Results tagged ‘ Northwest League ’

On the Road: Frankfurter Follies, Culinary Concoctions and Garbage Gremlins in Everett

Yesterday’s “ribbeting” narrative from Everett ended where such Biz Blog narratives often do: with the evening’s ballgame having just begun. I spent the first couple of innings with the AquaSox “Frog Squad” game day promo crew, overseen by director of community relations Katie Crawford and fronted on the field by the esteemed Mr. Schuyler Muller.

Encore presentation

Upon the conclusion of the top of the second inning, I was among those assigned to toss t-shirts to the crowd. My area of operation was directly behind home plate, which requires innovative wind-up techniques in order to insure that the shirt makes it over the net.

A far more memorable endeavor occurred one inning later, when I suited up as “Frank” in the nightly “Waddle Race.” This is the continuation of new ballpark tradition for me — dressing up as a food product that I can no longer eat due to my recent celiac disease diagnosis. 

I become that which I cannot consume!

Frank has been a staple of the Everett Memorial Stadium experience for years, but apparently his appearances have become increasingly rare. While waiting to appear on the field, I learned that Frank was, truly, a processed meat product in demand. I signed several autographs for enthusiastic fans, feeling the whole time as if I was failing them because my “signature” was terrible. It is very hard to use a Sharpie when it is gripped through ill-fitting slippery red gloves!

One woman, in particular, was a rabid Frank fan. As soon as she spotted him she ran over, offered a big hug, and then had me sign two balls, a hat and a stuffed Frank doll. Clearly, this was a moment she had been waiting for. (And, clearly, I am currently confused as to whether I am writing in the first or third person).

As for the “Waddle Race” — I’d definitely never seen the likes of this before. It was a relay race, featuring two teams of two, in which participants had to run while gripping a baseball between their legs. If the ball was dropped along the way, the contestant had to spin around twice before proceeding. Frank was assigned the second leg of the race, alongside a competitive Dad with a prominent calf tattoo.

When Frank received the ball from his teammate, he had a healthy lead over the opposition. The hand-off:

But keeping a baseball between such slippery uniform fabric was hard work, and Frank’s progress toward the finish line was slow.

———-

Okay — pause! Do you remember when I was at a Jackson Generals game earlier this season, and participated in a Fruit Race? My camera mysteriously stopped working during the race, with this damaged photograph followed by a series of “file not found” blank images.

At the time, I offered the following theory to why this had occurred:

My camera loves me…and was probably dismayed to see me demeaning myself at a Minor League ballpark yet again. Its malfunction was a protest of sorts, motivated by a desire to only document me at my best.

I am now convinced that this theory is true, as this damaged “Waddle Race” photo was followed by another series of “file not found” images. Unpause!

———-

So, what happened the rest of the way is that Tattooed Dad overcame Frank’s lead and coasted to victory. In my opinion, this was because Tattooed Dad was wearing shorts. It is much easier to sandwich a baseball between bare skin than it is to do so with polyester pants. Please trust me on this!

But, anyway, my camera malfunction continued throughout the following between-inning contest. Muller the MC, who was already in his golf clothes, donned a green jacket and narrated the “Three Stroke Golf Challenge” in suitably hushed tones. It went off really well, and the success of the “Three  Stroke Golf Challenge” was par for the course for the AquaSox. They have a creative slate of between-inning contests, and aren’t afraid to take risks. If you work for a team and feel that your operation might be getting a little stale in that department, then I’d suggest stealing some of their ideas.

Around the fifth inning or so I joined up with fourth-year employee Alex Baker, now a Frog Squad member and marketing intern, and the two of us went on a daring journey behind the outfield wall.

This mysterious area led to a mysterious alcove.

I was briefly tempted to plunge the entire ballpark into darkness…

But, instead, I just kept on walking until we reached our final destination: a lair!

And not just any lair, but the lair of the manual scoreboard operator. A grounds crew employee named Steven Cook resided therein, dropping numbered slats of wood into their appropriate holes.

The view:

Somewhere along the line, this list of rehabbing Seattle Mariner players morphed into a list of AquaSox scoreboard operators. What’s the difference, really?

I enjoyed my time in this lair, as I enjoy my time in all lairs. But there was more to see, and more to do. Back amongst the public, I snapped this shot of what the scoreboard looks like from the stands.

A brief stop back in the promo pit proved that all was copacetic; a typical scene consisting of dice-sitting employees in plastic hats with a cross-legged amphibian adjacent.

So Baker and I continued to our next destination — the “Frank’s Loaded Dogs” concession stand.

While I could not consume Frank in his full form, I did order a “Webbly’s AquaDog” sans bun.

Very tasty, yes, but in this anecdote I am a peripheral character. Upon meeting Baker earlier in the evening, he had earnestly inquired whether or not I had found a “designated eater” (i.e. one who is ready and willing to “take a gluten-filled bullet” on my behalf).

I replied that “No, I had not” and he quickly assured me that he would be up to the task. And, boy, was he ever. Baker chose the “Build Your Own” option, and after a bit of trial and error he concocted the following: Hebrew National frankfurter with mac and cheese, bacon, pulled pork, onions, jalapenos, cheddar cheese and bbq sauce (and probably more, there was only so much room in my notebook). I have multiple pictures of him posing with it, because he kept adding things to it.

But, throughout, the smile remained consistent.

The final product, which Baker dubbed the “Ultra-Dog.” It was, truly, a work of art.

We retreated to the picnic area down the first base line. Members of the Yakima bullpen were completely oblivious to the culinary history that was taking place just behind them.

I daintily approached my dinner.

While Baker’s approach was anything but dainty. I mean, he just devoured that thing.

Baker’s take on the “Ultra-Dog”: “Delicious! The flavors balanced each other perfectly — it was spicy, savory, and had a little tang from the onions. And then the hot dog brought it all together, serving as the backbone, if you will.”

Transcendence achieved.

At this point it was the seventh inning, and I was struck by a crazy idea — how about sitting down and watching the baseball game?

The fans engaged in an enthusiastic rendition of the seventh-inning stretch, which warmed my heart.

But, of course, I almost immediately forgot about my plan to just watch the game. In the eighth inning, it was time for “Garbage Gremlins.” I had never seen such a thing! Anyone who desired was invited to grab a (sponsored!) yellow trash bag, in order to collect garbage from the stands. All who did so received “AquaDollars” that could be redeemed at the ballpark, with the individual collecting the most trash receiving bonus AquaDollars (I forget just how many AquaDollars were at stake, so let’s just say “$850,000”).

Garbage Gremlins in action! Refuse to lose, there’s refuse to gain!

But this was no garbage time ballgame, and the hometown team emerged triumphant.

Frank approved the outcome.

You’d think that at this point it was time to call it a night, except no, it’s never time to call it a night when on these trips. Acting on a tip I had received earlier, I proceeded past out-of-uniform AquaSox autograph signers in search of a significant historical marker.

In the dark Everett night, it took me a while to find what I was looking for.

But, finally — success!

That square plaque on the bottom right commemorates the approximate landing spot of Ken Griffey Jr.’s first professional hit. I’ll let the plaque do the explaining (cigarette butt included to provide a sense of scale).

A unique bit of baseball history, and the icing on the cake to one of the most enjoyable and diverse “on the road” experiences that I have ever had. These days, I am constantly asked “You travel a lot. What are your favorite ballparks to visit?” Well, Everett Memorial Stadium is way up there, ranking with other 2012 favorites such as the Daytona Cubs and Arkansas Travelers. Great ballpark, great staff, great logo, great food — I’d highly recommend visiting should you ever get the chance to do so.

But, c’mon guys, you need to invest in at least one more letter “a.” An upside-down “u” doesn’t quite cut it…

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Seeing the Frogs, Live in Everett

The 2012 Minor League regular season may have reached its conclusion within that subjective sliver of reality known as “the present, ” but here on the Biz Blog it’s still going strong! This post documents the penultimate stop of my Pacific Northwest road trip, when I navigated my rental car into an objective sliver of reality outside of Everett Memorial Stadium in order to enjoy an evening with the AquaSox.

This facility, owned by the local school district, is one of the most unique that I have ever visited. It’s shoehorned in next to the school district’s fairly massive athletic arena, and idiosyncrasies abound. In some areas of their operation the team has very little room to maneuver, in others the reverse is true. You’ll see what I mean once I get to the pictures — that’s why you’re all here, right? To see pictures? Words are immaterial; my reason to exist is to indulge this mania for the image.

Here’s Everett Memorial from behind, close to where I parked my rented vehicle.

From there, one follows the curved pathway seen above into a rather charming stadium entrance way. (And given that the AquaSox have a frog for a logo, the sign seen below should read “Regulations pro’ribbit’ food or beverage from being transported into park.”)

As is almost always the case, my first order of business was to conduct some player interviews. To do this, I hooked a right and ascended a steep pathway to the players’ secluded clubhouse castle.

Once I made it to the top (no oxygen tank for me!), there were two competing vantage points. Actually, strike that, everything should be in harmony: there were two complementary vantage points. To the left, one can see Everett Memorial Stadium peeking out from beyond the track that encircles the high school athletic field.

To the right are the stands from which teenage gladiatorial combat can often be viewed. In the absence of such spectacle, AquaSox players use this as an area of respite. Perfect for private phone calls:

For several years the team has filmed an informative, loose, and always funny video series entitled “Meet the AquaSox.” They are very well done, and provide a template for other teams to follow. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised that the interviews I conducted were imbued with a similarly fun spirit. These guys know the drill. (More on these interviews, and links to all of them, can be viewed HERE.)

The standout interview was one that I conducted with Dominic “The Godfather” Leone and Blake “Flacco” Hauser. They are members of the “Nasty Boys” bullpen crew, and toward the end of the interview they were joined by several of their relief corps comrades. (Right before I took this shot, they had re-iterated amongst themselves that a strict “no smile” policy was in effect.)

But as soon as I took the shot, it was observed that fellow “Nasty Boy” Oliver “Boca” Garcia was in the immediate vicinity. His teammates yelled to him that his presence was desired, so he high-tailed it over from the stands.

Garcia (whose nickname of “Boca” means “mouth” as in “he has a big mouth, literally”) didn’t smile either.

Interviews complete, it was now time to enter the stadium proper. This view right here, this is more or less the inverse of the first photo in this post.

Grandstanding:

The promotion team’s base of operation is located down the third base line. There, one found the tools of the trade stacked up and ready to go.

Further promo props could be found in a stadium storage room, including three strollers that are sometimes used for a between-inning Baby Race. The AquaSox got the idea to do a Baby Race after seeing the Trenton Thunder’s version featured on this blog — I am very proud to be playing a role in the spread of Baby Races across the land!

I had remarked earlier that, in some ways, the AquaSox have a lot of room to move. The following array of pictures should illustrate what I mean — the team’s concourse area is adjacent to another high school athletic field, giving fans plenty of opportunity to spread out should they desire to do so.

I’ll revisit the concessions a bit later on in the narrative, but please let it be known that there are a wide variety of options.

Including, yes, a Chowder Bowl combo.

The AquaSox are limited in their alcohol distribution methods due to their school district overseers. This, right here, is the only place in which it can be found.

The doubly-alliterative “Coca-Cola Picnic Pavilion” doubles as the AquaSox batting cage, leading to the occasional day game conflict between early-arriving picnic-ers and players trying to get some extra work in.

The view from this multi-use pavilion is a vast expanse of greenery.

But there were no player-fan scheduling conflicts on the Wednesday evening in which I was in attendance. These two distinct ballpark species were intermingling as I made my way over to the outfield berm.

The young fans seen below weren’t interested in displaying suite emotions, so they walked this way to a bermanent vacation. (And, next time they go to a Mariners game, they’ll be back in Seattle again).

The G.H. placard is in honor of slain Mariners outfielder Greg Halman, who began his professional career in Everett. (My feature on Halman, written shortly after his death, includes quotes from AquaSox announcer Pat Dillon).

The view from the berm, shortly after the gates had opened.

Back on the concourse, I ran into Everett Memorial Stadium’s most famous denizen: Webbly! Truly, he is one of my favorite costumed characters, just a toadally cool dude.

At this point I had a choice between going on to the playing field or visiting the press box. I chose the ladder option, and boy was it steep!

This ladder leads to the roof, where a game-day employee dutifully records the game. It offers a very nice view.

In the off-chance that you ever view a game from this location, be aware that foul balls rocket up here with a startling velocity.

Battle scars:

After taking in a few more vantage points, I began my descent…

first to the press box…

and — finally! — the field.

Copious signage around the ballpark is a fact of Minor League life, as it accounts for a sizable revenue stream. Sometimes said signage is a garish mish-mash of images, but in the case of the AquaSox it is an aesthetic triumph that enhances an already appealing ballpark environment.

On the field, good ol’ number eight was dutifully signing autographs.

But most uniformed personnel were socializing with individuals representing a local branch of the Special Olympics.

Representatives from the Special Olympics spent much of the evening engaged in an awareness campaign. Their mission was to “Spread the word to end the word.”

I joined the cause, and wore this bracelet around my weak-limbed blogger’s wrist.

The word that the Special Olympics are seeking to curb the use of is “retard,” which, as I’m sure you know, is freely tossed around as an insult. Being someone who, literally, obsesses over words, this is an issue I’ve often thought about. In many cases I’m against heavy-handed attempts to restrict the use of potentially offensive words because doing so paradoxically lends more power to the words in question, but I’m completely in agreement with the Special Olympics on this one. The pejorative use of “retard” is ignorant and careless, and those employing it in that context should be aware that it is both uninformed and disrespectful.

(But, again, I know that you’re not here for words of any type! I’ll do my best to limit their usage in the future.)

With the game about to begin, a spur of the moment request was made of yours truly: would I be interested in doing the pre-game introductions of the AquaSox starting nine?

Of course! I never say no to what is asked of me. And by doing so, regular on-field MC Schuyler (pronounced “Skyler”) Muller would have more time to luxuriate in his own resplendent glory.

From the golf course to the ballpark

Okay! Here we go! There wasn’t really time to get nervous while doing this, and a feeling of power emerged with the realization that, as soon as I said a player’s name, he popped from the dugout and ran to his position. It was like I was commanding them.

I allowed myself to go off-script just once, referring to second baseman Brock Hebert (pronounced “A Bear”) as “number one in your hearts.” But, beyond that, it was a simple case of reading words off of a piece of paper.

My moment of on-field tyranny was short-lived, fortunately, as it quickly gave way to the National Anthem (not that I was asked, but singing the National Anthem is one of the few things I refuse to do at a ballpark. A kazoo rendition? Maybe.)

And, with that, the game finally got underway. This shot shows “number one in your hearts” at the plate while good ol’ number eight looks on.

There’s still much more to come from Everett, but it took me 1500 words to get this far and, therefore, you know the drill: Stay tuned for part two!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: On a Different Scale and Off Key in Tacoma

Note: It took all of my willpower not to reference my favorite GNR song of all time in this post’s title.

I visited six teams on this most recent road trip, and five of these teams were members of the aptly-named Northwest League. The one anomaly was the Tacoma Rainiers, who compete in the inaptly-named Pacific Coast League (unless you consider locales such as Memphis and New Orleans to be part of the Pacific Coast).

The Northwest League is Class A Short-Season, comprised of players just beginning their professional journeys. But the PCL is Triple-A, just one level removed from “The Show,” and the mentality of fans, front office staff and players at this level is markedly different.

So I knew going in that the Rainiers would be a whole ‘nother animal, operating on a totally different scale than the likes of Eugene, Salem-Keizer, and Yakima. These differences rang loud and clear as soon as I checked into the team hotel, which offered BY FAR the swankiest (and most self-consciously post-modern) accommodations I’ve ever enjoyed whilst on one of these road trips.

That’s room 2306 (!) of the Hotel Murano, and this was the view:

Hello, Tacoma!

I’ll have more on the Hotel Murano in an upcoming “Return to the Road” post, but for now let’s get to the evening’s primary locale: Cheney (pronounced “Cheeny”) Stadium, home of the Rainiers since 1961 and the recent recipient of a massive renovation (read all about that, and more, in last week’s MiLB.com piece). After getting lost on the way to the stadium (which happens regularly, even with GPS) I arrived at a parking lot which placed me in the rear of the facility.

Unfortunately the above entrance, neatly carved into the landscape, was not the one for me. “Will Call,” world-famous home of the media pass, was at home plate and thus began an arduous journey. Along the way I saw the back end of the stadium’s famous batter’s eye — located a staggering 425-feet from home plate and one of the few features of the old Cheney that survived the renovation intact.

Along the road I came across a species you rarely encounter in the Minors — the ballhawk. These guys were doing their darndest to snag batting practice home runs.

Finally, parched and hallucinating, I arrived at the front entrance. I can’t say for sure what those satellite dish-looking obelisks are above the sign, but they are a publicly-funded art project (Cheney’s renovation was partially funded by public money, and with this came the stipulation that it be decorated with public art).

First order of business was, as it often is, to conduct a few interviews with the good ol’ Flipcam. While waiting for my victims to emerge, I took a few shots of the dugout surroundings.

I interviewed Danny Hultzen first, an affable young TOP PROSPECT who has been a member of the Rainiers for less than two months. (I had actually been in attendance for his final Double-A start, when he took the mound for the Jackson Generals during my aptly but inelegantly named “OKARKMOTN” road trip). This was followed by a clunker of an interview with Italian-born third baseman Alex Liddi, in which I led off with a question about a ridiculous article I wrote about him back in 2006.

Nick Franklin was next up, who I wanted to talk to simply because I’d already interviewed him in High Desert and Jackson. But Franklin, now hip to the awkwardness that ensues whenever I roll into a Minor League dugout, never emerged. He was “busy.” That’s okay, Nick. I was busy, too — taking pictures of scintillating light pole signage (as an aside, those antiquated light fixtures are originally from San Francisco’s Seals Stadium).

I would have relished the opportunity to ketchup with Franklin, so its too bad that he never mustard the initiative to speak with me. Instead, I joined up with director of communications Ben Spradling for a pre-game ballpark tour. Post-renovation, Cheney Stadium is a dramatically different place than it was. Examples of creative re-invention are everywhere.

This berm area, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and featuring blinking blue airport runway lights, used to be comprised of bleacher seating.

This “Backyard BBQ” area was once a batting cage.

And what was once the visitor’s clubhouse is now a secondary ticket office.

Next to this structure is a new group area called the “Home Run Porch,” which sits level with the playing field.

Spradlin and I soon made our way back to the main area behind home plate, where we took the elevator to the topmost floor (otherwise known as the “third”). Once there, he opened an imposing metal gate (with the power of his mind) and we ascended up a darkened stairwell.

This camera well area, not open to the public, has been dubbed “The Bird’s Nest.” The view (and note the batter’s eye, some 425 feet away):

Also offering a prime view is the “Summit Club,” a season-ticket area that was packed with fans eager for some pre-game food and, especially, beverage.

The Summit Club offers views of, appropriately, a summit: Mt. Rainier, for which the franchise is named.

Okay, well, it would have been a great view of Mt. Rainier. But, unfortunately, on the day I was in attendance the mountain was completely obscured by the clouds. I never did get a proper glimpse of it, but such is life.

Doing my best to let go of feelings of disappointment regarding view obstruction, I stopped into the press box just as the game was about to begin (that’s Spradling, my tour guide, in the middle).

As always, the press box was the place to be if you’re a fan of sardonic, quick-witted banter. (Sample bit of dialogue: “Tonight’s ‘Play Ball Kid’ was pretty good. Yesterday’s asked for his line.”)

But with the game now underway, I felt a restless itch that only wandering can scratch. So off I went — to wander! The concourse, although not of the “open” variety, is very spacious. Although this picture was taken later in the evening (My beloved chronology! Ruined!) it does help to illustrate the overall feel of the place.

One of the evening’s promotions was “Firefighter’s Night,” as members of local departments had been invited out to the ballpark. One crew even drove out in this beautiful antique:

Around the bend from this cherry-red beaut was another stadium feature that had survived the renovations intact: the Tacoma Baseball Hall of Fame.

Front and center in the Hall of Fame is a plaque honoring Ben Cheney, a local businessman who spearheaded the drive to get the stadium built.

A more poignant (and noticeable) tribute to Cheney can be found in the seats behind home plate (and slightly up the first base line). A bronzed Cheney can be observed watching the game, surrounded by a small section of original blue stadium seats.

While I was taking pictures of Mr. Cheney, an usher approached and drew my attention to the ground in front of him. There, embedded in concrete, was one of Cheney’s peanut shells.

Meanwhile, PCL baseball was breaking out all around us. The view from the top (note the steep pitch of the seating area, a Cheney staple).

New seats, original grandstand.

The Rainiers hit something like 11 home runs in the second inning, en route to a seven-run frame (you do the math). Exhausted by the offensive outburst, I went back down to the concourse in search of sustenance.

Oh, hey, it’s Rhubarb!

I decided upon the Narrows Catch stand — while there were some seafood on offer (almost always a good thing) the necessity of obtaining a gluten-free option led me to go with what had become a theme on this trip: hot dog, sans bun.

“The Best Hot Dog in Baseball,” to be more specific.

I dressed it up with condiments as well as I could — and it was a very tasty hot dog — but even considering that a bun is usually involved here this seemed like a small amount of food for $7.

While ordering the hot dog, I noticed that the next stand over offered gluten-free Grist Mill beer. Finally, my first chance for a celiac-friendly beer at a Minor League Baseball game!

Or…not.

I’ve gotta say, what followed was a very frustrating experience. I ordered the beer, and even though the menu placard directly behind the woman at the register listed Grist Mill I was told that “We don’t serve beer here.” She then pointed toward all the other places in which I could get beer, apparently not realizing that Grist Mill was only offered in one place and that, if you’re ordering it, you’re doing so for a reason. So I went back to Narrow’s Catch, where I had ordered my hot dog, and was told that Grist Mill was only available at the next stand over — where I had just been! So I went back there, but to a different register, and now the beer was magically available. Except, no. “Sorry, sir,” I was told. “We don’t have a bottle opener.” This was followed by a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say “And we’re not going to look either.”

And…Scene!

Disillusioned, I retreated to a concession stand on the other side of the concourse and got some fries. Those were good.

The evening slowed down a bit at this point, giving me the time to appreciation this high-resolution scoreboard graphic. Konrad Schmidt: a Sal Fasano for a new era.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cheney had found some company.

This game turned out to be a blowout win for the Rainiers (seven-run second innings often lead to such things), but the visiting Reno Aces weren’t completely lifeless. Here’s Josh Bell, in the midst of a leisurely home run trot.

I made one final concessions stop, at this popular and distinctly Pacific Northwest eatery. Baked goods and high end coffee at the ballpark!

I ordered a mocha (for whatever reason, that was my coffee drink of choice throughout the trip).

Throughout the ballgame, firemen (the evening’s guests of honor) had comprised the majority of the between-inning games and contests. Most of these games were quite simple (trivia, push-up contests, etc) and conducted from the top of the dugout by ebullient MC Christy Magana.

Although not a firefighter (at least not in this life), I was asked to be a contestant in a between-game at the end of the seventh inning. I can’t remember what the game was called, specifically, but it was of the standard “Sing for Your Supper”/”Finish that Tune” variety.

Knowing that my pipes would soon be on display in front of thousands, I retreated to the top of the stadium and practiced a bit.

Me “singing”

For those who’ve never done it — being alone in a strange place and knowing you soon have to entertain a crowd with some off-the-cuff stupidity can be a bit nerve-wracking. I’ve done it enough where I’m no longer really nervous, because the number one takeaway is this: In the best way possible, it just doesn’t matter. You can do (almost) anything you want, and it will be fine. Don’t think.

Blogger in need of a makeover, reporting for duty.

The song was “Billie Jean.”

I adopted a falsetto, and then realized I didn’t really know the lyrics. The combination of the ridiculous voice, awkward pause, and mangled lyrics (“I am the one! (pause) I have a son!”) got a surprisingly strong reaction from the crowd. As much as I look like (and am) a doofus, I like the below picture because Christy seems genuinely amused by my idiocy. What can I say? As much as I’m a very reserved person overall, in these sort of situations I really enjoy making people laugh.

That’s enough narcissism for now, and there’s not too much else to report. The game ended unceremoniously, and upon its conclusion I snapped a few pictures of my new interview-avoiding nemesis Nick Franklin. You can never escape the all-seeing eye of Ben’s Biz! (For the record, I have no real issue with Mr. Franklin).

On my way out, I documented some glow-in-the-dark stadium art. Publicly funded! This one is called “Home Run.” The artist is David Franklin (no relation to Nick), and the medium is powder coated aluminum LED RGB fixtures.

All that was left for me to do was to drive upstream back to my place of lodging. The Hotel Murano, its day-glo “M” beckoning from on high, awaited!

twitter.com/bensbiz

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

On the Road: Inching Closer to the End in Yakima

In the grand tradition of serialized adventures everywhere, today’s post picks up exactly where yesterday’s left off: in Yakima, standing at attention behind a patriotic costumed bear.

But Boomer, like boomers everywhere, will soon have his glory days behind him. In 2013 the Bears will move to Hillsboro, WA so NOW is the time to enjoy baseball in Yakima. That is what I was there to do.

So c’mon dudes! Play ball!

As play began, I scurried to document a cornucopia of vantage points.

In retrospect, “cornucopia” was probably overstating it. I documented a “smattering” of vantage points, and then proceeded to the first base side of the ballpark in order to participate in one of the team’s signature between-inning events.

Another night, another meat costume.

This turned out to be a rather elaborate race. In addition to Boomer the bear, the Central Washington University mascot — a Wildcat — was in attendance. Upon the start of the race, Boomer and the Wildcat emerged and blocked Hamburger and Golden Fries from advancing. This allowed me to take a commanding lead, so I turned around and taunted them while running backwards.

But then a couple of other mascots arrived on the scene, and I’m still not really sure who they were or what they were about. As Yakima is known for apple production (among other things), I’m going to assume that they were apples. A red male apple with a pair of garden shears and a yellow female apple with garden shears, to be more precise.

So, anyway, I successfully eluded the red apple and his garden shears. I think he was trying to stop me, but I’m not sure why — do apples just not like hot dogs? Is this a thing?

So, yeah, anyway: I, Ben Hill, age 33, won a hot dog race. Now please excuse me while I hit re-fresh on OKCupid.

After the race, this concatenation of costumed colluders posed for a picture. What a bunch of weirdos:

I left that crew to their own nefarious devices, in order to shed my hot dog costume. Next on the agenda: eating a hot dog! (Such an act, my psychiatrist tells me, is a subconscious manifestation of self-hatred. I told him that it was just because I was hungry.)

That’s a kielbasa, actually, and ordered sans-bun in order to meet my gluten-free specifications. Next to it is an order of garlic fries. A great meal all-around, and the kielbasa — firm, smoky and topped with a sweet and deeply caramelized peppers and onions admixture — certainly appeared superior to the “Killer Kielbasa” that had been on offer in Salem-Keizer the evening before. 

The above items could be obtained at the simply-named “Bar-B-Q” stand.

Simply-named, yes. Also: inaccurate. Bears GM KL Wombacher wryly noted that it was “Yakima BBQ,” meaning “not really BBQ at all” because, essentially, there is no BBQ in Yakima. It was basically burgers and dogs and fries and what-have-you. But it was good, and that’s the important thing.

That simple Wild West aesthetic is evident throughout the concession areas, such as here: the stadium’s one and only beer stand. Let it be known that the beer served here is cold:

“My jeans are bluer than yours.”

Dinner completed, I returned to the seating area to find a robust Yakima sunset in full bloom.

As day gave way to night, I ascended the stairs to the press box and joined Bears announcer John Hadden for an inning on the radio.

And, no, I didn’t mess up the chronology here — the above picture really was taken after the two that preceded it. Guess the sunset hues hadn’t quite yet subsumed the sky beyond center field.

Upon completing my on-air obligations (which I always enjoy, thanks to Hadden for the invite), this riveting episode of Upstairs Downstairs continued. After my descent, I poked my head into what had to be the most barren (or “bear”en, as it were) team store that I’d ever seen.

Everything must go! Seriously!

I passed on the opportunity to pick up any priced-to-move souvenirs, and instead watched an inning from the field level Legends Club. Beer might be out for me, in this celiac disease reality, but a crisp chardonnay is A-OK!

Upon returning to the press box, I tried to find the perfect auditory balance between Hadden and Boise Hawks broadcaster Mike Safford. Northwest League Baseball, in surround sound!

I then did a half-inning on the air with Safford (thanks, Mike!) and upon re-entry to the press box corridor discovered that Hadden had acquired a new broadcast partner.

That young color man was right to be wearing the rally cap. After falling behind by five runs, the Bears tied the game thanks to a three-run double by Loftus in the seventh and a two-run homer by Michael Lang in the eighth. (I had interviewed both of those individuals prior to the game, and I’d like to think that my encouraging presence inspired their eventual offensive heroics).

As we entered the bottom of the ninth, John Belushi’s famous “Nothing’s over until we say it is” speech from Animal House was played on the videoboard.

I disagree with playing that clip in a tie ballgame (it’s more of a rallying cry than an exhortation to get over the hump), but this digression gives me an opportunity to note that the audio selections throughout the game were phenomenal. Those came courtesy of multi-tasking PA announcer Todd Lyons, a DJ on KATS 94.5 (“The Rock Station,” glad to hear that there are at least a few of those left). Lyons had tunes at the ready for all sorts of game events, especially when it came to situations in which the opposing team could be mocked. When Boise Hawks manager Mark Johnson was ejected, his path off the playing field was to the strains of both “Na Na Na” and “Hit the Road, Jack.” But better was the playing of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” during a meeting on the mound (“You want me to act like we’ve never kissed/You want me to forget, pretend we’ve never met”).

In the bottom of the ninth, a double and a walk put runners on first and second with two outs. I was invested in the game, but also experimenting with different lighting and shutter speed settings on my camera.

Loftus, en route to drawing a walk.

The winning run on second:

And then — bam! — one of the more unlikely walk-off victories I’ve ever seen. Bizarrely, what I remember is not at all what is recorded in game log, but what I saw was Steven Rodriguez rocket a ball down the first base line. Hawks first baseman Dan Vogelbach took a stab at it and the ball caromed off of him, allowing Kevin Medrano to score the game’s winning run.

How often does one score from second on a ball that doesn’t leave the infield? And why does the game log say that Rodriguez hit a single to left field? Am I going insane?

Regardless, it was victory for the hometown team and pandemonium ensued.

And that was as good a note as any to end my brief stint in Yakima. Soon enough the euphoria subsided, and only the groundskeeper remained.

I ignored friendly sign-based invitations to light up a cigarette…

and trudged down this winding metal ramp and out of the ballpark.

In the absence of Minor League Baseball, I’ll probably never have a reason to visit Yakima County Ballpark again. But I’m glad that I got the opportunity, with bear-ly anytime to spare.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Arriving at the End of an Era in Yakima

Stop three of my latest (and therefore greatest) road trip brought me to Yakima, by far the easternmost location on this otherwise close-to-the-coast Oregon-Washington-British Columbia excursion. But as out of the way as it was, I considered a visit to Yakima to be an absolute must. This is, after all, the last season for the hometown Bears. In 2013 the team will set-up shop in Hillsboro (a suburb of Portland), thereby bringing to an end a 23-season run in Yakima.

An endangered species

It’s hard to argue with the rationale behind the move — the Bears rank last in the league in attendance and play in an outmoded facility, while Hillsboro taps into a fertile market that has gone without Minor League Baseball since the Portland Beavers moved to Tucson following the 2010 campaign. But no matter what the reasons, it is always a bittersweet (if not outright sad) occasion when a team leaves town. My visit to Yakima was motivated by the desire to get a sense of the Bears game experience, so that I could document it for those who may have never had the opportunity or inclination to see it for themselves.

It sure took me a while to get there! The (beautiful!) drive from Salem took a good four hours, and will be documented in a future post. And then, once I finally got to Yakima proper, I realized that the address I had was not for the stadium but for the Bears administrative office. Next door to this Bears business hub was a building with office space for rent and, in these offices, inappropriate relationships between employees won’t just be tolerated — they’ll be encouraged!

I was momentarily flabbergasted by this signage, but recovered in time to ask a coveralls-wearing local how to get to the stadium. He told me that it was on his way home, so I might as well follow him. Five minutes later, he had guided me to the proper destination: Yakima County Stadium. (Chalk up another point in the “kindness of strangers” category. I find that while on the road and here in NYC, people are much more inclined to be thoughtful and decent than any behaviors to the contrary.)

Located beyond the stadium are what I, being from the Northeast, would call “mountains.” But to those in the Northwest, they are simply “hills.”

The first order of business was to conduct a few player interviews with the trusty FlipCam, and this time around the victims were pitcher Blake Perry and outfielders Joe Loftus and Michael Lang.

Lang’s interview apparently suffered from poor audio quality, to the extent that it was not posted on MiLB.com. But he’s got a great story — played collegiate ball at Rutgers, went undrafted, joined a local semi-pro team, contacted every independent team in search of a job and then, finally, landed a spot on the roster of the Sioux City Explorers after all of their outfielders got married in the offseason and decided not to return. He hit over .400 in Sioux City, and was eventually signed by the Diamondbacks organization and sent to Yakima to begin his professional career. You gotta root for the guy:

Loftus had a great story as well, and that one did get some play on MiLB.com. Read all about it, and then check out all of the additional road trip content in the sidebar! But if you’re not inclined to do so, here’s the jist of it: after a poor start to the season, Loftus finally hit his first professional home run in Salem-Keizer on July 14th. The ball was retrieved by a traveling couple from Illinois who, after doing some research, discovered that it was Loftus’ first home run. They then sent him the ball, along with a photo and a nice note (all of which Loftus keeps in his locker).

After the barrage of interviews I embarked on a short stadium tour with general manager K.L. Wombacher. K.L.’s time with the club dates back to a 2001 internship, and from there he worked his way up to the top spot (and, along the way, met his wife, Lauren, now the team’s director of merchandise). He and his family will be making the move to Hillsboro to launch the franchise there; these waning days of the 2012 season are truly the end of an era for him as well.

But anyway, I seem to be especially verbose in this post and for that I apologize. “Nice pics!” is the number one comment that this blog receives, and I’ve gotta dance with who brung me. So here ya go – pictures! About 45 minutes before the first pitch, this was the scene in the picnic areas.

While, out on the field, the scene was much more sedate.

The press box? In addition to being sedate, it offered a prime mountain hill view.

We soon returned to ground level, where signs of life were observed both in the dugout and on the field.

Also observed: dimensional quirks! At Yakima County Stadium, it is only 293 feet down the left and right field lines. Over in right field, a member of the visiting Boise Hawks was looking at the fence and making  gesture which I interpreted as “293 feet? Are you kidding me, bro?”

In left field, the same deal.

Wombacher explained that the short porches were simply the result of having to shoehorn the stadium into a tight location. A horse racing track used to be located beyond the outfield fence, and the short porch isn’t the only reminder of those days. A water tower peeks up over the right-center field fence, and when races were going on a track employee would climb up the ladder in order to signal to the umpire to call time until the horses came around the bend (out of concern that a home run ball would injure one of them).

While it would seem that 293-foot fences would automatically qualify a stadium as a hitter’s park, this isn’t really the case. The fences jut out to more established professional distances with utmost rapidity, so save for the odd cheap shot down the line Yakima County Stadium doesn’t offer any real advantages to those swinging the lumber.

“It gets out to 340 [feet] in a hurry, and the power alleys are 360-plus,” said Wombacher. “This is a pitcher’s park, no question about it. The [Yakima single-season] home run record is 16.”

At this point the fans were filing in and the players were in the dugouts, more or less ready to go.

What could drag these creatures of habit out of the dugout but this, the National Anthem?

Boomer: a proud American bear.

And now what was left to do but play another nine innings (or more!) of our proud American game? The next post will cover the events that ensued over the following three hours and 16 minutes in front of a crowd of 1,681, the ninth-to-last regular-season home game in Yakima Bears history.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Idiosyncrasies Amidst a Somnabulant Sunday in Salem

I’ve been at this “gig” for quite a while now, and therefore have at least a rudimentary idea of what sort of ballpark atmosphere is to be expected at most Minor League locales. It’s my job to know such things.

But there are still some teams out there that, for whatever reason, I’ve had very little contact with through the years. The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, your Class A Short-Season affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, are one of them.  So when I pulled into the parking lot at Volcanoes stadium, I had very little idea what to expect. Who were these “Volcanoes,” and what were they about?

From the outside, my first reference point was that of fellow short-season entity the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. For, like the Scrappers, the Volcanoes’ stadium is located within a vast expanse of consumer-catering big box entities. Asphalt, asphalt everywhere.

But on the inside, it was not Mahoning Valley that came to mind. My interior reference point was High Desert’s Mavericks Stadium; for, like High Desert, Volcanoes Stadium is sun-bleached and a bit older-seeming that its actual age (the facility opened in 1997). There is an open concourse (I estimate that it is about 315 degrees, allowing access to all but center field) and both regular and bleacher seating abounds.

And while the view from the front is dominated by asphalt, behind the stadium lies a desolate farmland frontier.

During my attempts to document this beyond-the-outfield environment, I was approached by a pair of “broadcast assistants” from the visiting Vancouver Canadians. That’s Jeremy on the left and K.P. on the right.

It was the first road trip of the season for both of them (a “reward,” more or less, for a job well done), and to celebrate this momentous occurrence they taped an interview with me in which I hyped my impending visit to Vancouver. I’m not sure if this interview ever materialized online, but if it did it was no doubt enjoyed by a couple of people. Several, even.

After my brief brush with recognition, I commenced my pre-game wanderings. While not quite reaching High Desert “Sky Box” levels of utilitarianism, Volcanoes Stadium offers a decidedly no-frills atmosphere. But who needs frills, anyway?

This is the kid’s area, one of very few I’ve ever seen to be inflatable-free:

Down the left field line one finds the Lava Lodge, from which emanated the intricate Parisian prog-rock stylings of Magma (not really).

The dugouts, meanwhile, are veritable craters.

My pre-game wandering also yielded sights such as the “baseball garden” and “the world’s largest Volcanoes jersey.”

My wandering then reached heroic proportions, as I fearlessly ascended the stairs to the stadium’s second level.

Many of the suites were decorated according to the whims of the season ticket holders who had paid to occupy them.

Meanwhile, down below, the hometown team met with local Rotarians in a pre-game receiving line.

They then retreated to the right field line to engage in pepper games.

I made my way behind home plate for the singing of the National Anthem…

And then, finally, it was time to, as the umpires say, “Play Ball!”

Vancouver Canadians announcer Rob Fai was there to narrate all of the action, live and direct from this sepulchral concrete chamber.

I soon came across this affable intern, who was wheeling what has to be Minor League Baseball’s most idiosyncratic souvenir cart.

All of the souvenirs were $5, and I was informed that this year’s number one seller is the Mohawk Wig (complete with flashing LED light display). But, being nine years old in spirit, I was particularly enamored with this.

Despite the rampant availability of the above item, not once during the ballgame did I hear the sweet sounds of simulated flatulence. To the children in attendance on this beautiful Sunday evening: I am disappointed in you.

But anyway. My encounter with the idiosyncratic souvenir cart directly segued into an encounter with a most idiosyncratic mascot. Meet Crater.

I didn’t have much time to interact with this red-eyed baseball-headed mythical beast, due to other social obligations. An individual named Jared Ravich had arrived at the ballpark, with his wife Aquilla and two young children. Jared is a Senior Technical Producer for MLB Advanced Media, and, more specifically, he’s MiLB.com’s man behind the scenes. (Jared knows coding like the back of his hand, which he sees a lot of since his job requires him to be in front of a keyboard.)

When I caught up with Jared, he and his son Cal were inspecting a foul ball that had been tossed to them by relief pitcher Matthew “@Texecutioner” Graham.

But this thorough examination of Northwest League president Bob Richmond’s signature was interrupted by the appearance of three charismatic young vendors. As they made their way toward our spot in the right field berm, I heard the gentleman on the left make the following sales pitch to fans seated in the bleachers nearby: “Cotton Candy! It doubles as a pillow and is good for your soul.”

Amused by their antics, Jared called them over for a bag of Cracker Jacks. In exchange for this purchase, they offered to perform an a capella rendition of either “My Girl,” “Lean on Me,” or “a rap that we wrote.” As we had just heard the rap performance from the bleachers, we went with “My Girl.”

These guys were great, and, really, I should have gotten video (it was a bad day for my FlipCam, as well as reportorial initiative in general. I was off of my game).

So if you read this, teenaged vendor triumvirate: send me a video of your various routines and I would be more than happy to post on the blog. But, anyway, more than a bag of Cracker Jacks was going to be needed for our nine innings of sustenance. The Volcanoes concession options were surprisingly varied, all things considered.

But the area that seemed to be the most popular was the “Dog House,” featuring the so-called “Killer Kielbasa.”

pre-condiments

Such an item is now off-limits to me, because of celiac disease, but Jared had volunteered to be the evening’s “designated eater.” Here he is, about to take a gluten-filled bullet on my behalf. And with grace and dignity to spare:

Jared’s take on the Killer Kielbasa: “Oh, man, this is so messy and juicy. The relish is a necessary component, as it works as a lubricant and counteracts the saltiness. I’d give it a B to B+, but it’s the saltiest kielbasa in the world and too greasy for an A.”

I meanwhile, had some B to B+ garlic fries — heavy on the garlic!

Our seats offered a prime view of the home bullpen, where some rookies were getting ready to warm up.

The bullpen idiosyncrasies didn’t end there — this is a team that goes out of its way to protect its players from wayward foul balls.

As the sun set, the Ravich clan exited the ball park in order to start the long process of putting the young ones to bed. I, meanwhile, meandered slowly back toward the home plate area.

And it was from that vantage point that the game ended. The Volcanoes, suffering from a severe case of erupt-ile dysfunction, fell quietly by a score of 3-0.

I then observed local superhero “Blanket Man,” as he silently oversaw a post-game Run the Bases.

And, with that, it’s time to put a lid on this post.

Oh, wait…nevermind.

Then how about this?

Signing off from a sleepy Sunday evening in Salem-Keizer, with a song in my heart and sunshine on my shoulder.

I remain MLBAM’s most idiosyncratic blogger.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A “Pre”requisite Postscript to an Evening in Eugene

The first installment of our riveting two-part Eugene adventure ended just before the gates opened for Saturday’s game. Fans were lined up outside, in order to receive one of the bobbleheads contained within this intimidating stack of boxes:

But who was the evening’s honoree? What, exactly, was in the box? A significant clue soon appeared in the form of this distinguished guest, seen here posing with a local on-air personality who was in the employ of the evening’s media sponsor.

That’s Neta Prefontaine, older sister of track and field luminary Steve Prefontaine (a highly-influential and record-setting University of Oregon superstar who died in a car accident in 1975 at the age of 24). As you can see, Neta was decked out in a shirt and hat honoring her brother. And, of course, it was Steve Prefontaine who was the evening’s bobblehead honoree.

But the “pre”scient among us could have already “pre”dicted this.

Here’s another pic (provided by the team) which offers a better sense of scale as well as a view of PK Park’s artificial playing surface.

As part of the evening’s festivities, the scoreboard featured the following display throughout the game (“Stop” were the opposing Salem-Keizer Volcanoues and “Pre” were the Emeralds).

The scoreboard graphic is a nod to the famous “Stop Pre” t-shirts, which were made in response to the legions of fans who yelled “Go Pre” at every race (and often wore “Go Pre” t-shirts). It’s all a little confusing, as the “Stop Pre” shirts were worn by fans of other runners but, also, by irony-adept Prefontaine fans (as well s Prefontaine himself).

The on-field MC (whose name, I want to say, was Alex) was certainly in the Prefontaine spirit.

Fear thy pen-holding fist!

Neta Prefontaine, a most exuberant woman, threw out the first pitch. (The successful delivery thereof was a cause for celebration.)

Sluggo’s embrace came just after he had made his first on-field appearance, following an intro video that had something to do with his contentious relationship with a tree (really).

Another notable on-field character was the 11-year-old son of Ems manager Pat Murphy — I am having trouble finding his name anywhere in my notes, but as you can see he is quite at ease amidst the professional baseball environment. This kid (who at the time this picture was taken was talking about how he’d one day have his own San Diego Padres bobblehead, in which he’d be “pimping” a home run) has style to spare.

Too much style, perhaps. For shortly after this picture was taken his father (a legendary head coach at ASU before entering the pro ranks) declared that the flamboyant bright green shoes seen above had earned him a “Johnny Junior College” fine. This is the Ems version of kangaroo court, in which those who have earned the manager’s ire must differentiate themselves on field during the National Anthem by standing ahead of the rest of the team.

Johnny Junior College offenders: 31, 4, 27

And, wow — it took me 1500+ words over the span of two posts, but we’ve finally made it to the ballgame’s first pitch! Things slowed down from here on out, as evidenced by the fact that I missed the first inning and a half in order to drive back to the hotel for my “back-up” camera (the original was running low on batteries). When I returned I was pleased to find that a robust crowd had settled in, and that the Minor League antics we’ve come to know and love were in full swing.

Uh, what?

The view from the press box was even better.

I’m running the poorly-composed photo seen below only because I want to make a quick note of the gentleman on the right. That’s official scorer George McPherson, who played for the Emeralds from 1974-77 (the team won the Northwest League championship in each of those first two years). If I’d been in Eugene for longer, I surely would have made McPherson the focus of a story. Very few people could be provide that sort of first-hand knowledge, regarding the immense changes that the franchise has gone through over the past four decades.

Another interesting press box denizen is a new addition this season: Jonathan Bilenki, organist.

Bilenki plays a Roland organ from the mid-90s, which is  in wedged sideways at the far end of the press box. He plays throughout the top (visitors) half of each inning, and ends his evening at the seventh-inning stretch. Bilenki, a Eugene-based music teacher, explained to me that the music that he plays falls into four categories: clapping prompts, short riffs, long riffs, and songs. He was hired by general manager Allan Benavides prior to the season, and while it was a bit awkward at first due to the difficulty of coordinating PA announcements, pre-recorded bits and the organ music, on the evening I was there it was a smoothly-functioning operation.

I am of the belief that more teams should do this — the organ helps create an old-time ballpark ambiance , serving as a nice counterbalance to the barrage of sound effects and pop music hits that are now such a huge part of the Minor League experience.

Alright, you knew it had to happen eventually: dinner time! At the suggestion of Benavides, I decided to visit a stand run by Hole in the Wall BBQ, which has locations in Eugene and Seattle. Here’s a horrible photograph I took of the stand earlier in the evening.

While sandwiches are off-limits for me due to (all together now) celiac disease, a nice sampler platter was arranged featuring pulled pork, brisket, cole slaw and potato salad. I can’t say for sure that this was all gluten-free, but let’s hope so. I must admit to a bit of laziness as of late on that front, as bun-avoidance has constituted the bulk of my ballpark eating strategy.

But anyway, here are the eats!

Getting set to dig in and, for whatever reason, looking more feminine than usual while doing it.

This was a fine plate of food, but not transcendent. The pulled pork was tender and altogether wonderful, but the brisket was a little tough and, overall, everything was a bit on the bland side. I wanted more bite, more spice, more tang. Benavides, a California native who has never been west east of Cleveland, told me that the Ems made a great Philly-style cheesesteak. I was all for documenting such an item, and swiftly appointed him the evening’s designated eater (meaning he who eats the foods that I, stricken with celiac disease, cannot).

The cheesesteak, which looks pretty good for a Philly-emulating product in the Pacific Northwest:

The general manager chowing down, as cartoon t-shirt Prefontaine looks on (those shirts, which featured the word “Eugene” in Ems font below Pre’s face, were worn by the staff and got a great fan response. Perhaps another batch will be produced?)

Okay, enough with the food. Let’s move on to the next order of business.

The following photo is the worst one in the post thus far, and Lord knows that’s saying something.

That was Salem-Keizer’s Stephen Yarrow, just after striking out. He was the ballgame’s “beer batter,” and as a result of his strikeout 14 ounce beers would be $3 for the next 15 minutes. A stampede ensued, and soon this was the scene at the beer stands.

Say what you will about Eugenians, but they sure love their discounted beer!

Eugenites (I’m pretty sure this is the name of a book in the Old Testament) are also engaged and knowledgeable baseball fans. There was a pulsating energy at the ballpark all evening, and a palpable sense that those in the stands actually cared about the game’s events (this is not always a given in Minor League Baseball, as many of you know).

Engaged partisan alert!

These fans saw a home team victory, which was followed by  little “closest to the pin” launch-a-ball action.

Good game, guys. Good game.

And, with that, a long day in Eugene finally came to a close. It’s time to go home, guys. It’s time to go home.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: “Pre”lude to a Ballgame in Eugene

My current Pacific Northwest swing began in the city of Eugene, a college town with no shortage of cultural activities, natural beauty and eccentric characters. It’s the sort of place that almost immediately makes me think to myself that ‘Hey, I could be happy here.”

Instead of spending all of my time obsessing about the minutiae of Minor League Baseball, I could occupy myself in so many other ways. For instance, I could join Bagman in his noble (if not inherently self-hating) quest to rid the Earth of the scourge of plastic bags.

Or spend time in deep thought, listening to Father Yod on the headphones while interpreting the meaning behind psychedelic murals.

Or I could just say celiac disease be damned, and gorge on some of the most decadent donut creations known to man.

Froot Loops and Bacon

I’ll have more on all of the above Eugene attractions in a future post, as well as all sorts of stuff not even included in the above. But the whole point of this long and winding intro is not to prevaricate, it’s just to say that Eugene is great and, therefore, I was in a good mood when game time rolled around on Saturday evening. For on top of everything else, Eugene is a Minor League Baseball town. That’s the whole reason that I was there — to see Minor League Baseball! What a complete and total deviation from the norm.

The team in question is the Northwest League Emeralds, the Class A Short-Season affiliate of your (or someone’s) San Diego Padres. The Ems, as they are colloquially referred to, have undergone some major changes in over the past three years. In 2010, they moved from their longtime home of Civic Stadium (a now-crumbling edifice located in Eugene’s south side, more on that in aforementioned future post) in order to play in the shadow of this hulking behemoth:

That’s Autzen Stadium, which hosts University of Oregon football. The University’s sports teams are known as the “Ducks,” and as such you end up with signs such as this.

But where is the fan’s “bill” of rights?

The University added a baseball program in 2010, and a crucial component of this athletic initiative was the construction of a new stadium to accommodate these webbed denizens of the diamond: PK Park. This facility is also used by the Ems, who are in year three of a $2 million, 20-year lease agreement. (This agreement stipulates that the Ems receive access to the facility on June 1, although that didn’t quite happen this season.)

PK Park is located more or less next door to Autzen — the Medlar Field to its Beaver Stadium, if you will. (That analogy is 100% apt, as Eugene is indeed a very comparable situation to that which exists in State College.) And, even though I had hours in which to take a decent photograph, this is somehow the best exterior shot that I was able to take of the facility. (I have failed you, as I am wont to do. I won’t do it again, until I do):

The box office is located to the right of where this shot was taken. This area doubles as the Emeralds’ team offices as well.

And inside those offices, this was the sight that greeted visitors. If you’ve ever wanted to see what 1000 bobbleheads look like when they’re stacked in boxes on a ping-pong table (Lord knows that I have), then you’ve come to the right place.

Consider the above photo a “pre”view of what’s to come. And in addition to towering stacks of cardboard boxes, in the team offices one could find plenty of memorabilia related to past promotions as well.

But as for those mysterious boxes of bobbleheads — people were lined up outside of the park hours in advance of the gates opening, just so that they could procure that which was contained therein. I’m sure their enthusiasm contributed to a strong ticket “pre”sale.

See that dude in the middle of the line? He’s shirtless, and lying on his back directly on the asphalt. Like, “Well, if I’m gonna be waiting for this bobblehead than I may as well get some rays.” But I had no time for such lounging, instead opting for a short stadium tour with Ems GM Allan Benavides. The first picture I snapped on said tour was of one my favorite ballpark areas: the mascot changing room.

We then wandered into the Ems locker room, immediately after one of the worst attempts at “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” that the world has ever seen.

The training room was plastered with pictures of heartthrob reliever Matthew Chabot.

I later asked Chabot why his photo was so prevalent, and he explained that it was a “joke gone sour.” The gist of it was that he had jokingly (?) told an Ems employee that he had the prettiest face on the ballclub. In response these photocopied head shots were taped all over the stadium (including in some unlikely places), so that his teammates had as many opportunities as possible in which to appreciate his prettiness. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

I spoke with Chabot (now chagrined) on the field, as part of an informal “pre”-game chat. The scene:

From the field, I proceeded upward in order to procure photographs from various stadium elevations.

The line out front continued to grow.

Not everyone was on the outside looking in, as several hundred fans were inside PK Park as part of a group picnic for local healthcare employees.

I went downstairs for a closer look at the festivities, passing lounging players along the way.

I also perchanced to notice that the 1000 bobbleheads had migrated from their ping-pong table environs. In keeping with the sense of mystery that I have inexplicably tried to cultivate regarding these bobbleheads, please ignore what’s written on the boxes.

At the picnic area, the six players recruited to sign autographs for the assembled guests weren’t getting much attention.

12 o’clock, guys!

Sluggo (who, I learned, got his name because there are a ton of slugs in Eugene), will help you carry your beer.

Separated by a balloon

These sort of signs are common at ballparks nationwide, but I appreciated the creativity of “first base” being one of the destinations. You know, I’ve found myself in a lot of life situations where first base wasn’t nearly that close at hand.

We’re nearly 1100 words into this thing, and the gates haven’t even opened yet (yes, I am aware that I am consistently writing the lowest-stakes narratives to be found on the internet). You know what that means, right?

Right?

It means that this one is going to be a two-parter. Stay tuned for much more from Eugene (and then Salem, and then Yakima, and then Tacoma, and then Everett, and then Vancouver). I’m going to be writing about the 2012 Minor League season for the rest of my life, in other words. Could someone please fetch me a Pulitzer?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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