Results tagged ‘ South Atlantic League ’

About Last Night: Greeneville Astros, June 25th, 2016

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll write a quick blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my presumed return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and perhaps even love. Last night I visited Greeneville, Tennessee, the first stop on my 10-team Appy League road trip. 

June 25: Pioneer Park, home of the Greeneville Astros (Rookie-level affiliate of the Houston Astros).

Opponent: Johnson City Cardinals, 6:00 p.m. start time

Pioneer Park, from the outside:

IMG_0002Pioneer Park, from within: 

IMG_0029Culinary Creation: Astro Dog (bacon-wrapped and brown sugar-crusted hot dog with pickle, tomato, fried onions and chipotle mayo sauce).

IMG_0034Ballpark Characters: Season ticket-holding sisters Norma, Betty and Joyce

IMG_0055At Random: Another ballpark, another encounter with anthropomorphic food racers.

IMG_1549Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Up Next: 

6/26: Kingsport Mets

6/27: Johnson City Cardinals

6/28: Bristol Pirates

6/29: Elizabethton Twins

6/30: Princeton Rays

7/1: Bluefield Blue Jays

7/2: Pulaski Yankees

7/3: Danville Braves

7/4: Burlington Royals

**

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: A Culinary Journey in Columbia

To see all my posts from my May 12 visit to the Columbia Fireflies, click HERE. To see all my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

At each Minor League ballpark I visit, I recruit a designated eater to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. At Columbia’s brand-new Spirit Communications Park, that individual was 16-year-old Carter Blackmon. Carter was attending the game with his Dad, Nathan, a well-known (some would say legendary) figure in the world of Minor League Baseball. He spent eight seasons (1997-2004) as the International League’s assistant to the president before transitioning to a then-fledgling website by the name of MiLB.com. Nathan, officially, is the site’s “director of MiLB initiatives.” If you work in Minor League Baseball, then you probably know him.

049Now let’s get to know Carter, who lives with his Mom and Dad and two sisters (one of whom is his twin) in the town of Waxhaw, North Carolina. Carter is licensed to drive, plays offensive tackle for his high school Parkwood Rebels and says a “perfectly cooked cheeseburger” is his favorite food. Carter also told me that he “likes” to fish, which prompted his Dad to say, “Like to fish? You fish at least three days a week. It’s more than ‘liking.'” Carter then conceded that he loves to fish, and proudly showed pictures of some of his latest bass conquests from the ponds of Waxhaw. The biggest bass he’s caught in the region was eight and a half pounds.

Fish wouldn’t be on the menu tonight, but barbecue was. With Fireflies VP of marketing Abby Naas serving as our guide, we began our journey at the Fireflies’ “Low N Slow” cart.

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From this cart, Carter was given a pair of sandwiches. The Pulled Pork is topped with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, utilizing a recipe developed by Fireflies president John Katz. The Beef Brisket has a tangy “Carolina Gold” sauce.

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Have at it, Carter.

“Oh, dang. That’s good,” said Carter, of the pulled pork. “The sauce is excellent — sweet with a little bit of tang at the end.”

He was an even bigger fan of the brisket, as he deemed the Carolina Gold sauce to be “too good for words.”

“If I had to use one word, it’d be ‘extravaganza’,” he continued, after giving the semantics a lot of thought. “It’s like a little mustard and a little barbecue thrown into one.”

Carter is a barbecue aficionado and says that if you’re ever in Waxhaw (hey, you never know), then Jo Jo’s and the Rock Store are both good places to check out. After prompting from his ever-watchful father, he added that “Mom and Dad’s is also a pretty good place to eat.”

Next up was a pair of tacos from the “El Toros” stand, so-named because “toro” means “bull” and the Fireflies’ Spirit Communications Park is located on Bull Street.

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“We go to Salsarita’s a lot, so I’m experienced with tacos,” said Carter, referring to the Mexican restaurant chain. “I love tacos.”

He then showed his love for tacos by tearing right into one. I believe it had chicken in it, while the other one had pork.

064Carter declared the pork taco to be superior, because the “meat was better seasoned” and had an overall “bolder flavor.” Eating the pork taco also led to an important culinary discovery.

“The black beans made it good, too, and usually I have tacos with no beans,” he added.

At this juncture I was called away from my designated eating duties to participate in a karaoke contest atop the dugout. I featured this video in my last post and I’ll feature it again here, as it was one of the greatest triumphs of my life.

The above contest was hosted by Fireflies executive vice president Brad Shank, and upon returning to Carter and Nathan I found that Pork Shank (no relation) was waiting for us. Pork Shank was joined by Tri-Tip Sandwich. Both are available in the upper-level suites.

066 I asked Carter to pose with the tri-tip in the same manner in which he would pose in his football uniform. Focused, determined, unstoppable.

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Carter said the tri-tip “had a nice crust around the meat. The grilled onions were great, and the sauce excellent.”

As for the shanks, I went ahead and tried ’em myself. Carter, meanwhile, played the role of cinematographer.

“Very meaty,” it says in my notes. “Not much seasoning. Tender. Overwhelming.”

(I assume I was writing about the shanks there, and not brainstorming the “About Me” section of my online dating profile.)

Carter was unable to eat dessert, unfortunately, as he still has five years to go before he can legally sample Mocha Chocolate Moonshine and Caramel Moonshine ice cream. This creamy alcoholic dairy product is produced locally by JB’s Pr%f.

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Nathan, ever-helpful, was happy to step in.

Nathan’s impish grin in the above Vine pretty well sums up how the moonshine ice cream tasted.

Speaking of summing up: Carter said that, when it came to the designated eating experience, “Shoot, I don’t have any words. It left me speechless. I started to like new things. It was a journey of discovery.”

And that, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about. Shanks for everything, Carter.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Incandescent Insects in Columbia

To see all my posts from my May 12 visit to the Columbia Fireflies, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right).

North and South Carolina are both great states for Minor League Baseball. It’s a region I would highly recommend visiting, regardless of circumstance. But my May trip to the Carolinas was motivated by a specific circumstance, and that circumstance was this: a new stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.

That stadium is Spirit Communications Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies (who formerly existed in the form of the Savannah Sand Gnats). The ballpark is located on the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital, and the Fireflies are the focal point of a development project that aims to turn this area into a massive “live-work-play” downtown destination.

I arrived more than three hours before the game, at a moment in time when the sky was ominous. The spirits communicating above the park must’ve been in a bad mood.

This auspicious structure, located beyond right field, was once the main building of South Carolina’s state mental hospital. The brand-new building to the left, which recently welcomed its first tenants, features views of the field from its opposite side.

001This is the area leading up to the ballpark’s front entrance. Clearly, there is much left to develop.

004I’ve already written a sprawling MiLB.com article detailing my visit to Spirit Communications Park. In the interest of not being redundant, repeating myself or being redundant, the remainder of this post will be short on information that can be found within the article.

With Fireflies president John Katz as my guide, I took a lap around the stadium.

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This is the view from behind the ballpark. I repeat: There is much left to develop. The ballpark is in the middle of the 150-acre former mental hospital campus.

011Spirit Communication Park is fairly straightforward in its overall layout and design. One of the most noticeable quirks are the wild juts and severe jags of the outfield fence.

021Some 90 minutes until game time, the skies opened up and there was a mad rush to put the tarp on the field. It was a passing storm, however, and while it may have affected the walk-up sales it did not delay the start of the ballgame.

IMG_1344Once the rains came, Katz had to suspend our tour in order to help out with the tarp-pulling process. He left his walkie-talkie in my possession, which led to me discovering that within the Fireflies hierarchy he is “El Jefe.”  025With the tarp secured, I reunited with “El Jefe” in the front office. Amid the general pregame hubbub, it was discovered that a scheduled English class for Latin American Fireflies players had no place to meet. Katz told them to go ahead and use his office. A great Minor League Baseball moment.

027Upstairs, there is a 7000 square foot Club Lounge, used year-round for all manner of events.

033The view from the top.

034I parted ways with Katz shortly after the gates opened, and just kept wandering. Back on the concourse, I snapped a picture of the team’s recently-procured firetruck (they are the “Fire”flies, after all). This will be utilized at community appearances and parades and whatnot. The Fireflies join at least one other Minor League team — the Peoria Chiefs — in firetruck ownership.

039Most of the early arriving crowd were Thirsty Thursday imbibers, congregating around the Budweiser Bow Tie Bar.

042Lawn Pong — a.k.a. Jumbo Beer Pong — was being played on the grassy area behind the bar.

On the outfield concourse I ran into Matt “Possum” Campbell, a long-time friend of this blog and two-time designated eater (with the Charlotte Knights and Kannapolis Intimidators). Matt, ever-thoughtful, had brought me a gift: a Weird Al Simpsons figurine. Two of my all-time favorite things, combined!

IMG_1346With Weird Al stowed safely in my pocket, I made my way behind home plate for the start of the ballgame. The Fireflies players had just been introduced to the strains of “Light ‘Em Up”.

047Mason, the most luminescent mascot in Minor League Baseball, was there to greet me as the game began.

048I spent the first several innings of the game with my designated eater. This, of course, will be documented in the next post. At one point I had to briefly abscond from these duties in order to participate in a karaoke contest atop the dugout. This, right here, was an all-time career highlight.

The rest of the evening was a blur. All I can say is that it was a beautiful night…

IMG_1350…and that at one point a bunch of humans ensconced within inflatable orbs were running all over the field.

059I’m pretty sure I took this picture just because I love how this dude spells his first name.

077The “best shoes of the night” award, which I have never before bestowed, goes to Fireflies director of facilities Edward Keen.

IMG_1362As the ballgame ended, I wandered past a large pile of deflated plastics. This was my cue to exit. Nothing left to see here.

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All that was left to do was write and disseminate a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

And with that, it was time for me to glow back to the hotel. Get it? Because fireflies “glow”? It’s always good to end on a high note.

***

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On the Road: Haute Cuisine and Lowcountry Gourmet in Charleston

The Charleston RiverDogs are known for many things, and chief among those many things is food. As longtime readers of this blog are aware, I have made an annual habit of dedicating a preseason post to their new concession options. And when I last visited Charleston in 2011, food and beverage overseer Jon Schumacher laid out a spread that included a Pimento Pickle Burger, a RiverDog, a Pig on a Stick corn dog, Kitchen Sink Nachos and, of course, the Pickle Dog.

charleston20-20pickledogThe Pickle Dog is no longer offered at RiverDogs game, sadly. And, even more sadly (from my self-centered  perspective) Schumacher has left the team in order to open a restaurant of his own. This new establishment, Harold’s Cabin, is co-owned by RiverDogs co-owners Mike Veeck and Bill Murray.

But the RiverDogs food tradition has been ably carried on by current food and beverage overseer Josh Shea and his assistant Jay Weekley, who continue to roll out new items such as this:

023This may look like a corn dog — which would make sense, because it is — but it’s not just any corn dog. Playing off of one of Charleston’s signature dishes, this is a Shrimp-N-Grit Corn Dog.

Of course, I would not be the one consuming such lowcountry ballpark specialties. That job, as always, goes to my designated eater. In Charleston, this individual was one Frank Monterisi. I took the below photo of Frank before tutoring him in the basics of food posing technique. Namely, do not block the entirety of the foodstuff with one’s hand.

024Frank, originally from New York, moved to North Carolina along with his family in 2003. A graduate of Clemson University, he relocated to Charleston in 2007 and currently works as a math teacher at a community college.

“Teaching runs in the family,” said Frank, a RiverDogs season ticket holder. “Being a math teacher is like being a politician. You walk in on the first day and half the people hate you already. I try to do it so that math isn’t like the other four-letter words that people use.”

There would be no four-letter words used on this evening, math-related or otherwise. As a great man maybe once said, “You can’t talk when your mouth is full.”

The Shrimp-N-Grit Corn Dog was brought to our plastic picnic bench location by Jay Weekley, who explained that it is made with yellow stone grits, smoked gouda and shrimp. This mixture is then breaded in hush puppy batter and served alongside a tomato gravy dipping sauce. Like many items in American retail history, it sells for $9. Weekley said that the team sells approximately 25 per ballgame, “which is pretty good for a brand-new item.”

Frank, who prepared for his designated eating assignment by consuming just five Frosted Mini-Wheats earlier in the day, said that the dipping sauce was “amazing” and that the breading was “not too heavy and not too soft.”

He then washed it all down with two alcoholic milkshakes.

027These might not be much too look at, but they were a lot to taste. On the left is an Apple Pie Shake — Angry Orchard cider and vanilla ice cream mixed with an actual apple pie from Charleston’s Mudd Pie Girl Bakery.

“This is fantastic,” said Frank. “There’s the old saying ‘American as apple pie’ and baseball is the national pastime. So what’s better than an Apple Pie milkshake?”

I think Frank should get a part-time job writing ad copy for the RiverDogs.

On the right is a Palmetto Biscotti Shake — Biscotti cookie dough, vanilla ice cream and Palmetto espresso porter beer. Frank praised the “rich, almost coffee-like taste,” but I think he still had his mind on the Apple Pie Shake.

It was then time to lighten things up via the Harvest Salad, which, par for the Minor League Baseball course, is served in a helmet and feeds 2-3 people.

030“We introduced this last year,” said Weekley. “Everybody seemed to be doing Quadruple Bypass Burgers and things like that, and we wanted to go healthier. We use hydroponic lettuce — it’s never in the soil — hollow out the core, fill it with quinoa and top it with fresh fruit and feta cheese.”

032“A lot of people think of salad as rabbit food,” said Frank, who is not a rabbit. “But the fruit adds a nice element and then you mix it with the cheese, it’s like seven food groups in one. It’s nice to see ballparks going away from the norm.”

But there are many ways in which to deviate from the norm, some ways more healthy than others. Shea soon arrived bearing a Double Chicken and Waffle Burger, and this thing looked so good that I had him explain it for posterity.

“My experiences were high and they were met,” said Frank. “As a Yankee, chicken and waffles have become my favorite food since moving to Charleston.”

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Yankee tasted, Yankee approved.

There was no time for further reflection, for Jay Weekley is a relentless man.

039In Jay’s right hand (on your left, dummy) is a Hawaiian Dog. It is topped with pineapple relish, pineapple, red onions, pickled okra, “a little cilantro grown here at the stadium” and house-made lemon aioli. In Jay’s left hand (that would be your right, hockey puck) is a Southern Kimchi Dog. That one has shredded collard greens, locally-made kimchi, sweet piquant peppers and a ginger-soy dressing.

A closer look, for all you closer-look fiends out there:

038Frank said the Hawaiian Dog has “that sweet and sour taste to it” while the Southern Kimchi Dog was like “an Asian twist on sausage and peppers.”

Frank, like me, is a single man. That makes me an expert in online dating profile pictures, and I do believe that this would be an excellent one. Good luck out there, Frank.

040Things had, by now, crossed over into the realm of the ridiculous. Next up was one of the RiverDogs’ new rice bowls. The Southwestern Chicken Bowl, to be exact, consisting of yellow rice, chipotle chicken, house-made corn salsa, cilantro coleslaw, black beans and lime crema.

I took a closer look. Too close, probably.

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“It’s definitely got a kick to it,” said Frank. “The best way to describe it is ‘Loaded Nachos without the nachos.'”

Loaded Nachos without the Nachos is simply “Loaded”, which is how Frank felt at this juncture.

IMG_1243Fortunately, Frank had hit the end of his designated eating run. Asked to sum up his experience, he snapped to attention delivered a final summation.

“There was food variety for all. Everything’s great.”

Now that I think of it, has anyone checked on Frank recently? For all I know, he could still be passed out on a plastic picnic table. But like most endeavors that end in such a fashion, I’m sure it was all worth it.

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On the Road: Corn, Dogs in Charleston

To see all my posts from my May 9 visit to the Charleston RiverDogs, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

When this Charleston RiverDogs narrative left off, I had just thrown a ceremonial first pitch perfect strike. This flawless spherical missive gladdened the hearts of all in attendance on this Monday evening at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, but while a lesser man would have rested on his laurels I immediately got back to work. The first several innings of the ballgame — an eventual 8-3 RiverDogs victory over the visiting Hickory Crawdads — were spent with my designated eater. This will all be documented in the next post. When that task was complete, I rendezvoused with promotions director Nate Kurant (formerly of the Dunedin Blue Jays) at a location on the third base side of the ballpark. Once there, I was immediately reminded that this Monday — like all Mondays in Charleston — was “Bark in the Park” night.

IMG_1244It was also, regardless of canine admission policies, a beautiful night. A beautiful night…for baseball!

IMG_1246The majestic dog seen two photos above was on the verge of competing in a “sit or stay” on-field contest against another massive (albeit fluffier) canine. The goal was to be the first dog to obey his (or her) owner’s command to sit and stay in a hula hoop placed on the field. Neither contestant seemed too interested in this endeavor, but it was the other, fluffier, dog that won. Another great moment in Charleston baseball history, I’m sure.

One great moment begets another, as Nate and I proceeded to the control room in order to oversee the debut of a Bark in the Park-themed “Simba Cam.” The goal was to have fans hold their dogs triumphantly in the air — ala the Lion King — but really everything was fair game. Lots of laughs were had by all, particularly when a woman held up her corn dog (as seen in the right hand monitor).

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“That went as well as we could have hoped,” said one control room denizen after all was said and done. In Minor League Baseball, as in life, this is always the goal.

I then returned to the third base dugout, in order to participate as a contestant as a between-inning ribbon dance contestant. I’d be representing the third base side of the stadium, competing against a counterpart on the first base side. As always, the victor would be decided by applause.

Upon reporting for duty, I was told that I’d be dancing while dressed as an ear of corn. The justification for this nonsensical wardrobe choice was something I’ve heard time and time again while visiting Minor League ballparks: “Why not?”

Corn

In time-honored Minor League Baseball between-inning contest fashion, getting in the corn suit was a case of “hurry up and wait.” The pace of the game noticeably slowed down (there was a pitching change at one point), and the third out of the inning started to seemed like it would never come. In lieu of plotting a coherent and crowd-pleasing ribbon dance strategy, I sat around and took selfies while lamenting my latest ludicrous stint in ballpark purgatory.

Almost immediately after posting the above tweet, responses like these started appearing in my timeline. I don’t think I look all that much like Ben Roethlisberger, but I guess the dissimilarities are less apparent when wearing a corn suit. Call me Ben Roeth-Biz-Berger.

Finally, after tens of minutes of anticipation, I took the field for the big dance-off. While waiting, I had been given the following advice by a RiverDogs promo staffer: “Start dramatically, with slow, big moves. Then really get going and end with a power move.”

I guess that’s what I was going for here?

At any rate, I lost the ribbon dance-off by a significant applause margin, as apparently my first base side counterpart was the Mary Lou Retton of vegetable suit dancing. He started things off with a series of cartwheels while I was tip-toeing around plotting for a payoff that never came.

Still out of breath but no longer wearing a corn suit, I joined RiverDogs broadcaster Matt Dean for an inning on the airwaves.

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Hey Matt! IMG_1255

Once my time with Matt was said and done, there was almost no baseball left to be played. As the RiverDogs put the final touches on their victory over the Crawdads, I posed for a picture with RiverDogs co-owner Bill Murray.

When there was only one set of footprints in the infield dirt, it was then that Bill Murray carried me.

IMG_1257I also paid a brief visit to the RiverDogs concourse “Memory Booth”, which is a pretty cool idea.

054There is an iPhone camera mounted in the booth. Fans who step aside are simply instructed to press the camera icon and then relay their favorite Charleston baseball memory. I guess my favorite memory is that time I danced on the field while dressed like a piece of corn. Remember that?

Profile2While on the verge of leaving the ballpark, it occurred to me that I had not yet written and disseminated a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke. I quickly pressed Nate into service, using his last name (Kurant) as the punchline. Brilliant, as usual.

There was one more interesting — and unexpected — element left in my evening. Upon leaving the ballpark, RiverDogs operations director Philip Guiry asked if I wanted a ride to my hotel. Next thing I knew, I was riding in the breeze in the back of an ’82 El Camino.

Thanks for the ride, Philip. And goodnight, Charleston.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Have Ball, Will Travel in Charleston

To see all my posts from my May 9 visit to the Charleston RiverDogs, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

About a week before I embarked on my road trip to the Carolinas, I received a package in the mail from the Charleston RiverDogs. In said package was a pristine South Atlantic League Baseball, along with a note from RiverDogs mascot Charlie T. RiverDog. “Hi Ben,” it read. “Please return this ball to the Charleston RiverDogs on May 9, 2016. Redeem for one first pitch at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park.”

I’ve never been one to disregard politely-worded written requests, especially when they come from Minor League mascots, so I dutifully put the ball in my road trip luggage and it traveled with me from New York City. On May 9, as scheduled, the ball and I arrived in Charleston.

After a short walk along the coast (more or less) from my…

001…I arrived at the abundantly leafy front entrance of the ballpark.

003Once I got the to the gates (which had not yet opened to the public), I heard a voice from on high. “Ben Hill,” the voice said. The voice belonged to Riverdogs director of operations Philip Guiry, who, after stringing lights among the trees below, was doing his best not to electrocute himself.

IMG_1229Long-time readers of this blog may remember Philip from my 2013 visit to the Bakersfield Blaze, with whom he held the lofty title of assistant general manager. At the time, he told me that he would be the “Quasimodo of Sam Lynn [Stadium, home of the Blaze], painting fences and changing light bulbs when no one else is here. You can bury me in center field.”

Life apparently got in the way of those ambitious death plans, because here he is in Charleston. Before resuming his cord untangling duties, Philip made a point of showing me an unlikely mural which can be found on the concourse: Charlie T. RiverDog at the Last Supper.

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This mural was painted by an artist by the name of Andy Nelson, who Philip told me “Just shows up and crashes at the stadium, hangs out and paints, and then shuffles off.”

It’s easy to miss, however, as it is located on the inner portion of a concession kiosk conglomeration.

007Philip had work to do, so he asked promotions director Nate Kurant for advice on how to get rid of me.

009They needn’t have worried. Taking inspiration from Andy Nelson the peripatetic muralist, I just sort of shuffled off. Here’s what the concourse looked like, shortly after the gates opened.

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Mondays are “Bark in the Park” nights, which are always a crotch-sniffing good time.

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The first base side of the ballpark features a scenic view of the swampy Ashley River surroundings.

015Clearly, it was a beautiful night. A beautiful night…for baseball.

012My wanderings then brought me to the press box. Shortly after entering, Nate yelled “Ben! Fox! Fox!” I just assumed he was letting everyone know that I am a total fox, and maybe he was. But, if so, his urgent exhortations had a dual purpose as there was an actual fox running across the field. After fumbling about with my camera, I snapped this photo just as the fox was about to disappear into the dugout.

011Fox!

011After recovering from this brief encounter with wildlife, my wanderings resumed. These two young boys were practicing their synchronized berm-running routine.

018My next stop was the field of play because, if you’ll recall, I had a first pitch to throw.

019Charlie T. Riverdog, the ball-mailing mascot, was waiting for me.

021I summarily threw a first pitch strike.

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How do you know that it was a strike? Because I never lie.

When this narrative resumes, a game will have just begun. But, for now, I’m just gonna shuffle off.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Living the Sweet Life in Greenville

To see all my posts from my May 8 visit to the Greenville Drive, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

This is Rich Wofford. On Sunday, May 8, Rich and his family attended a Greenville Drive game at Fluor Field so that he could serve as my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits.

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The above photo was taken outside of an empty Fluor Field suite, where myself, Rich, his family, luxury suites executive chef Rob Hansen and food and beverage manager Kyle May convened for a few innings of food-based reverie.

I’ve mentioned Rich’s family twice already, so I’ll briefly jump ahead in the narrative in order to show a picture of the Wofford clan on the cusp of dessert. From left to right, we have Colton (3), Charlotte (4), Rob, Calum (six months) and Dovie.

046The Woffords live in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Rob works as an accountant for a non-profit organization, while Dovie has a full-time job and then some in her role as stay-at-home mom. (She takes care of “the rats,” as Rob lovingly put it.) This all took place on Mother’s Day, so a happy belated Mother’s Day to Dovie.

Rich is originally from Greenville. He met Dovie while living in Arizona, and moved back to South Carolina three years ago. Despite growing up in Atlanta Braves country, Rich is first and foremost a Boston Red Sox fan. He said that the Sox were his father’s favorite team, and though it was never pushed upon him he nonetheless became a fan during a time in his youth when the Braves “were in a stretch of terrible years.” Rich is also a big fan of Cal Ripken, and said that “Calum” is as close as he could get to convincing Dovie to name one of their children “Calvin.”

The Drive are a Red Sox affiliate, so Rich is particularly enamored with his hometown Minor League team. He said that he and the family attend about seven games a year, watching approximately three innings “before we go to the playground.”

Today, the playground could wait. There was eating to do.

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The above spread was laid out for Rich by Drive food guys Hansen and May. We’ll cover each one individually, but we’ll begin with something not included in the above picture:  The Hot Tot.

CaptureMay explained that the Hot Tot consisted of “salsa, tater tot and shredded cheese on top of a hot dog.” The Hot Tot is among a rotating cast of specialty dogs that the Drive sell on the concourse.

Have at it, Rich.

“It’s a good ballpark hot dog,” said Rich. “There’s not a lot of hot in the tot, but the taters add a nice crunch on the top.”

Charlotte then took a bite.

“It’s good!” she said. “I kind of like the spice.”

I then took the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with Charlotte, a self-assured and witty four-year-old whom Rich has already indoctrinated into Red Sox fandom.
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Charlotte’s favorite color is pink and her favorite team is (surprise) the Red Sox. After answering these queries she momentarily got distracted by a talking dog video on the scoreboard, but quickly regrouped. The talking dog video had reminded her of her pets — Dribbles the hamster and Dudley the dog — though, unfortunately, “all of them died.” She then went on to tell me that her favorite player is Dustin Pedroia and that if she had all the money in the world she’d buy a Belle dress (Belle being a Disney princess character).

Our interview concluded with me asking Charlotte “What’s the funniest thing that ever happened in your life?” She had an answer at the ready:

“When Daddy said ‘Pull my finger!'”

Rich broke out into peals of embarrassed laughter and immediately asked that this remark be stricken from the record. However, being a brave and honest man, he later consented to have his daughter’s delighted account of his finger-pulling request documented within the public sphere.

Rich Wofford: Finger pullee, American hero

Rich Wofford: Finger pullee, American hero

Anyhow, we were talking about the Drive’s ballpark food options.

This “Triple Crown” slider platter — available in the 500 Club restaurant/bar/group area — was constructed with aplomb. From left to right we have (if my notes are correct) the “Chef”, the “Big Hurt” and the “Sultan of Swat.”

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The Chef, consisting of bacon, cheese and green peppers, was Rich’s favorite. He said that it was an “excellent burger” because the “meat was perfect” and overall it was an excellent combination of ingredients. The Big Hurt — topped with fried jalapenos — got lower marks because it was “spicy, very spicy, to the point where I don’t taste the burger.”

The Sultan of Swat, topped with fried green tomatoes, red onions and pimento cheese, was the most interesting looking of the bunch.

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Rich was underwhelmed, however.

“There was lots of onion taste, and that’s pretty much it on that one.”

Next, we classed up the joint by tasting the seared tuna (available at the suite level). The tuna, spiced up with a creole-style seasoning, was served atop a bed of greens and accompanied by a sesame ginger sauce and a jicama slaw.

037“If you’re not familiar with jicama, it’s a vegetable kind of like an unripe pear. Pretty mild as far as texture goes,” explained Hansen. “[The slaw] has yellow pepper, red pepper, fresh mint and strawberry.”

I probably ate more of the tuna than anybody. In my notes it says that there is a “Nice spice on the edges. The tuna is tender and the flavor radiates outward.”

Rich said that the tuna was “not what I’d expect to eat at a ballpark, but if I found it I’d eat it. The [sesame ginger] sauce has a nice heat that goes away quickly.”

From the perspective of the Wofford family, the best was most definitely saved for last: Xangos.

038Xangos is (are?) fried cheesecake. The Drive’s version, a “sweet” level specialty, is dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce. It got a 100% Wofford approval rating, summed up by Rich’s assessment that “I don’t know how to describe it other than ‘perfect.'” It even put a momentary stop to Calum’s crying, leading Rich to deem it a “baby husher.”

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Xangos: Wofford family tested, Wofford family approved

The dessert based reverie could only last so long, as Calum, though no longer crying, summarily threw up on Rich.. Assessing himself as his family prepared for departure, he noted “This would definitely be the ‘after’ picture. I’m covered in chocolate sauce and baby barf.”

The Wofford family then left the suite, moving on to their far more familiar playground environment. There, the kids would find swings to swing upon, slides to slide upon and, hopefully, fingers to pull upon.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Moms, Dogs and Scouts in Greenville

To see all my posts from my May 8 visit to the Greenville Drive, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

The first game I saw on this road trip, in Greensboro, was actually a pair of games. After a rainout the night before, the Grasshoppers and visiting Columbia Fireflies played a pair of seven-inning doubleheaders. The second game I saw, in Durham, went 11 innings before the Bulls finally dispatched the visiting Norfolk Tides. The third game I saw, in Greenville, was yet again a deviation from the normal.

After a power outage the night before, the Greenville Drive and visiting Columbia Fireflies (yes, them again) had been forced to suspend the game in the fifth inning. Therefore, my Sunday afternoon at Greenville’s Fluor Field now consisted of the completion of that suspended game, at 2 p.m., followed by a seven-inning game at the regularly scheduled time of 4 p.m. You’ve gotta say this for Minor League Baseball: it always keeps you on your toes.

I arrived in Greenville’s West End neighborhood in the early afternoon, changed clothes in a parking garage (as I am wont to do), and then made my way to the ballpark. The short walk over began with an idyllic stroll along the Reedy River, within Falls Park.

002The walk wasn’t all idyllic, however. There’s a lot of development going on in this area as well.

003Another 10 minutes or so later, I obtained my first view of Fluor Field. I was on the wrong side of the tracks.

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Fluor Field is a largely brick edifice, as are the buildings that surround it. The architecture in this area is reminiscent of the textile mills that used to dominate the landscape.

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006I last visited Fluor Field in 2010, as the final stop on one of my very first road trips. A game wasn’t even taking place, but I stopped at the park and got a tour from then-general manager Mike deMaine. From an article on said tour:

Fluor Field, located in Greenville’s West End district, is a bona fide “mini-Fenway.” The facility, which opened in 2006, boasts its own “Green Monster” and “Pesky Pole.” The ballpark dimensions are exactly the same, and a manual scoreboard is located along the left-field wall. Fluor Field’s Fenway inspirations came about not just because of the parent club but also as a matter of practicality.

“The piece of land our owners had to work with is small as compared to other stadiums, so a key issue was to find unique ways to maximize our space,” said deMaine. “There’s no better example of a large stadium within a small footprint than Fenway, so with our affiliation changing [to Boston], it was an easy tie-in.”

I don’t have much more to add about the ballpark, or anything else, when it comes my most recent appearance at Fluor Field. The bulk of my afternoon was spent wandering alone on the concourse, looking (in vain) for something that might translate into a story. The Drive were a very different experience than the other six teams I visited on this trip, and from my recent (and not so-recent) ballpark visits in general. Very hands-off.

I entered Fluor Field just as the completion of the suspended game was underway. There was hardly anyone in the ballpark yet, given that it was two hours prior to the afternoon’s regularly-scheduled contest. It felt like a high school game.

This day-glo Columbia Firefly fan really stood out in the crowd. In this particular section, he was the crowd.

IMG_1198It was Mother’s Day, and the team had procured 1000 carnations to give out to women as they entered all the ballpark. (I assume that most of the women who got carnations were mothers, but it’s not like anyone was checking IDs.) The team’s original plan was to have the players give out the carnations, but the necessity of completing the suspended game made that an impossibility.

IMG_1199I entered the ballpark at the Main St. entrance, in the left field corner. In the above photo, fans were entering via the Field St. entrance down the first base line. This entrance is directly across from the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, which is located in a modest brick home where Shoeless Joe spent the last 11 years of his life. I visited the museum during my 2010 Greenville cameo, and you can read about that HERE.

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Photo from visitgreeneville.com

The museum wasn’t open on this Sunday afternoon; nor was this concourse Chick-fil-A. This is in accordance with company policy.

012Que’s BBQ and Carrera Cantina were open for business, however.

013It was a beautiful day for the completion of a suspended contest, here at this self-described “mini-Fenway.” (The Drive are the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.) The building beyond left field houses retail and office space on the left and residential units on the right.

014I think I took this scoreboard picture because “Basabe” shares more letters with “baseball” than any other player surname I can think of.

017It wasn’t just Mother’s Day; it was also “Bark in the Park.” Volunteers from the Greenville Humane Society were on hand with a small but adorable cadre of adoptable canines.

023Who wants a puppy? Who wants one?!

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His name is Chewy

As the dogs — and people — accumulated on the concourse, the Fireflies put the finishing touches on 13-3 victory. They score was only 5-2 when play resumed, but the Fireflies made up for the previous day’s power outage by scoring two runs in the sixth and then six more in the seventh.

As the players retreated to their respective dugouts for a between-game break, mascot Reedy Rip-It led a veritable army of local Girl Scout troops in a warning track parade.

029The parade route included a scenic stroll through a dusty outdoor storage area.

030When you’ve got a bunch of dogs in the ballpark and a bunch of Girl Scouts, then it’s a pretty likely scenario that you’re going to see Girl Scouts walking dogs. The sight of such a thing prompted distracted one Drive outfielder to the extent that he neglected a pregame handshake ritual.

031In short order, the afternoon’s regularly-scheduled ballgame began.

033It was 80 degrees and sunny, but that didn’t stop this intrepid team photographer from coming to the game in an all-black outfit topped off by a black knit cap.

034After spending several innings with my designated eater and his family — that will be chronicled in the following post — I returned to the concourse and came face-to-face with mascot Reedy Rip’It.

049After spending some time on the dugout…

051Reedy led the crowd in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

Shortly thereafter, the Drive put the finishing touches on a 5-4 victory over Columbia. The seven-inning contest took two hours and 17 minutes to play. It then took what seemed like another two hours and 17 minutes for all the kids in attendance to run the bases.

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While the youth ran in circles, I took the time to write and disseminate yet another Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke.

And that, my friends, was how I spent my afternoon at Fluor Field. I would have written more about Greenville, but I lacked the….initiative.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Star Wars Sells Out in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

A short time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a hackneyed Minor League Baseball writer began a blog post about the Durham Bulls’ May 7 Star Wars promo with an uninspired reference to the film. That writer? Me!

When the last post in this Bulls blogging trilogy ended, I was on the field and a game was about to begin. I don’t want anyone griping to me about continuity errors, so I’m gonna pick up right where I left off. So, there I was: standing on the field with the game about to begin.

What’s up, Leia? I’m surprised they let that Wookiee standing next to you into the ballpark. Chewtobacca is banned in Minor League Baseball.

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The above two compatriots were soon joined by Han Solo — or at least what passed for Han Solo on this beautiful day at the ballpark.

038As the first pitch approached, Bulls manager Jared Sandberg took a moment to model the team’s Star Wars uniform.

IMG_1179It was cool to chat with Sandberg, even if it was only for a minute. Most players/coaches/managers don’t know who I am, as my side of the Minors generally doesn’t deal with what’s happening on the field. But Sandberg is a fan of the “exploring America through Minor League Baseball” angle, and we made extremely tentative plans to go on a MiLB road trip after he retires from coaching and managing. Be on the lookout for that in 2047 or so.

Once the game began, I had a few innings to engage in some idle wandering. A sold-out Star Wars crowd in a beautiful ballpark on a beautiful Saturday afternoon — what more could one want from their Minor League Baseball experience?

This photo, sent to me by the team, depicts Luke Maile at the plate for the Bulls. He shoulda changed his surname to “Skywalker” for the occasion. (Get it? It’s a Star Wars reference.)

Luke Maile UniformYou know who else should’ve assumed a different identity? Bulls on-field host Jatovi, who could’ve affixed an “Obi-Wan” in front of his name. Note that Jatovi, a true fashion icon, is wearing a Star Wars shirt with tags still affixed at the neck and an “X-Large” sticker on the front.

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During my laconic travails around the ballpark, I witnessed a variety of between-inning events. This Vine was filmed in the aftermath of a Bull Durham mascot race, featuring Crash, Nuke and Annie. I believe Wool. E. Bull — a.k.a. Han Solo — was in there as well, but he didn’t finish after having been banished to the abyss.

This photo, again sent to me by the team, depicts an abdomen-baring moment of the Diamond Cutters grounds crew dance.

Han Solo DCsAt one point during the middle innings, I wrote and disseminated a groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

At another point during the middle innings, I participated in an on-field Star Wars trivia contest. It was a setup, as all the “correct” answers involved me doing a Wookiee yell. I did my best to appease the masses, and for the rest of the afternoon random fans stopped me to say “Good job!” or a variation of that sentiment.

Ken Childs, the disseminator of the above tweet, was my designated eater for the evening. His exploits will be chronicled in the third and final post of this Bulls trilogy. Once my time with Ken was complete, the game was in its waning innings.

060The waning innings waned a little longer than usual, however, as the Tides and Bulls were deadlocked at 1-1 after nine frames. This gave me the opportunity to write and disseminate another groundbreaking ballpark joke.

I wish I could report that the Bulls won on a “Han” solo home run, but it was not to be. Instead, the Bulls emerged victorious after Dayron Varona (who has a Star Wars-style name, at least) hit a two-out walk-off double. Jaff Decker, who had singled with one out, scored the winning run. The sellout crowd, therefore, went home happy.

@durhambulls win, 2-1, in 11, after a walk-off double by Dayron Varona. I was far away when it happened.

A video posted by Benjamin Hill (@thebensbiz) on

And that did it for my evening with the Durham Bulls. Stay tuned for the aforementioned food-related post, appearing a short time from now in, yes, a galaxy not-so far away.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

On the Road: The Force Awakens in Durham

To see all my posts from my May 7 visit to the Durham Bulls, click HERE. To see all of my posts from my May 2016 Carolinas Road Trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

It’s hard to talk about the Durham Bulls without referencing the 1988 movie Bull Durham, portions of which were filmed at the team’s old home of Durham Athletic Park. The film made the Bulls an internationally recognized name, and the ensuing publicity and increased crowds helped the erstwhile Carolina League team move to a new ballpark (Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995) and level of play (the Triple-A International League, in 1998).

All of this is to say, the current Bulls experience is a long way from that which was immortalized in Bull Durham. A galaxy far, far away, perhaps, given that I visited the team for its annual Star Wars promotion. Can you imagine Crash Davis wearing something like this?

IMG_1169Yet, there are plenty of iconic elements still incorporated into the Bulls’ game experience. As I ventured to the stadium on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, walking through Durham’s Tobacco District, the back end of the “Hit Bull Win Steak” sign served as my North Star.

001En route to the home plate entrance, I saw a bull that clearly hadn’t been fed in a while.

003And then — bam — there it was: the imposing front entrance to Durham Bulls Athletic Park (which will henceforth be referred to as “DBAP”).

004Shortly after arriving, I sat in on a brief promo team meeting overseen by Bulls director of marketing Krista Boyd. Here are a few quotes from this confab that I scribbled down as Krista went over the agenda. (This year’s Star Wars promo was a tribute to Han Solo and mascot Wool E. Bull was dressed up as Han.) It appears that Margot (or is it “Margo”?) had a busy day.

“Margot, you’re with Chewbacca and Leia. Chewbacca’s in seven-inch platform shoes so he walks slowly. His name’s Ryan in real life.”

“Kylo Ren will take Luke into the abyss at the end of the [mascot] race.” 

“Margot, you’ll help get Chewy, Leia and the other characters, all the Storm Troopers, to Jackie’s Landing so they can dance for the Cantina Cam.”

“Wool E. Bull will drive a landspeed racer at the end of the fifth.”

“Margot, you’ll be with Leia and meet Grace at [section] 116 for the Star Wars Kiss Cam. Wool E. will give Leia a kiss. Then get the mini-Kylo Rens ready. There will be five of them. During this time the Diamond Cutters [grounds crew dance team] will be performing….Nico, you coordinate with Grace about having the mini-Kylo Rens go after Wool. E. with the light sabers.” 

There was a lot more than than, but you get the point. Minor League theme nights, done right, take a lot of planning and coordination.

After receiving their briefing from General Boyd, the promo team was ready to go into battle.

005I then was led to a room that had been pressed into service as a changing area for members of the 501st Legion’s Carolina Garrison. The 501st Legion is legion throughout the country, and crucial to the success of Star Wars promotions. Its members appear at the ballpark, gratis, in full movie-quality costumes.

I ended up speaking with Scott “Darth Vader” Wilmoth…

Vader guy…as well as Sandie “Princess Leia” MacLachan.

Leia and cardI wrote an MiLB.com story based around these interviews, which I would encourage you to read. Click HERE.

I should mention that I was guided during these pregame wanderings by Bulls director of communications Matt Sutor, a master of corridor, concourse, staircase and onfield navigation. After bidding adieu to the Star Wars crew, he and I paid a quick visit to the Bull Durham Beer Company. While many Minor League teams have their own team-branded beer, this is something else entirely. The brewery is actually located on the concourse, in what used to be a pop-up team store.

010The Bull Durham Beer Company is an independent operation, and not owned by the Bulls. There are currently four full-time employees, and four beers on tap at every Bulls game. These include 2016’s two additions to the line-up, “Lollygagger Kolsch” and “Water Tower Wheat.” I was told that the the brewery expected to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 pints on this beautiful Star Wars Saturday evening.

Anyhow, it was nice chatting with this group of brew company employees for a few minutes. I apologize to the woman on the left, as the picture I took in which your eyes are open was too blurry for me to use.

012Another current concourse highlight is the tobacco card-themed wall art, painted in conjunction with a season-long exhibit at the Durham History Hub.

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Meanwhile. out on the concourse, I was able to confirm that it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

015DBAP underwent $19 million in renovations prior to the 2014 season, and one of the most prominent additions was a large social space down the right field line dubbed Jackie’s Landing. Jackie’s Landing — so-named because it runs parallel to Jackie Robinson Drive — includes the 42 Playground and 42 Bar. Here’s the bar, which probably had Bud Light on tap. Just a guess.

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Videoboard upgrades were also part of the renovations. Though the game was still about an hour from beginning, a Star Wars-themed headshot of Tides’ leadoff hitter L.J. Hoes was already fired up and ready to go.

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Up in the press box I spoke with PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, a native of Durham who attended his first Bulls game in 1962. My conversation with Tony, an affable and interesting guy, was summarily turned into this MiLB.com article. 

019A brief peek into the owner’s suite — the owner in this case being Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting — revealed an old-tyme barber shop atmosphere….

021…as well as some old-time video games. Shoutout to Matt Sutor, who earned a blog cameo via his deft mirror positioning.

022This is the “PNC Triangle Club,” whose tables are either circles or squares.

024Meanwhile, outside, Star Wars mania was in full effect. Costumed 501st Legion members were hot photo op commodities.

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IMG_1175Outside and inside of the ballpark, it remained a beautiful day in Durham.

032And this time, when I returned to the field, my new friends were waiting for me.

IMG_1178I hope this post gave you much to Chew over. Right now I’m gonna Leia down and take a nap, but please know that the next installment of this Durham Bulls Star Wars blog trilogy will appear very shortly.

***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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