Results tagged ‘ Pacific Northwest ’

Return to the Road: Finally, for Real This Time, the Road Ends in Vancouver

Well, this is it: after today’s post I am officially out of 2012 in-season content. Be it content supplied by teams or content that I garnered myself while on the road, there just isn’t any more of it left. The next post, whatever it may be, will be covering that which has occurred since the cessation of on-field play.

At this juncture, it would be appropriate to let out a long, terrified scream. I’ll wait.

All that I’ve got left to share is this: an account of my final moments in Vancouver before flying back to the United States. Upon the conclusion of Friday’s “Nooner at the Nat” I had about five hours of free time, and no real idea what to do. And then inspiration struck — I’d hang out aimlessly! So I drove through downtown Vancouver at a snail’s pace (or whatever “snail’s pace” converts to in the metric system) until reaching the glorious swath of public space that is Stanley Park.

This park is huge — larger than Central Park (my most immediate reference point) and boasting approximately 120 miles of roads and trails. Its namesake is Lord Stanley, former Governor General of Canada and, also, the man for whom the Stanley Cup is named.

Lord Stanley sez: “To the use and enjoyment of people of all colours (sic) creeds and customs for all time I name thee STANLEY PARK.”

I’m not really sure where in the park I was. I was just there, and that was the point.

This monument is in honor of the 190 Canadian soldiers of Japanese ancestry who lost their lives in World War I.

This, meanwhile, is a tree.

Water, water everywhere.

Lord Stanley wasn’t the only statue-esque acquaintance I made out there in the park. Here’s one of Robert Burns, “Scotland’s National Bard.”

The plaque reads, in part: “Robert Burns’s sincere desire for friendship and brotherhood among all peoples is clearly shown in his many poems and songs. His poetry and letters, both serious and humorous are worthy of study by those who value liberty and freedom.”

I eventually wandered to the park’s perimeter, which provided a view of the high-rises lurking just beyond the water.

I eventually wandered out of the park altogether, drawn in part by a desire to commune with this public art installation.

These jovial lads of identical height, girth and facial composition could be found at the end of Denman Street. As I had never spent time on a street named “Denman,” ever, in any city, I decided to see what it had to offer. The short answer is that Denman Street had a lot of restaurants, dozens and dozens of them, over the course of many blocks. I was up for a meal, no doubt, but the combination of my gluten-free specifications and being solo on a Friday evening led me to rule out many of the contenders. (Talk about a familiar feeling…)

This DIY establishment certainly looked intriguing…

but in the end how I could I go with anything but the Number One option?

Look…this whole celiac disease thing can be a drag, no doubt, but at the end of the day there are still plenty of options. Within 20 minutes, this wonderful plate of food was presented to me by a personable waitress who I may one day marry or, more likely, will never see again.

Vietnamese pork chops = one of the best dishes on the planet. And anytime a crispy fried egg is part of the entree equation, quality quotient only increases. As for a beverage, I was immediately intrigued by an option going by the name of “Coco-Rico.” When I asked the waitress what it was, she explained that it was a coconut soda.

“A lot of people ask about about it, only the adventurous ones try it,” she said.

As a lover of coconut, adventure and waitresses, I ordered it without delay!

After going number one at Number One (the door in the bathroom said “Door locks automatically :) (So don’t worry!)”), it was time for my final act as a visitor in the beautiful, seemingly utopian city of Vancouver: more loitering! This time, the location was English Bay Beach Park.

The Bowling Green Cave Shrimp goes international!

I remained on the beach until the sun went down, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany and contemplating scenarios that could result in me starting a new life in Vancouver (very few of these scenarios involved murder, I’m happy to report).

Somehow, I was able to make it from the beach to the wilderness of Stanley Park where my rental car was located.

And that, finally, for real this time, is all I’ve got. The road had reached its nadir. After a long stint of overnight travel I made it safely back to Brooklyn, where, as usual, a very reliable individual was waiting for me.

There’s nothing left to do now but start brainstorming 2013’s slate of Minor League journeys. Please get in touch should you have any suggestions in that regard and — hey! — I really (really, really) hope you enjoyed all of the content that I was able to squeeze out of the 2012 season. This is all a work in progress, as always, but I do my best. Thanks for reading — now it’s time to batten down the hatches here in NYC as Sandy, purported to be the storm of the century, bears down upon us. Good luck, and Godspeed.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Glass Menageries and Roadside Reverie

The last “Return to the Road” dispatch ended with some pictures from what I declared to be the swankiest team lodging in all of Minor League Baseball — Tacoma’s Hotel Murano. And from the Murano this post shall begin.

The Murano’s hallways offer guests the chance to view a “private collection of some of the world’s finest contemporary glass treasures.” Each of the hotel’s 24 floors showcase a different artist; I, on the 23rd, was located within the realm of Mr. Hiroshi Yamano.

The Murano’s focus on glass artisans was no mere act of random whimsy — Tacoma is home to the Museum of Glass, in recognition of the influence that artists from the Pacific Northwest have had on the medium. So when I set out to briefly explore downtown Tacoma before heading to Everett, the Museum of Glass was my destination.

Along the way I passed this statue, without stopping to learn who this woman was and what she stood for.

Union Station — formerly a train station, currently a courthouse — had charm, style and panache to spare.

As did the statue out front, entitled “New Beginnings.” It was installed as part of the city’s 1984 centennial celebration, and the man depicted is an early 20th-century railroad passenger with a jaunty step and optimistic world outlook.

Inspired, I strolled through Tacoma’s downtown with the same levity of spirit I imagined the above bronzed passenger to have once possessed.

Finally (and by “finally” I mean “within 5 minutes”) I came to a vantage point which included the conical Museum of Glass as part of the backdrop.

Of course, time is always at a premium when I’m on the road. So as opposed to actually going into the museum, I just checked out the glass specimens lining both sides of a pedestrian bridge that led to the museum.

For tobacco use only

The view from the ground.

Anti-climactic as it may be, that’s all I’ve got from Tacoma. My next destination was Everett, whose team hotel was a Holiday Inn.

I knew I was in the right place when, upon parking, I looked up to see a team bus poking through the trees.

And while this Holiday Inn lacked some of the Hotel Murano’s more memorable amenities (for instance, I was not able to have the Bhagavad Gita delivered to my room), it did boast what is certainly the most wonderful view of any Minor League team hotel.

I attended that evening’s Everett AquaSox game, and wrote like crazy all about it. (In fact, my writing was so passionately incendiary that even the links to it have since burned up.) Time was even tighter than usual the following afternoon, as an international journey (to Vancouver) awaited me. Nonetheless, I spent about an hour wandering about in downtown Everett before getting lunch at a Thai restaurant and then resuming my travels in earnest.

Everett had character, and I’d love to return some day.

Lunchtime! (Use of exclamation mark extremely debatable)

After that it was goodbye to the antiquated signage of Everett…

and hello to Peace Arch National Park, my entryway to Canada.

Think metric? Never!

The cars going in the other direction were fleeing Canadian tyranny

Peace Arch Park was beautifully maintained, and as a big fan of Paul Robeson I enjoyed driving through the locations of one of his most significant public performances. From Wikipedia:

In 1952, African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson, banned from international travel during the Red Scares, performed several concerts at the site. He sang from a flatbed truck on the American side to an audience in Canada.

And would you believe that the Peace Arch was built by Sam Hill, the peripatetic Quaker who constructed the full-size Stonehenge replica which I had visited several days prior? That guy was real go-getter, and as a slow-moving and rapidly-stagnating blogger I can’t help but feel that I’m not quite living up to the high surname standards he established.

Stalled out

It took approximately forever to get into Canada, and I pity those who have to cross the border on a regular basis. I did enjoy the interrogation I received from the border guard, who tried to poke holes in my “Minor League Baseball writer traveling to Canada in order to cover the Vancouver Canadians” alibi.

Guard: And how long have you been writing about the Minor Leagues?

Me: Seven years.

Guard: If you’ve been doing this for that long, then why is this the first time you’ve visited Vancouver?

I explained, as succinctly as possible, that Vancouver was the only Canadian team in the Minors and that, therefore, visiting Canada as part of my job was not, nor was it going to be, a common professional occurrence. (In fact, I was looking at it the highlight of a perpetually uncertain odyssey that began with writing game recaps on the night shift on a part-time, hourly basis. What I wanted to say was “Look, lady, you should be proud of me that I’m here talking to you at all.” I then would have felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for referring to her impolitely as “lady.”)

I’m not sure who’s bored-er at this point — the guard or the straggling few readers who have stuck with this post to the end. So, anyway, yeah: I made it to Canada, and I have the fake money to prove it.

The road will be returned to (at least) once more, with all of the supplemental content that’s fit to post from the wilds of Vancouver. Stay tuned for another installment of the most low-stakes and meandering series of blog posts to be found on the internet…

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Compromised Fast Food Leads to a Spiritual Menu

I was out of town for the last five days or so, and during my time away the fifth anniversary of the first post in Ben’s Biz Blog history came and went. My original plan had been to commemorate this milestone in some way, but instead it just kind of slipped by whilst on its quick path to complete and total obsolescence.

So, yeah, this blog is now five years old. Celebrate at will. As for me, I’ll just do what I do best: relive the recent past! As you may recall, my last post in the apparently never-ending “Return to the Road” series covered the beautiful scenery to be found betwixt Salem, OR and Yakima, WA. Today, then, picks up in Yakima (home of the since-relocated Bears) and travels northwest to Tacoma (home of the not-going-anywhere Rainiers).

The day started with me following a reader tip: get lunch at Miner’s, an iconic Yakima fast food joint.

I was smitten with this establishment as soon as I arrived, if not a bit confused. Somehow, I managed to bypass the entire drive-thru lane. (And is that a strange location for a house or what? Not sure if I’d want my front lawn obscured by huge fast food menus).

Instead, I ended up in a lot immediately adjacent to a spacious outdoor eating area.

Also spacious: the inside.

I placed my order, was given a number, and then walked approximately a third of a mile away to a back room seating area.

And here, inevitably, is where I end up disappointing you. As much as I’d have liked to, the celiac disease prevented me from ordering a Big Miner Burger. Or any kind of burger. In fact, the bun-heavy and oft-breaded menu made the whole experience a bit fraught for gluten-averse individuals such as myself. So while I’d like to present you with a photo of this 64-year-old establishment’s signature item, instead here are some fries posing amidst an array of dipping sauces and a vanilla milkshake. I do my best.

After that it was time to hit the open road. And I do mean open, and I also mean road.

I would have been content to drive amid such vast expanses for a good 10 hours or so, while listening to the first 33 seconds of this Dr. John song a million times over. The drive was far less than my wished-for 600 minutes, unfortunately, but before re-entering more populated areas I did have the pleasure of stopping at this well-advertised establishment.

And — look! — within this vast expanse of commercial real estate they even cater to afflicted souls such as myself.

I bought an array of groceries. The bottle of Moxie cola was later confiscated at the Vancouver airport, and I have no idea what became of the mustard. None at all. It just vanished on me.

The next destination was the Hotel Murano, located in downtown Tacoma. Of the dozens of Minor League team hotels I’ve stayed in over the last several years this was the most expensive. And also, by far, the nicest. (In fact, I’m still kind of in awe that this was a team hotel.)

The Hotel Murano had an uber-hip intercontinental vibe, complete with Teutonic dance music music pumping in the lobby, but it wasn’t not so exclusive that they won’t enter into an enthusiastic partnership with a Pacific Coast League franchise. (Hotel Murano ads could be seen throughout the Rainiers’ Cheney Stadium).

The nighttime exterior:

The lobby:

A room…

with a view.

Hello Tacoma!

I’m still kicking myself for not having the Bhagavad Gita sent up to my room.

Some of the other in-room signage was less spiritually minded, however.

“Goodnight Tacoma!” said the moron in the Murano.

That moron was me.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Nothing but the Scenic Route in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is a beautiful part of the country. So when I went on a road trip to that region at the end of the season, this was something that was written in all caps in my notebook to-do list: EXPERIENCE BEAUTY.

Of course, time is tight when I’m on the road and often the most beautiful thing I see over the course of a given 24-hour period is a particularly well-constructed plate of nachos. But this was most emphatically NOT the case on the third day of this Pacific Northwest road trip. The day began in Salem, Ore. at which point I had to drive about four and a half hours northwest to Yakima. And this drive, it was absolutely gorgeous!

I opted to travel along the Historic Columbia River Highway (scenery over expediency!), and shortly into the journey I arrived at Vista House.

The Vista House was built in 1918, as both a rest stop and pioneer memorial. An informational plaque located outside of the building says that “Samuel C. Lancaster, design engineer of the Historic Columbia River Highway, envisioned this outcropping as the ideal site for a rest stop and observatory where the Gorge ‘could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.'”

I realize that America in 1918 was far from an ideal society, but sentiments such as that are phenomenal and indicative of a spiritually-informed progressive public mindedness that seems to be in short supply here in the 21st century.

As for the building specifically, “[A]rchitect Edgar Lazarus designed Vista House to ‘recall the ancient and mystic Thor’s crown.’ Braced against the famous Gorge winds, this small building embodies strength.” (I would like to think that growing up amidst such scenery and sentiment is what inspires Oregon-based bands such as Yob to write such awesomely heavy songs.)

Exploration opportunities abounded along Scenic Route 30, and I took advantage to the extent that I was able. As a collector of Victorian-era bridal veils, I decided that a walk along Bridal Veil Falls Trail would be most apropos.

After a 2/3rds of a mile “journey,” I reached the titular attraction.

I was unprepared to do so, and therefore didn’t, but I really can’t think of a better place in which to go swimming.

Keep in mind that all of this is only about 25 miles outside of Portland! To be able to live in a vibrant urban area with such close proximity to nature would be truly phenomenal.

The next stop was Multnomah Falls, one of the most visually stunning, accessible and therefore best-known waterfalls in the state.

I guess it’s only natural that Multnomah would have a downfall, and that is that it’s almost too accessible. It was tough to find a parking spot at the visitor’s center, and the scenic bridge seen above was packed to the gills with camera-toting fools such as myself.

Smile!

The view in the other direction:

Back at the base of the falls, I had an appropriately outdoorsy lunch of smoked trout on (gluten-free!) almond crackers.

There was certainly much more to be seen and explored in the vicinity of Multnomah Falls, but time constraints (the bane of modern existence) were such that I cruised right on into the state of Washington — via the incredibly-named Bridge of the Gods.

Wikipedia informs me (and, by extension, us) that the Bridge of the Gods was named after a “famous geologic event.” Okay, then, Wikipedia. You may as well fill us in on what that was all about:

The Bridge of the Gods was a natural dam created by the Bonneville Slide, a major landslide that dammed the Columbia River near present-day Cascade Locks, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The river eventually breached the bridge and washed much of it away, but the event is remembered in local legends of the Native Americans as the Bridge of the Gods.

As for the bridge itself (as in the bridge I was driving across, not the one of local legend), it provided great views but I didn’t really see any places to pull over. So I just snapped a few quick pictures as I drove across at a very low speed.

And then — bam! — Washington. The greenery was dense.

From here I got on the Lewis and Clark Highway, yet another incredibly scenic road that made me happy to be alive. Working my way eastward, the landscape gradually flattened out and took on a sunbaked and vaguely extra-terrestrial sort of hue.

The above photo was taken at the Maryhill Museum of Art, an unexpectedly expansive establishment.

But I was at the museum mistakenly. What I was looking for turned out to be just a bit up the road.

A full-size replica Stonehenge!

Called the “Stonehenge Memorial,” this structure was built by the pioneering Quaker entrepreneur Sam Hill. Why? The website of the Maryhill Museum of Art explains thusly:

During World War I, Hill delivered relief supplies to Belgium and Russia, and reinforced his interest in travel. While in England, he made his first trip to see Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain where he was told that the structure was believed to be constructed by Druids as a place of human sacrifice.

Hill concluded there was a similarity between the loss of life in this, the greatest of human wars, and the sacrifices of ancient Stonehenge and planned to build a replica of it on the cliffs of the Columbia as a reminder of those sacrifices and the “incredible folly” of the war.

The architecture and precise plan of the structure was guided by leading authorities on archaeology, astronomy, and engineering who combined their knowledge to duplicate, as nearly as possible, the original size and design of the ancient Neolithic ruin in England.

I think at this point I was almost numb to how beautiful everything was. What a country.

50 yards from his quixotic creation, one finds the tomb of Sam Hill. “Amid nature’s great unrest, he sought rest.”

My Mom has told me that she had wanted to name me Sam, but didn’t because it would be associated with the phrase “What in the Sam Hill?” (in which Sam Hill stands in as a euphemism for hell). No one seems to know for sure where that particular expression came from, but it apparently has nothing to do with the Samuel Hill who is buried at the Stonehenge Memorial. (Wikipedia, suddenly my source for everything, makes that clear.)

So what in the Sam Hill am I doing living on the east coast when such splendor is readily available out west?

That, my friends, is a query for another day. For now I’d simply like to extend my gratitude to Jared Ravich, a Pacific Northwest-based Senior Technical Producer here with MLB Advanced Media whose thoughtful suggestions provided me with the template for this most memorable afternoon.

Thanks Jared!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Beautiful Saturday Afternoon in Eugene

We have now entered the month of October, and in the world of MiLB.com this means one thing: it’s MiLBY season! For those who, somehow, inexplicably, are unaware, the MiLBYs represent our annual attempt to create order from the chaos via an online vote that will determine the top players, plays and promos of the season that just was.

The promos, in particular, are my domain. Read up on my 12 “Promotion of the Year” nominees HERE and then vote HERE. This year’s candidates, represented visually:

The MiLBYs are a present-day concern, but here on the blog the endless summer of 2012 remains the fixation. Today marks the first in a new series of “Return to the Road” posts, in which we return to the Pacific Northwest for all of the non-ballpark content that’s fit to print from my August road trip. That particular trip began on a Saturday in Eugene and when you’re in Eugene on a Saturday then what better thing to do than visit the Saturday market?

The Saturday Market runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in downtown Eugene, from April through November. Approximately 300 vendors sell their hand-crafted and oft-edible wares, and a loose bohemian vibe prevails. Some scenes from the market:

Roasting some chili peppers. This would be a great ballpark snack, right?

The highlight of the Saturday Market wandering was meeting Bag Man, who seeks to eradicate that which he is composed of. It’s a great cause!


Also wandering about the Market was Eugene Emeralds general manager Allan Benavides and his family. They suggested a stop at the iconic Voodoo Doughnuts, which got its start in Portland and now has a Eugene location located right next to Ken Kesey Square.

The menu is rated PG-13, as double entendres abound.

Good things come in pink boxes, they say.

But none of these good things, not a single one, was gluten-free.

Therefore, I outsourced my doughnut eating duties to Benavides and his son Christian. On the right there is the bacon maple, one of Voodoo’s most famous offerings. Christian opted for some sort of Froot Loops-enhanced creation.

Next door to Voodoo Doughnuts is the aforementioned Ken Kesey Square, which pays tribute to the counter-cultural icon and long-time Eugene native. The Eugene Storefront Art Project had set up shop here, raising awareness of their mission to place short-term exhibits in empty Eugene storefronts.

Thank you for smiling at me.

Later Benavides and I took a quick drive through Eugene’s eccentric Whiteaker neighborhood.

I stared at this for 3.5 hours.

Our final destination was Civic Stadium, which was built in 1938 and first hosted Minor League Baseball in 1955. The Emeralds played their last season there in 2009, and since then the facility (which is owned by the Eugene school district) has fallen into a considerable state of disrepair. Its future is still very much in doubt, although there is a dedicated “Save Civic Stadium” volunteer group working diligently to find viable 21st century options for the old park.

Civic Stadium is located in a residential neighborhood, and many fans used to simply walk to the game. The Emeralds’ move to PK Park, which they lease from the University of Oregon, therefore represented a remarkably different ballpark experience (Benavides’ first season with the team coincided with the move to PK Park, and it has been a considerable challenge to acclimate the team’s fans to this totally new Minor League reality).

Our access, it was restricted.

The neighborhood:

The playing surface has clearly seen better days.

Behind the stadium lurks a beautiful view.

And if you’re lucky, you may get a glimpse of some truly alternative forms of transportation. (You just gotta love Eugene. I was only there for two nights, but in that time became completely accustomed to seeing quirky people doing quirky things. It’s just how that town rolls.)

After this brief stopover at Civic Stadium, Benavides and I went over to PK Park. But, of course, you already read all about that HERE. And HERE.

So, yeah, that’ll do it for all of my content from Eugene. The next morning I left this small metropolis and its outsized eccentricity and set out on the road to Salem, OR. Shortly into this journey, I became enamored with the following dining establishment.

This place had a powerful aesthetic appeal, but I did not eat there as it was very crowded on a late Sunday morning and I always feel very self-conscious eating at crowded restaurants by myself. But just down the road there was a Mexican joint!

Thank goodness for Mexican restaurants. In this gluten-free reality in which I find myself, they have proven themselves to be an ever-reliable culinary option. This plate of food, I salute you:

Next up in this “Return to the Road” series: a day of stunning natural beauty in Oregon, en route from Salem to Yakima.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Across the Border but Never Bored in Vancouver

I’ve been employed by MiLB.com in various writerly capacities for approximately 2600 days, and in that time have produced more content (good, bad and ugly) than I care to think about. But this content, voluminous as it has been and will continue to be, had never included a blog dispatch chronicling the professional baseball scene in another country.

Until now!

My latest (and therefore greatest) road trip ended with a two-day stop in Vancouver, home of Canada’s sole remaining Minor League entity: the nothing-if-not-accurately-named Canadians. This franchise, occupants of 60-year-old Nat Bailey Stadium, have been members of the Northwest League since 2000 (prior to this they competed four rungs higher on the Minor League ladder, as entrants within the venerable Pacific Coast League). More information on the Canadians’ history and current operation can be found in this effervescently-written MiLB.com piece, which also includes a photo gallery and links to four interviews I conducted while visiting Nat Bailey (including a chat with Minors Moniker champion Rock Shoulders!).

“The pictures, the pictures, why won’t he get to the pictures!” you’re saying at this point.

I hear you:

Nat Bailey (named after the restauranteur/baseball supporter who founded the famous-in-Canada “White Spot” chain) is, in every sense, a classic ballpark. You can tell this even before entering.

I had driven to Nat Bailey immediately after making it into Canada via the Peace Arch border crossing, and therefore hadn’t had a chance to experience even one iota of Vancouver (the iota is the metric system’s smallest unit of measurement). So before entering the facility I did a lap around it, to at least get a small sense of where I was and what it was like there.

Well, first and foremost, it was beautiful.

Nat Bailey is located amidst a residential area, and it sure looks like an appealing neighborhood to call home.

The residents of this neighborhood make ample use of the Hillcrest Community Centre (yes, “centre”, this is Canada) located next door to the stadium.

The smell of chlorine wafts from this building, but serving as a public pool and recreational facility was not its original intent. The Centre was built as the curling venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics! (And, oh goodness, it’s all coming back to me — I actually wrote an article about this when the building was being constructed).

Across the street from this erstwhile Olympic venue is a massive and beautifully maintained public park, which I had the good fortune to explore the following afternoon (more on that in a future Vancouver-based post). If I lived here, I would totally join the lawn bowling club:

At this point my entrance into the ballpark could be delayed no more. And, once I did so, I was greeted in a very hospitable fashion: the front office had devised an action-packed itinerary for me, and as a result this narrative will last a very long time. (That’s fine with me. On the other side of these blog posts lies the unfathomable abyss of the offseason).

After conducting a couple of player interviews, I embarked on a stadium tour with manager of community relations Jeff Holloway. The view from the field:

At the time of its installation, the Nat Bailey videoboard had the second highest definition of any in professional baseball (behind New York’s Citi Field). But the hand-operated scoreboard located just to the right is a relic, as it had originally been located within Seattle’s Sicks Stadium (home of the 1969 Pilots team immortalized in Ball Four).

Within an hour, this sprawling first base-side picnic area would be packed with fans as part of a Thursday evening sellout. Did I mention that it was an absolutely beautiful day?

We proceeded to the concourse, just minutes after the gates had opened and the throngs began pouring in.

You can’t really tell in this picture, but the third concession stand in is devoted to the unassailable combination of sushi and Asahi beer (the combination of a large Japanese population and proximity to water makes Vancouver a premier sushi town).

Oh, hello

Oh, look, I just found a picture of what I was just talking about:

Our next stop was this historical concourse display, named in honor of a well-known and loved Vancouver baseball historian/super-fan.

Artifacts, photos, and a team timeline can be found along the walls.

 

A prominent pair of teammates from Vancouver’s last season in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League:

An early iteration of mascot Bob the Brown Bear, whom I soon ran into out on the main aisle.

Sorry, Bob. I didn’t mean to invade your personal space.

Back outside the stadium, large crowds had gathered as game time approached.

The Canadians are a hot item these days, thanks to a total franchise overhaul that occurred after new owners Jake (no relation to Bud) Kerr and Jeff Mooney bought the team prior to 2007 and installed veteran baseball exec Andy Dunn as president. I was told that fireworks nights tickets go for exorbitant amounts on the secondary market and — hey! — this is something I’d never seen outside of a Minor League park before. A scalper!

My re-entry to the stadium was assured, but not before appearing as a guest on broadcaster Rob Fai’s pre-game show. Here he is finishing up his interview with the previous guest, an ardent C’s supporter who appears at each and every game dressed in full uniform: pitching coach Dave Pano.

There are no pictures of me during my time on the air, but I don’t think this will trouble anyone a single iota. The pre-game show segued nicely into the game itself (it’s weird how that happens), and we re-entered the stadium just in time for the anthems.

Yes, anthems plural.  I thought this group did a fine job singing both the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Oh, Canada.”

Take my word for it.

Finally! Play ball!

The first order of business was to make our way down the third base line in order to experience one of the most, uh, “generously-portioned” food items in Minor League Baseball. Just the sight of it on the grill made the concession workers giddy.

Here’s the menu. Take one guess as to what it could have been.

Not an “Itzakadoozie,” but it was a doozy: the two-foot fungo dog! (But what is that in meters?)

This 24-inch frankfurter is provided by a local butcher, and it’s more than just a novelty: it’s delicious! But, of course, said deliciousness was off-limits to me due to, yeah, the celiac disease. Enter Andrew Forsyth, Canadians media relations assistant and enthusiastic “designated eater” for the evening.

Take it away, Andrew, and gussy it up! He put pretty much every condiment available on that thing:

From there, only one thing was left to be done: Eat It! And Forsyth did so, with aplomb.

But yet another colossal concession item awaited us – the one-foot corn dog. How much is that doggie in the window?

It’s abundantly gluten-ous nature meant that this gluttonous corn dog was, of course, off-limits to me. But nonetheless I took a moment to gaze longingly into (what I assumed were) its eyes, reflecting on the good times that I had once enjoyed with its batter-dipped brethren.

‘Tis better to have loved and lost:

new online dating profile pic!

The Canadians’ front office staff was exceptional throughout my visit, both in their dealings with me and (more importantly) the fans in general. It’s an ace operation. But if I had to offer a criticism, it would be this: no one was interested in “designated eating” the corn dog, nor was a designated eater found. The last time I saw my beloved corn dog it was sitting neglected under a table, a tragic ending to a brief but glorious existence:

To those who suffer most, God imparts the highest rewards

But life goes on, long after the thrill of food on a stick has gone. The next order of business was to join sales and community relations coordinator Vanessa Williams during her daily Smart Car drive around the perimeter of the playing field (this is a sponsored promotion).

This was our view, as we waited for a third out that seemingly never came. I’m not sure if the corn dog had already been removed from the table at this point, or if was simply obscured by the (soon to be dancing) members of the grounds crew.

The Smart Car journey is full of peril, and Williams approached her task with a pragmatic and world-weary stoicism. This was her burden to bear and, come what may, she’d deal with it.

The visiting Boise Hawks seemed to be friendly enough fellows.

Fortunately, we weren’t hit by any wayward balls to the backstop.

The Canadians bullpen showered the car with sunflower seeds (Williams has learned to keep the drivers’ side window up).

Along the warning track, we reached speeds approaching a blazing 40 kilometers an hour.

Check out the view!

And, finally, there were the cackling wiseacres of the Boise bullpen. They had partially barricaded the mound with trash cans, but Williams eluded these obstacles with ease.

Upon the completion of this circular journey, there was no time to reflect on what had occurred. Like a politician running behind schedule, I was quickly whisked away by my overseers. We rushed through the concourse and into one of the best lairs that I had the good fortune to spend time in this season.

A mascot lair!

The partially costumed individual seen above would soon transform into Chef Wasabi as part of the Canadians’ nightly “Sushi Race.” I, meanwhile, was to be Mr. Kappa Maki. Before continuing, I’d like to make a few announcements regarding Ben’s Biz procedures from here on out:

New Blog Policy Alert: From the moment I put a mascot head on, that mascot is referred to in the third person and not as “I.”

New Blog Policy Alert II: Out of respect for the mascot community, I will no longer run dressing room shots of the disembodied heads and strewn-about suits of a team’s primary mascot(s). “Racing” mascots will continue to be depicted in various states of dismemberment, however.

We may now proceed. Here I am in proper Mr. Kappa Maki attire, sans head.

You gotta love Mr. Kappa Maki, as he projects a perpetual glazed lasciviousness (must be the effects of the seaweed). I imagine him sounding like an Asian Pauly Shore.

What’s up, buddy?

Side profile, limbs emerging from the avocado.

The action shots from the race didn’t come out too well, but all that you really need to know is that Mr. Kappa Maki overcame an early lead held by Ms. B.C. Roll and emerged triumphant.

Ain’t no thing, bros. Ain’t no thing

Mr. Kappa Maki was feeling A-Okay en route back to the lair.

But Maki’s mellow was harshed right quick, after coming face to face with this once back in the lair.

Scarecrow!

Back in civilian clothing, I returned to the ballgame and immediately became intrigued by this increasingly overburdened Boise Hawks coach (who I have not been able to identify). He had about three pairs of batting gloves stuffed in the front of his uniform, elbow guards on both arms, and a stopwatch. He was the most cyborg-esque first base coach I had ever seen.

But, of course, I had other business attend to — for the first time ever, Vancouver’s elite crew of dancing grounds crew members were welcoming a guest dancer. And this dancer, he was me.

This would be my second time engaging in dancing grounds crew antics (last season, I danced to “Party in the USA” while in Fort Wayne with the Tin Caps), and this time around the grounds crew in question picked an even easier song to dance to: “Apache.” The moves I had to memorize were as follows:

gyrate to the front/left/back/right/front, then jump, then spin with right hand circling in the air

We rehearsed these moves in the grounds crew storage area:

I should have gotten a non-performance shot of the grounds crew, as they were a very friendly and laid-back group of individuals. But thanks to Tom Archibald, Dylan Marsden, Trevor Sheffield and Connor Merillees for letting me crash their scene for an evening.

We had some time to kill before our moment of on-field dancing glory, so I amused myself by taking pictures of good ol’ number 14…

and here’s Boise slugger Dan Vogelbach, taking in the action with bat in hand.

And then — showtime! It wasn’t until later that I realized I had mistakenly walked backwards through the entire routine.

Airborne! (just barely)

And, would you believe it? Video exists of the entire routine! So here ya go:

Afterwards, I was thoroughly exhausted.

But no time to rest! Still wearing my ill-fitting borrowed grounds crew shirt, I was hustled over to the third base dugout to do the “Chicken Dance.” This familiar ritual is led every inning by dance master Hans Havas, an ebullient usher who has been part of the Nat Bailey experience for the past 32 years.

And, okay, fine. There’s video of this too. I was paired with a food service employee who seemed to be a Chicken Dance veteran (I forget her name, but remember her smile.) On the video you can hear fans taunting Vogelbach regarding his love of chicken, and this was par for the course for the Boise first baseman. I saw him play in both Yakima and Vancouver, and in both places he was given a really hard time because of his rotund body type. It didn’t seem fair.

And, scene:

Finally, it was time for a breather. Seeking a brief respite from public interaction, I retreated to the ballpark’s top row. What a sight to behold:

Another sight to behold was that which can be obtained from the stadium’s roof, upon which lies the press box.

One denizen of said box was Boise Hawks announcer Mike Safford.

I, along with Halloway (ever the accommodating tour guide) were on the roof during the seventh-inning stretch. And — wow! — Canadians fans are really enthusiastic singers. This video quality might not be great, but for the record I’d like to say that this was the best rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” that I’d ever heard at a Minor League ballpark. I almost shed a tear.

Back down on the concourse, I met a couple of these enthusiastic individuals. This is Steve Mezzomo, the preeminent supporter of Canadians fan favorite Balbino Fuenmayor (Fuenmayor, 22, has somehow managed to play six Minor League seasons already. The last three have been in Vancouver).

Mezzomo (who, while spelling his name, said “zed-zed” as Canadians are wont to do) said that he and his two boys were immediate Fuenmayor fans, and that making the shirts “just seemed like something fun to do with the kids.”

“The first day we wore the shirts, we saw Balbino and said ‘What do you think?’ said Mezzomo. “His mouth just dropped, and he wanted to take our pictures. Then, during the game the batboy ran over and said ‘Balbino wants to see you.’ He gave us a game bat. He’s such a great great guy; every time he has a ball he throws it to me. I almost feel bad.”

And here’s another individual who spells his name with a “zed-zed:” Joe Frizzell a Vancouver baseball lifer if there ever was one.

Frizzell grew up right by old Athletic Park, where he served as a sort of jack-of-all-trades.

“I did everything around the ballpark,” he said. “Batboy, operating the manual scoreboard, ballshagger, and then I finally got into selling tickets.”

This experience came in handy, as from 1951-56 Frizzell worked at Nat Bailey Stadium as what he calls the “game day manager” for the Vancouver Capilanos (a team named after a brand of beer). On a day-to-day basis, Frizzell played a key role in running the club. And now here he was, some six decades later, taking in the action as the Canadians dropped an 11-5 decision to Boise.

Where does the time go? Next thing I knew, the fans were filing out and the grounds crew was doing work on the field in a much less rhythmic fashion than before.

And with that, this dispatch from Vancouver finally, mercifully, concludes. It took me 2600 days to get to Vancouver, and 2600 words to write about it. But, sometimes, a single picture can say so much more. This was one helluva night at the ballpark.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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

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

Encore presentation

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

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

I become that which I cannot consume!

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

This mysterious area led to a mysterious alcove.

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

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

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

The view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, throughout, the smile remained consistent.

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

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

I daintily approached my dinner.

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

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

Transcendence achieved.

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

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

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

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

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

Frank approved the outcome.

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

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

But, finally — success!

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Seeing the Frogs, Live in Everett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandstanding:

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

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

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

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

Including, yes, a Chowder Bowl combo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle scars:

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

first to the press box…

and — finally! — the field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the golf course to the ballpark

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

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

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, Tacoma!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New seats, original grandstand.

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

Oh, hey, it’s Rhubarb!

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

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

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

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

Or…not.

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

And…Scene!

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

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

Meanwhile, Mr. Cheney had found some company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me “singing”

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

Blogger in need of a makeover, reporting for duty.

The song was “Billie Jean.”

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

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

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

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

twitter.com/bensbiz

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

On the Road: Inching Closer to the End in Yakima

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

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

So c’mon dudes! Play ball!

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

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

Another night, another meat costume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My jeans are bluer than yours.”

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

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

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

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

Everything must go! Seriously!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loftus, en route to drawing a walk.

The winning run on second:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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