Results tagged ‘ Midwest League 2013 ’

On the Road: Delusions of Grandeur and Natural Splendor in Great Lakes

The last post on this blog ended as posts on this blog so often do — with the resounding belch of a local morning radio DJ. That memorable moment occurred just before the start of a late June ballgame between South Bend and Great Lakes at Midland’s Dow Diamond, and that is where this narrative resumes.

The fans were settled in, and it was time for some Loons baseball.

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These fans didn’t have to wait long to have something to cheer about, as the Loons scored five runs in the bottom of the first inning en route to an easy 10-1 victory. And every time that the Loons score, a ballpark dance ritual known as “The Funky Feather” commences.

It’s real easy to do, check it out:

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“Be sure to breathe”

Here’s the Funky Feather in action:

In the midst of this sustained period of rampant gesticulating, myself and Loons entertainment and marketing VP Chris Mudhenk embarked upon a quick tour of Dow Diamond. The facility opened in time for the 2007 season after a construction period of just 364 days, housing a team that is owned by the non-profit Michigan Baseball Foundation (the Loons strive to make as much money as they can, just like any other team, and the profits are funneled back into the community via a series of annual grants).

One recent addition for 2013 is the Midland County Sports Hall of Fame (or McShof, as I like to call it), located outside of the front entrance.

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This picture doesn’t really convey the extent of it, but this past autumn a major development project began directly across from the stadium. Offices, bars, restaurants and retail space shall soon be in abundance.

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This picture’s even worse, but I am including it only because this building houses the “Dirk Waltz Body Shop.” It would be nearly impossible to have a name better than “Dirk Waltz.”

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But anyway…I was talking about the Dow Diamond.

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Since I’m really on a roll with the unremarkable photos, I’d now like to share this.

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This shadow-enshrouded picture displays the entrance to the Michigan blood donation center, located within the stadium itself but run independently of the team. This is the first-ever blood donation center to be located in a stadium, and a very cool and altruistically-minded additon to the facility (yes, that misspelling was intentional. Like the blood donation center itself, I want my writing to be typo-positive).

At this stage of the tour I was getting antsy, in that I was in an area that any old fan could just walk right on up to. But I’m Ben’s Biz! A celebrity! I need unrestricted access to parts of the stadium that the average fan will never see, as this establishes my inherent superiority as an individual.

All of this is to say, we soon descended into the bowels of the stadium and I got really excited by the size of the Loons’ promo supply area.

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This box was once used to house a rally camel, or, more specifically, Rall E. Camel.

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I’m telling you, most teams would kill for this kind of storage space. Literally, they would commit an act of murder for it.

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To paraphrase one of my favorite protest chants: This is what 50,000 feet of removable flooring looks like:

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Meanwhile, out in the open air, one could find a most familiar Minor League tableau.

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Up on the second level, everything was copacetic as well.

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That’s Brad Golder and Jared Sandler calling the action on ESPN 100.9, a team-owned station whose offices are on the press box level. In addition to the Loons the station broadcasts a plethora of local high school and collegiate action.

“To have this sort of mouthpiece for the franchise is huge,” said Mundhenk. “I can write copy, send it up, and within an hour its live if it needs to be.”

Up here is where the promo brainstorming magic happens. Here are some of the ideas that were bandied about for an upcoming “Most Interesting Mascot in the World” promotion.

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Speaking of this allegedly “most interesting mascot,” he could be found in the stands hamming it up with the crowd.

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And a robust crowd it was, particularly for a Tuesday night.

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Bermanent Vacation

This robust crowd got to witness the professional debut of 2013 first round draft pick Chris Anderson, chosen by the Dodgers with the 18th selection overall.

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But far be it for me to pay attention to this emerging phenom, as I myself am an emerging phenom as well. While Anderson put up a couple of zeros on the scoreboard, I was engaged in the task of autographing various items for members of the Loons grounds crew.

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All joking aside about my “celebrity” status, it really was an honor to be asked to sign something. Thanks, guys!

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Uh, yeah, in the above photo I am indeed holding up a pair of pantyhose with a baseball inside. Soon, this pair of pantyhose was placed over my head.

Usually this is only the sort of thing I do in the privacy of my own home, but in this particular instance I was a contestant in a between-inning game called “Wrecking Ball.” Instead of trying to explain how this game is played, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Wrecking Ball is a fun game to play and it provides humorous visuals and it can be done on the cheap, so I recommend that all teams add it to their between-inning arsenal.

At this stage in the ballgame there wasn’t much left for me to do but wander around on my own, and that’s just what I did.

Vantage points!

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Fire pit panorama!

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On Michigan summer evenings, it stays bright outside for a long, long time. This picture, taken at 9:30 p.m., captures one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever see at any Minor League Baseball stadium, ever.

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Like a solid classic rock playlist, Big Pink soon gave way to Deep Purple.

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And with that appealing image of unfettered beauty, I wish you good night from Midland.

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Thanks for having me!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: The Beginning of a Blogstravaganza in Great Lakes

The second stop on my Midwest League road trip was Beloit, MI while destination number three was Midland, MI. Those two locations are quite removed from one another, both psychically and geographically, and getting there required an arduous day of travel that included roadside distractions, a seemingly interminable slog through the city of Chicago, an hour lost due to the vagaries of the Central/Eastern time zone divide, and a pleasant hour and a half cruising on rural Michigan roads while listening to the West Michigan Whitecaps radio broadcast (Ben Chiswick on the play by play).

I arrived in Midland late that Monday night, and was shocked — shocked! — to discover that the price of a Jameson on the rocks at the Buffalo Wild Wings near my hotel was just $3. That was a pleasant way to unwind from the day of travel, and the next morning I woke up ready for a full to bursting day of Midland exploration. The results of these explorations — the Alden B. Dow House! Midland Center for the Arts! Dow Gardens! The Tridge! — are already chronicled in a full-to-bursting “Farm’s Almanac” piece on MiLB.com.

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But the above mentioned attractions were but an aperitif, as the main course was, of course, Dow Diamond. This facility houses the Midwest League Dodgers affiliate that is the Great Lakes Loons, who seem content to remain sedentary despite possessing the ability to fly:

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Just to the left of this outfield entrance are a set of solar panels, 168 to be exact. Loons marketing and entertainment VP Chris Mundhenk later explained to me that the panels don’t directly power the facility, but the energy generated goes back into the grid and is roughly equivalent to the amount needed to run the videoboard over the course of a season.

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Upon entering, one finds a a more primitive power source.

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Those fire pits are certainly appreciated on chilly nights in April and May, but totally unnecessary on the late June evening in which I was in attendance. The weather was downright gorgeous.

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The Dow Diamond has plenty of open air seating, as well as plenty of room for open air eating. My first order of business was to rendezvous with the evening’s Designated Eaters — y’know, the people (or person) that I recruit at each ballpark that I visit to sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

In what was to soon become a trend on this trip, the Loons had arranged for local morning radio DJs to serve as the Designated Eaters. Meet Johnny and Blondie of 96.1 WHNN, who have been doing a show together for 12 years (Blondie began as a producer and later became a co-host, remarking that she ended up with Johnny because she “drew the short straw.)

Given that their show starts at 5:30 a.m., Johnny and Blondie don’t go out in the evenings very often. But apparently a complimentary ballpark buffet was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

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In the above pic, this esteemed morning team are toasting with a pair of Michigan Cherry Chicken Wraps. Yes, a Michigan Cherry — I had not known this before visiting, but cherries are a common crop in Michigan and therefore both beloved and ubiquitous.

“It’s light and refreshing, not like nachos and hot dogs that just lie there in your stomach,” said Blondie.

While waiting for the next entree, I asked Johnny and Blondie what it was they generally talked about on the air.

“Everything from sex to sports,” said Blondie.

“A lot of sex,” emphasized Johnny.

But the sex talk was going to have to wait, as a Macstravaganza had arrived.

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The above items can be found at the “Mac Mac Mac Mac Gone!” concession kiosk:

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Johnny and Blondie were intrigued:

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They had plenty of help, as this was a family affair (while Blondie is Johnny’s “work wife,” his real wife is there on the left).

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The consensus was that the BLT was the best and lobster the runner-up. Round three awaited, but in the meantime I had a pair of duties to attend to on the field.

First up was a pre-game interview on the field with voice of the Loons Brad Golder, broadcast over the stadium as well as the FM radio waves. The Loons actually own their flagship station (ESPN 100.9), and the station’s office is located in the stadium itself. I’ll have a bit more on that later, but first, please endure this sustained stretch of narcissism.

Golder and I on the set:

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Hearing my voice broadcast over the stadium PA is always a bit nerve wracking, but I enjoyed the interview due largely in part to Golder’s lively and well-prepared line of questioning. I don’t know how long it lasted  — four minutes? 400? — but it flew by as quickly and assuredly as a Loon in its prime.

Next up was a ceremonial first pitch, which was documented better than any first pitch I have ever thrown (my compliments to the photographer, I’m sorry that I don’t have your name).

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Seriously, I think I’m going to have this made into a flip book!

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Yep, I threw a perfect strike. It was one of the highlights of my career thus far.

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Nice career highlight, bro.

By the time I arrived back on the concourse, Johnny, Blondie and crew had already devoured most of their latest round of food offerings. Apparently a prime rib sandwich as well as a pastrami sandwich had been placed before them, but somehow this is the only photographic evidence that remains.

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Dive In

And, yes, since you can see it in the above picture I may as well get one of my more recent contractural obligations out of the way and provide a #cupdate. The collectible cup that Johnny is holding in the above pic is for beer:

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Finally, I’d like to note that I was too busy running around to indulge in any concessions during the ballgame, but the Loons are one of the few teams I’ve encountered who make a note of all of their gluten-free ballpark options. Check it out!

And as for the food in general? Well, I’m going to let Johnny and Blondie have the final word.

And I’m going to go ahead and let that be the final “word” of this post as well. Stay tuned for part two of this Great Lakes Loonstravaganza, coming soon!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Bullpen Banters with Ben’s Biz in Beloit

While it wasn’t necessarily my intention, one thing led to another and I ended up getting a lot of bullpen-related content on this trip. Enough for an MiLB.com “Bullpen Trilogy,” in fact, which began with last week’s riveting look at the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers’ “Quarter Game.”

Part two of the trilogy is a doozy, as it features an MiLB.com interview with none other than the Whitewall Ninja (aka Dakota Bacus.) Click HERE to read it.

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Photo: Ann Mollica/Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

My interview with Bacus was about more than just the Whitewall Ninja, however. What follows is the remainder of our conversation, in which he and one-time bullpen partner in crime Taylor Vail shared the details behind some of their other arcane rituals.

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Bacus (left) and Vail (other left)

Ben’s Biz: Outside of the Whitewall Ninja, what have been some other bullpen highlights this season?

Taylor Vail: We did the sign game. So, say we’re playing Peoria, we’ll throw a ball to their bullpen that says “Sign Game?” You know, with a question mark. If they respond with “Yeah” then we’ll play.

Say our pitching coach [John] Wasdin goes out to the mound. While he’s out there someone [from the Peoria bullpen] would have to run out and touch one of the outfield signs. They might run to [the Regal] sign, for example, and however many signs that is the next time their pitching coach goes out we’d have to top it.

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Regal is sign number seven

Vail (cont): One time there was a pitcher, who got released, he’s not with us anymore.

Bacus: Rest in peace.

Vail: Rest in peace to him, Drew Tyson. There was a pitching change and he went from pole to pole, got a cup of water from their Gatorade [cooler], and ran back. That was the best I’d ever seen.

Ben’s Biz: Once you do that, you’ve beaten the game.

Vail: Yeah, yeah, we beat them. That was against West Michigan, I think, in the bottom of the sixth inning. Game over. We won.

Ben’s Biz: When I was in Wisconsin I talked to the Timber Rattlers bullpen about their Quarter Game. Do you guys do anything like that, finding ways to supplement your income?

Vail: We sell broken bats. In Kane County we sold a few and got, like, almost a hundred dollars. Then when we went to Burlington [Iowa, home of the Bees] we put it all on black, playing roulette. And each of us [in the bullpen] walked away with $50 bucks I think it was.

Ben’s Biz: That’s funny, as the guys in Wisconsin also said that they spend their bullpen earnings at the casino in Burlington. [For the record, and also hilarious: this casino is named “The PZAZZ!”] So does everyone in the Midwest League just save their money until they get to Burlington?

Vail: That’s what I do, yeah. The casino is right in the hotel, so when you’re bored you just go there and lose it.

Ben’s Biz: Any other bullpen highlights from this season that I should know about?

Bacus: There’s the National Anthem stand-off, where you see who can keep standing the longest after the anthem [Note: I wrote about these last season]. Stuart Pudenz lasted nine innings and then 20 minutes after the game! That was against Peoria. We won that one.

Ben’s Biz: Dakota, you’ve recently been moved into the starting rotation. Are you still welcome in the bullpen now that you’re a starter?

Vail: Of course, he’s always welcome down there.

Bacus: You can take the kid out of the bullpen, you just can’t take the bullpen out of the kid.

Stay tuned for next week’s concluding installment of the Bullpen Trilogy, in which a quartet of Lansing Lugnuts talk about playing “Follow the Leader.”

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

On the Road: Back to the Basics in Beloit

Beloit was a late addition to my road trip itinerary, as originally I had planned to drive east from Appleton and then take a car ferry over Lake Michigan and into the state which bears its name. And once I did add Beloit to the itinerary, I was met with a lot of comments along the lines of “Beloit? Why?” and “Good luck with that one.”

The snarky tone directed toward Beloit stems from the fact that the Snappers are a community-owned team playing in a no-frills ballpark located in a town in which not much is going on from a tourism standpoint. But you know what? Pohlman Field has a lot of charm, the throwback yang to the uber-modern yins we shall see in future posts from this trip. I was grateful to have visited, and would recommend that you do the same should the opportunity arise.

180 Pohlman Field is located smack dab in  the middle of a residential neighborhood. Streetside parking abounds amid the abodes.

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The above two photos were actually taken at the end of my Sunday afternoon at Pohlman Field, once the weather had turned overcast. But when I arrived it was a bright and borderline uncomfortable hot summer day:

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Pohlman Field’s closest reference point is Burlington’s Community Field, and if you aren’t familiar with that locale then please click HERE for a post on my 2010 visit. The fact that such facilities can exist within the same circuit as 21st-century standouts like Great Lakes and Fort Wayne is one of the reasons that the Midwest is one of my favorite leagues in all of Minor League Baseball. It’s diverse, I tell you. Diverse.

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As is often the case with older ballparks, the player locker rooms are located in a separate edifice from the stadium itself. This means that the players must pass through a gauntlet of autograph seekers en route to the playing field.

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My FOB (that’s First Order of Business, for those not familiar with the nuances of blogspeak) was to interview a couple of pitchers on the bizarre rituals and secret games of the Beloit bullpen.

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That’s Dakota Bacus (now in the starting rotation) on the left and Taylor Vail on the right. The article based on our conversation has yet to be written, but it is Part Two of a planned “Bullpen Trilogy” that began with the Timber Rattlers and concludes in Lansing.

After talking to these upstanding gentleman, I made my way to the stands to talk to a ballpark character of an entirely different variety. Meet 99-year-old Grace Phillips, a Pohlman Field mainstay since the Snappers’ inaugural 1982 season:

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My story about Grace HAS been written, and can be found HERE.  And see the bell in her hand there? She brings it to every game and rings it in support of the hometown club, and in honor of this longstanding routine the Snappers gave away “Grace Phillips Cowbells” on June 30 (one week after I was there).

Grace had the right idea wearing that hat, as the sun was out in full force during the early portion of the afternoon. But stifling heat aside, it really was a beautiful day.

The visiting Peoria Chiefs:

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A view of the grandstand:

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A jokester in the bullpen messing around with his body-shrinking baseball glove:

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The denizens of the bullpen are also a patriotic bunch, as they make sure to wave the flag during each and every Pohlman Field National Anthem rendition.

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And upon the conclusion of the anthem came a little ditty by the CEO of Maybach Music.

Nothing left to do now but play ball!

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Chris Bostick and friend:

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And with the game underway, it was of course time to explore the culinary options.

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In advance of my visit the team actually modified the concession menu to reflect the gluten-free offerings, which I appreciated. (Thanks to community relations director Natalie Tobey for spearheading that effort.)

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On the gluten-free front, I opted for this time-honored alliterative combination:

But clearly there was much more that needed to be highlighted, which means that it’s Designated Eating time! I already wrote a bit about this in the aforementioned MiLB.com piece that also included Grace Phillips. Allow me to excerpt from it here, with pictures:

The Snappers are a community-owned non-profit, governed by a 17-member board of directors, and many of the gameday employees are volunteers. One such volunteer is Jon Pingel, who, along with his wife Erin, helps to coordinate the team’s concession operations. In addition to scheduling the shifts of other volunteers, the Pingels work at the concession stands at about a dozen games a season and receive a season pass in exchange for their efforts.

Pingel volunteered to be my “designated eater” for Sunday’s ballgame, sampling some of the Snappers’ concession delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits. After a stop at the Firehouse Grill concession shack located down the first-base line, he returned with both a Snappy Burger as well as a True Wisconsin.

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True Wisconsin on the left, Snappy Burger on the right

The Snappy Burger is a cheeseburger topped with a brat that has been split down the middle, while the True Wisconsin is a burger topped with American cheese, nacho cheese and fried cheese curds. Wisconsin indeed.

“Is there such a thing as too much cheese?” Pingel asked rhetorically before trying the True Wisconsin, but he ultimately chose the Snappy Burger as superior because “nothing screams summer more. … It’s the ultimate ballpark food.”

Pingel in action:

After taking leave of Mr. Pingel, I was able to get this shot of Snappy in his natural habitat. Wildlife photography at its finest!

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And speaking of big game hunting, the Snappers’ starting pitcher on this afternoon was 6’8″ Michael Ynoa (he has since been promoted to Stockton).

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As the afternoon wore on, a storm moved in and a rain delay seemed imminent. But this rain delay, somewhat miraculously, never occurred. The baseball gods were with Beloit on this particular afternoon.

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I greatly enjoyed the ambiance of Pohlman Field, and would recommend it to anyone seeking a dose of small-town Minor League Baseball. But as is so often the case with teams operating with a small staff and a tight budget, the overall presentation was a little rough around the edges. I took most of it in stride, but lost my patience a little bit when the PA announcer talked over the entirety of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” C’mon man!

The Snappers’ took a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning on the strength of Bostick’s two-run single, and that turned out to be the final score. Good game, guys, good game.

169The defeated Peoria Chiefs had to walk through the Chain Link Fence of Shame, en route to the visitor’s dugout.

170As they did so, this gentleman was given the opportunity to hit a ball off of a tee. If said ball cleared the fence, then he’d win a car.

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This was followed by Launch-A-Ball, as a backpack-wearing bullpen denizen looked on.

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175And then, because too much is never enough, Run the Bases!

177And THAT was all she wrote, if she is me and I am he and we are all together. Thanks for reading, time to exit stage left.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

On the Road: Just Another Friday Night in Appleton, Wisconsin

Part One of my “On the Road” Wisconsin Timber Rattlers blog post ended as my “On the Road” blog posts so often do — with a toilet paper first pitch.

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Please note that my toilet paper first pitch (part of a much larger “Salute to Paper” promotion) was delivered in proper overhand fashion. As soon as it reached its intended destination, I hustled up to the concourse in order to start a prolonged food and beverage portion of the evening, as that’s just what it is that I was put on this planet to do. I guess.

I started things off with my first-ever #Cupdate, a new ballpark initiative spurred on by Pedro Golkin’s eloquent pleading in a recent guest blog post. I’m new to the #Cupdate game, and as of yet I’m failing to provide the cup stats and folklore that some enthusiasts demand. But I can tell you upfront that the Timber Rattlers are a cup force to be reckoned with as this is one uber-collectible piece of drinkware.

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This offering features photos of the three former Timber Rattlers who made their MLB debuts in 2012. If you can name this triumvirate of former T-Rats before scrolling down, then your brain (like mine) is filled with useless knowledge that probably gets in the way of forming meaningful relationships.

But, anyway: the three players featured are the alternate reality law firm of Thornburg, Peralta and Henderson.

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As I awoke from this cup reverie, I looked to my right and there before me were a pair of wildly gesticulating gentlemen.

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These two individuals were the evening’s “Designated Eaters,” who are recruited at every ballpark I visit to sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. That’s Kyle Lobner on the left, who, in addition to running the exemplary Milwaukee Brewers-focused “Brew Crew Ball” blog, serves as an alderman for Appleton’s 13th district. On the right is Kevin Kimmes, an MLB Fan Cave Top 52 finalist, “Cream City Cables” blogger, and PA announcer for the Green Bay Bullfrogs of the summer collegiate Northwoods League.

These guys had credentials, and, also, they had food.

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Front and center is the Fang Burger, named after the Timber Rattlers’ anatomically incorrect snake mascot and featuring jalapenos, cajun mayo, cajun seasoning and pepper jack cheese. On the top right is mac and cheese on a brat, which is itself on a pretzel bun. And then, lest we forget we’re in Wisconsin, there are deep fried cheese curds.

Have at it guys!

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Kyle was enamored with, but not blown away by, his mac and cheese-topped selection. He called it “good” and praised the “strong flavor” of the brat, but keep in mind that in addition to his local politicking and professional blogging Kyle runs a macaroni and cheese-centric blog. He is a 21st century renaissance man, and really knows his stuff.

I apologize for my inadequate photographic representation of the Fang Burger, but Kimmes was able to paint a picture with his words.

“There are two huge beef patties in here, and you have to unhinge your jaw like a snake to eat it,” he said. “For me, it’s not totally over the top but the average person? It packs a serious bite. And I love the brininess of the pickled jalapenos.”

As for me? Hey, thanks for asking. While I had to go sans-bun, the Cher-Make brand brats are indeed gluten free.

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Look, you can keep the bun. That brat was so good that the only way I can think to describe it is by unhinging my jaw while banging wildly on the key board

dsgkbgfsgjnfkjnkglkkj!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If I could make like Cher I’d turn back time and eat a whole lot more Cher-Make brats!

Yes, I am the greatest of all time and, yes, I have much more to write about. As Kyle, Kevin and I were waxing rhapsodic about foodstuffs intern Shaun Marshall — who got stuck with blogger-wrangling duties for the two days in which I was in town and did a fantastic job — dutifully informed me that my presence was soon needed on the field.

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I was a contestant in a between-inning contest and, well, I’ll let you decide what was going on here.

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Obviously, I was blindfolded with toilet paper and tasked to find a stash of toilet paper on the field via the crowd’s “Warmer/Colder” exhortations. I failed miserably.

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Fang was all like “It was right there, bro” and then I was like “Yeah, whatever, like a snake with four limbs is going to make me feel bad about myself.”

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Back in the relative safety of the concourse, I perchanced to notice the team’s nacho cart. As you may recall, the Timber Rattlers named this cart after soliciting fan votes on Facebook, and my Village People-inspired submission of “Nacho Nacho Stand” lost out to this:

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I should have gone with “Life’s a Chip and Then You Die.” (After all, you can’t spell “nachos” without Nas.)

But while nachos weren’t in my future, cheese curds were. The non-fried variety are gluten-free!

Meanwhile, Kevin and Kyle had re-located to the concession area down the third base line in order to, yes, consume more food.

Hey guys, welcome back!

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This dynamic duo had procured a “Triple Oinker” sandwich and cut it in half, giving each of them a 1.5 Oinker.

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For those keeping score at home, this sandwich consists of pork chop, bacon, pulled pork and nacho cheese. Double-K, as I had taken to calling them at this point, really enjoyed it:

“It could have been one-note, but there’s a great mix of flavors and it’s really delicious,” said Kimmes.

At this point in the narrative things get a little fuzzy, but soon I found myself out behind the stadium. There were ribs in the passenger seat of a van and I ate them furtively like a scared chipmunk.

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Attached to the van was a trailer and in the trailer was the Bratzooka. It is to bratwurst firing what t-shirt guns are to whatever it is that t-shirt guns do. As you can see, I really enjoyed myself!

(The three pictures below were taken by T-Rats creative director Ann Mollica, who does fantastic work with a camera that looks to be about the size of a Bratzooka.)

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And let me tell you — that thing can really launch brats! The technique is to basically shoot straight in the air with only a slight angle, as a direct brat hit in the face of an unwitting fan could be cataclysmic. (That’s how Maude Flanders died, almost.)

And that wasn’t the only vehicle to be found on the field during the evening. An inning or so later, this occurred:

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And then there’s this:

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Yep, a good old-fashioned bullpen cart, new this season. Relief pitchers have the option to ride in it to the mound, but I was told that, thus far, the peer pressure had been too severe for anyone to actually do it.

I was up for it, though!

This car brakes for dancing grounds crew:

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I would like to thank the T-Rats’ fluorescent outfield squadron of game day parking crew employees for their bullpen cart hospitality!

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Next to the bullpen cart is — wait for it — the bullpen. And in the bullpen the relievers were making money hand over fist via their innovative “Make a Quarter Get a Ball” initiative.

The next day I interviewed three denizens of the Timber Rattlers bullpen about this game, and the end result is this really funny (if I do say so myself) MiLB piece that YOU MUST READ.

While I wait for you to read the aforementioned MiLB.com piece, I’ll amuse myself with a few non sequiturs.

The sepulchral press box:

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Digital standings board:

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Get it? Digital standings board?

The aftermath of a promotion in which rolls upon rolls of toilet paper are given away:

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Oh, hey, look — there was a game going on and people were watching it.

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Nice arms, snake:

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And, finally, fireworks from the best seat in the house. I really nailed this shot, if I do say so myself.

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I was just kidding about “finally,” as after the post-game fireworks there were post-game run the bases. Why not!?

132 Finally, mercifully, the evening was now in the books.

But would you believe that I attended the next night’s Timber Rattlers game as well? And that it was just as action-packed as this one? It’s true! But in the interest of writerly sanity, I’m going to recap that game as the final post of this current road trip. So, yeah: Wisconsin, Beloit, Great Lakes, Lansing, West Michigan, South Bend and then back to Wisconsin.

I hope that makes sense and, until then, fear the snaki:

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Tailgating and Toilet Paper in Wisconsin

Sometimes when I visit a stadium, my interactions with the team in question don’t extend much beyond a curt hello and a cursory “let us know if you need anything.” Okay, that’s cool, you’re busy and understaffed, I get it.

But on the far other end of the hospitality continuum exist entities such as the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who over the course of a two-day visit ran me ragged back and forth across Appleton’s Fox Cities Stadium while involving me in seemingly every aspect of their game-day entertainment. The end result was a blur of toilet paper, duck calls, air-blasted bratwurst, (evil) mascot antics, bullpen tomfoolery, tailgating, club level feasting, pyrotechnic viewing and, of course, cheese curds. This is Wisconsin, after all.

And on top of all that I even landed an interview with the Dean of the Midwest League himself, enigmatic Timber Rattlers announcer Chris Mehring! What a journalistic coup, what a whirlwind couple of days, and don’t even get me started on my time away from the ballpark  (in which uber-hospitable Appletonians, working in shifts, gave me a tour of the sights, sounds and, of course, the food of their beloved hometown. Appletonians love their food, I’ve learned).

I’m not sure how to best present all of this material, all I know is that it’s going to be spread out across several platforms and that it’s going to take awhile. So — deep breath! — let’s just do the most sensible thing and start at the beginning. The rest — from Appleton as well as the ensuing five cities on this trip — will follow.

Friday, June 21. 5:30 p.m.

I arrived at Fox Cities Stadium 90 minutes before game time, and already there was a phalanx of fluorescent parking attendants directing a steady stream of cars.

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Many of these early birds were here to tailgate, an activity rarely associated with Minor League Baseball. But in Wisconsin, it’s simply standard operating procedure for all professional sports events.

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“[Tailgating] is just part of the culture here,” Timber Rattlers president Rob Zerjav told me. “Packers, Brewers, Timber Rattlers, it doesn’t matter.”

Therefore, the Timber Rattlers are just fine with their ballpark’s location. “Downtown revitalization” is an industry catch phrase and current most common justification for a new stadium, but Zerjav remarked that “we wouldn’t want to be downtown. We’d lose the tailgating.”

Not that the T-Rats need a new stadium. Fox Cities Stadium was built in 1995, and underwent a $6.2 million renovation prior to this season. It’s doing just fine. As the gates opened at 5:30, there was already a formidable line to get inside.

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Okay, fine, the stadium is currently called “Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium.” But since this blogging platform charges me on a per-word basis, I’m going to just call it Fox Cities Stadium.

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Bring Your Boat to the Ballpark

Upon entering the ballpark, fans were presented with complimentary Kleenex product.

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The gratis facial tissue was part of a “Salute to Paper” promotion, staged annually in honor of Appleton’s paper industry The city is even home to the Paper Discovery Center, an institution which takes it upon itself to induct individuals into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame (PIIHOF which I pronounce phonetically as Pie Eye Hoff as that sounds like the name of a 19th century baseball player.)

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Sorry, I don’t have streaming video.

Further back on the concourse, one could find this surprising edifice.

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The Great Scott Pyramids

In the above photo, the Timber Rattlers’ 2012 Midwest League Championship banner is obscured by a two-ply toilet paper pyramid. Perhaps this can be seen as an unwitting metaphor for Minor League Baseball’s overall entertainment priorities, but, point is, the Timber Rattlers are coming off of a great season.

Their championship trophy is on display in the lobby of the newly renovated front office.

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The team also won Minor League Baseball’s Larry MacPhail Trophy, awarded annually in honor of overall promotional excellence. Talk about firing on all cylinders! (Perhaps this is why T-Rats staffers could be seen flaunting huge wads of cash at last December’s Baseball Winter Meetings.)

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 Zerjav gave me a tour of the new and improved front offices, but somehow the only pictures I managed to take involved the only in-house taxidermy studio in Minor League Baseball.

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Actually, the above montage was in preparation for the following day’s promotion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Another major part of the renovations was this year-round club level area. It can fit approximately 250-300 people, and the Timber Rattlers are renting it out for events on non-game days (a wedding reception was held there recently, for example).

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It was turning out to be a beautiful evening, and as I was up there in the club level assistant director of food and beverage Chumley Hodgson displayed his superhuman strength by lifting up the glass panel windows and stacking them vertically off to the side.

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Let it slide

Hey, nice view!

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The renovations also included the addition of nine suites (there are now 12 total). The centerpiece of these new suites are sturdy and quintessentially Wisconsonian tables made of reclaimed barn boards that date back as far as the 1780s.

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I’ve gotten complaints that this blog has become too reclaimed barn board-centric, so let’s move back down to ground level. As part of the “Salute to Paper,” an endearing arts and crafts center had been set up down the third base line.

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Nearby, one could find the best seat in the house.

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Fox Cities Stadium doesn’t have a 360 degree concourse, but it’s getting there. Zerjav mentioned that that’s the ultimate goal, and that the team is expanding by degrees as time and money allows (the team, like the nearby Green Bay Packers, is community owned. That’s a tangent for a future blog or article, but let it be known that team shares can be had for $50). 

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A recent addition, and an unexpected one, can be found beyond the picnic area.

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Zerjav says that this sandy area was inspired by the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

“In Myrtle Beach you’d expect a beach, but by putting one out here we didn’t know what to expect,” said Zerjav. “Girls in bikinis? Turns out that the kids love it, and parents love it too because it looks like they’re watching their kids when they’re really watching the game.”

The view from the boondocks:

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With game time approaching, I traveled 180 degrees and onto the field. There was important business to attend to.

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Toilet paper first pitch!

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This next photo, taken by Timber Rattlers creative director/team photographer Ann Mollica, demonstrates my flawless toilet paper mechanics. And please believe, I totally threw a strike.

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Proudest moment of my life!

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Fang approved.

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But I wasn’t the only one throwing toilet paper. After the National Anthem, just before taking the field, the Timber Rattlers threw roll upon roll into the crowd.

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This calls for the first of MANY Vines that have been/will be produced on this road trip. (Follow me on Twitter and/or Vine to see them all, and please let me know your favorites and least favorites. I’m working toward becoming a Vine auteur.)

And I now call upon myself, in the interest of writerly sanity, to end this post. There will be much more to come from Appleton, and much more to come from the Midwest League. I guarantee it.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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