Results tagged ‘ Florida State League ’

Guest Post: Recapping a Grapefruit League Road Trip

Jae Canetti is an eighth-grade student and an avid baseball fan from the Washington, D.C. area.  Next year, he will be attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where he hopes to play baseball for the Colonials and study astrophysics.

Last month, he and his family visited Spring Training ballparks throughout the Grapefruit League, many of which host Florida State League ballparks during the regular season. Jae, a long-time reader of this blog, now shares his experience:

 On March 18, 2016, after months of counting down to my family’s long-planned trip to Spring Training in Florida, I woke up to my dad blasting “Centerfield” by John Fogerty in my ear and dancing around like Christmas had come early. With the song playing on repeat, my parents and I packed everything up, hopped into our Honda and set out down I-95.

We were greeted at the Florida Welcome Center by free orange juice and a giant banner advertising Spring Training as one of Florida’s main attractions. An entire corner of the building was filled with brochures about spring baseball and decorated with pennants for each of the 15 Major League teams that make up the Grapefruit League.

Our itinerary took us to seven Spring Training facilities over the span of a week.  We began at Champion Field in Disney World, where we saw the Braves host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers.

Picture 1 - Champion Field

Before the game, we were treated to the sight of a laid-back Miggy taking infield practice while appearing to urge the Tigers coaches not to hit those grounders at him too hard.

Picture 2 - Miguel Cabrera Enjoys Infield Practice

We also ventured over to the Braves’ minor league complex behind the stadium where I, a Minor League Baseball fanatic, sought out and found some of the team’s top prospects. I obtained autographs from Ozzie Albies and Touki Toussaint, the Braves’ #3 and #6 prospects, respectively.

Most exciting for me, however, was my conversation with Dansby Swanson, the Braves’ top prospect (the #8 overall prospect in Major League Baseball) and last year’s first overall draft pick. He and Trey Keegan, a catcher in the Braves organization, were nice enough to take a picture with me, even though I was wearing some of my Tigers gear from Little League. Meeting and talking to these two guys was a highlight of my trip and I can’t thank them enough.

Picture 3 - With Dansby Swanson & Trey Keegan

Dansby Swanson, Jae and Trey Keegan

We then launched ourselves to Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals were ending their final spring before leaving Viera for a new home in West Palm Beach.

Picture 4 - Space Coast Stadium

As Nationals devotees, my father and I came to the park determined to buy Nationals hats with the 2016 Spring Training patch on the side. As a cap collector, this purchase was at the top my trip agenda. The hats were flying off of the shelves, but we managed to grab a pair.

Picture 5 - Nats Cap With 2016 Spring Training Patch

Sporting our new caps, we watched one of the last games that the Nationals would ever play in Viera. They won it on the strength of a home run by Wilson Ramos and a two-run double by Ryan Zimmerman.

Picture 6 - Wilson Ramos Homers (32116 - Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida)

Ramos makes contact

Due to some pre-trip confusion, we scheduled our next stopover at the Mets’ Spring Training home in Port St. Lucie on a day when they were playing in Tampa (oops).  Having made this realization, we rejiggered our plans and used this location as our jumping-off point to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. My dad had purchased special tickets that allowed us to enter an hour before the gates usually opened to watch batting practice, and what we saw when we got to the gates was shocking.

Roger Dean Stadium is shared by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who happened to be playing each other that day. We came to the park expecting a somewhat equal balance of Marlins and Cards fans. Instead, we were greeted at the gates by a sea of Cardinals red. The entire stadium was filled with the Cardinals faithful, and not a Marlins fan was anywhere to be seen. Marlins fans, your team plays here too. To make things worse, the Cards were designated as the “home team” that day, meaning that even the PA announcer was on the Cardinals’ side.

Our seats for this game were… well… not seats.  The game sold out long before we arrived in Jupiter — apparently to Cardinals fans exclusively — so the only remaining tickets were standing-room-only. My dad and I chose the section along the left field line near the Marlins’ bullpen.

Picture 7 - Ichiro (32316 - Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Florida

Ichiro in action at Roger Dean Stadium

If you’re one of those people who buys a standing-room-only ticket and then sneaks behind home plate in the fourth inning while the usher isn’t looking (you know who you are … I tried), Cardinals games at Roger Dean Stadium are not for you. At most of the Spring Training games we attended, there was a steady flow of people exiting the stadium by the eighth inning or so. However, at this game, the only people I saw leaving before the last out were two poor Marlins fans (the only ones there) who got kicked out of the stadium for heckling their own team. I knew that the Cardinals may have the most dedicated fan base in baseball, but these fans took Spring Training to a whole new level. Long story short: If you want a seat for a Cardinals game at Roger Dean Stadium, buy a ticket.  Early.

Back in Port St. Lucie, we found a batting cage near our hotel. I wanted to take some swings to prepare for my own baseball season. After a few sessions in the cage, a young man asked us how to operate the payment system. After engaging in a short conversation with him, we discovered that we were talking to Christian Montgomery, a New York Mets prospect who will begin this season pitching for Double-A Binghamton. This was my second time talking to professional ballplayers in three days.  Talk about getting lucky.

My elation dimmed upon returning to the hotel when we discovered that the Red Sox game we planned to attend the next day in Fort Myers was also sold out. Even standing-room-only tickets were gone. Apparently, Red Sox fans give Cardinals fans a run for their money in Spring Training enthusiasm. We still had to drive to Fort Myers because we had hotel reservations there. However, we were now free to take a detour half a mile up the road to Tradition Field, which the Mets open to the public at no charge from 9:30 until 11:30 each morning. While there, we watched David Wright, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes go through their morning routines.  Manager Terry Collins even wandered over to the fence, spoke to fans, and autographed a ball for me.

Picture 8 - Mets Camp (32416 - Port St. Lucie, Florida)

Terry Collins, between the seams

Terry Collins, between the seams

After about an hour, we had to leave for Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida. Although there was no way we could get into the Red Sox game, we found out that there were two Minor League games being played at the training complex behind the stadium and decided that we could not pass up the chance to see one of the nicest facilities in the Grapefruit League.

Picture 10 - jetBlue Park (32416)

My dad and I ended up watching a game between the Greenville Drive (Class A Red Sox affiliate) and the Delmarva Shorebirds (Class A Baltimore Orioles). As we watched, we heard loud cheers and the famous singing of “Sweet Caroline” coming from inside JetBlue Park as the big league game wound down. Outside, it began to rain in the late innings of the Minor League games that were taking place. After a considerable downpour, the coaches got together and spontaneously called the games off. As a 10-year veteran of Little League Baseball, I can tell you that this was eerily familiar to me. I have had numerous games unceremoniously ended due to weather, never to be completed or rescheduled. Some things never change, do they?

But this was not the end of that day’s excitement. Earlier, one of the Orioles’ Minor Leaguers chipped his bat. As he walked past me on the way back to the clubhouse, I stopped him and asked him if he needed it. He was incredibly friendly, gave me the broken bat and even signed it. Many thanks to Alejandro Juvier. Your bat is a fantastic souvenir that now has a home in front of my bed.

After Fort Myers, we turned north toward Sarasota to see the Orioles play the Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium. Before the game, we met up with former neighbors who moved to Sarasota last summer. This was fun in and of itself, but as an additional surprise our friends had arranged for us to visit the home of their new friends Fernando and Kristi Cuza. Mr. Cuza is a leading agent for Latin players — including many household names — and they invited us to tour their memorabilia room.

My jaw dropped at the sight of the collection. I would say that the Cuzas’ assortment of memorabilia easily rivals a gallery in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (and I’ve been there — twice). Mrs. Cuza was very gracious with her time and shared many insights into her and her husband’s baseball experiences. But the Cuzas’ generosity didn’t stop there. Mr. Cuza gave me a baseball autographed by Miguel Cabrera!

Picture 11 - Miguel Cabrera Signed Baseball

We then made our way to Ed Smith Stadium, where we witnessed an absolute slugfest. The Orioles hit four home runs and the Yankees slammed two, on top of a few hard-hit doubles. We watched those baseballs fly out of the stadium from what I believe was the best standing-room-only view out of all of the parks we visited.

Picture 12 - Ed Smith Stadium (32516)

Our final day found us unexpectedly attending a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers at the Phillies’ home park of Bright House Field in Clearwater. We originally planned to attend a Blue Jays game in Dunedin, but that game sold out (again). By going to this game, however, we completed an unintentional tour of every National League East camp.

The game turned out to be entertaining, with a late-inning Tigers comeback to rob the Phillies of a win.  More importantly, we witnessed Justin Verlander’s hilarious bunt and walk to first base that later went viral.  If you missed it, Verlander laid down a bunt with two strikes against him and then proceeded to take about two slow steps toward first before being thrown out. As he veered off toward the Tigers’ dugout, all of the fans on that side of the stadium let loose with a barrage of light-hearted jeers, to which Verlander responded with an elegant doffing of his helmet.

The final out of that game marked the conclusion of our time in Florida. Over the following days, we drove back home with a new (broken) bat, several autographed baseballs, an assortment of Spring Training gear and a week of memories that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to see what the regular season holds. Go Nationals!

Picture 13 - Equipment Bag

***

Thanks to Jae for contributing this post, which, not surprisingly, contains no spelling errors. If you find yourself intrigued by the idea of contributing a guest blog post, then get in touch. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Return to the Road: From Parts Unknown to Five Points

Part One of this Florida-based “Return to the Road” saga covered my non-ballpark wanderings in the general area of Bradenton, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Part Two focused on my visit to Minor League Baseball headquarters in St. Petersburg. This, Part Three, covers the final section of April’s trip through the Sunshine State.

We begin on April 15, when I visited — you guessed it — a record store. This one is located in the greater Palm Beach area, but here’s the thing: I no longer remember where, exactly, I was or what this record store was called. I’m sure a helpful reader — most likely Ed Pelegrino — will soon fill me in.

IMG_0923This particular record store was quite expansive. I got a copy of Sparks “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” for, like $7 bucks. Great deal, and if you’re a fan of Sparks then you’re a friend of mine. I also bought “Use Your Illusion II” on CD, as part of my ongoing effort to own all Guns N’ Roses albums in all formats.

Fascinating stuff, right? The next several days, as I made my way through Vero Beach, St. Lucie and Brevard County, are similarly bereft of non-ballpark related materials. At one point I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in St. Lucie and was dismayed to find that their pork chops were off the bone and of a weirdly pinkish hue.

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I do remember that, after attending April 18’s Brevard County Manatees game, I was craving Buffalo Wild Wings. The closest one was, like, 20 miles away, so I called in my order and then made the drive there on Route 95. When I got there, my order wasn’t ready and, in fact, they hadn’t even started it yet.

But all’s well that end’s well. On these road trips I’m overwhelmed with details and often lost within my own manic mind, and sometimes a meal like this in a hotel room represents the pinnacle of relaxation and luxury.

IMG_1027I mean, just look how happy I was.

IMG_1028After eating my dinner, I found this Man of Steel Blu-Ray underneath a chair. I did not take it, because I do not know what a Blu-Ray is, and superhero movies are uniformly terrible (there are no exceptions to this rule).

IMG_1029Nonetheless, I was inspired to go out into the lobby and create a superhero of my own. I am Feline Man, who travels with his trusty sidekick, Cobra Guy, fighting bad guys up and down the dangerous back roads of Brevard County.

IMG_1025The following day, April 19, was one of the busiest and multi-faceted days that I enjoyed while on the road this season. I got up bright and early and got on good ol’ 95, barreling toward Jacksonville. As I did when en route to Pensacola in 2012, I stopped at one of the infinitely appealing roadside tourist traps.

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IMG_1031Florida citrus —  believe the hype! It is remarkable how much more flavor it has, when consumed at peak freshness. And there is a variety beyond what one can find at grocery stores in other parts of the country.

IMG_1032In the early afternoon, I arrived at Jacksonville’s Budweiser brewery.

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Why was I here? Because there is a reason for everything.

The night before, while emailing Suns staff about logistics related to my imminent visit, Suns box office manager (and seamstress!) Theresa Viets said I should stop by the brewery’s parking lot food truck fest if I had the time.

IMG_1036I enjoyed a typically healthy road trip lunch…

IMG_1037…but food wasn’t the reason I stopped by. Theresa’s recommendation was based on the fact that Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, one of her favorite local bands, was playing.

IMG_1034Early afternoon on a hot summer’s day is definitely not an ideal time for a band like Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, whose incredibly adept bluegrass blazers are best suited to late whisky nights. But, regardless, I was amazed at how good these guys are; incredible finger-picking skills, clever and often darkly humorous lyrics and an innate chemistry that can only be honed by playing live on a regular basis.

Here’s the title track off of their latest album, which I bought right after they finished playing (to a disinterested, sun-baked audience). I mean, my goodness. This band deserves a much wider profile.

I still had about two hours before my scheduled arrival at the ballpark, so I drove from the brewery to Jacksonville’s Five Points neighborhood.

IMG_1055Five Points is named for the Five Points intersection, which, as its name suggests, represents the confluence of five roads. This is not a good photo, but here you go.

IMG_1041I parked on a nearby residential street, who knows where, and walked past “Troops of Time” en route to bustling Park Street. I really should have gone inside. Despite being a longtime Martika fan, I’ve never visited a toy soldier store.

IMG_1039Prior to my trip, Jacksonville native (and current Charleston Riverdogs operations director) Philip Guiry sent me an email extolling the virtues of the neighborhood. It read, in part:

5 Points, just north and west of downtown and The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, has Deep Search Records, a bar called Rain Dogs, a weird beer/misc. store called Cask, another bar called Starlight, I think? And a dope movie theater (Sun-Ray), a one screen joint with beer, pizza, indie movies, live shows, and Hollywood movies, too.

It also has Wall Street, which is my favorite dive in Jax.

IMG_1042The Sun-Ray Cinema:

IMG_1045I really enjoyed poking around Fans and Stoves, which was filled with all manner of interesting cultural detritus. I walked out of there with some old postcards and a vintage MAD magazine.

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IMG_1046Deep Search Records:

IMG_1051It was National Record Store Day, so Deep Search was hopping. I bought the recent double LP reissue of the Melvins “Lysol” and “Eggnog”, as well as Dio’s “Sacred Heart” on cassette.

IMG_1053And, though the date had passed, I was happy to see this flyer on my way out the door. Go see the Baseball Project live. They’re great.

IMG_1054And, well, that’ll do it for my “Return to the Road” recap of April’s trip to the Sunshine State. Stay tuned for similar material throughout the remainder of the offseason. You’ll be glad you did. Or at least I think you’ll be glad. Who really does know? I sure don’t.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Return to the Road: Spending Some QT at Minor League Baseball HQ

Part One of this “Return to the Road” saga covered my non-ballpark wanderings in the general area of Bradenton, Tampa and St. Petersburg. This post, which I will cleverly refer to as Part Two, picks up right where I left off in, still in St. Petersburg. After a quick stroll through the city’s downtown, I hopped back into the rental vehicle and drove to an unassuming office park. This is the site of Minor League Baseball headquarters.
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I’ve been to MiLB headquarters before, in 2012. The above photo was taken during that visit, which yielded a blog post as well as a MiLB.com article. As in 2012, I spent a nice chunk of time exploring the building’s treasure trove of historical Minor League artifacts. Jeff Lantz, Minor League Baseball’s director of communications, served as my tour guide.

This narrow cinder-block room, fireproof and lined with filing cabinets, gives on an indication as to how player data was stored in the pre-digital age.

009Each index card represents a different player, some of whom you may have heard of.

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007Some of the cards contain a detailed record of the player’s transaction history. I must have taken a photo of this one simply because it was located in the first drawer. John Ackley played seven seasons in the Red Sox system, from 1979-85.

011Above the photo cabinets are bookshelves, lined with vintage baseball guides produced by various entities. I was afraid to touch the older ones, lest they disintegrate in my hand.

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More reading material can be found in the library, which totally makes sense. Shelves such as this might not look particularly interesting, but looks can be deceiving.

013This, for example, is a NAPBL rulebook from 1928.

014“Viz” which essentially means “to wit” or “for example” is rarely used anymore. I think it’s time to bring back the viz!

015This, from 1955, lists the Spring Training sites and hotels utilized by Minor League clubs. Note that Oakland stayed in the “Barbara Worth Hotel.”

017My favorite item in the MiLB HQ library remains the NAPBL’s telegraph code book, which I stumbled upon during my 2012 visit. A brief recap: 
IiFUElAr
How it works:

0233Representative text:

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click to enlarge

If time was not of the essence, I would have spent the remainder of the day in the Minor League Baseball library. But time was of the essence, and there was still one more room I absolutely had to visit.

IMG_0901The legendary hat wall, a point of obsession for a certain subset of baseball fans, features the primary hat of all 160 affiliated Minor League teams. The hats are listed alphabetically, and I imagine that since this photo was taken the Hartford Yard Goats and Columbia Fireflies have been added (and the New Britain Rock Cats and Savannah Sand Gnats removed).

With the help of Jeff Lantz, I then produced the following Vine video.

And that just about did it for my time at Minor League Baseball Headquarters, as I was due to catch that evening’s Dunedin Blue Jays game. All I remember about the drive from St. Petersburg to Dunedin was that the weather was bad and the traffic awful.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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Return to the Road: Driving in Sunshine

Regular readers of this blog might recall that, in years past, I supplemented  my “On the Road” ballpark material with “Return to the Road” posts detailing that which I was able to experience outside of the ballpark. I always enjoyed doing this, but as my operation has expanded (in scope, if not in scale) I have found it increasingly difficult to incorporate “non-ballpark” activity into my schedule.

That said, I do my best, and figured that these early months of 2016 represented a good opportunity to go back and revisit my 2015 trips. Yes, let’s Return to the Road! This post will focus on my trip to Florida, which took place from April 11 to the 19th.

Ben_Map_April_2015_Florida_7hzbjnkzDespite the relatively short drives from ballpark to ballpark on this trip, I didn’t have the time to explore many of the towns themselves. I didn’t even set foot on a beach, outside of the night I sleepwalked onto one while wearing an ankle-length gown and nightcap. But what I’ve got is something, and something is always better than nothing.

April 11

It all started in the town of Pinellas Park, Florida, where I set up shop prior to visiting the nearby Bradenton Marauders. As you can see, this is an American town like no other, one in which Mr. Pool uses supplementary signage to clarify that he does, indeed, sell pools.

IMG_0845Being gluten-free on the road is tough. Since my celiac disease diagnosis, I always pack an extra bag of road snacks to insure that I’ll have an option. But best of all is finding something that meets my needs and tastes great. Often, that something is Vietnamese. When I saw this sign, I was like “Pho Quyen, awesome!”

IMG_0843 Lunch of champions.

IMG_0842Pho Quyen is located within a shopping center with a line-up of stores quite unlike any shopping center I had been in. (Purple Ringer is, perhaps inevitably, a smoke shop.)

IMG_0844Later in the day, on the way to Bradenton, I drove over a bridge.

IMG_0846April 12

The objective on this day was to get to Steinbrenner Field, home of the Tampa Yankees, in time for a pregame local food fest on the concourse. Time was of the essence, but nonetheless I was able to make a pit stop at a record store.

IMG_0877This is Mojo Books and Records in Tampa. It opened in 2007, during a period when most stores of this nature were shutting down or in their death throes. Mojo is packed to the gills with new and used books, LPs and CDs, and a coffee shop is located on the premises as well. My lone photo does not do it justice.

IMG_0876Unfortunately I cannot locate the pocket notebook in which I wrote down what I purchased, but I know it included the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Freedom Tower — No Wave Dance Party” as well as a day-by-day diary “written” by Pete Rose as he chronicled his record-breaking 1985 season.

That evening, as I was driving from somewhere to somewhere, I discovered that Wawa (cultishly beloved in eastern Pennsylvania) exists in Florida as well. They even stocked Herr’s and Tastykake.

IMG_0894April 13

I spent the evening with the Dunedin Blue Jays, but prior to that I spent a nice chunk of the afternoon in St. Petersburg. I was impressed with the downtown area, Central Avenue, to be specific, which was vibrant and tree-lined. The State Theatre is located on the left hand side of the below photo, a venue that hosts a diverse array of concerts (although, looking at the current listings, none that I would pay to go see. Except maybe Bubba Sparxxx).

IMG_0896The Local 299, at the time (and maybe still) surrounded by scaffolding, also has live music.

IMG_0898Daddy Kool Records is located next door to Local 299. I went inside, and took my standard issue poor-quality photo.

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I enjoyed wandering through Daddy Kool’s but nothing was really jumping out of the stacks at me. I debated buying a record by Midnight, a Cleveland metal band, but it was, like, $30 bucks. I have a hard time understanding why records are that expensive. In lieu of that, I picked up Mudhoney’s “Live at Third Man Records” LP (marking the second day in a row I bought a new record by a band I’ve been a fan of for two decades. Old habits die hard).

I did not visit the Stoner Organization, as I am in no need of a health benefits specialist.

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My main objective in St. Petersburg, however, was to visit Minor League Baseball headquarters. I’ll write about that in the next post.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Elated and Inflated in Jacksonville

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jacksonville Suns (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.

This is the end! The last post from the last stop on my season-opening Florida ballpark road trip. I’m feeling a little loopy as I write this — it’s been a long day and I leave for my next trip tomorrow morning — but not as loopy as I felt while watching the Jacksonville Suns host the Montgomery Biscuits on this wet Saturday night in April.

080My old pals the Zooperstars! were in town.

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Things always get weird when the Zooperstars! are in town. Even when! I’m writing about the Zooperstars! things get weird, as I start! putting exclamation marks in all the wrong! places.

Southpaw was like “Oh, man, how can I compete with those inflatable dancing weirdos?”

IMG_1075“That was a rhetorical question,” Southpaw continued. “But I’ll answer it anyway. I can’t compete with those inflatable dancing weirdos. I just can’t. I’m outta here.”

IMG_1076Upon re-emerging on the concourse, I paid a visit to Pedro Bragan’s concourse “Chairman’s Box.” Here, he poses with his “Victory Bell,” a locomotive bell presented to his father, Peter Bragan Sr., by CSX Transportation.

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Considering that this game was preceded by a 102-minute rain delay, Pedro was satisfied with how many fans stuck around.

“That’s the power of the Zooperstars!,” he said. (The exclamation mark is part of the Zooperstars! name. Do not mistake its inclusion in the preceding quote for irrational exuberance on the part of Pedro.)

And when that Victory Bell rings, you can hear it everywhere. Even here, in the rain-soaked bleacher section.

084

085While I was out here in the bleacher wilderness, I enjoyed the kind of ballpark snack you just can’t find where I’m from: Salt and Vinegar Pork Rinds and Sweet Tea from the Front Porch Kettle Corn kiosk.

That’ll be it for Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville food coverage, as my designated eater (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) canceled. My attempts to get a new one failed. A lot of people showed interest on Twitter, but no one sent the email that I require. That’s all I ask for: an email. Courteous, conscientious communication. How hard is that?

Anyhow, here’s a photo of one of the concession stands. It’s the best I can do right now.

074After finishing my pork rinds and sweet tea, I continued my slow lap around the concourse. The game seemed like it was a million miles away.

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Here I am approaching the scoreboard. Repeat: Approaching the scoreboard.

090I had never been so close to a pitch clock before.

I believe that this interesting little left field protrusion is called “The Knuckle.”

094The Knuckle is at the intersection of Amen Circle and Home Run Alley.

095Once I made it back to the seating bowl, I happened upon my old Zooperstar! pal Harry Canary. He had just sung the seventh-inning stretch and needed to let off some steam.

(This is my most-watched Vine of all time.)

Harry then sprayed me with silly string. This is just the sort of thing Harry does. I’m think I’m going to use this as my new online dating profile pic.

IMG_1092I watched the end of the game in close proximity to Bragan’s “Chairman’s Box.”

100But the Victory Bell remained silent on this evening — the Biscuits won the ballgame.

101Thus concluded my time in Jacksonville and thus concluded my season-opening Florida road trip. I’m hitting the road again tomorrow.

See you soon, Midwest.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: A Long Reign and a Long Rain in Jacksonville

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jacksonville Suns (this is Part Two) 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.

I arrived at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville hours before that evening’s Suns game was supposed to be played. Therefore, I was able to snag a primo parking place. A very long home run to left field could smash the windshield, but, hey, whatever, it’s a rental car. YOLO.

001 The area surrounding the ballpark is kind of schizophrenic. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ home of EverBank Field is located just down the street.

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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.

032

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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.”

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On the Road: It’s All a Blur in Brevard County

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Brevard County Manatees (this is Part Two) 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 work in baseball, no matter what it is that you do, you’re going to have an off night. It’s a long season, and sometimes, for whatever reason, the results of your performance won’t meet previously established standards. Why am I saying this? Because, on this season-opening road trip, my visit to the Brevard County Manatees’ home of Space Coast Stadium was most definitely an off night. The combination of a hectic, overheated ballpark atmosphere (Little League Night) and short game time (two hours and 18 minutes) made it so I never found my footing. I was never in the groove. I wasn’t in control of the evening; the evening was in control of me.

C’est la vie. I did the best I could.

So here we go! Game time:

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Such was the scene in the top of the first inning, as Dunedin’s Roemon Fields led off the game with a walk and then proceeded to steal second and third. Such developments would have been news to these kids, because “Hey, kids, you’re looking the wrong way!”

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Baseball might not hold the attention of today’s youth, but you know what does? The chance to win a free t-shirt.

But who am I to get all self-righteous about watching — or not watching — a baseball game? I never watch the games I attend, as I’m too busy talking to people, watching people eat and participating in grounds crew dancing routines.

Tonight’s routine was to be to the tune of “It’s Not Unusual” by noted Pepsi Kona endorser Tom Jones. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but Manatees general manager Kyle Smith was willing to explain.

That was all the instruction needed. We killed it out there.

After the dancing, I stayed in the dugout well for a little while. I probably could have found a more worthwhile use for my time, but, what, manatee worry?

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Manny is such a lovable fellow, which makes it hard to take the team’s slogan seriously.

IMG_0442Anyhow, it was a pretty good view down there, so long as Manny wasn’t blocking it.

IMG_0425A veritable gaggle of kids was hanging out down here as well, so that they could participate in a between-inning shoe race.

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You know the deal:

1. The kids’ shoes are dumped onto the field

2. The kids run toward the pile of shoes

3. The kids must find the pair of shoes belonging to them, and put them on

4. The kids then run back from the field to the finish line near the dugout.

After approximately 47 consecutive foul balls were hit by the last batter of the inning, the kids had their time to (shoe) shine.

While you never would have known it if you had attended the game, the Manatees had announced a promotion earlier in the day that almost immediately garnered national attention. In the wake of Britt McHenry being suspended by ESPN for making “bullying” comments toward a tow truck employee, the Manatees extended an invitation to McHenry to spend the week of her suspension as the team’s field-side reporter. Additionally, they asked McHenry to speak out against the evils of bullying at an upcoming Education Day game.

mchenry_lrn1wk9q_6dcm6e5cI wrote an MiLB.com story all about this promotion. Now it’s time for — you guessed it — a relevant excerpt.

The Manatees’ invitation quickly drew interest from the media, first locally (newspaper Florida Today) and then nationally. As it just so happened, I was in attendance during April 17’s Manatees game at Space Coast Stadium and able to witness the surreal workplace disconnect that can result when a click-baiting Minor League promotion achieves its intended result. As general manager Kyle Smith and director of community relations Jennifer Garcia engaged in their myriad gameday tasks — everything from handling fan questions and complaints to coordinating between-innings promos to, in Smith’s case, doing the “Carlton Dance” during the dragging of the infield — they would periodically duck into (comparatively) quiet ballpark areas to field calls from the media. By the end of the day, the Manatees’ invite had garnered interest from national outlets — perhaps most notably online celebrity gossip powerhouse TMZ — who would ordinarily have no interest in the promotional efforts of a Florida State League baseball franchise.

A couple of days later, after I had returned home to New York City, I was reading the New York Daily News and happened upon this:

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Weird, right? Also weird is the fact that, all of a sudden, it was nighttime at Space Coast Stadium. I was losing track of time.

IMG_0431As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I was all out of whack this evening. The game was just flying by and I felt powerless to stop it. Maybe because I was powerless to stop it. Before I knew it, the game was over and tennis balls were raining down on the field. Florida weather is weird.

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The screaming children then made a mass exodus from the ballpark. Ah, silence. Sweet, sweet, silence.

IMG_0444After the game, I interviewed Kyle about the McHenry promotion. His office, like this conference room, had an exquisite view of the field. Not a bad place in which to work!

IMG_0445While Smith and I were talking, the power at the stadium went out. I don’t know how or why, all I know is that it would have been terrifying and hilarious if this had occurred during the game. All those screaming kids would have been screaming even louder!

This was what Space Coast Stadium looked like as I made my way to the parking lot in darkness.

IMG_1023I could still see the space shuttle, however. At Space Coast Stadium, you can always see the space shuttle.

IMG_1024Stay tuned for part three of this Manatees series, as designated eater Enrique Cortes tackles the “No Wake Zone Burger.”

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On the Road: Checking Out the Space in Brevard County

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Brevard County Manatees (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 Brevard County Manatees play in Space Coast Stadium. While this name references the prevalence of the aeronautical industry within the region — most notably the Kennedy Space Center — it is also worth noting that this is a ballpark surrounded by a lot of space. This was my view upon pulling into the parking lot:

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I also saw some some birds.

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And a scenic waterfront statue.

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And fans gathering around and on a not-quite-to-scale space shuttle.

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And, oh yeah, there it is: Space Coast Stadium.

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Like most Florida State League facilities, Space Coast Stadium is also also used for Major League Spring Training. The Manatees are an anomaly, however, in that they are not the affiliate of the club that plays Spring Training games there. The Manatees are an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, while the Washington Nationals are the Spring Training tenant.

This arrangement will not last for much longer, however, as if all goes according to plan the Nationals will move to a new West Palm Beach complex shared with the Houston Astros. This would be much more amenable as regards travel (Tradition Field in St. Lucie and Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter are in close proximity to the West Palm Beach site) and, presumably, amenities.

When the Nationals leave, the Manatees will join the Daytona Cubs as the only FSL team not playing in a Major League Spring Training complex. There has long been chatter about building a new, standalone ballpark for the team, but it is also possible that they will simply soldier on at Space Coast.

There are worse places in which to soldier.

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A common problem in the FSL is that the teams play in very large facilities. Even decent crowds, by Class-A Advanced standards, seem sparse. To create a more intimate atmosphere and foster demand, however artificial, the Manatees have covered up entire sections of seating down the first and third base lines.

IMG_0413 Though the weather was looking a bit ominous, a big crowd showed up on this Friday evening. It was Little League Night, meaning that the joint was chock-a-block with screaming, uniformed children.

The right-field foul pole is dedicated to the Columbia space shuttle (left field honored the Challenger).

IMG_0398The view from left field.

IMG_0406A low-key tiki bar can be found out in this direction, one of the few ballpark locations to offer a respite from screaming, uniformed children.

IMG_0409The visitor’s bullpen is in left field as well. Look at this guy, doing his best to take up the entire bench all by himself. His teammates are like, “Not so fast, bro.”

IMG_0408While I was visiting in this area, I spent some time talking with one Enrique Cortes. He was to be my designated eater for the evening — you’ll meet him in a separate post — but in addition to being a skilled eater he also proved to be a fount of regionally specific information. To wit:

— The seats at Space Coast Stadium used to be teal, as the facility hosted Marlins Spring Training from 1994 through 2002.

— Nearby Cocoa Beach, Florida, was once a popular movie filming destination.

— The economy has been slow in recent times as a result of the decline of the space industry, but it’s picking back up thanks in part to the emergence of private space exploration firms such as SpaceX.

— Nearby Melbourne, Florida, is the hometown of Jim Morrison (the Doors singer, not the Major League infielder — and former Charlotte Stone Crabs manager — whose playing career spanned from 1977-88).

— Prince Fielder grew up in the area as well. He played for Melbourne’s Florida Air Academy during his first three years of high school.

So there you have it. Thanks for the factoids, Enrique. Here’s a sneak peak of him in action later in the evening.

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For reasons I can no longer recall, the ballgame’s ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by this inflatable fella.

IMG_0415I documented this occurrence with not one but, yes, two Vine videos.

During the singing of our National Anthem, I thought it’d be funny to pinpoint the Manatees player who stood at attention the longest. Take a bow, Preston Gainey!

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And with that, the game began. That’s just the sort of thing that seems to happen after the singing of our National Anthem. Part two of this blog series will, shockingly, pick up right where this one left off. Stay tuned.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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