Results tagged ‘ Midwest League ’

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

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

I did not have time to visit.

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

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

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

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I was so overwhelmed by its sheer immensity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor suites with waitress (or waiter) service:

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

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

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Did I mention that it was a beautiful day?

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

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

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

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Fun Zone!

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Tiki Hut!

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A whole bunch of stuff!

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

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

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

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

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This might be the best picture I took all evening:

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

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Beautiful views, both inside and out.

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

Manager’s office:

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Trainer’s room:

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Lounge area:

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Bathrooms! Showers!

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

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

It’s (not so) lonely at the top.

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

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

Welcome, Carl — already in action!

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Hayes:

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

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

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As modeled by Gutsman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl signs off:

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

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Glow sticks for sale:

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

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

Panorama!

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

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changed to this. Glowsticks and fireworks!

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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

And we’re back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s a whole lot of burger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Before:

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After the before:

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

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

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

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

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Introduce yourself, Marty.

Marty, making up for lost time:

Fifth Third Burger!

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Steak sandwich!

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

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

Hey Ladies!

Hey Ladies!

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

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

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

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

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

The view along the way:

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Hi, everybody!

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New online Dayton profile pic

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

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Easy does it:

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The velveteen touch of a dandy fop:

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Success! Thanks, Billy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Terrordome:

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In action:

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

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

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

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Hey ladies!

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

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

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

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

Other quotes I have written down from this exchange:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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stretch

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

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

#Cupdate!

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Stadium panorama, with now-obligatory Matt LaWell sighting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Productive Morning in West Michigan

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

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

Hello, Grand Rapids proper!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Or is it a “Lite” House?

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

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

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For when Thirsty Thursday goes wrong:

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

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

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

The Fifth Third Burger is still going strong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Youth clinic in full effect!

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

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

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

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

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And then there was this — bobblehead storage room!

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

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

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

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Culinary Concoctions and Concentrated Cuteness in Lansing

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

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

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

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

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

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Literal Lugnut!

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

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

The ballpark is now known as Cooley Law School Stadium…

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

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

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

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

Touche.

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

Let’s go to a Lugnuts game!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We began at Pies, a new pizza stand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have at it, Keirsh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But anyway, here are the Franx offeringx.

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Keirsh’s choice:

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

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

New BFFs:

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Meanwhile, the adorable train kept right on chugging along.

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

Beer on the left, soda on the right:

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UNPAUSE! Keirsh and Christie had moved on to dessert.

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They opted for a banana split.

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

I do, however, have documentation of this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Varied Voices and Literal Lugnuts in Lansing

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

It’s a real CLaSS operation.

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

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Affable

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Acrimonious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Jennifer, how about a quick interview?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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:

IMG_0441And this? This is for soda.

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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

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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

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