Results tagged ‘ New York-Penn League ’

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. Number 25 is Chase McDowell, I believe. But who is #16? If you know then let me know.

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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 Chaplain, 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Bullpen, sans link:

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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.

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

A Bucket of Water from an Overflowing Well

To say I’m overwhelmed these days would be an understatement. I still have all kinds of supplemental material from my recent OKARMOTN road trip, and in addition to that I recently traveled to Lowell to document a world record attempt and attend a Spinners game. I hope to embark on another one-off trip next week, and I also need to finish planning a larger excursion in August. And, of course, there was the recent celiac disease blog post, which has gotten a ton of responses (via comments, Twitter, and email) that I have yet to address. (I appreciate them all, and will respond!)

And, what? It’s July already? I’ll write a new Crooked Numbers column as soon as I can, promise!

As usual, I’m talking almost entirely to myself. I’m tired of that guy, but he’s all I’ve got. But, for you, it’s time to go back to the roots with a quick blog bouillabaisse! So what, of note, has been going on around the Minors?

Too much! Here’s a tiny bit.

Last month, the Connecticut Tigers kicked off their season in the most literal way possible. To the photograph!

Photo credit: Kevin Pataky/MLB Advanced Media

This was a “ceremonial first kick,” one that reportedly fell atop the plate for a perfect strike. Tigers director of community relations Dave Schermerhorn explains:

This is Dave Teggart, who was a four year stud kicker at UConn (School all-time leader in points, field goals in a career, and field goals in a season). He was then one of our interns during the 2011 season.

Recently, he attended Rookie Mini Camp for the Bears and was signed to a contract to attend training camp with the team.

So what do you know? The New York-Penn League had not one but TWO collegiate gridiron stars turned interns last season. The other was Penn State receiver Derek Moye, who I have already written about HERE.

Moye in action:

You also may be wondering why there was a submarine looming behind Teggart in the first kick photograph. Again, I’ll defer to Schermerhorn (who shares his surname with one-half of a widely-used Brooklyn subway stop):

General Dynamics Electric Boat is just about 20 min away and one of our largest sponsors. [S]taff members ride in the sub pregame to throw t-shirts to the crowd. We have a large military presence in the area with the Coast Guard Academy and U.S. submarine base within the same radius.

It is for these reasons that Connecticut’s previous Minor League franchise was known as the “Defenders,” and, prior to that, the Norwich Navigators.

Why am I always going off on tangents? One of these days I’m going to segue from “tangents” into something involving “tan gents,” but that day is not today. Instead, I’ll share a video from the Lake County Captains’ “Cleveland Sports History” promotion, which was held in June.

One of the Cleveland moments celebrated was Armando Galarraga’s 2011 perfect game that wasn’t (the Indians were the opponent in that contest). It’s not the best video quality, but hats off to the Captains for having the courage and creativity to consistently create crazy conceptual promos:

And, hey, If I’m posting YouTube videos then there’s no way this can be ignored! Ricky from Bordentown wipes out not once, but twice, during a most unique between-inning contest in Trenton.

On your mark! Get set! Change that diaper!

Classic. And I’ve got PLENTY more where that came from.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Groundbreaking News, Familiar Terrain

It’s nearly impossible to comprehend, but I am writing this on a Friday and you are reading on a Monday. Whatever sundry delights the weekend had to offer have since passed, including that inimitable annual Sunday delight that is the Super Bowl.

Thus, the consequences of the following bet are now known to the world:

As the lone Massachusetts-based entity in the New-York Penn League (go figure), the Spinners have made the following wager with no less than seven teams:

The bet, vastly superior to the minute wagers made by city mayors, would find each team’s most beloved figure donning enemy colors for a home stand: each team’s mascot would wear the opposing team’s jersey during a homestand.

Now those are some high stakes! I imagine that some mascots would commit hari-kari before succumbing to such an indignity, but that’s just idle seppuku-lation on my part.

After writing that last line, it took a long time for the applause in my head to die down. Now that it has, let’s look at another team that found a way to commemorate the Super Bowl: the Fresno Grizzlies.

But nothing can top the Super Bowl efforts made by host city denizens the Indianapolis Indians, whose Victory Field environs were totally transformed:

Read all about it on MiLB.com, a website that employs me to write such things.

Another MiLB.com dispatch of note (note: they’re all of note) emanates from Birmingham, as the Barons have broken ground on their new ballpark.

Rendering!

But that’s not the only big Southern League ballpark news. Pensacola has a new ballpark opening in April — it will house the Blue Wahoos, of course — and this facility has now turned on the lights. Here’s the view:

Meanwhile, in Altoona, the Curve are relying on a different sort of energy. This week the team announced that, as the result of a new naming rights deal, Blair County Ballpark will be known as “Peoples Natural Gas Stadium.”

This news sent Twitter all a-twitter (or at least my Twitter feed), with flatulence jokes a-plenty. But, lest we forget, the Lake Elsinore Storm have already staged the preeminent natural gas-related promotion.

And, finally — who wants to see a new logo? Anybody? Okay, at least that one guy over there does.

So here you go: at last week’s hot stove dinner, the Hickory Crawdads unveiled this anniversary mark.

Guess that’ll do in a pinch.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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