Results tagged ‘ Florida ’

Return to the Road: Panhandle with Care

If you haven’t done so already, please check out yesterday’s post. It details my upcoming road trip itinerary, and your feedback (where applicable) is always appreciated. But enough about the future, we’re here today to take a trip through the recent past: my final, once and for all, for-real-this-time, last dispatch from my recent trip to Florida.

image from justflorida.org

Today’s post is devoted to my second, and final, day in Pensacola. The day started as they so often do on these road trips, with me writing in a hotel room while wishing I could be out exploring the area instead. And during this writing session, I heard about the death of Adam Yauch. To put it succinctly, I am a huge fan of the Beastie Boys and Yauch in particular was a role model. I busted out crying when I heard the news, and wrote this post on the Lakeland Flying Tigers while in tears. 

But I wasn’t about to spend the day crying alone in a hotel room, as that was one of my New Year’s resolutions. My first destination was an establishment that was recommended to me many times over and, without question, is Pensacola’s most famous restaurant: McGuire’s Irish Pub. I was psyched to go here, just from reading the menu online, and it didn’t disappoint.

The inside was downright hallucinogenic, but a bit hard for me to capture given the low lighting and my generally reserved attitude regarding photo-taking. But check out the ceiling, adorned with thousands and thousands of dollar bills.

If cameras could do acid, this is what all photos would look like:

And, no, I didn’t “Kiss the Moose” (a time-honored McGuire’s tradition). Given that I was there alone on a midweek afternoon it just didn’t seem appropriate. Next time, maybe?

I started off with the Senate Bean Soup, which, as detailed in the menu linked to above, is 18 cents at all times (but $18 if it’s the only thing that you order).

I followed that up with a ludicrously oversized portion of corned beef and cabbage. The strips of corned beef were arrayed in a circle around a softball-sized lump of cabbage, and complemented with carrots and a creamy dipping sauce. Even the bartender, who is presumably used to serving such things, expressed surprised by how big the platter was.

It was a decent meal, but could’ve been better (the corned beef was a bit tougher than I would’ve preferred). I finished all the meat and carrots, but couldn’t make it through the cabbage. It was the most cabbage I’ve ever had on a plate in front of me, ever, and while I love the stuff there’s only so much a man can take. (This is a metaphor).

And, incidentally, the bartender had been to a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game the week before and expressed a lukewarm opinion. Her primary beef was “$9 beers,” and when I disagreed with her assessment (I had attended on “Thirsty Thursday” the night prior) she relented somewhat and declared herself one of those “typical pessimistic Pensacola people.”

And with that excellent and seemingly unwitting use of alliteration, all was forgiven.

At this point, time, as usual, was in short supply. But I figured that to spend two days in Pensacola and not go to the beach was some sort of criminal offense. So I just started driving toward the water, and soon saw a sign for “Gulf Islands National Seashore.”

This was a beautiful area, no doubt, but the National Seashore didn’t really have a beach area to speak of. I didn’t have time to seek out the white sands that Pensacola is known for, however, due to the fact that I was scheduled to interview Jim Riggleman prior to the evening’s Blue Wahoos game. (Why is Jim Riggleman always foiling my aquatic opportunities? In 2005 he was a celebrity lifeguard at a blogger’s swim meet, and disqualified me on the grounds of being too pale.)

The above anecdote is of course not true, but pictures don’t lie. Some views from the National Seashore:

It was then back to Community Maritime Park, for my second Blue Wahoos game in as many days. The view from the dugout, sitting next to broadcaster Tommy Thrall and director of sports turf management (aka “groundskeeper”) Ryan Sayre while waiting for the aforementioned Riggleman.

It really was a beautiful day for baseball.

But it was a beautiful day for a lot of things, and just before the game got underway I decided that I would have to briefly escape the ballpark environment. It might have been a mirage, but while driving into the stadium I saw something that piqued my interest to the utmost degree…

So as Blue Wahoos fans streamed toward the ballpark from downtown, I walked in the opposite direction toward something I hoped that I had not imagined. Past the railroad tracks I went…

and…YES! My eyes had not deceived me. There it was, in all its glory. A Crawfish Festival!

Options were plentiful…

Beautiful woman, second from right

But I knew what I wanted — boiled crawfish, plain and simple.

Sorry, dude.

For the uninitiated. Don’t forget to suck the head!

Still reeling from the corned beef, I ordered a so-called “snack pack.”

And went to work. Eating crawfish is a labor-intensive, but deeply satisfying experience. You’ve really got to work for those tender morsels, and not be deterred by all the accompanying junk (yes, another metaphor).

(And while I really enjoyed all of this, I’d like to note that I was the only solo adult in attendance, the only one in a collared shirt, the only one with a notebook, the only one taking pictures of what he was eating, and the only one who didn’t make it to the beach that day because of Jim Riggleman-related obligations. I’m still learning how not to be self-conscious…)

Finished!

The sun was setting as I made it back to the ballpark, a beautiful scene.

A sold out crowd, as seen from the press box.

Down on the concourse I met team owners Quint and Rishy Studer, and spoke with Quint for a bit about his relentless commitment to customer service. That’s all detailed in this MiLB.com article, and of course a more straight-up blog post on the Blue Wahoos can be found HERE.

Also on the concourse, I met fan relations director Stewart Roberts. At every home game, he wheels around the concourse and, as he put it, “gets people pumped up.” A great job to have!

But, jeez, scoreboard graphics guy, way to kick a man when he’s down:

The Blue Wahoos lost, but that didn’t really seem to dampen the spirits of the fans. It was a Friday night, the weather was beautiful, and the beers, contrary to the claims of a local bartender, were less than $9. I stayed at the ballpark until the crowd thinned out.

Soon enough, even the prevalent pedicabs ran out of customers.

And, finally, mercifully, there was nothing left for me to do. The road trip ended for me as they always do — alone, in a hotel room, taking pictures of myself posing with boiled peanuts that had been recently purchased at a gas station.

Good night, folks, and thanks for sticking with me throughout the entirety of this Florida road trip narrative! And while it seems irrelevant to dedicate a Minor League Baseball blog post to Adam Yauch…this one is, anyway. Thanks for everything.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Looking Toward the Next Trip Before Returning to the Last

Today’s post will finally, once and for all, mark the end of my Florida road trip content. And it’s about time, right? I returned from the Sunshine State more than three weeks ago, and next week I’ll embark on my next journey of the 2012 campaign.

Yes, another MiLB road trip! Let’s focus on that for a moment.

From pink to orange to Missouri to dark green and then back to orange.

Here’s where I’ll be going. (As usual, chime in with suggestions regarding places to go, people to meet, establishments in which to eat, etc.)

June 7 — Oklahoma City RedHawks

June 8 — Tulsa Drillers

June 9 — Northwest Arkansas Naturals

June 10 — Springfield Cardinals

June 11 — Travel (should be in Memphis that evening)

June 12 — Memphis Redbirds

June 13 — Jackson Generals

June 14 — Arkansas Travelers

So, there you have it: Eight days, seven teams, four states, two leagues, one making-it-up-as-he-goes-along writer. Any ideas on what I should call this trip? Some pithy name that nicely represents the general region? Let me know.

And now, without further ado, it’s time to put a wrap on Florida. The previous, and penultimate, post of this “Return to the Road” series ended in DeFuniak Springs. From there it was just an hour drive to the final destination of Pensacola, a short trip that included my final appearance at a Florida rest stop. This boldly emblazoned truck was in the parking lot:

Soon enough I was in Pensacola, a city that felt unlike all the others I had visited on this trip. In a word, it felt distinctly “southern,” and my immediate reference point, Minor League market-wise, was Mobile (where I visited in 2010, to see the opening of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum). (One piece of wisdom I heard during this trip was that “in Florida, the further north you go the more southern it gets.” I would concur.)

I arrived in the early afternoon, and spent an hour or so wandering around the downtown area.

Free parking, so long as you back in at an angle.

St. Michael’s Church, serving the Catholics of Northwest Florida for over 230 years.

Cannibal Corpse had played Vinyl the night before (!), with Steve Earle scheduled for the following evening. (It was an eclectic venue, as Lil Kim had an upcoming show as well. I wish all of the aforementioned artists were together on one bill, and then went on to record an album produced by Rick Rubin).

This barber shop had all sorts of memorabilia in the window, and I made a (failed) promise to myself that I would get a haircut there the next day. But the only picture of mine that really came out features this wonderful sign.

Downtown’s Palafox Place was lined with bars and restaurants…

For lunch, I followed a reader recommendation and stopped in at a dark and spacious bar and restaurant called Hopjack’s. They have a lot of beer.

I had a sense of deja vu as soon as I looked at the menu, with the emphasis on artisanal pizza and duck-fat fries bringing to mind a place I’d been to twice when in Mobile. That place was, in fact, another Hopjack’s. There are three of them total.

Blackened shrimp and peppers fold, with duck fat frites.

I spent that evening at the Pensacola Blue Wahoos game, and you can find my post on that HERE.

But you know what? I spent the entire next day in Pensacola as well, and still have a lot left to share. So rather than let this post get more unwieldy than it already is, I’ll renege on my oft-repeated claim that the Florida content will end today.

It’ll end tomorrow. Promise.

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: Days Inn and A Night Out

I plan on posting my next road trip itinerary before the week is out, but for now the supplemental Florida content keeps on rolling along. When we last left off, I had visited two wildly different Spring Training venues in the Fort Myers area before heading to Port Charlotte (home of the Stone Crabs).

Before checking in to Port Charlotte’s Days Inn, I stopped for lunch at this quality dining establishment.

I mention this because this marked the only time on this trip that I had a chance to order grouper (one of Southwest Florida’s most prevalent seafood options). The Olympia did a good job with it, I thought.

The Olympia Restaurant and the Days Inn were both located on “Tamiami Trail,” a quaint sounding name for what was in actuality a heavily-trafficked commercial road. If that’s a “trail,” then you might as well call the Empire State Building a shack…

But I, once again, digress. The Days Inn itself was nothing special, but its awesome backyard boasted an appealing otherworldly-ness. I was disappointed that the subterranean music club was closed, as that surely would have provided a hallucinogenic evening of down and dirty swampland jazz.

My final note on the Days Inn is this classic piece of passive-aggressive corporate communication:

And since I’m on the topic of hotels, the next day I traveled to Lakeland (home of the Flying Tigers) and holed up at the Imperial Swan. Did you know that this is the official winter home of the Detroit Tigers? It’s kinda obvious:

My room at the Imperial Swan was indeed fit for a regal waterfowl. For some reason I decided that Johnny Damon once spent a lot of time in this room while clad in a bathrobe. It was just a hunch.

The Imperial Swan had a decidedly Twilight Zone feel to it, however. The energy was just off. I felt like I was the only one in there, and as I rode my big wheel down the deserted hallways I half expected to come across a set of pallid hand-holding twins beckoning me to come play with them.

But that night’s dinner was an unexpected surprise. I decided on an unassuming Mexican place called “Peso’s,” and in addition to the standard-issue Mexican fare they had a menu of Cuban specials as well.

I can’t remember what this platter was called, but it made me glad to be alive. What a beautiful array of foodstuffs:

So, yeah: Next time you’re in Lakeland, go to Peso’s! It was so good that I was almost able to ignore the domestic dispute going on at the table across from me. Some chest-puffing Dad got so mad at his teenage son that he followed him out of the restaurant to, like, fight him in the parking lot. To distract me from that I decided to flirt with the waitress, which in my case means smiling and maintaining eye contact for half a second longer than usual.

Before leaving Lakeland, I made a pit stop at Henley Park Ballfield to soak in an old-time baseball atmosphere. Built in 1925 and currently on the National Register of Historic Places, this facility hosted Major League Spring Training through the mid 1960s. Since then it has served as the home of the Florida Southern College Moccasins, who do a great job with the upkeep.

I’ve got two or three more dispatches from Florida left, unless the public demands the immediate cessation of such content. Your wish is my command.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Spring Training Present, Spring Training Past

Today’s blog once again returns to Florida, in order to cover that which I couldn’t squeeze in the first time around. And there was PLENTY that couldn’t be squeezed in. There always is.

Day 2 of my journey began with breakfast at a Clearwater institution, one conveniently located two doors away from my hotel. Lenny’s:

This place specializes in gut-busting portions of greasy and satisfying breakfast food, and as such is popular with the hordes of Philadelphians who make annual treks to Clearwater to watch the Phillies in Spring Training.

Unfortunately, it was too early in the morning for me to have my act together. My camera’s battery died, and so I didn’t get any interior shots. But my dining companion Dave Deas (aka Clearwater Threshers’ mascot “Phinley”) did send over this pic of the menu.

Not the best resolution, but I hope it conveys the sort of personality the place has. So, yeah, go to Lenny’s if you’re in Clearwater. It seems like everyone does.

On my way out of Clearwater (heading toward Fort Myers) I drove past what was labeled as the “original” Hooters restaurant. From humble beginnings…

Soon I came upon what was perhaps the most visually spectacular bridge I had ever driven across: the Sunshine Skyway, which spans Tampa Bay. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but keep in mind that I was driving and probably shouldn’t have been taking a picture at all.

My ultimate destination this day was Hammond Stadium, home of the Fort Myers Miracle. I already wrote all about that experience, but as a prelude I stopped by nearby JetBlue Park. This is the new Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox, and it is known as “Fenway South” for a reason:

Red Sox fans absolutely swarmed this place during the month of March, as the facility was sold out throughout the entirety of the Grapefruit League schedule. But things were quiet when I arrived, as that evening’s “big” event was a softball tournament for JetBlue employees.

I more or less had the place to myself.

Not that anyone can just walk in and start taking pictures on the field. My visit was thanks to the generosity of Red Sox Spring Traning Operations employee Kevin Walsh, a Utah native and recent University of Richmond graduate who had extended the invite after seeing my Florida trip itinerary on this blog.

As soon as the park was opened to the public this past February, Red Sox fans swarmed to “Pesky’s Pole” in order to add a personalized touch.

Walsh’s primary gameday duty had been to work the manual scoreboard in left field. The numbers had to be updated from the warning track, meaning that he was a constant between-inning (and sometimes between-batter) presence during all Spring Training games.

We then entered Walsh’s lair, where numbers were stacked upon numbers were stacked upon numbers.

The view from the inside was beautiful (albeit limited) with the field resembling a water color painting:

While the outfield view seen above is not available to the ticket buying public, the following are:

 

Behind the stadium exist a complex of fields, utilized by Red Sox Minor Leaguers as well as softball players employed by an airline that sprung for a naming rights deal.

JetBlue Park is downright palatial, and cost $80 million to build (paid for by the county). It is rather stunning to contrast this super-sized Spring Training present with the region’s Spring Training past. The next morning, before leaving the Fort Myers area, I stopped by Terry Park.  This (comparatively) small complex of fields first opened in 1925, and hosted Major League Spring Training through 1987 (teams that trained here included the Philadelphia A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Royals). It is currently on the National Register of Historic Places, and still hosts myriad college and amateur teams.

It’s a decidedly intimate environment throughout, and striking in that this was a Major League site as recently as 25 years ago. Times have changed, and fast.

 But some things never change — how come martinis are never allowed at the ballpark?

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: 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: 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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