bat boy during the 2008-09 seasons. (I forgot to ask him what it was like to witness Tim Spooneybarger’s comeback attempt.) He moved to Florida last year so that he could work as a groundskeeper at Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium (Spring Training home of the Orioles). Currently, he is employed by Sarasota County. He is a Bradenton Marauders season ticket holder — $300 covers the cost of all 70 home games, and he is also able to attend the team’s road games for free.

“I work on a field during the day, and in the evening I just sit back and watch,” said Joe.

But this evening, Joe wouldn’t be sitting back and watching. No, he’d be wandering around with me and eating. The Marauders — and this is common throughout the FSL — generally stick to the basics when it comes to ballpark cuisine. Nonetheless, we carefully considered our options at the Pirates Cove Grill and The Pitt Stop.

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In the end, Joe opted for the most unique — and, at $10 — most expensive item on the menu: a pulled pork sandwich with mac and cheese provided by regional chain Sonny’s BBQ.

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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: A Blogging Ouroboros in Wisconsin

Like a snake eating its own tail, this series of Midwest League “On the Road” posts shall end where it began: in Appleton, WI, home of a snake entity that avoids tail devourance whenever possible. That entity is the Timber Rattlers and, as you may recall, I spent two nights with the team but only documented one of them (in two parts) before moving on to other stops on my itinerary. Today, we document night two, in one part.

This all makes sense. Just believe.

My second evening in Appleton was “Salute to Outdoors Night,” and the outdoors were saluted thusly:

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Flaunt that cash

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Still flauntin’

 The team wore these theme jerseys, and fans had the opportunity to bid on them. I wonder how many bucks they ended up going for?

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And if exotic jerky is your thing, then you were in luck.

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My work day began with an interview, as I talked to this triumvirate of bullpen denizens about their money-making “Quarter Game” scheme that I had observed the evening before.

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That’s Jonathan Marmold, thee Mike Strong, and Taylor Wall, a good humored group of guys. My interview with them became part one of the Midwest League bullpen trilogy, which will almost certainly net me a Pulitzer or at the very least recognition from the sports media world at large. (Hi guys!) If you haven’t read it then please do so! 

Timber Rattlers broadcaster Chris Mehring arranged the above interview, and I then turned the table by interviewing him. Chris is the dean of the Midwest League and a storehouse of pop culture ephemera, truly one of the most interesting people in Minor League Baseball. It was he who suggested the word “ouroboros” to describe this blog post, and it was he who closed the interview with a pitch-perfect Sledge Hammer! reference. 

Chris is too elusive to be photographed, but the Timber Rattlers players were easy to capture. This is why I went to Wisconsin in the first place, because so many people extolled the virtues of the dairy air.

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I was in the dugout at the time the game started because I had been recruited to be a contestant in the nightly “Super Ropes Super Pull” contest. This is me and my opponent, whose name I unfortunately I cannot recall.

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Show time!

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This game is intense! I’m still kind of sore from it.

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Did any of this make sense to you? Me neither! Perhaps this video will help:

Yes, I lost. It was something I needed to get used to, because after the Super Rope Super Pull I remained in the dugout in order to compete in yet another on-field contest. In this one I was pitted against Timber Rattlers hitting coach Dusty Rhodes in a duck calling contest. This gave us a chance to utilize the, yes, duck calls that were given to fans as they entered the stadium on this fine evening of outdoors salutation.

I’ve never gone hunting before. I had no idea what I was doing, and ended up looking like a duck call was perhaps something one smoked out of.

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This was a set-up, as Dusty Rhodes turned out to be some sort of duck calling virtuoso. I wish that I had video, because he had sounds coming out of that thing that I wouldn’t have thought possible.

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Fang and I, we were not worthy.

Nice appendages, snake.

Nice appendages, snake.

But don’t worry, there were still plenty more opportunities for humiliation. As soon as my duck calling stint was over, I was ushered over to a storage area beyond the outfield so that I could suit up as a contestant in the nightly Merkts cheese race.

I was sharp cheddar.

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080One of my competitors.

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While waiting for our moment in the spotlight, I made some friends.

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Off to the races!

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Once again, the video shall tell the tale.

As you can see in the video, Timber Rattlers evil mascot Gnaf made a rare appearance. If you’re a fan of inane wordplay, anemic putdowns, and exaggerated self-confidence as a means to disguise intense self-loathing then make sure to follow Gnaf on Twitter! 

The Timber Rattlers had much more “Outdoors Night” shenanigans going on throughout the evening, as this photo that appeared on the team’s Facebook page illustrates.

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But for me it was time for a change of pace. The day before myself and an affable designated eating duo had spent a lot of time sampling the team’s concession offerings, but little did I know that there was WAY more where that came from. Fox Cities Stadium underwent a lot of renovations over the past year, and one of the most notable additions was an upstairs club level featuring “upscale” ballpark food (as in you eat it, and then the numbers on the scale go up!)

Here’s the menu, created under the expert guidance of chef Timothy Hansen.

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I sat down at a table and was soon rendered speechless as Hansen and co. brought out a dizzying array of dishes. Some were from the menu above and some are only available when the team hosts private events such as wedding receptions, but all looked delicious.

And many of these dishes were gluten-free. I was starting to get excited!

The above items soon had many companions.

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The centerpiece there is a “shrimp ceviche martini,” excellently prepared with a citrus-y salsa-style sauce. To the left of that is sesame tuna on endive with pineapple salsa (!) and then, moving clockwise: a BLT wedge salad (romaine lettuce, peppercorn ranch dressing, chopped pepper bacon, tomatoes and scallions), Caribbean jerk wings (gluten free ingredients!), Philly cheese cake (sredded ribeye, peppers, onions and nacho cheese on an Amoroso roll, and a crab cake sandwich with a side of remoulade.

Oh, and soon this Caesar salad with blackened salmon appeared! Just so we’re clear, all of this was prepared onsite at a Class A Minor League Baseball stadium.

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I couldn’t help but nibble on the many exemplary gluten-free offerings, but I kept in control.

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I was waiting for my designated eater — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits. In this case this individual was one Jim Meulendyke, who worked for the team in 2011 and 2012 (as an intern and then in group sales). Jim now lives in Minnesota (“I left Minor League Baseball for a girl,” he told me) and was in town for a visit.

Jim was making the most of this visit — when I was waiting for him upstairs, he was on the field taking part in a dancing grounds crew routine. I watched it on TV:

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 That’s Jim on the left:

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And — hey! — here he is, just after taking a big bite of crab cake.

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Jim was really enthusiastic about the food, and also one of the most articulate designated eaters I’ve worked with so far.

“You can taste the crab but its not overpowering,” he said. “But the sauce, the sauce is so good. The bun is really good but it’s the sauce that wins me over. It’s got a little kick to it, and complements the crab so well.”

Next was the cheesesteak.

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“Holy [Schmidt] that’s tasty! Oh that cheese is so good and this is melt in your mouth steak!” exclaimed Jim. “Sometimes Philly steak is too chewy and you find yourself battling it but with this all the flavors are simultaneous, and with that little bit of pepper and onion it is just perfect. Oh, crap, that is good. This is like heaven.”

And with that, Jim Meulendyke is a strong contender to win the coveted honor of “best designated eating quote of 2013.”

Oh, and how ’bout some Caribbean wings?

Already devoured

Already devoured

“At first it tastes good, but I was thinking that if you’re going to go Caribbean then you’ve got to have more kick to it,” said Jim. “But as I set the bone down and was going for wing number two, it started to feel like a sauna in my mouth. It’s an awesome taste, that straight jerk style, it settles in and makes a home.”

The Jim Meulendyke power rankings:

After bidding goodbye to Jim and chef Hansen (who clearly does excellent work), I had just enough time to utilize the duck call.

As the desultory sounds of faux duck echoed through the stands, the visitors emerged with a victory.

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There was a post-game concert in the club level, so I unwound from yet another action-packed evening with a (very generously poured) Jameson on the rocks (sponsor me, Jameson!) and listened to the music.

112 Outdoors Night was a success.

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Also a success was this Midwest League road trip, which provided me with more and better content than any trip I’ve ever gone on. Ever. Thanks to all involved for making it so action-packed and enjoyable, and stay tuned for the next trip!

August 3 – Bakersfield Blaze

August 4 — Visalia Rawhide

August 5 – Fresno Grizzlies

August 6 – Modesto Nuts

August 7 – Stockton Ports

August 8 – Reno Aces

August 9 — Travel — (Crater Lake!)

August 10 and 11 — Hillsboro Hops

This one’s going to be epic, I think. Get in touch with any all suggestions regarding how I should spend my time while out West.

But until then, THIS CANNOT BE LOUD ENOUGH!!! IT CAN NEVER BE LOUD ENOUGH!!!

Mugstar are the best band ever to emerge from Liverpool and their music sounds like my brain.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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