Results tagged ‘ International League ’

On the Road: Movin’ On Uptown in Charlotte

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Charlotte. 

Usually, when I go on one of these road trips, there is a “hook” that motivates me to visit the region in question. My first trip of 2014, which took place in late April and early May, brought me to the Southwest (and, later, Texas) because it seemed imperative to visit the El Paso Chihuahuas in this, their inaugural season. 2014′s second trip, which you are reading about now, was motivated by the desire to see the Huntsville Stars’ final season and the Charlotte Knights in their new ballpark.

This post will be devoted to the latter attraction. Welcome to Charlotte.

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The above photo was taken from just outside of the Knights’ new home of BB&T Ballpark (No, I don’t like these generic corporate names either, but money talks. Sometimes I have fantasies about being super-rich and buying ballpark naming rights, which I’d then let the fans christen via an online “Name the Stadium” contest.)

BB&T Ballpark has all the bells and whistles one would expect from a gleaming new downtown (or, in this case, uptown) facility, but its most memorable feature isn’t part of the ballpark. It’s simply the fact that the Knights are once again in Charlotte, surrounded by what is almost certainly the best urban ballpark view in all of Minor League Baseball. After a quarter century in which the Knights competed across the state line (in Fort Mill, South Carolina), they are once again Charlotte’s team.

I walked to BB&T Ballpark from a nearby hotel, and my first view of the facility was this.

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But I did not utilize this left field line entryway. My media pass was to be found closer to home plate, so further on I trekked. Along the way, I took note of these murals depicting Charlotte’s ballpark history.

During my long journey to another entrance, I made note of the fact that the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play just across the way. Surely, this photo will earn me some sort of award.

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And, what do you know? Most of the Carolina Panthers were right there on the field, taking batting practice.

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Some guys were more into it than others.

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Hitting stances varied…

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But the undisputed star of the show was long snapper J.J. Jansen. He handily won the “home run derby” that was taking place (my notes are a little unclear, but the only other guy who I saw hit one was quarterback Joe Webb).

Jansen in action. 024 I don’t know who this is, but my notes say “worst hitter, yellow shirt.” 026 Some views from the playing field. 028 030 Meanwhile, Jensen was reaping the spoils of victory. I felt happy for the guy, as his “day job” is one that gets no recognition whatsoever. The only time people give a second thought to the long snapper is when he messes up,  kind of like driving a pace car or being an umpire. 031 I flirted with the idea of interviewing some Carolina Panthers, but writing an article with the topic of “football players take batting practice” didn’t seem very appealing. Instead, I just soaked in the atmosphere. IMG_1533 By the time I emerged on the concourse, there were already a lot of people roaming the concourse. When it comes to this ballpark, Charlotte fans are definitely still in the honeymoon period. (In fact, the Knights have already established a new attendance record.)034 I’ll write about some of the food offerings a bit later, but for now I’d just like to note that Dave & Frans (a popular Charlotte restaurant) sold pork rinds, boiled peanuts and sweet tea. These are three of my favorite things in the world. 036 Moving on to the outfield — more vantage points! 038 039 041 042 043 046 I had never seen a NEOS Wall at a ballpark before. In fact, I had never seen a NEOS Wall, period. But it was really cool, kind of like a Nintendo Power Pad for a new generation. Video games combined with exercise. 040 But enough about NEOS. Pourin’ it was out there and, like soothing ointment on a flesh wound, the front office was putting the tarp on the field. This marked the fourth time on this trip in which I witnessed a rain delay. The weather, it was just not on my side.

BB&T Ballpark is equipped to handle many things, but it’s not quite equipped to comfortably accommodate a near-capacity crowd on the concourse. I’m not sure if many (or any) ballparks are.

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The hoi polloi were packed in like sardines, but those with access to the upper club level (suite holders and such) had plenty of room to move.

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A brief detour to the press box resulted in an impromptu meeting with Ernesto Hurtado, who produces the Knights’ Spanish language radio broadcasts. I wrote a story about that HERE.

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After a brief rain delay, that evening’s scheduled contest between the Knights and Rochester Red Wings was ready to begin. What a beautiful ballpark atmosphere.

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With the game underway, Knights media relations director Tommy Viola (one of the hardest working men in Minor League Baseball) took me on a little tour of the facility.

 

We started in the outfield.

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On the whole, the Knights have taken a “fresh and local” approach to their concessions. One notable exception is that the team chose Buffalo-based Sahlen’s as the official hot dog provider. Tommy said that the front office taste-tested dozens of varieties, and simply decided that Sahlen’s was the superior product.

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Some fans get their hot dog fix before the game, however, as 88-year-old Green’s Lunch is located across the street from the stadium. This iconic establishment has extended its hours in conjunction with the Knights’ home schedule.

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In perusing Green’s menu, I noticed that they serve “livermush” as one of their breakfast side dishes. I had never heard of livermush, but it’s the scrapple of the south! Pig liver, head parts and cornmeal never looked so good. I would eat it, so long as it’s gluten free, and it just might be!

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There’s no way to properly segue from livermush, so I won’t even bother. Moving on…

This is the “Home Run Porch,” a $10 standing room only area that has proven to be very popular in the early going (especially with the younger, Thirsty Thursday kind of crowd).

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Cornhole

The Home Run Porch is a great place to watch the Charlotte sunset.

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Turning in the other direction, one finds Romare Bearden Park. Named after the celebrated artist, this picturesque public space opened last year.

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One can also see new apartment complexes, such as The Vue.

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While on the Home Run Porch, I spoke for a few minutes with Knights vice-president Dan Rajkowski. He said that buildings such as The Vue are becoming commonplace in uptown Charlotte, and he expect to see another 1500 units built within the next year. The Knights plan to capitalize on their existence within this booming part of town by staging outside sporting events, festivals and concerts. There are also plans to develop a portion of what is now a massive berm seating area, adding a hotel and office buildings.

From the Home Run Porch, we made our way back to the press box. I can’t remember why we went to the press box, but while there I poked my head into the Knights’ control room. It takes a lot of manpower to run the widest scoreboard in Minor League Baseball!

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Tommy and I then made a cameo at the Dugout Suites, a group area that is closer to home plate than the pitcher is.

Homer quickly became a good friend of mine.

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The Dugout Suites offer remarkable access to the dugouts themselves.

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This picture, I just like it.

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I had to leave the Dugout Suites, as an indistinct yet unavoidable destiny awaited.

091In the nightly “Royalty Race,” I was to be the Queen (Charlotte is the Queen city, after all). My opponents were Jerry the Jester and King Meck.

093It can be hard to get into these costumes.

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We had some downtime before the race was to begin, and I wanted to delay my entry into that MRI-like costume for as long as possible. Tommy and I wandered down the hall, so that I could interview veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell. He’s been with the Knights since the 1980s, and my story on him is HERE.

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After wrapping things up with Eddie, I maneuvered my way into the Queen outfit and triumphantly ran to victory. (Is there any other way to run to victory?) However, the photos from this riveting competition are momentarily unavailable. We’ll just have to move on without them. Again, just know that I won.

Next thing I knew, I was staring at a plate of Queen City Cue pulled pork and mac and cheese. Queen City Cue is a Charlotte-based BBQ restaurant, one of several local eateries who have partnered with the Knights. Eric Hassey, general manager of Ovations concessions. told me bringing in the locals was “what we tried to do, and what we’re most proud of.”

100I, too, had brought in a local.

Meet Matt Campbell, the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Matt’s been a loyal reader of this blog for many years, which I greatly appreciate.

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If Matt looks familiar, it’s because he’s been on this blog before (or maybe because you’re married to him). In 2011 he and his family visited me when I was in Winston-Salem to see the Dash.

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2011 file photo

But at this juncture of this particular evening, Matt was solo. He was enthusiastic about the Queen City Cue, saying that it was legit Carolinas-style BBQ and his meal of choice prior to attending Charlotte Checkers games.

“You can watch shows on who has the best BBQ, but we have the best,” he said. “We do it better than anyone in the country.”

(I know that there are a several regional variants within the Carolinas, and if anyone wants to provide their opinions on this matter then leave a comment or get in touch via your preferred forum.)

While Matt was pontificating about BBQ supremacy, Tommy and I ducked into the on-site Fuzzy Peach (frozen yogurt) store. There is an entrance from the street, and this place is open whether the Knights are playing or not.

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No matter what flavor of frozen yogurt you go for, make sure to top it with a Gummi frog.

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Don’t forget, there was a game going on through all of this.

106But I had to check on Matt, who now had a hot dog in his hand.

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Not just any dog, but the Carolina Dog. It was topped with chili and cole slaw.

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Go ahead, Matt.

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Matt, ever the Carolina loyalist, said that the slaw was not a traditional Carolina variety because “it’s not mayo-based at all.”

“But this is good, it’s tasty,” he continued. “I’ve had too many beers to now be eating a hot dog, but even though this is not your typical slaw it has a crisp, fresh flavor.”

And that’s all I’ve got from Matt. Tommy and I continued on to the team store, were one can buy a foam helmet if one so desires. These are popular with the Thirsty Thursday crowd.

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We then stepped outside to check out the commemorative bricks, which are still available for purchase. (For $90 or $150, depending on the size).

“There are so many stories in these bricks,” said Tommy.

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RIP Drungo.118

And who can ever forget this guy?

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Hey, look! The Knights won! I saw about two and a half minutes of the ballgame, at three-to-five second intervals throughout the evening.

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I actually attended the next afternoon’s game as well, and also made a pit stop at the team’s old home of Knights Stadium. But I might not have time to get to that, at least not in the immediate future. Just remind me that I owe you guys and gals (women read this, right?) another post from Charlotte.

Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Banging Heads and Headbanging in Lehigh Valley

Like nearly everyone who works in Minor League Baseball, I’ve reached the point where it’s nearly impossible to attend  a game strictly as a fan. I certainly try to, but just being at the ballpark makes me feel as if I have to get at least a blog post out of it. Relaxation amidst the gentle rhythms of our National Pastime is pretty much out of the question.

That was the situation this past Friday, when I attended a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game with a conglomeration of friends representing overlapping areas of my Philly suburbs-to-Pittsburgh-to-New York City personal history. Some of these friends will soon offer guest blog posts of their own, and I plan an eventual “Return to the Road” post focusing on some of the many, many wonderful things that the Lehigh Valley has to offer. But, for now, here are my “fan mode” observations from an enjoyable Friday night spent with Minor League Baseball’s top-drawing entity.

The IronPigs play in Coca-Cola Park. As corporate ballpark names go that’s a pretty good one, although I find it frustrating that Coca-Cola does not offer the delicious white birch beer that is otherwise so prevalent in the Lehigh Valley region.

Storm clouds loomed over the area throughout the day, and were still creating a threatening backdrop as the 7 p.m. game time rolled around. But, mercifully, a deluge did not occur and the game was played without incident. Our seats were right behind plate, offering an excellent view of the playing field (as seats behind home plate are wont to do).

The chance of inclement weather undoubtedly kept some fans away from the ballpark, but there was nonetheless a fairly robust crowd as the game got underway. To the left:

To the right:

But, as is always the case, there was no time to relax. Utilizing the vast influence that comes as a result of authoring one of the internet’s top 400,000 blogs, I was able to place two of my friends in the nightly “Whack an Intern” on-field contest. We were ushered down to the third base dugout area by always-hospitable director of public relations Sarah Marten, where this was the view.

Steve and Beth eagerly awaiting their moment of on-field glory.

The interns, meanwhile, morosely prepared for their nightly half-inning of ritualized abuse.

“Whack an Intern” is pretty much what the name implies — a modified game of boardwalk classic “Whack-a-Mole,” in which the moles are replaced by real-live interns. The IronPigs don’t take the contest to the delirious extremes of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, but it still makes for some great visuals.

Here, director of promotions Lindsey Knupp helps Steve with his inflatable boxing glove (perfect for whacking interns, of course).

Each contestant gets 30 seconds to whack as many interns as possible. Beth went first, utilizing an approach that was heavy on finesse. Her style drew prodigious crowd support, despite Steve’s hapless attempts to quiet everyone down.

Steve’s strategy, meanwhile, was a flailing display of brute force.

The final tally was Beth 19, Steve 16. And to the victor goes the spoils.

Upon the conclusion of the contest, I proceeded to the East Gate to meet late-arriving friend Andrew J. Shal. He was wearing a Dio shirt, as he is wont to do, and immediately began pontificating on the IronPigs experience (stay tuned for a guest blog post).

We were in our seats long enough to take in the nightly pork race which, as you can see, ended in a photo finish.

Upon the conclusion of the fifth, I joined Andrew J. on the field for some more between-innings shenanigans. We were two of the four contestants in the nightly “Human Bobblehead,” in which a pedometer is affixed to each competitors forehead. He or she who bobbles the most over the course of 30 seconds, wins.

Awaiting our moment to shine:

Don’t knock my shorts. I love them.

“Shining”

Andrew J.’s stolid head-banging (no doubt that this was playing in his head) proved to be far more effective than my histrionic apoplections. Another victor, more spoils:

One should never eat prior to participating in a human bobblehead contest (this is something that I learned the hard way, earlier this season in Tulsa). But afterwards? Now we were good to go! First order of business was a celebratory Lime-a-Rita at the Tiki Terrace.

From the Tiki Terrace its a short walk to the glorious views of the center field berm.

An even more glorious view, courtesy of the “Aw Shucks” stand in right-center field.

From there we hit up the Blast Furnace Grill. Andrew J. got the pierogies.

I certainly could have inquired, but instead I took a leap of faith and just assumed that these Philly Fries would be gluten-free (as I have mentioned 36 times previously, I have celiac disease).

“Philly Fries” are topped with chopped steak, Cheese Whiz, peppers and onions. And, outside of potential “dedicated fryer” issues (I’m still a little lax on that front), they are indeed gluten free!

It’s worth mentioning that these fries cost $3, and the pierogies a mere $1.50, thanks to the IronPigs’ “Battlefield Challenge” promo. I had meant to pay more attention to this creative endeavor throughout the game, but here’s the scoop: 

During Battlefield Challenge (occurring during every game from August 8 thru August 13), the actual playing field at Coca-Cola Park is divided into six battle zones which the IronPigs and their opponent try to gain control of in an effort to conquer the entire playing surface. Control is gained or lost through plays that occur on the field such as hits, RBIs and home runs. Fans can follow the action via Coca-Cola Park’s videoboard. When Lehigh Valley controls all six zones, all fans in attendance are rewarded with a 40 to 50 percent discount on all food and non-alcoholic beverages available at all concessions stands!

Control the zone!

We made it back to our seats in time for an up-close-and-personal visit from FeFe, who was practically sitting on my lap (my most successful interaction with a female this month!)

And, jeez, the game was pretty much over after that (a crisply-played 6-0 IronPigs win). But this being Minor League Baseball, there was still launch-a-ball…

and fireworks…

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and then a post-game drink at the Tiki Terrace while local scouts prepared for an on-field overnight.

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As we were leaving, one of the campers spotted Steve on the concourse and asked for an autograph. Why? Because he had been enamored with Steve’s violent Whack An Intern stylings. Steve obliged, albeit grudgingly.

And with that run of sub-par photography, I’m going to call it a blog post. Thanks to the IronPigs for the hospitality, and look for more Lehigh Valley viewpoints in the near future. I command you.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Smooth Moves, Smoother Infield

Official Logo.jpgThe Triple-A All-Star Game takes place TONIGHT at Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park, and the eyes of the baseball world will be fixated on this star-studded exhibition between the Pacific Coast and International Leagues.

The rosters are set and the participants have arrived, so just one thing remains to be determined: Which league has the better dancing grounds crew?

That oft-posited query will finally be answered tonight, as Fresno’s “Drag Kings” and Lehigh Valley’s “Dirt Dudes” are both raking the diamond in separate half-inning breaks.

The Drag Kings are flying in from Fresno for the occasion, and they are ready to assert their supremacy on hostile turf.

“This is a great honor four is and we’re truly appreciative of the opportunity,” said The Kid. “Not only do we get to represent Fresno and the PCL, but we get to show off what makes us the best and most original dancing grounds crew in baseball.”

“It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” added Silkee. “So, we consider ourselves sincerely flattered.”

The Dirt Dudes could not be reached for comment, presumably because they were hard at work on their impeccably choreographed turf-tending routines.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com
twitter.com/bensbiz

IL Communication

InternationalLeague.gifThe 2008 campaign is a big one for the venerable old International League, which, much like John McCain, is celebrating its 125th year of existence. This milestone will be commemorated in a number of ways, perhaps most notably when the Rochester Red Wings and the Syracuse Chiefs clash in the “Cooperstown Classic” at the Baseball Hall of Fame on May 18th.

But, for my money, even more intriguing is the IL’s recently announced fan photo contest. Starting on May 1, fans are invited to submit photos they have taken within International League ballparks. Each month, the best entry will be awarded with what is currently described as “an exciting prize package.”

This contest will surely result in a deluge of amateur photographs from aspiring shutterbugs around the country. In order to create order from the chaos, the league has divided the contest into several distinct categories. The category for May is “Ballpark Action”. This will be followed in short order by “Fans”, “Mascots”, and, my favorite, “Ballpark Promotions.”

Once again, this contest begins on May 1, at which point fans can submit their photos to http://www.ilbaseball.com/photocontest

I’m a fan of baseball, the International League, contests, photography, the internet and categories, so you better believe I’ll be keeping an eye on this throughout the season.

Also, lest I forget…New Promotion Preview column out now. Click here, and make sure to cast your vote for the week’s best.          

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