Results tagged ‘ Midwest League 2013 ’

Return to the Road: A Three-Sided Midland Perspective

Thus far, this ongoing “Return to the Road” series has highlighted outside-of-the-ballpark trip highlights from Appleton, WI to Beloit, WI (but barely) to Midland, MI. Midland is where we are going to remain, as we begin today’s fourth and final post in the series.

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I awoke in Midland on Wednesday, June 26, and had a little bit of time to explore after checking out of the hotel. After all, that evening’s destination of Lansing (home of the Lugnuts) was just a short drive away. My partner in these explorations was writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me during this trip as part of a book he is writing on Minor League Baseball. We began in downtown Midland, which included the periodic table-influenced “H Hotel” and its attendant eateries “Table restaurant” and the “Zinc Cafe.”

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The heart of downtown Midland, and certainly its most recognizable landmark,  is “The Tridge,”

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The Tridge, built in 1981, is what its name implies: a three-way bridge (built at the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Chippewa Rivers). A Farmer’s Market is located nearby (it wasn’t open on the day I visited), and a variety of cultural events are held in and around this area as well. It’s all very scenic and well-maintained, and we were fortunate enough to have visited on a beautiful day.

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This statue, simply title “Couple,” features its titular individuals gazing upon the Tridge in perpetuity.

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After a little bit of wandering, we came upon the similarly-titled “Family.”

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Unfortunately, a certain subset of Midland’s public statue-viewing public can’t keep their hands to themselves.

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A little bit of local history, courtesy of a rock.

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These idyllic early afternoon wandering were much enjoyed, but soon enough it was time to depart not just the Tridge but Midland itself. Farewell county courthouse, I hardly knew ye!

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From here on out, my outside-of-the-ballpark content from this week-long Midwest League excursion is exceedingly minimal. As previously mentioned, I attended that night’s Lansing Lugnuts game (and wrote about it HERE and HERE and HERE). Unfortunately, there was no time to explore Lansing proper, as I had to get up bright and early the next morning in order to appear on Grand Rapids radio. That was the first act in what turned out to be a full-to-bursting West Michigan Whitecaps experience, which was chronicled HERE and HERE and, yes, even HERE.  My time with the Whitecaps turned out to be so full-to-bursting that I didn’t get any real chance to explore Grand Rapids, either, although on the way out of the city Matt LaWell and I stopped at an eatery recommended by then-Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster Slavko Bekovic.

This eatery was called “The Winchester.” As a Brooklyn resident, I am quite familiar with this sort of establishment: a locally-sourced nouveau American bistro with self-consciously hip sensibilities.

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Here’s a picture of Matt LaWell at the bar. I only wish his well-manicured mustache was visible, as well-manicured mustaches are just the sort of thing one would expect to see at such an establishment.

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If you’ve got $40 to spend on a hamburger, then you’re everything that is wrong with America. But if this is wrong, maybe you don’t want to be right….

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All in all the Winchester had a very impressive menu, and “GF” designations are always much appreciated by celiac disease-afflicted individuals such as myself.

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An order of chicken wings and polenta fries turned out to be way more food that I bargained for.

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Sorry for the anti-climax, but this is all I’ve got and my Midwest League 2013 content well is now officially dry. (From Grand Rapids it was on to South Bend and my time visiting the Silver Hawks was chronicled HERE and HERE. Unfortunately, time constraints were such that no explorations of South Bend proper were able to take place.)

Therefore, this particular “Return to the Road” series is going to end with a picture of chicken wings and polenta fries. Isn’t that always the case?

In any case —  I’ll “Return to the Road” again before the offseason is through, in order to cover August’s trip to the West Coast. Gotta milk the material for all it’s worth!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Well En-Dow-ed Afternoon in Midland

It’s time for another installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I, yes, return to the road in order to further elaborate on that which was experienced during my 2013 Minor League road trips. Part one of this episodic adventure covered Appleton, WI, part two covered Beloit, WI (however fleetingly), and today will cover Midland, MI (home of the Great Lakes Loons).

bens_map_2013_ha1isac9I spend the entirety of Tuesday, June 24 in Midland, giving me plenty of time to explore the city before attending that evening’s Loons game. Often when I  find myself in this type of situation, I look up the location of a local record store and orient my wanderings from there. But this time was different, as Loons vice president of marketing Chris Mudhenk had magnanimously set up an afternoon itinerary of local cultural destinations.

I wrote a story on all of this for MiLB.com, but in the interest of redundancy and copious photo-dumping I will recap it here as well. First up was the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio.

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From the MiLB.com piece:

In many ways, Midland is synonymous with Dow Chemical, as Herbert Henry Dow established the company there in the late 19th century, and its headquarters have remained there ever since.

Herbert’s son Alden was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright who went on to enjoy a distinguished architectural career, and for the last 50 years of his life he lived and worked in a whimsical yet geometrically precise house — constructed largely with one-foot square “Unit Blocks” recycled from the chemical company — that has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the house, but these outdoor images help to illustrate the spirit of pragmatic whimsy which infused Dow’s work.

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Next up was the Midland Center of the Arts, beginning with a stop at the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art. Again, from the MiLB.com piece:

The Midland Center for the Arts is a cultural consortium, a one-stop humanities shop in which “art, science, history, music, theatre, dance, films, camps, classes and professional world-class entertainers live under one roof.” The building housing these complementary entities was designed by none other than Alden B. Dow and is anchored by the four-story Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art.

Assistant marketing director Kristen Wuerfel gave me a brief after-hours tour of the facility, passing by attractions such as a mastodon skeleton, an interactive periodic table of the elements and a full-size farm tractor en route to a fourth floor “Icons of the Sky” exhibit featuring the Lego architecture of Adam Reed Tucker.

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Next door to the museum is the Dow Gardens. For the last time, an excerpt from my MiLB.com piece:

This 110-acre sanctuary was developed by Herbert [Dow], expanded upon by Alden, and now maintained via the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Amid the impeccably maintained expanses of grass, curved pathways and idyllic waterways are a variety of sculptures, many of which are installed temporarily. Dow Gardens assistant director Elizabeth Lumbert explained, “Our visitors might not like everything they see, but the art helps people see the landscape in a fresh way.”

Dow Gardens [then featured] an exhibit titled “Zimsculpt,” which highlights work done by Zimbabwean artists.

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Not a bad way to spend an afternoon; those considering visiting Midland in order to see the Loons should know that they’ll have plenty to do beforehand. My evening was spent at the Loons game, of course, and you can read about that experience HERE. But if I had to sum it all up in one photo, then that photo is this.

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There will be one more “Return to the Road” post next week. After that, other topics will be explored. I’m just not sure what, so let me know if you any suggestions or perhaps want to write a guest post. Like a produce stand sold out of everything except corn, I’m all ears.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Odds and Ends from Southernmost Wisconsin

My previous “Return to the Road” post, dedicated to all that was seen and done during an afternoon in Appleton, was a bit of an anomaly. Appleton was the only city on this late June Midwest League road trip in which I attended two ballgames, and therefore I had more time to explore. For the remainder of the trip time was much more of an issue, so I was unfortunately unable to immerse myself in the local sights and sounds to the extent that I did in Appleton.

But do not despair, banal rhyming fans, as I’ve still got more to share! I woke up on Sunday, June 22, in Appleton, and my last order of business in that fine city was to post a Road Trip Hotel Room Review on Vine. It was then time to drive south to Beloit, so that I could attend that afternoon’s Snappers game at Pohlman Field.

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My post on the Beloit Snappers experience can be read HERE, and over on MiLB.com I wrote an article on centenarian mainstay Grace Phillips as well as one on the incredible phenomenon that was the “Whitewall Ninja” (part two of my shoulda-been-award-winning “Bullpen Trilogy,” which began with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and later continued on the Lansing Lugnuts).

I spent Sunday evening across the state line, in South Beloit, Illinois, but traversed back into Wisconsin on Monday afternoon in order to visit Midwest League headquarters in downtown Beloit. Long-time president George Spelius works out of a nondescript office located next door to a local insurance provider, across the street from the flower shop that he runs with his wife and daughter. (I wrote a story about the Speliuses, which can be read HERE.)

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001Unfortunately my camera had some sort of conniption when I tried to photograph Spelius in his office. This here is the best I’ve got.

002After my brief visit with the Spelius clan I drove over to the Rodeway Inn, which I had been told is one of the more “colorful” team hotels in the Midwest League. While I didn’t get to stay there this time around, I paid my respects and got a meal at the attached “Road Dawg” restaurant.

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This seemed to be the sort of thing one orders while dining at such an establishment:

006Snappers baseball, as promoted via a Rodeway Inn urinal ad. (Side note: please send me any and all photos you may have of Minor League Baseball urinal ads).

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Adjacent to the Rodeway Inn was the Cornellier Superstore, the sort of roadside tourist trap that I can never resist visiting.

009 The back side of the superstore featured this amazing confluence of signage, which sums up Wisconsin pretty well.

008While I didn’t procure any cheese, I did buy this assortment of fortifications for the road.

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It was now time to make the long drive to Midland, MI, but not before one final attempt at documenting parking lot quirkiness.

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Goodbye, Beloit — I hardly knew ye!

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The rest of this pleasant summer Monday in late June was spent driving to Midland, a drive made more enjoyable once I was able to pick up the broadcast of that evening’s West Michigan Whitecaps game. Once in Midland I met up with writer Matt LaWell, who shadowed me for the rest of the trip as part of his book on the sexiest individuals working in Minor League Baseball (or at least that’s what I hope the book is about). We watched the tail-end of the Stanley Cup finals, got a late dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings (plenty of gluten-free options!) and made plans to meet early the next afternoon so that we could tour the city of Midland.

And, yes, that’s what the next post in this rollicking saga will be about. It will be a fair to Midland effort.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Ample Opportunities in Appleton

With that recent spate of bouillabaisse posts now complete, I can now return with an unencumbered mind to my favorite of all blogging topics: the road.

I went on three Minor League Baseball road trips during the 2013 season, during which I documented the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I was able. But, of course, the beauty of a Minor League Baseball road trip is that it gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark, but the city itself. And that’s simply what these “Return to the Road” posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark.

In November I wrote three “Return to the Road” posts, covering May’s “Southern Swing’ trip. The next series of posts will cover late June’s Midwest League meanderings, which began on June 21 in Appleton, Wis. and ended one week later in South Bend.

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On Friday, June 21, I attended a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game and wrote about it profusely in a two-part blog post (Part One) (Part Two) as well as an indispensable MiLB.com piece that turned out to be part one of the much-lauded “Bullpen Trilogy.” I spend the entirety of Saturday, June 22, in Appleton as well, meaning that I had plenty of time to explore the city before heading back to what is now “Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.”

As everyone knows, the best way to explore a new city is with the assistance of a trusted local. For me, that individual was Brew Crew Ball proprietor Kyle Lobner, who picked me up at the hotel bright and early (by my standards) Saturday morning. First up was a visit to Appleton’s weekly Farm Market. The Farm Market runs from June through October, and gray skies did not deter our journey.

“In Wisconsin you eat fresh while you can, because the growing season is not very long,” said Loebner, who, in addition to writing about the Brewers, serves as an alderman.

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As many of you know, a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis forced me to convert to a gluten-free diet. Well, one thing I learned during this meandering Saturday is that Appleton accommodates gluten-free diets to a degree rarely seen in Minor League markets. Gluten-free or not I’m generally not one for sweets, but when in Rome…

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Lobner was a strong proponent of the Kangaroostaurant, a “cookery on wheels.” In addition to being popular with Milwaukee-centric baseball bloggers such as  Lobner, the Kangaroostaurant is also patronized by pregnant women and young outdoorsy beardos.

008 It is also enjoyed by me! Gluten-free breakfast sandwich!

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Downtown Appleton was a pleasant place to be, and after getting breakfast Lobner and I strolled around for a bit. While I don’t have a picture of Appleton City Hall, I was informed that it is located in the top floor of an old department store building. That’s not quite as cool as Appleton’s History Museum, which is located in a castle.

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And this is not just any castle-cum-history museum, mind you. It is a non-perishable castle-cum-history museum.

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Some random items from my notebook, most likely gleaned through conversations with Lobner but possibly the result of gluten-free breakfast sandwich fever dreams:

– Appleton was the first city with hydroelectric power.

– Fox River is the largest north-flowing river in the United States.

– Former MLB reliever Jack Taschner is now a member of the Appleton police force.

And, for the records, downtown Appleton now boasts a store specializing in vinyl. It’s called Top Spins, and at the time I visited it had only been open for about a month.

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I went ahead and picked up a couple LPs, including one featuring Pete Seeger. (RIP) I was inspired to buy the Bobby Bare record after greatly enjoying his double LP of Shel Silverstein-penned compositions. (Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe is one of my favorite songs ever.)

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Lobner and I then made a brief detour to Goodland Field, home of the Appleton Foxes from 1958-1994 (the team moved to its current home the following season and changed its name to the Timber Rattlers). Goodland Field is now run by the Appleton School District, and while it is a perfectly acceptable amateur facility I found it hard to believe that just 20 years ago it hosted Class A professional baseball. It now hosts TERROR BASEBALL.

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A few more peeks through the chain link:

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On the way back to the hotel there were a few photo opportunities to be found, because when aren’t there?

The Lawrence University campus is situated along the Fox River…

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The Appleton-area paper industry is not nearly as robust as it once was — at one point, the city’s Minor League team was called “The Papermakers” — and this particular mills have been re-purposed for residential uses.

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Rocky Bleier, a wounded Vietnam veteran who overcame his injuries and won four Super Bowl rings as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was born in Appleton.

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Many thanks to Lobner for taking the time to show me around (as well as serving as my “Designated Eater” the night before). He dropped me back off at the hotel in the early afternoon, but I barely had time to catch my breath before my next social engagement. This one requires a little bit of backstory…

Back in the summer of 2012, in the wake of my aforementioned celiac disease diagnosis, I received an email from Timber Rattlers production assistant Peter DeRuyter. He mentioned that his sister, Nicole, had a gluten intolerance and soon enough Nicole got in touch with a wealth of information and advice for the newly gluten free. That was kind enough as it was, but she followed that up by sending me a “Welcome to Gluten Freedom” package of various GF foods. It was great!

So, anyway, now that I was in Appleton I finally had the chance to meet Nicole and Peter!

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Yes, we got lunch, but let’s back up a bit in this narrative (you’re all riveted, right?) Upon departing from the hotel, Nicole informed me of the following:

“Alright, here’s the game plan. We’re going to get dessert first. Happy Belly’s, and it’s aptly named. It’s gonna feel like I’m taking you to the back room of some place, because I am taking you to the back room of some place.”

Awesome! I’ve always loved the back rooms of some places. We returned to the by-now-kind-of-familiar streets of downtown Appleton, which were remarkably deserted considering that the Farm Market had taken place a few short hours ago.

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The front entrance of this place was adorned with a complimentary bath tub.

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And, yes, here’s the back room gluten-free friendly bake shop. See, this is why it’s always good to hang out with the locals!

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I got some cupcakes, because, again: When in Rome.

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Back outside, I happened to notice this sign. In Appleton, even the sub shops are gluten-free!

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The DeRuyters and I then took a scenic walk to a nearby restaurant because, clearly, what was needed at this juncture was more food. One of the views along the way:

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Our destination was the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

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Which, of course, had a gluten-free menu.

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This being Wisconsin and all, a cheese plate was mandatory.

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This was followed by a Reuben, which comes in at #1 on my list of “things I miss ordering at a diner in the wake of being diagnosed with celiac disease.”

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Once again, Nicole and Peter DeRuyter. Their generosity on this idyllic Saturday afternoon was much appreciated.

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Even more Appleton vantage points, taken during the walk back to downtown proper.

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I can say, without hyperbole, that this is the best-named business of all time.

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Oh, and in addition to castle-cum-history museums, Appleton now boasts the Houdini Plaza in honor of one of its most well-known native sons. But, when I was there, it was under construction.

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Finally, some wise words from former president Benjamin Harrison (a man preceded and followed in office by Grover Cleveland).

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After all that, I attended Saturday evening’s Timber Rattler game — “Salute to Outdoors Night”! — and wrote about that HERE. Thanks for everything, Appleton! No Minor League city has ever provided me with so much to write about.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Blogging Ouroboros in Wisconsin

Like a snake eating its own tail, this series of Midwest League “On the Road” posts shall end where it began: in Appleton, WI, home of a snake entity that avoids tail devourance whenever possible. That entity is the Timber Rattlers and, as you may recall, I spent two nights with the team but only documented one of them (in two parts) before moving on to other stops on my itinerary. Today, we document night two, in one part.

This all makes sense. Just believe.

My second evening in Appleton was “Salute to Outdoors Night,” and the outdoors were saluted thusly:

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Flaunt that cash

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Still flauntin’

 The team wore these theme jerseys, and fans had the opportunity to bid on them. I wonder how many bucks they ended up going for?

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And if exotic jerky is your thing, then you were in luck.

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My work day began with an interview, as I talked to this triumvirate of bullpen denizens about their money-making “Quarter Game” scheme that I had observed the evening before.

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That’s Jonathan Marmold, thee Mike Strong, and Taylor Wall, a good humored group of guys. My interview with them became part one of the Midwest League bullpen trilogy, which will almost certainly net me a Pulitzer or at the very least recognition from the sports media world at large. (Hi guys!) If you haven’t read it then please do so! 

Timber Rattlers broadcaster Chris Mehring arranged the above interview, and I then turned the table by interviewing him. Chris is the dean of the Midwest League and a storehouse of pop culture ephemera, truly one of the most interesting people in Minor League Baseball. It was he who suggested the word “ouroboros” to describe this blog post, and it was he who closed the interview with a pitch-perfect Sledge Hammer! reference. 

Chris is too elusive to be photographed, but the Timber Rattlers players were easy to capture. This is why I went to Wisconsin in the first place, because so many people extolled the virtues of the dairy air.

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I was in the dugout at the time the game started because I had been recruited to be a contestant in the nightly “Super Ropes Super Pull” contest. This is me and my opponent, whose name I unfortunately I cannot recall.

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Show time!

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This game is intense! I’m still kind of sore from it.

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Did any of this make sense to you? Me neither! Perhaps this video will help:

Yes, I lost. It was something I needed to get used to, because after the Super Rope Super Pull I remained in the dugout in order to compete in yet another on-field contest. In this one I was pitted against Timber Rattlers hitting coach Dusty Rhodes in a duck calling contest. This gave us a chance to utilize the, yes, duck calls that were given to fans as they entered the stadium on this fine evening of outdoors salutation.

I’ve never gone hunting before. I had no idea what I was doing, and ended up looking like a duck call was perhaps something one smoked out of.

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This was a set-up, as Dusty Rhodes turned out to be some sort of duck calling virtuoso. I wish that I had video, because he had sounds coming out of that thing that I wouldn’t have thought possible.

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Fang and I, we were not worthy.

Nice appendages, snake.

Nice appendages, snake.

But don’t worry, there were still plenty more opportunities for humiliation. As soon as my duck calling stint was over, I was ushered over to a storage area beyond the outfield so that I could suit up as a contestant in the nightly Merkts cheese race.

I was sharp cheddar.

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While waiting for our moment in the spotlight, I made some friends.

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Off to the races!

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Once again, the video shall tell the tale.

As you can see in the video, Timber Rattlers evil mascot Gnaf made a rare appearance. If you’re a fan of inane wordplay, anemic putdowns, and exaggerated self-confidence as a means to disguise intense self-loathing then make sure to follow Gnaf on Twitter! 

The Timber Rattlers had much more “Outdoors Night” shenanigans going on throughout the evening, as this photo that appeared on the team’s Facebook page illustrates.

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But for me it was time for a change of pace. The day before myself and an affable designated eating duo had spent a lot of time sampling the team’s concession offerings, but little did I know that there was WAY more where that came from. Fox Cities Stadium underwent a lot of renovations over the past year, and one of the most notable additions was an upstairs club level featuring “upscale” ballpark food (as in you eat it, and then the numbers on the scale go up!)

Here’s the menu, created under the expert guidance of chef Timothy Hansen.

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I sat down at a table and was soon rendered speechless as Hansen and co. brought out a dizzying array of dishes. Some were from the menu above and some are only available when the team hosts private events such as wedding receptions, but all looked delicious.

And many of these dishes were gluten-free. I was starting to get excited!

The above items soon had many companions.

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The centerpiece there is a “shrimp ceviche martini,” excellently prepared with a citrus-y salsa-style sauce. To the left of that is sesame tuna on endive with pineapple salsa (!) and then, moving clockwise: a BLT wedge salad (romaine lettuce, peppercorn ranch dressing, chopped pepper bacon, tomatoes and scallions), Caribbean jerk wings (gluten free ingredients!), Philly cheese cake (sredded ribeye, peppers, onions and nacho cheese on an Amoroso roll, and a crab cake sandwich with a side of remoulade.

Oh, and soon this Caesar salad with blackened salmon appeared! Just so we’re clear, all of this was prepared onsite at a Class A Minor League Baseball stadium.

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I couldn’t help but nibble on the many exemplary gluten-free offerings, but I kept in control.

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I was waiting for my designated eater — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits. In this case this individual was one Jim Meulendyke, who worked for the team in 2011 and 2012 (as an intern and then in group sales). Jim now lives in Minnesota (“I left Minor League Baseball for a girl,” he told me) and was in town for a visit.

Jim was making the most of this visit — when I was waiting for him upstairs, he was on the field taking part in a dancing grounds crew routine. I watched it on TV:

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 That’s Jim on the left:

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And — hey! — here he is, just after taking a big bite of crab cake.

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Jim was really enthusiastic about the food, and also one of the most articulate designated eaters I’ve worked with so far.

“You can taste the crab but its not overpowering,” he said. “But the sauce, the sauce is so good. The bun is really good but it’s the sauce that wins me over. It’s got a little kick to it, and complements the crab so well.”

Next was the cheesesteak.

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“Holy [Schmidt] that’s tasty! Oh that cheese is so good and this is melt in your mouth steak!” exclaimed Jim. “Sometimes Philly steak is too chewy and you find yourself battling it but with this all the flavors are simultaneous, and with that little bit of pepper and onion it is just perfect. Oh, crap, that is good. This is like heaven.”

And with that, Jim Meulendyke is a strong contender to win the coveted honor of “best designated eating quote of 2013.”

Oh, and how ’bout some Caribbean wings?

Already devoured

Already devoured

“At first it tastes good, but I was thinking that if you’re going to go Caribbean then you’ve got to have more kick to it,” said Jim. “But as I set the bone down and was going for wing number two, it started to feel like a sauna in my mouth. It’s an awesome taste, that straight jerk style, it settles in and makes a home.”

The Jim Meulendyke power rankings:

After bidding goodbye to Jim and chef Hansen (who clearly does excellent work), I had just enough time to utilize the duck call.

As the desultory sounds of faux duck echoed through the stands, the visitors emerged with a victory.

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There was a post-game concert in the club level, so I unwound from yet another action-packed evening with a (very generously poured) Jameson on the rocks (sponsor me, Jameson!) and listened to the music.

112 Outdoors Night was a success.

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Also a success was this Midwest League road trip, which provided me with more and better content than any trip I’ve ever gone on. Ever. Thanks to all involved for making it so action-packed and enjoyable, and stay tuned for the next trip!

August 3 – Bakersfield Blaze

August 4 — Visalia Rawhide

August 5 – Fresno Grizzlies

August 6 – Modesto Nuts

August 7 – Stockton Ports

August 8 – Reno Aces

August 9 — Travel — (Crater Lake!)

August 10 and 11 — Hillsboro Hops

This one’s going to be epic, I think. Get in touch with any all suggestions regarding how I should spend my time while out West.

But until then, THIS CANNOT BE LOUD ENOUGH!!! IT CAN NEVER BE LOUD ENOUGH!!!

Mugstar are the best band ever to emerge from Liverpool and their music sounds like my brain.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Synagogues, Sausages, and Psychological Warfare in South Bend

This Midwest League trip featured two teams in Wisconsin, four in Michigan, and then, finally, one in Indiana. That lone Indiana entity  was the South Bend Silver Hawks, occupants of Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium (known as “Coveleski Stadium” for short and “the Cove” for shorter). The Cove was but a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and betwixt the two locations one can find what is (allegedly) the world’s largest chocolate store.

I did not have time to visit.

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But outside of said chocolatier, the walk to the stadium was rather barren.

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But, soon enough, out in the distance, on the horizon, the Cove appeared to me like a vision before my unbelieving eyes.

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I walked toward this inflatable creature with awe-filled reverence.

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I was so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity.

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This back entrance is one of many additions and improvements that have been made to the Cove over the last two years, some funded by the city and others funded by new owner Andrew Berlin. By all accounts the 26-year-old stadium had taken on a feeling of neglect and decay in recent years, but these days it is imbued with a spirited sense of revitalization.

Shockingly, opposite the back entrance one can find a front entrance. I walked over in that direction so that I could document one of the most well-marked handicapped access curbs in Minor League Baseball.

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As you can see, it was a really beautiful evening in South Bend! Why wasn’t I aware of this beauty at the time that I was documenting it? Why do I only see such beauty retroactively? Why am I still writing instead of posting a picture?

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I was on the field in order to conduct an interview in the visitor’s dugout.

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This interview, like most interviews I do, was tinged with a patina of ridiculousness. I grilled Bowling Green Hot Rods catcher Geoff Rowan on the Silver Hawks’ pink visiting locker rooms, and he was a good sport about it.

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The results of this interview can be read HERE.  As for the pink locker rooms, we’ll get to those in a moment. But first, Silver Hawks president Joe Hart gave me a brief tour of the concourse and the many recent improvements and additions to be found therein.

Outdoor suites with waitress (or waiter) service:

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The Silver Hawks have installed lava heaters all around the concourse and a fire pit in the outfield , but such heat-providing amenities are of no use in the summertime. On the other end of the spectrum, there are fans for the fans.

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There is also an outfield splash area, complete with changing room.

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Did I mention that it was a beautiful day?

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The outfield “Party Patio,” featuring four person tables separated by lava heaters. This kid, he appears to be waving at me.

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In the above photo, there are two interesting buildings of note. In the background is a massive Studebaker factory, now shuttered, that at its peak employed 21,000 people. In front of that is old Union Station, which has since been converted into a private data center run by Global Access Point. 

This is the back view of the back entrance, with Hart reporting that the team is still working to educate fans on the existence of this entrance. Currently 35% of fans enter the stadium through the back, with the remaining 65% remaining staunch front entrance way adherents.

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Fun Zone!

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Tiki Hut!

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A whole bunch of stuff!

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But perhaps most worthy of gratuitous exclamation points is the abandoned synagogue-turned-team store located in left field. I’ve already written a feature about it on MiLB.com that I’d encourage you to check out, but as you can see it’s a most eye-catching structure (note the star of David on the far left).

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Beneath a refurbished chandelier, fluorescent t-shirts implore its potential wearer to consider his or her hawksomeness factor.

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Not sure where this falls on the delightfully irreverent/irredeemably tacky divide, but I have a feeling it’s closer to the latter of the two.

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The upstairs portion of the store, used as a storage area and not open to the public, is presided over by mannequin sentinels.

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This might be the best picture I took all evening:

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The mannequin sentinels were kind enough to allow me to document their daily view.

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Beautiful views, both inside and out.

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At this point the game was underway, so Hart and I and various other members of our impromptu entourage visited the pink visiting locker rooms. As mentioned before this is something that I’ve already written about, so for more context and commentary please click HERE.

Manager’s office:

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Trainer’s room:

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Lounge area:

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Bathrooms! Showers!

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And finally, the luxury and splendor of the Silver Hawks’ home digs.

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And with that, we moved on. Moving on is what life is all about.

It’s (not so) lonely at the top.

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Down and up, up and down. Soon enough we were back on the concourse, for what turned out to be a prolonged exploration of the food and beverage choices. The evening’s scheduled designated eater, a local radio DJ, was a no-show after getting stuck in Blackhawks championship-related traffic on the way back from Chicago. In his place stepped co-worked Carl Stutsman, a native of Elkhart, Indiana who currently serves as the assistant program director at “Michiana’s News Channel” 95.3 WTRC.

As the “designated eater,” it was Carl’s job to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Like designated eater Keirsh Cochran in Lansing, Carl had opted to bring his girlfriend to the game. But unlike in Lansing, Carl’s girlfriend, Paige, chose to remain anonymous.

Welcome, Carl — already in action!

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The Silver Hawks are a client of Professional Sports Catering, the Lansing-based MiLB concessionaire whose offerings were well-documented during my time with the Lugnuts. Well, it’s time to document some more! In the above photo, Carl was biting into a “jalapeno popper” burger, one of the selections available at Burgertopia.

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Damn you, gluten! That thing looked good and I would have loved to have had one.

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“It’s not overpowering, and the cheese really smooths everything out,” reported Carl. “The burger is cooked to a perfect medium rare and, oh, by the way, the pretzel bun is the best part.”

This portion of the evening was overseen by Silver Hawks food and beverage director Ben Hayes (one of two Ben Hayeses in Minor League Baseball, along with the president of the New York-Penn League). Hayes, like his PSC counterpart Brett Telder in Lansing, is extremely passionate about his job and seemed delighted to have the opportunity to showcase his work.

I didn’t get a good picture of Hayes, unfortunately, but he’s clearly a regular at the gym and speaks at a fast pace with relentless energy and enthusiasm. He would make a GREAT infomercial pitchman, and I request that he star in a series of offseason videos highlighting the Silver Hawks food options. So, anyway: Ben Hayes ladies and gentleman.

Ben Hayes:

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“It’s fun knocking out the basic stuff for large groups of people, no doubt about it, but working with high-end ingredients is the best,” said Hayes at one point, shortly after extolling the virtues of a “deconstructed ceviche” he made for team owner Andrew Berlin. “I can put jalapeno caviar on top of a hot dog!”

In the above photo Hayes is about to dish out some selections from the team’s new stir-fry stand. General Tso’s and Mongolian (Ribeye) Beef,

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As modeled by Gutsman:

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Ballpark Chinese is certainly a unique offering, but even more unique is what Hayes came back with next: Duck sausage with Cajun seasoning, produced in nearby Middlebury.

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Those in the know put Stanz Belgian Style Mustard on their duck sausage.

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Gutsman raved about the sweet and spicy taste of the duck sausage, and soon I was able to as well as Hayes brought one over sans-bun. And, sans-bun, you can perhaps get a better sense of how good this thing looked.

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DISCLAIMER: Even if it was sans-bun, I am not 100% sure if the above sausage was gluten-free. Sometimes temptation gets the better of me in such situations, and I’m sorry.

Either way, I look like a moron holding holding this Stanz-drenched duck sausage.

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It seemed that everytime I looked across the table at Carl, he had somehow acquired more food. Kettle corn! Regular popcorn! Philadelphia Steak Nachos!

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The Philadelphia steak nachos were perhaps not completely authentic, in that provolone was the cheese of choice (as opposed to Whiz).  Nonetheless, they looked delicious and Carl and Paige certainly seemed to enjoy them.

But Carl — or more accurately, Hayes — could not be contained. Next up was a Mac and Cheese Dog. Carl praised the “fluffy” mac and steamed bun, but nonetheless reported that “the hot dog is the best part.”

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Like Keirsh Cochran before him, Carl was a skinny guy who could really pack it in.

As he did so I experimented with unorthodox flavor combinations, as legs paraded by in the background.

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But all good things must come to an end. Thanks to Hayes for the culinary hospitality, and thanks to Carl for wolfing it all down.

Carl signs off:

The ballgame was moving on with remarkable alacrity. There was nothing left to do now but document a beautiful evening as it turned into a beautiful night.

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Glow sticks for sale:

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This concourse bubble machine was extremely popular. The kids couldn’t get enough of it!

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Out there by the bubble machine, I spent six seconds of my life providing a #cupdate. Mind you, this is six seconds of my life that I’ll never get back.

Panorama!

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Almost as soon as the game was completed, the stadium’s lighting situation changed dramatically. This…

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changed to this. Glowsticks and fireworks!

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But that’s not all, because that is never all. Run the bases, kids. Run those goshdarn bases.

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South Bend was my last stop on this road trip, and I guess at this juncture I was starting to get a little loopy.

And as my evening in South Bend progressed, things only got loopier. I swear, that bus followed me across the Midwest.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: He Would Not Accept the Plunger in West Michigan

And we’re back!

Part one of this riveting West Michigan saga was largely a pre-game tour of the WhiteCaps’ Fifth Third Ballpark, serving as the proverbial aperitif to the degustatory delight that is this post’s main course.

Are you ready to take the plunge? Let’s go!

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My evening began just outside the pressbox, as broadcaster Ben Chiswick interviewed me as part of his pre-game show on 107.3 FM. Seven photos were taken during this interview, and in all of them I look similarly slouched over and sloth-like. None of these pictures will become a new online dating profile pic. I’m losing my edge.

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Convinced that my slovenly appearance was caused by an ill-fitting shirt (as opposed to lack of exercise and poor diet, which would of course be impossible), I headed out in search of a new addition to my wardrobe.

And, voila! It was “70s Night,” and in conjunction with this time-tested theme promo the Whitecaps had set up a DIY tie-dye (or tie-DIY, if you prefer) t-shirt stand out in the right field area.

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The process is simple: don a pair of rubber gloves, put rubber bands all over the t-shirt, and then spray with your choice of colors.

Uh, dude? You might want to be more careful with where you’re pointing that yellow bottle.

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I actually had too many rubber bands wrapped around the shirt, which severely limited the areas which actually got colored. But on the whole I liked my shirt and its minimalist psychedelic motif. If this shirt was a band it’d be Silver Apples.

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As it turns out the shirts had to be hung out to dry, so I was condemned to an evening of looking like the schlub that I undoubtedly am. C’est la vie, it was a beautiful night and we live in a beautiful world and such self-obsession is unseemly if inevitable.

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At this juncture duty called me back to the field, as I was slated to be among a small army of ceremonial first pitch throwers. While down there, I met these guys:

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There’s something I like about this picture. Dim the lighting a bit and it would look like a still from a David Lynch fever dream.

IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN.

074First pitch throwers galore, not to be confused with the James Bond villain or exemplary 80s scuzz rock. 

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Here I am en route to the mound, as the PA announcer (one Michael Newell, we’ll meet him later) went on a flattering spiel that credited me with making the Fifth Third Burger internationally famous. Hyperbole? Sure. But I did my part. 

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No documentation exists, fortunately, but I bounced the pitch ( a stark contrast to the perfect strike in Great Lakes).

Here I am walking back from the mound in shame, as my fellow first pitchers (seen on the videoboard) laugh derisively:

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But who cares? No one was there to see me. The real stars of this first pitch cavalcade were coaches and players from the Grand Rapids Griffins, who had just won the Calder Cup (the AHL’s equivalent to the Stanley Cup).

Sad Champion, not to be confused with the world’s best-named meteorologist:

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Back on the concourse I witnessed the best National Anthem I’ve seen in 2013. John Pylman, a WWII veteran who was on the crew of a B17 bomber (as was my grandfather), absolutely nailed a no-frills rendition. He knew what he was capable of and did it marvelously.

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For this dude, the National Anthem just meant a 90 second reprieve from trying to single-handedly consume a 5/3rd pound $22 hamburger.

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It’s a whole lot of burger.

The Fifth Third Burger was just part of a humongous ballpark spread that the Whitecaps had laid out for me at the table adjacent.

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It’s a bit jumbled, but this represents my best attempt to decipher the above image:

Back row: shrimp po’ boy, deep fried cheese cake, the Fifth Third Burger

Third row: sausage kabobs, Steyhauser steak sandwich, three Bacos

Second row: three orders of deep fried mac and cheese bites

First row: foot long corn dog, gluten-free hot dog, standard issue all-beef hot dog, and two turkey legs

Of course, my gluten-free diet prohibits the consumption of most of the above items. As you’ll recall from my previous post my designated eaters for the evening were local radio DJs Flounder and Marty, but this duo were nowhere to be found.

So, it was time for improvisation! The Baco — lettuce and tomato on a “taco” shell made out of approximately eight strips of bacon — is gluten-free so I started right in on that.

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There are no surprises with the Baco — it has very few ingredients and is, in essence, a bunless BLT. It tastes great and I’d recommend it, but at the same time it’s not the orgasmic explosion of flavor that some in the so-called blogosphere would make it out to be. What is with this current obsession with bacon in our culture? Yes, it tastes great, but the internet needs to calm down with all of this snarky and ultimately demeaning “bacon is like unicorns dancing in my mouth” style rhetoric. We are adults. Barely. But adults nonetheless.

Okay, I don’t know where that came from. Let’s move on.

Whitecaps promotions manager Brian Oropallo soon jumped into the fray, picking up a shrimp po’ boy with grace and aplomb.

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“The seasoning is where the flavor is,” said Oropollo, who is perhaps more physically fit than I am. “It’s got a little kick to it, maybe there’s some cayenne pepper in there.”

And back to me, this time with a gluten-free hot dog (the bun is made of rice flour).

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I know this looks fundamentally unexciting, but for me it was great to have a solid ballpark hot dog again. The bun held together nicely and tasted fine, and I’d implore all teams to add similar gluten-free options to their concession offerings. I’ve noticed that some teams equate “gluten-free” with health conscious as in “we offer fruit cups and carrot sticks,” but really all I’m looking for is to a return to normalcy. Unhealthy is fine, I’m at a ballpark!

Matt LaWell, in town to chronicle the adventures of yours truly for his upcoming book on Minor League Baseball, entered the fray as well. He appears to be eating a steak sandwich with a fork in this picture, although the only food quote of his I have written down involves the deep fried mac and cheese. (“Really creamy,” he observed.)

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Also enjoying the deep fried mac and cheese was Kevin Huisman, a longtime Ben’s Biz reader and Grand Rapids resident who stopped by the stadium to say hello. I was like, “We’re sans-Flounder and Marty, so dive right in to some designated eating!”

He obliged, calling the deep-fried mac and cheese “stellar” and then diving into the Baco. Of the latter, he said that “It’s really crumbly, so it’s a good thing it’s served in a boat. The bacon’s great, but the veggies are really fresh and that’s what makes it.”

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

Before:

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After the before:

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And back to me with the sausage kabob, as media relations manager and noted kabob fan Mickey Graham stands in the background. This looked gluten-free so I pretended it was. God forgive me. It was great.

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My attention was momentarily diverted by an on-field appliance race.

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I don’t really know what transpired, but what I do know is that Marty soon arrived on the scene. He was sans-Flounder, but one half of a morning radio DJ team is better than no morning radio DJ team at all.

Welcome, Marty! Here, he and I pose with the mighty Fifth Third Burger.

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Introduce yourself, Marty.

Marty, making up for lost time:

Fifth Third Burger!

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Steak sandwich!

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Deep fried cheese cake! (“It needs dipping sauce,” he reported.)

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At this point, the impromptu quartet of designated eaters had morphed into a ruthless consumption machine. Oropallo, ever creative, even began to eat his own arm.

Hey Ladies!

Hey Ladies!

But I had a job to do, and this job was to serve as guest MC for a between-inning contest. I was to announce the “Meijer’s M-Perks Price Drop” while throwing water-soaked blue balls into the crowd. My script, such as it was, as I jotted it down in my notebook with one out until showtime:

“Fans, make some noise! The Ferris [sic?] coffee crew and the mascots are tossing out Meijer M-Perks price drop balls into the crowd and if YOU catch a ball take it to customer service and claim your prize.” [Actually, this whole paragraph is sic.]

All things considered I think I actually did pretty well, and I have no complaints whatsoever with my co-worker.

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With that nerve-wracking 90 seconds of my life complete, I returned to the designated eating station. Marty had been abandoned — first by Flounder, and now by his impromptu crew. But still, Marty persevered.

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I hope that we’re all Marty fans by now. But, still, I abandoned him in favor of my next enterprise. Graham and I headed to the manual scoreboard, so that I could once again attempt to work it (as you’ll recall from my first West Michigan post, my initial attempt to do this was lackluster at best).

The view along the way:

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Hi, everybody!

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New online Dayton profile pic

Billy was out there working the scoreboard, and under his able and patient tutelage I was able to do so as well.

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Easy does it:

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The velveteen touch of a dandy fop:

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Success! Thanks, Billy!

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Meanwhile, Marty had switched to beer and had made new friends. God bless Marty.

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At the table adjacent, a hardy burger-eater was in the process of celebrating his burger eating accomplishments.

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All I could do, meanwhile, was eat and run (and, yes, I realize the extent to which I overuse the word “meanwhile.” If I overused “meantime” then at least I’d have an excuse to link to one of the top five songs of all time.)

I was on the run because I had yet another job to do. Or, more accurately, I had Michael Newell’s job to do.

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Newell, a school counselor, is in his 17th season as the Whitecaps PA announcer.

“It’s an absolutely great summer job,” he told me. “You can’t get me out of here.”

I could, however, do his job for a half inning. Newell’s tip was to “just yell,” though I had to restrain, or curb, my enthusiasm due to the fact that the visiting Dayton Dragons were at the plate. From my notes, these were the players that came to the plate: “Zach Vince-y, Seth Ma-hee-us Breen, Jeff Jello-Litch, Junior Air-e-us.”

Welcome to the Terrordome:

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In action:

Yes, in the above video I am saying the unremarkable name of “Jesse Winker.” But, for what it’s worth, Newell told me his favorite all-time name to say is Pedro Santana because “you really get to stretch the vowels out.”

Back outside the press box, I realized that Marty was capable of near supernatural levels of omniscience.

But I didn’t have time to ponder such things. My presence was wanted on the concourse, so that I could award a plunger to one lucky (and randomly selected) fan.

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Hey ladies!

The randomly selected fan was pointed out to me, and all I had to do was approach him and say “Congratulations, you’ve been randomly selected to win a Penning plunger!”

Except, this happened. Without hyperbole, I’ll say that this is my favorite six seconds of my professional career. And, also, this is certainly my favorite Vine video.

I am not one to call my own material classic, but this is classic.

“I deal with those things all day long! Are you freaking kidding me? You’re going to offer that to a guy in building maintenance? You’ve got some nerve.”

Other quotes I have written down from this exchange:

“This is like giving motor oil to a mechanic.”

“If this ends up in our newsletter I’ll never hear the end of it.”

But here’s the thing. This awesome guy’s awesome friends wanted the plunger, so long as I signed it with “Go Whitecaps!”

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And soon enough, we were all friends. These guys are the best.

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I celebrated this triumph of human interaction with a gluten-free Redbridge beer.

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And this was followed by a full-throated rendition of the seventh-inning stretch, followed by a totally confused attempt to dance to (what I think was) Cotton Eyed Joe.

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stretch

From left to right: Beautiful, Beautiful, Handsome, Schlub

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Back on the concourse, it was time to fulfill obligations.

#Cupdate!

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Stadium panorama, with now-obligatory Matt LaWell sighting.

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Finally, I descended to the dugout. It was time for the fat lady to sing.

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Except, no, the Whitecaps lost the game. The Fat Lady never got “her” chance to sing, and the ballgame ended with me sitting in the dugout dejectedly.

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When I was down there in the dugout, five members of the promo staff asked to take a picture with me. I swear it wasn’t the other way around, but nonetheless this photo will warm my soul for the remainder of my days on this Earth.

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I’m not sure if he took the above photo, but Whitecaps video intern Paul Salley took many great photos throughout the night and is great guy in general. So thanks to you, Paul. (Paul is currently writing a book on Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, and I will gladly share more info on that as it materializes.)

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Meanwhile (there’s that word again), up in the press box, Whitecaps official scorer Mike Dean ended his work day by cranking out some Handel on the harmonica. He is known for doing this.

But STILL the night was not over. Out on the post-game part deck, River City Stew was cranking out some tunes.

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But this too shall pass. The last note, like that of Mike Dean, was on the harmonica.

And THAT was all that she wrote from West Michigan. Disseminate this post widely.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Productive Morning in West Michigan

My day with the West Michigan Whitecaps started early and ended late, the way that days on the road are wont to do.

After waking up at an ungodly — at least from my perspective — hour in Lansing, I made the quick drive to Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, MI. There, I met with Whitecaps director of marketing and media relations Mickey Graham and we drove into Grand Rapids proper.

Hello, Grand Rapids proper!

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I was in Grand Rapids proper — or “the GRP” as I like to call it — in order to visit a conglomerate of radio stations inconspicuously nestled within a downtown office building.

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My destination was, the lower left quadrant of the conglomerate: Thunder 94.5, home of Flounder and Marty in the morning.  Flounder, he’s on the right:

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Flounder and Marty had been recruited to serve as my “designated eaters” that evening — in other words, the individuals who would sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. They interviewed me for about five minutes or so, during which I explained who I am, what I do, why I am the most underrated entity in all of sports media (maybe I just thought this), and just what their designated eating duties might entail.

For each photo in this post in which I am wearing this t-shirt, I am expecting the Tennessee Smokies to pay me $75.

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Flounder was a bit apprehensive about this whole “designated eating” thing, remarking that “my personal trainer would punch me in the face.” Marty, whose DJ career has already taken him from Chicago to Rapid City, SD to Wassau, WI to Grand Rapids — was more amenable. Both individuals were nice guys, and amenable to having their picture taken after the interview.

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The evening’s ballgame was still some nine hours away, but, back at Fifth Third Ballpark, there was already plenty of activity. Whitecaps coaches and players were hosting a youth clinic, most notably, but front office staffers and groundskeepers were all over the place as well as bespectacled silver-haired gentlemen in collared shirts curious as to why some dude in a Smokies t-shirt was taking a picture of the field.

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Before moving any further, please take in the following triumvirate of vantage points.

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And, yes, that is a giant plunger left center field, adjacent to the scoreboard. The “Penning Plunger,” to be exact, which moves up and down via the flick of a press box switch.

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Also of note is the lighthouse in right field. This joins the one in Bowie, MD as the only outfield lighthouses that I am aware of in Minor League Baseball. [EDIT! The Lake County Captains also have a lighthouse.]

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Or is it a “Lite” House?

At this juncture Graham gave me a thorough tour of Fifth Third Ballpark, which opened in 1994 and was built entirely with private funds (a true rarity). Graham extolled the bureaucracy-free virtues of this arrangement, saying “The little things make a difference, and we can take care of the little things so much easier. If the railing’s chipped, we can paint it. If the concrete’s cracked, we can fix it.”

The team can also ensure that their men’s room boasts the Midwest League’s shiniest porcelain and most unique men’s room sink layout.

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For when Thirsty Thursday goes wrong:

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Out on the concourse, one can find plenty of concession options, presented in an eye-catching and appealingly ramshackle fashion.

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As you are probably aware, the Whitecaps have become well-known for their concession items in recent years. The Fifth Third Burger, introduced in 2009, was featured in this very blog and that post was picked up by Darren Rovell (then with CNBC) and, before you knew it, the thing was an international sensation.

“That was the craziest two weeks of my life,” said Graham. “I did hundreds of interviews. I even did one in [the country of] Columbia, and I could tell that they were totally making fun of me.”

The Fifth Third Burger is still going strong:

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On the day that I visited, 18 people had already been crowned Fifth Third champions in 2013. Off to the left is the one photo that the team keeps visible from season to season, featuring Man vs. Food host Adam Richman.

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One of 2013’s new additions is the Squeelin’ Pig, which requires those who purchase it to sign a waiver. This pig is like, “If you’re going to butcher and consume me, then at least I shall have some measure of revenge.”

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 Then there’s the Baco, which is essentially a BLT without the bun (gluten-free!)

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But this is all just a preview, as there will be plenty of food pics and videos in part two of this Whitecaps saga. Take a deep breath and center in on this beautiful ballpark image, which reminds us that there is more to enjoy than giant hamburgers and such.

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Graham and I wandered over to the outfield, where I practiced for one of my duties that evening: operating the manual scoreboard.

I was not good at this, as you can see, and the stress caused my cheeks to well up uncontrollably.

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At least there were some good views to be had out there, while seated in a vintage logo chair.

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Youth clinic in full effect!

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That youth clinic looked really fun, as I hope the following two Vine videos will illustrate.

And those youth, they sure made good use of the dugouts.

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Would someone please get this guy a vintage logo chair to sit in? That bucket looks mighty uncomfortable. 038By comparison, a picnic bench looks like a veritable king size bed. 041 Those in search of true comfort should wander down to the home clubhouse. 045Adjacent to the clubhouse is the trainer’s room, where I was able to snap the following photo: 046I’ve said it before, but like Grizzly Man showing on a loop it bears repeating: One of these I plan on doing an article in which the contents of a trainer’s table (or medicine chest) are explained on an item-by-item basis. If you are a trainer who might like to do this, or if you know one who might, then of course please get in touch.

I call this picture “Existence.” 047Trainer’s tape can be utilized in a variety of ways. 048From my perspective, however, clubhouses and trainer’s rooms pale in comparison to the beauty that lurks in team promo closets. Hula hoops, deflated eyeballs and waylaid bovines are all par for the course.

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And then there was this — bobblehead storage room!

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Many of these bobbleheads featured Tigers legend Lou Whitaker, 1000 of which were slated to be given away the next day. I am not sure how early fans had to arrive in order to insure that they got one, but I do know that six hours in advance was a bit on the excessive side.

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That’s brothers Ryan and Raymond Ortega, who pride themselves on their indefatigable Tigers fandom. They did indeed show up six hours early for the Lou Whitaker bobblehead giveaway, and my interview with them is HERE.

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 But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is still lots more to come from West Michigan — LOTS — but for now I’m going to bid you adieu from the Grand River.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Culinary Concoctions and Concentrated Cuteness in Lansing

Remember that last post I wrote, all of two days ago? It was about the Lansing Lugnuts, and while it featured dozens of photos and 1300+ words it still ended before the ballgame even started.

So, today, let’s pick things up with the ballgame about to start. In Lansing, you KNOW you’re close to that cry of “Play Ball!” when you see this.

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Yep! The team’s relief corps was en route to the bullpen, playing “Follow the Leader” the whole way. Here’s a six second excerpt:

Of course, for FAR more “Follow the Leader” content, you can read my eminently worthwhile MiLB.com piece.

With the game about to begin, I ducked out of the stadium itself in order to document its immediate downtown surroundings. I hadn’t had time to do that previously, and adherence to routine and previously established protocol is crucial to the well-being of my perpetually ramshackle operation.

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Literal Lugnut!

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This was actually taken from outside the stadium, as I did a lap around the premises.

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The Lugnuts’ stadium used to be called “Oldsmobile Park,” a fitting moniker for a stadium in a city where Oldsmobiles were actually produced (over 14 million were made in Lansing, per Wikipedia). But GM stopped producing Oldsmobiles in the midst of the crippling 21st-century economic downturn, and, correspondingly, they also stopped paying for stadium naming rights.

The ballpark is now known as Cooley Law School Stadium…

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but the playing surface has been named “Jackson Field.”

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But the facility is NOT referred to as “Jackson Field at Cooley Law School Stadium,” as these two sponsoring entities must be mentioned independently of one another (violations of this policy are punishable by death).

This all seems a little confusing, and I asked Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler if he agreed.

“I don’t think people are confused,” he replied. “I think they just say ‘Let’s go to a Lugnuts game!'”

Touche.

My outside wanderings complete, I re-entered Jackson Field at the Facility Formerly Known as Oldsmobile Park that is Now Referred to as Cooley Law School Stadium and — yes! — baseball was indeed taking place.

Let’s go to a Lugnuts game!

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Well, heck. Since I’m already up and about and on my feet and all I may as well do some internal wandering as well.

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As you can see, it was a pretty sparse crowd on the Wednesday evening that I was in attendance. The team is averaging approximately 4400 fans a game this season, but Jesse said that this is merely the middle ground of Lansing’s all or nothing reality.

“We almost never draw 4400,” he said. “It’s either 10 or 11 thousand or one or two thousand.”

C’est la vie. One of the perks of attending a game on a sparse evening is that there is plenty of room for concourse wandering.

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And it was here on the concourse that I met one Keirsh Cochran, a self-described “135 pounds of solid muscle” who, among other things, has inspired the composition of rapturous love songs. 

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When I posted my road trip itinerary this past April I put out a call for “Designated Eaters,” as in: individuals who can sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Keirsh responded with both speed and enthusiasm:

I am the Marketing and Community Relations intern for the Fort Wayne TinCaps this season. I have been an avid reader for a little over a year. You are a professional hero of mine, so it would be a lifelong regret if I didn’t apply for the June 26th Designated eater spot. You will be in Lansing. The TinCaps will be in Lansing. I can easily make the trip from Fort Wayne to Lansing. You aren’t making the trip to FW this season, I see this as nothing short of destiny, and when destiny knocks at your door and presents an opportunity like this, you reach out and grab it.

Also as a built in incentive to pick me, I have a pooping cow keychain on my promo room key that I believe came from you.

Yes! The pooping cow! You may (but almost definitely don’t) recall my October 2010 post in which I wrote about visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. During that visit I put 25 cents into this machine, received a pooping cow, and then offered to send this pooping cow to the first person who asked for it.

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The Pooping Cow keychain ended up being sent to the TinCaps front office at the request of  creative director Tony DesPlaines, who then bequeathed it to on-field promotions wizard Abby Naas, who then attached it to the key that unlocks the door to the promo supply room.

“So, if someone needs to get into the promo room they ask ‘Hey, can I get the pooping cow?'” explained Keirsh. “It’s one of the things that makes [Fort Wayne's] Parkview Field Parkview Field.”

Sorry for this absurd tangent, but I love everything about this. The Pooping Cow was purchased in Vegas, brought back to New York, sent to Fort Wayne, and then anecdotally re-entered my life three years later via a professional excursion to Lansing.

Keirsh left the pooping cow back in Fort Wayne, but he didn’t travel to Lansing alone.

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That’s his girlfriend Christie Burd. She currently works full-time at a salon, and is a big fan of the TinCaps as well. Of Keirsh, she says that “I fell in love with him at the ballpark.”

Of Christie and Keirsh, I will say that they are adorable. That’s not a word I use very often, and I hope it doesn’t sound condescending, but they are! Here’s Keirsh without his better half, ready for some serious concession stand indulgence. “I’m the Kobayashi of Minor League Baseball,” he claimed.

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As mentioned in the previous post, Lansing serves as the base of operations for Professional Sports Catering (which currently handles concessions for 14 Minor League clubs). Food and Beverage director Brett Telder uses Cooley Law School Stadium as a proving ground of sorts, in that branded entities that are successful there might then expand to other stadiums who are PSC clients.

It was a slow night, and Telder was more than happy to give Keirsh (and Christie, and me, and basically anyone who wanted to talk enthusiastically about food) a thorough culinary tour. (As mentioned in the last post, this is a dude with the PSC logo tattooed on his forearm. He is very passionate about his job).

We began at Pies, a new pizza stand.

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Telder explained that Pies is a reaction to the thoroughly mediocre pizza served at most Minor League ballparks. At Pies, thin-crust pizzas are baked at 550 degrees for 15 minutes. The result are piping hot, eminently crispy thin-crust creations. Keirsh got one of the day’s specials, a cheeseburger supreme pizza with bacon, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, onions, garlic-infused olive oil and even a ketchup and mustard base.

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Now that I’m gluten-free pizza is obviously something that I can’t have, and in all honestly I wasn’t that much of an aficionado even before changing my diet. But this thing looked awesome! Keirsh reported that “When I closed my eyes, it felt like I was eating a bacon cheeseburger.”

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We then ambled next door to another new addition for  2013, the Blue Olive.

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If it was possible, Telder was even more excited about Blue Olive than he was about Pies.

“We make the hummus on site, drizzle it with olive oil and serve it with chips as well as bread so you can sop it all up at the end,” he said. “It’s about value, and good quality, and food made right before your eyes. It’s all about passion, and I get my satisfaction when I see you eating it because I know you’re going to love it.”

This latest bit of PSC proselytizing occurred as we walked over to his office with an array of Blue Olive platters. From left to right, here’s the hummus platter (for Christie), the gyro (for Keirsh) and the (gluten-free) Greek salad (for gluten-free me).

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Have at it, Keirsh!

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“That first bite, it’s great, you can really taste the spice in the meat,” he said.

Christie, meanwhile, remarked that “I’m not a huge hummus fan but I really love this, so that says something.”

As for me? I didn’t write down any of my quotes, so let’s assume that I said something along the lines of “I hereby declare this Greek Salad to be awesome, to the extent that it has assumed a near physiological primacy on my personal Maslow’s pyramid.”

I wrote down some of Tedler’s quotes, meanwhile, as he held court from behind his desk.

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“You know you’ve made it when you get your own Slushee machine,” said Telder, which you can see there on the bottom right. He’s been a chef for 20 years, coming to the Lugnuts after a stint at Lansing’s now-defunct Cadillac Club. And, yes, as mentioned before he does indeed have a PSC tattoo.

“People ask me ‘Well, what if you get fired?’ And I tell them ‘I won’t get fired.’ I just don’t do that.”

(And, yes, as you can see I smudged up my camera lens at this juncture of the evening).

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Christie and I were ready to call it a day on the food front, but the Kobayashi of Minor League Baseball was ready to keep on going. We walked past Burgertopia, where this was the special on offer…

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and, oh, yeah, right, we also walked by a baseball game that was taking place…

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but we ended up here at Franx, in which “x is substituted for the letter combination of “k-s.” This saves money on signage, as teams are often charged on a per-letter basis.

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Keirsh and Christie didn’t even know I was taking this picture (and — look — another Matt LaWell sighting), but STILL they are being adorable. Keirsh has a big old grin as Christie wipes food debris off of his face.

But anyway, here are the Franx offeringx.

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Keirsh’s choice:

“It tastes like I took a bite out of a hot dog and then scooped out a chunk of baked potato. It sounds weird, hearing that come out of my mouth,” said Keirsh.

“You’re a chef, you’re speaking my language!” replied Telder.

New BFFs:

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Meanwhile, the adorable train kept right on chugging along.

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PAUSE! It’s time for a #Cupdate, in which I provide of a snapshot of collectible plastic drinkware so that a small but passionate subset of readers may obsess over it.

Beer on the left, soda on the right:

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UNPAUSE! Keirsh and Christie had moved on to dessert.

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They opted for a banana split.

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As we sat down I perchanced to look up, and reacted with alacrity after noticing with alarm that ball was traveling toward us. This spheroid hurtling through the air had been hit by Fort Wayne’s Alberth Martinez, representing his sixth home run of the season. I retrieved it, I swear, but immediately tossed it to a kid. That’s why no documentation exists.

I do, however, have documentation of this:

“It’s weird. This was our first baseball date because he’s always working,” said Christie.

“This was a really solid first baseball date,” replied Keirsh.

“I don’t think we’re gonna beat this one,” said Christie.

“I don’t think we will,” echoed Keirsh.

And with that they were gone, adorably disappearing into the night. Replacing them was this individual, who I suppose is adorable in his own right.

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That’s Craig Wieczorkiewicz, aka “The Midwest League Traveler.” If you’ve enjoyed my Midwest League content so far then bookmark Craig’s blog and follow him on Twitter (@MWLTraveler), as he is a cornucopia of news, notes, and anecdotes related to this venerable Class A circuit. I interviewed Craig as well, but I’m having trouble locating the file and this post is hitting the 2000 word mark so that is unfortunately going to have to wait for another day.

And while all this was happening, the home team secured the victory.

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Cue the theme song! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

It was almost time to leave, but not before one last goodbye to my pals Jesse, Slavko, and “Sugar.”

And, okay, that’s really all she wrote. Thanks to all involved for a capitol evening!

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Varied Voices and Literal Lugnuts in Lansing

Due to the vagaries of my travel schedule, I didn’t get to spend much time in (what I presume to be) the fine city of Lansing. I arrived in the late afternoon and was gone the next morning, but in that short amount of time I experienced a lot here at Cooley Law School Stadium.

It’s a real CLaSS operation.

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My evening with the Lugnuts began with these guys, who, as you can see, are masters of facial expression variance.

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Affable

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Acrimonious

From left to right, that’s Efrain Nieves, Arik Sikula, Justin Jackson, and Wil Browning, bullpen members all. I interviewed this relief quartet about their “Follow the Leader” ritual, in which they walk from the clubhouse to the bullpen while scrupulously mimicking the movements of that night’s “leader.”

The MiLB.com article that resulted from this interview — part three of my “Bullpen Trilogy,” for those keeping track at home — is a great read AND contains video so, really, you’ve got nothing to lose. Read it HERE or die trying.

The interview took place in the home dugout, as batting practice was winding down. As you can see, it was shaping up to be a beautiful evening in Lansing.

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These early evening dalliances were under the direction of Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.

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You may remember Jesse from such MiLB.com pieces as “Goldberg-Strassler still paying tribute” (on his annual “re-creation” game broadcast; this year’s version scheduled for August 7), “Wordsmith crafts gem of baseball book” (on his Baseball Thesaurus, which he’s holding in the above picture), and “Hyphenated Last Names: Good in theory but patently unsustainable” (that one doesn’t actually exist).

En route to the press box, Goldberg-Strassler briefly introduced me to senior food and beverage director Brett Telder. Lugnuts owners Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers also co-founded Professional Sports Catering (PSC), a MiLB-centric concessionaire, and, well, I guess you could say that Telder is passionate about the company that he works for.

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Telder will appear in part two of this post (oh boy will he ever), but for now: let’s take a look at the stadium’s upper level and those who may reside therein. This suite-level lounge area is called the Clubhouse, an open-to-the-public seating area (tickets are $22.50).

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That’s Matt LaWell on the left, who you may remember as the male half of the married couple who traveled around the country last season for their “A Minor League Season” project. Matt actually followed me around for most of this road trip, as I’ll be one of the featured characters in the “Minor League Season” book. You all want to read a detailed profile of Ben’s Biz, right? Right?! Then get psyched! (In all seriousness, and self-deprecating self-promotion aside, Matt is a skilled and conscientious writer and when the book appears it will be a must-read for Minor League aficionados and printed word junkies alike.)

As for Jesse, forthcoming book projects were of little concern to him at that moment. He had a gigantic Lugnut to point out!

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Yes, that really is a giant lugnut installed atop a nearby smokestack, and its sheer size perhaps makes up for the fact that the Lugnuts’ logo depicts what is in actuality a bolt. Let’s go in for a closer look on this lugnut, while there’s still time:

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In the other direction, one can find a baseball field. It’s amazing, really, these things one finds.

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It might not be too apparent in the above picture, but Cooley Law School Stadium has some seriously odd dimensions. Its rampant eccentricities are mostly a result of having been shoehorned into a downtown location, but they are eccentricities nonetheless:

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As you can see, it’s only 305 feet down the lines. However, these walls are 23 feet high and therefore not all that many home runs are hit at Cooley Law School Stadium. Jesse remarked that it is one of the hardest Minor League stadiums to hit home runs in but, conversely, one of the easiest in which to score runs.

And — full disclosure! — in the picture I included above in which Jesse was pointing, he clearly wasn’t pointing at the giant lugnut. As this Vine (filmed a bit later in the evening) shows, that would be impossible as the lugnut is located behind the stadium itself.

Meanwhile, back in the pressbox, I had a brief conversation with a Minor League Baseball rarity: the female PA announcer.

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That’s Jennifer Swanchara, a student at Michigan State who is now in her first season with the Lugnuts. According to my calculations she is one of just two female PA currently working in Minor League Baseball, with Bowie’s Adrienne Roberson being the other (there is, of course, a female PA announcer in the Majors as well, San Francisco’s Renel Brooks Robinson).

[CORRECTION! The Mobile BayBears also have a female PA announcer, Christine LaPlante. Am I missing any others?]

Hey, Jennifer, how about a quick interview?

Ben’s Biz:  What led you to the world of Minor League Baseball?

Jennifer Swanchara: I’m going into my junior year at MSU, right down the street. I found out about the position, it was right here in Lansing, and seemed like a perfect opportunity because it was in my field. I didn’t necessarily know if I wanted to go into baseball, but it led me here and I’m enjoying it.

I’ve done work as an analyst before, and DJed, all that kind of stuff, so it’s been fun to take a behind-the-scenes role where you’re adding to the atmosphere of the ballpark.

Ben’s Biz: Was it a challenge at first? Being a PA announcer, it seems like there are so many small details to keep track of.

Swanchara: I was lucky to have some bad weather in the beginning (laughs). It’s been a struggle, but now that we’re halfway through the season I feel in a groove where I’m happy with where I’m at and enjoying the job. At first it was stressful, where I was always thinking about how I had to do this, this and this. I was always worried about the next thing.

Ben’s Biz: What are your thoughts on being one of just two three female announcers in the Minors?

Swanchara: I was aware of it, but I don’t think about it anymore. Before I came in it was definitely like “Wow, that’s a big deal” but now that I’m here I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. When I’m on the loudspeakers, it’s not like I’ve heard any loud gasps in the crowd. I don’t think it’s that big of a shocker, that women are getting in the industry.

Ben’s Biz: It’s a rarity now, but who knows?

Swanchara: Maybe I’m lighting the way for some women. Maybe. Hopefully (laughs). I’d like to be one of those.

Jennifer is one of two new “voices” on the Lugnuts staff this season. The other is Jesse’s broadcast partner, one Slavko Bekovic.

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No, not you Jesse. I’m talking about Slavko now. The guy on your right. Please look in his direction.

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Thanks!

Slavko has an interesting background, in that he is a Chicago native of Serbian descent. Serbian was his first language, and he is the first member of his family to have been born in the U.S.

This leads me to what may be a Vine first: Serbian station ID!

Goldberg-Strassler and Bekovic — definitely one of the more unique broadcasting pairings in MiLB, and definitely worth listening to. Meanwhile, next door, one could find Mr. Mike Couzens holding it down in the visitor’s booth.

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Regarding the sign above the door, I’m not exactly sure why Couzens had an olive branch extended to him. But I do know why he’s called “Sugar” and it’s a story that involves my favorite of all story subjects: mistaken identity.  Read all about it HERE.

But as for what you’re reading right here, on Ben’s Biz Blog? It’s coming to an end, right now. Stay tuned for Part 2 from Lansing, featuring some of the most heroic, adorable, adorably heroic, and heroically adorable designated eating ever recorded.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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