Results tagged ‘ On the Road ’

Return to the Road: Ample Opportunities in Appleton

With that recent spate of bouillabaisse posts now complete, I can now return with an unencumbered mind to my favorite of all blogging topics: the road.

I went on three Minor League Baseball road trips during the 2013 season, during which I documented the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I was able. But, of course, the beauty of a Minor League Baseball road trip is that it gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark, but the city itself. And that’s simply what these “Return to the Road” posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark.

In November I wrote three “Return to the Road” posts, covering May’s “Southern Swing’ trip. The next series of posts will cover late June’s Midwest League meanderings, which began on June 21 in Appleton, Wis. and ended one week later in South Bend.

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On Friday, June 21, I attended a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game and wrote about it profusely in a two-part blog post (Part One) (Part Two) as well as an indispensable MiLB.com piece that turned out to be part one of the much-lauded “Bullpen Trilogy.” I spend the entirety of Saturday, June 22, in Appleton as well, meaning that I had plenty of time to explore the city before heading back to what is now “Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.”

As everyone knows, the best way to explore a new city is with the assistance of a trusted local. For me, that individual was Brew Crew Ball proprietor Kyle Lobner, who picked me up at the hotel bright and early (by my standards) Saturday morning. First up was a visit to Appleton’s weekly Farm Market. The Farm Market runs from June through October, and gray skies did not deter our journey.

“In Wisconsin you eat fresh while you can, because the growing season is not very long,” said Loebner, who, in addition to writing about the Brewers, serves as an alderman.

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As many of you know, a 2012 celiac disease diagnosis forced me to convert to a gluten-free diet. Well, one thing I learned during this meandering Saturday is that Appleton accommodates gluten-free diets to a degree rarely seen in Minor League markets. Gluten-free or not I’m generally not one for sweets, but when in Rome…

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Lobner was a strong proponent of the Kangaroostaurant, a “cookery on wheels.” In addition to being popular with Milwaukee-centric baseball bloggers such as  Lobner, the Kangaroostaurant is also patronized by pregnant women and young outdoorsy beardos.

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Downtown Appleton was a pleasant place to be, and after getting breakfast Lobner and I strolled around for a bit. While I don’t have a picture of Appleton City Hall, I was informed that it is located in the top floor of an old department store building. That’s not quite as cool as Appleton’s History Museum, which is located in a castle.

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And this is not just any castle-cum-history museum, mind you. It is a non-perishable castle-cum-history museum.

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Some random items from my notebook, most likely gleaned through conversations with Lobner but possibly the result of gluten-free breakfast sandwich fever dreams:

– Appleton was the first city with hydroelectric power.

– Fox River is the largest north-flowing river in the United States.

– Former MLB reliever Jack Taschner is now a member of the Appleton police force.

And, for the records, downtown Appleton now boasts a store specializing in vinyl. It’s called Top Spins, and at the time I visited it had only been open for about a month.

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I went ahead and picked up a couple LPs, including one featuring Pete Seeger. (RIP) I was inspired to buy the Bobby Bare record after greatly enjoying his double LP of Shel Silverstein-penned compositions. (Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe is one of my favorite songs ever.)

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Lobner and I then made a brief detour to Goodland Field, home of the Appleton Foxes from 1958-1994 (the team moved to its current home the following season and changed its name to the Timber Rattlers). Goodland Field is now run by the Appleton School District, and while it is a perfectly acceptable amateur facility I found it hard to believe that just 20 years ago it hosted Class A professional baseball. It now hosts TERROR BASEBALL.

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A few more peeks through the chain link:

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On the way back to the hotel there were a few photo opportunities to be found, because when aren’t there?

The Lawrence University campus is situated along the Fox River…

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The Appleton-area paper industry is not nearly as robust as it once was — at one point, the city’s Minor League team was called “The Papermakers” — and this particular mills have been re-purposed for residential uses.

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Rocky Bleier, a wounded Vietnam veteran who overcame his injuries and won four Super Bowl rings as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was born in Appleton.

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Many thanks to Lobner for taking the time to show me around (as well as serving as my “Designated Eater” the night before). He dropped me back off at the hotel in the early afternoon, but I barely had time to catch my breath before my next social engagement. This one requires a little bit of backstory…

Back in the summer of 2012, in the wake of my aforementioned celiac disease diagnosis, I received an email from Timber Rattlers production assistant Peter DeRuyter. He mentioned that his sister, Nicole, had a gluten intolerance and soon enough Nicole got in touch with a wealth of information and advice for the newly gluten free. That was kind enough as it was, but she followed that up by sending me a “Welcome to Gluten Freedom” package of various GF foods. It was great!

So, anyway, now that I was in Appleton I finally had the chance to meet Nicole and Peter!

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Yes, we got lunch, but let’s back up a bit in this narrative (you’re all riveted, right?) Upon departing from the hotel, Nicole informed me of the following:

“Alright, here’s the game plan. We’re going to get dessert first. Happy Belly’s, and it’s aptly named. It’s gonna feel like I’m taking you to the back room of some place, because I am taking you to the back room of some place.”

Awesome! I’ve always loved the back rooms of some places. We returned to the by-now-kind-of-familiar streets of downtown Appleton, which were remarkably deserted considering that the Farm Market had taken place a few short hours ago.

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The front entrance of this place was adorned with a complimentary bath tub.

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And, yes, here’s the back room gluten-free friendly bake shop. See, this is why it’s always good to hang out with the locals!

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I got some cupcakes, because, again: When in Rome.

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Back outside, I happened to notice this sign. In Appleton, even the sub shops are gluten-free!

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The DeRuyters and I then took a scenic walk to a nearby restaurant because, clearly, what was needed at this juncture was more food. One of the views along the way:

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Our destination was the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

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Which, of course, had a gluten-free menu.

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This being Wisconsin and all, a cheese plate was mandatory.

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This was followed by a Reuben, which comes in at #1 on my list of “things I miss ordering at a diner in the wake of being diagnosed with celiac disease.”

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Once again, Nicole and Peter DeRuyter. Their generosity on this idyllic Saturday afternoon was much appreciated.

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Even more Appleton vantage points, taken during the walk back to downtown proper.

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I can say, without hyperbole, that this is the best-named business of all time.

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Oh, and in addition to castle-cum-history museums, Appleton now boasts the Houdini Plaza in honor of one of its most well-known native sons. But, when I was there, it was under construction.

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Finally, some wise words from former president Benjamin Harrison (a man preceded and followed in office by Grover Cleveland).

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After all that, I attended Saturday evening’s Timber Rattler game — “Salute to Outdoors Night”! — and wrote about that HERE. Thanks for everything, Appleton! No Minor League city has ever provided me with so much to write about.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Winter Meetings Journal, Day 3: Penultimate Day, Ultimate Post

Throughout last week’s Winter Meetings, I provided the perspectives of four young Job Fair attendees. We’ll hear from them again eventually, once their still in-flux employment situations are sorted out, but until then I’ll be providing an account of my own Winter Meetings experience. Today’s post is part three of a planned trilogy, making it the “Return of the Jedi” of Minor League-centric offseason blog posts. There are worse things to be, I suppose. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Technically speaking, Wednesday is not the final day of the Winter Meetings, as Thursday’s activities include the Rule 5 draft as well as a banquet dinner during which the “King of Baseball” is announced. (This year’s honoree was Portland Sea Dogs president Charlie Eshbach.) But the vast majority of Meetings attendees leave town on Thursday, making Wednesday the de facto final day to really get things done.

So, yeah, after arriving in a discombobulated state on Sunday and losing the majority of Monday to ill health, I woke up on Wednesday feeling good but also feeling anxious. It’s the final day here already? Have I accomplished anything at all? Have I ever accomplished anything at all?

The answer to such questions remains elusive, but hope springs eternal. I began the day productively by posting the first two of what would be Wednesday’s three “Job Seeker Journal” entries, proceeding from this task to an actual interaction with human beings. I had been asked to be part of a video that sports biz veteran Dan Migala (a founding partner of PCG) was helping to put together on behalf of the nationwide industry initiative that is Project Brand. The video — in which various industry pros (and, in my case, hanger-ons) were asked to provide their perspective on what makes Minor League Baseball unique — was being produced in a Swan resort conference room. When I arrived, the team behind the video were interviewing Iowa Cubs president Sam Bernabe, and I covertly took this lousy shot of my surroundings. Photo-journalism at its finest.

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After doing my interview, which will surely catapult me to the global superstardom that had long been denied me, I took the time to wander around the ground floor of the Swan Resort. While the majority of Winter Meetings activity took place on the Dolphin end, the Swan served as the location of the PBEO Job Fair and was therefore the base of operations for those who traveled to Orlando in order to (hopefully) secure baseball industry employment. Such as, you know, the four guys and gals who were featured on this blog and MiLB.com.

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You know you’re in the Swan due to clear visual signifiers such as these. (Also, they had Children of God playing on full blast at all times.)

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The Job Fair was in full effect.
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As you may have heard, the Job Fair experience can often be summed via the cliche “Hurry up and wait.” Scattered throughout this area were idle job seekers, biding time until their next interview (or simply waiting for a call to get an interview in the first place).

Hi guys!

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Okay, now get back to work.

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As mentioned in Part One of this easily neglectable series, the Swan and Dolphin are connected via this most scenic pathway.

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Upon re-entering the Dolphin, this was the scene.

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The escalators seen above lead to the main lobby, epicenter of schmooze. I was constantly orienting myself toward the lobby over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, using it as my default Meetings meeting point, and, quite frankly, I over-extended myself in that regard this year. I’ve always made it a point to meet and speak with anyone who wants to get in touch, but throughout my time in Orlando I was constantly hit with introductory texts, emails and tweets and didn’t really know how to sensibly schedule face time in such a hectic and ever-changing environment.

In retrospect, I think a big part of the “problem” was that this was my first Meetings with a smart phone. The constant access to all forms of communication and social media can be convenient, but often results in a bombardment of information and options that hinders more than it hurts.

Regardless, I still like to meet people! In my line of work, and in most lines of work, it’s a very important thing to do. One of the people who I met with over the course of Wednesday afternoon was logo designer John Hartwell of Hartwell Studio Works. John recently wrote a guest post on this blog about his “Holiday League” logo creations, and out of appreciation for this opportunity he presented me with a North Pole Reindeer t-shirt.

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Just a few days after the Meetings one of John’s Holiday League creations went viral, thanks to Baseball-Reference posting a player page for Rudolph the Reindeer. Some much deserved publicity for a cool concept, and remember: you read about it on Ben’s Biz Blog first!

Back to the room for more Job Seeker blog postings, back to the lobby for various and sundry face-to-face meetings, rinse, repeat. Once 2 0′clock rolled by I was hit with a realization of “Dude, you gotta log some time in the Trade Show!” It was slated to close in just two hours.

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A display highlighting vendors in the “First Year Pavillion:” Virtual Concierges, Super Utility Belts, Photo Food Helmets, Baseball Bingo App, Sticky Wicky Ballpark Catcher, Pro-Stadium Models, the Ultimate Practice Bat, and more.

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One stop shopping for baseball executives.

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During my wanderings I ran into old pal Utility Man (aka Ben Youngerman), a traveling ballpark performer in the mold of Max Patkin and Myron Noodleman. (I’ve written about him before.) Here is he is, in the guise of one of his new characters.

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During the Trade Show I enjoyed a late lunch of hambuger, wings, peanuts, and human thumb.

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Actually, I was just modeling the “painter’s palette” grip of FreeHand, a new innovation in the field of concession carrying.

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I wrote about my Trade Show wanderings in THIS MiLB.com ARTICLE, and for those who are more visually inclined (ie, the entire internet), check out the photo gallery put together by my colleague Danny Wild.

Mr. Wild also took this photo. Unfortunately, this is an apt summation of the way I felt throughout this year’s Meetings. Anxious and antsy, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. What shoe, I don’t know.

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Another pic, courtesy of Mr. Wild, displaying what may soon become a familiar sight to baseball-inclined El Pasoans in 2014 and beyond.

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One thing I’ve never quite understood about the Trade Show is that many of the vendors start shutting down and packing up during its last hour. After paying x amount of dollars and traveling x amount of miles for a booth, why not man it until the bitter end? You never know who might stop by!

And speaking of the bitter end, I was getting close to it. After adjourning to the hotel room to write my aforementioned Trade Show story, I headed out to the annual Winter Meetings Gala. The gala was held poolside at the hotel, featuring food, booze, music, and plenty of human interaction. I’ve always enjoyed it, both as a signal that the Winter Meetings are winding down and because it allows for valuable socialization opportunities. The only photo I possess is this poor quality cell phone shot, which depicts folks hitting plastic golf balls into a pool.

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And that, as they say, was that. Another Winter Meetings in the books, and one that all things considered I was quite happy to put in the rear view mirror. The next morning I got on a plane, and my cares drifted away as I got lost in the easy conversational rhythms of the best morning show team in the biz.

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Kathie Lee and Hoda, I love you both.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Winter Meetings Journal, Day 2: Winter Meetings, the Musical

Throughout last week’s Winter Meetings, I provided the perspectives of four young Job Fair attendees. We’ll hear from them again before the year is out (or at least that’s the plan), but until then I’ll be providing an account of my own Winter Meetings experience. Today’s post is part two of a planned trilogy which, like Super Mario Brothers, will be consistently entertaining over the course of its three installments. 

Tuesday, December 11

The major theme of my previous post was, unfortunately, how horrible I had felt over the course of the day. Sickness had thus far completely compromised my ability to function normally, and waking up on Tuesday my only real goal was to make it through the day like a normal functioning person.

Mission accomplished! Whether it was the prescribed “B.R.A.T.” diet or merely the psychosomatic effects of having been visited by a medical professional, I woke up on Tuesday with a new lease on life. After posting the first two of that day’s “Job Seeker Journals” I made my way to the Brobdingnagian assemblage of baseball-related goods and services that is the Trade Show, which had officially kicked off the night before with an opening reception cocktail party (i.e., a chance for the industry to get a head start on drinking while making mental notes regarding which booths they plan on visiting — and, more importantly, avoiding — the next day).

The Trade Show is located an escalator ride down from the Dolphin’s main lobby, its breadth and heft signified by the fact that it comprises the resort’s Atlantic AND Pacific Halls. The show is only open to badge-wearing Winter Meetings registrees, assuring that the hoi polloi won’t overrun the place in search of free tote bags, mascot costume photo ops and Kayem sausage samples.

003Browsing the aisles would have to wait, however, as Lynn University professor Ted Curtis had asked me to speak to a group of his sports management students. Each year Lynn University maintains a booth at the Trade Show, which serves as a recruitment tool as well as a De facto lecture hall as various baseball professionals drop by in order to share their expertise (or, as in my case, distinct lack thereof).

I always enjoy spending a little time at the Lynn University booth, and appreciate Curtis’s annual invitation to drop by. After speaking to the students about Minor League Baseball in general and my job in particular, I snapped this photo (having given the instruction to please look “rapt”).

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It’s hard to tell from the above picture, but three of this blog’s “Job Seeker Journal” guest writers were in the audience: Lynn University student Alex Reiner, Meredith Perri, and Kasey Decker (fourth job seeker Ian Fontenot, ever elusive, was out seeking employment in parts unknown).

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In yesterday’s post I mentioned the annual industry idea-sharing symposium that is the Bob Freitas Business Seminar, largely in order to lament the fact that I had missed it due to illness. Except that I hadn’t, not completely. While in previous years the seminar took place on Monday only, this year the format was changed as what had traditionally been Monday afternoon small group sessions were know dispersed over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday. These 30-minute lectures took place in various nooks and crannies of the Trade Show floor, and looked a little something like this. Hit it:

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I ended up sitting in on a speech by Pensacola Blue Wahoos merchandise manager Denise Richardson, regarding the always timely topic of “Getting Your Logo Out in the Community.” One aspect of this that is unique to the Blue Wahoos is that the team has its own brand of bottled water. In Googling this, I was referred to one of my own blog posts from 2012:

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Because my subject matter is so specific and I’ve been writing about it for so long, this happens all the time: I Google something related to the world of MiLB only to find my own material as one of the primary information sources. This makes me feel like I’m caught in an infinite loop, a snake devouring its own tail, helplessly sucked into a vacuum of self-reference that will one day collapse in upon itself and render my whole existence obsolete. Perhaps this has already happened? I’m always the last to know.

After departing the Lynn University booth I decided that my best course of action would be to quickly return to the hotel room so that I could post the remainder of that day’s Job Seeker Journals. But at the Winter Meetings it is nearly impossible to get anywhere with any semblance of speed, as at every turn lurks someone waiting to say hello. This is both the blessing and the curse of having the entire industry in one place, but since my poor health precluded me from socializing on Sunday and Monday I was more than happy to log some face time with friends both old and new.

So hob knob it was, as I slowly made my way from the Trade Show floor to the my hotel room. Hello Lakewood BlueClaws director of media relations Greg Giombarresse! Enjoying your first Winter Meetings? How’s life in the post-Geoff Brown era? Hello Lake County Captains assistant general manager Neil Stein! Now that you mention it, an article on affiliate dinners would make for an interesting (and nearly totally undocumented) slice of Winter Meetings life? Hello Charleston RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols! You’re on your way to a league meeting? What goes on at those, anyway? Maybe I should write about it sometime? Hello Lansing Lugnuts announcer Jesse Goldberg-Strassler? How are your various writing projects coming along? And where’s Slavko?

And on and on it went. These conversations are invaluable, in that they create new relationships and strengthen old ones, thereby paving the way for another season of high-quality (albeit collapsing in upon itself) content. But, also, what was I going to write about in the here and now? I was a writer at the Winter Meetings, and a writer at the Winter Meetings should probably spend some time writing about the Winter Meetings. But what, when, and how? Tons of ideas were buzzing around my head, and I was already feeling anxious and unproductive having accomplished virtually nothing over the previous two days. Luckily, back in the hotel room, while I was posting some new Job Seeker Journal posts, the answer came to me in the form of an emailed question. To paraphrase:

Bull Durham is going to be made into a musical, and Ron Shelton (the film’s writer and director) and several of his collaborators are here at the Meetings in order to officially announce the project. Was I able/willing to do a story on this?

Well, sure. The musical is being funded by Buffalo Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich (via their Rich Entertainment Group), so it was via Bisons PR man Brad Bisbing who helped arrange the interview. After a quick hotel room crash course on Ron Shelton’s career as well as the specifics of Bull Durham (it’s been years since I’ve seen it), I strode down to the lobby in order to meet Bisbing, Shelton, producers Jack Viertel and Laura Stanczyk and composer Susan Werner. After five or so minutes of fruitless wandering in search of a place to sit down (the official pastime of the Winter Meetings), we ducked into the Dolphin’s “Australia” conference room and I proceeded to interview Shelton and his creative team for about 20 minutes. 

I thought that the interview went well, as everyone was open and honest and engaging, and after a quick round of goodbyes I went upstairs to write it. After all, it was a scoop! (Or at least as big of a scoop as a niche Minor League Baseball writer is going to get.) As I was writing, my colleague Danny Wild went to a cocktail reception announcing the musical in order to take pictures for the story and, for whatever reason, he ended up taking about 125 photos of Shelton talking to Mets manager Terry Collins. Seriously, you could make a flip book out of it.

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Boston Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo joins the convo:

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Composer Susan Werner plays a tune from the forthcoming musical as Shelton and new BFF Collins stand riveted.

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“But anyway, as I was saying…”

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And on and on it goes…While Mr. Wild was doing yeoman’s work by making sure that Collins and Shelton’s pow-wow would be the most photographically well-documented conversation of all time, I was in the hotel room cranking out my piece. You don’t want to see how the sausage is made, but HERE IT IS, the proverbial sausage. (Click on the “link” to read it).

Another story was in the books, and I have some leftover conversational fragments that I’m looking forward to sharing on this blog in the near future as well! (Teaser: Mr. Shelton doesn’t think the world of Minor League Baseball holds much interest anymore). With the story filed, I decided to test my luck and eat my first full meal in days via a company dinner at a Walt Disney-owned restaurant by the name of Portabello. Unfortunately this establishment was in the midst of “downtown” Disney, a tacky and rather garish conglomerate of family-friendly shops and activities (as in, an earnest young man in his 20′s, on an outdoor stage, leading a gaggle of children in “The Chicken Dance.” What is this? Minor League Baseball?).

I wanted to get out of “downtown” Disney as soon as I arrived, and grotesqueries such as this only strengthened by desire to leave. A dress made out of dolls wearing dresses? This is just creepy, evening wear for soul capturers, and I don’t blame that doll in the bottom middle for trying to escape from the hellish reality she has found herself trapped within.

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A quick cab ride courtesy of the Mears transportation conglomerate soon had me back at the Dolphin, where I partook in the nightly hotel lobby socializing ritual that I had missed out on the night before. As usual, there were too many people to talk to and too little time.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Restricted Diets, Restricted Access, and the Godfather of Soul

One more time, with feeling!

In other words, it’s time for November’s third and final “Return to the Road” installment, in which I highlight that which was experienced above and beyond the ballpark during my road trip travels.  The first post covered May 8 and 9th in Bowling Green and Nashville, and part two involved the events of May 10th and 11th in Nashville, the Smoky Mountains, and Asheville. Which brings us to, yes, May 12th.

I woke up early in Asheville on this fine Sunday morning, after attending a Tourists game the night before that was eventually covered HERE, HERE, and HERE. (Thirsty Thursday origin story!)  I woke up so early, in fact, that I forgot to do the obligatory road trip hotel room review and thus had to improvise.

The inability to “Sleep Inn” was because my next destination, Savannah, GA, was over four hours away and I was scheduled to attend a Sand Gnats Mother’s Day matinee at Grayson Stadium that began at 2 o’clock. The only documentation that I possess of this journey is this rather underwhelming photo of Talmadge Memorial Bridge.

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Underwhelming photo, perhaps, but the bridge is anything but. Named after Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, it connects downtown Savannah with Hutchinson Island and spans a distance of two miles. The Talmadge is  imposing and picturesque, and it makes one’s entryway into Savannah proper a truly memorable experience. It astounds me, however, that what is surely the most iconic structure in a city with a majority black population is named after a politician who viciously and unapologetically espoused racial hatred and exploited racial tensions.

There’s really no way to smoothly segue from the above sentence, so I’m not even going to try. I crossed the bridge, attended the Sand Gnats game (read all about it HERE! And HERE!), and after the game found myself in a bit of a quandary in that was early evening on Mother’s Day — not exactly the best time for a  traveling gluten-free Minor League Baseball writer to do a bit of exploring and socializing. Savannah’s waterfront downtown area was packed, and I simply drove along the cobblestone streets at about one mile an hour with absolutely no idea regarding what it was that I was looking to accomplish. I snaped a few underwhelming photos out of the driver’s side window and then got out of Dodge as quickly as I could.

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My lack of a plan and general feelings of alienation from the scene around me put me in a grumpy frame of mind.

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So I did what I always do in these situations: went to a diner, ordered steak and eggs, and then brought a stash of pork cracklins and Mello Yello back to my hotel room to serve as writing fuel. It was a beautiful night.

But frustration continued to follow me the next day, eventually catching up with me somewhere between Savannah and my next destination of Augusta. My problem was that it was lunch time and in the breaded and fried deep South it can be difficult to stay true to the gluten-free diet that a battery of medical professionals have insisted that I follow.

I was hungry and not seeing many viable options along whatever lonely stretch of road that I was on,  so when I spotted a sign advertising one “Bay South” restaurant I figured I may as well roll the dice and give it a try.  At the very least I’d be supporting a humble local business as opposed to a monolithic chain entity doing its part to further exacerbate America’s descent into corporatized homogeneity, and that’s half the battle right there.

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The restaurant didn’t have a menu, just a small board listing the day’s specials. I was hungry, and as a stranger in a strange land I was feeling a little self-conscious and didn’t really want to give the waitress a spiel regarding my dietary needs. I simply ordered the pork chop special with field peas and stewed tomatoes and hoped for the best. This is the platter that soon arrived:

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Don’t get me wrong — that’s a good looking plate of food, and in my pre-gluten free days I would have devoured it without a second thought. But that pork chop was heavily breaded, the peas were in a thick sauce that likely used flour as a thickener, and bread crumbs were mixed in with the tomatoes. The piece de resistance in this fete de gluten was the cornbread, which is to the South what pickles are to a Jewish deli.

“I made my bed, now I’ve got to lie in it,” was the thought that went through my head, so I went ahead and ate the whole plate of food. And, no surprise, it was delicious. I experienced no side effects from this major diet deviation, as I am an asymptomatic (or “silent”) celiac. It’s weird — in a way I almost wish I had symptoms, because the debilitating short-term side effects of eating gluten would serve as a safeguard against the long-term bodily damage that occurs as a result of “cheating” episodes along the lines of that detailed above (which I really don’t do very often at all).

But enough gnashing of teeth, as tautologically speaking celiac disease simply is what it is. I’m just trying to articulate the tortured mental gymnastics that accompany most restaurant meals these days, as these minor setbacks within a life of immense privilege really take a lot out of a guy!

And speaking of immense privilege, the next stop on my itinerary was none other than this esteemed locale.

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I arrived at this legendary expanse of greenery  with one Chad Walters, an Augusta resident and founder of Lean Blitz Consulting (who served as Designated Eater at that night’s GreenJackets game). Chad kindly spotted me a set of clubs, and I strode toward the entrance gate all like “Oh, no big deal, I’m here every day.”

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I’ve actually never played golf in my life, and in one of the most predictable outcomes of all time I was turned away by a guard who denied Chad’s requests to take a picture. Whatever lurked beyond this road way was going to remain a mystery.

013 I sat dejectedly by the curb for the next 110 minutes, thinking about how this had been the first day of my life that had included both celiac disease snafus and country club exclusion.

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Desultory contemplation complete, this Augusta excursion ended with a walk down the surprisingly pedestrian (but not pedestrian friendly) pathway that separates Augusta from the strip mall homogeneity that surrounds it.

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Fortunately, Chad had one more Augusta landmark to show me and this one was far more accessible. We drove into downtown proper and, after taking advantage of the ample parking opportunities, made our way to this location.

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Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul! Presiding over all that he sees!

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Brown was not an Augusta native, but he did spend his formative years here. Per the plaque that resides at the base of the structure, Brown “has called Augusta ‘home’ since moving here when he was five. It was in Augusta’s Lenox Theatre that he first received recognition for his talent by winning an amateur contest.”

Perhaps the James Brown’s of tomorrow are honing their chops at downtown Savannah’s I-3000 Club, although the focus there seemed to be more on adult entertainment.

025At the very least, one can obtain some James Brown recordings at nearby Pyramid Music.

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After that it was goodbye downtown Augusta and hello GreenJackets. (I wrote about that ballgame HERE and HERE, as I am wont to do.) The next day it was on to Birmingham,  where I closed out this trip by attending two games at the Barons’ new home of Regions Field. (Check it out, if you are wont to do such a thing.)  My time in Birmingham yielded two blog posts and two MiLB.com features, virtually exhausting all of my Dream City content, so all that I have left to share is this: before leaving for the airport, I stopped for a meal at the Birmingham BBQ institution that is Dreamland BBQ. 

I patronized the 14th Avenue South location, which is located in a rather residential area.

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The majority of the patrons on this Tuesday afternoon were sitting in the booths…

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but given my lonely traveler status I opted for a seat at the bar and promptly ordered a half slab of ribs. They were delectable (and gluten-free).

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During the meal I made small talk with the bartender, who turned out to be the younger brother of outfielder Josh Phelps (now retired). This minor but nonetheless interesting baseball-related happenstance marked the conclusion of this particular road trip, as from Dreamland I went straight to the airport. I am happy to report that the boiled peanuts made it home safely. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Tourist Within the Realm of the Tourists

Welcome to the second 2013 installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I highlight that which was experienced above and beyond the ballparks during my road trip travels. Part one covered May 8 and 9 in Bowling Green and Nashville, and today’s post picks up in the early afternoon of Friday, May 10th. I had attended the previous night’s Sounds game at Nashville’s Greer Stadium — read about that HERE — and upon checking out of the hotel (complete with Road Trip Hotel Room Review #2) I made my way back to the area surrounding the ballpark.

My destination was Gabby’s Burgers, an unassuming but very well-regarded burger joint located the proverbial hop, skip, and jump away from Greer.

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The above photo was taken as I was leaving Gabby’s, but when I arrived there was a line that snaked all the way out of the door. It was hard to take pictures within such a cramped environment, but this more or less conveys what the scene was like inside.

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As many of you know, a celiac disease diagnosis has forced me to adapt to a gluten-free diet. Ultra-specific fast food establishments such as Gabby’s can sometimes be difficult to navigate, but I had been informed the previous evening that they did in fact offer a “jazz style” burger in which the bun was replaced with lettuce. Not ideal, perhaps, but perfectly acceptable! I ordered a “Seamus burger, jazz-style” and then snagged a seat at the counter. About 10 minutes later, this arrived.

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I’m writing this six months after the fact, so perhaps my adjectival command is not what it might have been, but I can say without equivocation that this burger was STUPENDOUS, easily one of the top three that I’ve ever had in my life. If you’re in Nashville, and especially if you’re in the vicinity of Greer Stadium, then you owe it to yourself to make a visit.

Greer Stadium’s iconic guitar scoreboard can be seen from the Gabby’s parking lot, and a record pressing plant (!) is located just down the street as well. Burgers, baseball, and vinyl — what more could you want from life? (Well, actually, I can immediately think of a few other things.) But all good things must come to an end, even if they come in threes, and soon enough I was off to Kodak (or would that be Sevierville?), home of the Tennessee Smokies. My journey was not without its miscues, as you may recall from my Smokies’ “On the Road” post:

I arrived at Smokies Park a bit later than I was aiming for, due to a GPS/common sense snafu in which I drove to a “Stadium Drive” in Knoxville instead of the one in Sevierville. It wasn’t until I made a turn onto “Peyton Manning Pass” that it occurred to me that I may have driven to the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium instead.

This, perhaps, was not my finest moment. But I was nonetheless in good spirits when I arrived at the Hampton Inn. You can see the ballpark from the stadium!

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I wrote all about my visit with the Smokies, HERE and HERE and HERE. The next morning I posted Road Trip Hotel Room Review #3, and then embarked upon the long and winding mountain drive to Asheville. Upon arriving I found myself with about two hours of free time, and I decided to make the most of it by doing what I do best: wandering the downtown area in search of independent record stores. In Asheville, a city that prides itself on its cultural eclecticism and general open-mindedness, it didn’t take long to find one.

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Static Age was a bit dungeon-esque, but it didn’t make me crabby. They had a bunch of Record Store Day stuff that had long become unavailable in New York City, and I was glad to snag Mercury Rev’s “Deserted Songs” as well as a free Sub Pop sampler (they also still had limited edition Bardo Pond and Mugstar releases and in my head I was like “Yo, Asheville heavy psych bros, you gotta get on that.”)

After leaving Static Age I soon came across Voltage Records.

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While combing through the stacks at Voltage, I looked up and saw a most familiar site. I had this poster hanging in my bedroom, circa 1996.

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Downtown Asheville was bustling on this Saturday afternoon, and despite what some of these pictures may convey it was truly a vibrant and spirited atmosphere.

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Downtown also boasts this iconic art deco beauty, the S & W Cafeteria.

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S & W was a chain restaurant that served inexpensive (but presumably delicious) Southern cooking. The Asheville location was open from 1929-74, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. For better or for worse, it is currently being renovated into condominiums.

Interior-wise, the most physically impressive establishment that I visited was the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. This multi-level book store is well organized and offers plenty of comfortable nooks and crannies to sit and drink coffee, wine, and yes, champagne. It’d be a great place to hang out for an hour or two, but, as is often the case on these trips, I just didn’t have the time. And, as is also so often the case, my pictures do not do it justice.

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Back outside and once again wandering about, I soon noticed that one of these things is indeed not like the other.

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I was not in the market for a red, white, and blue bandanna, but I was in the market to visit another bookstore. I always am. Here’s some interior shots of the plainly named and plainly awesome Downtown News.

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Perhaps the best thing about Downtown News was their exemplary (maga)zine selection.

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Arthur is currently my favorite magazine and if over the course of reading this blog you’ve found that your sensibilities are similar to mine then please take the time to check it out (I also copped that Mojo with Sabbath on the cover).

022I of course realize that there is far more to Asheville than its book and record stores, but given a limited amount of time that’s what I chose to focus on and I hope you were able to pick up on at least a little bit of what I was putting down.

I’ll end with a total non-sequitur, as I have one other photo in this particular road trip folder that is totally out of context. I imagine that this is something that I stumbled upon at a gas station somewhere between the Smoky Mountains and Asheville, but certainly it is not something that I have seen before or since. The object of this game was to use a joystick to control a pair of scissors that could then cut the string holding one of two prizes: a Nikon camera and a wad of money. I don’t remember operating this ridiculous contraption, but if I did I failed.

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And with that, I have no more outside-of-the-ballpark detritus to share from what were my third and fourth days of 2013′s “Southern Swing.” Thanks, as always, for sticking with me.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Nashville, Bowling Green, and Points In-Between

With quasi-arbitrary personal and professional milestones firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s now time to move confidently into the future by dwelling in the past. In other words, it’s time to Return to the Road! Some of you may be familiar with the “Return to the Road” concept, but for those who aren’t:

Each season I go on several Minor League Baseball road trips, documenting the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I am able. But, of course, part of the beauty of this sort of road trip is that it gives gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark but the city itself. And that’s simply what these posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark. (Even if it wasn’t much — I’m on a tight schedule!)

2013′s slate of peregrinations began with May’s Southern Swing trip, with stop #1 being in Bowling Green. I attended May 8′s Hot Rods game, and the next morning, after recording the first of what would become several dozen “Road Trip Hotel Room Reviews,” I was able to explore Bowling Green’s downtown area (located the proverbial “hop, skip, and a jump” away from the stadium). The focal point of downtown is “Fountain Square Park,” which is ripped straight out of Norman Rockwell’s America.

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Per the Bowling Green Convention and Visitor’s Bureau:

Restored facades of 19th-century buildings, a renovated Art Deco movie theater, thriving businesses and bustling professionals surround the park’s historic fountain, statues, flowers, shrubs, mature trees and benches. Once the site of prohibitionist marches, trolleys, livestock trades and scrap drives, today it is the host of summer concerts, parades, arts and crafts shows and many other festivals and events throughout the year.

Here’s what I saw on a sleepy afternoon in early May, beginning with the titular fountain:

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But not all of downtown Bowling Green was as genteel as the images seen above. Here’s Rocky’s Bar, located at 322 E. Main Street.

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Inebriates in the know know to order Gorilla’s Blood.

Unfortunately, that little spot of downtown wandering was about all that I had time for whilst in Bowling Green. I was listening to local country radio as I drove out of the city, and would you believe that Lee Greenwood was playing at the exact moment at which I passed the Greenwood Mall? It’s true. My notes also indicate that I heard George Strait and Alan Jackson’s “Murder on Music Row” as well, and that this song is “a much-needed corrective to condescending schlock.”

I can’t tell you where I was, exactly, but about an hour or so later I drove by this establishment and immediately did a u-turn so that I could photograph it. This, to me, is beauty incarnate:

019Long may you run:

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Of course, one of the best things about trips such as these is stopping at kitschy rest stops for gas/food/totally unnecessary and irredeemably tacky but nonetheless irresistible souvenirs.

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At Sad Sam’s, one is greeted by this statue. It is as vividly rendered as it is culturally insensitive.

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This guy is a behemoth!

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I limited myself to three items while at Sad Sam’s: An “anti-snoring” contraption consisting of a small clothespin in a wooden box (sadly not pictured), a can of boiled peanuts and the bizarrely wax-like peanut patty.

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Out in the parking lot of Sad Sam’s an older gentlemen with greased-hair and a pack of Pall Malls in his breast pocket struck up a conversation with me. He was curious as to whether I liked the Kia I was driving (my rental car), and when I replied that it was adequate but unremarkable he told me that he bought an “alien green” Kia for his wife.

“She likes it, but I’m a retired auto worker,” he told me. “If I drove it to our union meetings everyone would make fun of me.”

And with that, it was on to Nashville. En route to Greer Stadium, home of the Sounds, I was able to make a brief detour at Grimey’s. Behind this humble domestic facade lurks one of the best-regarded record stores in the city.

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I enjoyed browsing the stacks — both at Grimey’s and its next-door “Grimey’s Too” location — and ended up purchasing three new 7″ records (two of which were on Nashville’s Third Man record label), a couple of used LPs, and the awesome issue of Juxtapoz that was dedicated to the visual aesthetic of the Beastie Boys.  My notes also indicate that the Fiery Furnaces cover of “Single Again” was playing in the store and that I “should get that.”

Grimey’s Too:

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Grimey’s was very close to Greer Stadium, and my next stop was even closer: Fort Negley, a Union fortification built during the Civil War, is located adjacent to the ballpark.

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Greer Stadium is actually visible from the base of Fort Negley.

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I’m going to go out on a limb and declare this to be the only guitar-shaped scoreboard that is visible from a National Historic Landmark.

033I wandered about the fort for a half hour or so, but unfortunately these are the only photos that have survived my travails.

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And from there, it was off to the ballgame. As I noted at the time, the Sounds were expecting me.

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You can read all about my night with the Sounds by clicking HERE, but as for this particular post this is all I’ve got. I’ll close by noting that I have a pork cracklin addiction, and had to ration myself to one bag for every day that I was on this road trip. Nothing like pulling a blogging all-nighter in a hotel while eating a bag of Golden Flakes and drinking Mello-Yello!

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Thanks for “returning to the road” with me. Post #1001 is now complete.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Day Four of the Promo Seminar in Louisville

The above title is a bit of misnomer, as the Promo Seminar is only three days long  and was over by the time that everything in this post took place.

But! I was still in Louisville for the bulk of this particular day, and I did some things and saw some things and now I’m going to write all about it. I just don’t know what else to do.

Friday, September 27

After a semi-productive morning of writing, I checked out of Louisville’s Galt House Hotel amid a scene of controlled chaos. While the Minor League Baseball Promo Seminar had been a fairly large event, it had nothing on the H20-XPO taking place that weekend and the lobby was absolutely packed with water industry merchants, policy makers, activists, and hangers-on. I wanted nothing more than to get out of that aquamarine mob scene, but wasn’t scheduled to leave Louisville for another couple of hours. So, I commenced to walking.

The Galt House Hotel is on 4th Street, and as part of a downtown revitalization effort a nearby stretch of this street has been closed to traffic and transformed into a retail/dining/nightlife complex called “Fourth Street Live!” It’s good for what it is (an accessible downtown gathering spot), but there’s no getting around the fact that its loud and tacky, with a disproportionate amount of square footage given over to national chains.

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Spending time on Fourth Street Live, while convenient for those situated downtown, leaves the visitor with little to no sense of what it is that might make Louisville unique. Therefore, I was glad to get a little time to walk around and take note of that which existed beyond the penned-in parameters of Fourth Street Live.

Before becoming the proud home of entities such as TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Cafe, and Howl at the Moon piano bar, Fourth Street was the site of Civil Rights sit-in protests.

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Click HERE to check out a photo gallery of the sit-ins and protests that took place in and around Louisville’s Fourth Street. Captivating stuff.

Just a few minutes later I came across this little monument to monk/poet/activist Thomas Merton, who became a monk at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani (his famous autobiography Seven Storey Mountain was written there, among many other works).

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Even better is the back of the plaque, which says that on this very corner Merton had the sudden realization that he “loved all these people.”

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Seeing this plaque got me to thinking about how we, as a society, don’t do enough to honor and promote the work of men and women of peace. While attending the Promo Seminar I heard a lot of great ideas about military-themed promotions and events, and I’m generally all for these types of endeavors as they represent a great chance to honor the sacrifices made by those in the community who have served overseas. But there is too much of a disparity at play, this willingness to almost indiscriminately label anyone remotely connected with the military as a “hero” while rarely if ever extending the same level of consideration to those who dedicate their lives to issues revolving around peace and social justice.

And, of course, even typing the above paragraph made me think about how I haven’t done nearly enough work on these fronts and am, at present, an ineffectual and self-centered urbanite whose college-era idealism has withered into a general “eh, I’m just trying to get by in NYC” sort of malaise. This is unacceptable, but also unacceptable is the continuation of this tangent, because, look, I had a baseball bat museum to visit.

And on the way to this baseball bat museum I saw another really interesting plaque!

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Thornton Blackburn’s Wikipedia page is short, but absolutely fascinating. Please enjoy this brief excerpt, as I am laboring under the delusion that everyone is interested in what I am interested in:

[The Blackburn's] had been settled in Detroit, Michigan, for two years when, in 1833, Kentucky slave hunters located, re-captured, and arrested the couple. The Blackburns were jailed but allowed visitors, which provided the opportunity for Lucie to exchange her clothes—and her incarceration—with a Mrs. George French. Lucie was then spirited across the Detroit River to safety in Amherstburg, in Essex CountyUpper Canada (U.C.).

Thornton’s escape was more difficult as he was heavily guarded, bound and shackled. The day before Thornton was to be returned to Kentucky, Detroit’s African American community rose up in protest. A crowd of some 400 men stormed the jail to free him.

Anyhow, I was indeed headed to a baseball bat museum or, to put it more specifically, the Louisville Slugger Museum. Along the way, one passes a variety of commemorative plaques which immortalize the Louisville Sluggers used by famous players. This was a Jeff Bagwell edition.

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Along the way to the museum, there were many sights to be seen.  Sights such as humorous Army-Navy Store signage.

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Not to mention a 30-foot tall gold replica of Michelangelo’s David.

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Finally, there was this photo op in front of the Louisville Science Center.

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Eventually, my destination was reached.

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There were no photos allowed during the factory tour, under penalty of death, but it was enjoyable to be walked through the bat making process.  Afterwards I wandered about the museum portion, pausing briefly to take this subpar photo.

071 After pondering this issue for a spell, I voted with the majority.

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Ted loved his Louisville Slugger.

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So did the Babe.

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After visiting the Louisville Slugger Museum my hope had been to swing by Zooperstars! headquarters, but time was a bit too tight so I simply walked around for a bit on East Market Street. Before skimming through the record selection at Please and Thank You coffee shop, I stopped by Muth’s Candies and scored some primo peanut brittle.

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Kentucky Fried Chicken is headquartered in Louisville, but I don’t think this graffiti was approved by corporate.

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And then there’s this:

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One final thing about KFC is that Louisville is home to the thus far only location of the more upscale (but still very casual) “KFC Eleven.

And with that random fact, I am officially out of Louisville-based content. I flew back to New York City that evening, thus ending what I truly believe was a successful jaunt to Kentucky. I just wish that said jaunt could have lasted a bit longer, because then I could have attended the Cropped Out Festival. Blues Control and Endless Boogie on the same night would have been awesome!

Meanwhile, I consider this blog to be its own sort of endless boogie. Post #988 is now in the bag.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Day Three of the Promotional Seminar in Louisville

Welcome to another installment of this Louisville tour diary, in which I detail the time that was had (by me) during last week’s Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. This post shall chronicle Day Three, but before proceeding please know that a recap of Day One can be found HERE and a recap of Day Two can be found HERE.

And with that bit of introductory housekeeping out of the way, we can now proceed with an unburdened spirit.

Thursday, September 26

Day Three started out strong, as Golden Bobbleheads were the first order of business. These annual awards honor the best promotions to take place in the Minor Leagues during the season, and are voted on by Seminar attendees (the finalists are chosen on a monthly basis by Minor League Baseball HQ in St. Pete). Before voting, each nominated team gives a brief presentation on their promotion, with teams not attending sending video submissions instead (these teams rarely, if ever, win). The end result is a fun and fast-paced couple of hours, as teams politic, provoke and plead from the podium.

Five Golden Bobbleheads are eventually awarded, in the categories of Best Non-Game Day Event, Best Theme Night, Best Charity Promotion or Event, and Best In-Game. I’ll weigh on the winners at a later date in the near future, but as for the presentations themselves this is the only photo that I possess:

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That’s Lake Elsinore Storm assistant general manager Raj Narayanan standing next to a gorilla, who soon took part in a light saber battle that almost ripped down the stage curtains. Such anarchy is par for the course when it comes to the Storm, who regularly engage in such nonsense at the Promo Seminar (for better or for worse I’ll never forget their 2009 presentation in which they touted their Subtle Butt flatulence neutralizer giveaway).

Meanwhile, my 10 nominations for 2013′s “Promo of the Year” MiLBY Award are just about to be unveiled. Check them out on MiLB.com and vote for your favorite! The MiLBY’s are the fan equivalent of the Golden Bobblehead, the hoi polloi-embracing yin to their industry insider yang. These two awards are not in competition with one another, but I’ve got to say it’s been a bit disheartening to find that teams generally care a lot more about winning a Golden Bobblehead. Again and again teams brag to me about winning a Golden Bobblehead (often thinking that I have something to do with their selection), but rarely do I hear such excitement when it comes to the MiLBYs.

This is disheartening, yes, but somehow I carry on.

There was a full slate of presentations after the Golden Bobblehead portion of the morning (one of which included a hilarious verbal slip-up), but for the most part I wasn’t paying much attention. In fact, for much of it I wasn’t even in the room. This is because I was to be the Seminar’s final ballroom presenter, so I spent some time in the hotel room putting the finishing touches on this:

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I suppose the title is self-explanatory, as this 20-minute speech simply detailed my 2013 travels in chronological order. I tried to keep it breezy and funny yet informative, and I think I succeeded. Going into it I was incredibly nervous and edgy and couldn’t really sit still, but as soon as I got on the stage I was completely relaxed and started making jokes like they were going out of style (and my kind of jokes really are going out of style).

(Also: I am available to give this speech, or variations thereof, in other venues. All that I ask is for travel and lodging expenses to be covered and a small “whisky stipend” provided.)

Unfortunately this smartphone photo seems to be the only documentation of my speech that exists. Please know that it was delivered into a sea of smiling faces, each more impressed than the last at my boundless charm, buoyant humor, and verbal dexterity. If anyone else has any more photos then please send them to me! The flames of narcissism need to be fanned, as I am a lonely man and the offseason is long and cold.

photoI celebrated my victorious speech like I celebrate everything else: by eating a meal in public while standing, completely alone. In the afternoon there were a couple more “Group Therapy” sessions, and one of the ones I attended was titled “Beyond the Press Release” (moderated by Minor League Baseball corporate communications manager Mary Marandi). I spoke a little bit during the session about the unpredictable crapshoot that is national media attention, but here are two things in my notes that I didn’t get around to mentioning.

– For the love of God, it is the year 2013 and therefore ALL press releases should be sent using BCC (believe it or not, there are still some teams who display their entire mailing lists in the “to” column of every single press release they send).

– Maintain Facebook and Twitter feeds separately. There are still several teams whose Facebook posts automatically appear on Twitter in truncated form (usually ending in the middle of a sentence, followed by an ellipse), which gives Twitter followers the impression that they are a total afterthought. Twitter is far too important a means of communication to be used in such a slapdash manner.

Any thoughts on any of this? Let me know.

Up until this juncture I have been extremely heavy on the written word, leading eyes to glaze over, minds to numb and joints to atrophy. As a remedy to these myriad afflictions I shall close the post with a barrage of photos from Thursday evening’s ballpark outing to Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Bats (this is easily the best stadium naming rights deal in Minor League Baseball, as regards the company’s connection to both city and sport). After shuffling off of the hotel shuttle almost everyone headed toward the concourse booze merchants, but not I. My allegiance is not to the booze (well, at least some of the time), my allegiance is to you. Therefore, I did a full lap around the stadium before entering.

030Architecturally speaking and otherwise, Louisville Slugger Stadium is an absolute gem. It fits beautifully into its downtown surroundings, incorporating a defunct train depot into the design and featuring gorgeous views of the Ohio River and the bridges spanning it.

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The statue out front commemorates Louisville native Pee Wee Reese in high-flying form.

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This pathway (located down the third base side of the facility) leads to an outfield entrance.

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032There is a statue on this side as well, honoring Hall of Fame running back (and Louisville native, natch) Paul Hornung.

033The long and winding road continued from there, ultimately bringing me back to where I started and then into the stadium itself.

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037Like moths to a flame, industry was gathered ’round the booze (yes, I have a tough time maintaining a gluten-free diet in a ballpark environment, but I think it would be even tougher to work in baseball as a recovering alcoholic).

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Tours were being offered at this stage, so I joined on with a group whose departure was imminent. The view from the suites:

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This picture, hanging in a corridor located outside of the press box, gives a sense of what an absolute behemoth Cardinal Stadium was (the team played here from 1982-99, largely as a member of the now-defunct American Association).

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Old American Association championship banners decorate this spacious entranceway area, which used to be the aforementioned train depot.

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We then ambled down to the Bats’ clubhouse, home of the forsaken Aerobie.

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This was one of the few clubhouses that I’ve seen that feature a pool table.

050Beyond that, I simply enjoyed documenting some of the more absurd pieces of 2013 season detritus. I wonder what the fine is for allowing the fine box to be photographed by a middling Minor League blogger?

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Not the best place for a fitted hat sticker, guys.

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No offense, USA Baseball.

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And while Muhammad Ali is one of Louisville’s most famous native sons, let it be known that one of his most celebrated adversaries also logged time here.

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Back upstairs, there was a whole lotta eatin’ going on. Although I failed to document it, the centerpiece of my dinner was a “Kentucky filet mignon” aka fried bologna.

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Dinner was followed by the presentation of the Golden Bobbleheads, but, as mentioned previously, I’ll save my thoughts on them for another time. After the awards “ceremony,” whilst in the midst of the usual industry event hobnobbing, I was approached by members of the Bats’ staff. Would I be interested in dressing as a racing food product? How could I say no?

Back down into the abyss we descended:

055I eschewed the Taco Bell sauce packets in favor of this guy.

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056No documentation exists of our concourse forays, but it was an interesting experience. Usually when I’m in costumes such as the above, the response is one of constant attention. “Hey, can I get a picture?” “High five!” “I know you can hear me!” etc. But when dressing up as a racing food product amid an all-industry crowd, THE INDUSTRY DOES NOT CARE. I was met with contemptuous glares by some, but most were completely indifferent and couldn’t even be bothered to high five. Okay, cool, that’s fine, save your energy for the piano bar. I understand that at this point in the calendar year a certain ennui has set in. It sure has for me!

But yet, I keep writing. There will be more from Louisville, because there is always more until there is nevermore. But, for now, I’m gonna quit Raven.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Day Two of the Promotional Seminar in Louisville

Wednesday, September 25

The previous post in this ongoing saga detailed Day One of the 2013 Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar, held in Louisville’s Galt House Hotel. And when there’s a Day One it’s a near certainty that Day Two will follow. In my case that’s just what happened, and therefore Day Two is what this post shall detail.

But no matter what day it is, you be sure that there’s a lot going on at the Seminar.

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The morning portion of the Seminar was devoted to “Around the Horn,” in which the microphone is passed around the room so that attendees may detail their most successful endeavor of the 2013 season. I wrote all about this on MiLB.com, which, believe it or not, is the official web site of Minor League Baseball. But I took note of far more than that which was included in the article, some of which I will now share:

– South Atlantic League president Eric Krupa plugged his website Club Philanthropy, which details charitable efforts taking place across the world of Minor League Baseball. (Lots of great ideas are contained therein, although it hasn’t been updated since April.)

– The Gastonia Grizzlies, a collegiate wood bat team, staged a “Dig to China Night” promotion in which plane tickets to China were buried in the infield dirt. Whomever located the tickets in a post-game dig would win them, but here’s the catch — the tickets were one-way only, and nothing else was included as part of the package.

– Myrtle Beach Pelicans GM Andy Milovich said that “Salute to Smells” was his team’s best promotion of the year. I wrote about it HERE.

– Phil Wrye, assistant GM of the Bowie Baysox, extolled the virtues of his team’s “Glow in the Park Night.” 2500 fans received glow sticks, greatly enhancing the ballpark atmosphere (especially prior to that evening’s fireworks display).

– The Tri-City ValleyCats attempted to set the Guinness World Record in the category of “Most People Wearing False Mustaches.” This endeavor was inspired by manager Ed Romero, who has a real mustache. (In other news, I am not a fan of the Guinness World Records governing body. My thoughts on that, and much more, can be heard in the latest GameOps podcast. I was speaking live and direct from Louisville’s Galt House Hotel.)

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– Emcee Todd “Parney” Parnell remarked at one point that during the early stages of the offseason it would behoove teams to look into the upcoming summer movie release schedule. Based on this info, you can plan timely theme nights well in advance. Another solid Parney tidbit was this: “I tell everyone on our staff to read the [local] paper every day. Some of our most impactful promotions have been done at a moment’s notice.”

– The Lowell Spinners talked about their military trading card set giveaway, which honors local servicemen and women both past and present. This is an idea that other teams will almost certainly steal for their own promotional schedules, and later in the week I snagged my own pack of these cards. Check ‘em out (and excuse the glare):

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But, of course, not everyone attending the Promo Seminar works for a Minor League Baseball team. This “Around the Horn” session also gives Job Seekers a chance to introduce themselves and Trade Show exhibitors a chance to promote their product. And when the mic was passed to me, I took the opportunity to lobby for increased gluten-free options at Minor League ballparks in 2014 and beyond. There’s no interest like self-interest ‘cuz self-interest don’t stop!

Wednesday afternoon was largely taken up by “Power Sessions,” in which industry leaders take part in a moderated panel discussion. First up was an intermittently illuminating “What’s Next” roundtable about the future of the industry, which included Minor League exec-turned Astros president Reid Ryan on the panel. I found Reid’s perspective to be an interesting one, in that he is attempting to incorporate some Minor League-style entertainment into the Astros’ big league show. For example — this season, the Astros asked fans to tweet suggestions for the walk-up songs of visiting players.

Michael Hand, the chief marketing officer of Project Brand, spoke on Wednesday afternoon as well. This was the first chance for many in the industry to meet Mr. Hand, who is tasked with obtaining national sponsorship deals for Minor League Baseball as the industry attempts to establish itself as a uniformly formidable sporting entity (which it is!) Hand has an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to his job and I got the sense that his intensity and enthusiasm impressed many in the audience.

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The Seminar portion of the day complete, attendees adjourned to the Trade Show cocktail party and silent auction. I made a brief appearance at this shindig, but, like the day before, soon left the hotel in order to spend the evening with an actual Louisville resident. Wednesday’s tour guide was Dan Simon of Studio Simon fame (he designed this year’s Promo Seminar logo, in fact), and during a drive around the city we saw many sights and some of them I actually managed to take pictures of.

Such as this — Jim Patterson Stadium, home of the University of Louisville baseball team.

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This was a very impressive looking facility, as were all of the University of Louisville facilities I saw during my time in the city. It kinda left me with the impression that academics is not exactly the top priority at this institution, but who knows? Maybe they’re excelling on all fronts?

One pocket of the city that’s definitely excelling on all fronts is St. James Court, located in “Old Louisville.” The houses on this tree-lined street were a sight to behold, bestowed as they were with turn-of-the-20th century Victorian architectural splendor, and I immediately began to fantasize about living in one of them.

I’m not sure what adjective anyone else would use, but I’m going to go ahead and call this fountain “iconic.”

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The Conrad-Caldwell house is on the corner, fully restored and open for tours. The internet informs me (and by extension, us) that this house is a “stunning example of Richardsonian-Romanesque architecture” and though I don’t know what that means I am nonetheless impressed.

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There was more to my evening in Louisville, but since it wasn’t documented photographically it may as well have not happened. If there was only a way in which one could paint a picture with their words!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Day One of the Promotional Seminar in Louisville

While I may be stretching the definition of “On the Road” by labeling this an “On the Road” post, I was indeed out of the office and hence “On the Road” this past week, visiting the city of Louisville for the annual industry event that is the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar. Perhaps you aware of this event, either through attending it yourself or through reading my coverage over the years (I attended from 2008-2011 before taking last year off because I was in a bad mood).

Regardless, the premise is simple:

001“One Idea is Worth the Price of Admission.”

Minor League Baseball teams all operate within their own markets and, hence, don’t compete with one another. Therefore, the industry is big on idea sharing and the Promotional Seminar represents an opportunity to do just this. I sense a redundancy attack coming, so rather than succumb I’m just going to quote from my recently published MiLB.com piece:

The Promotional Seminar is a well-structured event, with the agenda divided into three main components: Presentations (in which one speaker presents to all attendees), Power Sessions (moderated panel discussions in front of all attendees) and Group Therapy (categorically divided small group discussions running concurrently with one another).

I’d ask that you please read this aforementioned MiLB.com piece, but as for this blog post it’s going to be a bit more ramshackle and (inevitably) me-centric. Also, it’s going to be chronological and it will only focus on Day One of the seminar.

Tuesday, September 24

After sleeping my way through two flights (the Charlotte airport, I hardly knew ye), I arrived in Louisville a little after noon and proceeded to high tail it to (or more accurately, take a cab to) the downtown Galt House Hotel. This hotel, which can safely be categorized as a behemoth, features two buildings connected by a street-spanning pedestrian walkway. Here’s the view from down the block because, apparently, that’s the photo I could muster.

062At 3 o’clock I was scheduled to moderate a Group Therapy discussion, entitled “If You Book Them, Will They Come: What Touring Acts Drive Attendance and Why?” I tried my best to put together an outfit in which I looked business casual chic but instead doofusness resulted. It usually does.

Ben_Hill_Group_Therapy (2)Overall I thought this went well, although the conversation didn’t flow as fast and furiously as it had in the session that took place just prior to mine (“How to Promote a Promotion” moderated by Jen Borowski of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans). Later a few people told me that it had been a tad awkward that several touring performers were in the room, making it so that those working for front offices were hesitant to talk openly about their booking strategies (or lack thereof).

On an industry-wide level one can find many different viewpoints regarding touring performers (which include everyone from the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo show to Reggy the Purple Party Dude to Utility Man Ben to Fur Circus to Louisville’s own Zooperstars! posse). Some teams swear by ‘em, saying that whether fans explicitly come to see them or not they leave the ballpark with indelible memories that will certainly influence their willingness to spring for tickets again. Other teams say that touring perforomers don’t justify the cost, as promotional budgets are limited and its cheaper to develop and promote entertainment in-house.

I understand both views, and don’t think that they are necessarily mutually exclusive. In some alternate reality in which I controlled a promo budget, I’d prioritize in-house talent but nonetheless be adamant about booking 2-3 touring performers a year as its nearly impossible to rival the entertainment that can be provided  by road-hardened pros. (Best case scenario, of course, is that sponsorship can be found for the touring act in question so that it doesn’t have to come out of the promo budget at all.)

Digression complete, it was time to proceed past the Trade Show (which represents a chance for exhibitors to re-establish connections and gain some name recognition before the gargantuan free-for-all that is the Winter Meetings) and into the Grand Ballroom.

If there’s one image that, year to year, defines the Promo Seminar it would be this: a bunch of people in a hotel ballroom listening to a speech. I think I’m now starting to understand why my coverage of this event generates virtually no interest whatsoever outside of the industry. (Or in it, for that matter. Why am I writing this?)

002Highlights of this truncated Tuesday afternoon portion included Amy Venuto’s impassioned (my notes say “evangelical”) talk on “season seat holder membership programs” as well as Nashville Sounds GM Brad Tammen’s talk on getting the most out of dilapidated facilities. This latter presentation seemed cathartic more than anything else, as Tammen shared the many trials and travails he has experienced while operating in Greer Stadium (flooded front offices and collapsed entrance ways are a way of life).

A welcoming cocktail reception followed, and while I’m all for boozing it up with the industry I had to make a quick exit as earlier in the week I had made arranged to meet with longtime reader Stevo, a score-keeping savant and “semi-retired punk/metal atavist” who lives in Louisville. Before making our way to a local eatery, Stevo pointed out a few points of interest. Such as this:

005While the downtown Louisville Slugger Museum includes a working factory, Stevo pointed out that the majority of the company’s output is actually produced in this far less scenic environment. This makes sense because while the museum is a great place to visit (I was there on Friday), it seems unlikely that it alone could handle the demands that come as a result of being the world’s number one wooden bat provider.

Stop two was duPont Manual High School, established in 1892 as an all-male institution and now a co-ed magnet school serving grades 9-12. It is one of Louisville’s most iconic buildings and, more important for our baseball-centric purposes: Pee-Wee Reese went there!

006Some time shortly thereafter, an absolutely brobdingnagian collegiate football facility came into view.

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010Oh, and here’s a place that you might have heard of. A little place that goes by the name of, oh, I don’t know: Churchill Downs.

012Barbaro is buried right out front.

015And, who knows? Maybe one day I will be buried out front as well. In the meantime all I can do is just stand there like an idiot.

014More to come, because there is always more to come. That’s just how it works around these parts.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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