Results tagged ‘ Midwest League ’

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.

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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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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

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On the Road: Weather Changes Moods in Quad Cities

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Quad Cities River Bandits (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.

On Sunday, May 24, I visited the Quad Cities River Bandits’ home of Modern Woodmen Park. I spent several hours at the stadium, enjoying many experiences, but one experience I did not experience was the experience of experiencing an actual ballgame. Instead, I experienced a rainout. C’est la vie, sure, but nonetheless my failure to have experienced an actual Midwest League baseball game at Modern Woodmen Park really stuck in my craw.

The following afternoon, I took in a 1 p.m. doubleheader in Clinton between the LumberKings and Burlington Bees. You might think that two games and 14 innings of Midwest League Baseball is enough for one day, but if you thought that then you thought wrong. Upon the conclusion of the Clinton twinbill I drove to Modern Woodmen Park, where the River Bandits were taking on the Peoria Chiefs in a doubleheader of their own (start time: 4 p.m.).

I arrived at Modern Woodmen Park just as the second game begun, meaning that I would be able to witness River Bandits baseball after all. Immediately, my craw became unstuck.

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The players were playing, the Ferris Wheel was spinning. The Centennial Bridge was spanning its usual distance betwixt Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. All was right with the world.

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Well, not all the players were playing. Some were just sitting around like a bunch of lazy jerks.

056The Ferris Wheel is the most prominent of the River Bandits’ ballpark amusements, but there are also zipline rides, the Drop ‘N Twist and Space Camp. Although I would’ve loved it when I was younger, I could not bring myself to attend Space Camp.

But the Ferris Wheel? Of course I’ll ride the Ferris Wheel, in all of its 105 feet of glory. This was to be my second Modern Woodmen Park Ferris Wheel ride in as many days.

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You say you want a revolution?

Along for the ride was none other than River Bandits owner Dave Heller, the man responsible for the Ferris Wheel’s purchase and installation.

IMG_1261The Ferris Wheel is open during all ballgames, as well as Friday and Saturday evenings, weekend mornings (in conjunction with a nearby Farmer’s Market) and special events.

“It’s a different way to think about the ballpark,” said Heller. “This is a wonderful way to maximize our gorgeous venue all Spring and Summer long and well into the Fall.”

This, clearly, was the view to the west.

IMG_1260Downtown Davenport:

IMG_1263Meanwhile, back on the ground, the views can still hold their own. Check out these two guys, staring intently into the back of the batter’s eye.

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Vantage point from the right field deck.

061This scoreboard is also a relatively new addition to the ballpark. I took a picture of it because Blake Drake was up to bat at the time. You’ve to got to love Blake Drake.

063As mentioned in my previous River Bandits post, one of the next major projects for the team is to expand the concourse outward and on to this rooftop area.

“We never stop improving,” said Heller, who is among the most passionate team owners I have ever met. “Every year, there’s something new.”

067Day’s transition into night was accompanied by lights.

In this photo, the River Bandits outfielder is not fielding a batted ball. Rather, it is between pitches and he has rushed over to the warning track in order to retrieve a ball that kids had dropped onto the field from the berm. These kids were really sloppy in their catching and throwing habits. I was kinda hoping, all Grinch-like, that they wouldn’t get their ball back.

071With the ballgame in its waning moments, I hurriedly delivered my groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the evening.

The seventh inning began with the River Bandits holding a 3-2 lead, just three outs from victory. But victory was not to be theirs, as the Chiefs scored four runs in the top of the frame and went on to win by a score of 6-3.

This disappointing conclusion to the ballgame was followed by the ceremonial throwing of tennis balls onto the field. (And, yes, that is a washing machine stationed just past the second base bag.)
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The Ferris Wheel lights were then shut off for the evening, a symbolic conclusion to a day in which I had seen three games totaling 21 innings at two Midwest League stadiums. (I then drove right on over to another Midwest League city, Peoria, as I would be seeing the Chiefs the next day.)

076Good night from Modern Woodmen Park. I’m glad that I was able to see a game here, after all. Everything works out in the end.

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On the Road: Deep-fried Everything in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (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.

As you can see, the Clinton LumberKings offer a fairly extensive concession menu.

037Upon close inspection, however, there’s one item that stands out above the rest.

The Garbage Pail.

At $8.50 this is the most expensive item on the menu, and the only one that explicitly warns that substitutions are not allowed. Per LumberKings concession manager Kathleen Ward, it generally contains “mini-tacos, chicken strips, french fries, onion rings, cheese balls, corn nuggets, poppers, corn dogs and sometimes beef sticks.”

I don’t think beef sticks were in this one, but everything else was and then some. This is the Garbage Pail, in all its glory.

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Ward is one of the creators of the Garbage Pail, the original iteration of which dates back to over a decade ago.

“We always had fried food left over,” she told me. “So we finally went to [general manager] Ted [Tornow] and said, ‘Can we just put it all together and call it the Garbage Pail?’ He said, ‘I have no problem with that.'”

She continued, “At that time it was super-small and it was, like, three bucks. … It was literally the leftovers. Cook’s choice. [Fans] didn’t get to pick, and they knew it. But they loved it, and now it’s grown to eight different things. A family of four could eat a Garbage Pail now and be very happy. And men drinking a lot of beer eat one by themselves.”

My designated eater (the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was not a man drinking a lot of beer. Rather, my designated eater was — shocker! — a woman.  She wasn’t drinking beer, but she was nonetheless amenable to having a large heap of fried food placed in front of her.

Meet Amanda Cady.

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Amanda was at the LumberKings game along with her husband, Cory, and son, Alex.

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The Cadys were a fun family to get to know, however briefly. Cory, a machinist by trade, has amassed a collection of some 110 hats. In the above photo, he’s sporting a Fourth of July edition LumberKings cap.

“It’s a little ridiculous,” said Amanda. “The guys at Lids know him by name.”

Alex, meanwhile, is sporting a Round Rock Express cap because he loves trains. Alex, who Amanda said is a “local celebrity” at the ballpark, has autism. Amanda and Cory are heavily involved with a local organization, Strides for Clinton County Autism, raising money for special-needs teachers and other such educational initiatives.

“We just want Alex to have the same opportunities that everyone else has,” said Amanda.

Here’s a closer look at the shirt she was wearing.

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Amanda grew up in Clinton and has been going to ballgames at the Midwest League ballpark now known as Ashford University Field all her life. Her uncle, Brian Eggers, served as LumberKings assistant general manager from 1987 through 1994. Among many memories from that time, she recalled going to afternoon dinners at her grandmother’s house and playing ball in the street with members of the team.

As for the Garbage Pail, Amanda said she’s “been eating it ever since they had it.” (I wonder if, back then, she was a Garbage Pail Kid.)

The Garbage Pail is a bit monochromatic, and it can be difficult to discern exactly what lurks beneath the deep-fried breading. Amanda said she challenges herself to identify and then eat one specimen of every item before repeating herself. It’s a noble strategy.

Here, Amanda breaks down that which lurks therein. She’s a Garbage Pail expert.

You’ll notice that some of these items differ from those listed at the top of this post, but Amanda said that minor deviations are common. When it comes to the Garbage Pail, there’s always “some kind of surprise.”

Amanda’s favorite item in the Garbage Pail pantheon would be the corn nuggets.

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Yeah, corn nuggets.

And, jeez, I’m just now realizing that that’s all I’ve got from this Garbage Pail-centric portion of my afternoon with the LumberKings. Thanks to Amanda for  being a good sport and knowledgeable fried food consumer. Hopefully her appearance in this post helps spread the word that women can be designated eaters too. It need not be the male-dominated sphere that it has been thus far.

Yours in equality,

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Two for the Price of One in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (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.

Greetings once again from Ashford University Field in Clinton, Iowa. A Memorial Day doubleheader between the LumberKings and fellow small-market Iowans the Burlington Bees had just begun.

042I spent a good portion of the first game of the doubleheader sitting on a picnic bench located down the left field line.

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From this vantage point, I documented the “Garbage Pail” exploits of that afternoon’s Designated Eater (this will be written about in a separate post). Next, I spoke with ballpark mainstay Ray Gimenez.

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Gimenez has a unique story, so much so that I’ve already written an article about him on MiLB.com. In a nutshell, he was born in Cuba, raised in the Bronx and first spent time in Clinton as a member of the 1973 Clinton Pilots (who were managed by Jim Leyland). Gimenez stayed in Clinton after his playing career ended, raising a family and attending theological school. He now runs a homeless shelter in the city, and also assists Hispanic players as they learn the English language and American culture in general.

“There’s a closeness and an interaction that I’ve always loved about the Clinton stadium,” said Gimenez. “I do a lot of preaching and a lot of traveling, but I’m so glad that God allows me time to be with the game I love. I love it, man. I just love it.”

Seven-inning games move by pretty quickly when you’re immersed in conversation and/or preoccupied with concession documentation. The LumberKings won the first game by a score of 5-1.

Time for a National Anthem redux, and then on to the nightcap.

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Via a subsequent lap around the concourse, I discovered that the LumberKings are (perhaps the) only team to have an on-site lending library. I can’t say I was too impressed by the current selection, which included Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2, Titanic Survivor and Cats (“16 full-color pages inside”).

044I soon decided that chicken soup for my soul would involve actually sitting down and watching baseball. I really like how this in-game snippet turned out.

But whenever I’m in Ben’s Biz-mode, I can’t settle in and watch baseball for long. I’m always distracting myself with tasks large and small, such as the need to come up with that day’s “Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke.”

Inspiration came in the form of this sign.

045Okay, not my best work, but whatever:

Back to watching baseball, then.

046But, you know, not for long. In the fifth inning, my vantage point changed once again.

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My destination was the press box, a most foreboding press box indeed. This sign, simplified, can be interpreted as: “Scram, fans”.

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But I was no mere fan. I was an esteemed member of the national media, there to do an inning on the radio.

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The LumberKings broadcast booth was an amusing environment. and I think the above photo sums it up. #2 broadcaster Greg Mroz was on the air, and throughout his play-by-play he would throw in random asides regarding United States towns that share the same name with notable foreign cities (i.e. Moscow, Idaho). Many of  these town names were texted to him by PA announcer Brad Seward, who resides in the booth next door.

When I went on the air the following half-inning, some sort of technical difficulty ensued and we quickly went off the air. That’s life in Minor League Baseball, particularly when working in a stadium built in 1937. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor, and these guys definitely did.

With the score tied 1-1, I returned to the grandstand to watch the seventh inning. In the bottom of the frame, Taylor Zeutenhorst drew a walk, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Chris Mariscal’s single to right field. The LumberKings had swept the doubleheader.

And thus ended my 14-inning afternoon at Ashford University Field. I’ll let Brad Seward send you all on home.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Small Market Under a Big Sky in Clinton

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Clinton LumberKings (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.

Day Three of my 2015 road trip through the Midwest had me in Clinton, Iowa, for a Memorial Day doubleheader between the LumberKings and visiting Burlington Bees. It seems to be a matter of debate whether Clinton or Burlington is the smallest market in full-season Minor League Baseball. Regardless, there’s no debate that both teams are distinct anomalies within a league (and industry) increasingly populated by shiny amenity-drenched ballparks located within downtown city centers.

The LumberKings play at Ashford University Field, which opened in 1937 as Riverview Stadium. It has been renovated several times through the decades, most recently in 2006, but retains a timeless, old-fashioned feel.

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When I arrived at the ballpark, loiterers were nowhere to be found. Parking lot signage works! And here’s a rhetorical question for you: How great is a sign that says “Warning: Baseball Games Played Here”?

IMG_1243Clouds don’t obey signage, even if it is issued by a Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Many of them were loitering above the stadium, accentuating the beauty of the radiant blue sky.

007After executing a successful 180 degree rotation of my body, I took a photo of the surrounding area. This is small-town Minor League Baseball, to be sure.

009I entered the ballpark via the front office, which is identified by a sign that looks like it was made by a moonlighting park ranger.

008Apropos of nothing, but one of the first individuals I was introduced to was a visiting clubhouse manager who bears a more than a passing resemblance to Mario Batali. This celebrity chef doppelganger is named Andy, though I failed to note his last name. It’s not like I’m a professional journalist or anything.

011I also made an acquaintance with a PA booth possum.

012The PA booth is the domain of Brad Seward who, when not at the ballpark, works as director of operations for the Clinton County Area Solid Waste Agency.

014Fans were beginning to filter in at this point, however slowly. Due to a rainout the night before, that day’s start time had been moved up an hour in order to accommodate what would now be a pair of seven-inning games.

016The LumberKings are a community-owned team, and throughout the afternoon I spent a lot of time speaking with members of the board who devote significant time and energy to keeping the franchise healthy and viable amid a rapidly-changing Minor League landscape. These interviews, largely arranged via LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow, will be the focus of an upcoming piece on MiLB.com.

Some snapshots of the ballpark stalwarts who will be featured in the piece.

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038But, again, I’ll save that deeper dive into the LumberKings for an MiLB.com piece. Here on the blog, I’ll simply offer a lackadaisical chronicle of what, again, was a beautiful day for baseball in Clinton, Iowa.

019But before the professionals took the field, an amateur did. That amateur was a weirdo niche baseball writer by the name of: Me!

Another day, another city, another ceremonial first pitch perfect strike.

Thanks to Daniel Foley, a fellow baseball traveler who I crossed path with several times on this trip, for documenting this pitch on social media. (Note, also, mascot Louie the Lumberking poking his head out beyond the fence.) My ceremonial first pitch catcher was second baseman Nelson Ward, who has since been promoted to Class A Advanced Bakersfield. Let this be a message to players across the Minors — catch one of my ceremonial first pitches, and good things will happen to you.

Note, also, that the Midwest League is now using Richard A. Nussbaum-autographed baseballs. This past offseason, Nussbaum took over for longtime MWL president George Spelius. (I visited Spelius in his Beloit, Wisconsin, league office in 2013.)

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Play ball!

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The game(s) had begun, but this post has ended. Stay tuned for part two of this Clinton blog series, which, truth be told, will be very similar to part one. Why mess with a good thing?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Eating in the Rain in Quad Cities

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Quad Cities River Bandits (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.

If you read the previous post in this series, then you know that the Quad Cities River Bandits game I (attempted to) attend at Modern Woodmen Park was rained out. But while rain stopped the ballgame, it didn’t stop my designated eater! (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)

At Modern Woodmen Park, that individual was Dean Birkhofer.

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Dean, a retired math teacher, husband, father and Beatles fan, grew up in Wilton Junction, Iowa (“Junction” has since been dropped from the town name) and now lives in North Davenport. He was motivated to become a designated eater after receiving pressure from his daughter and son-in-law. (That son-in-law, Paul Worley, is a reader of this blog who contributed a “Why I Love” guest post this past February.)

Dean is a lifelong baseball fan, particularly of the Brooklyn-turned-Los Angeles Dodgers. So how did a kid from the Midwest come to like the Dodgers?

“I think I finally figured it out,” said Dean. “My Dad played softball. He threw right and played center field….I think I came to associate him with Duke Snider. [My Dodgers fandom] solidified when I was six. I made a bet with my uncle on the ’55 World Series, that I’d get a nickel if the Dodgers won. They won, and a couple weeks later I had to send him a letter. ‘A bet’s a bet.’ He sent me 27 cents, which was probably all the change in his pocket, and of course I changed that into 27 baseball cards.”

Fortunately for Dean and I, the River Bandits were willing to whip up a few special concession stand offerings despite the fact that the game had been called and the concession stands were closed.

We started with the “Pit Boss Burger” — an all-beef burger, cheddar cheese and in-house smoked BBQ pork.

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Here’s Dean, sauce all over his face, enjoying this delicacy.

“Oh, it’s awesome,” he said. “Really good barbecue sauce. Tangy. It’s going to be on my list when I come back for a game next year.”

Dean then wiped his mouth with paper towels that he had brought from home. Dean was nothing if not prepared.

Dean was also prepared for the next item presented for his consumption: the Midwestern delicacy that is the pork tenderloin sandwich. Believe it or not, this thing is on a bun. It’s just that the bun is obscured by the meat.

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Have at it, Dean.

080Dean opted to consume the the pork tenderloin sans condiments, remarking that “I’m a meat eater. Don’t ruin it.”

But first, the sandwich needed to cool off a bit. Dean, once again displaying an admirable level of preparation, passed the time by asking baseball trivia questions. One such question went as follows:

Who was the first player to hit two pinch-hit home runs in the same World Series?

I’ll provide the answer at the end of this post.

As for the tenderloin, Dean said that he’s a big fan of this sandwich in general and the River Bandits’ iteration in particular. As for why he’s a fan, he had a bit of trouble articulating.

“There’s a taste. I don’t know how to describe it. Yeah, I don’t know,” said. Dean. “This one’s really good though.”

Good? Yes. But the River Bandits don’t make the area’s best, according to Dean. That honor goes to Tc’s Point After in Dewitt, Iowa.

Meanwhile, Dean complemented his sandwich consumption with a beverage housed in a collectible cup. Yep, it’s time for a #cupdate!

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082But wait! Dean wasn’t done yet. In addition to arriving at the ballpark with his own napkins and trivia questions, he had a also brought me a gift.

084For those not in the “know,” the above mini-helmet depicts the logo of the awkwardly-named “Swing of the Quad Cities.” The franchise was known by this name — which referenced Bix Beiderbecke and the Quad Cities’ jazz legacy — from 2004-07. The River Bandits moniker, which had been in use from 1992-2003, was readopted in 2008 and the team hasn’t looked back since.

In fact, current River Bandits general manager Andrew Chesser was downright offended by Dean’s mini-helmet offering.

“I’m a little sick to my stomach,” he said.
083I, for one, like the mini-helmet. I wear it every day here in the office.

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And that’ll do it for Dean and his Quad Cities River Bandits sandwich-eating experience. I’d like to express my thanks to both him and the team for being Designated Eating pioneers, as never before had the eating been done after the ballgame was postponed.

“It was awesome,” said Dean, when all was said and done. “I just wish there was baseball to go with it.”

Trivia Question Answer: The first player to hit two pinch-hit home runs in the same World Series was Chuck Essegian, who accomplished the feat in 1959 as a member of the Brooklyn Los Angeles Dodgers.

Thanks for playing.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: Riding in the Rain in Quad Cities

To see all of my posts from this May 2015 visit to the Quad Cities River Bandits (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.

My May 2015 Midwest road trip began on a beautiful Saturday night in Geneva, Illinois, home of the Kane County Cougars. The following day’s destination was Davenport, Iowa, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Whereas Saturday was beautiful, Sunday was gray, wet and altogether kinda depressing. But the show must go on.

After a car ride spent listening to episode #997 of “Floydian Slip” on 103.9 The River, I arrived at the River Bandits’ home of Modern Woodmen Park. This stadium was built in 1931, making it one of the oldest in Minor League Baseball. Through the years it has undergone extensive renovations, however. It certainly doesn’t feel 83 years old.

Parking lot views.

048To my left, I could see the left field Ferris Wheel installed prior to last season.

049 While, behind me, a flock of birds had made the decision to get outta Davenport.

050To get into the stadium, one must cross train tracks that are still frequently utilized by the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

051The Ferris Wheel is the crown jewel of an ongoing effort by River Bandits’ ownership to create a carnival-esque atmosphere at the ballpark. But as I arrived on Sunday morning, these amusements were not yet in use. It had recently rained, and it sure looked like it would rain again.

The Zipline was folded over, sitting in the shadow of the Centennial Bridge (which crosses the Mississippi River, connecting Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois).

052The Space Camp ride had not achieved liftoff.

053The Drop ‘N Twist was not dropping. Nor was it twisting.

054The tarp was just about the only thing in use. Even on a gloomy day, Modern Woodmen Park remains beautiful.

059

Rain or shine, the show must go on. River Bandits general manager Andrew Chesser gamely led me on a tour of the facility, showing off some of the latest improvements to Modern Woodmen Park along the way. (This is a team that is always improving. Main Street Baseball ownership group, led by Dave Heller, has shown a nearly messianic zeal in this regard.)

This room, located on the concourse down the third base line, used to be a storage closet. Now, it’s a Birthday Room. Video games are forthcoming.

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Further down the third base line, one finds this soon-to-be rooftop party deck.

“We’re sandwiched by the Mississippi River, train tracks and historic parks on both sides of the stadium,” said Andrew. “Building up is the only option we’ve got.”

060The River Bandits have three full-time staff members who only deal with non-baseball events, 150 to 175 of which take place every year. One key component of the non-baseball side of the equation is weddings. In fact, there was a wedding scheduled for later in the day. (Yes, it was Sunday. But it was Sunday of a holiday weekend and, thus, a Sunday in name only.)

061Here, we visit the Sears Manufacturing Suite. Note, once again, the view of the Ferris Wheel.

062This is the “Budweiser Champions Club,” a multi-purpose room in which wedding ceremonies are sometimes held. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get married in a room called the “Budweiser Champions Club”?

065My tour went on hiatus at this point, as Andrew had to take part in some weather-related manager and umpire consultations down on the field. In the meantime, I spoke with a trio of long-time season ticket-holders: Frank (89), Shirley (the youngest-seeming 86-year-old I have ever met), and Douglas (I’m not sure of Douglas’s age. What I can tell you is that he’s a Cardinals fan who was mighty disappointed when the River Bandits switched affiliations to the Astros).

066Frank, whose last name is “Wulf”, has been attending games at this ballpark for 70 years. His late wife, Dorothy, was named the team’s “Fan of the Century” in 2000. Dorothy attended the first game ever played here (in 1931, when it was called Municipal Stadium), and remained a fixture until her death in 2008.

Dorothy is memorialized at the ballpark with this outfield-area plaque.

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With the tarp still on the field, River Bandits players appeared on the concourse for a 20-minute autograph session. There were plenty of River Bandits to go around.

068Speaking of going around, it was time for my first-ever ballpark Ferris Wheel ride. My entire life had all been a stilted, uneventful prelude to this moment.

069I rode the wheel along with River Bandits assistant general manager of amusements Mike Clark, who I believe is the only person in Minor League Baseball to have such a job title. Clark told me that a ride on the wheel lasts for 12 rotations — approximately four minutes.

More views from the Ferris Wheel:

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IMG_1228In which I insert myself into the narrative:

IMG_1230Shortly after the ride ended, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: Today’s Midwest League contest between the River Bandits and visiting Peoria Chiefs would be postponed. It was 1:04 p.m. — 11 minutes before the game’s scheduled start time. This may sound like a premature time to have bagged it, but the radar wasn’t looking good.

The view from a deserted press box.

085Game or no game, I still had work to do. After a post-postponement meeting with my designated eater (this will be chronicled in a separate post), I resumed my ballpark tour with general manager Andrew Chesser.

We strolled past the extensive Quad Cities Sports Hall of Fame…

087and eventually made our way down to the home dugout.

More Centennial Bridge views!

089

More Ferris Wheel! 090This might be Class A, but nonetheless the Houston Astros organization puts together some really detailed scouting reports on the opposition. These were still hanging in the dugout after the rainout. I’m going to assume that they aren’t confidential.
092

I’m just the dude who writes about ridiculous promos and dresses up as various racing food mascots. I can’t begin to make sense of this stuff.
093

Walking back toward the home clubhouse, I noticed that the walls displayed evidence of a thorough punching. That’s life in baseball for you.

095Maybe those wall markings were caused by the Rock, in a fit of rage. The Rock oversees the trainer’s area.

096

Back on the concourse, we stopped by the Cornfield Seats.

098That patch of dirt, on the far left, is indeed a corn field. The corn will be “knee high by the Fourth of July,” at which point the River Bandits will use it as a Field of Dreams style pre-game entrance area.

A brief detour to the team store soon followed.

099Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats!

My afternoon with the River Bandits ended back outside, right where I started. See those brick pillars?

100

See these rectangular base plates?
101See this sidewalk to nowhere, roped off by a small length of chain?

103Well, all of these things are integral to Modern Woodmen Park being able to withstand flooding from the Mississippi.

Read all about it HERE, in a piece I wrote for MiLB.com. It is truly fascinating. This picture was taken last season, just prior to a ballgame taking place as scheduled.

flooded_ballpark_4fnp1kzn_dx6m7mpf

Believe it or not, there is still much more to come from Modern Woodmen Park. And good stuff, at that.

The show must go on.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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On the Road: Heart Attacks and Raging Cougars in Kane County

To see all of my posts from this May 23, 2015 visit to the Kane County Cougars (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.

Regarding designated eaters, standard operating procedure calls for one (1) such individual to be recruited at each ballpark I visit. This individual will then consume, and be documented consuming, the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

But standard operating procedures can be deviated, subverted, tweaked and outright ignored when the situation calls for it. The situation called for it in Kane County, as I recruited not one but — wait for it — two designated eaters.

052That’s David Lesser on the right and, because Lesser is more, Jason Bohn behind him and to the left. I asked both of these gentlemen to be designated eater, simply because they sent me an email asking for the privilege at exactly the same time. Tie goes to the eater.

The Cougars, led by the unstoppable force of hospitality that is public relations director Shawn Touney, provided David and Jason with seating in the new “Strike Zone” area behind home plate. This area includes wait staff service, which was coordinated in this case by food and beverage director Jon Williams.

So what do you have planned for these guys, Jon?

We began with the Heart Attack Burger, described by Jon in the above video as “Two grilled cheese sandwiches. In between that is a half-pound burger, grilled onions, fried egg, two strips of bacon and a bacon-chipotle mayo sauce.”

053Have at it, guys.

Okay, let’s take a moment to meet our designated eaters.

055

David, a long-ago West Michigan Whitecaps intern, was attending the game with his wife, Kristin. They live in Chicago; he works in the accounting department of a law firm and she as a fifth grade teacher. David enjoys Cougars games because “they put on a good show,” and is a huge fan of Minor League Baseball in general. He said that he wanted to be a designated eater because it represented “a great chance to eat a lot of good food.”

“My wife claims that when I got this opportunity, I was more excited than when we got married,” said David.

“That’s not a joke,” added Kristen.

I then, apropos of nothing, asked David to name his favorite band of all time. He had to mullet over, but settled on Diamond Rio.

Of the Heart Attack burger, David said that “It’s basically a patty melt with an egg on it, in between a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s good. Really good.”

Okay, let’s move on to Jason, who was a considerably faster eater than was David.

054Jason grew up in the idyllic vacation wonderland that is the Wisconsin Dells, and now lives in Milwaukee. After a stint doing software support for a tech company, he is about to begin a new position with the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin. He had previously worked in the world of Minor League hockey, which gave him an appreciation for how such entities operate. These days, Jason loves visiting Minor League stadiums as they help facilitate his passion for “travel, sports and zoos.” His favorite band is Ben Folds Five, whom he had recently seen play at a church.

“It was a hike to get here. I had to rent a car,” said Jason of his designated eating motivation. “But I get to see a Minor League team I haven’t seen yet, meet royalty — that’s you — and eat at the same time. I mean, I might as well.”

Jason accomplished his goal of not being “the first person to die of a heart attack while eating the Heart Attack Burger.” He did eat the thing in 90 seconds flat, however, remarking that “I fasted all day for this.”

“It’s actually really good,” he said. “It’s obviously sloppy, but everything is quality.”

Okay, next up: BBQ Pork Chop Sandwich. 10 ounces of butterflied boneless meat on a bun.

057

David was familiar with this item, which he said might already be his favorite ballpark concession item. (“The barbecue sauce is great.”) In this photo he appears to be kissing the sandwich as opposed to eating it. To each his own.

059

As for Jason — blink and you miss him eating it. This man was a true speed demon.

058

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m not really a big pork guy. It’s all the same.”

Next — more pork! A barbecue pulled pork sandwich, specifically.

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Kristin, David’s wife, volunteered to be photographed with this one because “My students will love it.” Okay, Mrs. Lesser’s fifth-grade students, this one’s for you:

064Meanwhile, Jason had pretty much eaten the whole thing by the time I was able to look in his direction.

065Despite his already-professed lackluster pork opinions, Jason was effusive.

“The pork was tender and the barbecue wasn’t overpowering. It never overtook the flavor of the awesome bun.”

Meanwhile, I was provided with some cheese fries. Cheese fries are good. I enjoy them. I wish I had some right now.

060Gluten-free for life!

061Finally, our designated heroes enjoyed Oreo Churros for dessert.

066En garde!

067“Excellent, and who doesn’t like a big tub to dip it in?” said David. “Growing up a White Sox fan, these were one of the staples of the concourse.”

Finally, it should be noted that David and Jason were drinking the new, team-branded “Raging Cougar Ale.”

ragingAnd in a collectible cup, no less.

068

#Cupdate

“Two Brothers makes a lot of good beer,” said David. “It’s hoppy. It’s good. I’m not good at giving descriptions, as you can tell.”

“I know nothing about beer, and I’m from Milwaukee,” said Jason. “It tastes like beer to me.”

So there you have it, folks, a cavalcade of Kane County concessions. Thanks to David and Jason for their enthusiasm, Kristin for her humor and patience, Jon for his culinary expertise, Shawn for the generous accommodations and the Strike Zone waitress (I never got her name) who provided excellent service throughout.

That’ll do it from Kane County, but this ramshackle one-man show of mine will be rolling on for months and months to come. Thanks, to you, for following along.

050

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

 

On the Road: Battling, Blasting and Bouncing in Kane County

To see all of my posts from this May 23, 2015 visit to the Kane County Cougars (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 Part One of this Kane County content compendium concluded, the game had just begun and I was preparing to engage in something that I had never before engaged in.

Battle Balls.

Battle Balls 2

That’s me on the left and my opponent, Logan, on the right.

Fight!

I would like to dedicate my victory to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers dugout, whose denizens offered words of support throughout my battle with Logan.

Next up on the evening’s ever-evolving aganeda was a visit to the new “Strike Zone” seating area. This is where I would meet the evening’s designated eaters.

050

We’ll meet those designated eaters soon enough (in the next post, specifically). As the food was being consumed, we had the pleasure of witnessing a classic Zooperstars! routine. The Zooperstars! follow me around. They were in Jacksonville (the last stop of my last trip), and now here they were in Kane County (the first stop of my next trip).

Once the designated eating was complete, and all underwear-wearing men had skedaddled off of the field, I introduced myself to usher “Wild Bill” Bowers.

069

Wild Bill — wow, what an interesting guy to talk to. He’s 91-years-old and has a great life perspective. I wrote an article about him for MiLB.com, which can be found HERE.

Upon concluding my conversation with Bill, Cougars director of public relations Shawn Touney and I commenced to wandering. My first groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the road trip soon followed.

A beautiful day was fast evolving into a beautiful evening.

IMG_1178

Shawn and I then worked our way behind the outfield fence, so that I could visit an old acquaintance.

073That’s Jack “Mr. Kaboom” Phelan, who I wrote an article about in the wake of my 2010 Kane County visit.  Man, this feels like a long time ago:

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2010 Ben’s Biz Blog file photo

 

As his nickname would imply, Mr. Kaboom’s job is to set off in-game fireworks (such as when a Cougars player hits a home run). Click HERE to see a quick Instagram video of him in action.

080

He’s still using the Delcor MP-20 as his preferred pyrotechnic-launching device.

076Mr. Kaboom’s perch provides a nice view of the ballgame.

074

079

The @TimberRattlers outfield kinda sorta does the hokey pokey https://t.co/J9qmdpnLRT

— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 24, 2015

After bidding adieu to Kaboom, Shawn and I just kept walking. From behind the outfield fence…

081

…and past a father and daughter having a catch…

083…until, finally, we reached the Cougars Craft Beer Cave.

086There’s plenty to choose from. Beers are $6, which are opened and poured into a plastic cup upon purchase.

084 The Cougars fans, led by emcee Derek, believed that they would win.

They were wrong, as the visiting Wisconsin Timber Rattlers slithered away with a 5-3 victory.

IMG_1192 There was still plenty of entertainment left this evening, however. First up was a performance by the Jesse White Tumblers, a Chicago-based acrobatic troupe founded in 1959 by — you guessed it — Jesse White. (White, for those keeping score at home, currently serves as Illinois secretary of state.)  IMG_1193I did my best to document the tumblers in action. But, literally and figuratively, it was kind of a blur.  IMG_1209That’s Mr. White himself, wearing the red cap and white pants.

In this Vine video, White assists directly with one of the routines. (And credit to the girl being held up, who perseveres after taking a rolling somersault kick to the thigh.)

More tumblin’

I’m not exactly sure how it all happened, but at Shawn’s suggestion Mr. White went ahead and inserted me into the final routine.  TumblersShowtime!

The Tumblers were done, but the post-game entertainment was not. It was just one of those nights.

First, tennis balls were thrown onto the field with reckless abandon. 090Next up: fireworks.

Never have I ever taken a good photo of a fireworks display.

IMG_1212These fireworks had a “popular music” theme. As an avid chronicler of the zeitgeist, I made a point to write down the songs that played during the show:

“Uptown Funk” — Mick Ronson and Bruno Mars

“Shower” — Becky G

“You Make Me Feel” — “Weird Al” Yankovic  Cobra Starship

“Blank Space” — Taylor Swift

“What Makes You Beautiful” — One Direction

“Lips are Movin’ — Megan Trainor

“Ugly Heart” — G.R.L.

“All Alone on the Grass” — Ben’s Biz

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If you thought the night was over now — THINK AGAIN.

It was now time for thousands — literally, thousands — of people to run the bases.

IMG_1215At 10:26, the last base-runners rounded third and crossed the plate.

IMG_1219But if you thought the night was over now — THINK AGAIN AGAIN!

The scouts, not yet ready to retire to their tents, were now readying to watch a screening of Big Hero 6 on the videoboard.

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But I wasn’t about to take part in that particular Geneva convention. I had had enough. Thank you and good night from Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, where, apparently, the fun never ends.

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And when visiting Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, please remember:

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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