Results tagged ‘ Florida State League ’

A Clogged-Up Competition in Bradenton

As with Monday’s better ladle than never post about the Orem Owlz, today’s missive is a blast from the recent past. This time around we travel to McKechnie Field –  home of the Florida State League’s Bradenton Marauders — which played host to the following event on July 27:

I’ll let the team explain their motivations for staging such a spectacle:

Many teams are doing promotions based on the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics; the Marauders have put their own spin on it by celebrating the “Plumber Olympics”….[L]ocal plumbing company “Plumbing Today” is sponsoring the night and providing a tee shirt giveaway to the fans in blue, green, or red.  Those colors represent which plumber those fans are rooting for…as we have a plumber representing each of those three colors.  Each of our plumbing competitors will [compete] in a series of on-field events, gaining points based on their finish in each of the competitions.  Upon our final contest we will line each of the plumbers up and don them with a gold, silver, or bronze toilet seat cover….Whichever color plumber takes home the gold will also win a special prize for all fans in attendance wearing that team’s color giveaway tee shirt.

Marauders coordinator of stadium operations Kris Koch first alerted me to this promotion, writing in an email that “it may be a little over the top toilet humor for you and your visitors’ taste.” While I appreciate Mr. Koch’s high regard for the Ben’s Biz Blog readership, I nonetheless believe that any visitors to this post will find it to be in excellent taste. (This is, after all, the blog that broke the “Subtle Butt” story.) So let us proceed unencumbered, with photos and commentary courtesy of Koch.

But first, a promotional video to whet the appetite.

Our three finalists (from left to right) Mario DePeau in Blue (France), Buzzy ‘Bare-hands’ Miller in Green (USA), and Paul McCloggin in Red (Ireland) pose for a picture with Marty the Marauder and the Plumber Olympic Torch

Fans were given t-shirts in the color of their favorite plumber when they entered through the gates

McCloggin and DePeau being introduced to the crowd pre-game

Plumbers took on challenges throughout the game, including the Toilet Paper shot put, Plunger Javelin and Toilet Seat Discus

In the end the USA was victorious as Buzzy was crowned with the Golden Toilet Seat Cover, DePeau received the silver, and McCloggin the Bronze

And there you have it, folks — a riveting account of one of the more “unique” events to occur in the Minor Leagues this season. Thanks to Koch for filling me in on the glorious details, and let this be a reminder to you: it is never too late to get in touch regarding notable 2012 promotions. Never!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: From Daytona Beach to DeFuniak Springs

I won’t be content until I’ve posted all of my content, so here we go with another post full of Florida road trip odds and ends. The previous dispatch ended in Lakeland, and from there I drove northeast to beautiful Daytona Beach.

Drawbridge delays added a few minutes to my travel time, but I didn’t mind:

I was in town to see the Daytona Cubs, whose team hotel is the Acapulco. I’m going to go ahead and declare this to be the best view from a team hotel in all of Minor League Baseball.

I rarely relax on these trips (or in life, come to think of it) but I did go for a swim shortly after checking in. How could I not? I did so with a full stomach, however, as on the way to the hotel I stopped for lunch at The Daytona Brickyard. It was recommended to me via a blog post comment: In Daytona you have to eat at a hole in the wall NASCAR Bar called The Brickyard. It’s right across the street from Bethune Cookman College. They have the best burgers you will ever eat in your life.

Well, okay then. Off to 747 w. International Speedway Boulevard I went:


I imagine that this place can get pretty packed in the evenings, but the mid-day atmosphere was fairly sedate.

The menu didn’t make any particular claim to burger supremacy, but when I asked the waitress she just said “We have the best burgers, that’s what we’re known for.”

So, of course, I got the burger. The photo doesn’t really do it justice, but it really was good. Maybe not “greatest of all time,” but far above average. Char-grilled and nicely seasoned is all I can think to say, once again I’m coming up blank in the food adjective department. (The fries were great too, but I made the mistake of sprinkling some salt on them before tasting. They were already very, very salty.)

A burger with a checkered past.

I attended that evening’s Daytona Cubs game (read all about it), but there was still a little bit more to come from Jackie Robinson Stadium. An “Education Day” game was scheduled for the following morning, so I stopped by before heading on my way toward Pensacola.

I neglected to feature this in my previous post on Daytona, but outside of the stadium there is a statue of Jackie Robinson. (Daytona hosted Jackie and his Montreal Royals during 1946 Spring Training, one year before his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.)

Inside the stadium, there were a lot of screaming kids. This is the defining characteristic of any “Education Day” ballgame.

Elsewhere in the stadium, things were pretty sedate.

After the ballgame, I stopped by the Florida State League headquarters (located just beyond right field).

I had met league president Chuck Murphy the night before, and he told me that the offices were full of interesting (and idiosyncratic) baseball memorabilia. But, alas, no one was there. I’ll have to put a stop at FSL HQ on my to-do list for the next time I’m in Daytona.

And there will be a next time! But the rest of this day was budgeted for travel, as the next (and last) stop on my itinerary was faraway Pensacola. The drive started on 95, but brightly colored billboards advertising fresh citrus, pecans and fireworks soon caused me to make a slight detour. I absolutely love places like this:

I ended up buying a bag of honey roasted pecans, boiled peanuts, and two grapefruit. Everything was awesome, but I was absolutely floored by how good the grapefruit was (as were as the oranges, of which free samples were provided). The guy working there explained that most grapefruits are picked before they are ripe so that they will not spoil. Therefore, they are not as flavorful as they otherwise could be.

I probably already knew this, but finally having a taste of the real thing hammered the point home. I will never eat a grapefruit here in the Northeast without thinking of how much better they are in Florida — so fresh, and tart, and juicy. The sort of thing that, yes, makes you grateful to be alive.

Alligator jerky didn’t necessarily make me glad to be alive, but it wasn’t so bad that I wished I was dead. It was thoroughly mediocre.

Did you guys hear the one about Shrek-brand jerky? The taste was thoroughly meaty ogre!

[Thanks, I'll be in this deserted office all night. (Please, someone, give me a reason to leave).]

Several hours and several listens to the new Spiritualized album later, I noticed a decrepit billboard touting the fact that Greenville, Florida (population 837) is the birthplace of Ray Charles. Therefore, I decided to stop in Greenville. It was sleepy in the way that only the South seems to be sleepy; blanketed in soporific haze, the metronome moving in slow motion as the ghosts look on disinterestedly.

I think something was off with my camera.

And, yes, there in the center of Haffye Hays Park (no relation to Soporific) was the Ray Charles Memorial. Again, I apologize for whatever snafu resulted in such low lighting.

That’s about it when it comes to interesting detours I made en route to Pensacola, but I do want to take this opportunity to express my admiration for Florida rest stops. They were clean, informative, well-designed, and the vending machines were stocked with regional potato chip brands. This one was my favorite:

The gas stations were all in order too, thanks to a department of agriculture and consumer services commissioner who won’t take guff from anyone.

I didn’t quite make it to Pensacola that evening, opting instead to spend the night in the DeFuniak Springs Super 8. There wasn’t much to do there, so I passed the time trying (and failing) to take poignant photographs of a nearby Waffle House.

I swear that I’ll eventually run out of content from this trip. But it hasn’t happened yet!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Caps, Cards, and Code at MiLB HQ

As promised/threatened, I have quite a bit more Florida road trip content to share. So after yesterday’s brief respite, it’s time to hit the reset button and do it all again.

We’ll start with a blog-centric exploration of something I already wrote about for MiLB.com: Minor League Baseball’s St. Petersburg, FL headquarters. This was the absolute first stop of my trip, as it was the proverbial hop, skip and a jump away from the Tampa airport. I arrived at HQ in a most disheveled state — I hadn’t eaten anything all day, my contact lenses were giving me major problems, my GPS wasn’t picking up a signal, and my general cluelessness regarding 21st-century automobiles resulted in an inability to turn on the air conditioning.

But I made it! Minor League Baseball HQ! Located in an off-the-beaten-path office park, with swampland for a backyard; this is where the magic happens.

Immediately to the right, upon walking in the doors, one comes across this tidy display featuring an official ball from each league.

But that’s a mere prelude. I embarked upon a tour of the facility with Minor League Baseball’s director of communications Steve Densa, and we soon visited the “theater” room (used for meetings and the “Minor League University” staged twice yearly for executives new to the industry).

And, yes, that display encompassing the room’s back wall is exactly what it appears to be: caps of every affiliated Minor League team, arranged in alphabetical order. I tweeted photos of the “Hat Wall” a few weeks back, and it almost immediately set a personal record for re-tweets. People just love this thing; for a certain subset of fans it’s akin to communing with the divine.

But personally, I was more intrigued by the historical treasures to be found. This fire-proof, cinder-block encased room houses informational index cards for virtually every professional player from the turn-of-the-century through the early ’90s. A very unique and thoroughly irreplaceable reservoir of record-keeping!

Lou Pinella’s player card, with confidential info thumbed out:

There are all sorts of notable names contained in these filing cabinets, from Hall of Famers to those went on to fame in other endeavors (like actor Kurt Russell). But the silent majority are comprised of players such as Ernest Agnew, about whom little else is known these days:

More items of historical import can be found in the nearby library, a modestly appointed room comprised of all manner of books, programs, videos, and league correspondence.

But the star of the show, in my mind, was this absolutely fascinating document:

The code book! Following the instructions contained therein allowed teams to engage in surreptitious correspondence via the telegraph wires. Read on:

Here’s some representative code:

Click to enlarge

Anyone in the market for a Nazare Nascent?

(Incidentally, this book would be a great way to choose a band name. Think up a baseball term, then see what the applicable code name would be and — voila! — indie stardom is only a coquettish grin and harmoniously-strummed ukulele away).

But there’s no need to keep secrets these days at MiLB HQ — unless you’re worried that the neighbors lurking about have nefarious intentions.

 Why I otter…

And that’ll be it for me from Burning. I attended a game that night in Buckboard, and the next day made my way to Buffetted. The next post “On the Road” post will contain odds and ends from my time there.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Soaking Up the Scene in Pensacola

Seeing five Florida State League ballparks in five days was a whirlwind, but the concluding event of this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip was yet to come. I left Daytona on Wednesday afternoon (after making a cameo at that morning’s “education day” D-Cubs game), and then embarked on a travel day that ended within the not-so-scenic environs of the DeFuniak Springs Super 8 Motel.

And on Thursday, traveling further west along the Florida panhandle, I reached my final destination: Pensacola, home of the Southern League’s Blue Wahoos. I have a lot of random material from Pensacola to share in the near future, but for the sake of clarity, brevity and my own self-imposed timetables this post shall focus on Thursday’s doubleheader at brand-new Community Maritime Park. (Consider this a companion to Tuesday’s MiLB.com piece. Please).

The parking lot is to the right of this vast expanse of grass, and it’s purposefully small. The idea is that people will bookend their Blue Wahoo experience by drinking, dining, and socializing in downtown Pensacola — located about a 10 minute walk from the ballpark — and on both nights I attended people were indeed streaming in via foot, pedicab, and shuttle bus. (Again, there will be more on all of that in a future post.)

But at this early juncture, I more or less had the stadium to myself.

The man in the full uniform leaning against the cage is former Cincinnati star Eric Davis, now a Reds roving instructor. And on the far right there is Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman, who in 2011 left the Washington Nationals in a cloud of controversy. That’s not something that he’s inclined to elaborate on these days, but I did get the chance to interview Riggleman in the clubhouse the next day.

(Other Blue Wahoos who were subjected to my Flipcam stylings were Donnie Joseph, Ryan LaMarre, and Didi Gregorious. My interviews with the latter two included questions regarding the Cannibal Corpse show that had taken place in Pensacola the night before. A simple search for these players names on MiLB.com will yield the interviews).

But the star of the show at Community Maritime Park is, quite simply, the view of Pensacola Bay (beyond which lies the Gulf of Mexico).

The above picture was taken from the team’s Hancock Bank Club. Admission to the “club” is sold as a season ticket, and food is part of the package. There are no suites at Community Maritime Park, so this is about as “exclusive” as the stadium gets.


I was in the Hancock Bank Club as part of a stadium tour being provided by Blue Wahoos executive VP Johnathan Griffin. At one point I dropped my pen onto the stadium’s lower level, and for that faux pas I blame my earlier consumption of this.

That’s the Blue Wahoo, the only ballpark drink I’ve ever seen that features moonshine as a prominent ingredient. (And the strawberries resting on top had been soaked in the stuff!)

Drinks such as the above are available at Mulroy’s Bar, located on the concourse behind home plate. Nearby, one can also find plenty of beer options:

And the team even has its own beer on draft, called “Ono.”

Another bit of liquified branding is the team’s own bottled water (both the beer and water will soon be sold outside of the ballpark as well).

The people of Pensacola seem to enjoy their drinking, is all that I’m getting at, and this trait is consistent with beach towns nationwide. Hot weather and lots of time on the white sand can result in a powerful thirst. And speaking of the people of Pensacola, at this point they were streaming into the ballpark en masse. (It was a sell-out crowd, and as this post progresses, you’ll see more and more folks in the ballpark.)

The view from the right field concourse, both facing the field…

and away from it.

There are no general admission seats, but $5 gets you into the park and provides access to anywhere on the (approximately 270 degree) concourse as well as the grass berm. The preponderance of open space lends itself to a relaxed atmosphere even when the park is full.

The previous night’s game had been rained out, and along with it a planned “Superhero Night” promotion. The team re-scheduled it for the next day, and this young fan came prepared.

The area behind (and adjacent to) the center field scoreboard is currently unutilized, but Griffith imagines it as a beach-themed party area.

Community Maritime Park is just a portion of a larger “live-work-play” downtown development project. This amphitheater, which includes access to the Blue Wahoos’ outfield concession areas, will be completed in time for a Charlie Daniels concert next month.

I soon took a trip to the press box, to join Tommy Thrall and Andrew Green for an inning on the radio.

My recent moonshine consumption may have led to an even greater propensity for puns than usual, and perhaps the audio will one day surface. Later in the evening I noticed that the broadcast was playing at a fairly substantial volume in the men’s restroom — I can only hope that I said something that made a man laugh as he was urinating, for this is my lone goal in life.

And speaking of the restrooms, they have their own attendants stationed outside.

This is all part of a relentless emphasis on cleanliness and customer service, and a large part of team owner Quint Studer’s business philosophy (more on that in the MiLB.com piece). Even after the novelty wears off, I imagine that Community Maritime Park will remain one of the cleanest and friendliest parks in MiLB.

But the novelty hasn’t worn off yet, of course, and on these trips I’m always looking for novelty — especially in concessions.

Food and beverage director Mark Micallef had handed me a large wad of “employee bucks” prior to the game, and I intended to make use of them. Playing off of the nautical theme, concessions are can be found on both the “Port” and “Starboard” sides of the stadium.

I had spoken with executive chef Chris Voorhees before the game, and was intrigued by both the 1/3rd-pound “Heater Burger” and the much-touted Shrimp Po’ Boy. But I couldn’t pass up the “Sea Dog” — a foot-long breaded cod topped with cole slaw, tartar sauce, and the team’s signature “Wahoo Sauce” (house-made, it’s kick determined by how long it had been left to marinate).

I loved this thing for two — nay, three — reasons:

1. The cole slaw was tart and fresh. It had a bit of a crunch to it, and was far better than the uninspired mush found at diners nationwide.

2. The breading was light and crisp, and the fish within tender and flaky

3. It was seafood. Burgers and hot dogs are all well and good, but I was burned out on them at this point and glad to try something new. And this was my first stop in Florida where seafood had been on the concession menu! Strange, considering that it’s Florida and all.

Dessert was to be found at the shaved ice stand located on down the third base line, which offered dozens of flavors. I went with “Frog in a Blender” simply because it was called “Frog in a Blender,” but amphibious innards were nowhere to be found. Instead it was a mix of lemon-lime and watermelon flavoring.

And while nothing I ordered was in need of additional condiments, let it be known that the Blue Wahoos are well-stocked.

At this point my narrative, which barely existed in the first place, peters out. So let me close with a final array of photos, depicting the nighttime atmosphere of Pensacola baseball on a Thursday night.

The night ended as these nights always do — with Launch-a-Ball! (I must note, however, that Launch-a-Ball and Thirsty Thursday doesn’t necessarily mix. Play had to be stopped on two occasions due to a ball being thrown onto the field, and in the latter instance it was while closer Donnie Joseph was delivering a pitch with two outs and two strikes. To whomever threw it: there is a special circle of hell waiting for you, one in which the flip-flops pinch your toes, the Sublime cd skips, and the Natty Ice is served at room temperature).

This concludes round 1 of Road Trip blog coverage. There is still much more to come over the next week or two, much of it focusing on that which occurred outside of the ballparks. So, please, keep coming back and, even more importantly, if you like this sort of thing then please spread the word.

Ben’s Biz Blog post #800 now terminates.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Feeling at Home in Daytona

I really and truly enjoy every single place that I get to visit on these road trips. There is always something to recommend. But every once in a while I chance upon a location that resonates on a deeper level, one that makes me wish I could just relax and stay for a while.

Daytona was one of those places. I just flat-out felt comfortable here, both in the town itself as well as, more specifically, Jackie Robinson Stadium (the home of the Daytona Cubs).  Perhaps I was too comfortable, in that once again I seem to have neglected my duties and failed to take exterior shots of the stadium. But here are a few shots of the interior, before the madding crowd was permitted to disrupt my photo-taking solitude.

Jackie Robinson Stadium is an iconic facility with charm to spare, and an anomaly in the Florida State League in that it does not host Major League Spring Training. This, to me, is to its infinite benefit — as opposed to an oversized and sterile Spring Training environment, Jackie Robinson evokes nothing less and nothing more than the quintessential charm of Minor League Baseball — intimate, no-frills, and eminently accessible.

But it’s also ironic, to a degree, in that the stadium got its name due to its Major League Spring Training history. In 1946, Daytona became the first city to allow Jackie Robinson to participate in a Spring Training game (he was then gearing up for a season with the International League’s Montreal Royals, one year prior to his groundbreaking campaign with the Dodgers). There’s a statue out front that commemorates this history.

The full name of the facility is now “Jackie Robinson Ballpark and Museum,” with the latter part of the equation being a self–guided tour within the concourse area. There are informational plaques galore, many of which are supplemented by displays that bring to life Robinson’s myriad athletic accomplishments.

Jackie was known for stealing home. This display (above and below) puts it in perspective.

It’s all about perspective. Jackie’s vertical leaping abilities are displayed here…

while this area pays homage to the horizontal.

At this point in the evening, the stadium gates were thrown open and the hoi polloi streamed forth. The hoi polloi, in this case, were blue-shirt wearing members of the team’s “Silver Sluggers” fan club.

The backs of their shirts should have said “apostles of baseball bingo,” because that’s what they were here for.

Jackie Robinson Ballpark is old (its first iteration dates back to 1914), and as such there isn’t much room for the staff to operate. The front offices were painfully, ludicrously cramped (I should have taken a picture), and the team store wasn’t much more than a kiosk.

That detached head on the counter is, perhaps, a homage to the club’s old logo. It featured the severed head of a too-cool-for-school bear, a bear whose origins appeared Arctic despite the Floridan environs:

But this was my favorite piece of apparel — a t-shirt commemorating outfielder Matt Sczcur and the proper pronunciation of his confounding last name.

I interviewed Sczcur before the game, and that can be found HERE. He was a real nice guy, as ballplayers — and, by extension, all humans — almost always are, and spoke with pride about the above item.

As alluded to above, the fans were streaming in at this point in the evening. And Daytona, if nothing else, has VERY committed fans. I wrote an MiLB.com story about this very subject (please read it HERE), and it featured characters such as Pat Drosten (right) and Faye Haas:

Drosten is one of 17 fans who, in 2000, got a D-Cubs tattoo in exchange for lifetime season tickets.

So did “FRJ,” otherwise known as Front Row Joe:

Front Row Joe is a ballpark celebrity, as he’s attended every D-Cubs game dating back to June of 1995. I wrote a story on him when he hit 1000 straight, and this particular evening was number 1147. It’s easy to keep track, since there’s a billboard in left-center field that does just this. Part of Joe’s pre-game routine is to walk out 20 minutes before game time and change the number. He extended the invite to accompany him, and I was more than happy to oblige.

Like Andre the Giant before him, Front Row Joe has a posse:

(Daytona really is great. I can’t wait to go back).

And, well, jeez — Joe had done his thing, the Silver Sluggers were in their seats, and it was time for the game to begin!

As this game script makes clear, the team had plans for me.

“Singing For My Supper” involved listening to the first verse of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and then belting out the chorus as soon as the music was cut off.

Waiting for my moment:

Belting it out:

Posing victoriously with my new best friend, his head thankfully not severed.

I suffer from by-polar disorder

A few innings later, I spent some time in what is a disappearing stadium phenomenon: the rooftop pressbox.

That’s media relations director Robbie Aaron on the right, who invited me to do an inning with him on the radio. (I always enjoy being on the radio, as it hearkens me back to my days with WPTS 92.1 Pittsburgh.) Afterwards, I snapped a photo of the rooftop view:

All that talking works up an appetite (not to mention the fact that I had already sang for my supper). Concession wise, Jackie Robinson Ballpark is probably more notable for its extensive drink options than the food. Beer options were measured by the dozens, and, while not photographed, I’m pretty sure that this is the only park I’ve been to that has served Jagr.

The food options were pretty standard, but this is more a result of space considerations than any sort of creative defect. I ordered pork nachos, but they were pretty lackluster. Pork and nacho cheese over chips, three quarters of which were untouched by toppings:

After eating, I went back to the second row and watched the concluding innings of the Cubs’ loss with frustrated fan FRJ.

But, win or lose, there’s always launch-a-ball. And thank goodness for that.

And thank goodness for you, whoever you may be, for reading.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Catching an Early Flight in Lakeland

I am not a morning person. Not by a long shot. In the early part of the day I only feel half-there, moving at a corresponding half-speed and feeling listless and uninspired. Nights are more my time, absolutely.

So, I was less than thrilled to be attending a 10:30 a.m. game in Lakeland on Monday morning. Especially since I was waking up in Port Charlotte, located about two hours away (yes, here I am complaining about attending professional baseball games for a living. Cue an Artie Lange-style “Waaaah!”).

I pulled into Joker Marchant’s massive parking lot right on time, as the first thing I heard from the outside was a kid yelling “Play Ball!” over the PA. The presence of this kid, and the 10:30 a.m. start time in general, was because it was a “School Day” at the ballpark. This was the preferred transportation option:

As for Joker Marchant Stadium, it looks like it was built by Spanish conquistadors who watched a lot of Golden Girls re-runs. It’s got style to spare, as well as plenty of room to move. It was built in 1966 and has been renovated and expanded several times over, but there have been constants amidst the change. Throughout nearly the entirety of its existence, Joker Marchant has hosted Detroit Tigers Spring Training as well as the organization’s Class A Advanced affiliate.

That would be the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who added the “flying” adjective to their name in recognition of the fact that before it was a baseball mecca, the entire “Tigertown” complex (of which Joker Marchant Stadium is a part) served as a World War II-era aeronautical training facility.

I’ll get to those high-flying roots later on in the post, and for more (you always want more, right?) please read my companion piece over on MiLB.com. 

After much strategizing regarding the ideal point of entry, I made it inside. From certain angles, Joker Marchant Stadium looked deserted. The massive left field bleachers section was closed off…

Special delivery

and down the first base line wasn’t much more populated. But behind home plate was a different story — there were 1400 kids from a variety of local Polk County schools, making their presence known via an auditory pitch that is only possible prior to the onset of puberty.

It may not be apparent from the picture, but those kids in the red shirts were from a school called “Ben Hill Griffin.” (For a brief moment, when I first saw the shirts, I thought they were wearing them in celebration of Minor League Baseball’s premier blogger. This bit of self-delusion quickly subsided, as the kids started chanting “Stranger Danger!” in response to me asking them if they’d like an autograph.)

The youthful atmosphere prevailed throughout. Between-inning contests were all standard kiddie stuff (like musical chairs and dizzy bat racing) and out on the concourse they were enjoying the make-your-own sundae station.

Winner of the “Best Posture” contest

Standard issue concessions were available at the “Mess Hall”:

Unfortunately I didn’t find too much to celebrate, food wise. It was all standard-issue ballpark fare, at prices closer to the “Major League” end of the spectrum. I ordered nachos (aka “breakfast”), and it was as bare bones as possible: chips and a cheese cup for $4.50.

But, on the positive side of things, it was interesting to see an “Education Day” in action. The students’ tickets were all free (sponsored by local supermarket chain Publix), and prior to the ballgame teachers had been given a 58-page packet full of baseball-related lesson plans (covering everything from ballfield dimensions to the game’s history to keeping score).

Taking in the scene:

One of the great things about baseball is that there is no clock, but that doesn’t apply if you’re on a field trip. As the game progressed to its later innings, the crowd grew thinner and thinner as the students were sheparded back into the buses. By the end, only a smattering of retirees and unaffiliated day trippers remained.

I then transitioned into the next part of the afternoon – a tour of the surrounding Tigertown complex (courtesy of GM Zach Burek and group sales manager Dan Lauer). As elaborated upon in the aforementioned MiLB article, this former aeronautic base is now a one-stop shop for the organization’s Florida operations.

This old airplane hangar, one of two on the premises, is now used by the county to store groundskeeping equipment and maintenance vehicles.

Moving down the road, one finds the mess hall (uninspired nachos nowhere to be found in this case). It was a mess hall for aspiring pilots in the 1940s, and it has remained largely unchanged in function and appearance.

The cafeteria is open year-round, tending to the needs of players in Spring Training, extended Spring Training, the Gulf Coast League, and, of course, the Flying Tigers. All of the tables include elaborate collages of Detroit memorabilia:

We moved from there to the player dormitories, which at this time of year are largely occupied by those in extended Spring Training. (Flying Tigers have the option to stay here, but most don’t because the schedule differences between extended spring and the FSL are literally night and day).

The massive rec room recently underwent renovations courtesy of a crew from the DIY network, and various Detroit farmhands were put to use as part of the work crew.

Downstairs, one finds an ESL classroom. This is a crucial service for the young Latin players, many of whom are barely out of their teens (if at all). In addition to learning the language, they need to learn the ways of American culture as well.

Today’s lesson

While we were in the classroom, Sharon Lockwood (an “international coordinator of player programs”) and pitcher Victor Larez came in carrying refreshments for a planned “Movie Night” that evening.

A 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander and his English teacher — these are the sort of baseball relationships that are easy to overlook, and a reminder that much more goes into the sport than simply playing it.

And with that, my tour guides and I emerged back into what was a beautiful Florida afternoon. This runway, once a training ground for men who would go on to risk their lives in aerial combat, is now what separates the Minor League instructional complexes from the Major League proving ground of Joker Marchant Stadium.

And with that observation, I’m ready to take off!

Thanks, as always, for landing here.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Agony of Defeat and Ecstasy of Meat in Port Charlotte

Destination number three on my Sunshine state sojourn was Port Charlotte, a comparatively sedate town about midway between Clearwater (to the north) and Fort Myers (to the south). Port Charlotte is home to the Stone Crabs, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the team plays at the unimaginatively named but very nicely appointed Charlotte Sports Park.

In my haste to get into the stadium and conduct player interviews, I somehow neglected to take exterior shots of the stadium. But here’s the view from just outside of the facility’s upper-most level. Plenty of room for all!

One of the pre-game player interviews I conducted was with Stone Crabs closer Chris Rearick (it will be uploaded shortly, as soon as I am in a hotel with a reliable internet connection. That has been easier said than done here in the Sunshine State). Rearick came across as a thoughtful and good-humored individual, and these traits soon manifested themselves atop the first base dugout.

Rearick, you see, had been recruited to read to members of the team’s “Kid’s Club” prior to the ballgame, with the book of choice being The Very Busy Spider. He did so into the microphone, his voice reverberating throughout the stadium.

Sample line: “‘Maa! Maa!’ said the goat. ‘Want to jump on the rocks?’ The spider didn’t answer, she was very busy spinning her web.”

This all must of have been very amusing to his fellow Stone Crabs, who were (not so) covertly watching from right field as they warmed up for the ballgame.

Rearick is a brave man, as any slip-up whatsoever would surely be seized upon by his teammates. (Right-hander George Jensen is now known as “Curious George” after he read that particular book upon the dugout, and was further made fun of due to an inability to pronounce the word “beluga.”)

With storytime over, I embarked on an extensive tour of the facilities with general manager Jim Pfander. (This was the second time in as many years I spent an evening at the ballpark with Pfander, as last year he oversaw my dunk tank and whipped cream-enhanced stint in Akron). Charlotte Sports Park is a quarter of a century old, but underwent extensive renovations prior to the 2009 season. That was the year in which the Rays made the stadium their Spring Training home, and in a corresponding move the Stone Crabs re-located from Vero Beach.

The main focus of the renovations was the addition of a large structure just beyond right field, which serves as the base of operations for the Rays during Spring Training. The organization’s head honchos have seasonal offices here, and clubhouses, weight rooms, training facilities, and dining areas can be found as well.

It’s a one-stop shop for all your Grapefruit League needs, in other words.

Entering from right field, the first room one comes to is the office of Rays GM Andrew Friedman:

Beyond the offices are clubhouses galore (“clubhouses upon clubhouses,” as Pfander put it).

The Minor Leaguers are on one side…

kept at a safe remove from MLB royalty.

But here’s the thing: once the Rays head back to Tampa for the start of the regular season, the Stone Crabs are free to take over the Major League clubhouse. These are pretty nice digs for guys who are still three levels away from “The Show.”

Meanwhile, Stone Crabs manager Jim Morrison gets to set up shop in the Joe Maddon’s office. (And, yes, Maddon’s office features a huge photo of him getting thrown out of a game.)

“Well-equipped” would be a way to describe the general scene around here, from the trainer’s area…

to the weight rooms.

But there’s still room for personal touches. For example, players can sign up for a homecooked meal courtesy of right-handed reliever Victor Mateo.

It would have been easy to get lost in this maze of Major League-quality amenities. Without Pfander’s guidance I’d probably still be in that building, sleeping under a bench in the trainer’s room, but soon enough we emerged back into the light.

And wouldn’t you know it? A baseball game was going on.

It was a sleepy Sunday evening atmosphere, very pleasant environment in which to wind down the weekend. On the concourse, kids in bathing suits were taking advantage of an inflatable water slide set up for a “Splash Day” promotion.

In the “Hit and Run” club, season ticket holders enjoyed an Asian-themed menu.

 

One of the park’s most popular food options is the cheesesteak stand in right field, which is mobbed during Spring Training games. (It’s called “Cheese and Steak,” though, perhaps out of a desire to remove the item from its ingrained Philadelphia connotations).

I already had my dinner plans all mapped out, but first things first: a sumo match against the undefeated “Colby-ashi.” As you can see, the odds were against me. Colbyashi was in a whole ‘nother weight class.

This wasn’t my first time in the suit, as last year in Bowie I suited up as “Bennyhilla” and quickly went down in defeat. This time was no different. A painfully slow walk down the stairs was the prelude to a thorough on-field beat-down.

 

The main event was still to come, however: My battle with the Stoney Dog!

In case it’s not clear, the Stoney Dog is a jumbo bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with pulled pork and fried onions. I asked food and beverage director Corey Brandt what inspired him to create such a thing and he had a quick answer.

“Pork! Pork’s good,” he said. The Stoney Dog was a spontaneous creation, he went on to explain, as opposed to an endlessly re-jiggered offseason obsession. It just sort of happened.

And now I had one in my hands.

 My professional dignity, already tenuous, was reduced even further by eating this thing.

It was an unwieldy beast, the Stoney Dog, and unhealthy to a degree that I’d rather not think about. But it was really, really good.

I’m not sure if consumption of an oversized concession item constitutes “victory,” but after losing the sumo match it felt like a redemptive act. Basking in the glow of this accomplishment, I took a seat down the first base line and watched the final inning of what turned out to be a 3-0 loss to Palm Beach.

Our good friend Chris Rearick appeared in the ballgame, allowing a run over 1 1/3 innings.

I asked the spider what she thought of Rearick’s performance, but she didn’t answer. She was too busy spinning her web. But closure was provided when the same kids whom Rearick read to were among those who ran the bases post-game.

Man down!

Kids running the bases, CCR playing on the PA, and the sky turning a beautiful purplish hue as day turned to night. It was truly a beautiful scene.

 

And that will be all from Charlotte Sports Park. Don Zimmer and friend wish you good night and safe travels.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Miraculous Encounters in Fort Myers

After spending Friday evening at the Clearwater Threshers game, I awoke early on Saturday morning to meet Dave Deas (a.k.a. “Phinley”) for breakfast at the legendary Lenny’s. I then drove two hours south on 75 to Lee County, within which Fort Myers resides. After a relatively brief tour of JetBlue Park, new Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox, I checked into La Quinta Inn (apparently one of the preferred hotels of the Florida State League) and geared myself up for the evening’s main event.

The Fort Myers Miracle.

The above baseball palace is Hammond Stadium, which in addition to hosting the Miracle serves as the Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins. It really is quite beautiful:

I arrived at the ballpark at 4 o’clock, just in time for an unprecedented commitment in my professional career: speaking to a Cub Scout troop. The invitation to do so came courtesy of loyal reader/former Miracle blogger Ed Pelegrino, cubmaster of Troop 110. I didn’t have prepared remarks or anything, I just spoke about my background, what it is I do and what brought me to this current reality. The underlying message was that there are ways to make a living in baseball above and beyond being a player.

My spellbound audience:

This next pic will probably always put a smile on my face. Thanks, pack 110!

I then went in search of Miracle staff members, to be like, “Hey, I’m here. What indignities shall I suffer in the name of Minor League Baseball tonight?” The offices were largely deserted, but I did notice this hilarious piece of communication on the office door of promotions director Gary Sharp.

I caught up with Sharp and crew on the concourse, and soon departed in the clubhouse to interview Miracle manager Jake “Yes, Joe’s Brother” Mauer. (A nicer guy, both within and without of the world of baseball, would be hard to find. Look for a video as soon as I am in possession of an internet signal strong enough to allow me to upload one.)

Back on the concourse, I signed up as an “event seeker” as part of the Miracle’s “Be Your Own Fan” initiative. (There are eight categories of fan, and those who sign up receive special offers tailored to their specific category.) In this picture I think I’m explaining that I wish I wasn’t as old as I actually am.

And after talking with Sharp, I found out that he did indeed have many adventures planned for me. One look at the guy and you could tell he meant business.

Clearly, ample sustenance was needed before dealing with the likes of that guy. So I scanned the concession menu, and settled on the “Miracle Dog.” This is a DIY sort of a item, some assembly required.

This…

becomes this:

That’s bacon, nacho cheese, and peppers. I put on the nacho cheese first, so that it would serve as a bacon adhesive. Then, for the coup de grace, I dumped on the peppers. An extremely well-thought out strategy, one that resulted in the masterpiece you see above. Confidence bolstered, I made my way down to the field to throw out one of the evening’s ceremonial first pitches.

Miss-A-Miracle was glad to see me, but then again she’s glad to see everyone.

The scene on the field was a colorful one, what with the orange and pink t-shirts, the Miracle’s yellow and teal throwback uniforms (they are worn every Friday and Saturday home game this season), and the green grass. It was like a rainbow down there, I tell ya. A rainbow.

The orange shirts were worn by individuals involved with the Dave Clark Foundation, which had staged a remarkable event that morning. The entire Miracle team and coaching staff joined 24 disabled children on the field, giving them one-on-one instruction and helping to stage a game. I interviewed Clark later in the evening, and his story is absolutely remarkable (he had polio as a child, and went on to pitch professionally while on crutches). I’m going to postpone my story on him and his Foundation and their work with the Miracle until after I return from the road, so that I can give it the full attention that it deserves.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of Dave Clark (sans five).

My story is far less inspiring, but it’s all I’ve got: my first first pitch of the season was a strike! Right down the middle! Take my word for it, while admiring the form:

With the game underway, my first task was to take on these two young gentleman in an onfield inflatable pony race. You’re going down, kids!

I may have been a bit older and larger than the my opponents, leading to a bit of resentment from the crowd. I did my best to embrace my temporary villain role…

 …and with that, it was off to the races.

It was a close-fought contest, in which I honed the techniques I learned in Lake County last season, but in the end I lost. I usually do. Congratuations, kid #1.

Next up on the agenda was to use a slingshot to launch a beanbag onto a target placed on the outfield grass.( If memory serves, this was indeed the actual name of the game.) Would you believe that I was unsuccessful?

I prefer to do things in threes, and this certainly includes failed endeavors. So I wandered over to the speed pitch to try my hand at the Miracle’s latest (and therefore greatest) promotion:

The Miracle announced this last week, and it generated a lot of media attention. Here’s how: they tweeted the idea, I re-tweeted it, and a Baseball Prospectus writer saw my tweet and brought it to the attention of a Yahoo! blogger. Yahoo! did a blog post on it, which in turn led to a FoxSports article which in turn was basically re-written by USA Today. And so on and so forth.

The moral of the story is that I am the greatest of all time. And, also, that my fastball is apparently 44 miles an hour.

MLB.com’s Adam Berry happened to be visiting in order to write an article on the Miracle’s Moyer phenomenon (which, in actuality, amounts to two goofy flyers taped to an inflatable speed pitch game). Here he is throwing about as “fast” as I did, and his story can be found HERE. 

My final on-field appearance was atop the third base dugout, as part of a “sing-off” against the third base side. Basically, it amounted to me singing “Born to be wiiiilllllld” at an appropriate moment.

Looking sharp!

After the Miracle Dog, did I need more food? No, I did not. But a stop at the Char Bar happened nonetheless.

There was no way I’d of been able to handle the “Richard Simmons Burger” at that point, but out of a sense of obligation to you, my reader(s), I went with the next strangest:

The mac and cheese burger (which tasted exactly like macaroni and cheese atop a hamburger) accompanied me to the press box. The next order of business was to serve as the official scorer for the top of the sixth inning. The usual guy, Scott Pedersen, was more than happy to oblige. “I like it up here, but I sure could do without the scorekeeping,” he said. “I don’t breathe until each team gets a hit every night.”

Scott Pedersen, official scorer, is the man in the middle.

My “decisions” were as follows: F7, K, K. No fuss, no muss.! Slightly dicier was handling PA announcing duties, as nearly every batter I announced was of Latin origin and therefore possessing a name with silent letters and, to me, unknown syllabic emphasis. But I got through it alright, and even aced a Wells Fargo ad read during a pitching change.

My copy: together we'll go far

PA native

Finally, I joined announcer Brice Zimmerman in the announcing booth for a long and exceedingly sloppy seventh inning. He let me attempt play-by-play on several occasions, and it was pretty brutal. This was an inning with rundowns, errors, suicide squeezes and more – a lot of crazy stuff happening in a short period. I was reduced to descriptions like “The ball is hit. Uh-oh! (long pause) Wow!” Stay tuned for the audio.

But I did enjoy speaking with Zimmerman: explaining what it is I do, the specifics of this current road trip, and how dignity is optional when I’m at the ballpark. Thanks for having me on!

There wasn’t much left for me to do at this point, so I reverted to taking pictures while inside the men’s room. I thought it was funny how, instead of mirrors, the team installed framed pictures of orange bricks.

Oh, and how could I forget? It was during this late juncture that I interviewed Dave Clark (again, I’ll write a feature on him upon my hopefully triumphant return to NYC. And, again, it’s a great story). Here he is with daughter Elecia:

Soon after I was done speaking with Clark, the visiting St. Lucie Mets emerged triumphant in the ballgame. That left one thing left to do, and one thing only: Launch-A-Ball!

Goodnight, Fort Myers, and thanks for the hospitality.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Turning Back the Clock in Clearwater

Road Trip number one of the 2012 season — and 11th (or so) of my MiLB.com career — kicked off on Friday. I flew out of Newark and into Tampa, then drove to Minor League Baseball’s headquarters in St. Petersburg (check out MiLB.com for more on that, as well as a future post) before making my way to Clearwater’s Bright House Field.

The first individual I met upon arriving at the facility was Threshers media relations assistant Joe Charlton, who reminded me that it was ’70s Night. I’m not sure that I would have known, otherwise.

Really, though, I needed no reminding. Going into my visit, I was struck by the number of people (both fans and front office employees) who emailed me something along the lines of “Awesome! It’s ’70s Night! Get ready for [a post-game concert by] Disco Inferno!” Decade-themed evenings are common across the Minors, of course, but this level of enthusiasm for such a promotion was new to me. (And, yes, when people email me they often bracket portions of their own quotes in anticipation of me quoting them later on. It’s hella meta-y, my dear Watson).

But we’ll return to “Me decade”-related ephemera in just a moment. Because at this juncture in the evening, food was the number one concern. After eating literally nothing all day (these road trips do a number on me, I tell ya) I was more than happy to be treated to an order of mini-corn dogs. They tasted great, even after I dropped the container and then had to pick them back up off of the floor. (Yes, ladies, I’m still single).

I enjoyed my mini-corn dogs in the solitude of the press box, which is equipped to handle the hordes of reporters who cover the Phillies here in Spring Training. But during the Florida State League season, the press box can be a lonely place.

One of the most unique things about the press box is this framed piece of “artwork” — it commemorates a dent made by a Ryan Howard foul ball during a 2009 Spring Training game. Howard signed it himself, with “W.O.B.” standing for “Watch out, bro.”

Watch out indeed! The wall is a good 20 feet behind the press box windows, meaning this had to have been one absolutely vicious line drive. Some perspective:

But this being Florida, the press box contained more than memorials to murderous foul balls. There was also this:

If you’re a member of the media who catches on fire, then you’re out of luck. But at least the team has your equipment covered.

But enough from the press box. I soon took to wandering Bright House’s 360 degree concourse, and along the way ran into many reminders that it was indeed ’70s night.

Timberlake: Bringing sexy back

The above individual is Threshers GM John Timberlake, who in surveying the sparse crowd in the game’s early-going said “We’ll have people trickling in all night. There will even be some people who are only coming for Disco Inferno.” Phinley, like his GM, certainly wasn’t stressing it.

Phinley, in addition to giving me (and everyone around him) an enthusiastic thumbs-up, pointed at a sign that was hanging on a fence outside of the stadium. “What’s the deal with that?” he seemed to be asking.

An uprising appears to be in the works against the Threshers, whose operation is allegedly harmful to nearby amphibious life. I’ll be curious to see what comes of this nascent rebellion, as scuttlebutt obtained from confidential sources indicate that it should get interesting.

But putting the above accusations and innuendo aside, it’s clear that the Threshers do a lot of unequivocally good work within the community. For example, if a post-game concert by the Black Honkys isn’t going to make you aware of prostate cancer then I’m afraid that nothing will.

But many of the signs to be seen around Bright House on this special evening were — surprise! — 70s themed. Well, almost all of them.

That saying is from the '70s? Aye carumba!

More appropriate to the era was this:

Helen Reddy, you are woman! Meanwhile, a lot of fans were getting “reddy” for their Friday evening over at Frenchy’s Tiki Bar. The Tiki Bar is one of the signature aspects of the Threshers game day experience, and it attracts a robust crowd even when other portions of the stadium are sparsely populated.

The Tiki Bar is located in left field, and its tropical vibe sets the tone for the rest of the stadium.

Yes, Gulf Coast League action is close at hand. Just turn to the left:

Also close at hand from this vantage point are the home and visiting bullpens. They allow for ample fraternization between enemies.

The view from afar:

You’d think that mini corn dogs would be enough, but I was intrigued by the following concession stand:

610 is Philadelphia’s second-most authentic area code, so I felt compelled to get a cheesesteak. It was paired, as cheesesteaks often are, with a Yuengling draft.

My verdict would be a 7.0 — above average (especially for Florida), and the Amoroso rolls were a nice touch. But it was a little bland, and I like the onions to be a bit more on the sauteed side than these were. This concludes my amateur food criticism, so that we may return to my true passion:

Amateur photography coupled with amateur descriptions thereof.

The Threshers pulled out a 4-3 win in this ballgame, and I apologize that this post had even less baseball action than usual. Pressed for time and just plain overwhelmed at the start of yet another road trip, I went into full-on “wander mode” and ended up neglecting that aspect of the experience. I’ll do my best to be more well-rounded in the future.

Well-rounded like a tennis ball, gleaming in the Florida night as it sails toward a tire that had been arbitrarily rolled onto the field from home plate. Truly, nothing says “Minor League Baseball” like the images that result from post-game “Launch-a-ball.”

But while this was going on, Phinley and all his pals were streaming toward left field for Disco Inferno. (Just go with me on this one)

Ladies and gentlemen: Florida’s #1 Disco tribute band.

Okay, so here’s the thing about Disco Inferno, and the Threshers’ 70s Night in general: people were really into it. A lot of fans were dressed up on their own accord, and I was told that some of these fans won’t be seen again until ’70s Night 2013. In my own experience this was the most enthusiastic response to a post-game concert that I’d ever seen, and there was a pervasive spirit of fun and celebration in the air.

Truthfully, I needed it. These road trips are great, but they stress me out more than anything else I’ve ever done on a professional level, ever. I’m a one-man show, making it up as I go along, and there are seemingly infinite logistical things to take care of at all times. I have a hard time escaping the feeling that I’m just not doing it right (whatever “right” is, in this case). So, when the show started, I was like “I’ll see a song or two, then jet back to the hotel to start writing.” But a couple of people handed me a couple of beers, and I relaxed a little, and pretty soon I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face. Watching a multi-generational group of people having an unabashed (and totally unselfconscious) good time at a ballpark on a Friday night was just wonderful to see.

Clearwater parties into the night:

Phin.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Sunshine On My Shoulder

In two weeks hence, I’ll be embarking on Road Trip #1 of the 2012 Minor League campaign. While there may be slight tweaks to the itinerary, here’s where I’ll be spending my time:

Except none of the places I’ll be visiting are highlighted on the map. I just liked the way it looked. Here’s the itinerary:

April 27: Clearwater Threshers

April 28: Fort Myers Miracle

April 29: Charlotte Stone Crabs

April 30: Lakeland Flying Tigers

May 1: Daytona Cubs

May 2: travel (but hopefully I can take in the 10:30 a.m. D-Cubs game in “fan” mode)

May 3-4: Pensacola Blue Wahoos

I’ve been agonizing over the specifics of this itinerary, as I am wont to do. The Florida State League’s propensity for 10:30 a.m. games at this time of year quite often threw a wrench into my plans, as did my desire to spread myself out geographically. I’ve never been to Florida in a so-called “professional” context, but this will certainly give me an ample dose of the Sunshine State.  The Blue Wahoos, in their inaugural season, are what first motivated me to head south, and while it would have been easier to travel from Pensacola into Alabama (and beyond) the need to hit new locales before repeating old ones led to the schedule you see above.

And now comes the requisite “tell me what to do/who to talk to/where to eat” queries. As always, I will do my best to experience as much as I can while, somehow, maintaining all of my writing requirements and, as an added bonus, not going insane. It’s a lot of fun while it’s happening, and even more fun when it’s over!

But I’m just allowing myself to get overwhelmed. I really and truly do love these trips — this is the third year I’ve been doing them (after a few tentative baby steps in 2009), and each year I learn a little bit more about how to go about it. They are, like everything, a work in progress, and the enthusiastic response I’ve received (from readers like YOU) has gone a long way to insure that they keep happening.

What I look like at the end of a road trip.

But here I am, with my mind on the Florida heat and fun in the sun in general. It’s easy to forget that the reality is much different in other parts of the country. Take the Helena Brewers, for example, who tweeted out the following picture of their ballpark last week along with the observation that “This is why we are shortseason.”

Indeed!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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