Results tagged ‘ Midwest League ’

On the Road: Wrapped, Stacked, Smothered and Deep-Fried in Omaha

To see all of posts from my May 28, 2015 visit to the Omaha Storm Chasers (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Shortly after May 28th’s Omaha Storm Chasers game began, I rendezvoused with a fan by the name of Paul Biler.

But Paul was not just any fan. Paul was that evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). I picked the right man for the job.

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Paul is “from Toledo by way of Utica,” but has lived in Omaha since 1997. His family made the move to Nebraska after his wife got a job as a private investigator for a health insurance company. Paul now works for Mutual of Omaha, but he also has an extensive background as a radio deejay. His most recent work in that regard was for Omaha oldies station KGOR, but for the majority of our time together his mouth would be used for the consumption of food. That, in a nutshell, is why Paul volunteered to be designated eater in the first place.

“I can eat,” he said.

Our journey began with the “Cor-dog-o”, a new addition to the Werner Park concession menu. It is named in honor of general manager Martie Cordaro, who became enamored with it after it was originally served as a Nashville-inspired “Eat Your Opponent” specialty item. I’ll defer to the press release:

OMAHA, Neb. – This season the Omaha Storm Chasers are bestowing their President and General Manager Martie Cordaro with the highest honor a Minor League Baseball team can give: naming a hot dog after him. The “Cor-Dog-O” is one of many new food items fans can try this season from Ovations Concessions at Werner Park.

A concession item that was long overdue, only the “Cor-Dog-O” can truly reflect the “interesting” personality and style of Martie Cordaro. The specialty item consists of two hot dogs, pulled pork and coleslaw wrapped in a tortilla shell, one of the only hot dogs at Werner Park that is not served in the traditional hot dog bun.

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A closer look:

062Martie sets the scene:

“Oh, that is good,” said Paul after his first bite. “I only got the dog side of it, but I can definitely taste barbecue sauce.”

He then took another bite, leading him to declare that “the pulled pork is wonderful.”

When informed by Storm Chasers executive chef John Schow that the barbecue sauce used was local favorite Cookies (a molasses-based sauce), Paul was enthused.

“If you’re having  a party, put a pound of Vienna sausages in the slow cooker and then throw some Cookies on it,” he said. “Cook it for four hours, and then it’s perfect.”

Next up was an item that can be procured at “Poldberg’s Philly Grill,” named after Storm Chasers manager Brian Poldberg.

063That item is the “Ruben Philly” — chopped corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, rye and 1000 island dressing on a hoagie bun. It’s served with a Schwartz-brand pickle and chips (made in-house).

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Oh, man. Let’s take a closer look.

066Take it away, Paul.

“The corned beef is nice and lean, and there’s a good zing from the dressing,” said Paul. “Definitely, a heart attack in a bun.”

We then moved on to the Champ Burger, created by Schow in 2013 after the Storm Chasers won the PCL Championship. It consists of three 1/3 pound patties, bacon, ham and onion rings.

068Paul was ready for it.

070“The beef is good, cooked all the way through,” he said. “And the onion rings are really good, too. But I’ve never been too much of a burger eater.”

Schow was enamored with Paul’s eating efforts, and eventually told me “I want a photo with that guy.” So, here you go:

073Schow, like a lot of food and beverage guys I’ve met in this industry, absolutely loves working at the ballpark. It’s a casual environment that allows plenty of room for fun and experimentation.

“It’s a sweet gig,” he told me. “I mean, killer.”

And, clearly, he’s doing killer things with it. Hopefully not in the literal sense, but items like this will certainly accelerate one’s path to the boneyard:
069This is the Midwest delicacy known as the “Frenchee” — American cheese on white bread, deep-fried.

IMG_1334“Is the bread Rotellas?” asked Paul, referring to a beloved Omaha bakery.

“Of course it’s Rotellas,” replied Schow.

These two were definitely on the same wavelength.

“Say a prayer for me,” added Paul, overwhelmed by the amount of food he was now dealing with.

“Sir, I have a couple times already,” replied Schow.

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If you want a Frenchee outside of the ballpark, Paul mentioned that local restaurant Don and Millie’s is known for them.

“It’s hot, definitely something you want to break open and let cool for a while,” said Paul. “It could use more cheese. Mostly I’m tasting bread.”

But that was a rare criticism of what was clearly a fantastic culinary experience.

“The food here is great,” said Paul. “I’ve been to a lot of ballparks where the food is pedestrian, but here there’s a lot of stuff that’s unique to the Omaha area.”

I’m writing this post some three weeks after visiting Omaha, but for all I know Paul is still at the ballpark making his way through what was a most prodigious dinner. He sure had his work cut out for him.

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Oh, and for the record: I would like to commend the Storm Chasers for offering gluten-free hot dogs at the ballpark. I enjoyed one later in the ballgame.

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On the Road: Walking Off a Memorable Day in Omaha

To see all of posts from my May 28, 2015 visit to the Omaha Storm Chasers (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

Okay, so where was I?

Oh, that’s right. I was at a Minor League Baseball game. A Pacific Coast League Baseball game, to be exact, though I was nowhere near the Pacific Coast. Welcome back to Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers.

054I spent the first several innings of the ballgame with one Paul Biler, the evening’s designated eater. We’ll get to him in the next post.

057 After parting ways with Paul, I played a few holes of miniature golf on the concourse. The course, new this year, costs $3 to play.

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Doofus alert

080After sinking a birdie (or was it a bogey?), I snapped a photo of a couple making out on the berm. I wasn’t intending to.

081I was accompanied by general manager Martie Cordaro throughout these wanderings. He pointed out that the scoreboard shoots flames after each home run as well as after each Storm Chasers victory. See those propane tanks hooked up in the back there?

085I made it a goal for the evening — to take a photo of the flaming scoreboard. I’d already missed an opportunity in the third inning, when I was otherwise engaged with Mr. Biler, when Francisco Pena hit a solo shot.

Beyond the scoreboard is an impressive array of flags.

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The blue flag on the far left celebrates the American League champion status of the Kansas City Royals, but it should not be overlooked that the Storm Chasers have won back-to-back Pacific Coast League championships. Here’s Martie modeling his 2014 PCL championship ring on one finger, and a giveaway replica ring on the other. Can you tell which is which?

119One of the many benefits of inhabiting a large acreage stadium is that Wiffle Ball fields can be installed on the premises.

090I was gonna be all snarky about the sponsorship, like “Yeah, of course, because nothing says “backyard games of Wiffle ball” like a jewelry retailer. But I’m slow on the uptake — this is a diamond company sponsoring a diamond. Genius! (Yes, genius. This is the internet, where hyperbole reigns and words have lost their meaning.)

The field is real grass; the Storm Chasers have already replaced the sod twice. The blue metal poles in the sign seen above were taken from the team’s previous home of Rosenblatt Stadium.

087Continuing the lap around the concourse, one finds the “Downdraught Bar.” The regulars do their part to “Stir up the Storm.”

Picnic area, coming soon!

092Here in the left field corner, we find the loneliest seat in the ballpark. A row of one. (Cue up Nilsson, not Three Dog Night.)

095The Mike Jirschele Dugout Suite, named after longtime Omaha manager-turned-Kansas City-third base coach, is located down the third base line.

099I kept running into this bottle cap dude. This was the last game of the homestand; shouldn’t he only appear during the opener?

097We then made a press box pit stop, where Martie did an inning on the radio. Sure, fine, leave the big-time visiting celebrity on the outside looking in.

103I passed the time perusing the old yearbooks hanging on the walls.

105The view from the Cambria first base party deck.

107These women were having a great time up there.

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With the ballgame winding down, I paid a visit to section 118. Jerry Strawn, a well-known figure at the ballpark and in the Omaha community, passed away suddenly during the offseason and his fellow fans paid tribute with a seat bearing his catch-all catch phrase. Read all about it on MiLB.com.

Jerry Strawn, in his signature Cubs/Storm Chasers jersey.

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In honor of Jerry Strawn. Hey Buddy!

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The Storm Chasers scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to knot the game at 5-5. Time for extra innings on this, the last day of what had been an exhausting road trip. At this point no fewer than four Storm Chasers had hit home runs, and I had yet to capture an image of the flaming scoreboard.

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Not flaming

The Storm Chasers won it in the bottom of the 10th. Orlando Calixte doubled to lead off the inning, advanced to third on a sac bunt and scored on a Lane Adams single. This marked the second PCL walkoff victory I’d seen that day, the Iowa Cubs in the afternoon and the Storm Chasers at night. Let’s review:

And, hey! Flaming scoreboard. My night was a success.

IMG_1336My jokes are usually not a success. But I ‘m gonna keep making them.

And that’ll be all from Omaha. I had a great time, and I’m not lion.

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On the Road: Yesterday Hits Today in Omaha

To see all of posts from my May 28, 2015 visit to the Omaha Storm Chasers (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The last time I was in Omaha was September of 2010, attending the final game at Rosenblatt Stadium. The city’s Pacific Coast League team, then known as the Royals, was slated to move to a new stadium in the nearby town of Papillion the following season. As part of this 2010 visit, I swung by the stadium construction site and got a sense of what this new facility would look like.

sarpy_behindhomeplate-thumb-450x337-23907813

sarpy_suitesandseating-thumb-450x337-23908813I think my favorite image, though, was this: piles of warning track dirt, looking like sand dunes on another planet.

sarpy_warningtrackdirt-thumb-450x337-23909213Cut to May 28th, 2015, when I ended my Midwest road trip with a visit to this same location. Much had changed.

The stadium, now known as Werner Park, is home to the Omaha Storm Chasers. If nothing else, the parking is ample.

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031A statue out front pays tribute to noted Nebraskan Bob Gibson.

033The Storm Chasers have a large cadre of mascots, but I’m not sure if this one is part of the official roster. Regardless, he (she? it?) was there to greet me when I arrived.

034Hello, Werner Park.

035During my exploratory lap around the ballpark, I noticed a group of well-dressed men standing in the outfield. I have no further information to offer.

036 037The area surrounding the ballpark still possesses a rural feel. However, Storm Chasers general manager Martie Cordaro reports that 150 houses are under construction in the immediate area, as well as additional commercial and recreational development.

039The home and visiting clubhouses are located in left field, with a ramp leading across the concourse and down onto the playing field. The Storm Chasers clubhouse is on the right, as in toward center field.

041If this random grouping of individuals doesn’t scream “Minor League Baseball” then, really, I don’t know what does.

040I then made my way onto the field, so that I could observe the pregame ceremonies at close range.

043Kids love to mess with Casey’s tail.

044While Vortex likes to mess with people (I incorrectly identified Vortex as “Stormy” in this Vine video. I hope that the Omaha mascot community can find it in their hearts to forgive me.)

This is Stormy. He’s anemometer-ically correct.

048Now here’s an idea that other teams might want to steal. Before every Storm Chasers game, a young fan accompanies manager Brian Poldberg to home plate for the exchanging of the line-up cards.

051During the singing of our National Anthem, the Storm Chasers players were accompanied by a veritable gaggle of local youth athletes.

053And then it was time to, yes, Play Ball.

056It was a gray Thursday night, decent but far from ideal conditions for baseball. Martie told me that, the day before, the team had experienced what he deemed to be the best weather in Werner Park history. And, on top of that, the team had staged a star-studded “Salute to the Kansas City Royals” promo in honor of their long-time parent club.

“You should have been here yesterday,” said Martie, echoing a sentiment that has been expressed to me by Minor League general managers across the land.

But it wasn’t yesterday. It was today. In the next post of this Storm Chasers saga, I’ll cover the today that was in further detail.

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On the Road: En Route to Omaha, a Pit Stop in Des Moines

To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

On Wednesday, May 27th, I attended a Cedar Rapids Kernels game. The next morning, I checked out of my hotel and began the westward drive toward my next destination of Omaha. More or less midway between these two locales sits Iowa’s capitol city of Des Moines, the home of the Iowa Cubs. And, wouldn’t you know it? The Cubs were playing an afternoon game. I decided that it was my moral duty to attend.

Welcome to Principal Park, the home of the Iowa Cubs. (As you may recall, I visited here in 2010.)

002After making my way to ballpark’s upper level, I snapped this shot of downtown Des Moines in the distance.

003By the time I had arrived at Principal Park, the game was already in the fourth inning. My time in Des Moines was destined to be a mere cameo, as opposed to the leading roles I had become accustomed to elsewhere on this trip. Shortly after arriving I rendezvoused with I-Cubs “director of consumer experience” Scott Sailor, a gracious guy who, true to his nature, graciously led me around the ballpark through the remainder of the ballgame.

We began on the ballpark’s upper levels.

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A cadre of interns were working the new videoboard.

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I spent some time gazing upon the graphic scorecard art of former video intern Sam Thompson.

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Principal Park was just the second ballpark I’ve visited this year to have a pitch clock; the first was the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. In Jacksonville the pitch clock was operated by the PA announcer via a tablet computer. Here in Iowa, media relations intern Brock Borgeson (a relief pitcher at nearby Simpson College) ran the clock through this Daktronics console.

009Borgeson said that the pitch clock is a work in progress, as it is for all teams at this particular juncture.

“We kind of have to respond to what the umps want,” he said. “Do we stop the clock on balls in the dirt? Some say to start the clock when the pitcher gets the ball [back from the catcher], others want it to start once [the pitcher’s] on the rubber.”

Borgeson also said that the umpires often exercise discretion as to when, exactly, to start the between-inning pitch clock.

“Sometimes they’ll wave me off, to give players more time,” he said. “Like if the pitcher was in the on-deck circle, or the catcher was on base.”

After speaking with Borgeson, it was off to to the radio booth to do an inning on the air with Deene Ehlis (left) and Randy Wehofer. Friends of this blog are of course familiar with Wehofer, who is a movie star.

008Scott and I then headed down to the main seating area. The ballgame, between the I-Cubs and Tacoma Rainiers, began at 1:08 p.m. and had been cruising along ever since.

011Since the last time I visited, the Cubs have increased their craft beer selection by a considerable margin. 28 craft brews were available; Peace Tree “Blonde Fatale” had the highest ABV (8.5%).

012We then paid a visit to director of stadium operations Jeff Tilley, who was hard at work within his ballpark lair.

014Tilley coordinates travel arrangements for the team, and in the Pacific Coast League this can be a fraught process. While he’s smiling in the above photo, he probably wasn’t by the end of the day. The I-Cubs post-game journey to El Paso most definitely did not go as planned — read all about it in this MiLB.com article.

Did I mention that this game was flying right along? After emerging from Tilley’s lair, Scott and I found that it was already the top of the ninth inning. Brian Schlitter was coming in to pitch for the Cubs, who were losing by a score of 2-0.

016Schlitter has one of the most extreme beards in Minor League Baseball. It’s luxurious and silky.

024Scott and I soon moved to first row seats behind the third base dugout. I kept trying, and failing, to secure a shot of a rotating graphic which, apropos of nothing, wished me a happy birthday. Oh, well. It’s a new scoreboard, and it’s very nice to look at anyway.
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I also had missed this fourth inning graphic, in which a plug for this blog was incorporated into a between-inning contest.

IMG_1339Anyhow, yeah, there was a ballgame going on and this ballgame was in its waning stages. I’m not exactly sure what it was that provoked him, but at some point during the top of the ninth Cubs manager Marty Pevey came out and gave the home plate umpire a piece of his mind. He went from “perturbed” to “apoplectic” in approximately 15 seconds.

023Pevey’s intensely stated objections eventually led to his ejection.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Arismendy Alcantara and Adron Chambers both singled to start the frame. A light rain had just begun, and Scott suggested that we move to a dry location.

“Let’s go up and get out of the rain,” he said. “Unless you want to see this walk-off from down here.”

We hustled up the stairs, resolving to watch the game from a protected concourse location.

026And wouldn’t you know it? The very first pitch that we witnessed from this location was a three-run walk-off home run off of the bat of Matt Szczur. Scott Sailor’s words had proven prophetic.

The I-Cubs won, 3-2, in a game that took a crisp two hours and 15 minutes to complete. After waiting out a brief traffic jam in the parking lot, it was on to Omaha.

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Life on the road, you’ve gotta love it.

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On the Road: Tenderloins and (Gluten-Free) Buns in Cedar Rapids

To see all of my posts from my May 27, 2015 visit to the Cedar Rapids Kernels (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

This is Tim Mullin.

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May 27, 2015, was to be a very special day for Tim. For on May 27, 2015, he visited the Cedar Rapids Kernels and served as my Designated Eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Tim, a Indianapolis native who now lives in Chicago, is very familiar with the Minor League scene. In addition to owning his own production company, Park Walk Productions, he the author of the (recommended) Baseball Road Trips: Midwest and the Great Lakes.

“I’m glad that I can share in the experience, because I’m typically alone at the ballpark,” said Tim, referring to a professional state of being that I’m familiar with. “I’m definitely qualified [to be the designated eater]. but maybe that’s not something to be proud of.”  

Tim wasted no time in getting down to business. When I met him on the concourse at the start of the game, he had already procured this pork tenderloin sandwich.

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The Pork Tenderloin is, quite literally, bigger than Tim’s head. It is bigger than just about any human’s head, unless that human happened to have a cranium of Bochyian proportions.

038Tim had procured this sandwich from a concourse kiosk that only sells pork tenderloin sandwiches. (Hey, it’s the Midwest). His had lemon pepper seasoning and a citrus BBQ sauce, along with “tons of pickles for resistance.”

When put up against Tim, the pork tenderloin offered little resistance.

“You’ve got to hit it at an angle,” he said. “It’s good to get a little bit of bread to accentuate the meat.”

Tim reported that Iowan pork tenderloin sandwiches are actually smaller than those found in his home state of Indiana. Also, he was gratified to learn that the Kernels’ version of this sandwich was not deep-fried. “I think that’s what skyrocketed Indiana into obesity,” said Tim. “The fried pork tenderloin sandwich.” As for the Kernels’ iteration of the Pork Tenderloin, Tim declared it to be “outstanding.”

“I’ve never seen a grilled one at the ballpark before,” he said. “They do it fresh here, take the whole patty and just throw it on the grill. Like, ‘Whoa, isn’t this supposed to be frozen?’ It’s great.”

However, as great as the Kernels’ pork tenderloin was, Tim said it wasn’t the best he’d ever had. He bestowed that honor upon the Bourbon Street Distillery in Indianapolis, instead.

“But I’m getting toward 50, so I have to phase [Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches] out of my life,” he said.

“Whoa, you don’t look 50,” I replied.

“I’m cherubic. I feel like I’m cheating on my wife right now. She watches out for my diet, and is constantly pulling me out of trouble.”

As for me, Ben’s Biz, I’m a lone wolf. I don’t have anyone to pull me out of trouble. I must look out for myself. But I didn’t even need to look out for myself while in Cedar Rapids, as the Kernels were already looking out for me via a substantial slate of gluten-free items on the concession menu.

Excuse the quality of this photograph. It’s the thought that counts.

044I opted for a gluten-free jumbo dog, which was delicious. The bun had a great consistency, melded well with the dog and (the ultimate test for a GF bun), did’t fall apart. (I need to look into what brand of bun this was. I somehow seemed to have neglected this crucial bit of information.) 045Who needs a designated eater?

But, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Tim. Our next stop was this riotous build-your-own burger and hot dog stand.

027Tim, after careful consideration of all the options, ordered what was, in essence a foot-long hot dog BLT.

048He looked rather professorial after putting on his glasses.

049“In Chicago it’s a mortal sin to put anything but mustard on a hot dog, but I’m tempted to try mayonnaise on this,” said Tim. “The dog’s fantastic, but this might be the saltiest thing I’ve ever eaten. It tastes like a Polish sausage, but girthier, if that’s a word. I’m gonna speed dial my cardiologist.”

And that’s where we say goodbye to Tim, as he eats his foot-long frankfurter BLT.

050As unhealthy as the evening may have been, Tim had no regrets.

“If Ben Hill said he needed somebody to eat for him, and at the end of the day you get thrown off a cliff, I’d do it,” said Tim. “It’s fun. It really is.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

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On the Road: All Shucks, No Jive in Cedar Rapids

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

When the previous post in this series had concluded, a ballgame had just begun in Cedar Rapids. Mr. Shucks, Kernels mascot extraordinaire, was overjoyed at the sight of players on the field. He always is.

042A fairly decent crowd had filed in, by Wednesday in May standards, to watch the Kernels take on the fearsome Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

040I spent the first several innings of the game with one Tim Mullin, who served as my “designated eater.” We’ll get to Tim in a separate post, but here’s a sneak peak of who we’ll be dealing with.

037After parting ways with Mr. Mullin, I was led down to a clandestine field-level area with an interesting view of the action.

052While in this area, I came face to face with the immortal Mr. Shucks.

054Meeting Mr. Shucks provided me with the opportunity to work on my “I, too, am a mascot” face.

055But I wasn’t in this ballpark location for mascot shenanigans alone. Of course not. That would be ridiculous. For I was to be a contestant in the nightly “Fish Fling” contest.

051The Fish Fling is pretty simple. I, as the contestant, would hold the net, and the fish would then be “flung” in my general direction via a slingshot. I was told that if I caught three fish in a row I’d become the inaugural member of the Fish Fling Hall of Fame, and that no one had yet earned these aquatic accolades because this game is harder than it looks. The fish, when in the air, vacillate wildly like the fish out of water that they are. Their aerial path from slingshot to net is unpredictable at best.

My camera and phone were handed off to members of the Kernel promo team, who amused themselves accordingly.

057 Mr. Shucks gave me some last minute pointers.

060And then it was time to meet my Fish Fling destiny.

062This might sound ridiculous, but I really (really, really) wanted to get into the Fish Fling Hall of Fame and I took my participation in this contest very seriously.

The first shot….

065…was a success!

064And things only got more intense from there. Let’s go to the tape.

So close, and yet so far. When the contest began I could smell, however faintly, the sweet notes of success wafting through the air. But in the end, I was yet again overwhelmed with the pungent funk of failure. (Or maybe that was just the fish?)

A defeated man in a wrinkled shirt, making the best of a deeply disappointing situation.

067Alright, enough with the self-aggrandizement cloaked in a disingenuous shroud of humility. Let’s move on.

My next stop was the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ clubhouse, which is inhabited (literally) by legendary 71-year-old clubhouse manager Ron “Roady” Plein. Here’s Roady standing in front of his in-stadium apartment, which is located directly next to the laundry room.

072And here’s Roady’s bulletin board, at the end of the hallway, showcasing many of his career highlights.

068For the full-lowdown on Roady, please refer to my MiLB.com story. This story also includes the perspective of Roady’s “protege,” 56-year-old clubhouse managing rookie Eric Oliver.

075While I was in the home clubhouse, each of the two Kernels players who passed through immediately identified me as “The Fish Guy” and remarked how entertaining my on-field failure had been to those in the dugout. Guess that’s gotta count for something.

Anyhow, after exiting the clubhouse the first thing that I saw was the Tooth Fairy. Just another night in Minor League Baseball.

076Taking inspiration from the Tooth Fairy, I then fluttered up to the press box and did an interview with Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk. Welcome to the Hawk’s Nest.

IMG_1314While in the Hawk’s Nest, I came face to face with the “Roady” bobblehead. Roady’s on the right, while on the left is a bobblehead honoring long-time bat boy “Jon-Jon” Teig.

IMG_1315In the press box, the Kernels honor their Major League alumni in just about the coolest way I’ve ever seen: with framed jumbo-sized baseball cards.

078Fun fact: While playing in Cedar Rapids, Trevor Hoffman made the decision to convert from infielder to pitcher. That ended up working out pretty well for him.

079While I was in the press box area documenting these photos, someone (I don’t know who) popped out of the control room and said “You came all this way and dropped the third fish? C’mon!”

It was that kind of night. Nothing much left to do but make a groundbreaking and subversive joke.

Further hallway explorations revealed this “Kernels Quilt,” designed by JoAnn Nelson (wife of former general manager Doug Nelson) and stitched by Jeannie Ellers of Guttenberg, Iowa.

085Time, it does not stop when I’m the midst of these baseball wanderings. A game was going on and in fact had been going on the whole time.

087But not for long, as the Kernels won by a score of 7-3. After securing victory, they mocked the visiting Timber Rattlers by forming a snake-like handshake line back into the dugout.

091And then, just like that, everybody disappeared.

093That it was it for the evening.

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But, really, there’s no need to thank me. It was my pleasure.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Prelude to a Perfect Game in Cedar Rapids

To see all of my posts from my May 27,  2015 visit to the Cedar Rapids Kernels (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The penultimate stop of my second road trip of the season was Cedar Rapids, home of the Kernels. The Kernels play at an awkwardly-named facility by  the name of “Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium,” which opened in 2002 in the same location as the “old” Veterans Memorial Stadium (which opened in 1949). The ballpark is located just off of “Kurt Warner Way,” named in honor of the Cedar Rapids high school graduate turned Super Bowl MVP.

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I had never been to Cedar Rapids before — in fact, this was the last Midwest League team I had yet to visit — and I really didn’t have too much of an idea regarding what to expect. I guess, if anything, I was expecting a more sedate Midwest League atmosphere. More Clinton, say, than West Michigan. But the Kernels’ experience is fairly riotous — a blaring sound system, many theme night promos, and colorful, chaotic concourse signage.

007It was “Free Money Wednesday” on the evening that I visited, sponsored by a local credit union. It’s simple — upon entering the ballpark, fans are handed an envelope that contains anywhere from $1 (likely) to $100 (unlikely).

Here’s what my envelope contained:

The view from the concourse behind home plate featured blue sky aplenty. This was a recurring aspect of this particular trip. Maybe I got lucky as regards the time of year that I visited, but the early evening sky in these Iowa baseball locales was consistently beautiful.

008 As opposed to a simple “Road to the Show” wall, the concourse is bedecked with stars honoring alumni who have gone on to the Major Leagues. Like this guy, who you may have heard of.

010For the record, the Kernels are one of the only teams to offer “shots” as part of of the ballpark drink menu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen shots available on the concourse before, as these concentrated blasts of hard alcohol are usually only available in private group areas with a standalone bar. (And, no, I don’t know what a “Monster” is either.)

011

And speaking of hard liquor: Prior to the game, I was delighted to hear an announcement to the effect of “Fans, while the pitcher is warming up in the bullpen, let us remind you to warm up with Cedar Ridge Iowa bourbon whisky.” If I hadn’t been on the job, I most definitely would have taken them up on this offer.

Some ballpark views, before the game began:

014 IMG_1306Beyond the ballpark lies an industrial facility of some kind. I neglected to find out what said facility is dedicated to the production of.

012In the midst of these idle pre-game wanderings, I came across the “Cedar Rapids Pro Baseball Hall of Fame.” It is located within an annex of the team store.

016As the above image illustrates, the Hall of Fame was not in a particularly photogenic mood on this evening.

017

This didn’t come out either, but it was what I found to be the most interesting thing in the Hall of Fame: a 1940 letter from a local radio station requesting permission to broadcast Cedar Rapids Raiders games from within the ballpark. The belief at the time was that radio broadcasts would hurt ticket sales, so the team wouldn’t allow broadcaster Bert Puckett to call games from inside. Instead, Puckett called the action from a nearby rooftop.

020Here’s the team store, to which the Hall of Fame is attached.

024Broken bats will set you back a Jackson.

026I almost never buy items in team stores, as I have too much random swag as it is. But I made an exception on this evening, purchasing this shirt featuring the logos of all Midwest League teams. Why? Because, now that I was in Cedar Rapids, I had successfully visited all 16 Midwest League clubs. Career milestone!

025Did I mention that Kernels concourse signage is rather riotous? Check out these concession stand photos featuring piece-of-corn mascot Mr. Shucks.

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032At this point in the evening, the game was ready to begin. It’s funny how that happens.

034I think my favorite National Anthem performances are those sung by local youth choirs.

And with that it was time to, yes, play ball.

041When it comes to my Cedar Rapids experience, there are many more morsels, nuggets and, of course, Kernels to report. Stay tuned.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Chips, Burgers and Beer in Peoria

To see all of my posts from my May 26, 2015 visit to the Peoria Chiefs (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

The Peoria Chiefs, who played their first season in 1983, were named in honor of the Peoria Indian tribe. But, in these more culturally aware times, the team has shifted its iconography and marketing to more firefighter-oriented themes. You know, like “Fire Chiefs.”

Peoria_ChiefsThe Dozer Park concession areas follow this incendiary theme, with stands like these:

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007My designated eater on this evening — you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits — had no interest in visiting either of the above two locales. This individual, one Thomas Doran, was in fact saddened at the suggestion that we do so.

031Only one thing could turn Thomas’s frown upside down . He was a big fan of Mexican cuisine, and therefore wanted to stop at a concession stand with the alliterative name of Cantina Caliente.

So that’s what we did. Pulled Pork Nachos put Thomas in much better spirits.

034Before we learn about Thomas’s food opinions, let’s learn about Thomas. He’s a 22-year-old Peoria native, and a huge fan of both the Chiefs and their parent St. Louis Cardinals. He graduated from nearby Ridgewood High School, where he managed the baseball team, and then went on to Bradley University. Thomas graduated from Bradley with a bachelor’s degree in history — “Because I’m a baseball history buff” — and he is now looking for employment at either a museum or a library. While at Bradley, Thomas remained involved with baseball as the school’s play-by-play transcriber.

In my notes it says that Thomas is a “fountain of local baseball knowledge.” Several weeks after meeting him, this is what I most remember. Throughout our various conversations his eyes would light up and his speech would quicken, in his excitement to convey various baseball facts and figures. He has a true passion for what he loves.

Thomas gave high marks to the nachos overall, due to the fact that they “pack in a lot of stuff.”

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“The chips could be stronger,” he added. “So they don’t fall apart when you scoop them.”

Thomas also enjoyed some tacos.

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He said that these were “spicy and dripping” and that he would get them again. And if you happen to be in Peoria and have a craving for Mexican food, take note: Thomas reports that the best such restaurant in town is Blue Margaritas.

036Thomas and I were soon joined by the first “designated drinker” in Ben’s Biz history, the appropriately-named Eric Cupp.
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Eric, an active-duty guard who lives in Paragould, Arkansas, is a big fan of the Cardinals and all Cardinals affiliates (particularly the Memphis Redbirds). He and his wife were in town celebrating their 15th anniversary, as part of a baseball-centric vacation that also included a Cardinals game in St. Louis as well as what would be his first game at Wrigley Field.

Eric was tasked with drinking the Chiefs’ new “Squeeze Play Ale,” created especially for the team by the Peoria Brewing Company. Strictly from a logo-perspective, this is the best team beer in Minor League Baseball.

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Eric gets to work.

“It’s smooth, but has a little bit of a bite,” said Eric. “It’s refreshing, and smooth going down. A very good beer. There’s just the right amount of flavor, to let you know that you’re still drinking a beer. It’s a shame you can’t try it, but I’m glad that you can’t.”

I can’t eat burgers either. Next, and last, up for Thomas was a “Beer Cheese Burger” from the Chiefs’ Burgertopia kiosk. I don’t think this picture really does it justice, but here you go.

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Thomas was a man of few words: “The bun’s a little soft.”

Nonetheless, he only had good things to say about his designated eating experience.

“I did it because I wanted to be on the blog,” he said. “It’s great. I get free food, that’s the best part.”

Thanks to Thomas (and Eric) for acing their “designated” responsibilities. I enjoyed getting to know them.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: A Norm-Al Night in Peoria

To see all of my posts from my May 26, 2015 visit to the Peoria Chiefs (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my May 2015 trip through the Midwest, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

On May 25th in Clinton, I watched as Chris Mariscal’s RBI single gave the LumberKings a walk-off win over Burlington. The next day I was in Peoria, and so were the LumberKings. In the top of the 1st inning, Mariscal’s two-run homer gave them an early lead over the Chiefs.

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Home run trot

But actually watching the baseball game wasn’t my top priority. It never is. It never can be. When Ben’s Biz is at the ballpark (as opposed to his alter-ego, mild-mannered fan Ben Hill), then wandering is the order of the day.

First things first, I hid my ceremonial first pitch baseball so that someone else might find it.

Okay, maybe this wasn’t the best-phrased tweet. I ended up getting a lot of responses like this. Everybody’s a comedian.

As mentioned in the previous post, Caterpillar HQ is located in Peoria. In fact, it’s visible from the ballpark, which is called “Dozer Park,” because Caterpillar makes Dozers.  023Here, on the concourse, is a relatively new Dozer specimen.  020And here, on the other side of the concourse, is a old Dozer specimen. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.  054In between the Dozers is, yes, the best translucent playground view in all of Minor League Baseball. I did my research, and feel confident in making this assertion.

The non-translucent views are pretty good as well.

022Especially when they are in the service of welcoming a bonafide celebrity to the ballpark. Thanks, Chiefs, for the evening-long hospitality!

028Homer was most hospitable as well. At one point, he tracked me down and handed me an autographed baseball card. What a doll.

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A doll-mation, that is

After several pleasant innings spent with the evening’s “designated eater” — this will be documented in a separate post — I joined general manager Brendan Kelly for a pleasant stroll within the inside and upper levels of Dozer Park (which, by the way, is one of the few privately owned stadiums in Minor League Baseball).

Here is a conference suite, converted from what had been a largely unused section of the press box. The team rents it out on non-gamedays as well, to companies looking to conduct their business in a more-memorable-than-usual atmosphere.

042Across the hallway, one can enjoy the best translucent aerial team store view in Minor League Baseball. (Once again, I feel comfortable in making this assertion.)

043Down the hallway one can find the “Pete’s Perch” suite, named in honor of late, legendary Chiefs owner Pete Vonachen. Vonachen purchased the team in 1983, and was a Peoria Minor League Baseball fixture until his death in 2013 at the age of 87. His son, Rocky, now serves as team president.

050“Pete’s Perch” offers a great view of the game, of course.

052But perhaps even better is the memorabilia which can be found therein.

044Vonachen and Harry Caray were good friends, to the extent that Vonachen eulogized Caray at his funeral. Clearly, they had some good times and got in some trouble — to the extent that apologies and promises sometimes had to be made.

IMG_1281

A perhaps more heartfelt piece of Vonachen correspondence is this, from current Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. (But, c’mon Mr. Madden, you spelled Vonachen’s name wrong in the penultimate paragraph.)

046Vonachen is further immortalized on the Dozer Park concourse, via this statue depicting him in the act of benevolent ball bestowment.

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018
068My next stop was this outfield location, so that I could meet a pair of notable ballpark occupants….

055 …Norm and Al, a couple of ears of corn who dance on the warning track in the wake of each and every Chiefs run.

056It’s kind of a funny story, how Norm and Al came to be. When the independent Frontier League Normal CornBelters team began play in 2009, they represented a direct excursion into the Peoria baseball market. The Chiefs’ response was, essentially, “Why go to Normal to see professional baseball? We’ve got “Norm” and “Al” corn right here!”

Norm and Al (no one really seemed to know which was which) also dance during the seventh-inning stretch. I was asked if I’d like to don the ear and do some dancing, and my answer to this query was “Yup!”

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But the best dance moves at Dozer Park do not belong to Norm and Al. Not by a long shot. No one can compete with usher “Crazy Steve”, mild-mannered truck driver by day and shimmying ballpark savant by night.

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Even more alarming than all these sweet dance moves is the fact the Chiefs have their very own ballpark fire truck, a decommissioned city vehicle that the team purchased via auction. It is still functional, and the Chiefs use it for parades, community events and the like.

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Fire “Chiefs”

Meanwhile, the Chiefs had just trucked their way to a victory over the Clinton LumberKings. An early deficit, the result of Chris Mariscal’s first-inning home run for Clinton, had been overcome.

073Many of the fans stuck around after the game, clustering by the home dugout.

074Their mission was to procure an autograph from rehabbing St. Louis Cardinal outfielder John Jay.

075Jay, to his credit, stuck around until each and every fan had been accommodated. But a Major Leaguer’s work is never done, as outside the ballpark a small group of fans was sticking around for more.

IMG_1288Nor is a beleaguered Minor League blogger’s work ever done. It wasn’t until after the game that I realized that I had neglected to a “Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day.” This is the best I could do.

I hope that’s enough, because that’s all I’ve got.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: How It Plays in Peoria

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

Last year I visited the Rome Braves, which afforded me the opportunity to use the obvious but irresistible “When in Rome” headline. And now, one year later, I have the pleasure of utilizing another no-brainer blog headline.

On May 26 I attended a Chiefs game at Dozer Park. Yep! That meant that it was now time to see how it plays in Peoria. (The little things in life. They bring me such pleasure.) Just like in Clinton the day before, the sky was huge and blue when I arrived at the stadium.

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002Dozer Park opened in 2002 with the name of “O’Brien Field.” The “Dozer” name is the result of a naming rights deal with Caterpillar, the Peoria-based machinery and construction corporation that makes “Dozer” bulldozers.

Dozer Park is pretty on the inside.

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And, once you look past the construction barriers, the outside views of downtown are pretty nice as well.

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In the early days of my “On the Road” coverage, players interviews were done quite frequently. In recent years, however, they have been more or less an afterthought. Don’t take it personally, players, it’s just that I already have way too much to keep track of on these increasingly action-packed stadium visits.

But in Peoria, I made an exception. Prior to the ballgame, I spoke with “athlete-scholar” Nick Thompson and soon wrote a feature on him for MiLB.com. (Specifically, this feature was written in an Omaha-area hotel room two nights later with Littleman playing on mute.)

Dennis Sievers/Peoria Chiefs

Dennis Sievers/Peoria Chiefs

Thompson wasn’t in the starting line-up on this evening, at least in part because rehabbing St. Louis Cardinal John Jay was. As I walked around the stadium prior to the ballgame, I noticed that Cardinals fans were everywhere.

006And many of them were desirous of an autograph from Mr. Jay.

015These Chiefs, lacking autographs to sign, instead engaged in an elaborate game of charades.

010The view from out there:

011But out there I could not remain, for I was scheduled to be a guest on the Chiefs’ on-field pregame show, hosted by Midwest League broadcasting legend Nathan Baliva. Along the way I stopped to use the restroom, which I am mentioning because of this:

IMG_1272The Chiefs have flat-screen video ads above each urinal. The future has arrived in Pee-oria! They’re #1!

After a thorough hand-washing (I am nothing if not hygenic), I arrived on the field.

Cue the Monkees: “And then I saw his face. He’s Nathan Baliva.”
012After interviewing shortstop Oscar Mercado, Baliva turned his attention to me.

Homer enjoyed the interview. Really, that’s all that mattered to me.

013I then threw out a ceremonial first pitch, my second in as many days. It was, of course, a perfect strike. (If anyone has evidence to the contrary, then please get in touch.)

Oh say can you see?

016And then, of course, it was time to “Play Ball!” This young fan receives high marks in her “Play Ball” declaration efforts, largely for her committed effort to run away from the mic as quickly as she possibly can.

The scene, consider it set. The next post in this Peoria series will Chief-ly be concerned with what took place during the game itself. We’re going to keep on playing in Peoria.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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