Results tagged ‘ Midwest League ’

On the Road: Varied Voices and Literal Lugnuts in Lansing

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

It’s a real CLaSS operation.

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

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Affable

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Acrimonious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Jennifer, how about a quick interview?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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.

171He was unsuccessful.

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

The Silver Hawks Go Pink

Hey, it’s Opening Day! No fooling!

The time for fooling was Monday, of course, and as usual there were several Minor League teams who attempted to prank their fans. The Lowell Spinners helped to spread a rumor that, due to concerns about the weather, the Boston Red Sox’s home opener was being moved to LeLacheur Park, while the Bowling Green Hot Rods claimed that the team would take a cue from the 1976 Chicago White Sox and begin wearing shorts on the field. But the day’s winner was the Tennessee Smokies, who were able to convince some of their more gullible Facebook fans that they were re-branding themselves as the “Tennessee Browns.” 

Meanwhile, in South Bend, one of the Silver Hawks’ most recent improvements to Coveleski Stadium only sounds like an April Fool’s prank. But this somewhat emasculating visitor’s locker room is gloriously, hilariously real:

Pink_SilverHawks1When I first heard about this bold stadium “improvement,” I thought it might indeed be a joke. But Silver Hawks president Joe Hart confirmed in an email that “as you can see, they certainly are pink. It is the entire locker room, bathrooms, hallways, showers and even pink urinals and sinks.”

Yes — pink potties!

PinkPotty_SilverHawks1“The idea came from our owner, Andrew Berlin,” Hart went on to write. “[It]  just came from wanting to be a little different and give people something fun to talk about. I know the University of Iowa did it years ago to the visiting locker room for football and we had just never heard of it being done for baseball. We figured if we can get people talking about the Silver Hawks across the country than it is a success.”

Oh, this will get people talking all right. My thoughts immediately turned to the visiting teams themselves — I can see many players and coaches thinking this is absolutely hilarious, but won’t there be some who consider this radical redecoration an affront to their dignity?

“We are not too worried,” wrote Hart of potential negative reactions. “I am sure we will hear some comments but it really is something done in fun.  We just wanted to make sure when the visiting teams remembered their time in South Bend.”

Mission accomplished!

And thus concludes the first post of the 2013 season, the sixth in the history of this blog and my ninth whilst in the employ of MiLB.com.

Minor League Baseball — it is happening again!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Carolinas On My Mind

Before the 2011 season began, I solicited suggestions regarding where I should travel this season. And one answer that I heard time and time again (via blog comments, Twitter, Facebook, and email) was “the Carolinas.”

This area is, simply put, a hotbed of Minor League Baseball.

Fueled by this feedback, I cobbled together the best itinerary I could muster given the vagaries of schedule, budget, and time constraints. And that itinerary is this:

7/20: Charleston RiverDogs

7/21: Myrtle Beach Pelicans

7/22: Kinston Indians

7/23: Durham Bulls

7/24: Burlington Royals

7/25: Danville Braves (okay, not technically the “Carolinas”)

7/26: Winston-Salem Dash

As usual, I will be doing my absolute best to chronicle the experience through MiLB.com stories, blog posts, Flipcam interviews, photo galleries, and highly aestheticized daguerreotypes. And, as usual, I will do my best to ward off anxiety attacks through the power of positive thinking.

And now comes the part of the post in which I earnestly implore you to GET IN TOUCH! Recommendations and information related to the ballparks and surrounding areas are much appreciated, and while time is always limited I do my absolute best to follow up on all the information I receive. There is some flexibility in regard to what I can write about, and your local knowledge often leads to unique content I wouldn’t be able to provide on my own.

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But before I get too wrapped up in the future, let me return to the past with some ODDS and ENDS from my recent Ohio-Indiana road trip. I am happy to report that I was able to squeeze in a visit to Toledo’s world-famous Tony Packo’s — Hungarian purveyors of hot dogs, chili, and pickles.

There’s no wait staff at this joint, you just walk in and give your order to the uber-efficient and boisterous folks behind the counter.

Seating area:

I ordered a hot dog with Packo’s famous chili, paprika dumplings, and a side of “Pickles and Peppers.” That turned out to be a bit redundant, considering the generous amount of pickles that came with the hot dog.

While eating, I contemplated the rows and rows of signed and laminated hot dog buns on display. A sampling:

The answer to the trivia question "What do Dudley Moore, Betty Thomas, Hal Linden, Martin Lawrence, Jeff Foxworthy, Sinbad, and Howie Mandel have in common?"

My next stop was Fort Wayne, and upon leaving that fine city I decided to pay a visit to the grave of Johnny Appleseed. But when I arrived at Johnny Appleseed Park, I found that it was a massive hiking, biking, and camping area comprising a very large amount of land. It was raining, no one was around, and no signs for the grave were in sight.

So I gave up on my mission, but the consolation prize was this photo of a road sign honoring former Fort Wayne mayor Harry Baals.

In summation: I tried to find Johnny Appleseed’s grave, but all I got was a photograph of this lousy street sign.

Sadly, the only other non-baseball excursion I was able to fit in came at the end of the trip. En route to Akron I stopped at Ravenna, OH, the town where I lived from birth through (nearly) age 2. When I got there, I was pleased to discover the town was in the midst of a classic car show and all-around civic celebration.

Upon returning to NYC’s comforting embrace, I took stock of my latest round of road trip swag.

Not Pictured: Akron Aeros shorts and t-shirt, Lake County Captains t-shirt. They needed to be washed.

Meanwhile, I just keep on getting things in the mail. Like this Bob Feller “Van Meter” bobblehead from the Iowa Cubs.

And the awesome Stockton Ports’ Jeremy Barfield “Rocket Arm” and Dallas Braden “Bobble Belly” combo.

For whatever reason, the Jeremy Barfield “Rocket Arm” has it in for the Dallas Braden “Bobble Belly.” As I looked on with horror, Barfield advanced on Braden and then fired a rocket shot right at his belly.

The moral of the story is don’t mess with Jeremy Barfield “Rocket Arm.” He will destroy you.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

The Home Run Derby Enters Realm of the Ridiculous

Like 3D Television, light beer, and marriage, Minor League Baseball home run derbies are often far better in theory than they are in practice. The thrill of seeing emerging baseball superstars belting balls out of the park often gives way to a monotonous string of foul balls and harmless outfield flies.

In order to avoid such an underwhelming spectacle, the Quad Cities River Bandits — hosts of the recent 2011 Midwest League All-Star Game — put an entirely new twist on this year’s Derby. One glance at the field should tell you just how different this particular contest was.

As River Bandits marketing and promotions manager Shelley Heward explained in an email:

What the home run derby became was a hitting contest with over 50 targets and prizes scattering the outfield, ranging from a River Bandits-themed van, sponsor banners, cutout beer bottles and even a dunk tank with Hooters girls ready to splash down…. We even gave away $2 beers when a batter hit the cardboard beer cutout which sent the crowd racing to the concession stands. 

The team invited category leaders from each division, including home runs, batting average and stolen bases, and points ranging from one to 15 were awarded for various hits and points were deducted for foul balls and swinging strikes.  Each player represented a fan and a charity.  The fan received prizes as their player hit targets.

Assembled Category Leaders

An on-field target sponsored by a local restaurant

This culminated in a highly entertaining event with four on-field emcees, a charity receiving over $2,500 in donations and the event coming down to one final swing that had the fans on their feet. While the final hit did not result in a home run, it was still good enough for the player to win and get mobbed by his teammates.

Derby winner Travis Witherspoon and his designated fan.

In conclusion, Heward writes that:

The River Bandits redefined the home run derby with this event, involved local media, fans, charities and gave not only the All-Star players, but also thousands of fans, a memory that will not soon be duplicated.

Thanks to Heward for writing a detailed enough email that all I had to do was cut and paste. I’ll close today’s post by once again mentioning that, apropos of nothing, I am currently soliciting introspective mascot photos such as the one seen below.

I will not stop soliciting these until I have at least 10 (the current count is three), so please do your part and send ‘em to me.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Saying “Aye Aye” to the Captains in Lake County

I suppose it should be fairly evident by now (especially after the Fort Wayne post), but when I’m on the road I say “Yes” to anything that the teams might ask me to do. I call it the “participatory approach”, mainly because I like how those words sound together.

And in Lake County, I most definitely took the participatory approach. The team was uber-hospitable to me from the get-go, a welcoming attitude perhaps best embodied by this ego-stroking media credential.

I needed the boost, honestly, as it rained heavily throughout the four-hour drive from Fort Wayne to Lake County (just outside of Cleveland). In fact, this was the scene as I pulled into the stadium.

But this was the last hurrah for inclement conditions, as almost immediately the sun started to shine and the birds began to chirp  One of my first acts of the evening was to “assist” with the tarp pull.

Let me note the following: tarp pulls are hard work! Similar to when I put on a mascot suit last season, I immediately was hit with a newfound respect for how difficult it must be to do on a daily basis.

With the tarp removed, the following realization finally hit home: It’s going to be a great night for baseball, after all.

And do you know what makes a great night for baseball even better?

Beer.

It was “Thirsty Thursday,” and the Captains offer one of the best (and most creative) Minor League drinking bargains around. For one hour prior to game time, the team offers 10-cent beers. These dime brews (Budweisers, all) are sold in five ounce cups and available at Castaways Bar (in left field). Fans may buy up to 10 beer tickets, but may only redeem two at a time.

The 10-cent price is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to one of the most infamous promotions in baseball history: the Cleveland Indians’ “10 Cent Beer Night” in 1974. My favorite sentence from the well-worth-reading Wikipedia entry on the fiascoA large number of intoxicated fans – some armed with knives, chains, and portions of stadium seats that they had torn apart – surged onto the field, and others hurled bottles from the stands.

But unsettling indicators of pervasive post-industrial societal decay were nowhere to be found on this particular evening.

Serenity ruled, so I stepped behind the counter and spent a half-hour pouring beers for early-arriving imbibers.

It was a pretty simple operation. Bud was poured from kegs into pitchers, and from pitchers into the 5 ounce cups. From there it was a matter of repeating the simple mantra of “drop two, take two” (drop two beer tickets in the bucket, take two beers).

And, novelty aside, this is still a tremendous bargain — the equivalent of a 20 ounce beer for 40 cents!

I was soon instructed to put down my pitcher so that I could become one. Yes, for the second time on this trip (and fourth overall) I had the honor of throwing out the first pitch. But once arriving on the field there was some time to kill, so groundskeeper Dan Stricko put me to work watering the infield.

I believe that I’m displaying improper technique in the above photo, as the hose should in fact be wrapped around my back. And speaking of improper technique — time for the first pitch.

In this photo, I am patiently waiting for ebullient on-field host Andrew Grover to finish introducing me to the crowd.

Aw, shucks.

It was a strike, I tell you. A strike.

And it was now time to get the game underway.

Hey, watch where you're going!

The evening’s “Play Ball” kid went dead silent when it became time to perform his assigned task of yelling “Play Ball!” After about 15 seconds of silence, Grover adopted a falsetto voice and uttered the game-starting phrase himself.

Ballplayers waiting to play ball.

Number #45 in the above picture is hitting coach Jim Rickon, who I interviewed prior to the game. Rickon is an aspiring inventor, with his latest creation being the Bat Jack. Check it out HERE, and tell them Ben’s Biz Blog sent ya.

Update! Check out this MiLB.com article about Rickon and the soon-to-be mentioned Cole Cook.

A grip trainer would perhaps have been helpful for my next endeavor — participating in a between-inning “Minute To Win It” contest. My task was to extricate every tissue from a box of Kleenex, one at a time and using one hand.

In 60 seconds.

And I did it! With just one second to spare! This was the most challenging and dramatic between-inning contest I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve been basking in the memory of it ever since.  Update! And now I can re-live it again and again! Here’s the video:

This led to a far less successful endeavor, in which me and three 20-someting male fans (some might call them “bros”) participated in the Team Trax race against a team of interns.

We dubbed ourselves “Team Dime Beer”, then ran like a group that had far too many of them. The guy in the back (not visible in the above pic) immediately steamrolled into the guy in front of him and we went down like dominoes as the interns methodically made their way to an easy victory.

Team Trax are one of the newer offerings from the excellent Gameops.com, and more info on can be found HERE. Company founder Jon Cudo happened to be in attendance at the game; it must have been painful for him to see his creation utilized so poorly. But it’s always good to see Cudo — he contacted me for an interview back in 2007, a key step in my slow realization that I might be able to write about this kind of thing for a living.

Quote from the interview: [B]eing based in NYC I rarely get to see what I’m writing about, which is frustrating and something I hope to change as the years go on.

And now I’m actually getting to participate in what I’m writing about — thank goodness for the inexorable passage of time! Which, on the particular evening, soon brought us to the “Sheetz Hop-A-Long Poniez” race. The team has put the video up on YouTube:

In retrospect, I should have continued with the “sideways hop” strategy. But congrats to the winner, who taunted me repeatedly about it for the rest of the evening. I think he said his name was Jay Milo.

I'll get you next time, Milo, if that is in fact your real name.

In the middle of the fourth inning I ascended atop the third base dugout, and once again felt the unique agony that comes with not being able to aim a t-shirt throw properly. I hammed it up, delayed my throws, picked my target, and…missed. Both times. I’m sorry I let you down, fans I was aiming for.

No pictures of this failed effort exist. Immediately afterward, I was ushered up to the broadcast booth for an inning on the air with announcer Craig Deas. I had already done a pre-game interview with Deas for the “Captains Warm-Up Show”, so this time around I simply provided “color commentary” about a game I hadn’t watched at all up until that point.

A highlight of the conversation centered around pitcher Cole Cook, who I had interviewed earlier in the day. Cook’s father Peter MacKenzie is a well-known character actor, and among his many credits is the sitcom Herman’s Head (Cook used to visit his father on set, and during downtime would actually play inside Herman’s head. This is the greatest thing I have ever learned about any ballplayer ever).

  This segued into a conversation about early-90s Fox sitcoms in general, allowing me to make the following plea on-air:

To any Fox executives who may be listening, PLEASE release Get A Life on dvd!

Between that and my Weird Al plug in Fort Wayne, I was very pleased with my on-air performance during this trip (and please email me if you’d like to discuss anything at all related to Get A Life).

The commercial break in the broadcast booth provided a chance for some between-inning sustenance in the form of a hot dog slathered in world-famous Bertman’s Ballpark Mustard. Clevelanders are crazy about this stuff — and for good reason.

Delectable Globules

And — jeez — during the inning break there was a marriage proposal on the dugout! I would have loved to cover that as well but one thing I’ve learned on these road trips is that you can’t do it all. The days are stuffed to the gills.

And speaking of being stuffed to the gills (yeah, I’m just gonna play this segue off like it was an accident), it was soon time for the nightly Fish Race!

I was the blue fish, and eked out a victory over green and red (not pictured) that may or may not have been pre-arranged. Also, the photo above might not be to “scale.”

After changing out of my fish costume, I stuck around the right field area and snapped what I may believe may be the most introspective mascot photo of all time.

But Skipper soon snapped out of his mental reveries. For it was his duty to lead a gaggle of youths across the field as part of a nightly “Fun Run.” I tagged along, but as it turned out the whole thing was a blur.

With the game winding down, I ducked into the team store in order to pick up a Captains shirt.

The change of clothes was necessary, as I was slated to be a special guest in a post-game high school home run derby. Assistant general manager Neil Stein threw me batting practice in the cages located beyond right field, and it’s fortunate no footage exists of this because I started out by whiffing on five straight pitches.

I shagged balls in the outfield while waiting for my turn, watching kids about half my age pummel it out of the park. When it came time for me to bat I performed better than I had in the cage, in that I least made contact with all 10 swings. But it generally wasn’t very solid contact, and the best of the bunch was an opposite field “shot” that traveled an estimated 265 feet.

Scouting Report: "Comparable to Mickey Morandini, minus any discernible baseball skills."

Maybe I needed a Bat Jack?

So, yeah, all this (and more) happened in the span of a little more than three hours. Huge thanks to the entire Captains staff for such an enjoyable and action-packed experience — I only wish that I had had more time to spend there.

But there’s still more to come from “the road.” Stay tuned, and thank you for reading. Please continue to do so, while spreading the Ben’s Biz gospel to any and all interested parties.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/benzbiz

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