Results tagged ‘ Pacific Coast League ’

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.

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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.

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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.)

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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#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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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As do the grounds crew.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.

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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:

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You don’t see this at most ballparks.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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TRUE GRIT:

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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Extreme close-up!

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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.

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“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:

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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).

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

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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?

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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: Two Sides to Every Story in Reno

My “On the Road” posts are perhaps best described as impressionistic fever dreams, in which I try to piece the fragmented memories of my ballpark evenings into something resembling an objective reality. In doing so I strive to reach a fertile middle ground in which a small “t” truth can blossom into infallibility, but sometimes the discrepancy between my account of an evening and that of the team in question becomes too great to ignore. This is certainly what has occurred when it comes to my recent visit with the Reno Aces, as I documented a rather lackluster night at the ballyard that ended prematurely due to a rainout.

When the Aces read this post, they were incredulous. “It goes without saying that Ben is the greatest baseball writer of all time, but not even the greats are unimpeachable,” went the presumed front office sentiment. “And, like Loutallica or Chinese Democracy, Ben’s post on this alleged “Reno Rainout” represents greatness at its most deeply flawed.”

The Aces, led by marketing director Brett McGinness, took it upon themselves to compose a thorough corrective to my Reno rainout missive, which I will now reprint in full. In doing so I am not admitting to any errors in my previous account; rather, I am simply acknowledging that truth is a malleable construction, perhaps nothing more than a coping mechanism designed to create some semblance of order within an existence that requires daily navigation through the chaos of infinite conflicting realities.

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We’re not sure what your recent column was, about the rainout at Aces Ballpark. Here’s how we remember it (with photographic proof):

It was a perfect August evening at Aces Ballpark. 75 at first pitch, not a drop of rain for miles.

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The Aces and Redbirds took the field right on schedule, and you got the full Aceball experience. You seemed a bit road-weary.

The second-inning trike race against Archie went well. You pulled out to a huge lead, but seemed pretty blasé about the victory.

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Next up: Dancing Grounds Crew. Surely this would shake you out of your stupor.

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Nope.

Guest-starring as Roof-Man, perhaps?

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No dice.

Same deal when you were in the wiener dog race (although you came in third, so it’s understandable why you might have been bummed out).

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That was when we accidentally offered you a Triple Play Sandwich, chock-full of glutens. Cryptically, you told us, “Don’t offer me glutens. You wouldn’t like me on glutens.”

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You took one bite of that sandwich and went a little nuts.

You proposed to some woman on the field. We’re still not sure if you knew who it was, or if you had met her before, or what.

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We tried to tell you that “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” wasn’t a duet, but we couldn’t talk you down from the wall.

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We didn’t really know what to do, so we had to call the cops.

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Long story short, Nevada requires no residency for marriage certificates, so the marriage is binding. You should really head back here when you get a chance, your bride keeps stopping by the ballpark and asking about you, and we’re running out of excuses.

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I’ve got to admit, the above account does explain a lot. Namely, why a woman with a 775 area code who is listed in my phone as “Betrothed” keeps calling me. I keep telling this lady that she’s got the wrong number, and that I remain Minor League Baseball’s most desirable bachelor, but who knows? Perhaps it’s time to own up to my gluten-fueled indiscretions and settle down in Reno.

Or perhaps not. I’ll spend the remainder of the week pondering my options, and in the meantime stay tuned for dispatches from one more “On the Road” locale: Hillsboro, home of the Hops. Hopefully my account will jibe with the team’s, but who really does know?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Rain Delays and Triple Plays in Reno

I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past four seasons, and in that time I’ve kept meteorological misfortune to a minimum. The only time whilst “On the Road” in which I experienced a rainout was in 2010, when a vicious Chattanooga thunderstorm put a halt to any and all Southern League activities that had been scheduled for that evening at AT&T Field (or, as I like to call it, “Orphan Initialism Field”)

When I arrived at Reno Aces Ballpark on a recent Thursday it was decidedly overcast, hardly the sort of day that sets hearts to fluttering.

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“But, still,” I thought to myself,” “This is Reno. I don’t think that there are ever rainouts here. It’s, like, near a desert or something.”

This was an exact thought-quote.

Upon entering the ballpark (which, as you may be able to infer from the above pictures, is located in downtown proper) I met with Aces marketing director Brett McGinness and we embarked on a tour of the facility. For some reason, the very first picture that I took is of a deserted (for the time being) cornhole bago area.

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“This started as a bocce court, but bocce didn’t fit the Reno aesthetic,” Brett told me. “Bago has been much more popular.”

Also representative of the Reno aesthetic are huge meat smokers in the shape of a train.

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Aces Ballpark is the centerpiece of Reno’s entertainment-centric “Freight District” and the city is a major trucking and transit hub in general, so the train motif makes sense. There are train tracks located directly beyond left field, for goodness sake.

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The scene is different in right field, as there one finds the Truckee River.

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To the right of right field, out in the distance, on the horizon, there are mountains.

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But as for the more immediate surroundings? Take a look:

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Refreshment options abounded, actually.

Outside there were food trucks, or, as nobody calls them: vehicular comestible purveyors.

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Upstairs, this was the scene at “Bugsy’s.

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“Bugsy’s” is so named because “Bugsy” is the nickname of Aces manager Brett Butler. Butler got that name during his playing days, when his snazzy sartorial sense inspired teammate Mike Krukow to remark that he dressed like mobster Bugsy Siegel, and the name stuck.

Keep in mind that I was walking around the ballpark with a guy named Brett [McGinness], who told me that “Growing up Brett Butler was my favorite player, because there were no other Bretts playing baseball. Now when I’m walking around the ballpark Brett [Butler] will see me and say ‘How’s it going, Brett’ and I’m like ‘Wow, dream come true!’ Brett Butler knows my name!”

Such interaction is par for the Brett Butler course, actually, as prior to the season he requests short bios of the Aces front office so that he can competently make small talk with them when the need arises. That’s just the kind of guy Brett Butler is!

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There are plenty of food and drink options at Aces Ballpark — especially if you DON’T want to watch the game. There’s an entire attached entertainment district that is collectively referred to as “The Freight House.”

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Bago can be found up here as well,  beneath the upper torso of a glowering neon baseball player.

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It is rumored, but not confirmed, that this player was modeled after veteran infielder Cody Ransom.

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Meanwhile, game time was almost upon us. In the following Vine, the PA announcer’s exhortation to “Play Ball” occurs about half a second after a jagged bolt of lighting cuts across the sky. Baseball and lightning are, generally speaking, incompatible.

But the game had begun and there was nothing to do but keep on keeping on, despite the less-than-ideal conditions. The evening’s originally scheduled “designated eater” (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was a local DJ/Aces superfan/Reno man-about-town named Chris Payne.

Payne was recently voted Reno’s “best public figure to fantasize about,” so have at it:

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Unfortunately, Payne’s own recent set of dietary restrictions — he had given up red meat– rendered him unable to adequately perform designated eating duties.  All I could do was admire his tattoos and footwear and move on.

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“I take what I do as a fan to the next level,” said Chris. “I’m always thinking eight steps ahead of everyone else.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Into the designated eating void stepped Brett McGinness himself. And first up for Brett was the $15 Triple Play sandwich, which consists of 18-hour smoked brisket and pork shoulder, BBQ-glazed meatballs, cole slaw, three pieces of Texas toast, pickles, and peperoncinis. After you order it, you are given the following sign so that an Aces food service worker can come out and hand deliver it.

(In the below photo, senior sous chef Brad Radack is holding the sign. We’ll meet Brad in just a bit.)

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What a beauty this thing is!

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Have at it, Brett!

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As Brett methodically consumed the above item with grace and aplomb, the situation on the field went from bad to worse.

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Say what you will about radar, it is incapable of untruths. And, sure enough, about 10 minutes after the first pitch, the skies opened up. It was a veritable deluge, and Brett abandoned the Triple Play sandwich in favor of tarp duty.

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The concourse, in which elbow room had once been so plentiful, quickly became a mob scene.

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Two brave — or would that be insane? — souls stuck it out in the stands.

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The Aces’ tarp work was exemplary, and after the situation was under control Brett returned. (His sandwich, however, did not. I have no idea where that thing went.)

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The Aces had prepared a rather ambitious schedule for me, involving many aspects of the game day experience, but the rains rendered this schedule moot. (At the time the rain hit I was preparing to take part in a trike race, because, as Brett said, “We figured we’d put you on a metal object in a thunderstorm.”)

Okay, fine. Plan B: watched Brett eat more food. What a life. This time we headed up to Duffy’s, a member in good standing of the Freight House conglomerate:

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Brett, still soaking wet, soon had before him Duffy’s version of a reuben: corned beef, french fries and dressing on rye, cooked in a woodstone pizza oven.

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Chef Radack reported that this is a new item, and it has been popular as a late night selection (Duffy’s opens 90 minutes before the game and then stays open until midnight or so). Brett, he enjoyed it.

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It’s not on the menu, unfortunately, but Chef Radack and his crew were kind enough to prepare me some gluten-free pizza. On the left is pepperoni, on the right is the veggie-centric “Farmer’s Market” (onions, zucchini, peppers, pomodoro sauce).

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Radack and crew, awaiting my reaction:

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Thumbs-up, guys! (Seriously, please don’t kill me.)

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It really was good — I’m not sure what type of flour was used, but it resulted in a crisp thin crust and that’s all I ever ask for. (Well, that and fresh ingredients. And impeccable presentation. And affordability. And a complete and total obsequiousness to my every passing whim.)

Meanwhile, outdoors, the rains had subsided. That was the good news. The bad news was that so much rain had fallen in so little time that the field remained sodden and certainly would remain sodden for some time.

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Well, okay, then. In order to pass the time I resumed my new favorite activity: watching Brett McGinness eat. Here’s a Caesar wrap on a spinach tortilla, Brett. Do with it what you will.

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“I’m like the Homer Simpson of food critics,” said Brett, commenting on his perhaps-less-than-discerning taste. “This is awesome, too. I love it!”

Well, then, you may as well keep right on eating. Here’s a Frito Pie Dog, in which a 10-inch hot dog is topped with chili, cheese, and Fritos.

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Previous Homer Simpson-esque proclamations notwithstanding, Brett was starting to get a little burned out.

“This, it tasted like a Frito Pie Dog,” he said. “Whatever you imagine it tastes like, that’s what it tastes like.”

This would prove to be Brett’s first and final tautological culinary observation of the evening, as word soon came over the PA that there would no more Pacific Coast League baseball on this rain-besmirched Reno evening.

My sentiments exactly, videoboard. My sentiments exactly.

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2013 marks the Aces’ fifth season, and this was just their third-ever rainout. What a disappointment for such an anomaly to occur on the lone night that I was in Reno, as there is so much of the Aces experience left to be seen!

Perhaps, through a combination of technological chicanery and good old fashioned elbow grease, I’ll be able to find a way to show you some of these things. Who really does know?

Stay tuned…

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Around, Down, Up, Over and Out in Fresno

Part One of this Fresno saga featured slow elevators, neglected stanzas, mascot wardrobes and deceased appliances. It was a masterwork, in other words, and like all masterworks it is bound to be neglected until long after I, its creator, have shuffled off of this mortal coil and back into the flux. I accepted this fate long ago and am at peace with it, having learned to still the superfluous concerns of the raging ego within the infinite beauty of the eternal present.

And speaking of infinite beauty, on the evening in which I was in town Chukchansi Park and its immediate surroundings were positively radiant.

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I took these pictures from a perhaps not-so radiant area of the ballpark, as Grizzlies media relations coordinator Chris Kutz and I were wandering in and around Chuckchansi’s obscure backroads.

Gotta love it!

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The Grizzlies are the most prominent occupants of Chukchansi Park, but they’re not the only ones. The Fresno Fuego soccer team plays in the facility as well, and when they do they play upon an uncoiled iteration of this massive turf lollipop.

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Beyond the tarp lies glorious piles of detritus, and beyond the detritus lurks an orange-shirted team employee tasked with operating the manual right field scoreboard.

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But this team employee is not alone among the debris. He’s got these guys to keep him company.

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Perhaps the cats know what this vehicle is used for, because none of the humans I talked to had any idea.

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And finally, there is this.

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I don’t know what “C.B.T.” stands for, but I do know that visiting clubhouse manager Joe Castillo smokes ribs in this thing at the end of a homestand and then serves said ribs as the centerpiece of a post-game meal. My guess is that Mr. Castillo receives better-than-average tips for his efforts, and between him and the legendary tacos often prepared by head groundskeeper David Jacinto it is apparent that the Grizzlies are among the best post-game food providers in the PCL.

While I was loathe to leave the ramshackle charm of the Grizzlies’ storage area, Chris and I soon proceeded to the outfield area proper. Again, let it be said that it was a beautiful night in downtown Fresno.

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In the outfield one can find the “Grizzlies Garden,” created and cultivated by the 2013 graduating class of downtown Fresno’s Acel Charter School (located the proverbial “hop, skip, and a jump” away from the stadium).

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The school year was over and the garden’s best days were behind it, but the students had grown the likes of apples, corn, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, oxford commas, and chard. This project was under the umbrella of the Grizzlies “Farm Grown” program.

“We’re trying our best to tie in [the Central Valley's] agriculture industry and community with the Grizzlies,” said Chris. “We’re all farm grown. The players are farm grown through the Giants system and we in Fresno are farm grown because so much of our food is grown here locally.”

Chris went on to explain that the high school garden was the beginning of a much larger project, as the Grizzlies are seeking to “tie in the farming community with our urban environment.” To this end, they’ll soon be turning this expanse of outfield area dirt into a garden featuring demonstration plots of prominent local crops.

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Also tied in with the “Farm Grown” initiative is this very cool recurring promo advertised on the concourse.

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Chukchansi Park was built in 2002, just before what Chris called “the berm rage,” and as such there isn’t a lot of berm seating.

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But there is a small berm area that surrounds the pool, the centerpiece of a private outfield group area available for rental on a per-game basis. At this moment in time the life guard had no lives to guard, thus calling into question the essential premise behind her reason for being.

(And, for the record, the last Grizzlies player to have achieved a so-called “Splash Hit” was Cole Gillespie this past June.)

086 There were people out here, however. It was just that the food and beverage options were, at least at the moment, more enticing than going for a well-guarded dip.

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And when the focus finally moves from the food to the field, let it be known that the view is spectacular (not-so spectacular: the sound of the stadium PA blaring from directly above).

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When Chukchansi Park was built, one of the guiding principles behind it was that people would come in and out of the park via downtown Fresno. Hence, this prominent outfield entrance that connects the park with Fulton Mall’s pedestrian walkway.

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Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out the way that its planners intended. The pedestrian walkway is well maintained and public art can be found throughout, but most of the storefronts are empty. Even though there was a game going on at the time, there was no signs of additional life outside the stadium.

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Given the state of Fulton Mall, it’s easy to interpret the above statue as a cry of frustration. A feeling of “what should’ve been” pervades, as this seems like a perfect area for the usual array of bars, restaurants, retail establishments and refurbished theaters and concert halls that play such a major role in downtown revitalization projects. I don’t know the factors that have led to Fulton Mall’s current air of desolation, but Chris told me that “parking is a big issue and one of the reasons that this hasn’t worked. The lot for season ticket holders is on the other side of the ballpark, and they have no reason to walk through here.”

As I mentioned in the last post, Chris is a Fresno native and this was his last homestand as a Grizzlies employee before moving on to a job within Kansas State’s sports information department. He loves his hometown and wants to be a part of its long-term success, but also felt that he had no choice but to leave.

“Growing up I always heard about Fresno’s ‘brain drain’ and was told to get out, to leave while you can,” he said. “I guess [succeeding in Fresno is] too tall of a mountain to climb sometimes. A lot of my heart and soul is in this stadium and a lot of my heart and soul is in this downtown. But if you can’t create an environment for someone like me to make a difference then you’re going to face this problem.”

Chris Kutz, now working at Kansas State

Fresno native  and Grizzlies media coordinator Chris Kutz, now working at Kansas State

This moment of poignant pondering complete, Chris and I wandered back into the stadium and through the concourse on the third base side. On this particular Monday there was plenty of room to move.

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It was also quiet outside of the stadium’s front entrance.

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But during busy nights, the above area is anything but empty. Here’s the scene at this year’s “Taco Truck Throwdown,” which attracted more than 14,000 fans. (And, yes, as I mentioned in the last post: this month will not end without me producing some taco-related Fresno Grizzlies content).

photo: Fresno Bee

photo: Fresno Bee

There’s also a carousel outside of the stadium.

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Beware! Terror monkey resides therein.

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But why focus on primate horror on such a beautiful evening? At this particular moment in space and time the ballpark atmosphere was idyllic.

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Given the taco-related activities that had taken place earlier in the day (again, I will be writing about this), getting some food during the game itself had become a bit of an afterthought. But the show must go on, and the Grizzlies had recruited three fans to serve as the evening’s “Designated Eaters” (you know, those who consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

From left to right, meet Derek Pharis, Joel Medina, and Jace LeVasser. The three all went to high school together in Porterville, CA (located about an hour south from Fresno), and Derek and Joel are now attending Fresno State.

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Jace quickly emerged as the star of the show because, well, Jace really liked this giant hot dog.

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“It has a lot of flavor and is very delicious, but I did not feel dignified while eating it. I think a piece of me died inside,” said Jace. “I’d probably order it again.”

Derek and Joel were presented with Dinger Dogs, in which the frankfurter is butterflied open and topped with pulled pork onions, peppers and (optional) cole slaw.

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Have at it, guys.

This thing got absolutely rave reviews from Derek and Joel, although this was mostly conveyed via raised eyebrows, incredulous stares, and thumbs-up gestures.

“I thought that food here was just nachos and pizza,” said Joel.

“Me too,” said Derek. “I had no idea that [the Dinger Dog] was here, but I’m definitely glad that I found it.”

I thanked Derek, Joel, and Jace for their service and soon I was on my way. Sun or no sun, the atmosphere remained beautiful.

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At this late juncture in the ballgame the player’s headshots had morphed into an advertisement for California’s premier fast food establishment.

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And speaking of Animal Style, Chris and I soon found ourselves under attack.

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But it would have taken more than an onslaught of silly string to impede our progress. Soon enough we were within the relative safety of the Grizzlies’ front office.

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Would you believe that Parker has his own desk? It’s true, and it’s easy to tell which one is his.

Fun is guaranteed, and brainstorming encouraged.

133“This is how we think. These are the thoughts of people who can’t get their thoughts together,” said Chris. “We come in here and brainstorm, this is the room to do that.”

135Chukchansi Park is the rare two-level Minor League stadium. Here are some views from the top.

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139Back at ground level, I watched Parker get ejected from the ballgame for reasons that have since receded from memory.

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141With the concession stands about to close, it suddenly occurred to be that I had neglected to provide a stadium #cupdate. A certain subset of my readership craves such things, and on this particular trip I did not do a good job when it came to providing regular cupdates. I apologize, but one day it will please us to remember even this.

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144My last act at Chukchansi was to interview Dan and Milana Shydler, a pair of loyal and enthusiastic Grizzlies fans who bring dozens of homemade signs to each and every game. I wrote an article about them for MiLB.com, which you can and should read HERE.

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These sentiments are most apropos: Bye Bye Baby, and good night from Chukchansi Park! Before closing the book on my visit to Fresno, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Providing the Grizzly Details in Fresno

This West Coast road trip began with Bakersfield and then continued on to Visalia before bringing me here, the largest and, arguably, most in-chargest city to be found in California’s Central Valley.

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Welcome to Fresno, home of the Pacific Coast League’s Grizzlies, who play in the downtown facility that is Chukchansi Park. My day in Fresno actually began hours earlier, when I and two members of the team’s front office staff visited three of the region’s most venerated taco trucks (the Grizzlies, as you may know, host an annual “Taco Truck Throwdown” promotion that has become of their most popular nights of the year).  These corn tortilla-inspired peregrinations will be detailed in full later this month, but today (and tomorrow’s) Fresno-based dispatch shall remain focused on this particular Monday evening at the ballpark.

An elevated view of Chukchansi’s environs:

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The above views can be obtained from the upper level concourse, looking out from what would be the first base side of the stadium.  But as is my general tendency, attention soon turned inward.

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The outfield entrance of Chukchansi Park opens out into a pedestrian walkway that leads to a variety of Fulton Mall retail establishments (or the ghosts thereof), and one of those retail establishments was Luftenberg’s Bridal. While not located in the stadium proper, the Luftenberg’s signage in left field is a distinctive Chukchansi characteristic and it will be interesting to see what becomes of it now that the business in question has re-located (after more than 70 years occupying the building seen in the above picture).

Accompanying me for the bulk of my evening at Chuckchansi was media relations coordinator Chris Kutz, a Fresno native who was in his last week with the Grizzlies before moving on to a job within Kansas State’s sports information department. I was glad to have Chris around, as he was a wellspring of local knowledge in general and Grizzlies knowledge in particular. For instance, he told me with pride that Chukchansi Park boasts this, the slowest elevator in Minor League Baseball.

053When it comes to that elevator all you can do is grin and bear it  (sorry, but there’s a claws in my contract that gives me free reign to make such jokes). We made it down eventually, and soon discovered that the scene at ground level was just as beautiful as that which had existed above. It was a beautiful day in Fresno. Amid the beauty, some early arriving fans had taken it upon themselves to snag some Grizzly autographs.

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But who cares about players when Parker’s around?

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I had actually scored an interview with Parker soon after arriving at the ballpark, a journalist coup if there ever was one. We touched on a variety of topics, most of them having to do with his presumed supremacy over all other mascots, but due to rampant fluctuations between the first and third person our conversation was largely unusable. These are the hazards that come with interviewing a mascot, who aren’t accustomed to communicating within the realm of words, but nonetheless I thank Parker for his time.

While he wasn’t the only mascot at Chukchansi that evening, he was still atop the bill. Duck, you sucker!

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Stare into the maw of eternal darkness

It’s probably a good idea to duck when I’m on the mound, as ever since throwing a perfect strike in Great Lakes my ceremonial first pitch offerings have been atrocious. Similar to Bakersfield, I overcompensated for my fear of bouncing it by tossing an ineffectual airmailed lob.

Ben on mound

Parker the arbiter

All alone in failure:

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Parker, gracious bear that he is, nonetheless gave me the thumbs up.

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My first pitch segued into the National Anthem, which was to be sung by Joe Price.  Joe is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College and, as you may recall, he took a sabbatical in 2011 so that he and his wife, Bonnie, could traverse the Minor League landscape in an RV.  Joe sang the National Anthem at over 100 ballparks that season, which he dubbed “The Anthem Tour,” and I wrote an MiLB.com feature story about it HERE (the ongoing Anthem Tour blog, with dispatches from these ballparks, can be read HERE).

“I always love for people to join in, and for the anthem to be sung together regardless of political orientation,” said Joe, in my aforementioned 2011 feature story. “This can, potentially, be everyone’s national anthem. And as a result it can bridge the gap between the Tea Party and liberals, between hawks and doves. Because, even though it is a wartime song, it was written as a celebration of freedom. The preservation of our freedoms is what lies at the heart of it.”

Joe at the ready, as the fans sitting in the Dugout Club suites behind him engage in an amateur otolaryngological exam.

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Given the depth and breadth of Joe’s National Anthem knowledge, the Grizzlies had agreed to allow him to sing the song’s fourth stanza as well as the first. (Read the lyrics HERE.) Unfortunately there was confusion in the Grizzlies PA booth regarding just what it was that Joe would be doing, and most fans were summarily confused by his double-length rendition. Nonetheless, it was cool to see this lesser known portion of the song get a public airing and I hope Joe gets the chance to do it again sometime.

With the game almost underway, Chris led me on a tour of Chukchansi’s labyrinthian corridors. The Grizzlies, a Giants affiliate, were playing the Albuquerque Isotopes, a Dodgers affiliate, and this would explain one of the first things we came across: a decimated prop from one of Parker’s recent skits.

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Parker and a camouflage-adept accomplice, hastily departing from the scene of their Dodger-bashing crime.

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Parker was able to escape to parts unknown, but he didn’t exactly disappear without a trace.

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As for the rest of Parker’s belongings? They can be found here:

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All sorts of sartorial wonders lurk within this room.

And let it be known: in addition to having the slowest elevator in Minor League Baseball, the Grizzlies can also boast of having the largest number of non-functioning industrial kitchen appliances.

Outside of the Grizzlies clubhouse, a series of motivational signs have been posted by the parent club. They are very well done, these signs.

066Each sign features a player who exemplifies the characteristic in question. Here’s a closer look at “The Journey,” as personified by the long, unpredictable and ultimately triumphant career of Ryan Vogelsong.

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But is that really the best quote they could come up with? Bochy’s syntax is exquisitely mangled: “Well, I’ve said so many times about Ryan is how impressive his perseverance has been through everything.”

After trying to process that tortured mouthful of inspirational managerial verbiage I needed a breath of fresh air.

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And alright! A game was going on!

That’s my cue to end Part One of this blogging odyssey, and my promise is that Part Two will pick up exactly where Part One left off.  Until then, thank you for putting up with me, reader. Well, I’ve said so many times about you is how impressive your perseverance has been through everything.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Walking (and Eating, and Running) in Memphis

The bad news about this OK-ARK-MO-TN trip, accommodation-wise, was that the team hotels were more expensive than I had been used to. But the good news (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) was that many of them were walking distance to the stadium. And oh what a lovely perk this is — to step out of the Sleep Inn, strut a few blocks along South Main, take a left on Monroe and then — bam! — Memphis Redbirds baseball!

When I arrived there was, unfortunately, no entry between the legs.

But access was quickly gained nonetheless, and one of the first orders of business was to conduct a couple of player interviews with the trusty Flipcam.

Some of the players were taking cuts in a subterranean indoor location, alongside a mural that celebrates each season in which a Memphis professional baseball entity won a championship (the first flag, from that disease-plagued year of 1893, was earned by a team called the “Fever Germs.” Take note, Tim Hagerty!)

Other players were getting their work in, in the great outdoors. Eugenio Velez stood out in this regard, fielding ground balls on his knees in foul territory along third base. (Here’s hoping Velez makes it back to the Majors soon, so that he may enjoy a run of success comparable to last year’s futility!)

While down on the field, I got my first glimpse of what is, oh, I don’t know: THE BIGGEST VIDEOBOARD IN MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.

60′ x 60’!

I’m jumping ahead in the narrative a bit, but this is funny: Prior to the start of the season the Redbirds’ ace video production team concocted the following fake-out graphic for the new videoboard. It expertly re-creates the look of the old board.

On Opening Day, the Redbirds fooled fans and media alike by displaying the above graphic when the gates opened. After enduring an hour of disappointed and/or critical remarks (“What about that big new board you guys said what you were getting?”), they finally switched over to the “real” thing.

But I digress. I hung out in the dugout as batting practice wrapped up…

interviewing third baseman Zack Cox (in his first game back after going on the DL with a concussion) and then highly-touted pitcher Shelby Miller. But first, I had to wait for Miller to get off the phone, as he was speaking with a writer from the esteemed Cardinals blog Redbird Rants.

Miller is struggling quite mightily with Memphis, and I appreciated that he was willing to talk about it in an honest and relatively unguarded manner. He was a good interview (it’s linked to above, if you’re into that sort of thing).

As for whether I’m a good interview — who knows? But after speaking with Miller I went upstairs and chatted with Redbirds broadcaster Steve Selby for his pre-game show. It was a loose conversation, and the main thing I remember is Selby talking about mascot Rockey’s huge calves and me responding that I always pay attention to mascot body part size.

And speaking of large organs, I was happy to see this beauty up in the press box:

(It unfortunately went unplayed on the Tuesday night I was in attendance, but still…)

Downstairs, upstairs, then downstairs again. This time my descent was because I had been tapped to throw a ceremonial first pitch, my second of the season (after Fort Myers). While waiting for my moment to shine, I met the aforementioned Rockey.

Introspective mascot alert!

And, my God, look at those calves. Steve Selby was right!

I took the mound to wild, rapturous applause, and fired off an 85 mile-per-hour strike.

Or maybe it was indifferent applause and a 45 mile-per-hour lob that nearly went over the catcher’s head? I can’t remember.

The National Anthem was sang by this young woman, whose voice sounded far more mature than her years.

At one point during the anthem, I looked up at the (massive) videoboard and was dismayed to see myself in the shot (standing right behind the singer). I tried to move out of the way, but of course moved even more into the center of the shot. Being on a videoboard is disorienting! If I had to do it over again I would, but there are no second chances in life.

There are, however, seconds on the stadium clock.

Dinnertime, in other words! Out on the concourse, the biggest line was for the Redbirds’ world-famous BBQ Nachos.

Seriously — these things outsell even the hot dogs (or so I’ve been told). It’s chips, cheese, pork, and then sauce and dry rub provided by famous downtown BBQ joint Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.

This excellent creation was just one of many I was able to sample, for at this point in the evening I received an extensive food tour from Ovations concessions general manager Mike Brulatour.

We started with the BBQ Bacon Hot Dog — topped with a vinegar and mustard-based slaw, Rendezvous BBQ sauce and dry rub and, of course, a nice hunk of bacon:

And while I did not sample the aptly-named Big Dog, it sure lived up to its name:

The cheese and sausage plate is a common Memphis menu item, and the team offers their own version: polish sausage, cheese, peppers, and pickles:

I would have liked it better had there been less sauce and a little bit more separation of the items (the cheese was buried beneath the meat), but this is nonetheless a wonderful array of foodstuffs and something I’d LOVE to see more of at ballparks nationwide. Just sayin’ is all.

The “sleeper” item on the menu (and Brulatour’s favorite) is “Chicken on a Stick.” It’s a kabob of sorts, featuring chicken, potato, pickle and onion. I’d highly recommend it:

One of the sausages on offer was the red-hued Circle B, cut in half and grilled. I had a sample, sans bun, and it was really, really good. The woman working the concession stand was incredulous that I had never heard of Circle B — “It’s everywhere!” she exclaimed.

But that’s par for the course when it comes to regional food. I’m from the Philadelphia area, where a sign like this wouldn’t be necessary:

But Parker’s wasn’t serving, so I settled for a good old-fashioned Icee. Man, it had been a while!

But, listen: do as I say, not as I do. And what I say is, “Eat healthy!”

But in the absence of eating healthy, at least I get plenty of ballpark exercise. Brulatour and I ended up walking a lap around the stadium, and I took pictures along the way.

Vantage points!

The visiting and home bullpens are separated by some pretty impressive center field foliage.

Out beyond left-center field, there’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere, as well as a impressively steep berm seating area.

The Brula-Tour continued on, this time with a visit to the suite level.

I wanted to get a closer picture of that (officially licensed!) Elvis the Redbird painting behind the bar. But as soon as the bartender saw me, he was like, “C’mon now, what you have to do is pose in front of the picture with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”

What a great bartender!

While the picture didn’t come out all that clearly, there’s something about it that I really like.

That “something” would be whisky

And how’s this for a sweet suite, decorated in the style of a funky BBQ joint:

But there wasn’t much time to explore, because as is so often the case I had an obligation.

This:

I was a pulled pork sandwich in the nightly rib race, going up against arch-nemeses Rib and Seasoning:

The gladiators enter the arena:

Despite the fact that the sandwich had the most range of movement, I got out to a slow start and finished in last place. It was embarrassing.

A considerably less taxing job was to follow — operating the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball!

I did so under the able tutelage of marketing manager Erin O’Donnell, who explained things in a manner simple enough for an idiot (me) to understand. My notes are a bit garbled, however. They read: “Toggling btw viz ab and live shots…sponsor logos…Rockey cartoon overlay large and small…leave live shot when step in batter’s box — nothing may be moving in game.”

If you can make sense of that, let me know! All I know is that with a click of a mouse I made this happen:

Feeling giddy from this display of scoreboard power, I spent the rest of the evening trying to emulate Rockey’s cocksure strut. Things I saw on my wanderings included the team store…

and, outside of that, an outdoor display in which pitcher-turned-Redbirds broadcaster Charlie Lea (who passed away last year) delivers to notable Memphis native Tim McCarver.

And let’s not forget the specially marked “Albert Pujols seat” in right-center field, which commemorates his walk-off home run in the 13th inning of game four of the 2000 PCL Championship Series. It was all downhill for him from there.

And, hey, what do you know? The Redbirds won the game!

It was a result that was, truly, worth flipping out about.

Stubby Clapp, RedBird legend

And where else to end the night but here, between a pair of truly formidable calves.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Smooth Moves, Smoother Infield

Official Logo.jpgThe Triple-A All-Star Game takes place TONIGHT at Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park, and the eyes of the baseball world will be fixated on this star-studded exhibition between the Pacific Coast and International Leagues.

The rosters are set and the participants have arrived, so just one thing remains to be determined: Which league has the better dancing grounds crew?

That oft-posited query will finally be answered tonight, as Fresno’s “Drag Kings” and Lehigh Valley’s “Dirt Dudes” are both raking the diamond in separate half-inning breaks.

The Drag Kings are flying in from Fresno for the occasion, and they are ready to assert their supremacy on hostile turf.

“This is a great honor four is and we’re truly appreciative of the opportunity,” said The Kid. “Not only do we get to represent Fresno and the PCL, but we get to show off what makes us the best and most original dancing grounds crew in baseball.”

“It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” added Silkee. “So, we consider ourselves sincerely flattered.”

The Dirt Dudes could not be reached for comment, presumably because they were hard at work on their impeccably choreographed turf-tending routines.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com
twitter.com/bensbiz

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