Results tagged ‘ International League ’
It’s time for another installment of “Why I Love,” in which Minor League fans explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Jared Wicks, a Syracuse resident who, over the past decade, has become an ardent supporter of his hometown Chiefs.
Why I Love the Syracuse Chiefs, by Jared Wicks
(All photo courtesy of Jared Wicks, unless otherwise noted)
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, I was taught that there were two teams to root for: Syracuse University basketball and Syracuse University football. If you insisted on watching baseball, then there were New York Yankees games on TV. I was also taught that my family’s income level would only permit attending a few sporting events each season, and always in the upper, upper deck.
In my youth I was familiar with the Chiefs. But, like many people in the area, I never thought much of them. That changed during the 2004 season, when I was 17. I received some free tickets from my sister, so my friends and I decided to head to the ballpark. Why not? The list of things to do in the area on a minimum wage budget were few and far between. That night, after the seventh inning, my friends and I sneaked down to the lower level seats and watched a man named Russ Adams play for Syracuse. He made an impression on us, largely because of the PA announcer’s introduction of “Ruuuussss Ad-dams.” Then, just a few days later, my friends and I were at a local sports bar watching the Toronto Blue Jays play against the New York Yankees. Up to plate came a man whom I had recently been just a few feet away from. Yes, Mr. Ruuuuussss Ad-dams.
Ever since that day I’ve been a die-hard fan. The Chiefs have, without seeming to even try, made me feel important while providing top-notch entertainment. I am certainly not rich, but when I’m at NBT Bank Stadium it’s hard not to feel that way. For a small price, you can sit just a few feet away from the baseball stars of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Chiefs became my little secret, but it wasn’t long before all of my friends took to the idea of going to games. In the central New York area there aren’t too many entertainment options on a summer night, and it doesn’t get much better than being at the ballpark watching players competing within the highest level of the Minors. From my vantage point in section 105, row 1, I’ve gotten a chance to watch Jayson Werth, Vernon Wells, John Smoltz, Josh Beckett, Melky Cabrera, Bryce Harper and many, many more. I can hear, smell and see everything, and maybe even get to hear the players say “Thank you” after I scream out “Good luck.”
In all the time I’ve been going to games, one of the most important aspects has been getting a chance to meet and become friends with some great people. Unlike bigger sports franchises, Minor League Baseball provides an intimate atmosphere. I have gotten to know many season-ticket holders and fans on a first-name basis — or should I say on a nickname basis? One of my favorites is former season-ticket holder Michael Kendrick. (Or, as we liked to call him, “K Dad.”) Kendrick came to every game from 2005-13, and during this time he was responsible for hanging the strikeout “Ks” for the Chiefs pitchers. He also was known for his heckling of players, which he peppered with unique and obscure facts. He might mention a player’s interests outside of baseball, or call former Yankee prospect Shelly Duncan by his real name (it’s David).
And then there’s Dave, who sits in section 207, row 1 at every single game (and many road games, too). While quiet in nature, Dave boasts a vast knowledge of not just Syracuse Chiefs baseball but also politics, social issues and other areas of sports history. And of course I have to mention Lloyd “The Suspect” Broadnax. We call Broadnax “the suspect” because of the catchphrase he uses while heckling the opposing team: “You’re not a prospect, you’re a suspect!” Broadnax doesn’t stop his heckling for even one minute during the game. The writer of this blog, Ben Hill, learned that this past season. Hill was trying to interview him, and during the interview Broadnax would only answer his questions in-between pitches.
(That article can be found HERE).
As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to love the Chiefs, management at the ball yard changed hands prior to the 2014 season. Jason Smorol was named general manager, and everything that I always said I would love to do if I owned a Minor League team came to life during his first season. Smorol brought an unmatched energy to the ballpark, introducing great games, promotions, deals and themes that made you not want to miss a single game.
One night, during a rain delay, the Chiefs set up a free miniature golf course on the concourse. I mean, how cool is that?
One promotion that I really became a part of was Tattoo Night. This promo offered me a chance at two great things: One, to get a free Syracuse Chiefs’ logo tattoo, courtesy of the Chiefs and sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City. Two, that very tattoo now grants me free admission for life to all Chiefs games.
Regardless of the tattoo, the Chiefs are well worth the five dollar cost of admission. They have provided me with years of not just entertainment, but memories. Summer nights with friends, enjoying dollar hot dogs, talking about work and family, watching fireworks, laughing at monkeys dressed as cowboys riding dogs and even seeing things like a perfect game by Columbus Clipper Justin Germano and a four-homer game by the Chiefs’ Michael Aubrey. And last season I — and the whole city — was provided with a real chance to get excited. The Chiefs made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and won their first division title since 1989.
Being a fan of the Chiefs has also given me an opportunity to visit other great cities, simply by following the team. Day trips to Rochester, Scranton and even Cooperstown to see them play have allowed me to explore those cities.
Shopping, zoos and landmarks lead to great day trips, which still cost under $100 for two people (including game tickets, gas and food). I even got a chance, in 2011, to watch the Chiefs play the Pawtucket Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston. The seats we had would have cost $150 face value at a Red Sox game, but they only cost me $22 and that was for a doubleheader.
The cuisine at any ballpark is great, superior to any other sports option in Syracuse. The Chiefs sell Hoffman’s Hot Dogs, a central New York staple, a dog so good that Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim and Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach became investors. The Chiefs sell these hot dogs at the same price that it would cost you to make one at home and, on Thursdays, for even less than that. My love of all things Canada is satisfied with poutine, and there are also pulled pork sandwiches, salt potatoes (a New York specialty) and even a burger with a hot dog on top of it.
I have recently changed my goals in life, from working as a correction officer to returning to school. I now want to work in sports, preferably Minor League Baseball, and it’s all thanks to the Chiefs. I love this team because they love me right back. Unlike at Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field, there is something to be said for watching a sports team whose staff knows your name, whose ushers know your seat and whose players smile when they hear you say something funny.
While other sports fans in New York may struggle to obtain custom license plates of their favorite teams — they’re all taken — GoChiefs was available for me as a way to show my pride. Summer is meant to be spent outdoors, and in central NY there is no cheaper or better option than the Syracuse Chiefs.
Thanks to Jared for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2014 “On the Road” post detailing my Syracuse Chiefs experience. Jared even makes a cameo:
It’s time for another “Why I Love” guest post, in which a Minor League fan explains what it is they love about their favorite team, and why. Today’s guest writer is Ken Childs, a proud resident of Durham, North Carolina and, therefore, a proud fan of the Durham Bulls.
Why I Love the Durham Bulls, by Ken Childs
(All photos courtesy of Ken Childs)
I’ve been a resident of the beautiful city of Durham, North Carolina my entire adult life. The city has transformed over the last 14 years from what was almost an afterthought of a place into a bustling center for local restaurants, shopping and the arts. And in the middle of all that growth has been (and always will be) the Durham Bulls.
You’ve probably heard the name: There was a little indie movie made about the Bulls in the 1980s that did okay. The players who have come through here have shaped the Major League Baseball landscape for quite some time. The Bulls have been a consistent model of how teams should be run, and that has been shown in their continual trips to the Governors’ Cup playoffs. The list of “what’s not to like” about the Bulls, their home of Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) and their organization as a whole wouldn’t be long enough to fill out an index card, let alone this space, so we’ll go with “what there is to like” and ramble on for a while all about it!
Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995, is considered “older” now, at least when compared to the Minor League Baseball building boom that’s come about over the last decade or so. Nonetheless, you likely won’t find a nicer stadium anywhere. On any given summer night, on the corner of Blackwell and Jackie Robinson, you’ll find families, friends, couples and desperately single guys alike settled in the beautiful 10,000 seat stadium to take in not only great baseball, but great entertainment in general. And the building itself is what those new stadiums aim to be. You want your Minor League park to be a smaller version of a Major League stadium, downtown, near lots of restaurants and things to do both before and after the game? The DBAP has long been that, before most new stadiums were even a glimmer in an architect’s eye.
The DBAP has its own little quirks that make it like no other: There’s the bull (of Hit Bull, Win Steak fame), Jackie’s Landing (the nicest bar in Durham), the Blue Monster, the grass in the outfield entire families sit on to enjoy a game on a weekend evening and no other shortage of things that make it unique.
For a facility of its caliber, and a team of its caliber, the Durham Bulls are just about as budget-friendly as their mascot, Wool E Bull, is family-friendly (the “E” is short for “Education”…seriously).
The Bulls offer dollar hot dog nights, the best fireworks show anywhere (your town’s 4th of July show pales in comparison, I promise) and lots of great coupons and deals to get in on the cheap. And, even if you don’t, the most expensive ticket in the place is $15. Admit it: in the past, you’ve spent a lot more on a lot less.
So that’s what there is to love, in general, about the Durham Bulls. Now, why do I love them? For starters, they’re my hometown team. At heart I’m a Chicago White Sox fan, and their Triple-A team is down the road in a lesser city in North Carolina playing in the same International League division. But when they come to town, you can only root for one team, and that’s going to be the hometown one (even if the Bulls are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays).
At heart I’m a “people person” kind of guy, and the Bulls’ entire staff are the same way. From Jatovi (the Bulls on-field announcer and master of ceremonies) to general manager Mike Birling and everyone in between, there’s not a single person who won’t go out of their way to help a fan make his or her experience amazing. I’m not a needy guy, but anytime I’ve ever had any issue with anything, there was someone there in a Bulls shirt to lend a hand.
I’m also a sucker for food and cheeky events, and the Bulls have me covered that department as well. There’s Food Truck Rodeo night, where all of Durham’s best food trucks (and we have many) line up in right field. There’s craft beer night, ’80s night, ’90s night and the always popular Bark in the Park night. The concessions have everything from traditional ballpark food to taco stands to what is truly some of the best BBQ anywhere. So, whatever you’re in the mood for, DBAP most likely offers it. The on-field action is always great, but sometimes it’s that little extra fun in-between innings that makes the night special.
And, of course, there’s the baseball itself. The roster is generally made up of outstanding players who are also outstanding people. Hardly ever do you see a player skip a chance to sign an autograph, grab a picture with a fan or flip an extra ball to a kid in the first few rows. Great players like David Price, Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Craig Albernaz, Desmond Jennings and so many more have spent substantial time here in Durham, and this has led to the knowledge that, at any given ballgame, you’re seeing the future of baseball right before your eyes.
The Bulls are always in the hunt for the playoffs, and since moving to Durham in 2001 I’ve seen them win the International League championship four times. Baseball is always a little bit more fun when your team is winning, and that is rarely a problem here in Bull City.
In short, there are a lot of baseball teams out there, but none are as great as the Durham Bulls. Candlesticks always make a nice gift, but Bulls tickets might be just a little bit nicer.
Thanks to Ken for taking the time to write this and, again: If YOU would like to submit a post for this series, then send an email to the address below. In the meantime, here’s my 2011 “On the Road” post detailing my Durham Bulls experience.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
The first Minor League game that I ever went to was in 1989, when I saw the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons play at Lackawanna County Stadium. The Red Barons were a Philadelphia affiliate, and as a fanatical young Phillies fan, I loved seeing players in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre whom I might one day see play in Philadelphia. I also thought it was really cool that Lackawanna County Stadium was designed as a mini-Veterans Stadium, so that players who got the call-up to the Phillies would already have a good sense of the field layout as well as the unforgiving nature of the artificial playing surface.
I attended Red Barons games on a semi-regular basis over the next half decade or so, one of the primary perks of my grandparents having bought a house in nearby Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania. I remember cheering on the likes of Greg Legg, Steve Scarsone and Jeff Grotewold, and occasionally seeing rehabbing Major Leaguers such as Darren Daulton and, on one memorable day, Darryl Strawberry (suiting up as a member of the visiting Columbus Clippers). These are my first, and still some of my best, Minor League Baseball memories.
Some two decades later, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre still has a Triple-A team. This much has remained constant. But the franchise has switched affiliations (from the Phillies to the Yankees in 2007) and rebranded itself twice (becoming the Yankees in conjunction with the 2007 affiliation switch and then adopting the “RailRiders” name prior to the 2013 season). Furthermore, the team is playing in what is essentially a new ballpark. Renovations to Lackawanna County Field (now called PNC Field) were so extensive that the team was forced to spend the entirety of the 2012 season on the road. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball experience of my youth is no longer. The franchise is now ensconced with a whole new epoch and on Sunday, August 31, I finally got the chance to see it for myself.
* * *
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was the 10th and final stop of my fourth and final road trip of the 2014 season. Finally, the end was in sight, and it seemed fitting that my travels would end with the franchise where my relationship with Minor League Baseball began. I arrived at the ballpark in the late morning, and was greeted not by a parking attendant but by a “Director of First Impressions.”
“Director of First Impressions” and other whimsical approaches to customer service can be attributed to team president Rob Crain, who came aboard in 2012 and oversaw the stadium renovation and rebranding efforts that occurred prior to the 2013 season. He had experience with that sort of thing, having previously been a part of similar endeavors in Omaha (during the 2010-11 offseason, the Omaha Royals moved to a new ballpark and named themselves the “Storm Chasers”).
It was approximately two hours until the start of the game, meaning that I had the parking lot practically to myself.
I wasn’t the first one to arrive, however. These fans were already in line, presumably so they could obtain one of the team-logo toothbrush holders that were to be given away.
Which, by the way, looked like this. (I’m not sure where the toothbrush is supposed to go, but whatever. I’m sure those in the know will bristle at my ignorance.)
I met Rob Crain outside of the ballpark, and he gave me a tour of the facility. Let’s begin.
* * *
This mural depicting Northeastern Pennsylvania’s history and culture, was painted by local artist Evan Hughes. (His was the winning design in a contest staged by the RailRiders prior to this season.) The mural runs alongside the steps that lead to PNC Field’s Mohegan Sun Club, a private second-level club and suite area.
Outside the entrance to the Mohegan Sun Club, I happened upon this curious sight.
The RailRiders were set to play the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and in response the team was roasting a pig and selling the resulting “IronPig Sandwich” for $7.50.
The RailRiders had already lost the “IronRail” head-to-head season series with Lehigh Valley, and both teams had long been eliminated from playoff contention, but there was still something to play for: the battle to not finish in last place!
The playing field is one of the few things at PNC Field that is not new. The days of this ballpark bearing a distinct Veterans Stadium resemblance are long, long gone.
For the record, Rob was very enthusiastic about the drink rail that wraps around the entire concourse. I think he used the term “Trex-style decking,” and I was like “How can T-Rex even hold a drink when he’s got those tiny baby arms?”
One of the coolest things about this “new” ballpark is the extent to which the natural landscape is incorporated into the outfield concourse. This is the Railhouse Bar.
Booze with a view.
And this picnic area is called “Oak Grove.” The trees are lit up at night, but, alas, I was there during the day.
“I’m not sure if the trees are oak, but that’s what we call them,” said Rob. “I’m no arborist.”
Stay off of the rocks, please.
Actually, on second thought: have a seat:
$2 buys three shots on the Porcupine Putt Putt.
“If you’re wondering, it goes to the left,” said Rob.
“We wanted the biggest, tallest, most intense visual we could find,” said Rob, explaining the thought process behind this gargantuan Fun Zone offering.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons/Yankees/RailRiders have retired two numbers over the course of franchise history. Greg Legg, No. 14, was not honored simply on the strength of his name, but because he played for the Red Barons from 1989-94. All told, Legg played 11 seasons in Triple-A, all within the Phillies organization, and he has since spent the last two decades coaching and managing within the Phillies system. Dave Miley, No. 11, has managed the club since 2007. He is the only manager Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has had during its time as a Yankees affiliate.
On the third-base side of the concourse, one finds this Midway-style attraction.
Ribbet Riders in action, featuring president Rob.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Frogs, but it was time to move on. The Laurel Line Grill is named after the Laurel Line trolley route. Did you know that Scranton is the birthplace of the electric street car? And that’s why the team is called the “RailRiders” in the first place? Well, now you do.
I’m not sure that I had ever seen this before: add peanuts for $3.00.
The Birthday Burrow is where all the cool Scranton kids have their parties.
During our lap of the concourse, Rob was in full taking-care-of-business mode. In addition to augmenting my tour with various ballpark facts, I witnessed him pick up stray pieces of litter, radio a co-worker about a broken armrest in section 11 and constantly monitor the weather via an app on his cell phone. A storm front was in the vicinity of the ballpark, and it was an open question at whether it would wreak havoc or steer clear.
In the meantime, Rob and I went upstairs in order to check out the aforementioned Mohegan Sun Club.
The four-top tables placed outside are in the shape of blackjack tables.
The elevated view from the second level makes it easier to appreciate the artistry of the groundskeeper.
The suite hallways are decorated with photos of Yankee greats.
In the suites, one finds induction heaters mounted inside harvest tables. Other teams are gonna have to step up their food-heating game!
There are 18 suites overall, identified by glowing signage modeled after that which can be found at Yankee Stadium.
Back on the concourse, pitcher Nick Rumbelow and second baseman Robert Refsnyder (separated at birth?) were in the midst of a 20-minute pregame autograph session. Refsnyder didn’t know it then, but weeks later he would win a MiLBY for Top Home Run Video.
The RailRiders’ press box and control room are located on the concourse level. Twenty-one games are broadcast on local television each season, with most of the equipment needed for such an endeavor found here.
With the game about to begin, I bid adieu to President Crain (for the time being) and wandered back to the outfield concourse. One of the coolest features of this area is the primo view it affords of the home and visiting bullpens. Here, IronPigs pitcher Sean O’Sullivan gets in some final tosses before taking the mound.
The RailRiders’ relievers struck a casual pose.
But the IronPigs’ bullpen denizens were even more relaxed. Dude on the left is all, “Man, it’s the penultimate day of the season. I’m not even gonna put on pants.”
* * *
With the game under way, I recommenced wandering, and, soon enough, my wanderings led me to this trio.
My conversation with the above trio led to an MiLB.com article, excerpted below of context:
Junichi “Jay” Inoue, Yu “Buffalo” Matsumoto and Tetsuhiro “Freddy” Usui were visiting the RailRiders from Sendai, Japan, as part of a tour of American sporting venues. All three men work in the “enterprise department” of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team commonly referred to simply as “Rakuten” — and they were in America on business.
Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui wanted to learn about how professional sports teams operate in the United States. The hope was that, after careful observation, they could apply some of these American ideas to the Rakuten baseball experience.
This trio of international travelers was accompanied to PNC Field by Morris Morioka, a native of Japan who has just completed his second season as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager of marketing and promotions. Two years ago, Morioka and IronPigs promotions director Lindsey Knupp traveled to Japan to share ideas at sports promotional seminars in Tokyo and Sendai. While in the latter city, they met Usui, who kept in touch with Morioka and solicited his help in planning a trip to the United States.
Inoue, Matsumoto and Usui had an interesting array of paraphernalia, including this Masahiro Tanaka golden bobblehead.
This concessions brochure was fascinating.
And, yes, your eyes do not deceive you. In the bottom right hand corner, Andruw Jones is eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And here’s a close-up of Andruw Jones enjoying KFC in Rakuten Eagles concessions menu. pic.twitter.com/gwKVBijEj2
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) September 22, 2014
* * *
After parting ways with my new Japanese friends, I returned to the pig carving station to see how things were going. A significant chunk of this unfortunate fellow was now missing.
I abstained from the pig, but, seeking sustenance, did procure an order of nachos. These were obtained from a concession kiosk sporting the incredibly creative name of “Nachos.” They were delicious.
Nachos consumed, I reconvened with President Rob to continue my tour. As we proceeded into the guts of the facility, I offhandedly mentioned that the game was “flying along.” Without missing a beat and without even turning around, Rob raised a finger in the air and said “Don’t jinx nothing.” Clearly, I had broken a baseball taboo: never comment on how quickly a game is proceeding. This will anger the baseball gods, who will respond with a rain delay and/or extra innings.
Anyhow, this is the visitors’ locker room. It is perfectly adequate.
The refrigerator in the nearby kitchen area was covered with signatures, sayings and off-color baseball poetry. One man who added his name to the mix this season was peripheral Duck Dynasty character Mountain Man.
Mountain Man was not just here this season, he was everywhere.
While the visiting clubhouse is adequate, the home clubhouse is spectacular. Rob mentioned that such deluxe accommodations aid the Yankees in their efforts to sign six-year Minor League free agents and fringe MLB veterans who might end up spending some or all of the season at Triple-A.
The weight room:
The former auxiliary clubhouse is now used as the groundskeeper’s area. Be jealous, other Minor League groundskeepers.
When we emerged back on the concourse, T-shirts were being launched. Note that image on the videoboard, as that’s one impressive-looking gun.
Later, a Honda Fit was given away to a fan who had correctly guessed the number of baseballs filling the trunk of said vehicle.
Those who did not win a Fit could still obtain a fitted cap at the team store. There were some interesting specimens therein.
Meanwhile, on the field, the game continued to fly right along. The RailRiders held a 1-0 lead through seven innings, with Tyler Henson leading off for the IronPigs in the top of the eighth.
Henson was greeted with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” as he strode to the plate, and he promptly deposited a fat-bottomed offering from Rumbelow over the center-field fence to tie the game, 1-1. In the bottom of the eighth, Lehigh Valley’s Hector Neris was summoned from the bullpen. I found it odd that a Philadelphia-affiliated pitcher was greeted with the Rocky theme while pitching on the road.
Making an entrance… https://t.co/OP26xEabxq
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
But that’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for ya. It’s a land of divided loyalties.
Rob’s efforts notwithstanding, apparently I had jinxed this ballgame’s ability to conclude at a rapid pace. For in the bottom of the eighth inning, the rains came.
A tarp snafu resulted in the right side of the infield getting completely waterlogged.
I was certain that the game would be called immediately, but this was not the case. A protracted rain delay then followed, indefinitely extending my season-ending road trip. I entertained myself by watching “Baseball’s Best Blunders” on the videoboard until, finally, mercifully, the following message was broadcast to the fans.
Finally, my 2014 ballpark travels were complete. Just before exiting PNC Field, I thrilled to one last instance of creative Minor League Baseball sponsorship.
But as much as I was looking forward to finally returning home, I nonetheless was overtaken by a pervasive melancholy upon leaving the ballpark. In 2014, I would be “On the Road” no longer. Seeking to postpone my inevitable offseason existential crisis for as long as possible, I shuffled about at a snail’s pace and snapped photos of anything that even seemed remotely interesting.
Hey, Gene Schall! I remember seeing him play back in 1993.
Finally, at approximately 5:30 p.m., I officially closed the book on this season’s travels.
And that’s all she wrote. See you at a MiLB ballpark in 2015, hopefully. https://t.co/h9jcwBuj2i
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 31, 2014
Thanks to all the teams that hosted me, the fans I met and, most importantly, everyone who has taken the time to read this season’s crop of MiLB.com articles and blog posts. I really appreciate it. Get in touch anytime, and stay tuned later in the month for the start of offseason content as well as odds and sods left over from the road. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
On Tuesday, Aug. 27, I woke up in Buffalo and, after a concentrated burst of exploration in that fine city, hit the road and drove 150 miles on I-90 east to Syracuse. While flipping through the radio dial on the way there, it seemed like all the disc jockey chatter was focused on the New York State Fair. People in this region of New York seem to LOVE the State Fair, an annual 12-day, late-summer extravaganza that takes place in a town just west of Syracuse proper. During the drive to Syracuse, I thrilled to a radio host’s impassioned rant against a new State Fair policy banning goldfish as one of the Midway game prizes, and, later, I was less than thrilled to hear that people seemed to enjoy seeing Train and the Wallflowers perform the night before.
But the New York State Fair — featuring performances by Journey and Cheap Trick! — wasn’t the only game in town on Aug. 27. For it was on that evening that I attended a ballgame at NBT Bank Stadium, home of the Syracuse Chiefs. Ignoring the adjacent “Park and Ride” State Fair parking lot, I deposited my vehicle within a vast expanse of asphalt and proceeded toward this, the main entrance.
2014 was a very interesting season for the Chiefs, both on and off the field. Last fall, after a string of money-losing seasons and increasing dissatisfaction regarding the direction of the community-owned franchise, John Simone was replaced as general manager by Jason Smorol. In November I wrote an article about this chain of events, excerpted here:
In 2013, the Chiefs drew only 345,000 fans to NBT Ballpark, the lowest total since the stadium opened in 1997. Upon the conclusion of this dispiriting campaign, the news only got worse as a financial report released by the team’s board of directors revealed that the franchise had already lost more than $500,000 in 2013. This was, by far, the most that the International League franchise had ever lost in a single year.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. And at the end of September, the board relieved general manager John Simone of his duties. Simone had served in that role since 1996, taking over for his father, legendary executive Tex Simone, who had been at the helm since 1970. The 2014 season will mark the first time since the 1960s that a Simone hasn’t been in charge of the Chiefs, and stepping into that void will be none other than Smorol. Can he turn this ailing franchise around?
2014 not only marked Smorol’s first season at the helm, it also included the Chiefs’ first trip to the postseason since 1998 and their first division title since 1989. (On the day I was in attendance, they were on the verge of clinching the North Division title, a feat accomplished three days later.)
After introducing myself to Mr. Smorol, I proceeded to the press box and took in the view on what was an overcast but generally pleasant evening at 17-year-old NBT Bank Stadium.
The concourse was sparkling.
Walking further down the right-field line, one finds the “Hank Sauer Room of Legends.” Sauer played four seasons as a member of the Chiefs (1942-43 and 1946-47, with two years of military service in-between), hitting 50 home runs in 1947 at the age of 30. This solidified him once and for all as a bona fide power hitter, and he went on to play in the Majors from 1948-1959 (winning an MVP Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1952).
Smorol later told me that the team has “grand visions” for the Room of Legends, as the long-term plan is for it to house the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
Outside of the Room of Legends, one finds this tribute to Syracuse’s “Mr. Baseball” Tex Simone. Prior to his retirement last year, Tex had been involved with the Chiefs, in one capacity or another, since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1961. (Other iterations of the Chiefs existed, in one form or another, from 1934-1957).
This bust had originally been located at the main entrance to the stadium, and its relocation to the Room of Legends did not sit well with the Simone family. This article, from Syracuse.com, details the ensuing controversy and provides a good glimpse at the turmoil that gripped the franchise prior to this season of transition.
Moving on to happier matters: 1911 is a local spirits and hard cider company whose products are readily available at this “Flavors of Syracuse” concession stand. (On an unrelated note, those two guys must have been so embarrassed when they realized that they wore the same outfit to the ballpark.)
All of the pregame photos shared thus far show few fans in the ballpark. But a significant number of early-arriving fans were indeed present, and their mission was to procure an autograph from special ballpark guest Bucky “Expletive Deleted” Dent. The line snaked through the concourse, as legendary Syracuse vendor Jimmy Durkin roamed up and down the line selling pens.
“Hey!” yelled Durkin. “Get your own pen right here! They’re any color you want! They’re only a dollar! Hey!”
“What we found out is that Syracuse doesn’t have a very large Latino population,” Smorol later told me. “This might be our last Latino Night.”
Speaking of Smorol, here he is on the scoreboard making a nightly pregame speech that details all of the activity that’s about to take place at the ballpark. I had seen Rochester Red Wings general manager Dan Mason making a similar speech several days before, and I think it’s a great idea. It sends the message that the general manager is open and personable, ready and willing to interact with the fans and listen to their suggestions and questions, and this is an especially important thing for someone in Smorol’s position to do. He’s the proverbial “new guy in town,” after all, and a big part of his job this year was to turn around the public perception that the Chiefs are an out-of-touch organization.
Oh, and for those keeping score at home: The videoboard seen above was installed prior to the 2012 season, boasting dimensions of 30 by 55 feet.
Meanwhile, my wandering continued. This is the view from down the right-field line:
During these solitary travels, I came across a piece of signage left over from the “Sky Chiefs” era. The team went by this moniker from 1997-2006, reverting back to the original “Chiefs” name in 2007. At that point the team adopted a train-themed identity that “honors the mighty railroads that shipped goods manufactured in Syracuse all over America.”
The Rochester Red Wings were that evening’s opponent. In the team’s bullpen, I noticed one-time Moniker Madness semifinalist Mark Hamburger receiving a vigorous back rub from one of his relief corps compatriots.
Hamburger then returned the favor. Hey, you scratch my back…
The game was now under way, and the Latino Night videoboard graphics were in full effect. (I’m not exactly sure why Steven Souza is listed as having a .000 batting average, as he played in 96 games for the the Chiefs this season. He and several other core Syracuse players were called up to the Nationals at the conclusion of the regular season, and this move angered Chiefs fans who felt that the team should have remained intact for the playoffs.)
The Chiefs are one of a few teams to feature an elderly mascot among their costumed character repertoire. Here’s Pops, up close and personal.
Soon thereafter, I caught a less up-close but still quite personal view of Scooch. Introspective mascot alert!
I didn’t just meet with mascots during these early-game peregrinations. I also spent a significant chunk of time with Brian Goswell and his son, Owen. They were my designated eaters for the evening (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Brian, his wife, Joanne, and Owen had driven all the way from Kingston, Ontario, in order to obtain designated-eating glory (although Joanne, probably wisely, had chosen to abstain). Brian, who works for the city of Kingston, serves as the president of the baseball league in which Owen, 12, competes. Owen is a catcher, and Brian proudly told me that he’s “got the art of framing a pitch down pat.” Owen, whose favorite player is Josh Thole, told me that I bore a striking resemblance to Thole’s battery mate R.A. Dickey. Does he have a case here?
Eponymous Biz Blog author:
Brian, a dedicated reader of this blog for several years, had long had designated-eating aspirations. He contacted me shortly after my 2014 trip itineraries were posted and promptly secured this honor, all the while unaware that his passport had expired. Thanks to his deft handling of the required bureaucratic maneuvers, a new one arrived in the mail the day before and his plans proceeded apace.
Oh, the irony: The Goswells crossed the border into the United States so that they could eat some poutine. Poutine, of course, is a Canadian specialty consisting of french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. This might be blasphemous to those living north of the border, but the Chiefs’ iteration of this dish replaced the cheese curds with shredded mozzarella.
Owen, an avowed poutine fan, says that his favorite poutine purveyors are New York Fries and Smoke’s Poutinerie. Of the Chiefs’ offering, he remarked that it’s “Awesome, better than some in Canada. I like the different cheese — mozzarella instead of curds.”
“When cheese, gravy and fries are added together, you can’t lose,” added Brian.
Next up was a fried clam sandwich, served with cole slaw and french fries.
Designated eaters check in, Syracuse Chiefs They drove in from Kingston, Ontario https://t.co/wkuHMiJ8Rt
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
“I’m not big on seafood, but I thought that this was good,” said Brian. “My wife was right: ‘Try it — you might like it.'”
“But she doesn’t need to hear about this,” replied Owen.
Next up was chicken wings with “Bang Bang” sauce, which Smorol raved about. (“It’s good on everything!” he enthused at one point. “Bang bang everything!”)
My photo of the wings is abysmal.
I’m not too familiar with the history and origin of Bang Bang sauce, but it appears to be a spicy-sweet mayo-based condiment.
“Jason was right: ‘Bang Bang everything,'” said Brian. “These are really good.”
“I agree,” said Owen.
“It’s not much that you and I agree on,” said Brian. “You’re coming around.”
“Don’t tell Mom this, either,” said Owen. “Then she’ll want us to get along all of the time.”
Meanwhile, Smorol couldn’t help but help himself to some chicken wings. What, the GM worry?
The upstate New York specialty that are salt potatoes made an appearance as well. I have no other photos or quotes involving these potatoes, but here they are.
Finally, there were some hot dogs. Hofmann’s hot dogs, to be exact, a local company that spells its name in counterintuitive “one F, two N’s” fashion.
“It was huuuge,” concluded Owen.
And that, as they say, was that.
“I have now fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams,” said Brian. “Being your designated eater.”
Brian had one final request before disappearing into the sunset. Would I please do a Syracuse Chiefs #Cupdate?
But of course. This one’s for you, collectible cup aficionados, courtesy of Brian Goswell.
After parting ways with the Goswells, I walked over to the concourse area behind home plate and introduced myself to legendary vendor Jimmy Durkin. I ended up conducting a brief interview with Jimmy, which will form the basis of an upcoming MiLB.com piece (I’m telling ya, this season’s road trip content might never end).
Lest we forget, there was a game going on.
Lloyd is a Chiefs superfan known for his profound heckling skills, and his backstory is an interesting one (read all about it in my “Suspect” MiLB.com piece). Here he is in action.
Lloyd “the suspect” Broadnax. Syracuse Chiefs heckling superstar https://t.co/NgimRgTExZ
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 28, 2014
The Chiefs held a “Tattoo Night” promo earlier in the season, in which fans got a team-logo tattoo in exchange for season tickets. Lloyd, not surprisingly, was one of the fans who took part.
Jared Wicks, a die-hard Chiefs fan who often sits in the same section as Lloyd, got a tattoo as well.
Lloyd, Jared, Ziv and everyone else had plenty to cheer about, as the Chiefs plated a pair in both the seventh and eighth frames en route to a 4-3 win. It was a good — “neigh” — great victory for the Chiefs. The fans cheered themselves “horse.”
I took that picture on my way out of the ballpark, but that was only so I could go back into the ballpark. My next stop was the Chiefs’ ground-floor front-office area, which features several full-to-bursting display cases of Chiefs memorabilia.
I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the front office, chatting with team staffers who were decompressing after (yet another) long day. I also spoke with 98-year-old Don Waful, a former Chiefs team president who is still a regular presence at the ballpark. Here, Waful points to his plaque on the Chiefs Wall of Fame.
Waful, a WWII veteran, spent more than two years in a German POW camp located in Poland. One of the American prisoners alongside him was Fred Johnson, the father of former Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Last February, Johnson attended the Chiefs’ annual Hot Stove Dinner specifically so that he could talk to Waful about his war memories. From a Syracuse.com article on the encounter:
Fred Johnson was a tank commander who slept in the same section of an Oflag64 barracks as Waful and six other men. But Davey Johnson recalls that his father – quiet and reserved – rarely spoke about what he endured as a POW.
Johnson looked forward to what he might learn from Waful, who told him about the intense cold at the camp, during winters in Poland. Waful told him about the awful nature of the food. But he also remembered the extraordinary camaraderie that bound together all the prisoners during the harsh days of the war.
It’s hard to top a story like that, so I won’t even try. Good night from NBT Bank Ballpark, an enjoyable place to take in a ballgame and a fine entertainment alternative to the New York State Fair.
(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)
When the Buffalo Bisons’ home of Pilot Field opened in 1988, it was amid of wave of intense baseball optimism in the region. The facility was built not just with the Triple-A Bisons in mind, but as the potential home for a re-locating or expansion Major League team. If this dream indeed became reality, then the stadium’s capacity would be more than doubled via the addition of more than 20,000 mezzanine seats.
Major League Baseball never came to Buffalo, of course, but the Bisons’ stadium (now known as Coca-Cola Field, after a series of name changes) remains a Minor League ballpark with a big league feel.
And even though the city’s big league dreams were never realized,
Pilot Park North AmeriCare Park Dunn Tire Park Coca-Cola Field was nonetheless a harbinger of things to come. It was the first stadium designed by HOK Sports, now known as Populous, the architectural firm that four years later designed Camden Yards in Baltimore. Its combination of retro aesthetic and modern amenities was extremely influential, helping set the stage for the ballpark revolution that was soon to come. (In which intimate, quirk-laden, baseball-specific environments — with real grass! — replaced cavernous multi-use facilities.)
It was an accident, but I love the father-son moment captured in the photo below. The kid’s decked out in a Bisons cap, shirt, and foam claws, and he and Dad are moving toward the entrance with enthusiasm and energy. I bet they had a great night.
This statue of former Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin was unveiled in 2012. From a press release issued by the team:
Griffin – who passed away in 2008 – did all he could to further the presence of baseball in the city of Buffalo, going to great lengths in support of the city’s push for a major league team – as well as in the development of Coca-Cola Field….[L]ightly crouched, glove outstretched, Griffin stands ready to deliver his first pitch – just as he did before the ballpark’s first-ever game on April 14, 1988. Considering Griffin’s omniscient presence in the area baseball scene, the statue is sure to serve as a reminder of one man’s dedication and love for a city, and a team.
The Bisons’ name dates all the way back to 1879, as from that season through 1885 a team by that name played in the National League. (Everyone involved with this incarnation of the franchise is dead. I looked it up.) The current iteration of the Bisons arrived in 1979 as a member of the Double-A Eastern League, transitioning to the Triple-A American Association in 1985 and then, when that circuit dissolved, becoming members of the International League in 1998. Buffalo-based Rich Products Corporation bought the team in 1983, and it remains under the Rich family’s ownership. (Rich Baseball Operations is under the Rich Entertainment Group umbrella. The Rich family also owns the Northwest Arkansas Naturals as well as the new Morgantown, West Virginia, New York-Penn League club formerly known as the Jamestown Jammers. Rich Entertainment Group is also involved in the theater scene, such as the current effort to turn Bull Durham into a Broadway musical.)
Upon gaining entry to the stadium, I proceeded to the concourse and snapped the following photos. It was August 26, the last home game of the regular season, and a pre-game awards ceremony was set to take place shortly as part of the evening’s Fan Appreciation Night festivities.
I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at this early juncture in the evening, so I texted my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). “Hey, designated eater, are you ready to eat?” I queried. “Yes, obscure blogger, I am,” he replied. (Or something to that effect.)
This is Phil Walck, designated eater.
Phil used to be a Bisons season ticket holder, but these days he attends five or six games per season. He lives in Niagara Falls and works for an unnamed “major freight forwarder.” (Major freight forwarding is a big business in this part of the country, due to the large amount of goods crossing the border between the United States and Canada.) Phil has been reading this blog for the last several years, and, when I posted my trip itineraries for the 2014 season, he jumped at the opportunity to become a designated eater.
“I love ballpark food, especially the weird stuff,” said Phil. “The only time I have hot dogs is when they’re a dollar.”
The Bisons aren’t especially “weird” when it comes to concessions, but public relations director Brad Bisbing later told me that the team has recently made a concerted effort to go local. Hence, you’ll find Wardzynski’s sausage, Charlie the Butcher’s “Beef on Weck” and Sahlen’s hot dogs. (I’m sure there are non-meat related examples, but that’s all I’ve got written down).
“Brad Bisbing, Buffalo Bisons” is a delightfully alliterative front office moniker. In search of further examples of splendid alliteration, Phil and I visited a cramped, crowded concourse concession area and procured a bologna sandwich. These are a relatively rare Minor League concession item, though I can recall that they are also sold at ballparks in Jackson (Tennessee), Danville (Virginia) and Louisville (Kentucky).
Looking for an escape from the the cramped crowded concourse, Phil and I headed up the stairs and immediately found plenty of room here (I later found out that this is primarily used as a vendor stocking area, and that appears to be what is happening there in the background).
The pre-game awards ceremony was now taking place on the field, but I was more concerned with Phil’s opinion of a bologna sandwich.
“This bologna is really good,” said Phil. “It’s thick — I don’t know the measurements — but they cut it thick. The bologna’s from a local deli, and the roll is from a local bakery. It’s a really good roll.”
Phil, who occasionally fries up bologna in the privacy of his own home after a long day of freight forwarding, said that “you gotta pop the middle, right in the middle. That does the trick.” Otherwise the center of the bologna will rise up like a hot air balloon and, perhaps, float away to parts unknown.
Since Phil seemed like a pretty knowledgeable guy when it came to food, I asked him the question that every Buffalonian has an answer to: Who has the best wings? He said that “it’s a very contentious issue” but it’s “gotta be Duff’s, and then Anchor Bar.”
But Buffalo is known for more than just wings. Buffalo is also known for its “Beef on Weck,” which is simply roast beef au jus on a kummelweck roll. Charlie the Butcher, a particularly well-known Buffalo-based purveyor of beef on weck, is available on the concourse.
The Bisons became a Blue Jays affiliate prior to to the 2013 season, and as a result there has been a considerable uptick in the number of Canadian fans visiting Coca-Cola Field. The Bisons aggressively market to fans north of the border (watch out for a future MiLB.com story on that), and Canadian money is accepted throughout the ballpark. Just keep yourselves in check, big spenders.
While waiting in line for our beef on weck, I caught a glimpse of legendary Buffalo beer vendor “Conehead.” My attempt to document Conehead in his natural habitat yielded woeful results, and he soon disappeared. Would I get another chance to view the Conehead, or had I missed my opportunity?
That question would have to wait, because, once again, it was my job to watch a man eat a sandwich. In this line of work, I have watched many men eat many sandwiches.
Designated eater checks in Buffalo Bisons https://t.co/GqlGHPiJLr
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 26, 2014
Outside of noting that there was “salt in the caraway seeds,” Phil had little to say about this sandwich other than that “it’s really good, just roast beef and jus.” I guess that’s all you need to know.
But you should also know that salt potatoes, yet another New York state specialty, are also available from Charlie the Butcher. They are gluten-free, of course, so I can report from first-hand experience that these potatoes were soft, buttery, well-seasoned and, in a word, delectable. I was pleasantly surprised that such a simple item had so much flavor.
Thank you, Phil Walck, for treating your designated eating duties with the reverence and dedication that the position deserves. I let him eat the remainder of his beef and weck and salt potato meal in peace, as I had places to go and people to see. He later tweeted this picture, for your edification and enjoyment.
— Phil Walck (@philwalck) August 26, 2014
“There is lots of good food here, it’s simple stuff,” said Phil. “There’s no bacon-wrapped anything, but it’s all good.”
While in the press box I spoke with none other than alliteration king Brad Bisbing of the Buffalo Bisons. He pointed out that, in addition to my random wandering, I might want to pay a little attention to the ballgame that was taking place. The Bisons and visiting Pawtucket Red Sox were in a tight pennant race and both teams had premier pitching prospects on the mound. (Daniel Norris for the Bisons and Henry Owens for the Paw Sox.) The Bisons had drawn more than 11,000 fans to the ballpark in each of the last five games, but Bisbing was predicting a crowd of 16 or 17,000 for this, the Fan Appreciation home finale.
The Bisons would then end the season with a six-game road trip, because they always end the season with a road trip. This is because the Buffalo Wing Festival takes place at Coca-Cola Field each Labor Day weekend, in which some 40,000 people combine to eat 20 tons of wings.
This festival has a fairly ridiculous origin story, which I fell compelled to share with you, the loyal, patient and marginally good-looking Ben’s Biz Blog reader:
The idea for the festival came from a movie called Osmosis Jones. Bill Murray starred as a compulsive eater with a goal of attending the Super Bowl of junk food, The National Buffalo Wing Festival. Ironically, there wasn’t one. That is when native Buffalonian Drew Cerza, now affectionately known as the Wing King, decided to make it happen back in 2002. This is a case of Real Life knocking off Hollywood!
After speaking with Bisbing, I was introduced to Bisons director of marketing and entertainment Matt LaSota. The two of us wandered down labyrinthian corridors for a spell, peering into various doors along the way.
Behind another door was a control room, housing the equipment needed to run what, at one time, was the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball. (The Memphis Redbirds usurped this honor in 2012, one year after the Bisons’ board was installed.)
80 feet by 33 feet, that’s what this is. (And as you can see, the evening’s vaunted pitching prospects both struggled in the early going. A pitchers’ duel this was not.) The Bisons have upgraded their sound system in recent years as well, transition from three massive speakers to 120 smaller ones (three in the scoreboard and 117 distributed throughout the park). La Sota told me that, prior to this change, the team sometimes received noise complaints from downtown law offices during weekday afternoon games. The sound was so massive, and there was little to absorb it.
At this juncture in the evening, the ballpark had filled in considerably and the Bisons were on the verge of announcing a sellout. The attendance for the evening was a formidable 18,025, by far the largest Minor League crowd that I had ever been a part of.
Just prior to my visit, the Bisons announced that 3,700 seats in the lower seating bowl would be replaced, the first phase of a multi-year stadium renovation project. The seats at Coca-Cola Field are from 1988, and, as the team’s press release notes, they are six years past their life expectancy and replacement parts are not readily available. Bisbing told me that many of the improvements to the stadium will be “unfortunately, things that the fans don’t see.” This includes converting the concession areas from electric to gas, installing new boilers and replacing light fixtures. Sexy stuff, but necessary as Coca-Cola Field, somewhat improbably, is now the second-oldest ballpark in the International League. (Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium was built in 1945 but has since been extensively renovated.)
Speaking of sexy stuff, the hard-hat wearing beer vendor was toting around a mobile draft beer unit. These things are big in Japan.
More discerning beer drinkers might want to visit the concourse’s “Craft on Draft” beer corner, which features several selections from the local Hamburg Brewery Company (note that one beer is poured via tap with a yellow foul pole handle).
When Coca-Cola Field opened in 1988, obtaining Bisons season tickets was a prerequisite for obtaining season tickets to whatever MLB team might one day play there. Crowds in the early days of the ballpark were colossal by Minor League standards, as the Bisons drew over one million fans on a regular basis. (They drew 535,275 over 66 openings in 2014, for a per-game average of 8,110.) As the above picture shows, the Bisons are still capable of packing ‘em in during beautiful summer evenings. In April, when the weather is often absymal? Not so much.
Anyhow, at this juncture of the evening Mr. Mike Zagurski was on the mound. Let’s hear it for Mike Zagurski, who has pitched for seven Triple-A teams over the last five seasons (in addition to big league stints with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Pirates).
Shortly thereafter I witnessed the nightly race between Wing, Cheese and Celery. Celery had not won a race all year and was thus a crowd favorite, but he (or she) was thwarted by a Bon Jovi-blasting carrot (Jon Bon Jovi is a villain in Buffalo, due to his now-thwarted efforts to re-locate the Bills to Toronto).
Mascot racing complete, and in search of more views, I accompanied an intern — whose name escapes me, I apologize! — on a journey into the bowels of the ballpark. (Update! The intern’s name was Daniel Kuligowski.)
Buster’s cousin goes by the name of Chip, making him the only mascot whose name is a poop reference.
Soon I was back among the hoi polloi. This what a sellout crowd at America’s largest Minor League Baseball stadium looks like. It’s an amazing thing.
unnamed intern Kuligowski then climbed a rickety ladder, one that led to a television camera platform. (I really hope that replacing this ladder is part of the team’s ongoing renovation efforts). Again, I present you with another view. Click to enlarge.
While here, I witnessed a full-throated rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It would have brought a tear to my eye, if I had not had my tear ducts removed as part of an ill-fated effort to never experience emotion again.
Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the team’s Hall of Fame Room it had been shuttered for the evening. But let it be known that the Bisons have retired three numbers over the course of their history. Ollie Carnegie was the International League’s all-time home run leader until this season, when cult hero Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens surpassed him. Negro League legend Luke Easter, whose number is also retired by the Rochester Red Wings, was a productive power hitter in Buffalo despite the fact that he was in his 40s at the time. And Jeff Manto? He hit a lot of home runs (79) for the Bisons in not a lot of at-bats (923) and is recognized as the team’s “modern-day” home run leader.
Given the size of the stadium, most of the Bisons’ between-inning entertainment is videoboard-based. This celebrity look-a-like cam got a great reaction, as it featured dozens of fans and their alleged celebrity doppelgangers.
The Bisons lost by a 9-3 score, and shortly after the game concluded they appeared on the field and threw souvenirs to the crowd. I dutifully yelled for them to throw something to me, but their arms were weak.
On the way out of the ballpark, I happened to glance toward the vendor stocking area where, hours ago, freight forwarder Phil Walck had valiantly eaten a bologna sandwich. Was that Conehead that I spotted?
It was! My last act of the evening was to interview Conehead the beer vendor, and you can read that HERE.
Good night, Conehead, and good night, Buffalo!
My end-of-season Empire State ballpark road trip extravaganza began on August 22 in Batavia, New York, home of the Muckdogs. Upon the conclusion of that evening’s game, I made the short drive to Rochester, New York, and checked in to the rather extravagant (by Minor League standards) Hyatt Regency Hotel. This put me in an amenable — nay, ideal — situation to witness some Rochester Red Wings baseball the following day at Frontier Field.
And there would be plenty of baseball to witness, as on the docket for this Saturday afternoon/evening was a Red Wings doubleheader against the the eternal mouthful that are the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. The visual highlights of my walk to the stadium were already documented in a previous post. Those wanderings led me to this, my first view of the stadium.
First doesn’t necessarily equal best, of course, but my second view of the ballpark wasn’t much better.
Third time’s the charm? Not really, but getting closer.
While taking in this vast expanse of brick, I saw a sign that elucidated the Red Wings’ position on ticket scalping. (For the record, the only time I ever saw ticket scalping at a Minor League ballpark was at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver.)
In the photo below, one can spot Rochester’s iconic Kodak Tower in the background. Construction on the Kodak Tower was completed 100 years ago, and it stood as Rochester’s tallest building until the Xerox Tower was built in 1967. (That building, of course, was a mere facsimile of other, bolder, architectural accomplishments.)
As for Frontier Field, it is not 100 years old nor has it ever held the status of being Rochester’s tallest building. The facility, which boasts a capacity of just under 11,000 people, opened in 1996. It is owned by the county, and the Red Wings, a community-owned team, are the sole tenant. I entered the stadium at 4 p.m., upon which a small squadron of game day employees combined to hand me a strip of “Legends” baseball cards, thundersticks, and a small stack of Wegman’s coupons. I attempted to reject the thundersticks overture, but was told, friendly but forcefully, that “Everybody needs thundersticks!”
Covertly, and with no small sense of shame, I abandoned my unwanted thundersticks on a nearby card table and proceeded to take in the view. The sun, reticent to assert itself earlier in the day, had regained its luminescent mojo and was emanating heat rays through cumulonimbus cloud cover. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day (and night) for baseball.
Speaking as one with celiac disease, it is always gratifying to see a team making concessions to food allergies. This “Allergen-Free” stand was not open at the time,, but, for the record, the menu consisted of Nachos, “Worry Free” Pizza, and “Tuna Melt Away Your Cares.” Unfortunately, “Root Beer Float Away in a Sea of Allergen-Free Tranquility” was not on the menu, nor was “Fettuccine Alfredo of Cross Contamination? Don’t Be.”
Back under the roof, I encountered what has to be Minor League Baseball’s only baseball glove-bedecked fiberglass horse. If you’d like to know more about this baseball glove-bedecked fiberglass horse, then simply click here.
Hypnotically undulating Zoo Night theme jersey, Rochester Red Wings https://t.co/JQsZMcYZD3
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 23, 2014
Zoo Night and every night, one can find this over-sized avian on the concourse.
In addition to being a number doled out to long-shot prospects during Spring Training, 8,222 is a reference to the number of Red Wings shares sold by team president Morrie Silver to insure that the team stayed in Rochester. This effort occurred in 1956, and Silver remained the majority stockholder until his death in 1974. (His daughter, Naomi, is currently the COO of Rochester Community Baseball.)
Luke Easter, #36, was with the Red Wings from 1959-64. The legendary slugger was well into his 40s at the time, having already played many years in the Negro Leagues and, later, the Cleveland Indians.
And then there’s Joe Altobelli, #26, a player, coach, manager, general manager and broadcaster who is known as Rochester’s “Mr. Baseball.” Mr. Altobelli, in statue form.
And here’s Mr. Altobelli, now in his early 80s, live and in person.
Altobelli, now retired, is still a regular presence at Frontier Field. I spent an inning speaking with him, neglecting to mention that one of my most enduring possessions is a 1983 Philadelphia Phillies National League Champions pennant. (Altobelli managed the Orioles that season, who vanquished the Phils in the World Series.) Anyhow, my feature on the long career of Rochester’s “Mr. Baseball” can be found HERE.
This conversation was arranged by Red Wings general manager Dan Mason, who was very gracious with his time throughout the first game of the doubleheader and beyond. We walked here, there and everywhere as well as up, down and around. Much of the information contained in this post is informed by his knowledge and expertise.
Like, hey, here’s the team’s “Louisville Slugger Hall of Fame.” This particular Hall of Fame has nothing to do with baseball ability, and everything to do with gastronomic endurance. If, over the course the season, a fan eats 10 half-pound hot dogs with everything on them, then they earn induction. The BBWAA is absent from the process.
A perhaps more significant accomplishment would be earning enshrinement into the team’s Wall of Fame. (Note the aesthetic similarity to the Batavia Muckdogs’ much smaller Wall of Fame, as both clubs are operated by the Red Wings.)
Among the many Wall honorees is Fred Merkle, who, as Keith Olbermann can tell you, should be known for more than just his boner.
This building, located down the left field line, used to be a fire house. A proposed stadium renovation project calls for this structure to house a Rochester baseball history museum.
And, yes, take a look at this signage. The lawn seats are fed by worm power. (They are also peanut-free, not because worms hate peanuts but so that those suffering from nut allergies have a safe place to sit).
For the record, James Beresford uses “Ghetto Superstar” as his walk-up music. Also for the record, Beresford is a native of Glen Waverley in Victoria, Australia.
Frontier Field is home to some 13000 engraved bricks, purchased by fans (at $100 per) and engraved with a personalized message. New bricks are added every year, insuring that there is always mortar love.
To create Club 3000, the team took down two walls and created what is, in essence, three suites in one. It accommodates up to 120 people and can be rented for $2000 (plus food). Note the steel beams, which denote where the walls used to be.
Also, whether the team knows it or not, Kool Keith has already written an awesome Club 3000 theme song.
Down the hall from Club 3000, one can find none other than Mr. Fred Costello in the press box. Fred plays the organ at every home game, and has done so since 1977. I wrote an article all about it.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 23, 2014
Also, while I did not mention it in the article, let it be known that Fred Costello wrote this delightfully campy Red Wings theme song. Play it loudly and play it proudly.
By the time I was finished interviewing Fred, the first game of the doubleheader was complete. The Red Wings had won by a 3-2 score, with former Moniker Madness semi-finalist Mark Hamburger earning the win and ambidextrous Pat Venditte taking the loss. The crowd was sparse at the time the first game began, but by this point a healthy throng had filed into the ballpark for the regularly scheduled evening action.
Said entertainment included a guest appearance by wrestler Tito Santana, who, for a fee, was signing autographs on the concourse. Santana also took the time to pose with a marginalized sportswriter. This individual, like Van Gogh and the dude who sang for Sublime, possesses a genius that will not be fully appreciated until after he has shuffled off of this mortal coil.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 25, 2014
Ceremonial first pitch friends forever! (#CFPFF)
The National Anthem was performed by local brass and woodwind talent.
With the nightcap underway, Mason and I resumed walking around. Back outside of the stadium, we checked out this statue of former team president Morrie Silver. The model for the child in this statue was Silver’s grandson (and namesake) Morrie.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention that the Zooperstars! were in town on this particularly evening. I spoke with Brennan Latkovski, a core member of the Zooperstars! squad, between ballgames and he relayed the distressing news that Delta had lost the piece of luggage containing the Roger Clamens costume. He said that it was now due to arrive in Buffalo at 7:10, upon which it would be driven to the ballpark.
Spoiler alert! The Clamens costume did not make it to the ballpark in time to be incorporated into an on-field routine, but the show went on and Zooperstars! (metaphorically) brought down the house per usual. The only photo I have is this, featuring Manny Pach-uiao and Harry Canary. (Just kidding, the elephant’s name is “Elephant Presley” and, contrary to popular assumption, his favorite Fleetwood Mac album is “Rumours.”)
After witnessing the Zooperstars! in action, Mason introduced me to Mary Blasko and her father, Ed. The Blaskos attend all Red Wings home games as well road games in Syracuse in Buffalo. I spoke with them for a bit, enjoying Mary’s enthusiasm and Ed’s dry humor, and saw them again in Syracuse a few days later. You’ve got to love the super fans! (Unfortunately, well-known fan “Wing Nut” was not in attendance. I would have liked to meet Wing Nut.)
Next up on the agenda was to meet Brad Lewis, my designated eater for the evening. (You know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Brad attended the game with his girlfriend, Kara, who, with grace and aplomb, assisted with his food consumption efforts.
Brad and I first met while attending the University of Pittsburgh, where we were both involved with the campus radio station WPTS (92.1 on your FM dial, call 412-383-WPTS to make a request). He has since returned to his native Rochester, and describes himself as “an ex-hobo chaser who has since moved on to greener pastures.” (Seriously, his previous job often put him in the unfortunate position of hobo adversary.) Kara, a native of Lansing, Michigan (hence the tattoo), has lived in Rochester for five years and currently teaches chemistry at a community college.
“I’m the brains of this operation,” said Kara. “He’s the looks.”
Brad’s task was to tackle the Red Wings’ iteration of the Garbage Plate, the Rochester culinary specialty that originated at a restaurant called Nick Tahou Hots.
Designated eater checks in, RocRedWings https://t.co/ovuInUd9YL
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 24, 2014
While there are a wide array of Garbage Plate variations throughout Rochester, the standard version is home fries and macaroni salad topped with a hot dog or hamburger and meat sauce (which Brad described as “gelatinous meat in hot oil”). Kara mentioned that she prefers her Garbage Plates with baked beans, and Brad responded that “That’s what someone not from Rochester would do.”
The Red Wings’ Garbage Plate adhered to the standard formula first made famous by Nick Tahou. (Oh, and it’s just called a “Plate,” because, technically, only Nick Tahou can sell a Garbage Plate.) Fittingly, this could be found at the Home “Plate” concession stand, one of many, many ballpark concession options.
Brad says that the best plate in Rochester can be found at an establishment called “Mark’s Texas House,” which refers to it as “The Sloppy Plate.” He had no love for Nick Tahou’s, saying “That place is physically disgusting, a gross old warehouse. I have not heard of any violent escapades taking place there in a while, so that’s good.”
As for the Red Wings’ version, Brad said that it was “above standard” for a “public” offering, and far superior to the plate sold at the Seneca Park Zoo.
Garbage Plate ruminations were interrupted by a fifth-inning rendition of “God Bless America” (Minor League doubleheaders consist of seven inning games), which was just surreal. The young girl on the mic sang it a very slow pace, paused just before the ending and then proceeding to sing the whole song again at a faster clip. She still didn’t make it to the end, pausing and then re-starting a third time before stopping abruptly. I guess you had to have been there.
“Is this Italian? It tastes like a marinara sauce,” said Kara.
“It is insane,” added Brad.
“It’s just very tomato-y for a barbecue sauce,” concluded Kara. “It’s okay, though. We’re still eating it.”
These eating endeavors took us right through the conclusion of the second game, which was won by the RailRiders. A post-game launch-a-ball followed, which was followed by mascot Spikes initiating the wave.
Fireworks on the field RocRedWings https://t.co/r1RyaI2qrL
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 24, 2014
Afterwards, the fireworks show playlist was displayed on the videoboard. For whatever reason, the show was dedicated to Red Wings pitcher Trevor May, who ended the season as a member of the Minnesota Twins.
But for the final word on music, and this blog post, let’s return to Brad “Designated Eater” Lewis. He cites NeedleDrop as Rochester’s best record store and, more importantly, wants YOU to support Rochester free form community radio. Take it away, Brad:
WAYO 104.3 is a free form community radio station that will air every kind of music known to man. Prog, new wave, punk, reggae, hip hop…we got it all. Once the records stop spinning there is talk, news, comedy, drama and original plays. If it works as sound we’ll put it on. We are currently still fundraising with a goal of transmitting online in November and officially being on air in the new year. Check out our Facebook page and help us out. Or maybe just give a listen. Especially my show. It’s what radio was invented for.
I, for one, am looking forward to hearing Brad’s show, which still needs a name. How about “Garbage Platters”?
That’s all I’ve got, roll the credits!
Today’s dispatch finds us in Louisville, the home of the International League’s Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). This marked the second time I’d been in Louisville over the span of one year, as I visited this past October in order to attend the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. I wrote quite a bit about that visit, from the ballpark and otherwise; all of those posts are cataloged HERE.
So when I arrived at Louisville’s Galt Hotel, the same establishment that hosted the Promo Seminar, it was with a not inconsiderable sense of deja vu. I checked in, leaving my bags in the car, and immediately began the short walk to the Bats’ home of Louisville Slugger Field.
Or at least it should have been a quick walk to the ballpark. A combination of haste and misplaced confidence regarding my knowledge of downtown Louisville led to me walking right past E. Main Street, where the ballpark is located, and into parts unknown. Pro tip: if you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School. then something has gone horribly wrong.
Pee-Wee Reese, Louisville native, is there to greet all comers.
Pee-Wee played shortstop. Here’s the view from the hot corner.
If Louisville Slugger Field looks like it has a unique ballpark exterior, that’s because it does. This building, in its previous incarnation, was a rail depot. Hence, an enclosed entrance way so wide that one could drive a train through it.
This, also taken during the Promo Seminar, illustrates how the converted depot area can be used as an offseason event Also, fans of foreshadowing should take note of this image. Depicted therein is an individual who will soon play a prominent role in this post…
Here’s one final photo from the Promo Seminar, taken from the suite level. Louisville Slugger Field is located on the banks of the Ohio River.
Upon arriving at the stadium and making my way to the press box, I learned that the Bats’ approach to my visit was of the hands-off variety. While there’s no right or wrong way to handle a Ben’s Biz intrusion, this caught me off-guard simply because my previous four ballpark visits had included participation in a World Record attempt, a karaoke battle against wrestling royalty, in-depth history-minded ballpark tours, two ceremonial first pitches and stints as a racing cow, hot dog, and bearded Sun King brewer. Full-to-bursting ballpark agendas had begun to feel like the new normal.
The cool reception was kind of a relief, as it was nice to know that I could take a break and set my own pace. So goodbye, Bats press box, I hardly knew ye. It was time to wander.
One of Stevo’s ballpark rituals is to purchase “mystery cards” from a concourse souvenir stand, for $2 a piece. One was enshrouded in pink, the other enshrouded in blue. “Which one do you want?” asked Stevo.
Receiving a Nick Adenhart card was bittersweet, to say the least, as he was killed in a car accident on April 9, 2009 at the age of 22. I wrote a news story about this tragedy later that day; speaking to his teammates just hours after they had heard the news was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a professional journalist.
Stevo had a good vantage point for that evening’s game against Columbus. This was the scene as we rose for our National Anthem.
Later in the evening I interviewed Stevo about his scorekeeping history, techniques and tips. I’d highly recommend reading it, which you can do so by clicking HERE.
Of course, one of the joys of scorekeeping is that its practitioners can indulge their idiosyncratic whims. In the below photo, the parenthetical “FLS” in the box next to Lindor’s name indicates a “Flying Louisville Slugger.” (As in, Lindor had lost control of his bat at some point during his at-bat against the Bats.)
— GeöSpringerDethPünch (@yoshiki89) July 22, 2014
That accomplished, I took a lap around the ballpark. The shark fin-looking thing sticking out above the stadium is…a building. I forget what building it is, but it’s distinctive.
This isn’t just some random corporate sponsorship. KFC is based in Louisville, and Louisville is home to the first, and thus far only, KFC Eleven.
That’s Stephanie Fish, on the left, and Shannon Siders, on the right. These women, independently of one another, contacted me about being the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). That’s not the only thing that Stephanie and Shannon have in common with one another, however, as they are both former Minor League Baseball front office employees who now work for a Louisville-based sports entity.
Stephanie, formerly of the Lexington Legends, now works in an administrative role with the SkillVille Group. The SkillVille Group’s roster of touring ballpark and arena performers is highlighted by the Zooperstars!, meaning that a big part of Stephanie’s job is keeping the likes of Harry Canary in line. Shannon, formerly of the Reno Aces, now works in marketing and communications for Louisville Slugger. She does not have to deal with anthropomorphic inflatables on a daily basis.
Our tour guide for this portion of the evening was Jason Betts, concessions manager for Centerplate food service. Betts can be seen in the below photo, looking pensive while ordering pork chop sandwiches from this center field kiosk.
Have at it, ladies.
.Louisville Bats designated eating time. Pork chop sandwiches. https://t.co/angfFidoYW
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 22, 2014
“That’s a big piece of meat,” declared Stephanie, after careful deliberation.
“I don’t think I can follow that comment,” said Shannon. “It’s delicious. Better than salad.”
Next up was a visit to the “Nacho Cantina,” a concession stand so popular that it even has its own Facebook page.
“The nachos are all a la carte, so the lines can get pretty long,” said Jason. “People get up there like ‘Uhhhhhh…..'”
.Louisville Bats visit to the nacho stand. Like the nacho stand on Facebook. The nacho stand is a quality n… https://t.co/32iQqWr8lW
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) August 19, 2014
As opposed to tortilla chips, Shannon opted for the house-made potato chips. But, regardless, this dish is very much a nacho dish and this photo is suitable for framing.
“Aside from $1 beer night, this is the happiest that I’ve ever been at Louisville Slugger Field,” said Shannon. “Does that make me an alcoholic?”
— Shannon Siders (@ShannonSiders) July 23, 2014
“I wish I had a napkin,” added Stephanie.
“This is a salad in a wrap,” said Stephanie. “That’s my quote. That’ll work.”
Betts said that the team sells 150 cheesesteaks per ballgame, a number which can increase to 300 on weekends.
“I’m not sure why it’s on a bun, because you can’t pick it up,” he said. “There’s too much stuff on it.”
Stephanie and Shannon eventually came to the conclusion that this Vine video should be called “Two Girls, One Cheesesteak.”
Cheesesteak love Louisville Bats https://t.co/gw2RKxIygR
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 23, 2014
Finally, mercifully, we have reached the dessert phase of the evening. Blue Bell brand ice cream — cake batter for Shannon and strawberry for Stephanie.
Stephanie really liked the strawberry.
Upon parting ways with Stephanie and Shannon, I made a brief pit stop at an eerily desolate relief station.
Number one radio broadcast in the country. https://t.co/yCcP1fpSF8
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 23, 2014
Throughout all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.
“I’m a Cubs and Royals fan, and to see an ex-Cub (Donnie Murphy) hit a home run off of an ex-Royal (Kyle Davies), that’s amazing,” said Stevo. “You never know when you’re going to see something like that.”
The Columbus Clippers defeated the home nine, by a score of 8-5.
Meanwhile, my next trip begins in two days. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.
August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs
August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*
August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*
August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*
August 26 — Buffalo Bisons
August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs
August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*
August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats
August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*
August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
On Friday, July 18, I visited a Double-A team (the Akron Aeros). On Saturday, July 19, I visited a Class A team (the West Virginia Power). On Sunday, July 20, I visited a Triple-A team. That team was the Columbus Clippers, an International League entity affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.
Welcome to Columbus.
That’s not a particularly good photo, but it’s the first one I took upon beginning my walk to the ballpark after checking in to a downtown hotel. Getting in to Columbus proper was a struggle, as half of the city’s roads seemed to be closed. I felt like I was driving in increasingly smaller circles, yet never actually able to make it to my destination. (A metaphor for the futility of human existence? It just might be.)
Some of the roads were closed due to construction, but others had been cordoned off in order to accommodate that day’s Jazz and Rib Fest. The fest was taking place on an the expanse of greenery located beyond this archway.
Transportation issues aside, there is a lot going on in downtown Columbus and I got the sense that it would be a good place to spend some time. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets play nearby, and there is a concentrated conglomeration of concert venues as well. In fact, as I was arriving at the stadium, people were lining up nearby for that evening’s Neutral Milk Hotel show at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion. That is a weird name for a band, and an even weirder name for a venue.
One does not need to travel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in order to reach Huntington Park, and one does not need to be Jeff Mangum, PI, in order to find it. It’s right here, in the heart of downtown.
A view from the outside, as I made my way around the perimeter of the facility. The guys on the field were fantasy camp participants.
I was met at the gate by Josh Samuels, the Clippers director of web communications, and he and I were joined by director of media relations Joe Santry. It was time for a tour.
There is plenty of room to move at Huntington Park, especially in the outfield portion of the concourse.
There is so much room, that even this gargantuan sculpture doesn’t get in the way.
This is the Victory Bell from the Clippers’ old home of Cooper Stadium, a facility that hosted more Minor League games than any other facility, ever. The bell was originally used by the Columbus fire department, during a time when fire wagons were still pulled by horses. “The horses were exercised daily outside of the fire station,” reads the plaque. “When a fire broke out, the bell was rung from the fire house tower to alert everyone to return with the horses to the fire station.” The bell was eventually donated to the Columbus Jets, who stationed it near the press box and rang it after each victory.
The above tidbit is indicative of the Clippers’ commitment to preserving their history. Santry also serves as the team historian, and as a result of his tireless efforts Huntington Park is laden with interesting photos and exhibits related to the long history of baseball in Columbus. I wrote a story about this on MiLB.com, and I would exhort — yes, exhort — you to read it.
Excuse the glare, but here is a picture of an upstairs display dedicated to Derek Jeter’s stint with the Clippers (he played there at the end of 1994 and the bulk of 1995).
The display includes a looping video of Jeter’s first hit with Columbus, which occurred some two decades ago.
In the display case, one can also find a glove once worn by “Cotton Top” Terry Turner, the Indians’ all-time games-played leader and Nap Lajoie’s double play partner. Per his SABR bio:
“The quintessential utility player, the 5’8″, 149-pound Turner was, in the words of sportswriter Gordon Cobbledick, ‘a little rabbit of a man with the guts of a commando.'”
In this photo, his glove his being worn by an increasingly fat muskrat of a man with the guts of an insurance adjuster.
“Rooster’s Roof,” featuring bleacher seating modeled after Wrigley Field, is a very cool spot to watch the game. Rooster’s is a local wing establishment, and on Wednesday’s the wings can be had for 50 cents each. This is a bargain comparable to Tuesday’s “Buck a Bone” rib deal, but not quite in the same pantheon as Monday’s “Dime a Dog” promotion.
The staircases are adorned with team portraits, which were done annually by the Columbus School of Art and Design. This team had a few memorable names. I mean, who can forget 6’7″ pitcher Dave Pavlas, who turned 52 this past Tuesday? Happy birthday, Dave Pavlas.
A brief foray past the batting cages yielded this bit of info from Samuels: the logos of all 14 International League clubs are presented alphabetically by city…
until they aren’t.
The journey through this subterranean labyrinth was fruitful, as it led us to the light. This is a really beautiful ballpark.
A one-armed raccoon was there to greet us.
Lou Seal was unable to repeat as Mascot Mania champion, however. This time around, a shark is king. (Yes, just as in nature, a seal was defeated by a shark.) But how about this? Last season, Buster Douglas just happened to be at the game when Lou Seal received his championship belt. Photo op!
While Lou Seal was gloating, I took the mound and delivered the worst ceremonial first pitch of my ceremonial first pitch career. Luckily, this seems to be the only photo evidence of my offering, which landed a couple feet in front of the plate and then burst into flames.
As the game began, Santry stayed near the field in order to take pictures of rehabbing starting pitcher Justin Masterson. Samuels and I continued wandering. This concession area is called the “Grand Slam Station.”
City Barbeque, a Columbus-area restaurant, has this in-stadium location.
The Indianapolis Indians and Columbus Clippers were exceedingly familiar with one another by this point, as July 20 marked the 10th consecutive game that the two teams had played against one another over a span of eight days (!!!) The first six games were played in Indianapolis (including a pair of doubleheaders), and the next four in Columbus. The teams ended up splitting this mega-series, 5-5.
After rejecting the opportunity to get a haircut, Samuels and I wandered to the press box. I’m often making hyperbolic statements on this blog, regarding the biggest this and the best that in Minor League Baseball. Well, here’s a new one:
The Columbus Clippers have the quietest press box in Minor League Baseball.
The vast majority of Minor League press boxes I have been to have been lively places, characterized by snarky, mile-a-minute gallows humor banter. But these guys were still, and solemn, and there was nary a sound to be heard. It was like a church. I was afraid to even speak.
And wouldn’t you know it? It was while I was in this soporific sanctum that one of the best defensive plays of the year occurred. I didn’t even see it happen, standing at the back of the press box. I, like you, only saw the replay:
That catch was amazing, one of the best to have ever occurred at a game at which I was in attendance. But not the best, which would be this. (Shout-out to my friend Ted, who missed it because he was waiting in line for a hot dog.)
Tony Barron turns 48 on Sunday, August 17. Happy Birthday, Tony Barron. I will never forget your name.
I will also always need food to survive. So how ’bout some City Barbecue ribs? Word on the street was that they were gluten-free. And who am I to doubt the street?
Ribs, slaw and a decent vantage point. Can’t beat it.
I really enjoyed these ribs, tender and a little crispy on the edges. I would definitely get them again.
For the record:
Also, for the record, the Clippers would like you to know the following information regarding their time at Huntington Park.
Here’s something that you don’t see very often: the Clippers broadcast team of Scott Leo and Ryan Mitchell work in the open air. No booth needed.
Food and beverage can be found in abundance here at the Hall of Fame Club. The bar includes a photo of nearly every player who ever played professional baseball in Columbus, in chronological order.
Joe Santry had rejoined Samuels and I at this point, and he had great stories to tell regarding many of these photos. I wish I had time to relay these tales, but time is at a premium during these dog days of summer. All I can do is refer you to my aforementioned MiLB.com piece and move on. In the offseason, this is a topic I would be happy to re-visit.
But, hey, here are a few pictures presented without context. That’s better than nothing, right?
1884 Columbus Buckeyes:
Old Judge cigarette card of manager Jimmy Williams:
Here, we have memorabilia from the movie A Little Inside, which was filmed at Cooper Stadium. Santry is not a fan of this movie. I doubt that I would be either.
At the center field entrance, one finds this statue of long-time team owner Harold Cooper, who, per Santry, got his start in baseball by wiping the mold off of hot dogs with a vinegar-soaked rag.
My esteemed hosts, Joe Santry and Josh Samuels.
What happened next was like a dream. Samuels and Santry disappeared.
I blinked, only to open my eyes and find myself in a dimly lit corridor…
which led to the field. Oh, and did I mention that my body had been replaced with a hot dog?
Victory was mine.
With the sounds of the bell echoing in my ears, I opened my eyes and found myself back in Biz Blogger mode. My camera was in my hand, and with it I took this photo.
This is a cool way to display the speed of a pitch.
A beautiful Sunday afternoon had turned into a beautiful Sunday evening. Funny how that works.
I think I was feeling a little woozy by this point in the evening. At any rate, the Clippers lost to Indianapolis by a score of 7-5. The 10-game ultra-mega series between the two teams had finally, mercifully, ended.
Maybe everyone was feeling a little woozy at this point, as a post-game run the bases degenerated into a post-game “just do whatever you feel like doing on the field.”
Meanwhile, my next trip begins in just over a week. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch.
August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs
August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*
August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*
August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*
August 26 — Buffalo Bisons
August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs
August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*
August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats
August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*
August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
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.
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.
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.
A brief history of Charlotte’s Minor League ballparks. https://t.co/7z3zOIIo6w
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 9, 2014
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.
And, what do you know? Most of the Carolina Panthers were right there on the field, taking batting practice.
Some guys were more into it than others.
Hitting stances varied…
Carolina Panthers taking BP Charlotte Knights https://t.co/mGc2YDRnMn
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 9, 2014
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. I don’t know who this is, but my notes say “worst hitter, yellow shirt.” Some views from the playing field. 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. 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. 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.) 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. Moving on to the outfield — more vantage points! 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
The Home Run Porch is a great place to watch the Charlotte sunset.
Turning in the other direction, one finds Romare Bearden Park. Named after the celebrated artist, this picturesque public space opened last year.
One can also see new apartment complexes, such as The Vue.
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!
Tommy and I then made a cameo at the Dugout Suites, a group area that is closer to home plate than the pitcher is.
Creeping up on Homer in the dugout suites Charlotte Knights https://t.co/zCTvUcURjG
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 10, 2014
Homer quickly became a good friend of mine.
— Homer the Dragon (@CLTKnightsHomer) June 10, 2014
The Dugout Suites offer remarkable access to the dugouts themselves.
This picture, I just like it.
I had to leave the Dugout Suites, as an indistinct yet unavoidable destiny awaited.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
No matter what flavor of frozen yogurt you go for, make sure to top it with a Gummi frog.
Don’t forget, there was a game going on through all of this.
Not just any dog, but the Carolina Dog. It was topped with chili and cole slaw.
Go ahead, Matt.
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.
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.
And who can ever forget this guy?
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.
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
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:
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 then a post-game drink at the Tiki Terrace while local scouts prepared for an on-field overnight.
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.