Results tagged ‘ New York-Penn League ’

About Last Night: Lowell Spinners, August 31, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my presumed return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

2015 “On the Road” landing page — including complete itinerary — HERE! 

August 31, 2015:  LeLacheur Park, home of the Lowell Spinners (Class A Short-Season affiliate of the Boston Red Sox).

Opponent: Hudson Valley Renegades, game time 7:05

LeLacheur Park, from the outside: 

IMG_0416LeLacheur Park, from within: 

IMG_0328Culinary Creation: Rail good food: pizza, fries and a steak and cheese sub.

IMG_0450Ballpark Character: The one and only Dogman.

IMG_0464At Random: Happy birthday to Spinners general manager Tim Bawmann, who turned 50 on Monday. Here, as part of a pre-game ritual, he hugs his son Elijah. IMG_0420Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: One day, all of America will recognize my genius.

Next Up: 

9/1: Pawtucket Red Sox

9/2: New Hampshire Fisher Cats

9/4: Portland Sea Dogs

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Connecticut Tigers, August 29, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

2015 “On the Road” landing page — including complete itinerary — HERE! 

August 29, 2015:  Dodd Stadium, home of the Connecticut Tigers

Opponent: Lowell Spinners, 7:05 p.m. game time

Dodd Stadium, from the outside:

008Dodd Stadium, from within: 

022Culinary Creation: The $11 Broad Street Bully Cheesesteak, from Philly’s cheesesteak stand — “Extra ribeye steak, provolone, fried onions, mushrooms, sweet and hot peppers, pickles, Cheese Whiz.”

052Ballpark Character — A pregame visit with Jean Stott, proprietor of”Stott’s At-Bat” restaurant (and batting cages). Located just down the road from the ballpark, “Stott’s At-Bat” is a favorite spot for players, coaches and staff alike.

003 At Random: Before the game started, I got to throw T-shirts out of this submarine.

IMG_0292Your groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the day: Long night, long season

Next Up: 

8/30: New Britain Rock Cats

8/31: Lowell Spinners

9/1: Pawtucket Red Sox

9/2: New Hampshire Fisher Cats

9/4: Portland Sea Dogs

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Great Idea, Dire Consequences

I’ve got plenty more “On the Road” content to share over the coming weeks, but today I wanted to take a brief break from all of that and head to the Staten Island Yankees’ home of Richmond County Bank Ballpark. On Saturday, the team staged “Game of Thrones Night” and Robert Pimpsner of Pinstriped Prospects was kind enough to send along a plethora of photos from the evening.

A member of the Staten Island Direwolves Pinstripe Patrol sits in the baseball throne on the concourse of the Richmond County Bank Ballpark prior to the opening of the gates. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

A member of the Staten Island Direwolves Pinstripe Patrol sits in the baseball throne on the concourse of the Richmond County Bank Ballpark prior to the opening of the gates. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Game of Thrones Night” turned out to be the most successful promotion in the history of the franchise, drawing a record crowd of  7.529 to the ballpark. The team, often referred to as the “Baby Bombers”, instead suited up as the “Direwolves”. And the creator himself, George R.R. Martin, was on hand as a special guest.

Martin is, yes, a Mets fan, but this didn’t stop him from visiting the home of the Yankees’ Class A Advanced Short Season affiliate: 

georgeI’ve never seen Game of Thrones, so forgive me that this post won’t be peppered with clever references to the show. It will be peppered with lots of photos, however, because on the internet photos > words. And Pimpsner more than picks up the slack with his photo captions.

The evening began with one of the most generous fan giveaways I’ve ever seen, as the first 2500 fans through the gates received Direwolves hats as well as copies of of the original Game of Thrones book and Martin’s 1982 novel Fevre Dream. 

Piles of hats and books wait fans before gates open at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Piles of hats and books wait fans before gates open at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Martin addressed the crowd before the game:

Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin reminds fans that if the Direwolves lose he will have to kill off a Stark. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin reminds fans that if the Direwolves lose he will have to kill off a Stark. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Before the game the SI Yanks Direwolves made a donation to the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a charity chosen by Martin.

Staten Island Direwolves President and General Manager Jane Rogers presents a $10,000 check to the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary as George RR Martin addresses the crowd (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Staten Island Direwolves President and General Manager Jane Rogers presents a $10,000 check to the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary as George RR Martin addresses the crowd (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Representatives from the sanctuary brought along Flurry, an “ambassador wolf” who, yes, peed on the field!

Flurry, an artic wolf from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, relieves himself on the field prior to the ninth inning. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Flurry, an artic wolf from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, relieves himself on the field prior to the ninth inning. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Martin also spent an hour signing autographs, which resulted in predictably long concourse lines.

Thousands of Direwolves and Game of Thrones fans line up for a chance to get George RR Martin's autograph prior to the game (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Thousands of Direwolves and Game of Thrones fans line up for a chance to get George RR Martin’s autograph prior to the game (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

The Direwolves line up for the National Anthem:

A Richmond County Bank Ballpark record crowd of 7,529 fans filled the ballpark to see George RR Martin and the Direwolves do battle with House Lannister on the field. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

A Richmond County Bank Ballpark record crowd of 7,529 fans filled the ballpark to see George RR Martin and the Direwolves do battle with House Lannister on the field. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Here, Direwolf Brandon Wagner circles the bases after a home run.

Staten Island Direwolves designated hitter Brandon Wagner rounds the bases as Hector Montes of House Lannister watches at third base. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Staten Island Direwolves designated hitter Brandon Wagner rounds the bases as Hector Montes of House Lannister watches at third base. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

It was that kind of night for the Direwolves, who defeated House Lanister (the Hudson Valley Renegades) by a score of 10-1.

Winning_Graphic_0zvc6i2v_hmev53jsClearly, a good time was all.

Two young fans duel at second base in the middle of  a Game of Thrones themed costume race around the bases. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Two young fans duel at second base in the middle of a Game of Thrones themed costume race around the bases. (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Everyone, that is, with the possible exception of Yankees special assistant to the general manager Hideki Matsui. He has no time for your theme night shenanigans.

New York Yankees legend Hideki Matsui watches the game from the Direwolves dugout (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

New York Yankees legend Hideki Matsui watches the game from the Direwolves dugout (Robert M Pimpsner/Pinstriped Prospects)

Okay, that’s all I’ve GOT.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Taking a Peek at the Valleys in West Virginia

To see all posts from my June 30, 2015 visit to the West Virginia Black Bears (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my June 2015 trip through the Virginias, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

The reason that I dubbed this road trip “Virginias 2015” —  as opposed to “Virginia 2015 — was because it did indeed contain multiple Virginias. But the singular did not become multiple until the very last day of the trip, when I crossed the state line from Virginia into Maryland and then into the other Virginia.

West Virginia.

This was a scenic journey, full of steep hills and Maryland woodland and convenience stores that sell beet eggs (marking the first time I’d had a beet egg since visiting the Hagerstown Suns back in 2011). IMG_1548But I’m not here to write about beet eggs. I’m done with that, it’s ovum. I’m here to write about the West Virginia Black Bears, the newest entrant into the increasingly inaccurately named New York-Penn League. Actually, I already have written about the Black Bears, over on MiLB.com, and I’m going to borrow from that article a few times in this blog post. Starting now:

Over the last two decades, the New York-Penn League has expanded far beyond the two states in its name. The Class A Short Season circuit currently has franchises in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and, as of last month, West Virginia.

The NYPL’s first Mountain State entrant, which relocated from Jamestown, New York, has dubbed itself the West Virginia Black Bears. Specifically, the Black Bears represent the north-central metropolis of Morgantown and the surrounding community. Monongalia County Stadium, the team’s brand-new facility, is shared with West Virginia University’s Big 12 baseball program. The Black Bears, a Pirates affiliate, played their first game there on June 19.

The stadium is located on “Gyorko Drive,” named after local-baseball-hero-turned-San Diego Padre-Jedd Gyorko. “Gyorko Drive” isn’t on any maps yet and will probably not appear in your GPS device of choice. Your best bet is to set your coordinates for the Wal-Mart on University Town Centre Drive (in Granville, not Morgantown) and then just keep on driving right past the Wal-Mart (as it is always best to do). Eventually, you’ll make it to Monongalia County Stadium.

This was my first view of the stadium. Many superior views were to follow, but you never forget your first.

002Meanwhile, in the other direction, there was this vast expanse:

001Again, from my MiLB.com story:

Monongalia County Ballpark is located not in Morgantown but to the northwest in the comparatively miniscule town of Granville (pop. 2,508). The area in which the ballpark is located used to be coal mining country. It is currently surrounded by, well, not much.

Change is imminent. Granville’s University Town Centre — a sprawling assemblage of chain stores, restaurants and hotels — is located en route to the ballpark, and similar development is planned in the area surrounding the park. Black Bears assistant general manager John Pogorzelski said that there will soon be a new Route 79 off-ramp close to the stadium to accommodate the traffic generated by the new hotels, stores and, of course, baseball fans.

Pogorzelski and Black Bears general manager Matt Drayer both relocated with the franchise from Jamestown, New York, where they held the same positions with the Jammers. To say that West Virginia and Jamestown are two entirely different baseball atmospheres would be an understatement. It would also be correct. Here’s a picture of the Jammers’ home of Russell E. Diethrick Park, from when I visited late last August:
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Pogorzelski — whom I will henceforth call “John” — gave me a tour of the facility. We began by entering the external structure located beyond right field (to the left of Gate C). The smell of paint permeated the area, resulting in a visceral reminder that this ballpark is still very, very new. Here’s the home clubhouse, which is pretty small for a new stadium. Nonetheless, when we walked by, there was some ping pong-table acquisition chatter going on inside. There’s always room for ping-pong.

006The vast majority of the ballpark’s Black Bear population was out on the field, vigorously exercising thigh muscle.
007As you may have inferred from the above photo (but probably didn’t) the entire field (save for the clay pitcher’s mound) is artificial turf.

008The berm area is real grass, but the berm area (on both sides of the ballpark) is not yet open to fans because the hills are so steep. This is a very Hill-y ballpark, even on days in which I am not there.

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The Black Bears might compete on artificial turf, but they nonetheless have (and need) a groundskeeper. His name is Craig McIntosh.

011I wrote a short MiLB.com article about Craig and how he does his job, which can be found HERE. It is the first story that I have ever written that includes the term “mound fetish.” Craig also talked about how a big part of his job his job involves picking debris off of the artificial turf. Hence, rules:

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Monongalia County Ballpark has only 2500 fixed seats. There are no arm rests, at least for now, with John explaining that the initial choice was between arm rests and cup holders.

“We figured that people would need a place to hold their beer,” he said.

014We then walked up the stairs to the press box and suite level, which provides the best example of what is this ballpark’s best feature: The View.

IMG_1549Once again, I’m going to dip my blogging ladle into the supple pre-existing MiLB.com article well.

The unique topography of Monongalia County Ballpark makes for a somewhat awkward layout, but any minor inconveniences are made up for — and then some — by what is one of the best views in Minor League Baseball.

The ballpark faces to the southeast. That’s downtown Morgantown beyond left field (in both foul and fair territory), which gives way to the smaller town of Westover and, most prominently, the natural beauty which lays beyond the winding Monongahela River (not visible from the ballpark). There’s a reason that WVU’s sports teams are called “Mountaineers,” and, of course, within those mountains one can find black bears.  

There’s a lot of room in the press box — especially by New York-Penn League standards — and this is because the ballpark needs to accommodate the oft-larger WVU Big 12 baseball media contingent. (There are three radio booths — home, visitor and student — though the student booth isn’t used during Black Bears games.)

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021There are three suites, one of them being this 50-person group area.

022Behind the ballpark, on the first base side, is a WVU-affiliated medical facility. I guess, if you really wanted to, you could watch the game from here for free. You could also take a terrifying tumble into the abyss, if you’re not careful.

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At the time that I visited, the Black Bears front office had not yet moved into what will be their office. Like the player locker rooms, I was surprised at the relative smallness of the offices. Generally, new ballparks are more expansive.

033Nice view from this executive suite, however:

032As we got closer to the start of the game, fans started gathering outside the main gate.

037Most stadium main entrances are not located in the left field corner, as this one is. Take it away, MiLB.com story:

The home plate side of Monogalia County Ballpark is built up against a hill, and as such there is no home plate entry into the ballpark. This leads to a unique feature in that the main entrance, Gate A, is located in left-center field. Fans entering through the gate then embark on (what should be) a leisurely walk down the third base concourse to the seating area behind home plate.

038The evening’s ballgame, featuring the Black Bears taking on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, was not destined to start on time. The skies were threatening. Look closely and you can see that the tarp was on the field. (It’s better to have a mound fetish than the mound wettish.)

IMG_1552Another ballpark, another rain delay. Thus is life on the road.

Speaking of “life on the road,” I am writing this post from an undisclosed location in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Yep – a new road trip has already begun, and here I am still writing about the last one. Stay tuned for more from West Virginia, as well as what is sure to be a whole heck of a lot from this late July/early August jaunt through the Deep South.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: West Virginia Black Bears, June 30, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

June 30, 2015: Monongalia County Ballpark, home of the West Virginia Black Bears (Class A Short-Season Affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates) 

Opponent: Hudson Valley Renegades, 8:25 p.m. start time (game delayed 80 minutes due to rain)

Monongalia County Ballpark, from the outside: 

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Monongalia County Ballpark, from within:

023Culinary Creation: Loaded Pepperoni Roll

041At Random: If you really wanted to, you could watch the ballgame from here.

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Ballpark Characters: Pepperoni Roll racers Hot Pepper Hank, Double-Stuffed Dave and Pepperoni and Cheese Patty

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Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: My apologies

And that’ll do it for this trip. Next up is a one-off visit to the Vermont Lake Monsters on July 11th. And then, this:

July 28: New Orleans Zephyrs

July 29, 30: Biloxi Shuckers

July 31: Mobile BayBears

August 1: Montgomery Biscuits

August 2: Mississippi Braves 

August 3: Jackson Generals

August 4: Off (drive to Nashville, recuperate physically, emotionally and spirtually)

August 5: Nashville Sounds

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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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…

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(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.

023

On the flip side:

044

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.

028

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.

035

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.

047

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.

042

052

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.

069

068

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.

074

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!

029

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.

031

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.

035

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.

IMG_0161

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.

050

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.

058

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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