Results tagged ‘ On the Road ’

On the Road: RubberDuck Duck Goose in Akron

My previous “On the Road” blog post, focusing on the Kannapolis Intimidators, appeared on July 17. In the ensuing three and a half weeks I visited seven more ballparks and wrote six “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, four editions of “Promo Preview,”  the July edition of Crooked Numbers and Crooked Nuggets, two travel journal blog posts, and a three-part series detailing the planning of a Major League promotion. My next road trip begins on August 22, and much planning remains to be done regarding that 10-ballpark jaunt.

But, before I leave, I will be writing a series of blog posts devoted to the seven ballparks I visited from July 18-24. You are expecting this from me, and what you expect I deliver.

We begin this latest (and therefore greatest) “On the Road” blog series at Akron’s Canal Park, home of the recently re-branded RubberDucks. I arrived at the ballpark at game time on July 18, after an arduous and oft-delayed 10-hour drive from New York City, and one of the first things I saw was a man on stilts.

004

The last time I was in Akron, I did not see any men on stilts.

As you may recall, I visited Canal Park in 2011. I enjoyed that visit quite a bit — I spent an inning in a dunk tank, and got pied atop the dugout — but that was a very different era. The team was still called the “Aeros” then, and overseen by owners (Mike and Greg Agganis) who were rarely spotted at the ballpark. Attendance had declined precipitously (barely over half of what it what it had been a decade before), and Canal Park was beginning to show its age.

2014, however, marks the second season under the leadership of new owner Ken Babby. The team has been re-branded, the ballpark has received numerous upgrades, and there is an energy at the ballpark that was palpably lacking in 2011.

The above two paragraphs grossly oversimplify a complex chain of events, but, hey, I’m just a blogger. Grossly oversimplifying complex chains of events is what I’m here to do.

Anyhow, I hope that the guy on stilts had already gotten his standing room only ticket. July 18’s game was sold out.

006

005

In my official Ben’s Biz capacity, I had never arrived to the ballpark after the game had started. I was feeling kind of stressed out and didn’t really know where to begin, but, fortunately, this turned out to be a night in which things came to me. Almost immediately, one of the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits) emerged on the concourse and introduced himself.

Hello, Joe Meadows.

007

Joe lives in Cleveland, “right across the road” from the Indians’ home of Progressive Field. Nonetheless, he is more likely to attend RubberDucks games simply because he likes the Minor Leagues better. He works for the Progressive Insurance company, and was previously employed by the Cleveland Browns.

Soon afterwards, Designated Eater #2 emerged. This is Adam Ray, who I did not get a chance to photo until we were in this indoor location.

020Adam lives in Kent, Ohio, and is an employee of that city. His interest in the team during the Aeros era was minimal, but Adam is on board with the RubberDucks. In particular, he’s a fan of seeing games from the right field Tiki Terrace. (More on that later).

You’ll notice that, in the above photo, Adam is wearing a RubberDucks t-shirt. Such apparel can be found in abundance in the team store.

009Joe and Adam and I visited the store, along with RubberDucks assistant general manager Scott Riley, as a prelude to the designated eating that would soon commence. I’m just noticing now that the dude in the above photo, standing to the right of Adam, is wearing duck feet.

009

Of course, not everyone is on board with the “RubberDucks” moniker. But what can you do? This may as well be the official motto of Minor League Baseball.

010

I acquired this shirt for my friend’s three-year-old son. Webster is the “Poochiest” mascot in all of Minor League Baseball, which makes me a fan.

008

Meanwhile, on the videoboard, RubberDucks promotions manager Christina Shisler was introducing one of that night’s promotions to the crowd: a “World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose” record attempt. I’m going to assume that that guy on her left is her personal secret service agent.

011

In the above photo, below the scoreboard, a much smaller Shisler can be seen standing in the first row of right field seats. To her left is the fan who then began the game of Duck Duck Goose, with a simple, solemn declaration of “Duck.” The game was scheduled to last for the next several innings, slowly winding around the entire seating bowl and ending in the seats located down the left field line.

Duck…duck…duck…duck…duck…and so on, and so forth.

012With the world record attempt underway, Riley took me and my designated eaters on a little tour of the upstairs area. This past offseason, a local artist by the name of Mike Ayers was hired to paint Akron baseball-themed murals at several locations within the ballpark. He did a great job with it.

This painting can be seen at the staircase landing between the first and second levels. (Note that I did not say “betwixt” in the previous sentence. Real people, who use the English language in real life, never use that word.)

013

At the top of the stairs, one encounters Ayers’ homage to the “Aeros” era (1997-2013). More like the Eros era, as there is a lot to love about this:

015

This picture doesn’t really convey just how big the press box is. It’s beyond gargantuan, and only one adjective lies beyond gargantuan: Brobdingnagian.

017

The team installed a new scoreboard prior to the 2013 campaign. That, too, is Brobdingnagian. It is operated by these shadowy figures…

018 who do what they can to bring pie-in-face action to as many people as possible.

019

Shortly thereafter, this materialized. Hey, thanks! I’ll wear it with pride.

021

New swag in hand, we were then ushered into a first floor conference room. Food and beverage manager Brian Manning was waiting for us amid an array of, yes, food and beverage. Allow him to explain, because he does it better than I could and I ain’t ’bout to transcribe.

Adam began with the Johnny Manziel Dog, while Joe had the TeriyAKRON pineapple Bowl.

022

Adam!023

Joe!

025

Adam and Joe!

027

Unfortunately, my notes regarding Joe and Adam’s opinion of these items are largely indecipherable.

“Fine line between spicy and hot didn’t eat sine,” is what it says next to Adam’s name. “Good like the pineapple adds mix of goodness” is what it says next to Joe’s. The bottom line is that both guys liked both items, but both chose the Manziel Dog as the superior option.

I was off of my note-taking game, but the show must go on. Next up was the brand-new “Return of the King” burger, which was created in honor of my return to Canal Park (or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

028

Maybe Brian Manning has a better explanation:

030Adam said that this burger made him “nervous,” but that it turned out to be good. Joe praised the Boursin cheese, saying that it blended well with the other flavors of the burger. No one really laughed when I said that the flavor of this burger, like LeBron, should ” lack Heat.”

There was also a sampling of this beer shake, with Adam comparing its texture to that of a root beer float.

031

Joe then went ahead and spilled a Daisy Duck soda float all over his shorts, changing his name to Molly Ringwald immediately thereafter.

032

033

Stained shorts or not, the designated eating experience garnered rave reviews.

“It was fantastic,” said Adam. “I got to go out of my comfort zone and I’m glad I did because there was some really good stuff that I don’t think I would have tried before. But I’ll definitely get it again.”

“At the end of the day, I’m refreshingly full and ready for baseball.” added Joe.

Thanks, guys. Your work here is done.

038

But I had miles to go before I sleep. Riley and I took a little jaunt down the third base side of the stadium, where some 1800 seats had been removed in favor of the “Fowl Territory” picnic patio.

041

Note the giant team banner plastered on to the side of the building on the right. This building used to be the prestigious Mayflower Hotel, where a veritable who’s who of early to mid-20th century celebrities once stayed. (Including — you guessed it — Frank Stallone.)
042

In this photo, a giant turkey is walking off of the field. He had just lost a race against Coffee and Donut.

043

Walking from Fowl Territory back toward home plate, we encountered Caitlyn the intern (her last name is not “the intern.” I just don’t know what her last name is).  She is wearing an orange shirt.

045

Caitlyn had the unenviable task of going from section to section, explaining that the World’s Largest Game of Duck Duck Goose was in progress and that now it was their turn to play. It was difficult for her to be heard over the near-constant din of the sound system, but she was indomitable in her quest to convey this information in a succint and cheerful manner. Being an intern is hard work, and no one even bothers to learn your last name.

I wasn’t yet able to participate in the game, however, for it was my job to be the goose. Being a diva at heart, I demanded assistance in getting into the goose costume.

047

I’ll refrain from posting more pictures of the goose dressing process, as I don’t want to destroy the illusions of children who are still under the impression that that was an actual goose on the field.

060Because of course it was an actual goose on the field.

066

Webster and the Goose didn’t come to the game. The game came to them.

History made, or at least attempted to be made, I morphed back into blogger form and encountered this top secret situation.

080

That’s the take from the evening’s 50-50 raffle, with $789 going to the winner and — you guessed it — $789 going toward charity. I then followed the money with general manager Jim Pfander, dropping off the winning $789 at guest services and then making a pit stop at the world’s largest press box so that he could pick up the cash to be used for a post-game “Dash for Cash” promotion. (More on that later.)

See, it really is the world’s largest press box.

081

And speaking of money….In this undisclosed ballpark location, the RubberDucks  have an RBG-300 “Intelligent Cash Recycler.”

082

Pfander was very enthusiastic about this addition to the front office, which was acquired at the suggestion of team bookkeeper Leslie Wenzlawsh. Each evening the money collected at the ballpark is deposited into this machine, and the money is immediately credited to the team’s bank account. Then, the next morning, a Brinks truck collects the money and takes it to the bank.  Do other teams do this? If not, Pfander predicted that, after seeing this blog post, they’d strongly consider it.

Meanwhile, I was strongly considering the purchase of a RubberDucks wine glass.

084These are the sort of things available for sale in the suite-level team “store.” How the other half lives:

083

Back among the hoi polloi, the aromas of Eddie’s Cheesesteaks was alluring.

089

But at this late juncture of the evening, fans had dessert on their minds. At the Sock Hop, fans can obtain “Duck Floats” and then spill them all over their shorts. Ruggles ice cream is served here. Ohioans love Ruggles, I was told.

091

And, look — the team store has a personalized t-shirt “to-go” window.

090

Here’s the right field Tiki Terrace, frequented by Adam Ray of designated eating fame (on the left). The Tiki Terrace is a new addition to Canal Park.

092

The bar is plastered with the baseball cards of former Akron players. Obviously, this picture was taken a long time ago.

096These seats in the Tiki Terrace, located where bleachers used to be, can be had for just $5. But not for long.

“It takes you a year to really figure out what you have, and then you can price accordingly,” said Pfander.

Accordingly, these seats will cost more in 2015.

099

101

The seats themselves swivel 360 degrees. That might not be apparent from this photo, but, trust me, they do. I would never lie to you.

100

Beyond the Tiki Terrace sits “The Game Bar and Grill,” which also has an entrance on the outside of the stadium and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a year-round basis.

117

106

And above “The Game” sits the Duck Club, “Akron’s newest private event space.”  This is the view of these establishments from outside of the stadium.

109In Da (Duck) Club:

112

Mike Ayers, artist:

113

The Game Bar and Grill’s kitchen is located on the second level, alongside the Duck Club.

115

The food is sent down to the lower level via a dumbwaiter…

114…because only a dumb waiter would take the stairs.

116

A brief stop in Pfander’s office yielded this photo, which includes all of the giveaways from this season’s “Rock n’ Bobblehead” series.

118

But the night was not over yet.

Now, it was time to head back onto the field for the Cash Dash post-game promo. $1000 in singles was dumped upon the field, as well as one $50 bill. Then, 30 fans ran to the outfield in order to retrieve as much of it as they could.

120 121

124

126

It was nice out there.

129

This transitioned into a “Dave Matthews Band” fireworks display. (Personally, I’m not a fan. I would have preferred a Dave Matthews Banned fireworks display, in which his music wasn’t allowed.)

131However, there was some sort of delay related to the fireworks. So, to kill the time, fans were entertained by the “LeBron Powder Cam.”

132

The best thing about the Powder Cam was that it didn’t really work all that well. Fans would appear on the screen and clap their hands, and then a “poof” of powder would emerge. However, there was often a delay of several seconds between the fans clapping and the powder graphic appearing, leading to awkward moments of expectation.

133

Whatever snafu that had been delaying the fireworks was soon straightened out, and pyrotechnics lit up the night sky. This photo is awful.

136

But it wasn’t time to go home because it’s never time to go home. Hey, kids, run the bases! I mean sure, why not? (But not just any kids could run the bases, these were group outing raffle winners.)

IMG_0042

And, that, finally, is all that she wrote from Akron. Or all that he wrote, I guess. He being me. At the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted. It’s hard work being a goose.

IMG_0037

Meanwhile, my next trip begins on August 22. Here’s the itinerary (an asterisk means that a designated eater is still needed). If you’re one of the teams on the itinerary, feel free to get in touch. I am having trouble finding the time to coordinate all of the details, but the show will go on.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road — July 31 Update

The last time that I had the chance to update this blog, it was July 22 and I was in a La Quinta lobby in downtown Indianapolis. I am currently back home in New York City, steadily cranking out “On the Road” MiLB.com articles, Promo Preview, and, soon, Crooked Numbers. (Hat tip to Bowling Green Hot Rods announcer Andrew Kappes, who just sent me a detailed recap of a recent 2-3-5-4-1-7 putout at home plate.)

Read now or die trying:

On the Road: Akron RubberDucks (the Return of the King and Duck Duck Goose) 

On the Road: West Virginia Power (the Toastman)

On the Road: Columbus Clippers (team historian Joe Santry)

On the Road: Indianapolis Indians and the most popular team Twitter account in the Minors.

On the Road: Louisville Bats and the Art of Keeping Score

But for right now, I’m here to answer the question that no one’s asking: What did you do after leaving the La Quinta on the early afternoon of July 22? Why, I’m glad you didn’t ask! Here’s the answer:

July 22: I drove from Indianapolis to Louisville’s sprawling Galt House Hotel, where I stayed during last September’s Minor League Baseball promo seminar.

0621

September 2013 file photo

I was in Louisville to attend a Bats game, of course, and the Bats’ home of Louisville Slugger Field is quite close to the hotel. However, while walking to the ballpark in a distracted state (my de facto road trip existence) , I shot right past W. Main Street (where it is located) and walked north about 25 minutes in the wrong direction. These are just the sort of things I seem to do on these road trips.

If you’re walking to Louisville Slugger Field from the Galt House Hotel, and you see the Ahrens Vocational School, then something has gone wrong.

002

And, jeez, it was so hot outside — just about the hottest that I have ever been while on one of these trips. I took a walking selfie in an attempt to convey the extent of the heat-related misery.

004

I arrived at Louisville Slugger Field much later than intended (a running theme on this trip), but no harm, no foul. Awareness of and interest in my visit was minimal within the Bats front office, and this gave me time to just take a minute and get my bearings. I ended up having a good night for what it was, and, of course, you’ll read all about it here soon enough. Or at least I hope you will.

July 23: I do enjoy staying at the Galt House Hotel. This was the view the next morning from the 21st floor.

IMG_0076

IMG_0077The next day in Louisville was hectic, and I’ll write about it in a separate blog post. But, long story short, I visited both the Louisville Slugger Museum and Skillville Group HQ (home of the Zooperstars! and crew).

030

Posing in the bat vault with what I believe was a Chuck Klein model

040

I wish I had had time to visit Dan Simon (of logo-designing Studio Simon fame) in Louisville as well. Between him and Louisville Slugger and Skillville and punk-metal atavist Stevo (he’ll appear in a story in the near future), I’ve got a lot of contacts there.

But, yikes, all of this cavorting once again put me in a time crunch. From Louisville it was on to Lexington. Lexington is home of the Legends.

056

All will soon be revealed regarding my evening with the Legends. I stayed at the Ramada Inn that night, which kinda seemed stuck in a mid-late ’70s time vortex. The vending machines didn’t have a slot for dollar bills, and the likes of Seals and Crofts were playing in the lobby the next morning.

But, as for that vending machine, I did grip some Grippo’s. As you’ll notice, Grippo is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s, who is gripping some Grippo’s….on and on until infinity, except there is no such thing as “until” infinity. Only “toward.”

IMG_0084July 24 — After the requisite frantic late morning/early afternoon writing session in the hotel lobby, it was on to Dayton. But first, I stopped for lunch at a Lexington BBQ spot called “Willie’s Locally Known.” This was on the recommendation of West Virginia Power broadcaster Adam Marco, who has been known to blog about such things.

002

As you probably know, I have celiac disease and must maintain a gluten-free diet. Therefore, ordering a sandwich was off limits. But the burnt ends — succulent cubes of brisket — they seemed like it would be gluten free (Yes, seemed. I did not have the heart to verify whether or not they were gluten-free, because I really wanted to eat them. It’s hard out there for a celiac, and I try to maintain my self-discipline, but sometimes I error on the side of incaution when it comes to potential gluten in sauces and seasonings and what not.)

Anyway, just look at these things. The best ones were those that had some fat on them, which had the buttery almost bone marrow-like consistency.

001

I patronized Willie’s during an early weekday afternoon, and it was empty and quiet. But I got the sense that good things are happening there, as friendly people and good food and live music makes for a great combination. Plus, it was recommended by Adam Marco. One must follow Adam Marco’s recommendations.

After lunch I stopped at a funky shopping center on Leesman Road, in order to make a cameo at Pop’s Re-Sale.

003

Pops Resale is a ramshackle palace of used records, old video game systems, DVDs, VHS, vintage clothing, stereo equipment and all sorts of odds and ends. It is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

005 I considered buying this, so that Grippo could ride it on his journey toward infinity.

IMG_0085I did actually buy this, as it fits my drinking philosophy.

photo

Whipped Cream, Other Delights.

IMG_0086

If you’re in Lexington, I’d definitely recommend checking out this stretch of stores on Leesman Road. I had actually been here in 2004, during my pre-MiLB existence, and bought an awesome dark green work jacket at the Goodwill seen in the below photo. I wish I had had the time to visit there again, as well as Wild Fig. Next time.

008

But, per usual, I was running late. Dayton awaited! Dayton is the home of the Dragons.

009

That’s the view from a privately-run downtown lot, where I paid $5 to park my rental car. The Dragons’ home of Fifth Third Field is located just beyond and to the right of that warehouse.  (Dayton’s Fifth Third is one of three Fifth Third ballparks in Minor League Baseball. Three Fifth Thirds equal five, for those keeping score at home.)

I spent a total of four hours in Dayton, as immediately after the game ended I drove to Pittsburgh. There were reasons for this. One, I wanted to break up the drive to New York City as opposed to doing it from Dayton in a straight shot, and, two, I always enjoy visiting Pittsburgh. I went to Pitt and, therefore, lived in Pittsburgh from 1997-2002 (in 2001-02 I did a stint in AmeriCorps). Pittsburgh is a great city.

July 25 —  One of Pittsburgh’s best eateries is Dee’s Six Pack and Dogs in Regent Square. Down that hallway lurks a massive walk-in beer cooler, which I occasionally used to visit in my gluten-free days.

IMG_0093

I appreciate that Dee’s is now friendly to the gluten free. This hot dog (topped with Sriracha slaw and sweet potato fries) came wrapped in two corn tortillas. I found this to be better than gluten-free buns, which, like a house of cards, fall apart upon contact.

IMG_0091

Oh, and I visited record stores. Back in my college days, this fine establishment was called Paul’s CDs. One year I was music director at WPTS 92.1, Pitt’s college station, and in that role I was able to spend $35 a week on music to add to rotation. That was awesome.

The eponymous Paul sold the store a few years back, and it is now owned by Karl Hendricks (of the Karl Hendricks Trio) and called Sound Cat. It’s in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, and I suggest that you go there. I picked up some Michael Hurley and some Nilsson.

IMG_0094

From there it was on Mind Cure in Polish Hill, which opened well after I left Pittsburgh for the less-green pastures of NYC. Seen entering the store is one Mike Rensland, a guy who wore a sleeveless death metal t-shirt to his own wedding reception.

IMG_0095

IMG_0096At Mind Cure I picked up a used Ultrabunny LP as well as a Folkways label curiosity: a dramatization of  the 1855 Murder Trial of William Palmer, Surgeon. Let me know if you want to come over, have a couple drinks, and listen to it.

I wasn’t in town Saturday night, unfortunately, but if you live in Pittsburgh you know that this show has essentially been taking place three times a year for the past 15 years.

IMG_0099

Finally, we have the king of all record stores: Jerry’s. This place is a national treasure. Go there immediately.

IMG_0106 This ground-floor dollar bin alcove is bigger than most proper record stores.

IMG_0107

But upstairs, that’s where the magic happens. Pictures don’t do it justice. There are multiple rooms beyond the main room (include “Whistlin’ Willies” 78 Shop), and those boxes stacked in the back are all 45s.

IMG_0108

IMG_0109

IMG_0114

That dude on the right in the blue shirt (in conversation with much loved/much hated concert promoter Manny Theiner) is Mike Prosser. Prosser knows more about music, books, and movies than anyone I know. Guys like Prosser tend to live in cities like Pittsburgh.

IMG_0112

I bought a small selection of primo used LPs from Jerry’s, but even cooler is that I finally took home this 100-year-old Victor Talking Machine that I bought there three years ago (I didn’t have a car on that visit, and ended up storing it at a friend’s house). Check it out, this thing is now in my living room!

Anyhow, “On the Road” blog posts — one from each stop on the road trip detailed above and in the previous post — will resume in early August. In the meantime, here’s the itinerary for my fourth and final trip of the season. As always, get in touch with any and all article/cultural suggestions. An asterisk next to the team name means that a designated eater is still needed at that particular location.

August 22 — Batavia Muckdogs*

August 23 — Rochester Red Wings*

August 24 — Jamestown Jammers*

August 25 — Erie SeaWolves*

August 26 — Buffalo Bisons

August 27 — Syracuse Chiefs

August 28 — Auburn Doubledays*

August 29 — Tri-City ValleyCats

August 30 — Hudson Valley Renegades*

August 31 — Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders

The goal is to survive.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road Again — July 22 Update

Hello from the main lobby of a La Quinta hotel in downtown Indianapolis. I am in the midst of my latest and therefore greatest road trip, and have somehow already visited four ballparks (with three to go). Each trip takes its own tone, and this one has been particularly manic.

The tone was set on Friday, when I drove from New York City to Akron in order to see the RubberDucks game that evening. Most of the drive was on interstate 80, and this road is kind of a mess to drive on — congested, narrow and, during some stretches, there are more trucks than cars. I got pulled over for speeding almost immediately, but the New Jersey state trooper who did so let me off with a warning and I was most appreciative. I wasn’t so fortunate later in the trip, when, somewhere in the Pennsylvania Wilds, traffic came to a total standstill for over an hour.

IMG_0030

I ended up talking to a trucker for a while as we sat on the guardrail, and he said that there was a motorcycle fatality at mile marker 139 (we were at 144). He seemed like a nice guy, but I guess when you’re on the road for a living gallows humor becomes the norm.

“The only reason they’d close both lanes is because somebody got squished,” he said. “The coroner’s gonna do what he needs to do and then they’ll let us go.”

So, yeah, getting to a Minor League Baseball game on time suddenly didn’t seem so important. The seven-hour drive ended up taking 10, and I arrived in Akron as the game was starting. Late arrival or not, I still got a sneak preview of the “Return of the King” burger (read about it HERE) and then suited up as the Goose in a Duck Duck Goose world record attempt.

The next day I had very little time to explore Akron, but I did what I always try to do: I visited a record store.

007

006

Square Records was a quality establishment, good mix between new and used offerings and plenty of under-the-radar stuff to peruse. I ended up getting the Heavy Blanket/Earthless live record as well as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid/M.A.A.d. City” on vinyl. I had only had that on iTunes previously, but it is a stone-cold classic and very respectful of the album format. Therefore, I wanted to have it as an album, something to put on late at night in the living room.

As you can see from the above photo, Square Records is next to a movie theater. And not only were they showing “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but a real-life sports drama as well. “Welcome Home, LeBron,” in other words.

001

This was a cool neighborhood, wherever I was. Surely, this dive bar would be a great place to catch a show.

004

From there, I filled up the satanic gas tank and moved on to Charleston, West Virginia.

IMG_0046

Downtown Charleston was largely deserted on Sunday, but I enjoyed the atmosphere.

002Capitol Street was the place to be, it seemed.

004

On Capitol Street, I visited Taylor Books. This establishment had a coffee shop on the premises and a great selection of books and magazines. Long may it live.

005

Following standard operating road trip procedure, I picked up a couple of zines while at Taylor. One was a public transit diary, the other a history of Iran-Contra. If you’re lucky enough to have a book or record store that sells zines in the area where you live, then please buy them.

West Virginia complete, it was then back to the Buckeye State.

001

I wish I had something to share from my time in Columbus, as regards the city itself, but I was under the weather on Sunday and well into the next day. It was really touch and go there for a while. But I’ll persevere, all the way up until the time when I don’t. Gotta keep moving.

I’m in Indy now, as mentioned, and will soon be in Louisville (Tuesday, as in TONIGHT) —  Lexington (Wednesday) and Dayton (Thursday) will follow. Oh, and over the last two nights I cobbled a new edition of Promo Preview together, you can read that HERE. (And then tell your friends to do the same.)

I’ll update this post with more if and when time allows. In the meantime, please know that Mick Foley is now a close and personal friend of mine. This photo was taken at Saturday’s West Virginia Power game, which was a great day for Mankind.

025

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Keeping It Simple In Kannapolis

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Kannapolis. 

The Kannapolis Intimidators play 25 miles northeast of Charlotte, a major metropolitan area that is expanding to the point to where it may just swallow Kannapolis whole. But despite the proximity of Kannapolis to Charlotte, the Minor League Baseball atmosphere to be found in the two cities could not be any more different.

The Charlotte Knights — Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox — play in a beautiful new uptown stadium featuring the bells and whistles one would expect from a top-level Minor League team playing in a top-level Minor League market. (Click HERE for my blog entry on the Knights.) The Kannapolis Intimidators — Class A affiliate of those same Chicago White Sox — are something else entirely. CMC-Northeast Stadium is a wonderful place to take in a game, charmingly intimate and comparatively quiet. You can hear yourself think here. And while the crowds might be relatively small (especially on the rainy Tuesday evening in which I attended), there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and quirkiness that makes it a quintessential Minor League experience.

Simply put, I enjoyed seeing a game in Kannapolis more than I’ve enjoyed seeing a game in any other stadium during this, the 2014 season.

IMG_1553

Unlike many Minor League parks, CMC Northeast Stadium is not located on a street which reflects the presence of a ballpark. No “Curveball Court” or “Home Run Avenue” or “Defensive Indifference Boulevard” to be found here. Rather,  the 20-year-old facility resides on Moose Road. Once I turned onto Moose Road, I became convinced that I had entered the wrong address into my GPS. It was a most unassuming road, surrounded by trees and devoid of any commercial establishments.

But then — bam — there it was. A huge parking lot, leading to a not-so huge stadium.

033

034

035

The Intimidators franchise relocated to Kannapolis in 1995 from Spartanburg, South Carolina, beginning life as the Piedmont Phillies. They changed their name to the Boll Weevils the following season (Boll Weevils are an insect possessing an insatiable appetite for cotton, once a major problem in textile towns such as Kannapolis). NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, a Kannapolis native, purchased a share of the team in 2000 and this precipitated a name change to the Kannapolis Intimidators.

Dale Earnhardt was known as “The Intimidator,” of course, but he never got to see the Intimidators play. He was killed in a racing accident in February of 2001, but the Intimidators name still lives on.

036

My first view from inside the stadium:

038

A penthouse perspective:

041

042

The Intimidators have retired three numbers, only one of which is in honor of a baseball player. #50 is retired throughout the South Atlantic League in honor of John Henry Moss, who served as league president for 50 years. #42 is retired throughout the entirety of professional baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. And #3 is, or course, Dale Earnhardt.

043

One can obtain booze under a canopy.

044

The food options are pretty basic, but we’ll get to that later.

045

At this juncture of the evening it was probably a pretty good idea to be standing under a nearby canopy. For, once again, I was witness to a pre-game rain delay. (In fact, the only game I saw on this trip that wasn’t affected in any way by rain was the Rome Braves.)

046

This certainly wasn’t the first time that the Intimidators front office pulled tarp this season. So, you want to work in Minor League Baseball?

048

During the rain delay I hung out in the press box with Intimidators broadcaster Josh Feldman and PA announcer Sean Fox. In Fox’s bio on the team website, it says “Sean has been the primary PA Announcer for Intimidators games since 2010. He wanted to be listed on the website. It was either this, or he’d have fans boo the website the same way he encourages you to boo BINGO numbers on Tuesday nights.”

053

It was indeed “BINGO Night” on the night I attended, and booing is indeed a tradition. We’ll get to that later. But first, here’s an exclusive look at Sean’s go-to sound effects. Baseball anthropologists should file this picture away, as it captures the Minor League zeitgeist. 

049

And if you’re wondering, the “visitor home run” audio (F8) is Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

I also spent time perusing through the team’s cd collection, which is no longer used. With a few exceptions, the music on this particular mix is just awful.

051

With not much else to do, I simply gazed upon the wonder that is the Intimidators’ eternal press box. These windows go on forever, each one depicting a small glance into an increasingly out of focus alternate Minor League Baseball reality.

052

Sean utilized his time in a more productive way. Namely, by initiating an impromptu rain delay BINGO game. The prize was a baseball autographed by the 2012 Charleston RiverDogs, which Feldman happened to have sitting on a nearby shelf.

055

And here’s Mr. Josh Feldman, the Intimidators announcer. Feldman’s path to his profession is an odd one. After being cut from the USC volleyball team he began calling the team’s games, mostly out of frustration with the fact that no one else seemed to know anything about volleyball. This led to an interest in broadcasting, which led to a stint with an Indy League team which led to his current gig with the Intimidators. You should listen to the dude, he’s erudite.

056

The rain, like bull riding or sumo wrestling, was intense but brief. While waiting for the game to begin, I did a little wandering.

058

059

But my wanderings were cut short, as Feldman tracked me down and said that since I was a ceremonial first pitch throwing professional I should throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

060

It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to strap on my recently-acquired GoPro camera.

064

I threw a strike. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And while I neglected to take a picture, the Intimidators give all ceremonial first pitch throwers a team-signed baseball. I gave mine away, but how cool is that? I’d never seen such a thing before.

With the game underway, I spent an inning or two with Debby and Marshall Smith. They are members of the Intimidators Booster Club, and very passionate when it comes to supporting the players (who are mostly in their early 20s and in some cases away from home for the first time).

065My feature on the Smiths and their work with the Intimidators Booster Club can be found HERE.

The Smiths sit in second-row seats located down the third base line, but those seeking more rustic accommodations can certainly find them.

067

068

Walking on the concourse, toward home plate, I stopped and chatted briefly with a couple named Heather and Mike. Mike started following me on Twitter on the spot, which Heather said is an honor because he hardly follows anyone on Twitter. I said that I’d give them a shout-out on the blog, so here you go: Hello, Heather. Hello, Mike.

And hello, Paul Buchanan!

069

At the ballpark, very few people know this gentleman as Paul Buchanan. He is the “Uh-Huh Guy,” and he is a real character. I wrote a feature on him, which I’d ask that you take the time to read. If not, here’s an introductory excerpt:

The Uh-Huh Guy wears an “Uh-Huh” hat and an “Uh-Huh” T-shirt (both custom made), and punctuates his ear-splitting ballpark cheers and jeers with his signature phrase of — you guessed it — “Uh-huh!” And throughout the ballgame, it’s not just the Uh-Huh Guy’s voice that travels. He always wears a glove and is always on the move, pacing the concourse in a constant pursuit of foul balls. 

Kannapolis call and response.

After interviewing the Uh-Huh Guy (which,  let me assure you, is no easy task), I was approached by “Raider Rock.”

089

Raider Rock wrestles for $5 Wrestling, an organization with the tagline “Wrestling So Bad It’s Good.”  You don’t want to mess with Raider Rock.

Seriously.

Raider Rock could generally be found in close proximity to the Uh-Huh Guy, making for one of the most eccentric ballpark duos I’ve ever seen. I heard him yelling his “Dominate, Terminate and Exterminate” tagline throughout the evening, but to me he said “I’ve heard good things about you, Ben, and if I’ve heard good things you know it’s good.”

Thanks, Raider Rock. Keep doing what you’re doing!

Anyway, time to play some BINGO.

072

I even called a few numbers myself, with the help of promotions director Amber Sersen (who has since moved on to a position with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers . A lot can happen in a month). My selections were indeed met with a smattering of boos, but the crowd seemed to go pretty easy on me.

074

077

The balls I grabbed were white. Here’s a look at the board at the end of the half-inning break.

080

I really liked BINGO Night, which  suited the quiet Tuesday night atmosphere. As opposed to frenetic blasts of activity every half-inning, this was a fun, low-key contest that kept the fans engaged throughout the game. Kannapolis was the seventh city (and ninth ballpark) I’d visited in the last seven days, so I was feeling a little burned out and grateful for the change of pace.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same…

081

That shadowy figure is Matt Campbell, reprising his role as designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). The previous night in Charlotte, Matt l had enjoyed Queen City Cue and a Carolina Dog. Today, he had the Colossal Dog to contend with.

082

085

“It’s a half-pound monster,” said Matt. “The team used to have a stand called Hot Dog Hut, where you could get a wide variety of toppings. But I’d order this again, even if its naked and I have to squeeze the condiments from out of a dispenser.”

Okay! Moving on, we have something a little more unique.

086

This is a “Dale’s Mater Sandwich” — tomato, mayo and pepper on white bread. It was a childhood favorite of Dale Earnhardt (hence the name), and, as it turns out, it was a childhood favorite of Matt’s as well.

“I was raised on these,” said Matt. “Like on a Sunday afternoon, you’re with your cousins at the pool and you have a tomato sandwich. This one is pretty good. The tomatoes appear to be relatively fresh.”

And, at $2, this is one of the cheapest sandwich options in Minor League Baseball.

As Matt finished up with his Dale’s Mater, I checked in on Feldman and company in the press box.

088

In fact, I even took a little video of Feldman at work. I recorded it in improper vertical fashion, but nonetheless I think this is worth watching. It gives a nice sense of the Kannapolis atmosphere, in which everybody seems to know everybody.

Speaking of everybody knowing everybody — soon after I left the press box I heard a voice behind me. “Hey, Ben.”

090

That’s Charlotte Knights general manager Scott Brown. The Knights had played a day game (which I had attended), and Scotty took advantage of his free evening by driving out to Kannapolis.

“I just like to come here, sit down, throw my peanut shells down on the ground, and relax,” he told me. “This is what it’s all about.”

This inspired me. When was the last time that I had actually sat down and watched the game? When had I thrown some peanut shells on the ground?

The time was now.

092

South Atlantic League baseball, Tuesday night after a rain delay edition.

093

I watched the final two innings with Matt, his father-in-law, and step-daughter. There was some mild ribbing of this guy’s hair.

094

And a debate regarding whether anyone could spell this guy’s name correctly on the first attempt.

095

The game ended in a frustrating fashion, as an Inimidators rally was snuffed out after an extremely delayed third strike call. It was definitely a deer-in-the-headlights “rookie moment” for the umpire, and helped clinch the first-half division championship (it became official the next day).

To add insult to injury, the tarp was then put on the field as a precaution. Feldman tried to convince me to join in the fun, but I bailed due to a lack of proper tarp-pulling clothing. But, next time, this excuse isn’t going to fly. I have since been informed that the Intimidators have a bin full of so-called “tarp shoes,” ready and waiting for reluctant tarp-pullers such as myself.

shoes

Next time, guys. Next time.

That’ll do it for posts related to my second road trip of the season, but trip number three starts now! Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

(team is recruiting)

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Movin’ On Uptown in Charlotte

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE and HERE to read features from Charlotte. 

Usually, when I go on one of these road trips, there is a “hook” that motivates me to visit the region in question. My first trip of 2014, which took place in late April and early May, brought me to the Southwest (and, later, Texas) because it seemed imperative to visit the El Paso Chihuahuas in this, their inaugural season. 2014’s second trip, which you are reading about now, was motivated by the desire to see the Huntsville Stars’ final season and the Charlotte Knights in their new ballpark.

This post will be devoted to the latter attraction. Welcome to Charlotte.

IMG_1538

The above photo was taken from just outside of the Knights’ new home of BB&T Ballpark (No, I don’t like these generic corporate names either, but money talks. Sometimes I have fantasies about being super-rich and buying ballpark naming rights, which I’d then let the fans christen via an online “Name the Stadium” contest.)

BB&T Ballpark has all the bells and whistles one would expect from a gleaming new downtown (or, in this case, uptown) facility, but its most memorable feature isn’t part of the ballpark. It’s simply the fact that the Knights are once again in Charlotte, surrounded by what is almost certainly the best urban ballpark view in all of Minor League Baseball. After a quarter century in which the Knights competed across the state line (in Fort Mill, South Carolina), they are once again Charlotte’s team.

I walked to BB&T Ballpark from a nearby hotel, and my first view of the facility was this.

013

But I did not utilize this left field line entryway. My media pass was to be found closer to home plate, so further on I trekked. Along the way, I took note of these murals depicting Charlotte’s ballpark history.

During my long journey to another entrance, I made note of the fact that the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play just across the way. Surely, this photo will earn me some sort of award.

015

And, what do you know? Most of the Carolina Panthers were right there on the field, taking batting practice.

016

Some guys were more into it than others.

018

Hitting stances varied…

019

020

But the undisputed star of the show was long snapper J.J. Jansen. He handily won the “home run derby” that was taking place (my notes are a little unclear, but the only other guy who I saw hit one was quarterback Joe Webb).

Jansen in action. 024 I don’t know who this is, but my notes say “worst hitter, yellow shirt.” 026 Some views from the playing field. 028 030 Meanwhile, Jensen was reaping the spoils of victory. I felt happy for the guy, as his “day job” is one that gets no recognition whatsoever. The only time people give a second thought to the long snapper is when he messes up,  kind of like driving a pace car or being an umpire. 031 I flirted with the idea of interviewing some Carolina Panthers, but writing an article with the topic of “football players take batting practice” didn’t seem very appealing. Instead, I just soaked in the atmosphere. IMG_1533 By the time I emerged on the concourse, there were already a lot of people roaming the concourse. When it comes to this ballpark, Charlotte fans are definitely still in the honeymoon period. (In fact, the Knights have already established a new attendance record.)034 I’ll write about some of the food offerings a bit later, but for now I’d just like to note that Dave & Frans (a popular Charlotte restaurant) sold pork rinds, boiled peanuts and sweet tea. These are three of my favorite things in the world. 036 Moving on to the outfield — more vantage points! 038 039 041 042 043 046 I had never seen a NEOS Wall at a ballpark before. In fact, I had never seen a NEOS Wall, period. But it was really cool, kind of like a Nintendo Power Pad for a new generation. Video games combined with exercise. 040 But enough about NEOS. Pourin’ it was out there and, like soothing ointment on a flesh wound, the front office was putting the tarp on the field. This marked the fourth time on this trip in which I witnessed a rain delay. The weather, it was just not on my side.

BB&T Ballpark is equipped to handle many things, but it’s not quite equipped to comfortably accommodate a near-capacity crowd on the concourse. I’m not sure if many (or any) ballparks are.

049

The hoi polloi were packed in like sardines, but those with access to the upper club level (suite holders and such) had plenty of room to move.

050

A brief detour to the press box resulted in an impromptu meeting with Ernesto Hurtado, who produces the Knights’ Spanish language radio broadcasts. I wrote a story about that HERE.

053

After a brief rain delay, that evening’s scheduled contest between the Knights and Rochester Red Wings was ready to begin. What a beautiful ballpark atmosphere.

055

With the game underway, Knights media relations director Tommy Viola (one of the hardest working men in Minor League Baseball) took me on a little tour of the facility.

 

We started in the outfield.

061

On the whole, the Knights have taken a “fresh and local” approach to their concessions. One notable exception is that the team chose Buffalo-based Sahlen’s as the official hot dog provider. Tommy said that the front office taste-tested dozens of varieties, and simply decided that Sahlen’s was the superior product.

062

Some fans get their hot dog fix before the game, however, as 88-year-old Green’s Lunch is located across the street from the stadium. This iconic establishment has extended its hours in conjunction with the Knights’ home schedule.

065

In perusing Green’s menu, I noticed that they serve “livermush” as one of their breakfast side dishes. I had never heard of livermush, but it’s the scrapple of the south! Pig liver, head parts and cornmeal never looked so good. I would eat it, so long as it’s gluten free, and it just might be!

1280px-Liver_Mush

There’s no way to properly segue from livermush, so I won’t even bother. Moving on…

This is the “Home Run Porch,” a $10 standing room only area that has proven to be very popular in the early going (especially with the younger, Thirsty Thursday kind of crowd).

072

074

Cornhole

The Home Run Porch is a great place to watch the Charlotte sunset.

067

070

Turning in the other direction, one finds Romare Bearden Park. Named after the celebrated artist, this picturesque public space opened last year.

068

One can also see new apartment complexes, such as The Vue.

069

While on the Home Run Porch, I spoke for a few minutes with Knights vice-president Dan Rajkowski. He said that buildings such as The Vue are becoming commonplace in uptown Charlotte, and he expect to see another 1500 units built within the next year. The Knights plan to capitalize on their existence within this booming part of town by staging outside sporting events, festivals and concerts. There are also plans to develop a portion of what is now a massive berm seating area, adding a hotel and office buildings.

From the Home Run Porch, we made our way back to the press box. I can’t remember why we went to the press box, but while there I poked my head into the Knights’ control room. It takes a lot of manpower to run the widest scoreboard in Minor League Baseball!

077

078

Tommy and I then made a cameo at the Dugout Suites, a group area that is closer to home plate than the pitcher is.

Homer quickly became a good friend of mine.

084

The Dugout Suites offer remarkable access to the dugouts themselves.

085

This picture, I just like it.

087

I had to leave the Dugout Suites, as an indistinct yet unavoidable destiny awaited.

091In the nightly “Royalty Race,” I was to be the Queen (Charlotte is the Queen city, after all). My opponents were Jerry the Jester and King Meck.

093It can be hard to get into these costumes.

095

We had some downtime before the race was to begin, and I wanted to delay my entry into that MRI-like costume for as long as possible. Tommy and I wandered down the hall, so that I could interview veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell. He’s been with the Knights since the 1980s, and my story on him is HERE.

098

After wrapping things up with Eddie, I maneuvered my way into the Queen outfit and triumphantly ran to victory. (Is there any other way to run to victory?) However, the photos from this riveting competition are momentarily unavailable. We’ll just have to move on without them. Again, just know that I won.

Next thing I knew, I was staring at a plate of Queen City Cue pulled pork and mac and cheese. Queen City Cue is a Charlotte-based BBQ restaurant, one of several local eateries who have partnered with the Knights. Eric Hassey, general manager of Ovations concessions. told me bringing in the locals was “what we tried to do, and what we’re most proud of.”

100I, too, had brought in a local.

Meet Matt Campbell, the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Matt’s been a loyal reader of this blog for many years, which I greatly appreciate.

102

If Matt looks familiar, it’s because he’s been on this blog before (or maybe because you’re married to him). In 2011 he and his family visited me when I was in Winston-Salem to see the Dash.

ws_69possumfam

2011 file photo

But at this juncture of this particular evening, Matt was solo. He was enthusiastic about the Queen City Cue, saying that it was legit Carolinas-style BBQ and his meal of choice prior to attending Charlotte Checkers games.

“You can watch shows on who has the best BBQ, but we have the best,” he said. “We do it better than anyone in the country.”

(I know that there are a several regional variants within the Carolinas, and if anyone wants to provide their opinions on this matter then leave a comment or get in touch via your preferred forum.)

While Matt was pontificating about BBQ supremacy, Tommy and I ducked into the on-site Fuzzy Peach (frozen yogurt) store. There is an entrance from the street, and this place is open whether the Knights are playing or not.

103

105

No matter what flavor of frozen yogurt you go for, make sure to top it with a Gummi frog.

104

Don’t forget, there was a game going on through all of this.

106But I had to check on Matt, who now had a hot dog in his hand.

107

Not just any dog, but the Carolina Dog. It was topped with chili and cole slaw.

101

Go ahead, Matt.

108

Matt, ever the Carolina loyalist, said that the slaw was not a traditional Carolina variety because “it’s not mayo-based at all.”

“But this is good, it’s tasty,” he continued. “I’ve had too many beers to now be eating a hot dog, but even though this is not your typical slaw it has a crisp, fresh flavor.”

And that’s all I’ve got from Matt. Tommy and I continued on to the team store, were one can buy a foam helmet if one so desires. These are popular with the Thirsty Thursday crowd.

109

We then stepped outside to check out the commemorative bricks, which are still available for purchase. (For $90 or $150, depending on the size).

“There are so many stories in these bricks,” said Tommy.

116

RIP Drungo.118

And who can ever forget this guy?

119

Hey, look! The Knights won! I saw about two and a half minutes of the ballgame, at three-to-five second intervals throughout the evening.

121

I actually attended the next afternoon’s game as well, and also made a pit stop at the team’s old home of Knights Stadium. But I might not have time to get to that, at least not in the immediate future. Just remind me that I owe you guys and gals (women read this, right?) another post from Charlotte.

Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Reversal of Fortune in Hickory

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read about a distinct “highlight” from Hickory. 

Six of the seven cities I visited on my latest (and therefore greatest) ballpark road trip started with one of the first 11 letters of the alphabet. What are the odds? Coming in fourth alphabetically and fifth chronologically was Hickory, North Carolina.

I think I need to work on my ledes. In the meantime, here’s a picture.

001

Hickory is the home of the Crawdads, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox  Texas Rangers. The team plays in city-owned L.P. Frans Stadium, named after a local Pepsi bottler who funded a portion of the stadium’s construction (there’s no truth to the rumor that L.P. stands for “Loves Pepsi”). I arrived at L.P. Frans Stadium on a recent Sunday afternoon, amid beautiful weather and correspondingly buoyant spirits.

002

003

L.P. Frans Stadium is 21 years old, having been built in 1993 for $4.5 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this comes to approximately $7.4 million dollars, and this begs the question: why are stadiums so much more expensive to build these days? There is no chance whatsoever that, in our present economic climate, a Class A facility could be constructed for $7.4 million. Three times that, maybe, and even that would be a relatively conservative estimate. What is going on here?

But tangents can wait. The subject here is L.P. Frans Stadium, which underwent extensive renovations this past offseason in advance of the Crawdads hosting the 2014 South Atlantic League All-Star Game. One new addition are these Party Patios, located down the third base line.

004

My view from this particular location, at this particular moment in space and time, was this:

005

To the left was the home clubhouse. Note the immaculately manicured bullpen area, on the right.

006 I then walked round (and round) to this carousel, located next to covertly-branded playground equipment. It’s certainly not the best playground of all time, but it’ll do in a pinch.

007

008

Is you a Crawlady, or is you a Crawdude? (Actually, the sign on the women’s room says “Crawdudettes,” but I don’t like taking pictures of women’s rooms because I don’t want anyone to get the mistaken impression that the kindly traveling Minor League Baseball writer is some sort of lecher.)

009

As you can tell by the above photo and the one below, there is a significant amount of brickwork incorporated into L.P. Frans Stadium. That just means that there is mortar love.

011

And what are these contraptions hanging from wall-mounted half-baseballs? Anyone? I forget to ask, and clearly it would be too labor intensive to send an email.

012

Like the Party Patio, the Picnic Pavilion is another p-based alliterative addition to the stadium. This area used to be bleacher seating.

013

It’s a little tough to see, but the stadium has protective netting all the way up the base lines. This is a good thing, safety-wise, but a bad thing, sight-line wise.

014

Speaking of Crawdudes and Crawdudettes, here are Candy and Conrad.

021

I was on the field at this juncture in order to — you guessed it — throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my GoPro, strapped to my skull, and this time the footage was somewhat acceptable. That’s really all I’m aiming for in life — to be somewhat acceptable.

023

Here’s the footage, followed by a portion of the afternoon that I’ll contextualize a bit later on. You can hold off on watching that second portion, for now.

A bit high, but I’d rather be a bit high than in the dirt. At any rate, no one was impressed.

024

Guys on the bench are — wait for it — reserve Claws.

The pre-game introductions were pretty cool, and involved not one but two youth teams. Upon having their name announced, the players ran through a high-five line (yellow team) and then joined with a kid from the black team as they made their way to their respective positions.

026

029

For what it’s worth, the Crawdads’ catcher is one Joe Jackson. His great-great-great uncle was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, so, yeah, you could say baseball runs in the family.

030

I requested an interview with Jackson prior to the game, but for whatever reason he wasn’t available. Maybe because he’s tired of always answering questions about his great-great-great uncle? It’s a nice twist that he’s playing in the same league as the Greenville Drive, however, as Greenville is his hometown and it was where “Shoeless” lived as well.

As the game began, Crawdads community relations director Megan Meade gave me a brief tour of the ballpark. The press box and surrounding areas were almost comically crowded. To an extent, this cramped environment is a result of not having much storage space elsewhere in the ballpark.

031

034

033

But there was plenty of room to move on the concourse, where this gentleman was enjoying one of the Crawdads’ expanded beer selections.

037

The Crawdad Cafe, located down the third base line and also featuring an indoor seating area, is another new edition. It lies across the concourse from the so-called VIP seating area.

040

For VIPs only

For VIPs only

One component of the renovations was the expansion of the front office, by a cool one thousand square feet. According to Meade, “It felt like 200,000.”

042

Oh, hey, it’s Conrad.

044

Conrad was psyched, as he was on the cusp of witnessing what would be the main event of the afternoon. The tour could wait, as it was now time for Alex Ward to take “The Clawlossal Challenge.”

This, friends, is the Clawlossal. The challenge is to eat it within the span of six outs or less.

045

For the record, the “Clawlossal” is a foot-long chili-cheese dog, pub chips, a half-pound burger, a pulled pork sandwich, a corn dog, five onion rings, two jalapeño poppers and two pickle spears. Also for the record: I’ve already written an entire article (with videos) about how the whole absurd spectacle went down.  Therefore, what follows are simply a few photo highlights.

Alex, all smiles at the outset:

046

Should Alex complete the challenge, he’d win a t-shirt that would make him the envy of all.

051

Alex alternated between the Clawlossal’s myriad food items with finesse and aplomb. Chews Your Own Adventure:

052

In the homestretch, with plenty of time still remaining.

054

A crowd gathers, hoping to witness an historic occasion. That kid in the orange shirt is 11 going on 37. He just got hired as an assistant AD at a Division II college.

056

The finish line was in reach, but the finish line was not reached. Instead, disaster struck.

057

Those in the biz call this a “reversal of fortune.”

058

So close, but yet so far.

059

Better luck next time, Alex!

060

Okay, time to resume our little tour of the stadium. Here’s the Party Patio, once again. This time with people!

061

Meade and I then walked down to the bullpen, which is a most picaresque locale.

063

Meet “The CrawFathers”

066

As is often the case with bullpens, there was a lot of clever banter taking place. Much of it was unprintable, but at one point there was an extended riff about taking Aleve.

“We call these I-B-Throwins. Take 6-8 of these and you’re good to go.”

We didn’t hang around in the bullpen for very long — there was a game going on, after all — but I was reminded of the fact that I like to do stories about bullpen games/rituals/pranks, etc. I got some great material last year in that regard (if you don’t know, Google “Whitewall Ninja”), and am hoping for more before this year is out. If you’ve got any leads, call me.

But anyway, we left the bullpen and came upon this scene.

067

068

These young fans were waiting for their opportunity to chase Conrad across the field, in much the same way that I was chased across the field last season in Tennessee while wearing a chicken suit. It’s a pretty standard Minor League promotion, and I got some great video of it, but because I was born yesterday I shot the video in improper vertical fashion and the MiLB.com Quality Control Department deemed it unusable.

See that red haired kid, front and center? I asked him why he was so excited to chase Conrad and he told me “I’m gonna punch him in the head! He steals hats, he creeps me out.”

IMG_1524

Never underestimate a child’s desire to physically assault a Minor League mascot.

After watching Conrad escape the clutches of his would-be tormentors, I rendezvoused with Crawdads promotions assistant Brice Ballentine. I was to be a contestant in the team’s version of “Cash Cab,’ answering trivia questions while being driven around the perimeter of the field in a golf cart.

069

Remember the video I posted earlier, with the first pitch footage? That video also includes my time in the Cash Cab. Ballentine is to be commended for writing a series of questions specific to my job, and I am to be commended for knowing the answers (though, toward the end, I got by with a little help from the fans).

As you can probably see from the above video, the weather was beginning to take a turn for the ominous.

070

The skies soon opened up, and the crowd began to disperse. Through it all, Ballentine, dressed as a base-cleaning tooth fairy, stoically stood beside the first base dugout.

072

Ballentine was waiting for an inning break that never came, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the vague sense of longing that is a chief component of the human psychological condition.

What came instead was a torrential downpour, and then came the tarp. Fortune, it had been reversed yet again.

073

As you can see in the above picture, the rain absolutely soaked the playing field. Puddles were all over the outfield, and the game was subsequently called with the Crawdads defeating visiting West Virginia, 4-2, in an abbreviated six inning contest.

Time to go home, folks, nothing more to see here.

074

That concourse concrete doesn’t just look slick, it is slick! Once the rains came, Alex (of Clawlossal eating challenge fame) and I sought refuge in the Crawdads Cafe. He entered before me and held open the door, just in time for me to take a comical pratfall. I slipped, landed on my posterior, and slid into the interior of the cafe as if it was third base. There were a bunch of people already inside, who politely stifled the urge to laugh until finding out that I was indeed okay (I was save for a couple of minor scrapes and, of course, a bruised ego).

Moral of the story: Don’t run on a wet concourse, especially if the concourse in question is at L.P. Frans Stadium. That thing is slippier than an eel lathered in sunscreen taking a nap atop a banana peel.

This guy was more equipped for the wet concourse than I, and for good reason: he’s a baseball lifer. Meet Crawdads group sales representative Stephen “South” Johnson.

075South got his nickname because his father is none other than North Johnson, a veteran Minor League exec who currently serves as the general manager of the Gwinnett Braves (who I had visited the day before).

“I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work in Minor League Baseball. I grew up in a ballpark. I was in one for the first time when I was four days old,” said South, whose family moved from Kinston to Rancho Cucamonga to Myrtle Beach to Gwinnett. “It’s kind of like being a military brat.”

As it turned out, South did a far better job than I did in documenting the storm that postponed the game.

That marked the second time on this trip in which I saw the tarp, and it would not be the last. But, regardless, the game must go on.

076

Meanwhile, my next ballpark road trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch! I’ve had some cancellations recently, plenty of spots still available!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Can-Do Spirit in Gwinnett

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my rollicking report from Gwinnett. 

While traveling this country each summer, it is generally my intent to not visit ballparks in which I have already set foot. I don’t like redundancy as redundancy is something I don’t like, particularly when there are still a couple of dozen ballparks that I have yet to visit once.

But there are exceptions to every rule. I first visited the Gwinnett Braves in 2010 — getting termites in my pants and eating Knucksie sandwiches — and last month I visited them again. It’s just how the schedule worked out, and I make no apologies (primarily because no one has asked for one).

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

2010 file photo of termite entering pants

And, redundant or not, I was happy to visit Gwinnett again. I’ve always respected the operating skills of general manager North Johnson (and not just because he has the best front office name in all of baseball), and this season Brandon Apter had joined on as the director of promotions. I had been in touch with Brandon on a regular basis during his previous stint with the Frederick Keys, and knew that he would do his best to make my evening in Gwinnett a spirited one.

So let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

017

Some quick facts:

– The Gwinnett Braves are the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

– The Atlanta Braves own the Gwinnett Braves.

– Gwinnett County is a suburb of Atlanta.

Given the above three circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the G-Braves’ home of Coolray Field is heavy on big league Braves iconography. The banners in the above photo feature Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox and….is that Dale Murphy? It’s kind of hard for me to tell. Let’s just say Dale Murphy.

It’s not hard to find a parking space, as Coolray Field has vast swaths of asphalt that are ready and waiting for the sweet, soft tread of your automobile.

018

The hoi polloi was lined up early on this particular Saturday, as Mike Minor bobbleheads were on the giveaway docket.

019

The view from the concourse as the gates were opened.

022

The view of the field as the gates were opened. It was a beautiful day, the clouds billowy as all get out.

023

I don’t have any pictures of the Mike Minor bobbleheads that were given away, but I do have a photo of an oversized Rochester Red Wings hat. This was to be used as part of a villain’s outfit in the next day’s Superhero promotion.

021

I knew that I would be busy during the game itself, so I used this little window of time to take a quick lap around Coolray Field.

Here’s Niekro’s, named after legendary Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and serving a sandwich named after Niekro’s signature pitch.

025

The knuckleball was the signature pitch and the “Knucksie” is the signature sandwich. Here’s my 2010 file photo of the Knucksie, which is described as “House smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw, and served on a toasted corn muffin.”

On the Road: In Gwinnett To Win It

I’ll seize this brief window of opportunity to gratuitously mention that, in 1979, 40-year-old Niekro went 21-20 over 44 starts for the Braves. He threw 344 innings and tossed 23 complete games, just one of which was a shutout. 1979 was the third of three consecutive seasons in which Niekro pitched 330 innings or more.

Of course, pitching that frequently, Niekro would get shelled on occasion. Please allow that observation to serve as your segue into this photo of a peanut kiosk.

026 Seeking shade in the picnic area.

027

In this photo inflatable Chopper looks likes an unworthy supplicant, beseeching God.

029

It has taken longer than originally planned, but a large-scale development project is soon set to kick off at Coolray Field. The Views would be a good place to live, so long as you’re really into Braves-affiliated Triple-A baseball.

030

The views in the other direction are pretty good as well.

031

032

Hey, it’s Chopper, taking the time to pose with his favorite obscure sportswriter.

033

With the game about to begin, I headed down to the playing field. This groundskeeper was in a staring contest with third base, entering its third hour.

034

But more interesting to me was seeing my old friends Baldy, Shades, and Martinez. Here’s hoping that TNT picks up their show for a second season.

035

I was on the field because I had been invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I wore my newly acquired GoPro headstrap while doing so, but the resultant footage was too shaky to use (I’m learning, slowly but surely. Basically, the camera was affixed to the base of my skull too loosely).

gopropitch

My pitch was a perfect strike. And even sans-GoPro footage, I have proof! Just hit play…

I’ll reference a few other elements of that video a bit later on. But, for now, I’d like to mention that the G-Braves players were wearing specialty Doctor-theme jerseys on this evening. The jerseys were auctioned off via a silent auction during the game, with proceeds benefiting the Gwinnett Medical Center.

038 Yes, that is a stethoscope.

039

I had made a plan to spend most of the game with Brandon Apter and his promo team, more or less embedding myself as a promo intern of sorts. Here’s Brandon. He and I both grew up in the Philly suburbs. (I went to Wissahickon, he went to neighboring Upper Dublin. Wissahickon is notable in that its 1992 seventh-grade baseball team went undefeated, led by the leadoff efforts of diminutive on-base machine Ben “Future Obscure Baseball Writer” Hill.)

040

Wissahickon > Upper Dublin

I started off by shooting the t-shirt gun into the crowd, a task that always gives me anxiety because I am perennially fearful of disappointing people. (For the Ben’s Biz completists out theee, the t-shirt gun shooting begins at the :12 second mark in the above video.)

With the game underway…

041

Brandon and I then took a leisurely stroll through the tunnel located down the first base line. Cans awaited.

042

More specifically, the above three upside down individuals compete in the SATA (Southern Aerosol Technical Association) Can Race. The contestants are Stubs (shaving cream), Sunny (sunscreen), and Bugs (insect repellent). The purpose of the race is to raise awareness of both aerosol recycling options and inhalation abuse. A side benefit is that the cans often get to beat the crap out of each other.

I prepared for battle, slowly transforming myself into the guise of Stubs.

043

050

As is often the case when I run a mascot race, I simply hung back and let the carnage happen elsewhere. This photo shows Stubs (me) just after he won the race, after Sunny and Bugs (bottom left corner) had been knocked out of the running.

As for how that happened, watch the video. The Can Race intro bit starts at 1:12, but pay particular attention to what happens at the 2:00 mark.

Bugs, aka promo intern Taylor Boone, took a shovel to the head! Chopper was the culprit; Chopper is a Jerk. For you, Chopper:

These Can Races are downright Cronenbergian, in that they have a History of Violence. I wrote about this in far more detail over on MiLB.com, the official website of Missing Letters Bureau Minor League Baseball. That article also contains this video, of a can race that had taken place the previous month.

Jessie the promo intern gets clobbered at the finish, but she lived to tell the tale. This is a must-watch.

Chopper’s shovel of death, hanging demurely in the so-called “Area of Refuge.”

056

I’m not exactly sure what that room is a refuge from. Maybe the pervasive litter in the visitor’s dugout?

057  Hey Rahl! Hey Rohlfing! Learn how to use a trashcan why dontcha?

059

Rahl and Rohlfing soon had a front row seat for this wing-eating contest.

063

The dude in the camo shorts ended the contest with the wing-eating equivalent of dropping the mic.

My next failed attempt at gathering GoPro footage occurred at the end of the fourth inning.

066

I ran around the basepaths, putting two identical pieces of a baseball uniform on each base. This was the set-up for the “Dress Around the Basepaths” contest, in which a couple of kids race each other around the basepaths. Of course, they have to stop and put on an article of clothing at each base.

After witnessing this spectacle, I was inspired to go upstairs and put on a new article of clothing myself.

Gwinnett Braves Doctor’s Jersey, as worn by Ben’s Biz. Let’s start the bidding at $1.29.

067

Modeling stint complete, I returned to the field in time to witness a car washing contest.

068

The kid on the left had a far better technique.

069

The above contest took place at the end of the fifth inning. Three outs later, it was time for the Dave & Buster’s “Eat, Drink, and Play” competition. Eat a hot dog, drink a cup of water, do the dizzy bat and then sink a basketball shot. Good job out there, kids. I can’t remember which of you won.

072

Finally, it was time for a game of “Guess the Pizza Topping” atop the dugout roof.

077

I find this to be one of the more hypnotic entries in my Vine catalog.

“Is it raisins?”

And that was about it for the various between-innings hi-jinx and tomfoolery. Apter, like myself, is a Phillies fan by upbringing. His tomahawk chop was strictly perfunctory, and, most likely, damaging to his soul.

078

These kids, they were cheering after their Dad won a Price is Right-inspired “Hi-Lo” game.

079

Shortly after this moment of triumph, the game resumed.

080

And shortly after this resumption, it was complete. The G-Braves lost by a score of 3-2, and then had to remain on the field while they were matched up with the individual who had bid for their Doctor-theme jersey.

082

083

Nothing left to do now but throw some tennis balls into a plastic pool. You know how we do.

084

Most of these attempts were unsuccessful.

085

The G-Braves generally have high production values, but this goodbye message isn’t exactly racking up any points in the style department.

086

I hope to come back soon. I already miss my pal Stubs.

IMG_1509

Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Tim Mullin

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: When In Rome

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Rome, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

012

The view from the parking lot: Rome’s State Mutual Stadium, under a vast expanse of clouds and sky.

Apologies for the most obvious “On the Road” blog headline of all-time, but how could I resist? For on my latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, the stop after Huntsville was indeed Rome. And when in Rome, it’s pretty much mandatory that one makes cliched “When in Rome” observations. But why? How did this saying come to be? Since I’m backlogged on the blog and in a time crunch to write a lot of posts before my next trip (kicking off in Akron on July 18), clearly the best use of my time would be to look up the origins of this saying.

Okay, got it! “When in Rome” is an abbreviated portion of a saying attributed to Aurelius Ambrose, who, per Wikipedia, was “one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century.” Again, per Wikipedia:

Ambrose displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”

Follow the custom of the church where you are. Those are words to live by, and a philosophy I certainly apply while visiting Minor League stadiums.

When in Rome, Georgia, this is the place to see South Atlantic League baseball action. Welcome to State Mutual Stadium, land of the free (parking, with a media credential) and home of the Braves.

011

On many of my stadium stops, I know more or less what to expect. I’ve had contacts with the team in question for many years, they know who I am and what I do, and it’s full speed ahead from the moment I step inside. But, in Rome, I didn’t know quite what to expect. They are not a team I’ve had occasion to cover on a regular basis, and while the front office was very welcoming in advance communication it was still a mystery to me regarding what the evening would bring.

Spoiler alert: it brought a lot.

First things first, I got the lay of the land. As you can see, this is a solid but not immediately spectacular Minor League facility. In a nutshell, it’s what you’d expect an 11-year-old Class A stadium to look like: a capacity of 5000, 14 suites, and a good but not great videoboard. The concourse provides ample vantage points down the baselines, but it is not 360 degrees nor is it entirely “open.” (Many of the concession, souvenir, and informational kiosks are located behind home plate, isolated from the field of play.)

013

016

017But there wasn’t much time to ascertain the specifics of my surroundings. After briefly saying hello to mascots Romey (left) and Roxie…

018

I met up with assistant general manager Jim Jones and this group of people. They had won a Facebook essay contest on why they should renew their wedding vows at the stadium, and they were at the ballgame to, yes, renew their vows.

019Even better, from my narcissistic perspective, I was asked to serve as “the official Minor League witness.” This was to be a first for me, and I was delighted.

Our motley crew soon proceeded onto the field, as the ceremony would take place just behind home plate.

023

Well, okay, it was just me who proceeded onto the field. The four couples were driven to the ceremony in a grand golf cart procession.

024

The following group of photos were taken by Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.

Vows_02

Vows_03

Vows_06

While Mr. Hess took some great photos, he largely missed what was obviously the best part of the ceremony: me serving as the official witness. This is a task that was very important and took the utmost concentration, as I had to stand beside “Elder Kevin” and, well, follow the custom of the church where I was.

Vows_09

You can kind of see me in the above photo. But being the Greatest Minor League Baseball Blogger of All Time has its perks, as I was spotted by someone in the crowd as well.

As for @gondeee, we’ll meet him later. And if you want more specifics about this stirring ceremony, then read my article on MiLB.com.

But for those intent on contributing to my rapidly approaching obsolescence by prioritizing the photos, then scroll on. Again, these are courtesy of Kyle Hess/Rome Braves.

Vows_11

Vows_13

Vows_14

Vows_15

As the game began on this mercifully rain-free summer evening, I was in the press box. I don’t know why, but I’m sure there was a reason.

031

The stadium is located within a rather nondescript area of Rome.

032

In fact, all I saw while en route from the hotel to the stadium were chain stores, chain eateries and billboards exhorting the importance of proper Christian living. But the next day I had the chance to visit downtown Rome proper, and it was a charming and exuberant area that I would encourage anyone to visit (you know, when in Rome).

IMG_1504

003

Beastie Boys reference?

015

But, anyway, there was a game going on. And me? I’m here to write about the game that was going on.

033

Nah, just kidding. When I’m on these trips I never have time to watch the game. All I do is run around like the proverbial chicken with its proverbial head proverbially decapitated. Next on the docket was to meet the evening’s designated eater — you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

Joe Webster, ladies and gentleman. The most enthusiastic designated eater of all time.

034

Joe is 16 years old, and lives in nearby Dallas, Georgia. He’s an aspiring broadcaster, and currently writes sports articles for his hometown Dallas-New Era newspaper. He was in frequent contact with me prior to my visit, just to make sure he knew he’d be in the right place at the right time. Joe was psyched, in other words, and I appreciated his enthusiasm.

We met at Bubba’s BBQ Barn — where the elite meet to take a seat and get some eats.

015

Joe and I ordered a BBQ Sundae, fried bologna sandwich and a BBQ plate (you know, when in Rome). None of these items were served to us on Frisbees, though that is apparently the standard operating procedure for certain delicacies.

035

Here’s Joe and I, with Joe just about to chow down.

037

Joe began with the BBQ Sundae, a layered vertical concoction. Starting from the bottom: Cornbread, pulled pork, cole slaw, more cornbread.

039

Excuse this break in regularly scheduled programming, for just as Joe was digging in to the sundae I noticed that the “Renew Your Vows” couples were taking part in a between-inning interview.

040

I used this occasion to ask Martha and Bill Sims for an interview. They obliged, and some of that conversation is in my linked-to-twice over MiLB.com piece. Okay, three times over. 

041

Joe ably served as a bodyguard during this interview, should any foul balls come in the Sims’ direction. While none came within threatening distance, Joe nonetheless almost chased one down that had landed about 100 feet away. Joe was enthusiastic.

But now, back to Joe and his BBQ Sundae.

043

Plan B.

044

Joe’s multi-pronged approach to the BBQ Sundae spoke to his frustration with it. He said that he “wasn’t enthralled” because he “wished it was layered better. It’s a good thing they give you a long spoon, because it’s hard to get down in there.”

More traditional, at least in regard to preparation technique, is the fried bologna sandwich. This is a comparatively rare ballpark food item, though I can remember the Danville Braves and Jackson Generals serving them as well. Any others?

045

Have at it, Joe.

046

Joe liked the bologna because it was “different than normal ballpark food.” But I got the sense that he wouldn’t have ordered it on his own. In my experiences, the people who like fried bologna sandwiches are the people that grew up eating fried bologna sandwiches. It’s a comfort food.

At this point a special guest arrived in the form of Twitter’s very own @Gondeee, the individual who had taken the photo of me serving as the wedding witness. @Gondeee was toting a BBQ Sundae and, unlike Joe, he was very much a fan of this concoction.

047

@Gondeee’s real name is Martin Gandy, and he writes the “Chop County” blog. He told me’s a “tech guy by trade” and that his job involves frequent calls to India.

“Every time I call they’re like ‘Oh, Ghandi” and then I get the best tech support ever,” he said.

While we were talking, Joe was digging into his BBQ plate.

048

That look of bliss says it all. Joe was a fan.

But I had to depart from Joe, at least for the time being, as I had been invited to ride along in the “Redneck Rummage Sale Trailer.”

052

“It’s not a bad way to start a Friday,” said on-field host Matt Hayes. “On a trailer surrounded by beautiful women.”

The Redneck Rummage sale is a popular recurring event held in the parking lot of the stadium, and it is what it sounds like. There’s lots of junk for sale, and it’s generally very cheap. The trailer takes a nightly lap around the field between innings, as a way to promote the event.

While my attempts to film this ride with my brand-new GoPro were woefully unsuccessful, I did end up with the following scoreboard footage.

I also ended up with the following photos.

055 059 062 After riding in the rummage sale trailer, I had a little time to myself. That could only mean one thing, and that one thing is wandering.

Joe and I had missed out on the shrimp bucket, apparently. 063 And what better place to enjoy a shrimp bucket than by sitting in a motorboat? The Coosa River is back there somewhere, should anyone want to commandeer this boat in order to place it in a more natural environment. 067 Sitting man, as framed by a bronze leg kick. 068 A beach ball had been set loose upon the crowd, and I don’t know why. 069 These kids, meanwhile, were in their own private ballplaying universe. 070 I think there was a Chik-Fil-A ad on the other side of the foul pole. Get it? Fowl pole? 071 Back on the other side of the stadium, a top-level view of the front entranceway. 072 Roxey and Romey are an item. Did you know that? 075 Back on the concourse, I snapped this photo of condiments, fruit, and a chicken. 076 As it so often the case during these sort of circumstances, their job was to dance. Vine time!

Henry the Hot Dog, ladies and gentlemen. Or at least I think his name was Henry.  080 Bill and Martha Sims, that delightful married couple whom I mentioned earlier, came to the game with lots of family in tow. In retrospect this was not the best angle in which to take a group photo, but it’s what I got. Hello, Sims family!  085 Down on the concourse, manning the Fan Services booth, I ran into Kasey Decker.  087Yes, Kasey Decker of Winter Meeting Job Seeker Journals fame! Her long and winding path through the industry has brought her to Rome.

Kasey Decker

Kasey, as she was last seen on the blog.

The game was winding down, so I reconvened with Joe and we got some dessert at “The Sweet Spot. 088 Joe wanted a “Banana Stick Sundae” but they were out of banana and a “stick sundae” didn’t sound as good. He got a swirl with Oreo instead, and ate it while boldly gazing into the future.  090 “It’s good. It’s ice cream,” said Joe.

But Joe was far more excited by the presence of All-Star Game ballots. Apparently, if he voted for B.J. Upton 250 times, he would be eligible to receive a B.J. Upton bobblehead at an upcoming Braves game. Joe was ready to vote 250 times and then some.

“People think I’m insane, but it’s okay,” he said. I hope he carries that attitude into adulthood, because it’s a good attitude to have.

Bye, Joe, and thanks. 091 The Braves won the ballgame, and celebrated by chucking Frisbees into the crowd with reckless aplomb.

And that, as they say, was that. Goodnight from Rome, Georgia, where I did my best to follow their customs.  DCIM100GOPRO —- Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a Designated Eater at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch. YOU can be the next Joe Webster!

July 18: Akron RubberDucks

Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows

July 19: West Virginia Power

July 20: Columbus Clippers

July 21: Indianapolis Indians

Designated Eater: Tim Mullin

July 22: Louisville Bats

July 23: Lexington Legends

July 24: Dayton Dragons

Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Not Much of a Goodbye in Huntsville

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece from Huntsville, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

One of my most anticipated stops on this, my latest and therefore greatest ballpark road trip, was Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium. The Stars are currently playing their final season, as the franchise will move to Biloxi in 2015 and compete as either the Black Jacks, Mullets, Schooners, Shrimpers, Shuckers or Beacon (these are the finalists in the ongoing “Name the Team” contest).

Joe Davis is undoubtedly a dump, but dumps have character and I have always enjoyed visiting. In fact, Huntsville was one of the first places I ever visited in my “traveling ballpark writer” capacity. I went there in 2009 in order to participate in and write about the team’s attempt to play the longest game of Wiffle Ball of all time.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

File photo from 2009 visit. I am now fatter.

That game of Wiffle Ball never happened, due to a rainout. (But I did get to see an on-field sword swallowing demonstration, because obviously a sword swallower should be on the premises during a Wiffle Ball world record attempt.)

And, five years later, on June 5, 2014, the game in which I was supposed to attend didn’t happen either. While the weather had been pleasant during my drive from Chattanooga to Huntsville, things took a turn for the worse shortly after I checked in to my hotel.

My concern was justified. After the torrential downpour and frightening lightning subsided, I dutifully drove over to the ballpark. You know, just in case. There were a smattering of cars in the parking lot, and tickets were still being sold.

029

The women at the ticket window were very welcoming — after all, this was to be my special night! Huntsville Stars GM Buck Rogers had declared June 5 to be “Ben Hill Day” at Joe Davis Stadium, with free admission to any fans residing in Ben Hill County, Georgia. Ben Hill is about six hours away from Huntsville, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anyone to take the Stars up on the offer, but with the weather being what it was it was now a virtual guarantee that the good people of Ben Hill had stayed home. I just hope they did so of their own free will, and not because they were in jail.

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

postcard from vanishinggeorgia.com

Also nowhere to be found was Buck Rogers himself. Buck has been named general manager for the new team in Biloxi, so he’s splitting the remainder of this season between there and Huntsville. He, his wife Babs (an essential Stars staffer as well) and several other front office members were in Biloxi, making an already quiet Joe Davis Stadium that much more quiet. (For those who don’t know Buck, he’s a very loquacious guy.)

On the Road: Mingling With the Stars in Huntsville

Buck Rogers in his office, taken during my 2010 visit to Huntsville

Rogers and crew had picked a good night to be out of town. Within three minutes after I arrived at Joe Davis Stadium, word filtered in via the omnipresent staff walkie-talkies that the game had been “banged” (industry slang for “postponed”).

Come back tomorrow, Huntsville Stars fans.

030

But for me, there would be no tomorrow. At least not in Huntsville. While I briefly considered modifying my itinerary and sticking around for the following day’s doubleheader, the weather wasn’t looking good for that one either. With a heavy heart, I made the executive decision to proceed to the next day to Rome, Georgia, as I had originally planned.

The game wasn’t happening,  but that didn’t mean that I had to leave Joe Davis Stadium. “Why not wander around and get a few final photos?” I said to no one in particular.

IMG_1498

037

038

039

The Stars are called the Stars because of Huntsville’s rich aeronautic past and present. The fact that the GM is named “Buck Rogers” is just a coincidence, however.

buck_rogers

What isn’t a coincidence is that the signage around the stadium is in a NASA-style font.

041

If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign next to “Stars Radio” declares this section of the ballpark to be a “horn-free zone.” Casio, the team’s PA announcer, told me that he had never heard a horn in the stadium before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Yes, when I was wandering around Joe Davis Stadium I ran into a guy named “Casio” (given name: Matt Mitchell), and ended up writing a story about him. Rainout or not, this is something I had been planning on doing anyway. Casio is a local celebrity!

036

The view from the press box.

031Up in the pressbox, I was reminded of a Tweet that had been directed at me the previous week. The guys at Cespedes Family BBQ were on a road trip with a somewhat similar itinerary to mine, and had been in Huntsville several days before.

Found it!

IMG_1494

Thanks guys. I held on to the card, filing it in my Rolodex under sub-category “individuals who have never invited me on their podcast even though I am the greatest Minor League blogger of all time and most underrated sports media entity of the last five years.” This is the second-biggest sub-category in my Rolodex, right behind “sports media professionals who never respond to me on Twitter even though that joke I tweeted at them was really clever and funny and clearly the best use of my time.”

If it sounds like I have a chip on my shoulder, it’s because I do!

chip

Sorry, I’ve been a bit obsessed with wordplay lately. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to M&M.

m

That M&M is a bibliophile because he’s, well, red. He does most of his reading in the bathroom, but didn’t think it was funny when I nicknamed him “John Candy.” (Also, I’m going to file an expense report for the $2.50 I spent on the chips and M&Ms. Clearly it was a justifiable business expenditure.)

Anyway, I was writing about Huntsville. The game was rained out, Casio had been talked to, business cards had been found, and there was nothing left for me to do but go back to the hotel room and sulk in a desultory manner. (Is there any other way to sulk?)

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to provide more on the Huntsville Stars in this, their final season, but at least I’ve written about them plenty in the past. Click ‘em all!

Blog post from my 2009 visit 

Blog post from my 2010 visit 

Article on Buck Rogers from my 2010 visit

Article on Huntsville Stars as they entered their 2014 swan song

Guest blog post from former Stars employee Gillian Richard, on why she loves the team. 

I too, will miss Joe Davis Stadium, and this is the one moment I will never forget.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Re-visiting a Classic in Chattanooga

Did you know? Each one of my road trip blog posts has an accompanying MiLB.com article. Click HERE to read my piece on Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, containing information NOT included in this blog post.  

My latest (and therefore greatest) Minor League ballpark road trip kicked off in Chattanooga, home of the Lookouts. I did not see a Lookouts game, however, as they played an 11:05 contest on the day that I arrived and I was unable to make it to the ballpark on time. (My fault, as I had not noticed that anomalous game time when I booked my flight.) However, all was not lost. Far from it.

For being in Chattanooga means being able to visit Engel Stadium, which served as the home of the Lookouts from 1930-98. In the decade following the team’s departure — they now play at AT&T Park in downtown Chattanooga — Engel Stadium fell into a state of extreme disrepair. In 2009 a concerned group of community activists formed the Engel Foundation, with the quixotically noble goal of restoring this classic facility to its former glory.

I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, where I got to know Foundation president Janna Jahn and her ragtag group of supporters. I then wrote about Engel again in 2013, after the stadium stood in for Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42. And now, here I am writing about Engel again.

I drove to the stadium immediately after arriving in Chattanooga, marking my first excursion in the black Volkswagen Beetle that was assigned to me by fine folks at Avis. Jahn was already at the stadium waiting for me, and for the next hour or so we ambled through this historic facility as I got up to speed on the latest news.

From the outside of Engel Stadium, it’s hard to get a sense of the beauty that lurks therein.

035

034

But once you step inside, it’s a different story.

032

001

My MiLB.com piece detailed the specifics of the recent improvements to Engel, but what it boils down to is this: much has been done, and there is so much more to be done. To name one of many examples: Engel Stadium once had what was billed as “the world’s largest scoreboard,” seen in the photo below, and Jahn said that, long term, the Foundation would love to install a replica.

011

But one thing at a time. A more pressing concern at the time that I visited was removing the dead bird from the netting behind home plate.

003

A closer view.

002

The grandstand looked immaculate, and the press box had recently been restored to its ’30s-era parameters and bestowed with a brand-new instrument.

005

006

The view from the press box.

008

This office area, located down the third base line, is now referred to as “The 42 Room.” Some of the film’s locker room scenes were shot here, and it is now filled with production photos and paraphernalia.

012

013

From there, we took a nice stroll across the outfield.

016

I took this photo using the MiLB Instagram account. It was the first Instagram photo I ever took, and also the first time I used a filter of any kind.

Hey, man. Nice shot! 

IMG_1486

That Filter reference I just made was exquisite

Engel Stadium received a laser-graded infield, courtesy of the 42 production team. The outfield remains the same as it ever was.

019

For the filming of 42, the dugouts were modified to resemble those of Ebbets Field. Then, after the filming, they were changed back to their original state (more or less).

020

If you’ve never spent time in the bowels of an 80-something-year-old facility…well, this is what it looks like:

021

There’s a poignant scene in 42 in which Jackie finally loses his cool, going on a bat-smashing rampage in the tunnel leading onto the field. That tunnel, now inaccessible, was here:

022

Which stadium has the worst bathroom facilities? Engel Stadium, or Burlington Athletic Park (home of the Appy League Royals) circa 2011?

Engel:

025

026

Burlington:

burl_62cloggedsink

burl_63showers

Have you staked out your position in this great American debate, and able to articulate it? Great. Then let’s continue.

A day or two before I visited Engel, the stadium had been vandalized (chalk it up to a security system malfunction).

028

It’s hassles like these that really give me a lot of respect for the Engel Foundation volunteers. They have full-time jobs and busy lives but nonetheless must repeatedly drop what they are doing in order to deal with hassles such as the above. As Engels’s 21st-century prominence continues to grow, it is my hope (and, I’m sure, theirs) that sufficient funds will become available to pay for a full-time facilities manager.

The vandalism seemed to be limited to the above graffiti as well as a smattering of smashed fluorescent light bulbs.  I found it interesting, that in the midst of the all this juvenilia, there was what seemed to be a heartfelt nod to Jackie Robinson. Even vandals have respect for one of the all-time greats!

030

The damage was cleaned up promptly, as one week after I visited Engel Stadium hosted the Southern League Home Run Derby. This picture is from the Lookouts Facebook photo album.

bryant

But as for me, it was time to depart. Until next time, Engel:

031

No filter.

IMG_1482

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 457 other followers