Results tagged ‘ Midwest 2014 ’

On the Road: Another Sellout in Dayton

The seventh and final stop of my Midwest-based July road trip was Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Dragons (Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds).

I had never been to Dayton before; my first and still-strongest association with the city was via Randy Newman’s evocations of a turn-of-the-20th century lazy Sunday afternoon. But when I pulled into this parking lot, it was an early Thursday evening during a decidedly more dystopian-seeming epoch. There was no time for tea, and the missus was nowhere to be found.

009 To get to the Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field, one hooks a left at the far end of Mendelson Liquidation Outlet, crosses the street, and then walks down this narrow  alleyway. (Or at least that’s what I did.)

011Life, post alleyway, was considerably brighter. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but there was a group of bagpipe players kicking out summertime jams in front of the stadium. Apparently, Dayton was on the cusp of its annual Celtic Festival.

012Enter here.

013Chances are that, if you know anything whatsoever about the Dayton Dragons, you know this: the team currently boasts the longest sellout streak in the history of professional sports. They set the record with sellout number 814 in 2011, and this season they passed the 1000 sellout milestone. For a little perspective, I will now quote from a 2011 article written by an increasingly complacent yet  intermittently brilliant writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called “Rust Belt” cities — Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind — the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.

Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s).

So, yeah, the sellout streak is due to a combination of having a well-designed facility in a well-chosen location, playing in a baseball-friendly market with rooting attachments to the parent club, and consistent and conscientious ownership and front office staff. It’s a multi-laired situation.

Yeah, multi-”lair”ed. Because they’re the Dragons, see.

017I entered via the main office, where I was met by vice president Eric Deutsch so that he could lead me on a tour of the facility. We began in the main office, which is lined with photos of notable ballpark guests. For starters, did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson is a Dayton native? (Also, and unrelated: did you know that the voice of Bart Simpson has donated some $10 million to the Church of Scientology? For that kind of money, you could buy the Batavia Muckdogs twice over.)

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Magic Johnson, part of the team’s ownership group, once threw out a basketball first pitch. I mean, sure, why not? It’s kind of like that time that David Copperfield threw out an invisible first pitch because he had already made the ball disappear.

016Actually, Johnson no longer has a stake in the team, as Mandalay has recently sold the Dragons to Palisades Arcadia. The price was not disclosed, but it is somewhere in the $35-40 million dollar range — the most ever paid for a Minor League Baseball team. The sale was not yet official on the late July evening that I visited, however, and Deutsch was reticent to talk about it in any detail. But the front office will remain in place, so I wouldn’t expect any major changes to the way that the team does things.

Sorry, the pace of this post is already Dragon. (Before writing this post, I tested my Dragon jokes by doing a set at a local comedy club. They killed that Knight.)

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Like Dayton Dragons? This guy is single.

Deutsch and I meandered through subterranean hallways for a bit, with one such hallway eventually leading us onto the field. The field was redone prior to the 2013 season, and the seven-story tall scoreboard features a dragon that shoots smoke out of its nostrils.

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021A sellout crowd would soon be watching the action on the field, of course. In the Dragons case, a sellout occurs once all 7230 fixed seats have been sold. (These seats all have theater-style cup holders, for what it’s worth.) Walk-up tickets are available for the lawn area on most evenings, resulting in an average crowd somewhere in the 8400 range.

Pretty suite, right?

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027Each season, approximately 25 Dragons games are shown on local TV. Hence, this backdrop, and hence a recent $1 million investment to redo the team’s control room.

029Hey, look, Willie Nelson played here once. (I might have an extra ticket to see Willie Nelson in Newark on September 20 so drop me a line if you want it.)

031Deutsch reported that the this is one of three party decks and that the party decks are always the first thing to sell out. (If I ran the Dragons I’d name this the “Baby Boomer” party deck because it sells out so easily. Oooh, take that parents!)

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The view from the right field party deck, this is.
036Given Fifth Third Field’s limited downtown footprint, the team had to build up as opposed to out. Hence, a six-row second-level seating area. Second-tier seating levels are very rare in Minor League Baseball. Fresno has one, and that’s the only team that immediately comes to (my) mind. There are no concession areas up here, but Deutsch said that an order-from-the-seats concession service was generally underutilized and therefore discontinued. People, they like to get up and mingle. Sitting is overrated.

037 The concourse runs in a predictable pattern: concession stand, portable stand, restroom, repeat. Among the portable stands, Dippin Dots are among the most popular. I was told that this perpetually futuristic avant-garde ice cream purveyor, based in relatively nearby Paducah, Kentucky, considers the Dragons to be among their top partners. (Daytonians love Dippin Dots, that’s all that I’m trying to get at here.)

038The 3100 square foot team store is called the Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of items for sale, one will not find goofy variations on the logo such as could be found in the likes of, say, Lexington (see previous post).

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Deutsch said that, when it comes to the logo, the team goes “narrow, rather than deep. We’re the Yankees, as opposed to the Diamondbacks.”

I got the impression that the above statement applies to the Dragons’ way of doing business, period. You can’t argue with success, but operationally speaking they feel like a Major League team trapped in a Minor League team’s body. I’ll be curious to see if the new ownership group experiments, at least just a little, with theme jerseys, bobblehead giveaways,  regionally specific and/or “crazy” concession items, and other hallmarks of the 21st century Minor League experience. At the very least, maybe they could use Twitter as a tool to interact with the fan base? (I’m not sure if @DragonsBaseball has replied to a tweet, ever.) All I’m saying is: even the best have room to improve.

In the time it took to read that half-formed editorializing digression, one could walk from the team store to the Dragon’s Lair group seating area. (I did the math.) There are 306 seats in the Dragon’s Lair, making it pretty sizable as lairs go.

042Next to the lair is the lawn.

044If one keeps moving, one finds this statue of mascot Heater.

045On this particular evening, Heater had company in the form of touring mascot Birdzerk. Birdzerk is a close personal friend of mine; we met in a subterranean tunnel and then I accompanied him to the concourse so that he could begin his first routine of the evening.

Go!

Birdzerk ran onto the field, coerced the visiting third baseman to dance, stole his glove, and tossed his glove into the stands. Vaudeville at the ballpark.

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052After Birdzerk disappeared into the netherworld from which he came, I journeyed back up to the press box. By the time I got there, Birdzerk had re-emerged and was now harassing an umpire.

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The next inning break was a more solemn affair, as the Dragons staged a “Home Run for Life” in which a recovering cancer patient took a lap around the bases. This bit of tearjerking ballpark pageantry, now common throughout Minor League Baseball, originated with the Dragons.

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In the press box I spoke with Wright State University assistant professor Scott Peterson. He and student Sam McClain (a Dragons intern) are working on a project regarding the changing nature of media coverage throughout the Midwest League.

059I contemplated writing an article on this project, as it is the kind of thing that interests me (and, perhaps, you). But Peterson and McClain are still in the relatively early stages of the project, so I’ll catch up with them a little later on down the line. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen.

061Next up on the docket was to meet my designated eater for the evening: Mr. George Coleman.

064George grew up in Chicago, often taking the subway to go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

“Ernie Banks was the man and still is,” he said.

George now lives in Dayton, having retired from a 30-year career in the Air Force spent primarily in aircraft maintenance. (The beard was a long time coming — he wasn’t allowed to have one while in the Air Force, and said that it then took another 10 years to convince his wife.) He was motivated to volunteer as a Designated Eater simply because he is a fan of Minor League Baseball in general and my writing specifically.

“I like the same things you like, so anything you write gets priority in my inbox,” he said. “I’m 63 and the reference you have, some of them are aimed at my generation. I hope people get it….It’s a little slice of heaven to read your stuff.”

George and I headed over to the “Dragons Fire Grill” so that he could obtain a “Pit Boss Burger.”

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The Pit Boss Burger is a burger topped with cole slaw and pulled pork on a pretzel bun.

065Have at it, George.

“I love the crunchiness of the cole slaw, and the soft pretzel bun,” said George. “The burger’s the base of it, and while Ohio’s not known for its barbecue the pulled pork is done well. This makes the list of beard-worthy burgers.”

067I, meanwhile, snacked on a bag of Mikesell’s potato chips.

066These Ohio-based snack purveyors know what they are doing. Otherwise, why would they be doing it?

069Next up for George was some cake batter ice cream from Stone Cold Creamery, enjoyed amid the late-evening splendor of the lawn area. George said that the ice cream tasted like “cake in a cup,” which is probably its intended purpose.

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074Upon parting ways with George (Thanks, George!), the ballgame was in its eighth inning. My night in Dayton — and this entire road trip — was on the cusp of concluding. All that was left to do was get an autograph from my good pal Birdzerk.

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079“Ben — a smooth man with a blog!”

Put that on my tombstone, please!

Meanwhile, my next (and last) road trip of the season is already well underway. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk next to the name means that a designated eater is still needed at that location). Get in touch should you be motivated to do so. I will respond.

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Legendary Night in Lexington

When one thinks of Lexington, Kentucky, and its surrounding environs, two things that quickly come to mind are bourbon…

053 and horses.

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Baseball, perhaps not so much.

052But professional baseball in Lexington is very much a thing. Welcome to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends (Class A Affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). The ballpark opened in 2001, marking the return of professional baseball to Lexington after a 47-year absence.

056In addition to the three murals seen above, one can find this giant ball outside of the ballpark. Reading the messages left me in stitches.

055I visited Lexington on July 23, and July 23 was no ordinary evening. It was “Star Wars Night.”

(Note: this woman would not stop fiddling with Darth’s midsection. Finally I just gave up and took the picture.)

058“Star Wars Night” has become a bona fide phenomenon in the world of Minor League Baseball promotions, and many teams consider it to be one of the cornerstones of the promotional schedule. The Legends’ iteration was a decidedly low-key affair, however.

“Tonight is the first time we’ve done it in several years,” said Sarah Bosso, Legends director of community relations. “We’re just getting our feet wet, doing it on a Wednesday and testing it out.”

059Here, mustachioed mascot Big L displays his rather tepid light saber technique.

060Out on the concourse, the atmosphere was decidedly more sedate.

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Following standard (but by no means mandatory) Ben’s Biz Blog operating procedure, I took to the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While there, I got my picture taken with my good friend Darth Vader.

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Soon after this photo was taken, Darth overheard Bosso and myself talking about the Legends’ concession options.

“Did you say ‘Hot Brown Dog?’” asked Darth, intrigued by a local culinary specialty. “Where can I get that? Can you maybe put it through a blender?”

There were three individuals throwing out a first pitch: Judge John Schrader (Fayette Family Court), myself, and Darth Vader. I later mentioned to the judge that it was funny that Schrader and Vader were both throwing out a first pitch. He responded with a blank stare.

Here’s Judge Schrader. Or, as I now call him, the Mirthless Magistrate.

065I was in fine form on this particular evening, if I do say so myself.

BenHill_FirstPitch_July23Finally, we have Darth, flanked by stormtroopers.

069Darth didn’t have a very good arm.

I’ve thrown dozens of first pitches through the years; perhaps I should begin taking note of each team’s first pitch procedure?

The Legends did two things that I had never seen before: the balls used were from the batting cages (and therefore scuffed up and dirty), and the speed of the pitch was displayed and announced to the crowd. For the record, Darth and the Mirthless Magistrate both clocked in at 38 miles an hour. I, meanwhile, threw a blistering 47.

How’s ’bout a buncha random ballpark photographs, provided by a writer with rudimentary photography skills? That writer would be me, and these would be the photos:

070 071The placement of the bullpens provide plenty of opportunity for fan interaction.

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

Workman and Mortimer: friends for life

The Jim Beam distillery is located just outside of Lexington. Maybe the team could get Jim Beam to be the official sponsor of these massive concourse beams?

073A pair of Star Wars aficionados ponder their options.

074As you may be aware, the Legends re-branded themselves in a mustache-centric fashion prior to the 2013 season.  Therefore, plenty of mustache-centric gear can be obtained at the Legends Locker.

076Inside this humble space, things get pretty strange on the t-shirt front.

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Tag, this photo

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117Viewing these images may cause you to feel like you’re in a dream.

But this? This is no dream. This is real: a piece of officially licensed Minor League Baseball apparel that explicitly references the time-honored act of mustache riding.

IMG_0083After this exhilarating foray into the wilds of the team store, I journeyed to the stadium’s second level. This picture, as inelegant as it may be, portrays the area immediately surrounding Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A downtown facility, this isn’t.

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While visiting the press box, I was pleased to see my visage beaming back at me from the videoboard. Move over, Darth! I am the evening’s true guest of honor.

080This little joystick-like contraption has a special purpose.

081Flipping the switch causes flames to shoot out of the Candleberries situated atop the scoreboard. (Now that’s a sentence that I’ve definitely never written before.) This photo is unfortunately flameless.

082 A man named Ty Cobb gave me the opportunity to flick the switch that shoots off the flames. This is Ty Cobb.

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Ty Cobb serves as the Legends creative marketing director and PA announcer, and I wrote a story about him that can be found HERE. During my time in the press box with Mr. Cobb, he reminded the crowd that if the Legends get 10 hits then they can redeem their ticket stubs for a free order of fried pickles at Hooters.

This dude, I bet that he likes fried pickles at Hooters.

087But Mr. Ball Head (not sure if that’s his real name) wasn’t the only interesting character wandering around on the concourse. I also ran into this guy.

088The above individual is Ryan Ferry, who had agreed to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Ryan, a Lexington native who says that he can see the Whitaker Bank Ballpark scoreboard from his backyard, was nine years old when the Legends played their first season. He used to be a batboy, and now occasionally mans the speed pitch booth as a game day employee. Among other claims to fame, he was waiting in line for kettle corn when Bryce Harper hit his first professional home run.

“I consider myself a fixture here,” said Ryan, a sports management major at Eastern Kentucky University.

He also collects hats and shoes. Check out these size 15 specimens.

092And now, on to the food.

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What you see above is the Hot Brown Dog, which Darth Vader wished to be pulverized so that it could be poured through the holes in his mask. The Hot Brown Dog is a ballpark variation of a Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky specialty described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown.  

Of course, the Hot Brown Dog substitutes a hot dog for the turkey. As a Pennsylvania native, it reminded me of a hot dog version of cream chipped beef on toast.

Hot Brown, goin’ down.

091“The saltiness is what sticks out, and the bacon also sticks out because it’s the king of all meats,” said Ryan. “It definitely lives up to the hot name, at least in temperature. The sauce is like gravy, and a little sweeter than I expected it to be. I hope that nobody from Kentucky comments on this, calling me out for not eating Hot Browns all that much.”

Next, Ferry suggested that he sample a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly donut called the “PBJD.” When we ordered it, the woman manning the concession counter gave us an annoyed stare, sighed, and said “Are you kidding me?”

Apparently, PBJDs are not ordered very often.

“It’s totally slept on,” said Ferry. “They really need to market it more.”

Indeed, the only mention of the PBJD that I could find was on this concession sign. Just four little letters; no picture, no explanation.

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Here it is, in all of its obscure glory.

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Ryan savors the moment:

098“They take the donut, cut it, and put on the PB&J,” said Ryan. “It’s doughy, but has a little bit of a crisp to it.”

And with that, Ryan’s work was done. We now return to the ball field. Notice the “stables” group area in the background.

100I would like to point out that this guy had a June bug on the back of his neck. I was told that they were all over the place this time of year. June, July, same difference.

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Next on my agenda was to compete against children in a between-inning game of “musical donkeys.” These three children, specifically:

105No video documentation exists of this effort, a sadly recurring theme of this trip. Here, I lurk around like a neanderthal while waiting for the music to stop.

106I made it through the first round, but was eliminated in the second. Ben’s Biz out.

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DSCN3237Another night, another career highlight, and veteran on-field emcee Mykraphone Mike was there to narrate it all. Yes, it’s spelled “mykraphone.”

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Things were beginning to wind down on this sleepy Star Wars night.

119Ty Cobb, on the PA, was adhering to the night’s theme by telling Star Wars jokes to the crowd.

“What do you call a potato that has gone to the dark side?” Cobb asked the crowd.

The crowd did not seem eager for an answer, but Cobb persisted.

“Darth Tater.”

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Ty Cobb, stand-up comic

The Legends ended up losing the game to the Charleston RiverDogs, by a score of 6-4. But that’s okay. It’s a long season, full of ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on grinding.

In other words: keep a stiff upper lip.

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Meanwhile, I’m on the road again! 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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Knowing the Score in Louisville

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.

Hello, Louisville.

001Or 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.

002But I, like an ineffective constipation remedy, could not be de-turd. Eventually I got back on track and arrived at the ballpark.

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Pee-Wee Reese, Louisville native, is there to greet all comers.

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Pee-Wee played shortstop. Here’s the view from the hot corner.
005If 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.

006This photo, also meant to convey a grand sense of spaciousness, was taken during my October visit to the ballpark.

042This, 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…

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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.

We now return to the current narrative:

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.

010I didn’t get very far in my wandering, at least initially. Sitting behind home plate was my friend “Stevo,” a Louisville native who describes himself as a “semi-retired punk-metal atavist.”

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kvlt

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.

012 I chose pink, which is always the correct choice, and ended up with a 2008 Bowman Nick Adenhart card. Stevo, meanwhile, received Jared Burton.

014Receiving 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.

(Deep breath)

Stevo had a good vantage point for that evening’s game against Columbus. This was the scene as we rose for our National Anthem.

016Stevo has a passion for scorekeeping; that’s what he was at the ballpark to do.

017Later 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.)

019 I pointed out that a Francisco Lindor FLS was in fact an “FLFLS.” Clearly, a celebratory selfie was in order.

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.

022This 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.

023The presence of the sun in this photo reminds me that it was brutally hot on this particular evening. 116 degrees would be my guess.

026The weird looking building whose name I can’t recall is visible on the right.

027Bermanent Vacation:

029I call this one “Trash can, foul pole, vendor.”

031My lap around the stadium brought me right back to where I started, as laps tend to do. It also brought me into contact with these two women.

033That’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.

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These sandwiches are made from pork tenderloin, marinated for three days in chef Jim Darr’s secret concoction of sauce and spices.
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Have at it, ladies.

“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…..’”

037Shannon, a self-proclaimed nachos fanatic, considers her choices.

038Service with a smile:

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.

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“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?”

“I wish I had a napkin,” added Stephanie.

043After the nachos, a veggie wrap panini was bound to be a bit of a comedown. This was filled with red onion, spinach, hummus, squash and zucchini.

045 Both women praised the sauce, but I neglected to write down what this sauce consisted of. Ambrosia, probably.

“This is a salad in a wrap,” said Stephanie. “That’s my quote. That’ll work.”

Cheers.

047Because too much is never enough, next up was a Philly cheesesteak.

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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.”

Finally, mercifully, we have reached the dessert phase of the evening. Blue Bell brand ice cream — cake batter for Shannon and strawberry for Stephanie.

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Stephanie really liked the strawberry.

051Thanks to Jason Betts, whose rollicking culinary tour greatly enlivened what might have been an otherwise moribund night at the ballpark.

056And thanks to Stephanie and Shannon, of course. They didn’t go home hungry, that’s for sure.

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Upon parting ways with Stephanie and Shannon, I made a brief pit stop at an eerily desolate relief station.

Throughout all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

059Hours had passed since we last spoke, but Stevo was right where I had left him. To the casual observer, this had been a rather lackluster Tuesday night contest. But Stevo is no casual observer.

“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.”

061The tricks of the trade. (Stevo: “These are all the implements I need. I’ve got everything but chewing gum.”

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The Columbus Clippers defeated the home nine, by a score of 8-5.

062But don’t take my word for it. Take Stevo’s.

064Good night from Louisville. 065

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: The Past Comes Alive in Columbus

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.

006That’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.

007Transportation 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.

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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.

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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.

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There is so much room, that even this gargantuan sculpture doesn’t get in the way.

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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.

016The 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).

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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.

024“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.

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These are referred to as the “Tower Bleachers.”027

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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.

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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…

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until they aren’t.

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Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, placed before Rochester

The journey through this subterranean labyrinth was fruitful, as it led us to the light. This is a really beautiful ballpark.

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A one-armed raccoon was there to greet us.

036As was Lou Seal…

037…who proudly brandished her his 2013 Mascot Mania championship belt.

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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!

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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.

039I immediately ran up to the control room, in order to confiscate all of their video footage.

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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.”

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City Barbeque, a Columbus-area restaurant, has this in-stadium location.

043 A small army of Great Clips hair dressers were giving free haircuts at the Clippers game. That’s synergy.

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044A lonely Indianapolis Indian, as seen from this right field vantage point.

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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.

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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?

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Ribs, slaw and a decent vantage point. Can’t beat it.

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I really enjoyed these ribs, tender and a little crispy on the edges. I would definitely get them again.

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For the record:

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Also, for the record, the Clippers would like you to know the following information regarding their time at Huntington Park.

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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.

058On the other side of the stadium sits the Rooftop Terrace. It’s $120 for a four-top, which includes a $60 food and beverage voucher.

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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.

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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:

1884 road uniforms

Ernie White:

Ernie White

Old Judge cigarette card of manager Jimmy Williams:

Jimmy_Williams_managerHere, we have memorabilia from the movie A Little Insidewhich was filmed at Cooper Stadium. Santry is not a fan of this movie. I doubt that I would be either.

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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.

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My esteemed hosts, Joe Santry and Josh Samuels.

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What happened next was like a dream. Samuels and Santry disappeared.

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I blinked, only to open my eyes and find myself in a dimly lit corridor…

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which led to the field. Oh, and did I mention that my body had been replaced with a hot dog?

080 As two other hot dogs tussled behind me, I ran with grace and ease toward a red stripe placed horizontally across the field.

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Victory was mine.

082Ring the bell!

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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.

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This is a cool way to display the speed of a pitch.

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A beautiful Sunday afternoon had turned into a beautiful Sunday evening. Funny how that works.

087Hey, look, a giant golf ball sitting atop a correspondingly oversized golf tee!

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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.

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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.”

093Good night from Columbus, as this blog post has finally, mercifully, ended.

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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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Great Day for Mankind in West Virginia

When I first posted the itinerary for this particular ballpark road trip, July 19 was listed as “TBA.” This was because I did not have a clear idea which ballpark I should visit, as most of the options were places that had already been graced with my ineffable presence. Several teams, or at least the fans of several teams, ended up making pitches as to why I should visit (Mahoning Valley, Toledo and Lake County among them). But the organization that won out was the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of your (or at least someone’s) Pittsburgh Pirates. After all, the Power are West Virginia’s only full-season Minor League Baseball team! Further investigation was needed.

The Power play in Charleston, but since there is another South Atlantic League team bearing the Charleston name (the RiverDogs of South Carolina) the Power went ahead and claimed the whole state. (Informally, Charleston, West Virginia, is referred to as “Charlie West.”) The Power compete at Appalachian Power Park, which is located in a rather desolate-feeling stretch of downtown amid modestly-sized high rise office buildings, labor union headquarters and dilapidated factory buildings. My hotel was within walking distance of the stadium, and what follows  are a few pictures I took during the walk.

In the biz, we call this “setting the scene.”

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This overpass leads to interstates 64, 77 and 79, which combine to form mega-interstate 220. (This is what I choose to believe, at least.) Walking underneath the overpass, one finds the stadium.

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Ah, yes, here we are:

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Upon entering Appalachian Power Park, I took 10 minutes or so and did my requisite lap around the concourse.

Again, more scene setting.

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Lap completed, I was escorted onto the field in order to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Joining me was the evening’s special guest, a man even more special than me: wrestling superstar Mick Foley (aka Mankind aka Dudelove aka Cactus Jack).

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mick. (I’m the guy on the left.)

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I took the mound and fired something resembling a strike.

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#emergingmanboobs

7.19.14 296The guy who delivered the second first pitch threw a scorching fastball right over the plate, and Mick Foley then hammed it up by recruiting that guy to throw out his first pitch for him. Which, for those keeping score at homes, means that the guy who threw out the second first pitch threw out the third first pitch as well. My first pitch was first.

Update: Commenter Mark Henderson adds the following info:

The guy who threw out the second and third pitches is Scott Robinson, a former batboy for the Charleston Wheelers. Scott has became somewhat of an inspirational local hero, due to his battle with a heart disease that resulted in him receiving a donor heart, going through the transplant just a year ago.

I am now realizing that I talked to Scott later in the evening. He is the guy that took the awesome Toastman pic that appears later in the post.

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Mick then joined the managers and umpires for a pre-game conference, presumably regarding whether metal folding chairs would be permitted in any on-field brawls that may occur.

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I don’t have any video of Mick Foley from this evening, but he now has a severe limp and moves like a man 30 years his senior (he is 49). It’s painful to watch, but that’s what happens when you sacrifice your body for your passion. I’ve never been much of a wrestling fan, but I have a genuine respect for Mick Foley as he is a smart, engaging individual who forged a unique career path.

While these pre-game shenanigans were taking place, fans were already queuing up for a chance to meet Mick.

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There was a significantly shorter line for the pepperoni rolls, a coal miner favorite and staple of West Virginia cuisine. You’ll also note that a 25-ounce beer could be had for just $3. Power assistant general manager Jeremy Taylor told me that the team sold out of the 25-ounce beers on Redneck Night, a stereotype-reveling theme night that has become a highlight of the team’s promotional schedule.

035With the game underway, I turned my attention to Rod Blackstone a.k.a. the Toastman. He is one of the most passionate, divisive and memorable fans one could ever hope to meet at a Minor League Baseball game, and I wrote a feature article about him HERE. Please read it, as I don’t want to repeat myself repeat myself.

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Okay, I’ll repeat myself just just a little. From my MiLB.com story::

Rod Blackstone is the “Toastman,” a West Virginia Power ballpark icon who can be found sitting in a front-row aisle seat in section 107 during each and every game. From this homeplate vantage point, he leads the section in cheers, displays homemade signs made in honor of each position player and, most memorably, throws pieces of toast to the crowd after every visiting batter strikes out.

The toast isn’t pre-made, either. Blackstone brings several loaves of bread to the game and toasts them on-site using a toaster set up on a small metal patio table. The electrical outlet he uses was installed by the team, specifically to accommodate his nightly toast-making needs.

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After spending an inning with the Toastman, I spent an inning in the broadcast booth with Power broadcaster Adam Marco. It was a pleasure talking to one of the finest blogging broadcasters in Minor League Baseball.

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From the dim press box environs, I soon transitioned…

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to the bright lights of a between-inning contest atop the dugout. Next up was a karaoke battle against one Mick Foley.
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My plan was to post the Power’s videoboard footage of this “battle,” but apparently there were technical difficulties. This is really too bad, as this was one of the most embarrassing/memorable moments of the season for me.

Before the game it had been decided that I would sing “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a choice I was fine with because I assumed that I’d only be singing the chorus. However, when it was played over the PA system to begin the contest, the song began during the first verse. After an awkward pause followed by some herky-jerky gesticulating, I began improvising lines such as “Please play the chorus, this is the verse. I only know the chorus, what are the words?”

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My efforts resulted in a round of boos, as the crowd clearly had no love for the most underrated entity in all of sports media. Mick Foley then got on the mic and crooned Hulk Hogan’s theme song “Real American.”

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So, yeah, I got to play the heel in a karaoke battle against Mick Foley. That’s definitely going on the resume.

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But there was no time to wallow in misery. I save that for the hotel room. Next up on the docket was meeting the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Hello, Mr. Mike Taylor.

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Mike, a former Power bat boy, works in the produce department of a Charleston-area grocery store. He said that, despite his slight frame, he had no problem eating large amounts of food. Well, okay then. Here’s a pepperoni roll. It’s basically pepperoni baked inside of a roll. That’s why they call it a pepperoni roll. I expect to soon see it on a menu in at a nouveau American Brooklyn bistro at a cost of $16, featuring nigella seed Ethiopian sourdough and artisan soppressata imported from an old world butcher operating in San Francisco’s North Bay neighborhood.

051Pepperoni rolls are served at the Appalachian Power Park thanks to Power food and beverage director Nate Michel.

“Pepperoni rolls are what West Virginia is known for,” he told me. “You can’t go into a convenience store without seeing them. Once we got them out here they sold like hot cakes.” (Note: hot cakes are not sold at the ballpark.)

Last season the pepperoni rolls were provided by local restaurateur Rocco Muriale. This year, they are being provided by a local pizzeria. Either way, Mike Taylor was psyched to be eating one.

“I’ve never had a pepperoni roll here before, but already I can tell that this will be the best pepperoni roll I’ve ever eaten,” he said. “The bread is buttery and real soft. I could probably eat two of these.”

That wouldn’t be a good idea, as Mike also had to contend with the Gunner Nachos, named after the Power’s nacho-loving on-field emcee. They are served in a full-size helmet, and topped with chicken tinga, pulled pork, beef brisket, cheese, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream.

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Thus far, no fatalities have been recorded as a result of eating this item. Have at it, Mike.

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So, to recap:

“These were two of the best things I’ve ever eaten here, and I’ve been coming here a long time,” said Mike. “I’m a skinny guy, but I can eat a lot.”

Hey, what do you know? While all of this was happening, there was a game going on.

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During the next inning break, I had the honor of running across the field while waving the team flag. Mascot Chuck (as in, short for Charles, as in Charleston) was with me, with a gaggle of children close behind.

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Throughout all of this, fans were patiently waiting in line so that they could meet Mick Foley.

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See that guy in the above photo, on the far right? That guy was an absolute dead ringer for Mick. This photo, stolen from Adam Marco’s aforementioned must-read blog, shows just how much of a dead ringer he was.

img_7403After checking in on Mick, I wandered over and spoke to the rambunctious, fun-loving group of fans that can be found in the “Rowdy Alley.”

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The Rowdy Alley are a loose-knit group. Some nights there are only four or five people sitting here, while on some nights (like Thirsty Thursday) there are a couple dozen. I plan on writing about the Rowdies in an upcoming MiLB.com feature.  They love their beer, have a pet monkey, and all their ducks are in a row.

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This guy was wearing a towel, fashioned into a cape. He seemed vaguely annoyed by my presence, like “Can’t a guy just wear a cape and keep score and occasionally blow into an old trumpet (not pictured) in peace?”

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This guy, meanwhile, was ready to face the elements.

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Immediately after I took this photo, the members of the Rowdy Alley broke into song. I wish I had it on video. Wishing I had things on video seems to have been a theme of the evening.

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I also spoke with legendary souvenir salesman Wheeler Bob. He, too, will be included in the upcoming MiLB.com feature that I previously alluded to.

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Meanwhile, the smell of smoke had begun to permeate the ballpark.

Culprit: the Toastman.

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Just another night at the ballpark in West Virginia.

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Photo credit: Scott Robinson

I did get some video of the Toastman in action.

The game ended shortly after the Toastman’s bread-based pyrotechnic display. But more pyrotechnics were soon to come, as it was a Friday Fireworks night. This season, the Power have taken the novel step of filming their fireworks with a remote controlled drone.

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This, showing the drones in action, is one of my favorite Vines of the year. Also, it conveys the extreme intensity of the Power’s fireworks display. I was a big fan.

When the fireworks were over, a squadron of vacuum-toting interns appeared on the field in order to clean up the pyrotechnic debris. Their appearance was a sure sign that the evening had come to an end. 082Good night from Charleston, West Virginia.  072

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).

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: RubberDuck Duck Goose in Akron

My previous “On the Road” blog post, focusing on the Kannapolis Intimidators, appeared on July 17. In the ensuing three and a half weeks I visited seven more ballparks and wrote six “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, four editions of “Promo Preview,”  the July edition of Crooked Numbers and Crooked Nuggets, two travel journal blog posts, and a three-part series detailing the planning of a Major League promotion. My next road trip begins on August 22, and much planning remains to be done regarding that 10-ballpark jaunt.

But, before I leave, I will be writing a series of blog posts devoted to the seven ballparks I visited from July 18-24. You are expecting this from me, and what you expect I deliver.

We begin this latest (and therefore greatest) “On the Road” blog series at Akron’s Canal Park, home of the recently re-branded RubberDucks. I arrived at the ballpark at game time on July 18, after an arduous and oft-delayed 10-hour drive from New York City, and one of the first things I saw was a man on stilts.

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The last time I was in Akron, I did not see any men on stilts.

As you may recall, I visited Canal Park in 2011. I enjoyed that visit quite a bit — I spent an inning in a dunk tank, and got pied atop the dugout — but that was a very different era. The team was still called the “Aeros” then, and overseen by owners (Mike and Greg Agganis) who were rarely spotted at the ballpark. Attendance had declined precipitously (barely over half of what it what it had been a decade before), and Canal Park was beginning to show its age.

2014, however, marks the second season under the leadership of new owner Ken Babby. The team has been re-branded, the ballpark has received numerous upgrades, and there is an energy at the ballpark that was palpably lacking in 2011.

The above two paragraphs grossly oversimplify a complex chain of events, but, hey, I’m just a blogger. Grossly oversimplifying complex chains of events is what I’m here to do.

Anyhow, I hope that the guy on stilts had already gotten his standing room only ticket. July 18′s game was sold out.

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In my official Ben’s Biz capacity, I had never arrived to the ballpark after the game had started. I was feeling kind of stressed out and didn’t really know where to begin, but, fortunately, this turned out to be a night in which things came to me. Almost immediately, one of the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) emerged on the concourse and introduced himself.

Hello, Joe Meadows.

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Joe lives in Cleveland, “right across the road” from the Indians’ home of Progressive Field. Nonetheless, he is more likely to attend RubberDucks games simply because he likes the Minor Leagues better. He works for the Progressive Insurance company, and was previously employed by the Cleveland Browns.

Soon afterwards, Designated Eater #2 emerged. This is Adam Ray, who I did not get a chance to photo until we were in this indoor location.

020Adam lives in Kent, Ohio, and is an employee of that city. His interest in the team during the Aeros era was minimal, but Adam is on board with the RubberDucks. In particular, he’s a fan of seeing games from the right field Tiki Terrace. (More on that later).

You’ll notice that, in the above photo, Adam is wearing a RubberDucks t-shirt. Such apparel can be found in abundance in the team store.

009Joe and Adam and I visited the store, along with RubberDucks assistant general manager Scott Riley, as a prelude to the designated eating that would soon commence. I’m just noticing now that the dude in the above photo, standing to the right of Adam, is wearing duck feet.

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Of course, not everyone is on board with the “RubberDucks” moniker. But what can you do? This may as well be the official motto of Minor League Baseball.

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I acquired this shirt for my friend’s three-year-old son. Webster is the “Poochiest” mascot in all of Minor League Baseball, which makes me a fan.

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Meanwhile, on the videoboard, RubberDucks promotions manager Christina Shisler was introducing one of that night’s promotions to the crowd: a “World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose” record attempt. I’m going to assume that that guy on her left is her personal secret service agent.

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In the above photo, below the scoreboard, a much smaller Shisler can be seen standing in the first row of right field seats. To her left is the fan who then began the game of Duck Duck Goose, with a simple, solemn declaration of “Duck.” The game was scheduled to last for the next several innings, slowly winding around the entire seating bowl and ending in the seats located down the left field line.

Duck…duck…duck…duck…duck…and so on, and so forth.

012With the world record attempt underway, Riley took me and my designated eaters on a little tour of the upstairs area. This past offseason, a local artist by the name of Mike Ayers was hired to paint Akron baseball-themed murals at several locations within the ballpark. He did a great job with it.

This painting can be seen at the staircase landing between the first and second levels. (Note that I did not say “betwixt” in the previous sentence. Real people, who use the English language in real life, never use that word.)

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At the top of the stairs, one encounters Ayers’ homage to the “Aeros” era (1997-2013). More like the Eros era, as there is a lot to love about this:

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This picture doesn’t really convey just how big the press box is. It’s beyond gargantuan, and only one adjective lies beyond gargantuan: Brobdingnagian.

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The team installed a new scoreboard prior to the 2013 campaign. That, too, is Brobdingnagian. It is operated by these shadowy figures…

018 who do what they can to bring pie-in-face action to as many people as possible.

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Shortly thereafter, this materialized. Hey, thanks! I’ll wear it with pride.

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New swag in hand, we were then ushered into a first floor conference room. Food and beverage manager Brian Manning was waiting for us amid an array of, yes, food and beverage. Allow him to explain, because he does it better than I could and I ain’t ’bout to transcribe.

Adam began with the Johnny Manziel Dog, while Joe had the TeriyAKRON pineapple Bowl.

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Adam!023

Joe!

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Adam and Joe!

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Unfortunately, my notes regarding Joe and Adam’s opinion of these items are largely indecipherable.

“Fine line between spicy and hot didn’t eat sine,” is what it says next to Adam’s name. “Good like the pineapple adds mix of goodness” is what it says next to Joe’s. The bottom line is that both guys liked both items, but both chose the Manziel Dog as the superior option.

I was off of my note-taking game, but the show must go on. Next up was the brand-new “Return of the King” burger, which was created in honor of my return to Canal Park (or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

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Maybe Brian Manning has a better explanation:

030Adam said that this burger made him “nervous,” but that it turned out to be good. Joe praised the Boursin cheese, saying that it blended well with the other flavors of the burger. No one really laughed when I said that the flavor of this burger, like LeBron, should ” lack Heat.”

There was also a sampling of this beer shake, with Adam comparing its texture to that of a root beer float.

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Joe then went ahead and spilled a Daisy Duck soda float all over his shorts, changing his name to Molly Ringwald immediately thereafter.

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Stained shorts or not, the designated eating experience garnered rave reviews.

“It was fantastic,” said Adam. “I got to go out of my comfort zone and I’m glad I did because there was some really good stuff that I don’t think I would have tried before. But I’ll definitely get it again.”

“At the end of the day, I’m refreshingly full and ready for baseball.” added Joe.

Thanks, guys. Your work here is done.

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But I had miles to go before I sleep. Riley and I took a little jaunt down the third base side of the stadium, where some 1800 seats had been removed in favor of the “Fowl Territory” picnic patio.

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Note the giant team banner plastered on to the side of the building on the right. This building used to be the prestigious Mayflower Hotel, where a veritable who’s who of early to mid-20th century celebrities once stayed. (Including — you guessed it — Frank Stallone.)
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In this photo, a giant turkey is walking off of the field. He had just lost a race against Coffee and Donut.

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Walking from Fowl Territory back toward home plate, we encountered Caitlyn the intern (her last name is not “the intern.” I just don’t know what her last name is).  She is wearing an orange shirt.

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Caitlyn had the unenviable task of going from section to section, explaining that the World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose was in progress and that now it was their turn to play. It was difficult for her to be heard over the near-constant din of the sound system, but she was indomitable in her quest to convey this information in a succint and cheerful manner. Being an intern is hard work, and no one even bothers to learn your last name.

I wasn’t yet able to participate in the game, however, for it was my job to be the goose. Being a diva at heart, I demanded assistance in getting into the goose costume.

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I’ll refrain from posting more pictures of the goose dressing process, as I don’t want to destroy the illusions of children who are still under the impression that that was an actual goose on the field.

060Because of course it was an actual goose on the field.

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Webster and the Goose didn’t come to the game. The game came to them.

History made, or at least attempted to be made, I morphed back into blogger form and encountered this top secret situation.

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That’s the take from the evening’s 50-50 raffle, with $789 going to the winner and — you guessed it — $789 going toward charity. I then followed the money with general manager Jim Pfander, dropping off the winning $789 at guest services and then making a pit stop at the world’s largest press box so that he could pick up the cash to be used for a post-game “Dash for Cash” promotion. (More on that later.)

See, it really is the world’s largest press box.

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And speaking of money….In this undisclosed ballpark location, the RubberDucks  have an RBG-300 “Intelligent Cash Recycler.”

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Pfander was very enthusiastic about this addition to the front office, which was acquired at the suggestion of team bookkeeper Leslie Wenzlawsh. Each evening the money collected at the ballpark is deposited into this machine, and the money is immediately credited to the team’s bank account. Then, the next morning, a Brinks truck collects the money and takes it to the bank.  Do other teams do this? If not, Pfander predicted that, after seeing this blog post, they’d strongly consider it.

Meanwhile, I was strongly considering the purchase of a RubberDucks wine glass.

084These are the sort of things available for sale in the suite-level team “store.” How the other half lives:

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Back among the hoi polloi, the aromas of Eddie’s Cheesesteaks was alluring.

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But at this late juncture of the evening, fans had dessert on their minds. At the Sock Hop, fans can obtain “Duck Floats” and then spill them all over their shorts. Ruggles ice cream is served here. Ohioans love Ruggles, I was told.

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And, look — the team store has a personalized t-shirt “to-go” window.

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Here’s the right field Tiki Terrace, frequented by Adam Ray of designated eating fame (on the left). The Tiki Terrace is a new addition to Canal Park.

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The bar is plastered with the baseball cards of former Akron players. Obviously, this picture was taken a long time ago.

096These seats in the Tiki Terrace, located where bleachers used to be, can be had for just $5. But not for long.

“It takes you a year to really figure out what you have, and then you can price accordingly,” said Pfander.

Accordingly, these seats will cost more in 2015.

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The seats themselves swivel 360 degrees. That might not be apparent from this photo, but, trust me, they do. I would never lie to you.

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Beyond the Tiki Terrace sits “The Game Bar and Grill,” which also has an entrance on the outside of the stadium and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a year-round basis.

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And above “The Game” sits the Duck Club, “Akron’s newest private event space.”  This is the view of these establishments from outside of the stadium.

109In Da (Duck) Club:

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Mike Ayers, artist:

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The Game Bar and Grill’s kitchen is located on the second level, alongside the Duck Club.

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The food is sent down to the lower level via a dumbwaiter…

114…because only a dumb waiter would take the stairs.

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A brief stop in Pfander’s office yielded this photo, which includes all of the giveaways from this season’s “Rock n’ Bobblehead” series.

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But the night was not over yet.

Now, it was time to head back onto the field for the Cash Dash post-game promo. $1000 in singles was dumped upon the field, as well as one $50 bill. Then, 30 fans ran to the outfield in order to retrieve as much of it as they could.

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It was nice out there.

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This transitioned into a “Dave Matthews Band” fireworks display. (Personally, I’m not a fan. I would have preferred a Dave Matthews Banned fireworks display, in which his music wasn’t allowed.)

131However, there was some sort of delay related to the fireworks. So, to kill the time, fans were entertained by the “LeBron Powder Cam.”

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The best thing about the Powder Cam was that it didn’t really work all that well. Fans would appear on the screen and clap their hands, and then a “poof” of powder would emerge. However, there was often a delay of several seconds between the fans clapping and the powder graphic appearing, leading to awkward moments of expectation.

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Whatever snafu that had been delaying the fireworks was soon straightened out, and pyrotechnics lit up the night sky. This photo is awful.

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But it wasn’t time to go home because it’s never time to go home. Hey, kids, run the bases! I mean sure, why not? (But not just any kids could run the bases, these were group outing raffle winners.)

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And, that, finally, is all that she wrote from Akron. Or all that he wrote, I guess. He being me. At the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. It’s hard work being a goose.

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Meanwhile, my next trip begins on August 22. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk means that a designated eater is still needed). If you’re one of the teams on the itinerary, feel free to get in touch. I am having trouble finding the time to coordinate all of the details, but the show will go on.

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

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road — July 31 Update

The last time that I had the chance to update this blog, it was July 22 and I was in a La Quinta lobby in downtown Indianapolis. I am currently back home in New York City, steadily cranking out “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, Promo Preview, and, soon, Crooked Numbers. (Hat tip to Bowling Green Hot Rods announcer Andrew Kappes, who just sent me a detailed recap of a recent 2-3-5-4-1-7 putout at home plate.)

Read now or die trying:

On the Road: Akron RubberDucks (the Return of the King and Duck Duck Goose) 

On the Road: West Virginia Power (the Toastman)

On the Road: Columbus Clippers (team historian Joe Santry)

On the Road: Indianapolis Indians and the most popular team Twitter account in the Minors.

On the Road: Louisville Bats and the Art of Keeping Score

But for right now, I’m here to answer the question that no one’s asking: What did you do after leaving the La Quinta on the early afternoon of July 22? Why, I’m glad you didn’t ask! Here’s the answer:

July 22: I drove from Indianapolis to Louisville’s sprawling Galt House Hotel, where I stayed during last September’s Minor League Baseball promo seminar.

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September 2013 file photo

I was in Louisville to attend a Bats game, of course, and the Bats’ home of Louisville Slugger Field is quite close to the hotel. However, while walking to the ballpark in a distracted state (my de facto road trip existence) , I shot right past W. Main Street (where it is located) and walked north about 25 minutes in the wrong direction. These are just the sort of things I seem to do on these road trips.

If you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt House Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School, then something has gone wrong.

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And, jeez, it was so hot outside — just about the hottest that I have ever been while on one of these trips. I took a walking selfie in an attempt to convey the extent of the heat-related misery.

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I arrived at Louisville Slugger Field much later than intended (a running theme on this trip), but no harm, no foul. Awareness of and interest in my visit was minimal within the Bats front office, and this gave me time to just take a minute and get my bearings. I ended up having a good night for what it was, and, of course, you’ll read all about it here soon enough. Or at least I hope you will.

July 23: I do enjoy staying at the Galt House Hotel. This was the view the next morning from the 21st floor.

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IMG_0077The next day in Louisville was hectic, and I’ll write about it in a separate blog post. But, long story short, I visited both the Louisville Slugger Museum and Skillville Group HQ (home of the Zooperstars! and crew).

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Posing in the bat vault with what I believe was a Chuck Klein model

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I wish I had had time to visit Dan Simon (of logo-designing Studio Simon fame) in Louisville as well. Between him and Louisville Slugger and Skillville and punk-metal atavist Stevo (he’ll appear in a story in the near future), I’ve got a lot of contacts there.

But, yikes, all of this cavorting once again put me in a time crunch. From Louisville it was on to Lexington. Lexington is home of the Legends.

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All will soon be revealed regarding my evening with the Legends. I stayed at the Ramada Inn that night, which kinda seemed stuck in a mid-late ’70s time vortex. The vending machines didn’t have a slot for dollar bills, and the likes of Seals and Crofts were playing in the lobby the next morning.

But, as for that vending machine, I did grip some Grippo’s. As you’ll notice, Grippo is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s….on and on until infinity, except there is no such thing as “until” infinity. Only “toward.”

IMG_0084July 24 – After the requisite frantic late morning/early afternoon writing session in the hotel lobby, it was on to Dayton. But first, I stopped for lunch at a Lexington BBQ spot called “Willie’s Locally Known.” This was on the recommendation of West Virginia Power broadcaster Adam Marco, who has been known to blog about such things.

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As you probably know, I have celiac disease and must maintain a gluten-free diet. Therefore, ordering a sandwich was off limits. But the burnt ends — succulent cubes of brisket — they seemed like it would be gluten free (Yes, seemed. I did not have the heart to verify whether or not they were gluten-free, because I really wanted to eat them. It’s hard out there for a celiac, and I try to maintain my self-discipline, but sometimes I error on the side of incaution when it comes to potential gluten in sauces and seasonings and what not.)

Anyway, just look at these things. The best ones were those that had some fat on them, which had the buttery almost bone marrow-like consistency.

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I patronized Willie’s during an early weekday afternoon, and it was empty and quiet. But I got the sense that good things are happening there, as friendly people and good food and live music makes for a great combination. Plus, it was recommended by Adam Marco. One must follow Adam Marco’s recommendations.

After lunch I stopped at a funky shopping center on Leesman Road, in order to make a cameo at Pop’s Re-Sale.

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Pops Resale is a ramshackle palace of used records, old video game systems, DVDs, VHS, vintage clothing, stereo equipment and all sorts of odds and ends. It is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

005 I considered buying this, so that Grippo could ride it on his journey toward infinity.

IMG_0085I did actually buy this, as it fits my drinking philosophy.

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Whipped Cream, Other Delights.

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If you’re in Lexington, I’d definitely recommend checking out this stretch of stores on Leesman Road. I had actually been here in 2004, during my pre-MiLB existence, and bought an awesome dark green work jacket at the Goodwill seen in the below photo. I wish I had had the time to visit there again, as well as Wild Fig. Next time.

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But, per usual, I was running late. Dayton awaited! Dayton is the home of the Dragons.

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That’s the view from a privately-run downtown lot, where I paid $5 to park my rental car. The Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field is located just beyond and to the right of that warehouse.  (Dayton’s Fifth Third is one of three Fifth Third ballparks in Minor League Baseball. Three Fifth Thirds equal five, for those keeping score at home.)

I spent a total of four hours in Dayton, as immediately after the game ended I drove to Pittsburgh. There were reasons for this. One, I wanted to break up the drive to New York City as opposed to doing it from Dayton in a straight shot, and, two, I always enjoy visiting Pittsburgh. I went to Pitt and, therefore, lived in Pittsburgh from 1997-2002 (in 2001-02 I did a stint in AmeriCorps). Pittsburgh is a great city.

July 25 –  One of Pittsburgh’s best eateries is Dee’s Six Pack and Dogs in Regent Square. Down that hallway lurks a massive walk-in beer cooler, which I occasionally used to visit in my gluten-free days.

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I appreciate that Dee’s is now friendly to the gluten free. This hot dog (topped with Sriracha slaw and sweet potato fries) came wrapped in two corn tortillas. I found this to be better than gluten-free buns, which, like a house of cards, fall apart upon contact.

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Oh, and I visited record stores. Back in my college days, this fine establishment was called Paul’s CDs. One year I was music director at WPTS 92.1, Pitt’s college station, and in that role I was able to spend $35 a week on music to add to rotation. That was awesome.

The eponymous Paul sold the store a few years back, and it is now owned by Karl Hendricks (of the Karl Hendricks Trio) and called Sound Cat. It’s in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, and I suggest that you go there. I picked up some Michael Hurley and some Nilsson.

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From there it was on Mind Cure in Polish Hill, which opened well after I left Pittsburgh for the less-green pastures of NYC. Seen entering the store is one Mike Rensland, a guy who wore a sleeveless death metal t-shirt to his own wedding reception.

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IMG_0096At Mind Cure I picked up a used Ultrabunny LP as well as a Folkways label curiosity: a dramatization of  the 1855 Murder Trial of William Palmer, Surgeon. Let me know if you want to come over, have a couple drinks, and listen to it.

I wasn’t in town Saturday night, unfortunately, but if you live in Pittsburgh you know that this show has essentially been taking place three times a year for the past 15 years.

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Finally, we have the king of all record stores: Jerry’s. This place is a national treasure. Go there immediately.

IMG_0106 This ground-floor dollar bin alcove is bigger than most proper record stores.

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But upstairs, that’s where the magic happens. Pictures don’t do it justice. There are multiple rooms beyond the main room (include “Whistlin’ Willies” 78 Shop), and those boxes stacked in the back are all 45s.

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That dude on the right in the blue shirt (in conversation with much loved/much hated concert promoter Manny Theiner) is Mike Prosser. Prosser knows more about music, books, and movies than anyone I know. Guys like Prosser tend to live in cities like Pittsburgh.

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I bought a small selection of primo used LPs from Jerry’s, but even cooler is that I finally took home this 100-year-old Victor Talking Machine that I bought there three years ago (I didn’t have a car on that visit, and ended up storing it at a friend’s house). Check it out, this thing is now in my living room!

Anyhow, “On the Road” blog posts — one from each stop on the road trip detailed above and in the previous post — will resume in early August. In the meantime, here’s the itinerary for my fourth and final trip of the season. As always, get in touch with any and all article/cultural suggestions. An asterisk next to the team name means that a designated eater is still needed at that particular location.

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

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road Again — July 22 Update

Hello from the main lobby of a La Quinta hotel in downtown Indianapolis. I am in the midst of my latest and therefore greatest road trip, and have somehow already visited four ballparks (with three to go). Each trip takes its own tone, and this one has been particularly manic.

The tone was set on Friday, when I drove from New York City to Akron in order to see the RubberDucks game that evening. Most of the drive was on interstate 80, and this road is kind of a mess to drive on — congested, narrow and, during some stretches, there are more trucks than cars. I got pulled over for speeding almost immediately, but the New Jersey state trooper who did so let me off with a warning and I was most appreciative. I wasn’t so fortunate later in the trip, when, somewhere in the Pennsylvania Wilds, traffic came to a total standstill for over an hour.

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I ended up talking to a trucker for a while as we sat on the guardrail, and he said that there was a motorcycle fatality at mile marker 139 (we were at 144). He seemed like a nice guy, but I guess when you’re on the road for a living gallows humor becomes the norm.

“The only reason they’d close both lanes is because somebody got squished,” he said. “The coroner’s gonna do what he needs to do and then they’ll let us go.”

So, yeah, getting to a Minor League Baseball game on time suddenly didn’t seem so important. The seven-hour drive ended up taking 10, and I arrived in Akron as the game was starting. Late arrival or not, I still got a sneak preview of the “Return of the King” burger (read about it HERE) and then suited up as the Goose in a Duck Duck Goose world record attempt.

The next day I had very little time to explore Akron, but I did what I always try to do: I visited a record store.

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Square Records was a quality establishment, good mix between new and used offerings and plenty of under-the-radar stuff to peruse. I ended up getting the Heavy Blanket/Earthless live record as well as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid/M.A.A.d. City” on vinyl. I had only had that on iTunes previously, but it is a stone-cold classic and very respectful of the album format. Therefore, I wanted to have it as an album, something to put on late at night in the living room.

As you can see from the above photo, Square Records is next to a movie theater. And not only were they showing “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but a real-life sports drama as well. “Welcome Home, LeBron,” in other words.

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This was a cool neighborhood, wherever I was. Surely, this dive bar would be a great place to catch a show.

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From there, I filled up the satanic gas tank and moved on to Charleston, West Virginia.

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Downtown Charleston was largely deserted on Sunday, but I enjoyed the atmosphere.

002Capitol Street was the place to be, it seemed.

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On Capitol Street, I visited Taylor Books. This establishment had a coffee shop on the premises and a great selection of books and magazines. Long may it live.

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Following standard operating road trip procedure, I picked up a couple of zines while at Taylor. One was a public transit diary, the other a history of Iran-Contra. If you’re lucky enough to have a book or record store that sells zines in the area where you live, then please buy them.

West Virginia complete, it was then back to the Buckeye State.

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I wish I had something to share from my time in Columbus, as regards the city itself, but I was under the weather on Sunday and well into the next day. It was really touch and go there for a while. But I’ll persevere, all the way up until the time when I don’t. Gotta keep moving.

I’m in Indy now, as mentioned, and will soon be in Louisville (Tuesday, as in TONIGHT) —  Lexington (Wednesday) and Dayton (Thursday) will follow. Oh, and over the last two nights I cobbled a new edition of Promo Preview together, you can read that HERE. (And then tell your friends to do the same.)

I’ll update this post with more if and when time allows. In the meantime, please know that Mick Foley is now a close and personal friend of mine. This photo was taken at Saturday’s West Virginia Power game, which was a great day for Mankind.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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