Results tagged ‘ International League ’

On the Road: Steak, Cheese and ‘Cue in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

This is Ken Childs.

050Ken, a Massachusetts native, attended college (and played baseball) at North Carolina Wesleyan College. Collegiate wood bat aficionados may remember him from his stint as bullpen catcher for a Cape Cod League Hyannis Mets team that included Jason Varitek. Upon graduating from college in 2001 he moved to Durham, and in Durham he remains. Ken is currently an IT manager for Duke’s anesthesiology department. He also works as a PA announcer at South Boston [Virginia] Speedway and covers bobsled, skeleton and luge at his website slidingonice.com. Ken, clearly a 21st-century renaissance man, is also a diehard Durham Bulls fan. He’s a half-season ticket holder with front row seats located just past the first base dugout.

Finally, and most importantly to the purposes of this narrative: Ken served as the designated eater when I attended May 7’s Durham Bulls game. Therefore, it was his duty to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. That ballpark cuisine included the Angus Barn steak and cheese sandwich that he is brandishing in the above photo.

Let’s take a closer look at this $16 behemoth.

049Angus Barn, a well-known upscale Raleigh steakhouse, is one of two new Bulls food vendors for the 2016 campaign. These steak and cheese sandwiches — angus beef, grilled onions, peppers, cheddar cheese and secret sauce on Italian bread —  are prepared and sold out of a concourse kiosk. The only other item on the Angus Barn menu is cheddar cheese and crackers; clearly, steak and cheese is the prime attraction here.

“You have no shame, right?” I asked Ken, as he was preparing to take his first bite of this imposing creation.

“My softball team’s name is, quite literally, No Shame,” Ken replied.

At this moment, I knew I had selected the right man for the job. Have at it, Ken.

“Amazing,” said Ken, while removing dripping foodstuffs from his chin. “I don’t know what the secret sauce is, but it’s delicious as hell. This is the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had. I’m not even exaggerating here.”

As for the hefty $16 price tag, Ken said it was justified but conceded that there are better deals to be had.

“The food here [at Bulls games] is so good, and so much of it is not $16.”

That said, he then went back to rhapsodizing about his sandwich.

“I’m taking some huge bites here. Everything is cooked perfectly. It’s fantastic.”

053 2016’s other new ballpark food vendor is Makus Empanadas. We didn’t have any luck there, unfortunately. It was the seventh inning, and they were already sold out.

055Undaunted, we traversed over to the third base side of the ballpark in order to sample the day’s two Star Wars-themed beverage offerings.

056On the left is Vader Ade, consisting of Fruit Punch Gatorade and blood orange sorbet. On the right is Yoda Soda, which is Lemon-Lime Hawaiian Punch with Sierra Mist and lime sorbet. Ken sampled the former and I the latter. Both were overwhelmingly sweet. Kids would love ’em, I think, but it was a little too much for my refined and sophisticated adult palette to handle.

“It tastes like ice cream covered in Pixy Stix juice,” is the quote written in my notebook. I’m not sure who said that, me or Ken, so let’s just consider it a team effort.

Despite having eaten a massive steak and cheese sandwich in less than 10 minutes, Ken was still hungry. Or, at the very least, he was still willing to stuff more food into his mouth. Next up was a visit to Smokebox Barbecue, located on the outfield concourse.

058The Smokebox is “eastern style” vinegar-based barbecue. Ken opted for the ‘Cue Dog, which is a hot dog topped with pulled pork and coleslaw.

057Ken gamely assented to starring in yet another Vine video.

“You’ve got to come at this thing from the bottom to really get it right,” said Ken. “But the barbecue is incredible, and that plus the dog and the slaw, it all comes together. It’s inexplicable, really.”

As with the steak and cheese sandwich, Ken consumed this oversized item within the span of a few minutes. His food consumption efforts were nothing if not conscientious, focused and dedicated.

“I’m not one to back down from a challenge,” he said. “Thankfully, there’s no bad challenge here. The food here is incredible. They’ve got a little bit of everything, and it’s fantastic. It really is.”

Thanks to Ken volunteering to be my Durham Bulls designated eater. This was an experience that really stayed with him.

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On the Road: Star Wars Sells Out in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

A short time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a hackneyed Minor League Baseball writer began a blog post about the Durham Bulls’ May 7 Star Wars promo with an uninspired reference to the film. That writer? Me!

When the last post in this Bulls blogging trilogy ended, I was on the field and a game was about to begin. I don’t want anyone griping to me about continuity errors, so I’m gonna pick up right where I left off. So, there I was: standing on the field with the game about to begin.

What’s up, Leia? I’m surprised they let that Wookiee standing next to you into the ballpark. Chewtobacca is banned in Minor League Baseball.

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The above two compatriots were soon joined by Han Solo — or at least what passed for Han Solo on this beautiful day at the ballpark.

038As the first pitch approached, Bulls manager Jared Sandberg took a moment to model the team’s Star Wars uniform.

IMG_1179It was cool to chat with Sandberg, even if it was only for a minute. Most players/coaches/managers don’t know who I am, as my side of the Minors generally doesn’t deal with what’s happening on the field. But Sandberg is a fan of the “exploring America through Minor League Baseball” angle, and we made extremely tentative plans to go on a MiLB road trip after he retires from coaching and managing. Be on the lookout for that in 2047 or so.

Once the game began, I had a few innings to engage in some idle wandering. A sold-out Star Wars crowd in a beautiful ballpark on a beautiful Saturday afternoon — what more could one want from their Minor League Baseball experience?

This photo, sent to me by the team, depicts Luke Maile at the plate for the Bulls. He shoulda changed his surname to “Skywalker” for the occasion. (Get it? It’s a Star Wars reference.)

Luke Maile UniformYou know who else should’ve assumed a different identity? Bulls on-field host Jatovi, who could’ve affixed an “Obi-Wan” in front of his name. Note that Jatovi, a true fashion icon, is wearing a Star Wars shirt with tags still affixed at the neck and an “X-Large” sticker on the front.

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During my laconic travails around the ballpark, I witnessed a variety of between-inning events. This Vine was filmed in the aftermath of a Bull Durham mascot race, featuring Crash, Nuke and Annie. I believe Wool. E. Bull — a.k.a. Han Solo — was in there as well, but he didn’t finish after having been banished to the abyss.

This photo, again sent to me by the team, depicts an abdomen-baring moment of the Diamond Cutters grounds crew dance.

Han Solo DCsAt one point during the middle innings, I wrote and disseminated a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

At another point during the middle innings, I participated in an on-field Star Wars trivia contest. It was a setup, as all the “correct” answers involved me doing a Wookiee yell. I did my best to appease the masses, and for the rest of the afternoon random fans stopped me to say “Good job!” or a variation of that sentiment.

Ken Childs, the disseminator of the above tweet, was my designated eater for the evening. His exploits will be chronicled in the third and final post of this Bulls trilogy. Once my time with Ken was complete, the game was in its waning innings.

060The waning innings waned a little longer than usual, however, as the Tides and Bulls were deadlocked at 1-1 after nine frames. This gave me the opportunity to write and disseminate another groundbreaking ballpark joke.

I wish I could report that the Bulls won on a “Han” solo home run, but it was not to be. Instead, the Bulls emerged victorious after Dayron Varona (who has a Star Wars-style name, at least) hit a two-out walk-off double. Jaff Decker, who had singled with one out, scored the winning run. The sellout crowd, therefore, went home happy.

@durhambulls win, 2-1, in 11, after a walk-off double by Dayron Varona. I was far away when it happened.

A video posted by Benjamin Hill (@thebensbiz) on

And that did it for my evening with the Durham Bulls. Stay tuned for the aforementioned food-related post, appearing a short time from now in, yes, a galaxy not-so far away.

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Pawsox “Free Brady”; Bisons Intercept

Yesterday evening, the Pawtucket Red Sox announced that Friday’s game on June 10 would be “Free Brady Friday.” This is, of course, a reference to the Infinite Jest of sports scandals, the absurd dystopian opus that just keeps on giving: Deflategate.

As satirical current events-related sports scandal-themed promos go, this one is pretty tame. Fans named “Tom” or “Brady” will be admitted to the game for free, and $13 box seats will cost $12 in honor of Brady’s uniform number (of that $12 ticket price, the PawSox will donate a “quarter back” to the Brady-supported “Best Buddies” charity).

Today, in what is the International League promo equivalent of a rap battle, the Buffalo Bisons played Drake to the PawSox’s Meek Mill. June 11, a doubleheader vs. the Charlotte Knights, is now “Keep Brady Suspended Night” at Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Park.

Keep_Brady_Suspended_640_0rexm4c9_oyoh46zlThe Bisons, calling an audible, have fired back pretty hard with this one. I’m not sure Brady supporters can handle these offensive lines, man. They’re doing everything here short of playing underhanded soft ball. Per the team:

The New England Patriots quarterback has been suspended the first four games of the 2016 NFL season for cheating in a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. To show our support for this just and rightful punishment, the ‘Keep Brady Suspended Night’ will feature:

Buy-One, Get-one Free Tickets to anyone that brings a PROPERLY-INFLATED football to be donated to area youth football programs

Accepting UN-DESTROYED cell phone donations for ‘Cell Phones for Soldiers’ charity

A 12.5% discount in the Bisons’ gift shop for anyone that brings a Tom Brady jersey/T-shirt to add to the postgame Fireworks Display
Help us remind Tom of the minimum amount of inflation for footballs,
for you know…once he gets to play again

Scoreboard videos featuring some of sports’ greatest cheaters,
with special video tribute to Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick

The Bisons go on to state that “If you are named ‘Tom’ or ‘Brady’ you will be allowed into Coca-Cola Field … but will not be allowed to watch the first four innings of game one of the doubleheader. Please, no appeals.”

Here’s hoping the PawSox will soon respond in kind, escalating this promo battle royale into even more rarefied air (or lack thereof). Good thing, though, that the Bisons hail from Buffalo, as nothing has occurred during that city’s long and distinguished football history that anyone could possibly make fun of.

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On the Road: The Force Awakens in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

It’s hard to talk about the Durham Bulls without referencing the 1988 movie Bull Durham, portions of which were filmed at the team’s old home of Durham Athletic Park. The film made the Bulls an internationally recognized name, and the ensuing publicity and increased crowds helped the erstwhile Carolina League team move to a new ballpark (Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995) and level of play (the Triple-A International League, in 1998).

All of this is to say, the current Bulls experience is a long way from that which was immortalized in Bull Durham. A galaxy far, far away, perhaps, given that I visited the team for its annual Star Wars promotion. Can you imagine Crash Davis wearing something like this?

IMG_1169Yet, there are plenty of iconic elements still incorporated into the Bulls’ game experience. As I ventured to the stadium on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, walking through Durham’s Tobacco District, the back end of the “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign served as my North Star.

001En route to the home plate entrance, I saw a bull that clearly hadn’t been fed in a while.

003And then — bam — there it was: the imposing front entrance to Durham Bulls Athletic Park (which will henceforth be referred to as “DBAP”).

004Shortly after arriving, I sat in on a brief promo team meeting overseen by Bulls director of marketing Krista Boyd. Here are a few quotes from this confab that I scribbled down as Krista went over the agenda. (This year’s Star Wars promo was a tribute to Han Solo and mascot Wool E. Bull was dressed up as Han.) It appears that Margot (or is it “Margo”?) had a busy day.

“Margot, you’re with Chewbacca and Leia. Chewbacca’s in seven-inch platform shoes so he walks slowly. His name’s Ryan in real life.”

“Kylo Ren will take Luke into the abyss at the end of the [mascot] race.” 

“Margot, you’ll help get Chewy, Leia and the other characters, all the Storm Troopers, to Jackie’s Landing so they can dance for the Cantina Cam.”

“Wool E. Bull will drive a landspeed racer at the end of the fifth.”

“Margot, you’ll be with Leia and meet Grace at [section] 116 for the Star Wars Kiss Cam. Wool E. will give Leia a kiss. Then get the mini-Kylo Rens ready. There will be five of them. During this time the Diamond Cutters [grounds crew dance team] will be performing….Nico, you coordinate with Grace about having the mini-Kylo Rens go after Wool. E. with the light sabers.” 

There was a lot more than than, but you get the point. Minor League theme nights, done right, take a lot of planning and coordination.

After receiving their briefing from General Boyd, the promo team was ready to go into battle.

005I then was led to a room that had been pressed into service as a changing area for members of the 501st Legion’s Carolina Garrison. The 501st Legion is legion throughout the country, and crucial to the success of Star Wars promotions. Its members appear at the ballpark, gratis, in full movie-quality costumes.

I ended up speaking with Scott “Darth Vader” Wilmoth…

Vader guy…as well as Sandie “Princess Leia” MacLachan.

Leia and cardI wrote an MiLB.com story based around these interviews, which I would encourage you to read. Click HERE.

I should mention that I was guided during these pregame wanderings by Bulls director of communications Matt Sutor, a master of corridor, concourse, staircase and onfield navigation. After bidding adieu to the Star Wars crew, he and I paid a quick visit to the Bull Durham Beer Company. While many Minor League teams have their own team-branded beer, this is something else entirely. The brewery is actually located on the concourse, in what used to be a pop-up team store.

010The Bull Durham Beer Company is an independent operation, and not owned by the Bulls. There are currently four full-time employees, and four beers on tap at every Bulls game. These include 2016’s two additions to the line-up, “Lollygagger Kolsch” and “Water Tower Wheat.” I was told that the the brewery expected to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 pints on this beautiful Star Wars Saturday evening.

Anyhow, it was nice chatting with this group of brew company employees for a few minutes. I apologize to the woman on the left, as the picture I took in which your eyes are open was too blurry for me to use.

012Another current concourse highlight is the tobacco card-themed wall art, painted in conjunction with a season-long exhibit at the Durham History Hub.

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Meanwhile. out on the concourse, I was able to confirm that it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

015DBAP underwent $19 million in renovations prior to the 2014 season, and one of the most prominent additions was a large social space down the right field line dubbed Jackie’s Landing. Jackie’s Landing — so-named because it runs parallel to Jackie Robinson Drive — includes the 42 Playground and 42 Bar. Here’s the bar, which probably had Bud Light on tap. Just a guess.

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Videoboard upgrades were also part of the renovations. Though the game was still about an hour from beginning, a Star Wars-themed headshot of Tides’ leadoff hitter L.J. Hoes was already fired up and ready to go.

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Up in the press box I spoke with PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, a native of Durham who attended his first Bulls game in 1962. My conversation with Tony, an affable and interesting guy, was summarily turned into this MiLB.com article. 

019A brief peek into the owner’s suite — the owner in this case being Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting — revealed an old-tyme barber shop atmosphere….

021…as well as some old-time video games. Shoutout to Matt Sutor, who earned a blog cameo via his deft mirror positioning.

022This is the “PNC Triangle Club,” whose tables are either circles or squares.

024Meanwhile, outside, Star Wars mania was in full effect. Costumed 501st Legion members were hot photo op commodities.

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IMG_1175Outside and inside of the ballpark, it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

032And this time, when I returned to the field, my new friends were waiting for me.

IMG_1178I hope this post gave you much to Chew over. Right now I’m gonna Leia down and take a nap, but please know that the next installment of this Durham Bulls Star Wars blog trilogy will appear very shortly.

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About Last Night: Durham Bulls, May 7, 2016

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll write an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my presumed return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

May 7: Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the — wait for it — Durham Bulls (Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays)

Opponent: Norfolk Tides, 5:05 p.m. ET start time

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, from the outside: 004

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, from within: 

060Culinary Creation: Angus Barn Steak and Cheese Sandwich

049Ballpark Characters: Princess Leia and Chewbacca, characters from a cult movie that was being celebrated at the ballpark.

036At Random: Another career highlight.

Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Joke of the Day: 

Up Next:

May 8: Greenville Drive

May 9: Charleston RiverDogs

May 10: Myrtle Beach Pelicans

May 12: Columbia Fireflies

May 13: Carolina Mudcats

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Eating Blount and Sipping Del’s in Pawtucket

To see all posts from my September 1, 2015 visit to the Pawtucket Red Sox (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my August/September 2015 trip through New England, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

The longest baseball game in professional history was played at Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium. The 33-inning affair began on April 18, 1981, continued into the wee hours of the 19th and was finally, mercifully, completed on June 23. Undoubtedly, this was the most monumental event to ever take place at McCoy Stadium.

The second-most monumental event occurred on September 1, 2015. On that evening, as the PawSox played the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, one Brian O’Connell served as my designated eater.

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All designated eaters should have credentials

As designated eater, it would be Brian’s task to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. As you can see from the above picture, he’s in good shape and doesn’t appear to be the sort of guy who gorges himself on concession stand fare. But he was up for the challenge.

“I’ve got no issues with it at all,” he said. “I ate healthy earlier today, so no worries.”

Brian is a Providence native who now lives in nearby Swansea, Massachusetts. He works out of Providence as a legal admin, and is also a soccer journalist whose work appears on the the website nesoccertoday.com. (In my notes this read “anysoccertoday.com,” which would be a good resource for those curious about game times and what not).

Brian’s soccer fandom came about later in life, but he’s been a baseball fan since birth. He played throughout his childhood, and started attending games at McCoy Stadium from the time he was seven years old. He was an intern for the PawSox in 2001, and said that the craziest thing he witnessed that season was this immortal Izzy Alcantara meltdown:

When it comes to their food offerings, the PawSox are significantly less crazy than an enraged Izzy Alcantara. Eric Petterson, the team’s director of concessions, said that the basics are king. Hot dogs, supplied by Kayem, are the number one offering at concourse stands such as these.

020But with all due respect, hot dogs are boring. Brian and I, with crucial assistance from Eric, decided to highlight the PawSox’s regional specialties instead. We began with clam cakes, which Eric called “the quintessential New England fried food. And this is the quintessential way to serve it, in a white paper bag.”

040The clam cakes are supplied by Blount, a Rhode Island-based clam shack with four area locations. The only thing more quintessentially New England than eating Blount clam cakes out of a white paper bag is dipping said clam cakes into a cup of Blount clam chowder.

“It’s way better than the red New York chowder,” said Eric, provincially and accurately. “We started selling it three years ago.”

Brian was excited to try this time-honored combination.

“It’s a good pairing,” said Brian. “The crunch of the clam cakes to go with the thickness of the chowder. It’s like a sauce. One complements the other, perfectly.”

Brian washed down his clam combo with Del’s, a regionally-beloved brand of frozen lemonade. I’m not sure why he looks so concerned about doing this.

043 “Del’s is definitely a southeast New England thing, specifically a Rhode Island thing,” said Brian. “If there’s an official beverage of the state, then it would probably be Del’s. Well, that or coffee milk. I’ve been told that if you go across the state line and ask for coffee milk, they think you’re asking for milk in your coffee. You don’t have to venture far to find people who have never heard of it.”

I was intrigued by this tangent, as I had never heard of “coffee milk” either. And, sorry Del’s, but Wikipedia informs me that coffee milk actually is the official state drink of Rhode Island — “a sweetened coffee concentrate called coffee syrup [added] to milk in a matter similar to chocolate milk.”

We move on from that piece of information to a piece of pizza.

045PawSox pizza is supplied by Portland Pizza, which Brian called “an upgrade over Papa Gino’s.” I’ll let you Rhode Islanders out there (all couple dozen of you) argue that one out.

But no matter what the brand, it’s better to eat pizza off of a plate.

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Despite being an upgrade over Papa Gino’s, Brian said that this slice “left a little to be desired.”

“It could have more flavor,” he said. “It could be a little zestier.”

We were gonna call it a night after the pizza, but Eric suggested that Brian eat some fries.

“Nothing’s number one in front of hot dogs, but the shoestring fries are a signature item,” he said. “You can get a lot for not a lot of money.”

049Brian’s appetite only seemed to be growing. He was a voracious eating machine.

050“The fries are always salty, but they’re some of the best around,” said Brian. “They’re crispy and light at the same time. But now I definitely need a drink.”

After taking a hearty swig of Del’s, Brian gave his final thoughts on the PawSox designated eating experience.

“It was great. I didn’t even know about the clam cakes and chowder. Blount’s is somewhat famous and I didn’t expect that it would be here. That was a good move. They are a super local staple.”

Oh, and speaking of super local staples, Brian suggested that the PawSox should offer the Rhode Island specialty that are Coney Island System hot dogs (also known as “New York System” or simply “Hot Wieners”).

“They’ve got to hire one of those guys who lines ’em all up on his arm.”

The future of PawSox concessions? Brian can dream.

Photo: huffingtonpost

Photo: huffingtonpost

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Nothing But the Real McCoy in Pawtucket

To see all posts from my September 1, 2015 visit to the Pawtucket Red Sox (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my August/September 2015 trip through New England, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

The previous PawSox post was a lengthy and discursive overview of both team and stadium history, interwoven into a contextualizing “pregame wandering” narrative. No promises, but it is my intent to keep this post — Part Two in the series — short and simple.

It was September 1, 2015 and the PawSox were taking on the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in a Tuesday evening contest. Both teams were out of postseason contention, but the show must go on.

036Let us now take a look to the left. I mean, why not?

037I spent the first several innings of the ballgame in close commiseration with my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). That will be documented in the next post.

By the time I returned to the stands, darkness had descended upon us all.

051I then spent the next couple of innings cataloging the observations of longtime PawSox fans dismayed at the team’s proposed move to Providence. Read all about it.

These conversations were followed by a requisite bout of wandering, which eventually brought me to the outfield berm.

054While on the berm, I captured this select snippet of “God Bless America.”

I thought that the above Vine came out really well, and that people on social media would pick up on it, but that didn’t happen. Oh, well. I’m used to it. I’ll just be out here by my lonesome being brilliant, for however long it takes for the world to catch on. I’m like the Melville of baseball bloggers, and while there are distinct downsides to one’s legacy being posthumous it just shows that I’m ahead of my time.

I no longer have any idea regarding what point I’m trying to make here. Do you have any idea, Paws? 056Yeah, me neither. So let’s just move on to a desultory Tuesday night rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

Seeking the mental clarity that often results from a new perspective, I made a rapid ascendance to the top of the stadium.  058The PawSox were wrapping up a speedy 10-2 victory over the IronPigs. Rich Hill, who I interviewed a decade ago, struck out nine over seven innings and earned the win.

The game may have been over, but the evening would not be complete without a Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke.

On the way out of the stadium, I passed through yet another shrine to the long and distinguished history of McCoy Stadium. As mentioned in the last post, this kind of stuff can be found all throughout the ballpark. It is a living museum, in perpetual celebration of itself.

060Outside the ballpark, I spent a few minutes cruising around in a golf cart with PawSox director of security Rick Medeiros.

065Rick, in addition to being a likable and outgoing guy, is a fellow blogger. Check out his “Rollin’ With Rick” blog, which recently dedicated a post to my evening at McCoy. One of Rick’s long term goals is to dethrone me from my #1″MiLB Pro” ranking on MLBlogs, but I’m ready for the fight.

square-upI’m ready for a metaphorical fight, at least. In a real one, Rick would knock me out no problem.

Anyhow, outside in the parking lot after the game, Rick and I kept tabs on the nightly autograph scrum. I’d never seen this before, but the PawSox have established a separate “kid’s only” autograph line. That’s a pretty cool innovation, as it gives them some separation from the middle-aged adults who comprise the majority of the autograph collecting ecosystem.

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And that just about did it for my one (and thus far only) evening at McCoy Stadium. On behalf of a faded concourse image of Ernie Whitt, I bid you all goodnight.

IMG_0358

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On the Rhode in Pawtucket

To see all posts from my September 1, 2015 visit to the Pawtucket Red Sox (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my August/September 2015 trip through New England, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

The fourth stop on my fifth road trip of the season marked the first time that my Minor League travels had taken me to Rhode Island. There is only one Minor League Baseball team in Rhode Island, and that team is the Pawtucket Red Sox. The PawSox, as they are often referred to as, have spent the entirety of their existence at McCoy Stadium.

001As you can see in the above photo, McCoy Stadium is located on Ben Mondor Way. Ben Mondor bought the PawSox in 1977, when their financial situation was dire, and turned the team into one of the most well-regarded operations in the industry. Two of his key employees then, Mike Tamburro and Lou Schwechheimer, went on to log decades of service with the club. Tamburro remains the CEO, and Schwechheimer stepped down as vice president following the 2015 season. The PawSox, all the way around, have been a model of consistency. They operate in the league’s oldest stadium, boast its longest-running affiliation and have a front office core that has been with the club for decades.

But nothing lasts forever. Mondor died in 2010 at the age of 85, and this past February his widow, Madeline, sold the team to a Boston Red Sox-affiliated ownership group which immediately announced its intent to move the team to the neighboring city of Providence. To say that this relocation plan has been controversial would be an understatement. Emotions have run high from the start, and everybody in Rhode Island seems to have an opinion. And, usually, it’s been a negative opinion.

The PawSox relocation controversy was front page news on the day that I visited. This machine was  situated just down the street from the stadium.

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I’ve written plenty about the PawSox in recent months, including articles (HERE and HERE) that originated during this visit. For a fairly up-to-date recap of the situation, click HERE.

To sum it all up: The Paw Sox will be playing AT LEAST two more seasons at McCoy Stadium, and probably more than that (the current lease expires in 2020). This post and those that follow will simply focus on what it is like to attend a game at McCoy. That’s where I was on this low-key Tuesday evening, and that’s where they’ll be for the foreseeable future.

McCoy is located in a scruffy, largely residential area. AMVETS Post 13 is located just down the street. 004This nearby driveway appears to lead directly into the back of the outfield fence.

005The Right Spot Diner, probably the most visible and best-known business in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, serves three meals and day and specializes in “Hot Wieners.” This is a Rhode Island-specific form of hot dog, which, according to Wikipedia, are also sometimes referred to as “Gaggers.” I went in before the game, sat on the counter, and got a hamburger steak with green beans. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

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Moving toward the stadium proper, I was greeted not by a hot wiener but by a cool bear.

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The bear’s name is Paws.

….

….

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Okay, resume:

McCoy Stadium is, in a word, venerable. There is a lot of history here, and much of this history is commemorated within the facility’s hallways, stairways, offices and ramps. I would bet that, taken together, no stadium in Minor League Baseball contains more team-specific memorabilia than does McCoy.

011McCoy’s main entrance is located out toward left field, so one of my first views of the playing field proper came from this vantage point. This is a stadium that immediately felt unique. Even after an extensive renovation (in 1999), there is nothing cookie-cutter about it.

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Souvenirs are available on the concourse.

015Many, many souvenirs. There is even an “autograph fishing set,” which, if you don’t already know, will make a lot more sense later in the post.

016On the concourse, one finds an extensive homage to McCoy’s biggest claim to fame. In 1981, the stadium hosted the longest professional baseball game of all time. The game, between the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings, took 33 innings to complete. 32 of these frames were played on April 18 and 19th.

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For what it’s worth, here’s what the team’s 1981 program looked like. None of the three players that this boy is dreaming about — Dave Stapleton, Glenn Hoffman, John Tudor — played in “The Longest Game.”

009Another great “McCoy Stadium Moment” occurred in 1999, when Paw Sox outfielder Michael Coleman went 7-for-7 and hit for the cycle in a 25-2 rout of Norfolk. As this sign notes, Coleman “became the first player in the history of professional baseball to go 7-for-7 and hit for the cycle in the same game.” Coleman played 22 games over part of three Major League seasons (1997, 1999, 2001) and didn’t hit for the cycle over the entirety of his MLB career (he collected eight hits, including one double and one home run).

Baseball is a rabbit hole. I’m always getting lost.

022McCoy Stadium is laden with such signifiers of the past. This painting of a sad-looking Rich Gedman, who did play in “The Longest Game, “is located on the ramp leading to the upper level.

023The view from the top of the ramp. Yep, more Paw Sox-related player signage can be seen from here as well.

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There is a ramp leading from the upper-level aisle into the press box, which looms above and in front of a section of seating. I don’t think that I’d ever seen that before.

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The McCoy broadcaster’s booth, which in 2014 was occupied by Josh Maurer and Will Flemming, has long been a hotbed of future big league talent. I wrote an article about this phenomenon for MiLB.com last offseason (after PawSox broadcaster Jeff Levering was hired by the Brewers), and that article was reprinted in the Paw Sox’s 2015 yearbook.

Pass the mic:

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Notable alumni

Every Minor League broadcaster wants to eventually get to the big leagues. But Pawtucket is a good place to be in the interim, as the listening audience is far bigger than the average team’s.

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McCoy Stadium also has what is considered to be the best press box spread in Minor League Baseball. Several people told me this, and despite the small sample size I would have to concur. If you work in the Minors, then you know how rare it is to get a healthy, balanced press box meal. What a perk.

I was in attendance during a Tuesday night in September, and just like in Lowell the night before I was told that I had picked one of the worst days of the season to visit. I seem to have a knack for doing such a thing.

But the show, it must go on. It always does and it always will. 028 The dugouts at McCoy are located at field level, directly under the seats (the seating bowl begins 10 feet above the field of play). This unorthodox layout has led to the tradition, seen in the photo below, of placing balls and other memorabilia into milk jugs and buckets for the players to sign. This is why the team store sells an “autograph fishing set.”

On a busy day, dozens of fishing apparatuses would be hanging from the railing as their owners waited for a bite from the players down below. But, again, this wasn’t a busy day. 029The fishing occurs at both dugouts. Note that here, on the visitor’s side, most of the hanging items are baseball card albums. 030Time to reel it in, folks, as the game was about to start. The PawSox, following established (but by no means mandatory) protocol, asked me to throw out a first pitch.

Me, thinking about throwing a perfect strike: pitch1Me, throwing a perfect first strike: pitch2Me, posing with a PawSox player after throwing out a perfect strike. pitch3The Paw Sox do it up right when it comes to first pitches, giving each first pitch thrower a commemorative cap and ball as well as a business card including a link to all of that evening’s pregame photos (which is where I got the three seen above).

After throwing out the first pitch, I was directed back into a corridor and, yes. That corridor was packed with memorabilia. 035Now is as good a time as any to “Paws” this McCoy Stadium saga. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion, which will appear as soon as humanly possible.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Pork, Pork, Pork and More Pork in Norfolk

To see all of posts from my June 26, 2015 visit to the Norfolk Tides (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

This, here, is the unassuming facade of ballpark restaurant Hits at the Park.

036Located far down the right field line at the Norfolk Tides’ home of Harbor Park, Hits at the Park is a full-service eatery open to all fans during all home games. An “all-you-can-eat” dinner buffet, featuring a rotating menu, costs $18.95.

That’d be the sensible option when it comes to dining at Hits at the Park. There is also, however, an insensible option: The “Salute to Pork” Challenge.

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The above platter consists of four BBQ pork sliders, four 4-ounce Cajun-smoked sausages, 12 pork wings (the equivalent of a full rack of ribs) and bacon and chili cheese tots. It’s five pounds of food altogether, and the challenge is to eat it in one hour or less. Those who do so receive the meal for free (a $60 value), as well as a celebratory “I Kicked the Big Pig” t-shirt and four tickets to an upcoming ballgame. Most importantly, successful pork-eaters attain enshrinement on the “Big Pig Wall-O-Fame” (located just inside the restaurant entrance).

Only three individuals have ever completed the challenge successfully.

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Yep, that dude on the bottom completed the challenge with just 30 seconds to spare. That must have been one of the greatest moments in Hits at the Park history.

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The “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame” has far more occupants. Whereas three have succeeded, several dozen had failed.

009Prior to visiting Harbor Park, I made sure to recruit a designated eater willing to take on the Salute to Pork Challenge. That individual was Andrew Lind, a writer for the local Tidewater News who covers, as he put it, “a little bit of everything.”

041Andrew volunteered to be the designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits) after his college buddy Josh Samuels told him about it. Samuels, the director of social media for the Columbus Clippers, served as my ballpark tour guide when I visited the Clippers last season. (Lind and Samuels are also pals with 2014 Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journal-writer Darius Thigpen, now with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Minor League Baseball is a small world sometimes.)

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Josh Samuels: Pork Challenge Instigator

“He’s never been a good influence on my life,” said Andrew, of Josh.

A good rule of thumb: If signing a waiver is a meal prerequisite, then it’s probably a meal you don’t want to have in the first place.

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But Andrew was up for it, regardless. He said that he hadn’t made any specific preparations for the Salute to Pork Challenge, other than to arrive at the ballpark on an empty stomach. His strategy was simply to “put the tater tots off for last” and to not touch the coleslaw.

As it turned out, Andrew would not be undertaking this challenge alone. On the left is one Tyler Rosso, a video intern for a local television station. (And yes, that garbage can is placed between them just in case a so-called “reversal of fortune” occurs.)

044Tyler’s late entry into that evening’s Salute to Pork Challenge was, quite frankly, the most baffling moment of the season for me. He just plopped down and took a seat, and since he had media pass I assumed he was one of Andrew’s Tidewater News cronies. Andrew, meanwhile, thought he was somebody I knew. After a few awkward moments, it was revealed that Tyler didn’t know either of us and had simply decided to participate after overhearing a conversation about it in the press box.

I was like “Well, okay, but you do realize that I’ll be documenting this entire event and you’ll be a part of it no matter what happens?”

Tyler assented with an affable shrug, like “Whatever you need to do, dude. I’m just here to eat some pork.”

Well, okay. The more the merrier.

The Pork Challenge platters were brought to our dimly-lit corner location with great fanfare.

IMG_1483In the below video, executive chef Steve Gillette, the mastermind behind the challenge, takes the mic and lays out the rules for everyone in the restaurant. This surreal situation now seemed even more surreal. Tyler isn’t even sitting at the table in the video. Was he a figment of my imagination? He sure seemed like it at the time.

Meanwhile, Andrew’s girlfriend Kayla can be seen sitting next to him. As soon as the Pork Challenge began, however, she went AWOL. (Probably a good decision.)

“I feel bad for him,” said Kayla. “It’s going to be a rough night if he finishes.”

Chef Gillette was expecting this to be an entertaining disaster. You can just see it in his eyes.

IMG_1479Andrew, meanwhile, seemed to be appealing to a higher power. I’d love to see this picture turned into a stained glass panel.

046The Pork Challenge officially began at 7:42 p.m. Alright, guys. Have at it.

Now underway, Andrew displayed a momentary burst of confidence.

“The sad thing is, after all this I’ll probably go home and want a snack,” he said.

Cory Evans of Ovations Food Services, seen on the left in the below photo, was the first person to attempt the “Salute to Pork Challenge” after it was devised by Chef Gillette.

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“I didn’t tap out, I just ran out of time,” said Cory of his attempt, before turning his attention to the evening’s competitors. “A helpful hint: Don’t drink too much water. Just sip it.”

“It’s the potatoes that get you,” added a nearby waitress, speaking in an emphatic Southern drawl.

But despite such helpful hints and overall moral support, this was a fundamentally lonely endeavor. It is times like these that try men’s souls.

047The game going on outside seemed a million miles away.

052“15 minutes into the Pork Challenge, Andrew has eaten all 12 wings. Still much meat to go.”

At 8 p.m., Andrew requested ranch dressing.

“It might be heavy, but it will give flavor when you need it,” he explained.

“I’d recommend a little piece of the kale,” countered Tyler. “There’s a lightness to it.”

12 minutes later, Andrew again chimed in.

“The worst part is the chewing,” he said. “The only way to cut down on that is to swallow bigger pieces, but that’s not gonna help you at all.”

We had now reached the half-way point. Andrew’s platter had congealed into a monolithic pork mess.

Both competitors, in it for the long haul, decided to stand up and stretch.

“I wish that I had gotten super-drunk before I did this,” said Andrew. “Then it’d go down easy.”

“This would be a good challenge for a stoner,” added Cory.

Chef Gillette stopped by again as well, telling the competitors to ‘Just close your eyes and throw down. Don’t stop. Don’t even listen to what I’m saying.”

053Good advice, but before re-engaging Andrew engaged in some light calisthenics. Gotta get the blood flowing.

055Cory, a Pork Challenge veteran, now assessed the scene.

“You’re looking pretty good for the halfway point,” he said of Tyler.

Andrew, however, was a different story.

“I’m worried about you. But you’ll both sleep very, very good tonight. I can tell you that much.”

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Despite Cory’s positive assessment, Tyler had reached his limit. With no warning whatsoever, he quickly reached over and made good use of the trash can. I snapped a picture of this, nothing graphic, but Tyler has gotten in touch with me to ask that I not use it. Okay, but there’s a lesson here:

If you don’t want anyone to take a picture of you vomiting, then don’t jump unannounced into an eating challenge taking place in a public location and, furthermore, being documented in detail by a member of the media.

Tyler, eliminated.

“I think it was the sausage that got me,” he said.

057This was all too much for Andrew, who immediately got up and moved to the next table lest he be the next to evacuate.

“Oh, I gotta move,” he said. “If I see it, then I’ll be the next one to do it.”

IMG_1490We were now in the homestretch.

Tyler, ever an enigma, declined to take his leftovers and quietly went back upstairs to resume working. Once again, I found myself wondering if he had ever been there at all.

“He don’t want no memories of that,” said a Hits at the Park waitress as she removed the remains of Tyler’s plate.

Andrew, meanwhile, had hit a wall.

“I’m seeing stars, and it threw me off when he threw up,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the same thing.”

But yet, he carried on, moving on to the tater tots because he “couldn’t deal with the meat anymore.”

058It was all for naught, however. Andrew simply could not finish in time. Good effort, though, as he made it about three quarters of the way through and had some pork sliders to take home and enjoy later.

So that’s how it all went down (and, in one instance, came back up). Congratulations to Andrew Lind, a proud member of the “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame.”

“Never again,” were Andrew’s final words on the topic. But also: “No regrets.”

(Click HERE to read Andrew’s first-hand account of the experience.)

059And congratulations as well to the mysterious Tyler Rosso. You made the night more interesting, Tyler, and I’m glad you stopped by.

061benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Having Cake, Eating it Too in Norfolk

To see all of posts from my June 27, 2015 visit to the Norfolk Tides (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

So what does Norfolk’s Harbor Park look like on a Friday evening in late June? I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you. Telling you would take descriptive writing skills that, quite frankly, I don’t have.

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Then above photo depicts the Harbor Park scene on Friday, June 26th, sometime during the middle innings. Truthfully, I didn’t have much to do at this juncture of the evening. My interview with Dave Rosenfield had lasted until sometime in the second inning, at which point I hightailed it down to the “Hits at the Park” restaurant in order to document my designated eater attempt the “Pork Challenge.” This will be documented in the next post.

I feel uncomfortable when I don’t have much to write about, but here we are. Um…here’s an alternate view of the nighttime action. Pretty big stadium, huh? As mentioned in the last post, Harbor Park has a capacity of nearly 12,000. The announced crowd for this contest against the Mud Hens of Toledo was 5,069, slightly below the team’s 5200 average (weird, as, again, this was a Friday night. A bunch of people probably got stuck in Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel traffic and gave up on going to the game).
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During my unfocused wanderings, I ran into mascot Rip Tide. Mascots are strange, by default, but I posit that Rip Tide is strange even by mascot standards. I’ve heard of a bulbous nose, but I’d never before seen a basebulbous nose. It doesn’t make scents to me.

067As for what Rip Tide is, I don’t know. He’s vaguely aquatic. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with dry land is what led to this infamous 2012 blooper, an absolute classic by any standard.

Rip Tide wasn’t the only costumed character lurking about.

069That’s Reggy the Purple Party Dude, a touring entertainer who may or may not have a large order of fries emerging from his skull. This photo was taken shortly after Reggy delivered a cake to an usher who was celebrating his birthday. Thing is, Reggy tripped and ended up smashing the cake into this guy’s face instead.

IMG_1497Being the enterprising journalist I am, a modern-day Damon Runyon by any standard, I landed an exclusive interview with the dude who got smashed in the face with a cake.

Truth be told, because it’s not gonna tell itself: the dude who got caked is Christopher Bruce, who usually performs as Reggy. His recent leg injury, referenced in the below video, has relegated him to bit player status in his own act. But — hey! — the show must go on. Reggy stops for no dude.

As Reggy signed autographs for his fans, I decided that it would be a good time to actually pay attention to the ballgame. Or, at the very least, make a painfully obvious joke about it.

The game stayed tied through the ninth, so extra innings it would be. This picture, taken in the top of the 10th inning, is not of a very good quality. But it is notable, at least to me, in that Toledo’s Mike Hessman was up to bat.

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Hessman, 37, is the all-time International League home run leader and has hit 429 total while in the Minor Leagues. Trust me, I’m on top of such things: IMG_1607 By virtue of his longevity alone, Hessman is my favorite player in the Minor Leagues. Also, he’s one of a small handful of MiLB players who is older than I am. (When Hessman retires, I’m going to have to re-evaluate my own long-term career goals, because right now my overriding philosophy is “Mike Hessman’s still out there doing what he’s doing, so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing.”)

Hessman popped out in this 10th-inning at-bat, but the Mud Hens had taken a 4-3 lead thanks to Jefry Marte’s home run to lead off the frame. The Tides did not go quietly in the bottom of the 10th, however. Rey Navarro singled to start the inning and then scored on Christian Walker’s double.

“They better [misspelled expletive deleted] win this,” I wrote in my notebook at this time. “Man on second, no out.”

After Derrik Gibson popped out on a bunt attempt, Steve Clevenger was walked intentionally. (Pantera’s “Walk” was his musical accompaniment as he made his way to first base.) Sean Halton then drew an unintentional walk to load the bases, bringing up Michael Almanzar with a chance to win the game. He did.

“Strange walk-off,” I wrote in my notebook. “Shortstop made a diving stop, but doesn’t throw home because he had no shot. Tides celebration was initially stilted and delayed, like ‘Wait, we won?'”

That was my recollection, at least. In the game log, it says that Almanzar grounded into a 6-5 force out as Walker came around to score the winning run. This makes no sense to me. One, I don’t remember seeing the shortstop throw to third base. Why throw to third in that situation? There was no shot at a double play, and a force out at third base was as good as a hit as far as the Tides were concerned. Something’s fishy here, which I guess is a common occurrence when your stadium is on the banks of a river.

Anyhow, the Tides won.

It was then time for Launch-A-Ball, everyone’s favorite skill-based post-game tennis ball-tossing endeavor.

073“Balls thrown from suites barely cleared the dugout,” I wrote in my notebook. “Some bounced on the dugout, some missed and then were recovered by fans in front rows.”

Wow, my notebook is a great source of information! I should look at it more often.

Kids then ran the bases as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama I’m Coming Home” played over the PA. Nice choice, guys.

074It was now 10:30 p.m. Do you know where your children are? Or, barring that, do you know where the nearest mermaid statue is?

This, entitled “Sandy Tide” (maybe she’s related to Rip Tide?) was designed by local artist Georgia Mason. It made its debut at the ballpark on April 18, 2015. It looks good at night.

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I guess I had enough to write about after all.

Fin.

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