Results tagged ‘ On the Road ’

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

On the Road Again — 6/18 Update

Dispatch from Back Home. June 18, 12:47 p.m. — After a week of blog silence, I figured it would be prudent to provide an update for you, my presumably loyal and undoubtedly physically stunning reader.

I flew from Charlotte to New York City on the afternoon of June 11, marking the conclusion of this latest and greatest road trip. My last acts in Charlotte were to get some ultra-tended brisket at Bobbee -O’s BBQ and and visit Manifest Discs.

Bobbee-O’s is an unassuming spot nestled in a strip mall. My photo of the exterior is horrible, but the brisket was indeed exemplary.

002

001

As for Manifest Discs — wow. You don’t see too many places like this around anymore, a wall-to-wall emporium of physical media in a digital age.

003

004

I picked up three used CDs: Sparks “Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins”, Nilsson “Schmilsson” and Toby Keith “Shock ‘n Y’all.” There’s a lot I could say about Sparks and Nilsson, but since Toby Keith is a bit of an outlier here I’ll explain: in 2004 I was at a record store in a mall near my Pennsylvania hometown. The only album they had on cassette in the entire store was “Shock’n Y’all”, and there was just one copy. I bought it because I thought it might be the last cassette ever sold in the history of this mall. There is no way for me to verify if this was indeed the case, but I bet it was and no one can tell me otherwise.

Well, even though I bought it as a joke I ended up really liking “Shock’n Y’all.” I listened to it all the time in 2004, a year that was largely spent as a third grade assistant teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. 2004 was a long time ago.

Anyhow, I’m back in NYC and have spent the past week cranking out articles for MiLB.com. For your edification, here’s everything that has appeared on the site since I hit the road on June 4. Please read and, if so moved, promote:

June 4 — Crooked Numbers,” recapping Minor League Baseball’s strangest on-field occurrences in the month of May.

June 6 — “On the Road: Chattanooga,” about the ongoing efforts to restore and revive 84-year-old Engel Stadium. Engel was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts through the 1998 season.

June 9 — On the Road: Huntsville” — The Huntsville Stars game was rained out, but I still landed an interview w/ PA announcer/stand-up comic Matt “Casio” Mitchell.

June 10 — Promo Preview,” leading with the Inland Empire 66ers’ gory “Zombie Apocalypse” theme jerseys. For some reason, a photo of the jerseys was not included with the article. So here you go:

zombs

June 11 — On the Road: Rome” I served as the “official Minor League witness” during a pre-game “Renew Your Vows” ceremony, and later interviewed one of the couples who took part.

June 13 — On the Road: Hickory” A thorough account of one fan’s attempt to eat the “CLAWlossal” within the span of six outs.

clawlossal_dpqhg2g2_bhoqx7l8

June 16 — On the Road: Gwinnett” —  A behind-the-scenes look at the G-Braves nightly Can Race. Mayhem sometimes ensues, as seen in the video embedded within the piece.

June 17 — “Promo Preview” — This week’s edition leads with Charleston RiverDogs broadcaster Sean Houston, who will call the entirety of Thursday’s game while walking on a treadmill.

June 18 — On the Road: Charlotte” — My attempt to explain the recent history of the Charlotte Knights via the experiences of veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell.

There is still one more “On the Road” article to come (Kannapolis!), and next week I will begin posting my “On the Road” blog posts. So, yeah, there is a LOT more road trip content to come. But — PLEASE — do not assume that inactivity on the blog means inactivity in general. I’m writing up a storm these days, trying to do a good job of it, and doing it all for you.

Oh, and I still have to do a “Crooked Nuggets” blog post for the month of May. I think I’ll write that this afternoon, and post it Thursday or Friday. I’m telling you, some of the facts contained therein will be Shock’n, Y’all.

Dispatch from the Road. June 11, 11:05 a.m. — Sorry that it’s been two days since I rapped at ya, but life is hectic on the road. I am currently at a Spring Hill Suites in Concord, NC, after attending the Kannapolis Intimidators game last night. Upon further review I should have just stayed two nights in Charlotte, as this hotel is only about 12 miles from the one in which I was in yesterday. Live and learn.

Anyhow, when we last left off in this narrative, it was a Monday morning in Hickory and I was soon to be on my way to Charlotte. I made a brief stop in downtown Hickory:

001

And then it was on to Charlotte. The first thing I did was stop at a record store. Lunchbox Records, to be exact.

010

This place was solid. I finally picked up the new Wovenhand lp (“Refractory Obdurate,” for those keeping score at home), and also got a Richard Bishop/Sun City Girls leftover Record Store Day Release as well as a used copy of the Fine Young Cannibals “The Raw and the Cooked.” (I’ll always have a soft spot for that album.) I got some others too, but you’re already bored with my self-indulgence.

My hotel in Charlotte was walking distance to the ballpark so, yes, I walked to the ballpark. BB&T Ballpark, despite its uninspiring name, is an inspiring ballpark.

028

The next day the Knights played at noon, so once again I headed to the ballpark.

006

It was “hot as fish grease” during this afternoon matinee, as I heard one of the security guys at the stadium remark. The game was also a blowout, with the Knights losing by a score of 14-2. The heat and lack of competitiveness made me wish for a merciful end to the ballgame, but I got some good perspective from a woman named Dorothy who was working one of the ballpark elevators:

“Everybody out there is wishing for the game to be over,” she said. “Doing that, you ain’t doing nothing but wishing your life away.”

I think about that a lot on these trips. I love doing them, but I get stressed out and wish for them to be over and romanticize my NYC home. But in doing this, all I am doing is removing myself from the present and speeding myself along on the road to death on which we all travel.

Speaking of death, after the Knights game I checked out their old home in nearby Fort Mill, SC. This place is in a state of decay, and will eventually be torn down.

025

And then it was on to Kannapolis for my third ballpark and second ballgame of the day. I’m really glad to have closed the trip here, as it was the most enjoyable place I’ve been to in a while and the sort of ballpark that I’d love to come back to strictly as a fan. New ballparks are great and all, as are ridiculous promos and on-field games, but an Intimidators game on a Tuesday night is a quintessential Minor League Baseball experience.

038

More on Kannapolis to come. More on EVERYTHING to come. But, for now, it’s time to travel back to NYC. One of my cats has been sick lately, but word is that she’s now on the mend and I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I missed you, Little.

little

Dispatch from the Road. June 9, 11:23 a.m. — I’m at the Crowne Suites in Hickory, which is kind of a weird place. It’s a large establishment and largely deserted, and as I sit here I’m imagining that I might be the only living person in the entire place. The others are actually spirits, fluctuating throughout different planes of reality and advancing an agenda that will not become clear to me until it’s too late.

No disrespect to the Crown Suites, though. I got a clean, comfortable room at an unbeatable price.

As for yesterday, there wasn’t much to it. The drive from Gwinnett to Hickory was four hours (including a stop for some Mexican food, the last refuge for the gluten-free), and the highlight of the drive was glimpsing a sign that said “F. Hugh Atkins Highway.” Really? What do they have against the Atkins Highway? Also, I heard Aerosmith’s “Big 10 Inch” on the radio, which isn’t as cool as when I heard “Round and Round” on my last trip, but, still, I’ll take it.

I made my way to L.P. Frans Stadium shortly after arriving in Hickory. Hello, Crawdads!

001

I once again threw out a first pitch while wearing my GoPro, and this time I think the footage came out alright. The evening then rolled right along until a massive thunderstorm descended upon in the ballpark in the sixth inning. As I scurried for shelter, I slipped on the slick concourse cement and ended up sliding into the Crawdads Cafe as if it was home plate. A lot of people saw it happen, and acted appropriately concerned, but I’m sure they all thought it was hilarious.

Anyhow, the game was called in the sixth inning. This hasn’t been the best trip, weather-wise, but still I persevere.

And now it’s on to Charlotte. They’ve got a new ballpark there, I think.

Dispatch from the Road. June 8, 9:57 a.m. — I’ve got to keep this brief. I’m in Buford, Georgia right now (minutes away from the Gwinnett Braves) and have to get to Hickory, NC this afternoon. The Crawdads game is at 5 p.m., and factoring in a stop or two along the way it’s gonna take me 4+ hours to get there.

As for yesterday, I spent an hour or two in the early afternoon poking around downtown Rome. This was a very pleasant surprise, as until heading to Rome’s Broad Street my only impression of the town had been that it’s a huge strip of chain stores and restaurants.

But, no!

003

007

009

Then it was on to Lawrenceville, Georgia, home of the Gwinnett Braves. Since I visited Gwinnett about four years ago, I took a different tact with my game coverage and more or less immersed myself with the promo crew. Lots of interesting/weird/funny stuff occurred, though I am a bit dismayed at the moment that my GoPro footage didn’t come out well. I was wearing the headstrap, and the camera must not have been mounted on tightly enough or something because the footage is very shaky. I wore it while throwing out the first pitch, which was a perfect strike. This is the future of media, if I can do it properly.

Either way I’ll keep fighting.

043

Got some Rhys Chatham and Neneh Cherry lined up for the car ride. See you in Hickory.

Dispatch from the Road. June 7, 12:15 p.m. — Currently writing from the lobby of a Country Inn and Suites in Rome, Georgia. But let’s take it back to yesterday…

The day began in Huntsville. The previous night’s Huntsville Stars game was rained out,  so I had to move on without without seeing this esteemed Southern League franchise in their final season. Sadness was lodged in my bosom, alleviated somewhat with an early afternoon stop at the Lowe Mill. This once-dilapidated industrial setting has been converted in a thriving complex of stores and artist studios.

005It’s a really cool place!

001

I was there to specifically to, yes, visit a record store. Vertical Records!

006

After picking up a copy of Lou Reed’s “Mistrial” for $6, I moved on towards Rome, Georgia. It rained the entire drive, and I was wary of yet another postponement. But the skies cleared (for good, as it turned out) around 5 p.m., and the game went on without a hitch.

The Rome Braves are a lot of fun! I served as the official witness at a Renew Your Vows wedding ceremony, and later got to ride around the field in the “Redneck Rummage Sale” trailer. Hey, when in Rome!

052 And now, without further ado, I’m moving on to Gwinnett. Wish me luck.

Dispatch from the Road. June 6, 10:38 a.m. — Greetings from Huntsville, Alabama. Regrettably, last night’s Stars game was rained out. The forecast doesn’t look much better for today, so it is with a heavy heart that I’ll be moving on to Georgia (for a Rome Braves game, though the weather isn’t looking too great there, either).

Yesterday began in Chattanooga. After a quick lunch at “Sticky Fingers BBQ” (not to be confused with Sticky Fingaz of Onyx fame), I made a brief cameo at the Lookouts current home of AT&T Field.

005

I’ll have more on that visit in a future blog post. It was then on to Huntsville, but on the way I called an audible and drove to the top of Lookout Mountain. It turned out to be in Georgia; it is very easy to cross state lines in this part of the country. Here’s the view from the observation deck of the Lookout Mountain incline (billed as the steepest in the world).

025

More on that later, hopefully. I made it to Huntsville later in the afternoon, and when I arrived rain wasn’t on my mind at all. But just as I was about to leave — BOOM!

I still made my way to the stadium, but about five minutes after I arrived the game was called.

031

Back in the hotel room, I wrote this MiLB.com story about the ongoing Engel Stadium restoration efforts in Chattanooga. This is the third time in four years that I’ve written about Engel, because it is an IMPORTANT STORY THAT DESERVES RECOGNITION WITHIN SPORTS MEDIA AT LARGE. Look, I know my niche is rather obscure, but it gets a little frustrating when pieces gain no traction outside of this insular universe. I know the audience is there. I just know it. It’s like God — you can’t prove it, but you never lose the faith.

Shortly I’ll be on to Rome. Hopefully I can make a quick stop at Huntsville’s Vertical Records before rambling on. Today’s goal, music wise, is to listen to the new Sun Kil Moon, “Benji” all the way through without crying. I don’t think it can be done; this song is just one of MANY tearjerkers.

Dispatch from the Road. June 5, 9:15 a.m. —  Trip #2 of the season is now in full effect. I arrived in Chattanooga yesterday evening, and immediately paid a visit to historic Engel Stadium.

017

The Engel Foundation, who I have written about in the past, are doing great work to preserve and promote historic Engel Stadium. They’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I’ll be writing a MiLB.com piece on their efforts, and the stadium in general, in short order.

Last night I stayed at The Crash Pad in Chattanooga, a quirky, clean and efficient) hostel. Usually I stay at team hotels on these trips, so this was a nice change of pace. Several great bars and restaurants were nearby, and there was a feeling of energy and renewal throughout the area. It’s kinds of beautiful, the juxtaposition of 21st century creations such as the Crash Pad with decaying structures from a previous era of the city’s history.

038

036

The nearby Choo Choo Hotel, which, of course, used to be a train station.

040

I’d recommend visiting Chattanooga. I really would. Today I’ll stop by the Chattanooga Lookouts’ current home of AT&T Field for a brief tour, and then drive on to Huntsville for an evening with the Stars. Wish me luck.

June 3: If you are reading this, then I am back on the road. Or, more accurately, the road is back on me. Things are slowly coming into focus.

benz background

Here’s the itinerary this time around:

June 4: Chattanooga*

June 5: Huntsville Stars

June 6: Rome Braves

June 7: Gwinnett Braves

June 8: Hickory Crawdads

June 9: Charlotte Knights

June 10: Kannapolis Intimidators

*due to a scheduling snafu, I won’t be there in Chattanooga in time for that morning’s 11:05 a.m. Lookouts game. I will be visiting the Lookouts’ former home of  Engel Stadium, however.

ben_640_ipmnm6mu_am9a094e

I will be up to my usual antics on this trip, hustling from place to place and writing, shooting, and tweeting along the way. As with my previous trip this season, I will not be writing blog posts until I return home. I will, however, update this post with information on my current location as well as links to whatever MiLB.com articles that may have appeared.

As always, get in touch with suggestions regarding things to do/people to talk to while on this trip. I am always open to your suggestions. And, if someone is interested in being a designated eater in Huntsville, Hickory, or Kannapolis, then let me know. (Designated eater = individual who eats the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.)

Finally, here’s a map from my last road trip. Click on it, and you will be re-directed to an article that includes a version of this map that will link to all articles and blog posts from that trip. It is your duty to read every one of them. Or at least skim one or two.

Road Trip Content

Thanks for your continued support, and hope to see you on the road. Get in touch anytime.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Elvis, Willie and Rojo in Round Rock

My sixth and final stop on this, my first road trip of the 2014 season, was Round Rock, Texas. The Express, Triple-A affiliate of your Texas Rangers, are one of Round Rock’s (and the greater Austin area’s) top attractions.

038

The Express play at the Dell Diamond, which was built by legendary train robber Sam Bass in 1877 for use as a hideout from the law (either that, or I have misread the Wikipedia entry). These days, the trains are safe from the likes of Mr. Bass. This one sped past as I was entering the stadium, unencumbered from the constant threat of a hostile takeover.

As for the team’s name of “Express,” that’s a nod to the nickname of team co-owner Nolan Ryan. ( It costs $8 to park at Dell Diamond, a rather high rate by MiLB standards, and the comparative exorbitance of that fee is particularly striking in light of the fact that Ryan issued a Major League-record 2,795 free passes during his career.)

Upon entering the stadium I was greeted by Express director of communications Jill Cacic, who immediately led me and my guest for the evening (you’ll meet him later) on a tour of Dell Diamond.

Upon further investigation, it appears that Dell Diamond opened not in 1877 but in 2000. For the first five seasons of the Express’s existence they played in the Double-A Texas League. That team relocated to Corpus Christi in 2005, becoming the Hooks and staying under the Ryan-Sanders ownership mantle, while the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League relocated to Round Rock and assumed the identity of the Express. Make sense? It’s kinda like that time that the Carolina League Kinston Indians re-located to Zebulon and assumed the identity of the Carolina Mudcats, while the Double-A team that had been the Mudcats relocated to Pensacola and became the Blue Wahoos. That’s the sort of comparison that everyone knows and relates to and can understand right away with no confusion whatsoever.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know is this: there are a lot of Golden Chicks in the Dell Diamond dugout.

005

A cool quirk — or a #cooquirk, to use the internet parlance of the day — of the Dell Diamond is that the players enter and exit the field via this staircase located down the left field line. The purpose of this is to promote fan interaction with the players; like it or not, they’re gonna have to mingle with the hoi polloi. (The Corpus Christi Hooks’ home of Whataburger Field utilizes a similar strategy, except that the player entrance is located amid the third base stands as opposed to straightaway left field.)

006

At the top of the stairs one finds the entrance to the clubhouse. And, yes, players interacting with fans.

008

009

010

The view from the player’s entrance. It’s a long way to the Golden Chicks.

011

After going up the stairs we went right back down the stairs. Such is life. The purpose of our descent was so that I could be interviewed on the field by Express director of entertainment Ballpark Rob Runnels.

So we meet again, Ballpark Rob. My appearance has degenerated since the last time that I saw you.

IMG_4972

Rob and I spoke about life, love, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept, pre-code Hollywood, DIY pickling techniques, the deleterious effects of clickbait on social discourse,  maintaining a connection with God amid an increasingly secular society, and Minor League Baseball.

019

IMG_4976

My time on the videoboard, and on the field, continued beyond the interview. Next up was a ceremonial first pitch. The pictures tell the story.

021

022

023

024

025

#emergingmanboobs

Bounced it.

Fortunately, there weren’t too many people who witnessed my bounced first pitch. It was a Monday evening, and as the game started the crowd was rather sparse.

026

Nonetheless, the Express are averaging 7,985 fans per game this season, best in the Pacific Coast League. It is a fact of life that I always visit teams on off nights, and they always make sure to tell me so.

It’s not the size of the crowd that matters anyway, it’s how you use it. Spike, he always does his best to entertain.

027

Ready for his close-up:028

Speaking of Spike, one Spike Owen is on the Express coaching staff and Steve Buechele is the manager. As someone who collected baseball cards between the years 1986-1992, I am very familiar with these names. You probably are too.

031

032

Spike Owen’s middle name is Dee. Spike Dee Owen is a cool name.

With the game underway, I did what I do best: not watching the game. Instead, our ballpark tour resumed. Later, guys.

031

All of the Express’s food and beverage options are now handled in-house, via the newly-created Ryan-Sanders Sports Services (RS3 for short). I’ll have more on that later, but, for now:

This is the “Brew @ The Rock” bar, which features 16 beers on tap.

036

Those pieces of wood affixed to the bar are used as serving containers for “beer flights” ($8 for four four-ounce glasses), and they’re made out of baseball bats. I’m not sure when, but it’s a guarantee: other teams will steal this idea.

Teams will not, however, use this sign as a template. There’s a semi-colon where the comma should be, which completely changes the sign’s intended meaning.

039

Triple-A rosters are often comprised of veteran guys, who are for more likely to have wives and families than any other level of the Minors (guys at other levels of the Minors are far more likely to have video game systems, a dozen pairs of flip-flops, and the Tinder app on their phones). Hence this room, reserved for the families of the players.

040

There are plenty of other places in which to lounge at the Dell Diamond. These rocking chairs are available to anyone with a berm ticket, for an additional cost of $5 (first come, first served).

042

The members of the Express bullpen like to put their feet up as well.

043

As do the grounds crew.

046

RS3 also offers sports turf services throughout Texas, so this storage area has room for equipment above and beyond what is need to maintain their field. (When I post pictures such as these, I imagine MiLB groundskeepers in less lavish environments pounding their fist on the desk, spitting coffee onto the computer monitor, and yelling obscenities).

047While in the groundskeepers shed, I paid a visit to the center field camera well.

049

050

Looping around the stadium’s exterior, we soon came upon the player’s parking lot. You can generally tell which cars belong to players; there’s all sorts of overcompensation going on.

053

GMC envy

The owner of this vehicle possesses what very well may be the most bird poop-splattered Mercedes in all of Minor League Baseball. Get in touch if you are aware of any competition in this category.

054

The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.

056

All of the above apply to Ben’s Biz Blog, which, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time as well as most underrated entity in all of sports media. You know this. Tell a friend.

No segue:

nosegway

You don’t see this at most ballparks.

057

Earlier on this trip, I visited the Midland RockHounds and made a note of the huge rock sitting just outside of the stadium. Flipping the script, the Express have a huge rock inside of the stadium. Fitting, as they are one of the boulder teams in Minor League Baseball.

060

If you’re not into sitting in front of a big rock, you can go swimming instead. I’m not sure if one can stand in this swimming pool or not. Guess that deep ends.

061

Our lap of the stadium complete, it was once again time to return to field level. Hola, Spike.

067

I was back on the field in order to compete in a between-inning shirt shag, in which I was tasked with catching t-shirts (launched from a slingshot) with a net.

070

I missed the first one due to lack of skill, as it clanked off the side of the net. I caught the second.

071

The third one was a soft launch, and I had to hustle for it. This photo makes it appear as if I might catch up to it, but I didn’t.

072

TRUE GRIT:

072

And what’s this? STOP THE PRESSES — full video documentation.

Okay, fine, whatever. Another on-field failure. But there’s no crying in Minor League Baseball blogging, a fact of life when you’re born with defective tear ducts.

Time to eat! My designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was Austin resident Phil Boyd.

073

Phil and I were friends (and, for three years, roommates) at the University of Pittsburgh. We initially bonded over a shared love of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his band Shockwave Riderz had just gotten off of a tour in which they opened for the Blues Explosion. Check out these Shockwave Riderz oscillations, and then cop some music here! It’s an In the Red Silver Apples synthscuzz Suicide attempt, like Dirty Beaches once the sleeping pills wear off.

Round Rock turned out to be a very good location in which to be a designated eater. As mentioned before, the team is now doing all of its concessions in-house, and executive chef Ed Ebert and food and beverage director Jay Kudla were psyched to show off their new creations.

What’s up, guys?

Chef_Ed_Ebert_Director_Jay_Kudla_9f7jiygd_z19xd82o

I wrote a MiLB.com feature about the concessions, and will try my best not to be overly redundant here. Each concession area is now a standalone, separately-branded entity, and there are a ton of options. Our first stop was the Metro Deli, which has three sandwiches named after Texas icons.

075

074

Herb mayo, get it?

You’ll also notice the words “gluten-free market” on the above sign. The Express cater to gluten-free diets whenever possible, and the staff is fully trained as regards food handling procedures as well as the specific ingredients in each item. They’re doing it right.

While my photo documentation is poor (by this point my camera batteries had died and I was fumbling around with an iPhone), Phil ended up with a McConaughey.

IMG_1340

My notes regarding Phil’s opinion of this sandwich were much like McConaughey himself: kinda hard to comprehend. In a nutshell, he liked it but wasn’t blown away.

Meanwhile, I was trying my hand at the Big Kahuna Dog — a quarter-pound Nolan Ryan beef hot dog topped with mango salsa, pineapple mustard and avocado and served (for me) on a gluten-free bun. On the side are house-made sea salt and pepper chips (when the Express say that everything is made on-site, they really mean it. There are no bagged chips to be found, and homemade is MUCH better).

The gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately (such is life, gluten is a binding agent) but this is a great dog and indicative of the Express’s attention to detail. Ebert and Kudla can (and will!) explain every component of every item in exacting detail. The result of this approach is food items that are uniformly fresh and flavorful.

Also available from the 50’s diner-themed “Fairlane’s” concession stand (or “storefronts,” as the team now calls them) is the James Dean hot dog. It’s topped with bleu cheese  slaw and Frank’s Red Hot:

“This is a classic Buffalo wing flavor, and the bleu cheese slaw is great,” said Phil. “This is a good dog, man.”

Also named after a 50’s icon, but far less traditional, is “The Elvis.” Banana and peanut butter on a bun, drizzled with honey.

IMG_1347

The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.

IMG_1350

“The cool thing about it is that’s dessert, but not that unhealthy,” said Phil. “It’s so cool to have a dessert that’s not, like, a ton of ice cream.”

And then there’s this: the Grilled Cheese Dog. No explanation required.

IMG_1352

Man, I wish I could have tried this one. But this garlic fries on the side are EXCEPTIONAL. Much crisper than your usual garlic fries, and seasoned to perfection.

Here’s Phil watching the game with the Grilled Cheese Dog, his steadily growing array of food items laid out in front of him.

IMG_1354

“The dog is the first thing you notice, but it’s followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor,” said Phil. “It’s a fun idea.’

Hey! Remember back in 2010, when “Rojo Johnson” made a relief appearance at a Round Rock game? If not:

Rojo is now back at the ballpark, in the form of “Rojo’s Southwestern Hideaway.”

064

IMG_1355

Lots of great gluten-free options here, such as this “Taco Flight” — pork carnitas and chicken verde with shredded romaine, cotija cheese, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

IMG_1358

In lieu of a written opinion, a picture:

Even better were the nachos, which are some of the best to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball. Red, white and blue tortilla chips, pork, “Queso Rojo,” jalapeno, pico de gallo, and sour cream.  Things like this represent the best kind of gluten-free ballpark options, in that they are naturally gluten-free as opposed to a compromised consolation prize.

IMG_1361

Extreme close-up!

IMG_1369

Next up for Phil was the beer shake, available at the Frozensational Tiki Bar. This is a Convict Hill oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream.

IMG_1370

“You’re gonna want a straw with that,” said either Ebert or Kudla (my notes are unclear). “This is not a beer with milk in it, it’s a milkshake with a shot of beer.”

And — yes! — a gluten-free beershake was concocted for me using Redbridge. Cute hair, bro:

IMG_1372

By this points most of the concession stands (or, sorry, “storefronts”) were shutting down. But we weren’t done yet. Here, Phil “The Bottomless Pit” Boyd poses with a brisket BBQ plate from the South Side Market (a third party vendor that has a restaurant in Elgin, Texas).

IMG_1382

Once again, a picture says more than words ever could.

IMG_1379

RS3 has come very strongly out of the gate, and the long-term plan is, as Kudla said “to make it salable and take it elsewhere.” Could the Grilled Cheese Dog be coming soon to a ballpark near you?

IMG_1352

Encore presentation

This extensive food tour brought us right through to the end of the game, but it was worth it. The only thing I regret is that Phil and I missed seeing this:

That dude clearly put a little too much herb mayo on his Willie Sandwich.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Whatanight in Corpus Christi

In keeping with the theme of this Texas-sized road trip, I arrived in Corpus Christi shortly before the game began and didn’t really have any time to get the lay of the land. But my first impression of Corpus Christi was that it was a pretty swanky place, at least in the waterfront area where my hotel was located. On these trips I am used to staying in nondescript establishments located within  homogeneous swaths of depressingly generic chain establishments. But the Corpus Christi Holiday Inn was 20-something stories tall and located right on the water, definitely not a typical Minor League hotel!

002

The view from my room:

082

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to access the balcony. How’s this for some strangely-worded hotel room signage?

“We would like to make you aware”?

081

This grandiose sense of scale carried over to the ballpark itself, which opened in 2005. Welcome to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.

083

This statue, sporting the disappointingly generic title of “For the Love of the Game,” is 22 feet tall. Is it the biggest statue in all of Minor League Baseball? I don’t know, you tell me.

084

I wrote about this statue, and many other aspects of the Hooks experience, over at MiLB.com. Please read it, as I am going to do my best not to be redundant when it comes to what I cover here in this blog post.

As you’ll see in this photo, and throughout the post, the landscape surrounding Whataburger Field is rather cluttered. There are cranes, ships, bridges, train tracks, wind turbines (and more). Much of this industrial activity is affiliated with the Port of Corpus Christi, which, per Wikipedia, is the sixth largest port in the United States as regards cargo volume.

086

The wood beams incorporated into the stadium’s facade (as well as the corrugated steel paneling along the upper suite level)  are architectural nods to the cotton warehouses that used to permeate the region.

089

During the days when cotton reigned, baseball in Corpus Christi was more apt to resemble this.

The AutoNation Club group seating area features this view of Harbor Bridge (it’s much prettier at night, as you shall soon see).

095096

There are a lot of Minor League groundskeepers out there would will kill (with their bare hands, if necessary) for storage space like this.

098

Another perk of groundskeeping in Corpus Christi, as detailed in my MiLB.com piece:

Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn’t receive much rainfall, but what Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers calls “an incredibly effective drainage system” plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel. 

Tanks, a lot:

099

Cotton presses, still standing in their original location, flank each side of the (brand-new) scoreboard. The “Bam Bam” sign below the window commemorates a batting practice home run hit by Hunter “Bam Bam” Pence while he was with the Hooks.

104

103

The boilers that once drove the presses now serve as the backdrop for an outfield basketball court.

107

108

Beyond the boilers one finds this youth field, which has games taking place at 5:45 most days of the week. On the day I attended, the Challenger League was in action.

109

110

And here we have a rock wall, which has not yet achieved sentience.

112

The view from the 407 Club, so named because it sits just beyond the deepest part of the ballpark.

113

Even deeper, but not part of the ballpark proper:

115

The Hooks’ Splash Zone is a bit more modest than the water park seen above.

116

The view from the right field entrance.

117

After taking this lap of the surroundings (thanks to Matt Rogers for the tour), I went down to the playing field for a pre-game interview with Hooks broadcaster Chris Blake.

120

No pictures of this interview exist, but rest assured that I was charming and witty and incredibly knowledgeable. That’s Chris there on the left, and that guy on the right is wearing a poncho in celebration of Cinco De Mayo. This photo also provides a good view of the cotton press as well as the team’s new scoreboard.

121

The dugouts are sponsored by the Downtown Marina Holiday Inn, who would like to make you aware that the balconies are not accessible.

122

A pre-game autograph session featuring both players and mascots.

123

I’m not sure if Sammy the Seagull is signing the baseball or eating it. Maybe a little of both. 124

And, yes, that is an anthropomorphic hook wearing a poncho. I don’t think that I had ever seen that before.

125

As the game began, I was in a storage area among “Only in Minor League Baseball” accoutrements such as a super-sized order of Whataburger Fries.

129 I wasn’t participating in any spud-related activity, however. My task was to compete in a between-inning tricycle race.

IMG_1333 During most of the game I hung out with on-field emcee Charlie Kovar — aka “Ballpark Chuck.” He was rooting for me to succeed.

I started off strong, but at some point during the race my foot slipped off of the pedal and I never regained my speed. I finished in second (of three).

131

133

Many of our adventures together throughout the evening were chronicled on the videboard, but the video I obtained lacked audio and I have decided not to use it. Hopefully these pictures will suffice, please send any complaints regarding my subpar content to benjamin.hill@mlb.com 

Ballpark Chuck and I then adjourned to the outfield for the “Whataburger Fry Shuffle” contest. (Similar to a cap shuffle or what have you). For participating in this contest, I received an oversized Whataburger t-shirt. Please, pay no attention to my emerging manboobs.

135

Our ballpark journeys now segued into a now common segment of the Ben’s Biz Blog “On the Road” experience. It was time to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

138

Say hello to Javi Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach in Corpus Christi. Javi was at the ballpark with his wife, Megan (also a teacher), father Jaime and son James (that James and Jaime in the background).

“I just love Minor League Baseball, and reading the different blogs,” said Javi. As for his designated eating duties, he remarked that “My wife couldn’t believe it, but she said ‘If if it’s going to be anyone, I guess that it’d be you.”

Yes, “The Babe.” Created last season in response to MiLB.com’s “Food Fight” competition, “The Babe” is cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger wrapped in bacon.

137

“The cheddarwurst makes it so it’s not as dry as you would think,” said Javi. “And anything wrapped in bacon is a can’t miss. This is Texas, so when you put those meats together it’s good stuff.”

Next up was the Taco Dog — a hot dog in a crispy corn taco shell in a soft flour tortilla, topped with ground beef and pico de gallo.

141

143

Javi simply remarked that this was a “good doubledecker, there’s a lot going on.” We then moved on to the mac and cheese dog, which I failed to take a good picture of.

145

“This is good, but it could use a little ketchup,” said Javi. “Some people say that’s sacrilegious, to put ketchup on a hot dog.

At one point Javi attempted to enlist 14-month-old  James as a designated eater, which would have made him the youngest designated eater in the history of designated eating. James was having none of it, though.

146

Ive Got You, Babe

Thanks to Javi and his family for taking the time to do some designated eating! When I asked if it was embarrassing to sit at a table and have someone take pictures of him eating, he said “Nah, I’m a teacher. You have to embarrass yourself in the classroom every day.”

That’s the spirit!

148

For the record, Whataburger Field has its own Whataburger (which the locals pronounce “Waterburger.”)  The fast food franchise began in Corpus Christi, and still has its headquarters there.

149

Enshrouded in the shadows, one can also find Nolan Ryan’s “Smoke 5714″ BBQ stand. (The Hooks were originally owned by Ryan-Sanders. Nolan Ryan struck out 5714 batters over the course of his 63-season career.)

150

And don’t forget. There was a game going on! There is always a game going on.

151

152

154

As alluded to previously, the Harbor Bridge is beautiful at night.

155

Ballpark Chuck and I had made our way back down to the playing field so that I could emcee a “Finish the Lyrics” competition. Madalee and McKayla ably finished the lyrics (of a pop song I can no longer recall); fun was had by all.

156

158

I then emceed a Dizzy Bat Race, because why not? I wish I had proper video of this, as my comedic chops were on point for a change.

162

Taking a phone call while the contestants spin.

165

166

After the Dizzy Bat Race, I interviewed Hooks super-fan Tammy Tucker about the myriad ways in which she supports the team. You can read that interview HERE.

168

You don’t need a fancy lens to get a good picture of Harbor Bridge.

170

With the game just about over, I made a pit stop at the press box. Like seemingly everywhere else at Whataburger Field, there is plenty of room to move.

174

The Hooks do not acknowledge the existence of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

A unique aspect of Whataburger Field is this radio studio, located on the ground floor of the stadium and visible to fans. Here, outfielder Mark Wik does a post game interview with Chris Blake after homering in his Corpus Christi debut. I’m not sure of the machinations that led to Wik being in Corpus Christi, but he came straight from extended Spring Training, played two games with the Hooks, and then went to Class A Advanced Lancaster and played two games there. He is now back in extended Spring Training (I think), and will most likely appear again with Class A Short Season Tri-Cities once their season begins. What a life.

177 As I observed this interview, a man I had met previously in the evening, one Douglas Calhoun, tapped on the window and waved a ball and pen at me. I assumed he wanted me to get Wik to autograph the ball, but he wanted my autograph (!!!) I was happy to oblige.

180

If you would like me to sign an autograph for you, then get in touch. I am a very accessible celebrity.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Mission Complete in San Antonio

Fun fact: Although just 20 years of age, San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the eight-team Texas League.

Funner Fact: For the first eight seasons of its existence, Wolff Stadium was the newest ballpark in the Texas League. Its descent from “newest” to “oldest” occurred over a span of just nine seasons; Midland (2002), Arkansas (2007) and Tulsa (2010) built new ballparks for previously existing teams, while Frisco (2003), Corpus Christi (2005), Springfield (2005),  and Northwest Arkansas (2008) began play in new facilities after re-locating from elsewhere.

The Texas League, where change is the only constant!

I arrived at Wolff Stadium after a long drive from Midland, during which I got caught in rush hour traffic. I arrived at the ballpark around 6 p.m. (much later than originally intended), changed clothes in the parking lot, and then snapped this shot of the ballpark’s exterior.

Welcome to the Wolff, man:

1670

1671

Wolff Stadium is located across the street (more or less) from Lackland Air Force base. This base serves as the sole location for Air Force basic training, meaning that impossibly fresh-faced recruits are a common sight at Missions games. The sounds of planes flying overhead has also led some (or at least one) to dub it “The Shea Stadium of Minor League Baseball.” (At Shea Stadium, planes flying in and out of LaGuardia airport lent the ballpark a certain acoustical ambiance.)

1672

I was joined on this evening by one Jon Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist who recently completed a piece in which I am depicted blogging sans shirt.

shirtless

Available for purchase

Jon and I went to high school together (Wissahickon Class of ’97, for those keeping score at home). He was last seen on this blog at a Modesto Nuts game, eating meat-stuffed pretzels. Here he is upon entering Wolff Stadium, brandishing a brobdingnagian team-logo mug that was the evening’s giveaway item. (I now allow myself one use of the word “brobdingnagian” per season. Look forward to seeing the word again in 2015.)

1673

Some stadium views, captured upon arrival. Though it was a Friday, the Missions drew a lackluster crowd due to the fact that the Spurs had a Game 7 playoff game that evening. When you’re a Double-A baseball team, it’s kind of hard to compete with a championship-caliber NBA team in the same market. But what can you do?

1674

1677

1678

1679

The National Anthem was adorable. For maximum enjoyment, listen to this at least 145 times in a row. I did!

I taped that anthem snippet in the press box, a domain occupied by shadowy figures.

1680And while in the press box, I got my first glimpse of iconic Missions mascot Ballapeno. For more on Ballapeno and his arch-rival, Puffy Taco, read my MiLB.com article on the subject. I COMMAND YOU.

1681

I also got my first glimpse of Alex Vispoli, broadcaster for the visiting Frisco RoughRiders. If broadcasters were ranked as MLB prospects in the same manner that players are, Vispoli would be high on the list. (Actually, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? But what methodology would be used? It’s a hard thing to quantify.)

1682

My interaction with Vispoli was brief, for the game was ready to begin.

1683

Following standard protocol, I did not settle in to watch the game. I commenced to wandering.

1684

And in the course of that wandering, I soon ran into my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

1702That’s Darren Smith, who drove in from Austin for the occasion. “I just wanted to see a new ballpark and shoot the [shoot] about baseball,” he told me. Smith currently works for an Austin-area summer camp that specializes in outdoor education, but in a previous life he worked for the MLB  Urban Youth Academy in Compton as well as the Bradenton Marauders during their nascent years of existence.

After talking with the team, it was decided that Darren would sample the “Nacho Dog.” It’s nacho dog, it’s Darren’s.

1685

Have at it, Darren.

1687

1688

Darren was less than enthused with the Missions’ culinary concoction.

“The chili’s not great, the cheese is okay, but the bread is the worst,” he said. “It’s rock hard and cold. [Ballpark sponsor] Mrs. Baird’s is a Texas brand and you’d think they’d use that. The only thing that makes this a nacho dog is the chips, otherwise it’s a chili-cheese dog.”

We then stopped by Tony T’s Ballpark Treats, a third-party vendor, and got their signature Ribbon Fries.

1696

1689

Darren was a fan of these, lauding their look, crispness, and overall flavor.

1691

I loved these (gluten-free!) creations as well. Tony T’s is a winner.

1692

Fischer took the above photo, and he took this one as well. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of my professional career that one can find.

SanAntonioMissions3

Finally, we stopped by another third-party vendor: Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse.

1697

Darren, an expert when it comes to the Austin-area BBQ scene, opted for the brisket sandwich. He said that “In Texas, you know a place has good BBQ if they have a good brisket.”

1699 Fischer, meanwhile, got a Hot Chop sandwich with Serrano peppers.

1700

Oh, and a Frito Pie was involved somehow.

1698

Have at it, guys.

1701

In case you prefer your images of 30-something white men eating to be of the moving variety:

“I’m pretty sure that the bread here is Mrs. Baird’s,” said Darren. “By Texas brisket standards, this is at the level of a Dickey’s [a BBQ restaurant chain]. It’s pretty commercial, there’s no burnt stuff or smoke lines.”

And with that we bid adieu to Darren Smith, a tough but fair designated eater. I then re-commenced wandering.

1703

Some two decades into its existence, Wolff Stadium is in need of a little TLC. This metal fence could use a touch-up, for example.

1705

And this isolated area, located behind the berm, was just a dump.

1715

 

But for the most part, Wolff Stadium gets the job done. It is neither old nor young, just plugging along and maintaining its status as a San Antonio summertime entertainment staple.

1712

1714

1716

Of course, the aforementioned Ballapeno and Henry the Puffy Taco are a big part of the ballpark experience. Here, a gaggle of children chase Ballapeno across the field.

1707

I really wish I had been able to properly capture this moment. Ballapeno, in the act of waving to a young fan, accidentally slapped  her in the face instead. The girl, more shocked than hurt, began to cry. In the below photo, Ballapeno is attempting to apologize, but, you know, it’s hard to apologize when you can’t talk.

But don’t worry about it, Ballapeno, as it was clearly unintentional. Get in touch if you need me to provide a statement exonerating you of any wrongdoing.

1710

 

I was back up in the press box during Henry the Puffy Taco’s nightly humiliation. Not only does he lose every base path race, but the victor then stands upon him and gloats. Once again, my attempt to capture the action was subpar. (Everybody has their off nights, no matter what the job, and I had a blogging off night here in San Antonio).

1717

Humiliated or not, Henry the Puffy Taco still loves to dance.

1720

1719

The game was moving rapidly, leading me to a sort of existential crisis. I’d been out and about and on my feet throughout, but what had I done? Anything? It didn’t feel like much, kind of like those recurring dreams I have where I’m at a ballpark in order to write about it but instead remain stuck in one place. (I really and truly have these dreams on a regular basis.)

But I wasn’t stuck, it was time to move. I had to get to the illuminated truth of this multi-tiered conundrum.

1721

But all I found was that the game was over, and fans were now attempting to throw tennis balls into a chimney. Typical.

1723

1724

1728

This was one case where people actually wanted to come down with the flue, but it was not to be. “Oh my God that was so close. Oh! Oh!”

But, hey, there’s always Run the Bases. 1730 Good night from Wolff Stadium. Don’t forget to get an autograph on your way out. 1733 benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 457 other followers