Results tagged ‘ New York-Penn League ’

On the Road: So Close and Yet So Far Away in Hudson Valley

Over the last five seasons my Minor League Baseball ballpark travels have taken me to every corner of the continental United States, from El Paso, Texas to Everett, Washington to Burlington, Vermont to Fort Myers, Florida. Yet it wasn’t until this season-ending trip of 2014 that I visited the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are located just 75 miles north of my home base of New York City.

Finally, on August 30th, I rectified this egregious omission. Welcome to Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.

IMG_0791Construction on Dutchess Stadium began in January of 1994, and, somewhat miraculously, completed in time for the start of the 1994 New York-Penn League season. (The construction crew, like a good entomologist, was able to make adjustments on the fly.) Dutchess Stadium has hosted the Renegades for the duration of their existence, after the franchise relocated from Erie, Pennsylvania following the 1993 campaign.

While Dutchess Stadium boasts an ample parking area, be forewarned that traffic into and out of the ballpark is very slow moving. Don’t let that get to you, though. Just take a deep breath and take in the mountain view.

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The Renegades are owned by the Goldklang Group, whose baseball portfolio also includes the Charleston RiverDogs, Fort Myers Miracle, independent St. Paul Saints and wood-bat collegiate Pittsfield Suns. The Goldklang Group’s executive roster features the likes of Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, but I was disappointed to find out that neither man had traveled to Dutchess Stadium on this evening to give me a proper Hudson Valley welcome. “Don’t they know who I am?” I bellowed to no one in particular. “I am the mighty Ben’s Biz!”

Goldklang Group vice president Tyler Tumminia is the mastermind behind the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, and plaques featuring the inductees are displayed at each Goldklang Group ballpark. At Dutchess Stadium, these plaques are located just outside of the main entrance.

IMG_0793It’s not hard to discern Tumminia’s motivations for establishing the PBSHOF — her father, John, a veteran White Sox scout and global baseball humanitarian, is one of the inductees.

IMG_0794 Meanwhile, I had my own scouting to do. The view from the inside.

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If you like inflatable cacti — and who doesn’t? — then you’ll love the team’s Fun Zone.

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If you don’t like cactus then you are Nopal of mine

Heading down the third base line, one encounters this bit of creative landscaping. I just wish that dessicated cow skulls and tumbleweeds had also been incorporated into the design.

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Renegades players prepared for their imminent New York-Penn League contest by congregating in the outfield and staring blankly into the middle distance.

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While, down the first base line, an unruly mass of pre-game guests began to congeal.

IMG_0803Fortunately, I had some help making sense of the chaos. Sandy Tambone, a local photographer who often works Renegades games, introduced himself to me prior to the game and, throughout the evening, helped me make sense of what I was seeing. For instance, in the above photograph, you can see a woman wearing a crown. That would be Miss Hudson Valley, one April Maroshick, who soon had to handle the awkward task of throwing out a first pitch while wearing a skirt, sash and high heels. (I would be happy to attempt this at a Minor League game in 2015. Get in touch.)

photo: Sandy Tambone

photo: Sandy Tambone

Nadia Manginelli, also known as Miss Westchester, threw out a first pitch as well. While she might Miss Westchester, she did not miss her home plate target.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

During my pregame peregrinations Sandy introduced me to the Hanson Sisters, a pair of Hudson Valley superfans who are not actually named Hanson but are in fact sisters. I wrote a story about them that appeared on MiLB.com last month; click HERE to learn all about the sisters’ well-honed raccoon-centric ballpark antics.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

I also spoke with Glenn Looney, a veteran usher.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

2014 marked Glenn’s 18th and final season as an usher at Dutchess Stadium, but he will continue to participate in the Renegades’ host family program.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Glenn of his impending retirement as an usher. “But part of the reason [I’m retiring] is because I’m getting a new hip. I made sure to schedule the surgery after the playoffs, though. But now I’ll have time to sit in section 203 with the other host families, having a beer and watching my kids play baseball. I’m looking forward to it. Yesterday the score [of the Renegades game] was 3-2 and I had no idea what happened. I was working.”

By “my kids” Glenn meant the players that he’ll be hosting during the baseball season. I’ve heard that terminology used frequently when talking to host families, which speaks to the level of commitment and loyalty that develops as a result of these endeavors.

Left once again to my own devices, I resumed my aimless ballpark wanderings. Several Midway-style games had been set up in the “Corona Cantina” as part of the evening’s carnival theme.

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Among the carnival games was this strength-determiner, which featured an insulting and not entirely politically correct set of benchmarks (the first five were “softy,” wimp,” “girly man” “sissy,” and “assistant general manager”). Also, I have no idea whether that basketball shot made it in or not. It shall now linger on the rim for all eternity.

IMG_0808The team’s concession-area signage is similarly carnival-esque.

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Getting a leg up on the competition

The game I attended was on a Saturday night, the penultimate home game of the 2014 season. A robust crowd had filed in at this point, and many fans went straight to the concession stand.

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Wade-ing in line

It is perhaps to be expected from a team operating within the exorbitant orbit of New York City, but the Renegades’ concession items were on the pricier side. An order of nachos (just chips and processed cheese, no other toppings) was $5.50, and a 22-ounce soda went for $4.50. Perhaps also to be expected from a team in the greater NYC area, security procedures were more rigorous than at any other Minor League ballpark I had ever been to (including Brooklyn and Staten Island). Security personnel wielding hand-held metal detectors greeted fans at the gate and dog-toting officers from the Dutchess County sheriff’s department were on the premises as well.

IMG_0814Somehow this wildly gesticulating freakazoid made it past security, attracting children who came to the ballpark wearing the same shade of blue.

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If this blue dude is indicative of the Renegades’ customer service approach, then let it be known that they will bend over backwards to fulfill your needs.

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Truth be told, I developed a mild obsession with this aqua-hued creature. In this panoramic photo, he reveals himself to be a shape-shifting entity capable of dividing himself into a half-dozen separate organisms.

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Regretfully, and with no small amount of effort, I wrested myself away from the Blue Man Group.

A Minor League Baseball game was about to begin!

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The Renegades get pretty creative with their between-innings contests, which are overseen by Rick “Zolz” Zolzer.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Zolz paces around the concourse throughout the whole game, handling both PA duties and on-field emcee duties. The only other locale in which I saw such multi-tasking in action was Charleston, which, not coincidentally, is also part of the Goldklang Group empire.

I didn’t get the name of this particular contest, but it involved guessing song lyrics which were played over the PA in a monotone robotic voice. I can’t believe that these guys couldn’t guess this one, and it only got worse! They later failed to identify “New York, New York.”

There was also a putting challenge at one point. Two guys, one shirt.

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Later in the game I witnessed “Pie Wars.” Ostensibly this is a trivia contest, but really it seemed like an elaborate excuse for Zolz to mercilessly pick on one of the contestants. Check out the acerbic absurdity.

You can take away his dignity, but you can’t take away his smile.

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I have no idea what is going on in this photo. Maybe an on-field Heimlich maneuver demonstration?

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On-field shenanigans are all well and good, but I had other things to do. Namely, it was time to meet the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

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The above two individuals are Kathleen Fleming and Josh Gladstone. Josh is a fellow Major League Baseball Advanced Media employee, though his work and mine don’t often intersect. “Managing Producer” is his job title, though I generally refer to him as “guy who is always talking about technical things I do not and probably never will understand.” Nevertheless, I think he’s an HTML of a guy.

At the time this game took place, Kathleen and Josh were engaged to be married. And now, thanks to the inexorable passage of time, they are husband and wife! Congratulations, guys! Let me treat you to an array of concession offerings at a Class A Short Season Minor League Baseball game. Really, it’s the least I could do.

“I’m one of those obnoxious foodies who posts a photo of a tray of oysters,” said Josh.

“On our ‘Save the Date’ invite, we’re literally stuffing pie into our mouths,” added Kathleen.

Clearly, I was dealing with a couple of discerning gourmands.

Kathleen ordered a portabello-and-swiss burger, obtained from a made-to-order concession kiosk located on the concourse behind home plate.

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Josh opted for a nacho cheese-slathered hot dog. (In a feat of perhaps unparalleled gastronomic ingenuity, he then opted to put the potato chips directly onto his hot dog.)

IMG_0831The lovebirds have at it.

Kathleen, unfortunately, was unimpressed.

“Portabello and Swiss, both of which are cold,” she said. “I did not expect that. It was grilled…at one point. It tastes good, but I’m sorry: Cheese on a hot sandwich that’s not at least nominally melted? At least make an attempt.”

Josh had a better experience.

“Plus one on the ridged potato chips. If it’s not Ruffles, it’s a strong rival,” he said. “The hot dog is well-cooked, and I like a heavier, well-cooked dog. The chips on the dog give it a nice crunch. It tastes like America.”

Earlier in the evening I had noticed that the “Curious Traveler Eatery” featured a “Kegs and Eggs” special: scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and a beer for $7.

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Being a curious traveler myself, I quickly procured this Minor League Baseball culinary rarity so that Josh and Kathleen could (hopefully) enjoy it.

“I am excited about Kegs and Eggs because my favorite time to eat breakfast is anytime but breakfast,” said Josh.

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Kathleen may have dabbled a bit, but it was Josh who ended up doing most of the Kegs and Eggs heavy lifting. Sorry, ladies. He’s taken.

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“This is a summer camp-quality scramble,” said Josh.

“Uh, is that a good thing?” I asked him.

“You can leave that up to the reader to decide. I, for one, have fond memories of summer camp,” he replied.

And with that, we say goodbye to Josh and Kathleen. Any final words?

“We’re getting married on October 12, and interested parties can find our registry at joshandkathleen.com,” said Kathleen, not realizing that this post would not appear until two weeks after their nuptials. “Maybe strangers on the web will contribute. ‘Oh, those people with their portabello burgers. They’re adorable.'”

“This is the best baseball experience we’ve had all season,” added Josh, who had not been to a baseball game in 2014. “I like food of all kinds, and I’m always excited to check out a new venue. This was my first visit to the Renegades, but it will not be my last.”

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I may be posting these final “On the Road” missives of 2014 at a glacial pace, but the game itself was moving quicker than a jackrabbit dancing on a bed of coals. By the time I parted ways with Josh and Kathleen, it was already the top of the eighth inning. The crowd was fully settled in and the stands were packed.

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With everyone safely ensconced in their seats, this usher had plenty of time to pose with visiting regional beauty pageant royalty.

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Photo: Sandy Tambone

In addition to taking the above photo, Sandy introduced me to Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. His personal grooming > my personal grooming.

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Molinaro has been a strong advocate for the Renegades, to the extent that the team gave away Molinaro bobbleheads in 2012. Prior to this season Dutchess Stadium, a county-owned facility, installed a new artificial turf playing surface and Molinaro has been a key supporter of efforts such as these. Here’s one more photo from Sandy Tambone, depicting the official public debut of the new playing surface. Clearly, it is a cut above.

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Photo: Sandy Tambone

Anyhow, the visiting Connecticut Tigers defeated the Renegades by a score of 3-2, in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 15 minutes to play.

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The game was over, but there was still a four-part suite of post-game entertainment.

Part One: Space Invaders — Live!

Part Two: Fireworks

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View from the rafters

While the fireworks show was going on, I ducked into the temporarily deserted men’s bathroom to document the wall art found therein.

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This falls under the “general interest” category

Part Three: Launch-A-Ball

IMG_0859Part IV: Dance Party!

On my way out of the ballpark, I noticed this dismembered action figure abandoned on a concourse table. That’s a metaphor for something, I just don’t know what.

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Good night from Hudson Valley.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Three Times the Fun in Tri-City

August 28th was the last Friday of the regular season in Minor League Baseball, representing one of the final opportunities to pull out all of the promotional stops in the service of a celebratory evening of end-of-summer National Pastime action. That was certainly the Tri-City ValleyCats’ approach on this evening, an approach that extended to the imminent arrival of esteemed Minor League Baseball scene chronicler and gratuitous third-person referrer Benjamin Hill.

In a nod to my gluten-free diet (the result of a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis), the team released this video in advance of my arrival. No glutes!

I arrived at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in the mid-afternoon to ensure that I’d have enough time to fully experience everything that the ValleyCats had planned for me on this glutes-free evening. “The Joe,” as it as referred to colloquially, opened in 2002. Not coincidentally, 2002 was also the first season of the ValleyCats’ existence after the franchise relocated from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of the ValleyCats, the last Minor League team to have played in the Tri-City (Albany, Troy, Schenectady) region was the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Double-A Eastern League. That team re-located to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1995 and now plays in Richmond as the Flying Squirrels.

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The Joe is located on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, an institution of higher learning affectionately (or would that be derisively?) known as “Harvard on the Hill.” This was not my first time attending a ValleyCats game, but it had definitely been a while. In 2008 myself and a contingent of MiLB.com staffers visited The Joe to see the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, and while there I wrote a “fan experience” article that served as a precursor to the “On the Road” material that now dominates my professional existence.

This time around I was met at the entrance by Ben Whitehead, the account executive who appears in the “glutes” video posted above at the two-minute mark. Whitehead gave me a tour of the facility, which began in the ticket office (the exterior of which you can see in the above photo.)

009From there, it was on to the team store. Note the signage, which elucidates the region’s professional baseball history. The Schenectady Frog Alleys are not included in this regional round-up, but Tim Hagerty’s much-recommended Root for the Home Team: Minor League’s Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Tean Names and the Stories Behind Them includes a page dedicated to this oddly-named squad.

“The city of Schenectady is where the Hudson River and Mohawk River converge, leaving plenty of opportunities for reptiles and frog alleys,” writes Hagerty in the book.

011In the team store, one can buy jars of Helmbold’s hot dog sauce. New York state is home to many regional frankfurter purveyors, as I learned on this trip, and Troy in particular is known for its unique take on the hot dog.

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Shelf, shadows, sauce

The ValleyCats won the New York-Penn League championship in 2013. This season, the trophy was displayed in the team store for all to admire.

012Championship trophy selfie! Or, as I like to call it, a selphy:

013On the day I visited, the ValleyCats had already clinched the NYPL’s Stedler Division. A playoff ticket sale campaign had been launched with the tagline #unomas, but this drive for “one more” championship was thwarted in the best-of-3 finals series by the State College Spikes. In 2015, the trophy seen above will reside there.

017Ben and I then swung by the promo supply room, which, for those keeping score at home, contains a bongo.

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I really got lucky with the weather on this trip. Once again, it was a beautiful day for Minor League Baseball in the Empire State.

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During every game this season the ValleyCats ran “sixth-inning selfie” photos on the videoboard, submitted to the team via MiLB.com’s Inside the Park app. I posed for a photo and ended up looking like a silent movie villain.

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028Also on the concourse is Food’s on First, perhaps the only concession stand in Minor League Baseball to be named after a comedy routine. (The concession stand on the opposite side is called the “Hot Corner,” but “I Don’t Know” what it should be called.)

030Brown’s Brewing Company, a Troy-based brewery, sells its beers at this location (including a team-specific “ValleyCats Ale”). Apparently this is also a pre-game hangout spot for silver-haired game-day employees.

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The pre-game silver-haired hangout scene was slightly less robust at Vamos Tacos (a play on the team slogan of “Vamos Gatos,” which is Spanish for “Go Cats”).

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Buddy’s Grill serves the upstate New York specialty of salt potatoes (also available at Minor League stadiums in Buffalo and Syracuse), as well as the Binghamton-based treat that is the spiedie (marinated cubes of meat, served on bread).

033This is the view from “The Porch,” a seating area added in 2009 in place of the grandstand seating that had previously existed there.

036While in the Porch, I took the opportunity to get a little writing done. (Seriously, there is a line in my notebook which reads “I am working hard in the Porch. Seating area down RF line.)

037I had no problem gaining access to these special stadium seating areas, for the team had given me this (I haven’t taken it off since).

“We almost called it ‘Benjamin’s Button,'” said Ben.

035To my right stood one of the steepest berms in all of Minor League Baseball. Note that the right field foul pole is sponsored by DDperks.com, which is not to be confused with the Auburn Doubledays’ “Double D Booster Club.”

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On the other side of the concourse, there is a general admission Tiki Bar.

043 As batting practice took place on the field, ValleyCats pitcher Joe Musgrove could be found running on the stadium stairs.

041Musgrove wasn’t the only individual at The Joe exuding a profound passion for improvement. ValleyCats chef Jason Lecuyer, seen in the glutes-adverse video that leads this post, has overseen many additions to the ValleyCats’ culinary scene.

“Our goal it to create a dining experience,” he told me. “We use fresh ingredients as much as possible, because as an organization we want to be known for our food. We think we have the best food in the New York-Penn League. We want to take it to another level.”

One way in which Lecuyer has “taken it to another level” is via the addition of a brick pizza oven on the concourse. The oven was procured prior to this season from “a guy in Vermont,” and the team sometimes brings it to local food festivals and community events so that attendees can enjoy a “taste of the Joe.”

045I can’t eat pizza these days (on account of the glutes), but I can make it. First I donned some rubber gloves, utilizing the technique I had learned from my pal Dr. Peter Lund the previous Monday in Erie.

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Checking the temperature (the oven can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but it is generally in the 700 degree range).

046Adding the sauce. (Not pictured: adding the cheese.)

053Ready to bring the heat.

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055Several minutes later.

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The finished product, boxed and sliced.

059I could not eat the finished product, of course. That’s what I have a designated eater for! (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

This evening’s designated eater was a gentleman by the name of Kyle Wirtz. He lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and works as a personal trainer. He attends ValleyCats games on a semi-regular basis, however, as his in-laws live in nearby Watervliet, New York.

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“I’m a trainer by trade, so I’m really going to have to work this one off,” said Kyle, a long-time reader, first-time designated eater. “My buddies will bust my chops. ‘You know what you do for a living, right?'”

Too late to turn back now, Kyle.

061“I’m coming from Connecticut, where New Haven is known as the pizza capital,” said Kyle. “But this is pretty good. You guys did a nice job.”

Kyle would end up accompanying me throughout the majority of the evening, and in this way he became more of a “designated fan” than simply a “designated eater.” This gave me an idea for the 2015 season: When visiting teams who have devised a full slate of activities for me, I may just recruit a “designated fan” to come along and participate in the entire experience.

Ben, Kyle and I traveled down the third base concourse to visit the “Top of the Hill Bar and Grill” in left field. Ben told me that, in honor of my visit, it had been unofficially renamed “Top of the Benjamin Hill Bar and Grill.” Okay, sure, I’ll take any ego boosts that I can get. It serves as fuel for the long, cold offseason.

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067The view of the playing field, from seats located directly beneath the scoreboard.

066In the above picture, you may have noticed that there is a TV installed into the back of the scoreboard. A closer look:

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Long-time Ben’s Biz Blog readers may recognize the individual shown on the screen above. That’s ValleyCats broadcaster Sam Sigal, who, in 2012, while working as an intern for the Trenton Thunder, picked me up at the Trenton train station while wearing a hot dog suit. It was raining at the time, making this image all the more memorable.

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While hanging out in the Top of the Hill area, Kyle and I enjoyed some Nine Pin cider. Nine Pin is a local company that uses New York apples. The resulting cider is crisp and tart, free of the cloying sweetness that can make ciders unappealing. I give it an enthusiastic bottoms up.

071The pregame festivities were about to get underway, so Kyle and I hopped into a Jeep and rode to the field in style.

072Riding in this vehicle, Kyle and I had a great view of Southpaw’s feet, as well as his oversized championship ring.

080 075Just look straight ahead, Kyle. Everything will be fine.

077Views from the road:

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Joe Tuschak smiles for the camera

After extricating ourselves from the vehicle, Kyle and I wandered around the playing field. A pig was there to greet us.

086I love this dude in the sunglasses and bucket hat, who seems to approach autograph collecting as if it were a furtive back alley transaction. As Zach Davis puts pen to paper, this dude is keeping both eyes peeled for the fuzz.

088An absurd number of ceremonial first pitches were thrown out on this balmy summer evening, most of them by purple-clad members of various University of Albany sports teams. Most, but not all.

Ben Hill 1st Pitch (2)Biz Blog history was then made, as Kyle became the first designated eater to ever throw out a first pitch. (It was a great year for designated eater milestones. The previous month Greg Hotopp became the first designated eater to receive his own media credential, courtesy of the Indianapolis Indians.)

DE 1st PitchKyle’s first pitch was expertly delivered, befitting his status as a former pitcher for Manhattan College. In 2005, he led the Manhattan Jaspers with 22 appearances, picking up one of his wins against my Dad’s alma mater of Lafayette.

Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf

Kyle Wirtz, some eight years before achieving designated eating glory. (Source: http://bit.ly/1wwKfBf)

Kyle’s career didn’t progress beyond the collegiate ranks, but his roommate was former Minor League (and current indy ball) pitcher Chris Cody. His Jasper teammates also included future Cardinal farmhands Nick Derba and Mike Parisi (who pitched briefly in the Majors).

“I was the mediocre one of my group,” said Kyle. (He was also, through no fault of his own, the Wirtz one of the group.)

There were 14 ceremonial first pitches overall, a new ValleyCats record. Oh, the glory of it all!

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Some merely witness history. Others shape it.

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ValleyCats players were then introduced one-by-one as they took the field. Unlike Southpaw, this is not a team that runs out to battle with its tail between its legs.

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With the players in position, it was time to “Play Ball!” Take it away, tentative young girl!

More than three hours after I arrived at the ballpark — and, now, more than 2,000 words after I began this blog post — the game was underway.

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I said it once and I’ll say it again: It was a beautiful night. Not just for baseball, but for being alive.

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First pitch duties complete, Kyle resumed his designated eating duties. Here, after obtaining some Vamos Nachos, he formally introduces himself.

The nachos, ready for their close-up:

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“These are some of the better nachos I’ve had at a ballpark,” said Kyle, who preferred eating nachos to giving his opinion on nachos.

I agreed with him — all of the ingredients were fresh, and there was no artificially-processed cheese product goop to be found. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nachos are naturally gluten-free if you use the right chips and cheese, and they are delicious. BETTER NACHOS EQUAL A BETTER MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE.

That nacho soapbox is mine. I’ll get it off it now, so that this overstuffed narrative can move on. Up in the press box, I joined erstwhile rained-upon hot dog Sam Sigal for an inning on the radio broadcast.

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I also spent some time operating the team’s scoreboard, which, at 17″ by 36″ is the largest primary scoreboard in the New York-Penn League. Apparently, this cow is some sort of control room mascot.

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A near-sellout crowd had filtered into The Joe by this point.

111 Kyle and I soon returned to ground level, so that Ben Whitehead could assemble yet another round of concession stand offerings for us. A panoramic view from our picnic bench location:

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Ben soon returned with this smorgasbord: salt potatoes, apple nachos (apple slices topped with peanut butter, Craisins and chocolate chips), chicken Spiedies (sans bread) and a  Mexican-inspired salad that I unfortunately forget the name of.

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Both the salad and the apple nachos had been obtained at “The Healthy Zone.”

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Kyle praised the salt potatoes, saying that this upstate New York specialty was something that his Mom made every week.

“It’s a quality side,” he said. “A real staple for me when I was a kid.”

The spiedies and salad received high marks from both Kyle and me, but Kyle was most enthusiastic about the apple nachos.

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“I don’t know, maybe I’m straight edge,” said Kyle. “But these are really, really good. It can be tough to eat right in the summer, but these are outstanding. So simple, yet so good.”

119As Kyle enjoyed a heaping plate of apple nachos, a fine mist was wafting through the playing field. These two occurrences were not related.

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One aspect of the ValleyCats’ experience that is not to be mist is the nightly mascot pitting the mayors of Troy, Albany and Schenectady against one another. I was assigned the role of Schenectady city boss Gary R. McCarthy, and in this photo I’m standing alongside my bespectacled colleague mayor Lou Rosamilia of Troy.

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The two of us, along with Albany head honcho Kathy Sheehan, concluded our back room dealings and headed out into the New York night in order to mingle with our constituents.

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I just signed this baseball as “The Mayor,” reminding me of the time I was in Inland Empire dressed as a molar and signed baseballs as “Tooth.”

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I’m a large-craniumed representation of Gary R. McCarthy, and I approve this message.

132Here’s how the race went down. That whole “digging in the dirt” sequence is not a Peter Gabriel reference, but a nod to the Diamond Dig that was to be one of the evening’s post-game festivities.

The race was followed by even more mingling with the hoi polloi. At this point I was feeling kind of light-headed and out of breath, yet another reminder that if I’m going to continue to do this mascot racing stuff into middle age (and beyond?) then I really need to exercise more during the offseason.

140After changing out of my mayoral duds, Kyle (who had been hanging out with me ever since I made him a pre-game pizza) and I ran into Ben Whitehead in the office. He was dressed as his “Big Tex” alter-ego.

142The Big Tex origin story, in the words of Ben:

As an Astros affiliate, we thought it’d be a nice tribute to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after our 7th inning stretch. Being that I have family in Texas and my wife is from the Houston area, I had all the necessities – Texas flag, cowboy hat, boots, “Everything is BIGGER in Texas shirt” and other Astros gear — so I decided to jump on top of the dugout dressed to the nines and sing. Instantly, it became a thing.

143Unfortunately I missed Ben’s routine. After he left the office I parted ways with Kyle as well, who had to leave due to familial obligations. Thanks, Kyle, for your exemplary work as not just a designated eater but a designated fan. We’ll always have the memories!

Changing the pace considerably, my next task was to head back out into the stands meet my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It would have been awkward to document this portion of the evening, but it was nice to meet them! They live in Troy, where my girlfriend, Rebekah, grew up, and more detail on the personal-professional confluence can be found in this blog post featuring my city of Troy-based explorations.

So, yeah, in a nutshell: This was turning out to be a very long night in the midst of a very long road trip, and at this late juncture I was beginning to lose a little steam. Like, what’s even going on here? A hot dog on a bike is being pursued by a hot dog in a car? It’s all a bit blurry.

147I went back to the Top of the (Benjamin) Hill Grill to collect my thoughts.

153No thanks, guys, this time a ride will not be necessary. I’ll walk.

148I spent the final inning of the ballgame with the “Vamos Gatos” fan group, a contingent of enthusiastic ValleyCats supporters located behind home plate (the “Vamos Gatos” crew includes none other than Santa Claus, who apparently spends his summers in upstate New York). Follow them on Twitter @VamosGatosCrew.

The Vamos Gatos crew had much to cheer about, as the home team emerged with a 3-2 win.

156But a night at the ballpark does not conclude with the cessation of on-field play. That’s just not how it works in the world of Minor League Baseball, especially on a Friday night. Next up was a post-game Diamond Dig, in which female fans were given wooden spoons and invited onto the field so that they could hunt for a valuable piece of dirt-submerged jewelry.

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And they’re off!

159Try as I might, my Diamond Dig photographic efforts paled in comparison to my 2012 efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, still, these are always fun to watch. Several minutes (and many increasingly obvious emcee clues) later, this woman emerged with the diamond.

162An acceptance speech soon followed.

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Launch-A-Ball was the next item on the agenda. A popular pastime among the front office staff gathered on the field was to pelt tennis balls at this hapless inflatable referee.

165Meanwhile, I logged some quality time with Chef Lupos, New York’s preeminent spiedie marinade purveyor.

167Finally, there were fireworks. Or, if my photos are to be believed, intimations of fireworks.

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Racing to fertilize the egg?

Finally, after this action-packed slate of post-game programming had concluded, I got the chance to meet with fellow baseball writer Steven Cook.

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Steven writes the Greatest 21 Days blog, an ongoing attempt to profile all of the Minor League players featured in the 1990 CMC card set. It’s a quirky, obsessive and illuminating writing project, and I recommend it. Steven took photos of Brooklyn Cyclones coach Tom Gamboa during the ballgame, in preparation for an interview that occurred the next month. (The full list players he has interviewed can be found along the right side of the blog.)

Upon saying goodbye to Steven, I headed out of the ballpark (some seven hours after I had entered it). Thanks to the ValleyCats for their prodigious hospitality, as this was a truly memorable evening.

That’s all folks! Pig out.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Doubledays on a Night in Auburn

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

Thus far, my blog dispatches from this season-ending Empire State excursion have been rather dense affairs. Epics, even. If these posts were converted to song form, they would be a series of monolithic dirges possessing little to no melodic pop sensibilities. Therefore, I think that what we need now is a good palate cleanser, the blogging equivalent of Black Sabbath inserting “Laguna Sunrise” into the back section of Vol. 4. 

With that said: Welcome to Falcon Park, home of the Auburn Doubledays.

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The Doubledays, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Washington Nationals, were the third of five New York-Penn League franchises that I visited on this trip. Like my previous stops in Batavia and Jamestown, Auburn is a “classic” NYPL environment: a community-owned team operating in a small market and playing in a simple, no-frills facility that is actually located in one of the league’s namesake states. Falcon Park is almost identical to Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, and the similarities don’t end there. Dwyer Stadium opened in 1996, replacing a stadium built in 1937 on the same site; Falcon Park opened in 1995, replacing a stadium that was built in 1927 on the same site.

Also like Dwyer Stadium, Falcon Park is located in a quiet residential neighborhood.

097You’ve gotta love baseball environments like this, where, if you get there early enough, you might be able to mingle with players as they obtain a pre-game snack. This pair of hungry Muckdogs appears to be Ryan Cranmer (25) and Brad Haynal (16).

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Setting the scene.

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A closer look under the bleachers. Hula hoops and folding chairs, what more do you need in life?

108The Doubledays name is, of course, a reference to Auburn native, Civil War general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday. Hence, Abner the mascot.  Abner’s #96 jersey is a reference to the first year in which Auburn’s NYPL team was named the Doubledays.

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This team employee was setting up a video camera in a most seductive way.

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Early arriving fans were in full compliance with this piece of signage.

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Future Doubledays?

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The Doubledays have been an affiliate of the Nationals since 2011.

111This relationship will continue through (at least) the 2016 season, as prior to the game representatives of both teams made the announcement that the Player Development Contract (PDC) between the two clubs had been extended.

114There was also a pre-game awards ceremony honoring the team’s best players (as voted on by the players themselves). Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, standing on the far right, was named team MVP. The gentleman in the plaid shirt is Auburn baseball fixture Art Fritz, who serves as the team chaplain and director of the Double D Booster Club (please, keep your “Double D Booster Club” jokes to yourself).

113Former MLB pitcher Tim Redding now serves as the Doubledays pitching coach, marking his return to the team with which he made his professional debut in 1998. Redding threw a no-hitter for Auburn that season, but apparently did not have any mementos of it. Enter Marshall Trionfero, a Doubledays fan who took it upon himself to assemble this tribute to Redding’s moment of glory. I ran into Trionfero while wandering about before the game; he presented this collage to Redding later in the evening. (Redding no-hit the St. Catherines Stompers, who played in the NYPL from 1986-99. They were based in Ontario, the fourth and final Canadian team to have played in the circuit.)

109Meanwhile, it was time for the evening’s ballgame between the Doubledays and Batavia Muckdogs to begin. Oh say can you see that it was a beautiful evening for baseball?

116When I entered Falcon Park, the ticket taker greeted me thusly:

“Welcome to Falcon Park. Tonight we have $1 hot dogs, $1 soda and $1 beer with a government-issued ID.”

As the game began, it seemed that most of the fans in the ballpark were taking advantage of these economically prudent food and beverage specials (also, the evening featured a combo meal deal: hot dog, pretzel and soda for $3).

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The stands were a far more pleasant place to be.

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This photo, it just speaks to me.

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Shortly after the sun set, I spent several innings speaking with New York-Penn League historian Charlie Wride. Charlie has enjoyed a long and varied career within the world of Auburn professional baseball, and my feature story on him can be found HERE.

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Nighttime at Falcon Park is quite similar to daytime at Falcon Park. It’s just darker.

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Here, we see a contingent of Batavia Muckdogs hanging out in the visitors bullpen. This is fairly similar to their home environment, save for the fact that they don’t have a place to stash their bikes.

128No one volunteered to be my designated eater while in Auburn (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Nevertheless, I waited in line and obtained a hot dog and fries, just so that you, the reader, could see it. Like the nearby Syracuse Chiefs, the Doubledays’ sell Hofmann’s hot dogs at the ballpark. It may have been an off night at the concession stand — they definitely seemed understaffed — but this hot dog was not cooked properly. Half of one side was charred, while the remainder of the dog seemed to have barely touched the grill at all. But, on the plus side, the fries were good and the price was right.

131Meanwhile, the game was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip.

IMG_0262Batavia eked out a 3-2 victory in a ballgame that took a tidy two hours and 26 minutes to complete. There were only four games left in the season after this one, and both teams were already eliminated from postseason contention. About the only thing they were playing for, standings-wise, was third place in the NYPL’s Pinckney Division. (The Doubledays ultimately won this less-than-riveting battle, finishing a half-game above the Muckdogs with a record of 34-41.)

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Following the ballgame, and following established Minor League Baseball tradition, tennis balls were thrown onto the field by fans desirous of winning a prize.

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The fans then streamed out of the ballpark and into the Auburn night. A profound stillness soon pervaded through the atmosphere. The asphalt was empty, the bullpens abandoned and the pitch speed frozen at 69.

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Good night from the home of the Doubledays.

145benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Just in the Nick of Time in Jamestown

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all!)

It’s official: In 2015, the New York-Penn League will be fielding a team in Morgantown, West Virginia. This marks yet another instance of geographic expansion within the 14-team circuit, which, in addition to its namesake states, includes teams in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut.

But this growth comes at a cost, as the appearance of each new NYPL team means the loss of another. Inevitably, the cities that lose their franchises are those which operate in smaller, more traditional locales. The considerable charms of a classic baseball environment are no match for the two-headed team-slaying monster that is weak attendance and obsolete facilities.

The latest NYPL city to lose its team is Jamestown, New York, a charter member of the league. The Jamestown Jammers are Morgantown-bound in 2015, and while this had been rumored for well over a year it didn’t become official until, well, the day that I visited Jamestown.

On Sunday, August 24th, this was the headline in Jamestown’s local paper.

031So it was with something of a heavy heart that I pulled into the parking lot of Jamestown’s Russell Diethrick Park, as at the same time that I was saying hello I would also be saying goodbye.

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004The ballpark, built in 1941 and later re-named in honor of Jamestown’s “Mr. Baseball,” sits adjacent to a soap box derby track. Races are held in late spring and again in the fall; it was not set up on the day that I was attendance.

076I began my afternoon on the roof of the ballpark, checking out the press box located thereon. Rooftop press boxes: a dying breed!

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009It was a beautiful day, more beautiful than I seem to remember it being, and the roof offered some primo vantage points of the surrounding environs.

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011The sign on the press box stairs reads “No Spikes Beyond This Point,” which I interpreted as a none-too-subtle bit of discrimination directed at the opposing State College Spikes. (The  Spikes had clinched the NYPL’s Pinckney Division the night before, so not much was on the line in this late season contest against the already-out-of-it Jammers.)

012Back on ground level, I surveyed the team’s no-frills concessions operations. Sahlen’s, a well-regarded local company, is the team’s hot dog brand of choice. (In a Minor League frankfurter coup, Sahlen’s was named the official hot dog of the Charlotte Knights in this, their first season at a brand new downtown ballpark. This marks a significant bit of expansion for the brand, which had been largely unknown outside of its western New York base of operations.)

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Sahlen’s in Charlotte:

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At Russell Diethrick Park, what you see is what you get. There is a covered grandstand and bleacher seating on both the first and third base sides. On occasion, you might catch a glimpse of a Bubba Grape the Baseball Ape.

016For the record, the “Jammers” name is an homage to the Jamestown region’s fertile grape crop. Hence, this logo, which, depending on your perspective, is one of the greatest or worst in Minor League history. There is no in-between. I for one think it’s grape, but enough of my purple prose…

bCxoCNrF

(For more on the logo, read this article written by a young, confused and impressionable Benjamin Hill in January of 2006. I’ve been doing this job for too long, maybe.)

Jammers in action.

018Sitting, standing, stretching and stooped in the bullpen.

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The concourse separates the stadium from the clubhouses. Players traipsing about in their spikes, en route to the dugouts or the bullpen, were a common sight.

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In this photo we see longtime thirst-quenching adversaries Powerade and Gatorade trying to make the best of their uneasy cusp-of-the-dugout existence. Powerade looks ready to throw in the towel.

021This “end of summer mega sale!” was, in actuality, an end of existence mega sale! I plan on holding one of those prior to my scheduled 2066 move into an assisted living facility.

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On the flip side:

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At the gift shop, one could acquire his or her own “Bubba the Grape Ape” t-shirt.

006Ducking into the restroom, I was delighted to find one of the last remaining trough urinals in Minor League Baseball. Truly, they are a dying breed. (Are there any left outside of the Appy League?)

024The Vineyard Tent Area, located down the right field line.

025Spikes weren’t allowed on the roof, but there were plenty of ‘em on the playing field.

027Grass and fence, separated by a granular warning.

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The clouds were just beautiful on this particular afternoon. Everything was beautiful. Life is beautiful.

029Another view of the Vineyard.

030I made it back to the grandstand for the start of the ballgame, capturing six seconds of the National Anthem for posterity’s sake.

New York-Penn League baseball in action.

033Number 99, last seen wandering the concourse, was now safely ensconced in the bullpen.

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On the concourse, I happened to spot this unguarded washer-dryer combo. I don’t think this is what they mean by “soapbox” racing, but I’ll get off of mine and not speculate any further.

038Given the news regarding the Jammers’ imminent departure, I thought it would be pertinent to speak to some of the team’s long-time fans. I didn’t know where to begin, but this smiling young man seemed like a good place to start.

040That’s 16-year-old Andrew Sisson, who has been part of the Jammers’ operation, in various capacities, since he was a little kid. He spoke with an understated eloquence that belied his young age, and his quotes are incorporated into a MiLB.com feature that I wrote about the Jammers’ departure. Sisson then recommended that I speak to the fans in section B, which I did.

They, too, were great to speak with. A loyal, good-humored bunch who were understandably saddened by the end of the Jammers’ era. On the whole, their remarks were characterized not by anger, but by resignation, frustration and melancholy.

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The Jamestown faithful

For the sake of (ir)regulars such as those seen above, I hope that Russell Diethrick Park is able to find a suitable baseball tenant in 2015 and beyond. A return to affiliated ball is highly unlikely — it simply is no longer profitable — but landing an independent or collegiate wood bat team seems feasible. This is a charming ballpark with a rich history and it would be a real shame for it to go unused during the summer.

I mean, where else but here can Jamestownians enjoy culinary specialties such as these Buffalo chicken-topped french fries?

049 That’s all I have, food-wise, from Russell Diethrick Park. No one had volunteered to be designated eater prior to my visit (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits), and I wasn’t motivated to recruit one. For me, the primary prerogative of this particular ballpark visit was simply to soak in the atmosphere. This was the end of an era, and I wanted to convey what was being lost.

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053At this juncture I spent a couple of innings hanging around with on-field host Corey Raymond and crew. Here, he is officiating an on-field pillow fight.

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The guy on the right emerged victorious, and there was no doubt about it.

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Man, down

Next up on the agenda was the “Chicken Dance,” performed by an extremely unenthusiastic chicken, who, at some point along the way, had lost his gloves.

057The chicken inaction:

While playing this game, the young contestant missed the target on his first two attempts.

058His third attempt? Well, it would have been impossible not to miss.

059In the game’s latter stages, Corey spent some time showing off his juggling skills.

060Sisson with the assist.

Throughout these late-game endeavors, I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy. Business was proceeding as usual, but business as usual was soon to be a thing of the past. Here, Sisson wipes the slate clean, a task that only needed to be done two more times.

Ever.

(The Jammers hit the road after this ballgame; and, due to an August 31 rainout, the only games to take place at Diethrick Park after this one was a Labor Day doubleheader against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers).

063I decided to end my day in Jamestown on top.

067The best seat in the house.

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It was the top of the ninth inning at this point, and the Jammers had a 5-1 lead. Three consecutive singles narrowed the lead to three runs, but that would be all she wrote as the game concluded with a 6-3 double play and then a 6-3 groundout. My enduring memory of this half-inning is listening to the infield chatter of shortstop Tyler Filliben, as the sounds of his incessant encouraging banter filled the largely-empty ballpark. Filliben was hyper-engaged throughout, so it seemed fitting that he ended up being involved with all three outs in the inning.

The Jammers won, marking what would be the penultimate home victory in the history of the franchise.

071After the game ended, as I was preparing to leave the ballpark, Jammers general manager Matt Thayer intercepted me and suggested that I head back to the press box. There was something I had not yet seen, he said, something that was unique to Jamestown and worthy of commemoration.

And what he showed me was this, the only press box toilet in Minor League Baseball that provides a direct view of the playing field.

073But never again shall Jammers baseball be witnessed from the throne, as the door has been closed on this era of New York-Penn League history.

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I’ll close, not with a picture of a toilet, but with this. In 1990, Candid Camera visited the Jamestown Expos and pulled a prank on pitcher Bob Baxter that would never fly in today’s Minor League environment. Can you imagine an MLB farm director allowing this to happen in this, the year of our Lord 2014? Also, this video provides a great glimpse of Diethrick Park during an era when far more fans were coming to the ballpark.

Because of moments like that, and many others both large and small, New York-Penn League baseball in Jamestown will not be forgotten. It is, after all, an enduring part of its heritage.

005benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Back to the Basics in Batavia

(Interested in perusing all of my 2014 “On the Road” content? Click HERE  to visit a continually updated “On the Road” landing page. Bookmark it, and read ‘em all! More articles are being added by the day.)

This isn’t the first time that I’ve titled a blog post “Back to the Basics,” and it probably won’t be the last. By “basics” I mean a baseball environment largely free of the amenities and peripheral entertainment that have come to characterize the modern Minor League Baseball experience.  At a Batavia Muckdogs game, fans will not find a massive videoboard, blaring sound system, corporate suites, 360 degree concourse, a thriving mascot ecosystem and front office members espousing “living the brand” ideology. They will simply find a no-frills ballpark, one that houses a community-owned team whose roots stretch back to the founding of the league in which it still operates.

This is Dwyer Stadium, home of the Muckdogs.

020A closer look, sans arboreous enshroudment:

017Dwyer Stadium was built in 1996, replacing a structure on the same spot that had stood since 1937 (the playing field remained the same). The facility was called State Street Park when it first opened, with the name switching to MacArthur Stadium during WWII. (It’s too bad that it wasn’t called “MacArthur Park,” as then then the Muckdogs could sell “cake left out in the rain” as an historically apropos signature concession item.) The Dwyer moniker was adopted in 1973, in honor of team president Edward D. Dwyer and all he did for baseball in Batavia.

The facility is located in a residential neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown proper. There is a small (free!) parking lot adjacent to the first base side.

019I entered the stadium about an hour and a half before game time, talking to a few folks and getting the proverbial lay of the land. There is a covered grandstand, bleacher seating and a picnic area down the third base side, and a wooden porch group area down the first base side.

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Behind the ballpark lurks the concourse.

025The Muckdogs are now a Marlins affiliate, but from 1988-2006 they were with the Phillies. Ryan Howard is a former Muckdog, as indicated by this banner.

026Howard is one of 89 players who started his career in Batavia and subsequently made it to the Major Leagues. Did you know that Jeter also began his career here? It’s true!

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Pardon the glare

There are some interesting names on the above list. Many years prior to his (perhaps apocryphal) hallucinogenic no-hitter heroics, Doc Ellis was a member of the 1964 Batavia Pirates. That team posted a horrific 33-97 record, and Doc was the only player on the roster who went on to the Majors. As for me, I’m a Phillies fan, and as such I recognize a lot of these names from late ’90s excursions to a depressingly empty Veterans Stadium. For instance, I once saw Gary Bennett team up with Joel Bennett to form the only same last name battery in Phillies history and the first all-Bennett battery in Major League history. True story.

As I mentioned in a recent “New York State of Mind” post, what is now known as the New York-Penn League was conceived in a Batavia hotel during a concentrated burst of National Pastime passion. Here’s a plaque commemorating this circuit-creating tryst.

030The Jamestown Jammers are re-locating to Morgantown, West Virginia next season, which leaves Batavia as the NYPL’s sole remaining charter member. Along with the Auburn Doubledays, who are also community-owned and play in a ballpark nearly identical to Dwyer Stadium, the Muckdogs are the last bastions of the “old” New York-Penn League. Over the past two decades the league has changed dramatically, greatly expanding its footprint and putting a premium on new stadiums. This of course makes sense from an economic standpoint, but in the process the smaller Empire State locales that once formed the heart and soul of the league have been largely abandoned.

During the evening I was aware of a palpable sense of angst among the Muckdogs faithful that Batavia will be next on the NYPL chopping block. I’ll provide more detail on that, and the team’s unique ownership situation, in an upcoming MiLB.com piece. But, in a nutshell: the Muckdogs are community-owned, with an entity called the Genesee County Baseball Club (GCBC) holding legal title. The GCBC have a 25-person Board of Directors, but since 2008 the team has been operated by the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings (themselves a community owned team) who cover all expenses and receive all revenue. Thus, Batavia Muckdogs front office members — led by general manager Travis Sick — are in fact employees of the Red Wings organization. The Red Wings have lost money in this endeavor thus far, but each year that they operate the team the Red Wings receive an additional 5% stake in the MuckDogs ownership. This will be capped at 50%, after 10 years, with GCBC retaining a technical majority. The hope in Batavia is that, economic realities be damned, a new owner committed to keeping the team in Batavia will swoop in and insure a long-term baseball future. What seems more likely is that the team will eventually be sold and re-locate, with the Red Wings recouping their ongoing operational losses via their stake of the team’s ownership. The Muckdogs drew just 33, 376 fans in 2014, averaging 954 a game. The only team in the league with a lower total was the Jamestown Jamestown (24,246) who, of course, are now no longer.

Anyhow, let’s get back to the plaques.

This one details another significant bit of Batavia baseball history: in 1961, Gene Baker became the first black manager of an affiliated baseball team.

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The whole write-up is interesting, so I’ll include it in full in the hopes that you read it in full:

In June 1961, Batavia proudly played a role in baseball history when Gene Baker took the reins as manager of the Batavia Pirates. Baker, a native of Davenport, Iowa, thus became the first African-American manager of an affiliated professional baseball team. 

After beginning his playing career with the famed Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, Gene Baker joined the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Second-baseman Baker and shortstop Ernie Banks dazzled fans as part of the “Bingo-Bango” double-play combination. Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and won a World Series ring in 1960. 

The next year, the Pirates assigned Baker as player-manager of the struggling Batavia team, which was in seventh place when he was named skipper. Under Baker’s leadership and aided by the pitching of phenom Steve Blass, Batavia made the league playoffs, losing the championship series to Olean. Despite bad knees, manager Baker hit for a sizzling .387 batting average in 1961. 

In September 1963, while a coach with Pittsburgh, Baker managed the Pirates after Danny Murtaugh was ejected from a game, thereby becoming the first black man to manage a game in the major as well as the minor leagues. 

The popular Baker returned to manage Batavia in 1964, and he spent the next quarter century as a scout in the Pirates organization. Gene Baker died in 1999. He is buried in Rock Island, Illinois.

Plaque perusal is now complete, meaning that wandering shall re-commence.

The team store is a barn; the barn is a team store.

033A view of the seats, shortly after the gates opened.

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The Muckdogs’ promotion for the evening was that they were attempting to break Dwyer Stadium’s 75-year-old attendance record of 3000. (If they did so, one fan would win $3001). In the end only 1532 fans passed through the turnstiles, but in a stadium as intimate as this it still made for a nice crowd.

A quirk of Dwyer Stadium is that the sun sets in straightaway left field. We’re not talking Sam Lynn-levels of Bakersfield blindness here, but it’s still tough to see the playing field during the early stages of the evening.

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I summarily sought some shade at this scenic under-the-bleachers beverage emporium.

042Will wanders never cease?

044Another under-the-bleachers view, just because.

046As I was traversing back and forth, taking in the scene, I heard a rather grouchy-sounding voice over the PA:

“Ladies and gentleman, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers line-up has changed — significantly changed — so we’ll go through the whole thing again.”

Then, during this second spin through the line-up, I heard this:

“Batting seventh…I don’t know, I haven’t looked it up yet…catcher Martin Sevenka.”

I later learned that this rather put-upon sounding stickler for detail was Wayne Fuller, who plies his trade in a press box that has been named after him. He’s a legendary figure in Muckdogs baseball, and next time I visit Batavia (oh, there’ll be a next time) I’ll make sure to meet him and hopefully hear some stories.

Line-ups communicated, anthem complete, it was time to play ball.

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052With the game underway, I walked down to the porch area down the third base to meet Russ Salway. Here he is with his wife, Kellie.

055Russ and Kellie live, in Russ’s estimation, 20 houses away from the ballpark. He said that he first attended MuckDogs games as a convenient “getaway at the end of the night,” but this casual fandom has since blossomed into something else altogether. The Salways house ballplayers via the team’s host family program, and Russ is a member of the team’s board of directors. He runs a Facebook page called “Let’s Keep the Batavia Muckdogs in Batavia,” works to promote the team in the community, and occasionally does odd jobs around the stadium (staining the deck that he and Kellie are standing upon, for example). He also is an avid record collector, and recommended that I visit the Record Archive and Lakeshore Record Exchange in Rochester and Record Theater in Buffalo (I was unable to visit these establishments for reasons of varying legitimacy, but it it’s the thought that counts and these establishments will be on my radar during my next pass through the region).

But, perhaps most important to this narrative, Russ had volunteered to be my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). We thus began a journey, from the porch to the concession stand.

027A closer look at that which is available.

056I requested that Russ get the “Muckdog Chow,” which is an iteration of the regional specialty that is the “Garbage Plate” (which originated in nearby Rochester). “Muckdog Chow” is, per the above menu, “served with macaroni salad, homefries and your choice of Red or White Hot or Cheeseburger or burger topped with Muckdog Sauce.” A “white hot” is another regional specialty, described on Wikipedia as a variation on the hot dog found in the Upstate New York area.[1] It is composed of some combination of uncured and unsmoked pork, beef, and veal; the lack of smoking or curing allows the meat to retain a naturally white color. 

A “red hot,” meanwhile, refers to the more standard-issue frankfurters to which we have become accustomed at ballparks. The Muckdogs’ offerings are courtesy of Zweigles, a New York-based company long recognized as one of the pre-eminent purveyors of the white hot. (One thing I learned on this road trip: upstate New York is a hotbed of hot dog production, and people are very particular about their brand preferences.)

For something with “Garbage Plate” aspirations, Muckdog Chow looked a fairly orderly food combination.

057Russ, clearly a man who lives life on the edge, decorated his dinner with impressionistic condiment flair.

061Have at it, Russ.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these. What you’ve got to do is cut the meat and mix it all up,” said Russ, who in preparation for his designated eating assignment, had passed on eating a chicken and broccoli dish that Kellie had made. “There are several different flavors all at once.”

Kellie was giving Russ a hard time, saying that the dinner she had prepared was “much better” than a Garbage Plate. She then took him to task for improper food posing technique.

063“See, Russ? This is how you do it.”

064As this was happening, there was a young boy on the field with a net. Just thought you’d like to know.

066Also, Russ made me aware that this, far from a ballpark deficiency, is the result of blistering Ryan Howard foul ball.

“We should get a plaque or something,” said Russ.

038As the Clearwater Threshers could tell you, the proper way to commemorate Ryan Howard-related foul ball damage is to have him sign it. WOB = Watch out, bro:

034And for my third and final non sequitur, I’d like to note that, along with the Muckdog Chow, I also ordered “Loaded Fries” topped with bacon and cheese.

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The above item is the sort that I struggle with at ballparks — the ingredients should be gluten-free, but I didn’t know for sure and, in fact, didn’t want to know. They looked good, so I ate some. I realize I should show more restraint, and often do, but celiac disease is a tough road to navigate sometimes and we’re all going to die anyway.

Designated eating complete, Russ and I walked over to the bleachers so that he could introduce me to Bill Kauffman. Kauffman, a writer of some renown, is vice president of the Muckdogs’ board of directors.

067On Kaufmann’s Wikipedia page, his politics are described as “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist.”[4] He has also described himself as an “Independent. A Jeffersonian. An anarchist. A (cheerful!) enemy of the state, a reactionary Friend of the Library, a peace-loving football fan.”

Such leanings could make for all sorts of interesting conversations, but given that I am a baseball writer at a baseball game we talked about baseball.

“We’re the Green Bay Packers of Minor League Baseball, this was passed down to us and we hope to pass it on to the next generation,” said Kauffman, who proudly noted that Batavia is the smallest American city with both a symphony orchestra and a professional baseball team. “This is the soul of baseball, you don’t pay money to park, there are no TV timeouts, and you’re not patted down on the way into the stadium.”

I’ll have a few more quotes from Kaufmann in my previously threatened upcoming MiLB.com piece, but, for now, let me just note that he wrote a book about Batavia called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. I’m gonna have to get a copy.

Speaking of Muckdogs, I believe that this autograph-signing canine was named Homer.

072

Behind Homer, you’ll can see the Wayne H. Fuller Pressbox (I find it weird that “pressbox” is just one word on the signage).

077I spent the eighth inning of the game talking to an autograph collector by the name of Ted Wasko, who was sitting in seats directly behind home plate. This is a great view, but as a believer in the curse of the Bambino my general preference when it comes to ballpark seating is “No, No, Nanette.”

079

Speaking of the net, there was much speculation regarding whether this wayward foul ball would ever be extracted from its precarious elevated location.

084Continuing on with this photo tour of obfuscated views, here’s a look at the Muckdogs bullpen. The reason I’m sharing this photo is to point out the row of bikes lined up against the clubhouse. Virtually all of these guys live with local families, and many of them ride their bikes to and from the stadium each day. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock n’ roll.

085

Bullpen, sans link:

088

Zooming in for a closer look.

087In the ninth inning, with the Muckdogs down by a score of 2-1, I went back to the porch to visit Russ. He was waving his trusty Muckdogs rally flag, as he is wont to do.

089

Russ was multi-tasking. In addition to waving his rally flag, he was also ringing his rally bell, drinking a beer and, between breaks in the action, using his hammer on non-compliant deck nails. All in a day’s work for an ardent supporter of a community-owned team.

093

Russ’s rally efforts were for naught, as the Muckdogs fell in defeat to the Scrappers. A fireworks show followed, and while this is by no means a good photo it does make it appear that the town of Batavia was annihilated by a nuclear bomb.

IMG_0173And that, as they say, was that. I said goodbye to Russ, walked to the parking lot, and soon commenced the drive to Rochester.  While en route to my rental vehicle, I noticed that the Scrappers’ charter bus company is called Precious Cargo. Aw, that’s adorable, Scrappers. You guys are precious. Do your Mommies ride the bus with you and tuck you in and sing you lullabies?

101I’m just playing, Mahoning Valley Scrappers. You know I love you. I just couldn’t resist making muck ado about nothing.

That’s it as regards blogging from Batavia, but stay tuned for much, much more from this final road trip and, while you’re waiting, go ahead and tell your friends to read this blog as it is the most underrated entity in all of sports media.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Where There’s a Quill There’s a Way

So, a proper article on all of this appeared on MiLB.com yesterday evening, but in the interest of redundancy and poor time management let me reiterate: the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre International League entity  formerly known as the Yankees (and, prior to that, the Red Barons) are now known as the RailRiders.

That image seen above is, of course, a porcupine straddling streetcar tracks. To explain why, let me quote liberally from an up-and-coming young writer by the name of Benjamin Hill:

The name-the-team contest was conducted online and fans were able to choose their top three candidates. While RailRiders received the most first-place votes, the name that appeared on the most ballots was Porcupines. That helps explain the team’s primary logo, designed by San Diego-based Brandiose, which features a porcupine straddling trolley tracks atop the word “RailRiders” in a stylized cardinal red and gold font.

The team announced the name at a gala open-to-public event that they dubbed “The Big Reveal.” And here’s how they revealed it:

As a staunch advocate for the increased deployment of Black Sabbath in public situations, I love that the team chose “Iron Man” as the soundtrack to their unveiling video. However, this comment on the RailRiders Facebook page showed that there was, in fact, a better option.

Why would you use ironman instead of crazy train for this promo?

Touche.

The RailRiders have since posted a plethora of “Big Reveal” photos on their Facebook page (which, as of this writing, still lists them as the Yankees). As you can see, the citizenry turned out in big numbers for the announcement:

Here’s SWB president Rob Crain (formerly of the Omaha Royals-turned-Storm Chasers) tossing t-shirts into the crowd after the announcement. When it comes to Minor League Baseball executives looking like hip-hop performers, this is about as close as you’re ever gonna get.

Of course, a lot of the online chatter regarding the new name has been negative. No opinion is illegitimate when it comes to personal taste, of course (unless it involves a continued affinity for so-called “Nu-metal”), but with team re-branding efforts it’s not so much a case of the name itself as it is how you use it. I’ve known Rob Crain since his days with Omaha, and he’s poised to bring an energetic and innovative operating style to a moribund and disconnected-seeming franchise that really needed an injection of personality. Combine that with the massive renovation to PNC Field taking place, and it seems apparent to me that the 2013 season will be one of the most successful in franchise history. More power to you, online commenters threatening to cancel their season ticket plans, but that to me is like breaking up with a beautiful and intelligent woman because you don’t like her new haircut.

As for RailRiders — if it’s good enough for Greg Legg it’s good enough for me! Legg, second from left in the below pic, is a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball legend who suited up for the Red Barons from 1989-94. I was a fan of his throughout, as during that time I regularly attended SWB Red Barons games while visiting my grandparents in nearby Gouldsboro.

If only Jeff Grotewold and Steve Scarsone could have been there to join him!

Legg and his crony on the far left there are sporting the team’s road cap, which references the team’s Red Barons past. It’s probably my personal favorite aspect of the re-brand.

Anyhow, to sum it up, there are a stew of competing forces at work whenever a team unveils a new look and regardless of your opinion, my opinion or anyone else’s opinion it will take several years before one can say whether RailRiders has been a success or failure. Instead of repeating myself more than I already have, I’ll close by referring you to a point-counterpoint I engaged in back in 2010 when the Omaha Royals became the “Storm Chasers.”

Rob Neyer (then with ESPN): the Storm Chasers have joined “the ranks of the embarrassing.”

Me: There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Rob Neyer never acknowledged this “debate,” and maybe he never even knew it was taking place (he was probably too busy counting his baseball writing-derived fortune in some Scrooge McDuck-like lair), but nonetheless the phrase “ranks of the embarrassing” has since become part of my everyday lexicon and for that I thank him.

And, jeez, I got so caught up in the RailRiders that I forgot to mention this: in celebration of their upcoming 20th anniversary season, the Hudson Valley Renegades have unveiled a new set of logos!

Pertinent details, per the team:

The new home uniforms will consist of a solid white jersey, with Dutchess blue piping and the new Renegades script logo across the chest. The uniform number will also be Dutchess blue, with a white outline both on the front and back of the jersey. The home uniform pants will be white with Dutchess blue piping down each pant leg. The home cap will feature the Renegades mask logo on a solid black cap. The mask logo will be embroidered on the cap adding a raised element to the overall appearance.

Careful, Hudson Valley: a glowering blue-tinted raccoon is watching your every move!

And, oh, hey: since I’m rambling on and on about logos and seem to have a NYPL fixation, here’s one more for you before I go. The 2013 New York-Penn League All-Star mark, courtesy of the Connecticut Tigers.

Okay, that anchor should keep me from drifting any further. I’m quitting while I’m still ahead, even if I don’t know what it is I feel that I might be still ahead of.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

(Not) On the Road: Beach Bums and No Buns in Brooklyn

Last Friday, just two days after visiting the quiet confines of Staten Island’s Richmond County Bank Ballpark, I once again hit the subway in order to visit a New York City-based Minor League Baseball team. In fact, let me recycle the same photo I used in the last post:

But whereas the route to Staten Island begins with the 1 train, the journey to Coney Island — home of the Brooklyn Cyclones — begins (and ends) with the F. The above is where it starts, and here, some 27 (!) stops later, is where it terminates.

Coney Island, baby! Smell that ocean breeze.

But you know what? 27 stops or not, Cyclones game or not, Coney Island is always worth the trip. Always. The neighborhood has had dramatic ups and downs through the years — and is currently in a state of flux — but its status as New York City’s summertime playground remains intact. As soon as one leaves the subway, you just feel it. This is Coney Island, and Coney Island is like no place else.

The mural below is courtesy of the controversial Thor Equities, who have initiated many development projects in the neighborhood. While it’s hard to argue with progress, to what extent will it obliterate Coney Island’s idiosyncratic charm?

One place that’s not going anywhere is the flagship location of Nathan’s Hot Dogs. 96 years as a neighborhood anchor and still going strong!

The not-so-charmingly named MCU Park is located just down the street on Surf Avenue. Along the way, one walks by this scrappy Nathan’s competitor. From an aesthetic standpoint, this might be my favorite storefront in all of NYC.

This a busy time of year for all involved, and my communication with the team in the week leading up this ballgame was minimal. So, as had also been the case with Staten Island, I decided to attend this game more or less as a civilian. I picked up my tickets at will call, and received my ego boost of the evening when, after looking at my ID, Cyclones account executive Josh Hernandez said “I read your blog!” (I spend way too much time by myself in front of a computer. That kind of thing goes a long way).

Around the corner is the main entrance and — hey — what do you know? There were two people I knew standing there. The woman in the grey skirt, looking at the camera, is my cousin Jane. And the gentleman in the basketball jersey walking toward her is her boyfriend Jesse (who, rumor has it, once won a “best biceps in Brooklyn” competition). Those two will make a more substantial appearance in the “narrative” in just a moment.

Our seats were behind home plate, and when we mistakenly sat in the wrong section a friendly but aggressive usher immediately moved us over. He was just doing his job, but it was annoying to be stuck in the middle of row, disrupting people on both sides, when there was room elsewhere.

“Do you know who I am?” I felt like saying. “I’m a guy who spends most of his waking hours alone and in front of a computer screen!”

But they were good seats.

Soon after sitting down, Jane spotted a squadron of pom-pom wielding young ladies atop the first base dugout and incredulously asked me “Baseball has cheerleaders?!”

Usually, that answer is an emphatic “no.” But, Brooklyn being Brooklyn, Brooklyn has the Beach Bums. Here they are performing between innings.

But we weren’t there just to watch baseball. Or Beach Bums. Upon hearing of my “designated eater” concept (in which others eat the ballpark food that I, with celiac disease, can not) Jane had expressed prodigious interest. Jesse was on board as well.

The Cyclones lean heavily on Nathan’s iconic appeal, as nearly all of the concession stands put the focus on hot dogs and crinkle-cut fries.

My gluten-free options were limited, but certainly not non-existent. But as I was placing my order, Jane and Jesse decided that this was not the concession stand for them. The hot dogs didn’t have toppings!

They re-located to this nearby stand, whose line was far more manageable anyway.

I bade my time by watching this fan enthusiastically join in on another Beach Bums dance routine.

It was a beautiful atmosphere all around.

Finally, Jane and Jesse were ready to go: Nathan’s Dog’s with all of the fixings, with baseball in Brooklyn as the backdrop. It doesn’t get any more American than that!

These two made exceedingly quick work of their delicious frankfurters. And looked beautiful doing it.

Now it was my turn. Celiac disease might have me down when it comes to ballpark food options, but I’m never out! At first I kept things close to the vest.

But soon it was time for the big reveal. I had ordered my first-ever hot dog, sans bun! (An email to Nathan’s HQ had confirmed that the dogs themselves are gluten-free.)

A hot dog by its lonesome is an admittedly pathetic sight, and you don’t get any sort of discount for ordering one without the bun (but it certainly wasn’t a problem, as the friendly woman at the counter simply asked one of her colleagues to pluck a fresh one right off of the grill). But, here’s the thing — it tasted really, really good. I felt like I was eating a premium piece of beef jerky — crispy, salty, and well-spiced.

Dignity? Never!

This led to a realization — the bun only gets in the way, and should one wish to be a true frankfurter connoisseur then it needs to be consumed in its naked state. Just as it would be pure folly to drink a fine single-malt scotch on the rocks, it is an unnecessary dilution of the gustatory experience to ensconce a lovingly crafted tubular meat product within a poorly defined lump of dough.

Am I on to something here, or are these merely the ravings of a poorly defined man ensconced in front of a keyboard? Please let me know!

After dinner, we decided to sit in some seats that allowed more room to move. We ensconced ourselves down the third base line, just in time to see a dance-off between Sandy the Seagull, a random fan, a Beach Bum, and on-field MC King Henry.

The fan won, of course, but it is King Henry that captured my attention.

The King has been a Cyclones staple since 2003, and on the team’s web site one learns that his real name is Guy Zoda and that he “has been a professional entertainer since 1989 specializing in family entertainment, business promotion and marketing.” He keeps things family-friendly, but nonetheless has an abrasive New York edge and always seems like he’s on the verge of going blue. (I could definitely envision King Henry as a cast member on Get A Life, hanging out with chain-smoking cop-turned-landlord Brian Doyle Murray, but that’s an obscure cultural reference for another day.)

The Cyclones do a great job of creating a colorful, anything goes environment (even though the pink gorilla I spotted on previous occasions was nowhere to be found). Here, mascot Sandy throws t-shirts off of the stadium’s second level.

Next up was the “Dime Big Deal” (not to be confused with the dime bag deal one can find outside on the boardwalk), in which a fan guesses which one of the four letters in “DIME” contains $500 in cash.

The fan was wrong.

And oh, wait, what? Pretty soon the game was over! How did that happen?

The Cyclones victory was followed by fireworks…

…which can be viewed both in and outside of the ballpark.

I soon bade farewell to the voracious hot dog eaters whose company  had I enjoyed, but not before taking a picture in a most apropos location.

I meanwhile, lingered around a bit longer. For this was an atmosphere worth recording: Coney Island at 9:30 on a Friday night in the heart of the summer. There’s nothing like it.

Sideshows by the Seashore, located on Surf Avenue and West 12th and run by the eminently worthwhile organization Coney Island USA, is an absolute must-see diversion.

Especially if this guy is working the door.

More sights!

Out of focus fireworks aftermath, taken with a fisheye lens effect. Photojournalism at its finest!

And, finally, there’s a reason that this team is called the Cyclones. Here it is, in all its neck-breaking glory.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

(Not) On the Road: A Quiet Evening of Leisure in Staten Island

As I mentioned in my recent post(s) on the Trenton Thunder experience, I’m going to make an effort for the remainder of the season to visit Minor League teams that are easily accessible from my New York City base of operations. And few teams, if any, are more accessible than the Staten Island Yankees. They’re just a ferry ride away!

So, this past Wednesday, I left the office a bit earlier than usual and made my way to Richmond County Bank Ballpark. From MLB Advanced Media’s Chelsea-based offices, this involves a ride on the 1 train from 14th street to the ferry terminal.

Len’s Papaya is a new addition to the terminal’s food and beverage choices. Amongst NYC’s wide array of papaya-referencing frankfurter purveyors, Len’s is pretty much a non-entity. But, still, I picked up a papaya drink for the ferry ride. I figured this could be a new tradition for me, as in the past I’d always bought a Budweiser at the ferry snack bar (beer is now off limits to me, due to the celiac disease).

Within 10 minutes I was on the Staten Island ferry, which doesn’t cost a thing! One of the reasons that I have always enjoyed SI Yanks games is because it provides an excuse to ride the ferry — a 1/2 hour excursion filled with wonderful aquatic vantage points. Even the though the weather was less than ideal (cloudy, with scattered rain showers earlier in the evening), I still enjoyed the scenery.

I always do.

Lady Liberty!

I wasn’t expecting a big crowd, due to the mediocre weather, but I was still caught off-guard as the ferry approached Staten Island. It was 7:30 and the game was underway after a 15-minute delay, but very few people were in the stands.

It was going to be a quiet night indeed! The ballpark is, more or less, next door to Staten Island’s St. George ferry terminal. While there are certainly a portion of fans who have driven (or walked) to the stadium, those who have taken the ferry come across this entrance first.

This outfield entrance is THE first impression ferry-riders have of the facility, and not once over six years of attending games here have I ever seen that ticket window open. I find this indicative of a larger issue: for whatever reason, the SI Yanks don’t do much marketing to the city at large (one of the biggest and most diverse media markets in the entire world!).

And call me naive, but I don’t think that this is a tough sell: a Yankees affiliate, easily accessible via an outright fun public transit journey, competing in a beautiful facility that offers a skyline view of the greatest city in the world! 2012 marks the first year in which the team is under the ownership of Nostalgic Partners LLC and in a press conference announcing this Nick Tiller, one of the group’s partners, said “We think a lot of people don’t know the team exists, and we hope to change that.” I sincerely hope that they do! To a large extent my job is to be an advocate for Minor League Baseball, and I would love to be able to champion the SI Yanks as they make strides toward realizing their immense potential.

Multiple requests, via the team, to speak to the new owners went unanswered. That will be a story to pursue for another day, but for now, what I have is merely this slice of SI Yanks life on a damp but otherwise pleasant Wednesday evening in early August. This is simply me, as a fan, trying to convey the experience. Take it for what it is…

The main entrance, like most main entrances, is located in front of home plate. It’s a bit of a hike.

For those looking for will call, the hike continues.

Finally, access was obtained. Poor weather and underwhelming crowd aside, this remains a beautiful place to see a game.

The visibility of the Manhattan skyline was compromised somewhat by the clouds, but nonetheless a case could be made that this is one of the most scenic ballpark environments in Minor League Baseball.

The team’s mascot is the Phil Rizzuto referencing “Scooter the Holy Cow.” He originally had a halo perched above that big old hat of his, but at some point through the years it fell off.

The SI Yanks have expanded their concession options this season, including a nacho stand and, yes, even a sushi bar. But on this low-attended evening these options weren’t available. The third base concessions stand was operating at full-steam, but beyond that the stadium was more or less in shutdown mode.

I soon went into shutdown mode as well, sitting behind the first base dugout with NYC-based Minor League travelers Rex and Coco Doane (last seen in Winston-Salem). And while I have been frustrated regarding the SI Yanks’ marketing and media relations techniques (or lack thereof) through the years, one area in which they have always excelled is in-game entertainment. The between-innings games and contests are well-organized and staged with professionalism, and helped redeem an otherwise sluggish evening (the time of game was an agonizing 3:45, plus it started 15 minutes late).

When the game script calls for you to dance on the dugout, then you dance on the dugout — even if it’s 11 o’clock on a misty Wednesday night.

The Auburn Doubledays were victorious, doubling up the hometown team by a score of 10-5.

And from there, there was nothing to do but catch the 11:30 ferry back into Manhattan — another appropriately late night in the city that never sleeps.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Pastry Pugilism and Dirt Dentistry in Lowell

Little-known fact: The Lowell Spinners were the subjects of my first-ever “On the Road” post. The year was 2009, when Barack Obama was president and the price of stamps had just been increased to 44 cents. While that might not be that long ago in the scheme of things there has nonetheless been quite a large amount of  professional and personal growth since then. Simply put — in 2009 I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And now? Now I have very little idea.

Here’s to growth!

But, in 2009, I did lead my Lowell dispatch with this photo. I still rather enjoy it.

I did not come across that formidable metallic bust of mascot Canaligator on my most recent visit to the Spinners’ LeLacheur Park, which occurred on July 2. But he remains well-represented in other inanimate forms:

That picture was taken three hours before game time, but already there was a hardy band of souls lined up outside of the stadium. Their objective was to ensure themselves acquisition of the evening’s giveaway — a Dom Dimaggio military bobblehead.

Photo credit: Zack Hample

Using my vast industry influence, I was able to procure one of the above items without waiting in line for it. (It has since been given away via my Twitter account. Follow @bensbiz.) Instead I took a lap around the stadium before heading inside, accompanied by Zack Hample and his girlfriend Robin. (As you may recall, this Massachusetts jaunt was motivated by Zack’s attempt to catch a ball dropped 1000 feet from a helicopter.)

It was a beautiful day for such a stroll, as LeLacheur Park is bordered by a pathway that offers pleasing vantage points of nearby woods, waterways, and re-purposed landmarks of an industrial past.

I soon left Zack and Robin to their own devices, and went into the park to conduct a couple of pre-game interviews (including first-round draft pick Deven Marrero and the iconic Spinners clubhouse manager known simply as “Dog Man”). The scene on the field, and in the dugout:

Things soon got pretty crowded in the dugouts, as a local youth team engaged in a Q&A and autograph session with a handful of Spinners players.

In search of open spaces in which to roam free, I bid adieu to this humanity-soaked subterranean lair. But not before snapping a pic of the aforementioned Dog Man. Here he is in conversation with some of his young clubhouse charges.

As soon as I left the dugout, I forgot about my supposed quest for wide open spaces (segue cynicism at its finest). Instead, I dropped off my belongs in the Spinners office and took a picture of one of the more original theme jerseys ever created. From 2006-08, the team dedicated one night a year to being the “Mike Lowell Spinners” in honor of the popular Boston third baseman.

(Meanwhile, I am still hoping for a Lynchburg Ben Hillcats promotion. Any day now, guys. Any day now.)

I then was able to snag an exclusive interview with the copy machine. I said I’d give him some good ink if he provided me with some local color, but he cut the conversation short because he didn’t like my toner. (Later we patched up our differences over a drink. He had a Jameson on Xerox).

Next stop was the Gator Pit, a buffet area that, prior to the start of the ballgame, is only open to season ticket holders, groups, and sycophantic media types looking for a free meal. My kind of place, in other words.

This was the first time I was at a ballpark since I had publicly come out with my (not-so) harrowing diagnosis of Celiac disease. So what to get? I settled on this tasty (but way too meat-heavy) meal of steak tips, ribs and corn on the cob.

The corn on the cob was, of course, gluten-free. No problem there. The steak tips (which were phenomenal) were also good to go, but the ribs were a bit more of a gray area. A Gator Pit employee brought out a bottle of the BBQ sauce, and while I didn’t see anything problematic in the ingredients (like, you know, wheat flour) I really can’t say for sure that they were celiac friendly.

All in all, this was a pretty half-hearted gluten-free meal attempt. But, like I said when I first wrote about the diagnosis — this is going to be a process. And, to tell you the truth, at the time I wasn’t really thinking about how I was going to justify this meal to a reading audience. I was just really hungry, and the game was about to start.

So get off my back, guys (inside my head)! I mean, jeez! Dude’s gotta eat.

But the game really was about to start, so let us slowly back away from this never-ending internal dialogue and instead check out the view from the press box.

Never mind that in the above picture the game is clearly NOT about to start. Gaps in the chronology can be attributed to celiac disease fever dreams. Those are a thing, right? No?

Well, anyway, the game really was about to start. Promise. One of the pre-game entertainment rituals involves mascot Canaligator chasing away his Yankee fan doppelganger, all while an oblivious photographer proves to be be hilariously unable to pick up the action (that guy must be a Yankees fan).

Get out of here, Yankee! On my own personal approval matrix, I consider you to be low-brow and despicable! Go back to your high-falutin big city and get in some stupid argument regarding the urban philosophies of Jane Jacobs versus those of Robert Moses. And give Ernie Anastos my regards while you’re at it!

The aforementioned Zack Hample threw out a ceremonial first pitch, and as an added bonus his name was misspelled on the videoboard.

But in the scheme of things, an ‘h’ where a ‘k’ should be is no big deal. Everybody makes mistahes from time to time. What really mattered at this juncture was that — yes! — the game was about to start! For real this time! Once action was underway, my first order of business was to descend into the bowels of the stadium and prepare for battle.

I had volunteered to suit up as the “Boxing Cream Donut” in the nightly “Mascot Mania Musical Chairs” competition.

Not gluten-free!

This competition, which should be self-explanatory, results in a kaleidoscopic jumble of costumed craziness.

And as is so often the case in life, the action gradually degenerated into unmitigated chaos. Mascot pile-up!

I’m not sure who won, or if anyone won. But the thrill of competition was coursing through my veins; I felt like a gladiator out there. I stayed on the field, daring anyone to come feel the wrath of the Boxing Cream Donut, until a kindly elderly usher handed me a cup of juice and escorted me off of the field.

After that experience, I was finding it hard to leave the bowels of the stadium. This is where the magic happens!

Fortunately I was once again given the opportunity to get into costume, emerging onto the field of play via the entrance down the left field line.

I was “Bristles,” the anthropomorphic toothbrush who cleans the bases while the grounds crew drags the infield behind him.

New OKCupid profile picture

But, strangely enough,  Bristles doesn’t use his titular bristles to clean the bases. Instead, he has a broom. Isn’t that kind of like equipping a dragon with a blowtorch?

Once Bristles’ time on the field was done, this young man demanded a picture. “My Dad is a dentist!” he kept yelling. “My Dad is a dentist!”

His Dad is a dentist!

After removing the Bristles’ costume (but retaining his essence), I wandered over to the Swampland kid’s area (located down the left field line).

One of the top new additions to the Swampland area is Dunk A Yankee, which is exactly what it’s name implies.

But nothing much was happening over there. The Yankee in question was pretty laid back, and hyperbolic anti-Puritan invective did not seem to be forthcoming. So I did what I always do in these situations.

Wander!

It was a beautiful night, after all.

An accurate representation of 21st-century political discourse:

But I could not resist the siren song of the stadium bowels for long. I returned one more time, to find a veritable cavalcade of front office and game day employees.

This time around, I was there to observe a game whose premise I liked quite a bit. A trio of young contestants had been told that they would be participating in a soda-chugging competition, but little did they know that the carbonated beverage in question had been shaken to the point where it would explode in their faces.

In theory at least. The end result was a bit confused and underwhelming, as was my attempt at documentation. But, again, the premise is great, and if there’s one thing I’ll always champion it’s a good premise. If you don’t agree with me on that one, then please leave the premises.

The game soon fizzled out as well, with the visiting Tri-Cities ValleyCats earning the win.

After the game, there were TWO supplementary entertainment options for young fans. Run the bases:

Or take a lap around the field in Thomas the Tank Engine:

I chose the latter option, and since the only other riders at this late juncture were Zack and Robin I was given the opportunity to drive it myself. What a thrill!

I wasn’t the only one driving vehicles around the field. Here’s general manager Tim Bawmann, decompressing with a little groundskeeping work after a long day.

And speaking of groundskeeping, my time at LeLacheur Park finally came to a close after Zack got done speaking with Spinners’ turf tender Jeff Paolino. He was expressing his apologies for any damage that may have been caused by balls landing on the field that had been dropped via helicopter.

Jeff seemed cool with it at this point.

And that is finally, mercifully, all that I have to report from Lowell. Maybe when I visit again in 2015 I’ll finally have some clue as to what it is I’m doing.

Here’s to growth!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Stop, Drop, and Lowell

I’m not really sure what constitutes a typical week these days, but regardless of the criteria this week was anything but typical. On Sunday afternoon, I embarked on a trip to Lowell, MA with Zack Hample, his girlfriend Robin and his friend Andrew. This jaunt was motivated by Zack’s world record attempt the next morning — his goal was to catch a ball dropped from a helicopter at a height of 1000 feet.

From left to right: Zack Hample, plastic bags of baseballs

I wrote 1800-some words on all of this over at MiLB.com, so if there is anything that you find lacking in this particular narrative then please, by all means, read the story. This blog post is supplementary content, and I do not wish to be redundant. But here’s the gist of it: Zack is the world’s greatest “ballhawk” (having “snagged” over 6000 baseballs at 50 Major League stadiums) and as such is a niche celebrity. He seems to attract fans and detractors in equal measure — the former are in awe of his unparalleled skill within his chosen area of expertise, the latter often characterize him as an obnoxious manchild in the throes of a seemingly endless adolescence.

I’m neither fan nor detractor. As I explain in the story:

I first met Zack in 2003, after answering his Craigslist ad in search of individuals to hit fungoes with in Central Park (strange but true). We were briefly co-workers at MiLB.com in the site’s inaugural 2005 season, and, in fact, it was Zack who first alerted me to a job opening there. So, in writing about this stunt, I am not an impartial member of the media. I am a friend of Zack’s, and in that capacity, played a small role in helping this stunt get put together.

This past offseason, Zack asked me for recommendations regarding which teams might be interested in hosting his record attempt, and the Lowell Spinners were the first that came to mind.

The night before, I stopped in Zack’s hotel room in order to rub some balls (go ahead, make some jokes, it’s all too easy). The folks at Lena Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud had donated a jar of their signature product, which is the same mud rubbed on all Major League Baseballs before they are put into play.

I even rubbed up a few myself:

The next morning started bright and early, as the stunt was scheduled for 7:30 in order to take advantage of optimal wind speeds.  We entered through a LeLacheur Park side entrance, just as the helicopter was landing on the field:

The first order of business was a safety and logistical briefing from stunt coordinator (and aviation professional) Mike Davison. He’s the guy in the dark blue shirt, very serious about his responsibilities.

After the briefing, the spectators (comprised of friends, family, Spinners interns and staff and local media) retreated to the dugout.

Zack, meanwhile, suited up in catcher’s gear donated by Rawlings. In this shot, his mother, Naomi, looks on with concern.

Into the great wide open…

The first drop was from 300 feet, with a softball (in order to set the softball drop world record, of course). The heights then increased incrementally throughout the morning, to 550 to 750 to, finally, 1000. At first visibility was a problem, but all involved soon settled into a groove.

Spinners groundskeeper Jeff Paolino was not a happy camper, as each missed ball created a new divot in his beloved ball field.

I got lucky with this shot –a ball dropped from an official height of 762 feet, just before it landed in Zack’s glove. This turned out to be the highwater mark of the morning.

Zack didn’t get many opportunities from 1000 feet, as the stunt was called off due to increasing winds. This was the closest he came:

In the past, similar world record attempts resulted in a litany of injuries: smashed teeth, broken limbs, etc. All Zack ended up with was a bruised middle finger. And in this shot, the bruise hadn’t even appeared it. All things considered, that’s a pretty clean escape.

Zack, just after the stunt, recounting just how close he’d come to a 1000 foot catch.

But soon enough Zack had to yield the floor to Spinners clubhouse manager (and New England baseball icon) “The Dog Man.” Once the Dog Man gets on a roll, there’s no stopping him.

I’ll have plenty more from the Dog Man — and the Spinners in general — next week. But, for now, that’s gonna do it. For far more context on the world record attempt click HERE. Otherwise, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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