Results tagged ‘ Southern League ’

On the Road: Strawberries and Bologna at a Fun Place in Jackson

The town of Jackson, TN is sandwiched between Memphis and Nashville along I-40, and boasts a modest population of 65,000. It’s not the most obvious Minor League market, given its small size and close proximity to glitzier locales, but has nonetheless been a proud host of Southern League baseball since the late 20th century.

1998, to be exact, a time of presidential perjury trials, overlooked Mudhoney albums, and the release of Free Willy back into the wild. And ever since those halcyon days, the team has called Pringles Park home.

And, yes, the team is called Pringles Park because the iconic potato snack product is manufactured in Jackson. (Proctor and Gamble sprung for the naming rights). And even though Pringles are potato “crisps” as opposed to chips, the stadium is still colloquially referred to as “The Big Chip.”

Right out in front of the stadium, whose address is the unforgettable “4 Fun Place, one finds this touching tribute to “the children of Tennessee’s Fallen Warriors.”

But let’s not enter the stadium just yet. Pringles Park underwent a $1 million improvement project this past offseason — and all of the improvement occurred outside of the facility. 40,000 cars pass by daily on I-40, and in the past the stadium view on offer was obscured by what Generals GM Jason Compton describes as “kudzu and piles of sand.” That distressing situation is now in the past, thanks to a little bit of land acquisition and a whole lotta landscaping.

“The best billboard is the park itself,” Compton told me, and it’s clear that he and his organization take a lot of pride in these exterior improvements.

Look, a fountain!

I was out in this area with media relations assistant Bradley Field, who reported that “there have been no splashdowns yet.” I then suggested that the team needs a name for the fountain, and Field responded with “Pringles Pond.” That’s a good start, but this is the kind of thing that can only be decided via the power of social media (well, either that or a half-drunken brainstorming session).

The Generals certainly leave no doubt as to their affiliation. Behold this phenomenal tourist attraction: the biggest Seattle Mariners billboard east of the Wasatch mountains. (Also note the new videoboard, coquettishly peeking out from beyond center field).

The team also advertises the affiliation of its opponent, via this sign:

Lookout (for that truck!)

As you can infer, on this evening the Generals were playing the Dodgers-affiliated Chattanooga Lookouts. There were no Lookouts to be found once I returned to the stadium’s interior, but there were myriad Generals in the midst of their pre-game preparations.

During this portion of the evening I interviewed Taijuan Walker and then Nick Franklin from a picnic bench beyond the left field fence. Franklin, who I also spoke with in High Desert last season, has since been promoted to Triple-A Tacoma along with ace pitcher Danny Hultzen. Walker, just 19, might not be far behind.

Basically, the Generals are stacked. They handily won the first-half North Division title (look for Friday’s MiLB.com piece about the improbable manner in which that all went down), and it could be argued that they’re the best team in all of Double-A. Broadcaster Chris Harris told me that there has been more media interest (local and national) in this team than in his previous three years combined.

After the interviews, I adjourned to the dizzying heights of the press box…

and interviewed team bus driver Thomas “Double T” Tansil about what it was like to be part of the team’s recent clinching celebration in Jacksonville (again, more on that over at MiLB.com, soon). Tansil radiated contentment and seemed to like everything about his job, saying “it’s all been good, I wouldn’t trade nothing for it.”

Double-T, driver of Generals

The game began soon afterward, with the since-promoted Hultzen on the mound in front of a rather sparse midweek crowd.

As for the crowd — it was a Wednesday evening and as anyone who works in Minor League Baseball knows, that’s just how it is sometimes. The Generals attendance is up this season, however, thanks to factors such as the ballpark improvements and on-field success and recent re-branding (they switched to “Generals” in 2011, after being known as the “West Tenn Diamond Jaxx”).

And there’s certainly room for further growth. Compton, a West Tennessee native who has been with the club since 2001, is in his first season as GM.  He’s working on enlivening the entertainment and promotions, and efforts in that regard have been fruitful (that’s a play on words, as you’ll see soon enough).

At any rate, it was time for me to wander. That’s just what I do.

It was behind home plate that I first saw Sarge. He was playing a game called “stand like a statue while I gently caress the back of your hand.”

Mist-ery Man

Down the third base line, manager Jim Pankovits was doing his best to keep the field clear of wayward bat shards.

My lone fish-eye indulgence of the evening.

As I made it back toward home plate, I was able to watch Sarge lead a crowd of young fans in the Chicken Dance.

I couldn’t participate in these fowl activities, however, as I had my own agenda. The nightly Fruit Race was coming up soon, and I had been recruited to participate.

When I asked Compton “Why a fruit race?” his response was one that I have heard many times over when traveling through the Minor Leagues: “Why not?”

The fruit race costumes were lovingly kept in a storage area behind the left field fence (close to my picnic bench interview spot). I chose Strawberry.

And here, things get a little weird. I handed off my camera so that the race could be documented by members of the promo team, and the first photo taken looks like this:

And then, there were eight consecutive “file not found” images before, finally, this shot showing the conclusion of the race (I came in second).

I really have no idea what happened — maybe some wrong buttons were pushed, or the camera was dropped. But it started working as soon as it was handed back to me, so my explanation is this: My camera loves me, and me only, 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 love you too, camera. I love you too.

I also love being on the radio, and after shedding my Strawberry skin and once again donning my wandering blogger outfit I went up to join Harris for an inning on the air. These digs are nicely appointed…sunset, headphones, ketchup — what more could you want?

Nothing works up an appetite like being on the radio (I mean, why not? Just go with me on this one). A grill behind home plate provided a fair number of options:

The “Ricoh Burger” listed above was created by — who else? — Ricoh. He’s the man manning the grill, and has been doing so for nearly the entirety of the team’s existence.

Ricoh told me what was in the Ricoh burger, but I neglected to write it down and have now, unfortunately, forgotten. It was definitely one of those “little bit of everything” creations, and seemed a bit too much for me to handle at the moment. So I went with the bologna sandwich, and stand by this choice:

I’d only had one other bologna sandwich in my Minor League travels, and with all due respect to the Danville Braves Ricoh’s version was far superior. After receiving the sandwich I went to a concession stand down the third base line, with one item in mind. Try to guess which one:

But I was denied! There were no fried green tomatoes at this portion of the evening, so that particular ballpark experience is going to have to come another day. Or not.

I instead bought a Yuengling (which had a personal significance that I’ll explain at a later date), and then did something I rarely do on these road trips: sat in one place, as a fan, for two innings straight!

From this vantage point, I watched the Generals win the ballgame.

A few players stopped to sign autographs on their way back to the clubhouse and, really, that was that.

After the game I was thoughtfully given a nice array of Generals merchandise, which will soon be given away, by me, on Twitter. Stay tuned! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fit this hat in my carry-on luggage.

On my way out of the stadium, a skunk crossed right in front of my car. I probably should have immediately gone in the opposite direction, but instead tried to document the moment for posterity. It didn’t turn out that well, so I have helpfully enhanced the photo so that you may see what I saw. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day you see a skunk in a Minor League parking lot. It was a moment to cherish.

And that’ll do it for me, from Jackson. I wrote this post in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and was going to link to this song but then got overwhelmed by how great it is so here ya go. (And kudos to the Generals for playing the Johnny Cash/June Carter version over the PA after the game.)

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Soaking Up the Scene in Pensacola

Seeing five Florida State League ballparks in five days was a whirlwind, but the concluding event of this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip was yet to come. I left Daytona on Wednesday afternoon (after making a cameo at that morning’s “education day” D-Cubs game), and then embarked on a travel day that ended within the not-so-scenic environs of the DeFuniak Springs Super 8 Motel.

And on Thursday, traveling further west along the Florida panhandle, I reached my final destination: Pensacola, home of the Southern League’s Blue Wahoos. I have a lot of random material from Pensacola to share in the near future, but for the sake of clarity, brevity and my own self-imposed timetables this post shall focus on Thursday’s doubleheader at brand-new Community Maritime Park. (Consider this a companion to Tuesday’s MiLB.com piece. Please).

The parking lot is to the right of this vast expanse of grass, and it’s purposefully small. The idea is that people will bookend their Blue Wahoo experience by drinking, dining, and socializing in downtown Pensacola — located about a 10 minute walk from the ballpark — and on both nights I attended people were indeed streaming in via foot, pedicab, and shuttle bus. (Again, there will be more on all of that in a future post.)

But at this early juncture, I more or less had the stadium to myself.

The man in the full uniform leaning against the cage is former Cincinnati star Eric Davis, now a Reds roving instructor. And on the far right there is Pensacola manager Jim Riggleman, who in 2011 left the Washington Nationals in a cloud of controversy. That’s not something that he’s inclined to elaborate on these days, but I did get the chance to interview Riggleman in the clubhouse the next day.

(Other Blue Wahoos who were subjected to my Flipcam stylings were Donnie Joseph, Ryan LaMarre, and Didi Gregorious. My interviews with the latter two included questions regarding the Cannibal Corpse show that had taken place in Pensacola the night before. A simple search for these players names on MiLB.com will yield the interviews).

But the star of the show at Community Maritime Park is, quite simply, the view of Pensacola Bay (beyond which lies the Gulf of Mexico).

The above picture was taken from the team’s Hancock Bank Club. Admission to the “club” is sold as a season ticket, and food is part of the package. There are no suites at Community Maritime Park, so this is about as “exclusive” as the stadium gets.


I was in the Hancock Bank Club as part of a stadium tour being provided by Blue Wahoos executive VP Johnathan Griffin. At one point I dropped my pen onto the stadium’s lower level, and for that faux pas I blame my earlier consumption of this.

That’s the Blue Wahoo, the only ballpark drink I’ve ever seen that features moonshine as a prominent ingredient. (And the strawberries resting on top had been soaked in the stuff!)

Drinks such as the above are available at Mulroy’s Bar, located on the concourse behind home plate. Nearby, one can also find plenty of beer options:

And the team even has its own beer on draft, called “Ono.”

Another bit of liquified branding is the team’s own bottled water (both the beer and water will soon be sold outside of the ballpark as well).

The people of Pensacola seem to enjoy their drinking, is all that I’m getting at, and this trait is consistent with beach towns nationwide. Hot weather and lots of time on the white sand can result in a powerful thirst. And speaking of the people of Pensacola, at this point they were streaming into the ballpark en masse. (It was a sell-out crowd, and as this post progresses, you’ll see more and more folks in the ballpark.)

The view from the right field concourse, both facing the field…

and away from it.

There are no general admission seats, but $5 gets you into the park and provides access to anywhere on the (approximately 270 degree) concourse as well as the grass berm. The preponderance of open space lends itself to a relaxed atmosphere even when the park is full.

The previous night’s game had been rained out, and along with it a planned “Superhero Night” promotion. The team re-scheduled it for the next day, and this young fan came prepared.

The area behind (and adjacent to) the center field scoreboard is currently unutilized, but Griffith imagines it as a beach-themed party area.

Community Maritime Park is just a portion of a larger “live-work-play” downtown development project. This amphitheater, which includes access to the Blue Wahoos’ outfield concession areas, will be completed in time for a Charlie Daniels concert next month.

I soon took a trip to the press box, to join Tommy Thrall and Andrew Green for an inning on the radio.

My recent moonshine consumption may have led to an even greater propensity for puns than usual, and perhaps the audio will one day surface. Later in the evening I noticed that the broadcast was playing at a fairly substantial volume in the men’s restroom — I can only hope that I said something that made a man laugh as he was urinating, for this is my lone goal in life.

And speaking of the restrooms, they have their own attendants stationed outside.

This is all part of a relentless emphasis on cleanliness and customer service, and a large part of team owner Quint Studer’s business philosophy (more on that in the MiLB.com piece). Even after the novelty wears off, I imagine that Community Maritime Park will remain one of the cleanest and friendliest parks in MiLB.

But the novelty hasn’t worn off yet, of course, and on these trips I’m always looking for novelty — especially in concessions.

Food and beverage director Mark Micallef had handed me a large wad of “employee bucks” prior to the game, and I intended to make use of them. Playing off of the nautical theme, concessions are can be found on both the “Port” and “Starboard” sides of the stadium.

I had spoken with executive chef Chris Voorhees before the game, and was intrigued by both the 1/3rd-pound “Heater Burger” and the much-touted Shrimp Po’ Boy. But I couldn’t pass up the “Sea Dog” — a foot-long breaded cod topped with cole slaw, tartar sauce, and the team’s signature “Wahoo Sauce” (house-made, it’s kick determined by how long it had been left to marinate).

I loved this thing for two — nay, three — reasons:

1. The cole slaw was tart and fresh. It had a bit of a crunch to it, and was far better than the uninspired mush found at diners nationwide.

2. The breading was light and crisp, and the fish within tender and flaky

3. It was seafood. Burgers and hot dogs are all well and good, but I was burned out on them at this point and glad to try something new. And this was my first stop in Florida where seafood had been on the concession menu! Strange, considering that it’s Florida and all.

Dessert was to be found at the shaved ice stand located on down the third base line, which offered dozens of flavors. I went with “Frog in a Blender” simply because it was called “Frog in a Blender,” but amphibious innards were nowhere to be found. Instead it was a mix of lemon-lime and watermelon flavoring.

And while nothing I ordered was in need of additional condiments, let it be known that the Blue Wahoos are well-stocked.

At this point my narrative, which barely existed in the first place, peters out. So let me close with a final array of photos, depicting the nighttime atmosphere of Pensacola baseball on a Thursday night.

The night ended as these nights always do — with Launch-a-Ball! (I must note, however, that Launch-a-Ball and Thirsty Thursday doesn’t necessarily mix. Play had to be stopped on two occasions due to a ball being thrown onto the field, and in the latter instance it was while closer Donnie Joseph was delivering a pitch with two outs and two strikes. To whomever threw it: there is a special circle of hell waiting for you, one in which the flip-flops pinch your toes, the Sublime cd skips, and the Natty Ice is served at room temperature).

This concludes round 1 of Road Trip blog coverage. There is still much more to come over the next week or two, much of it focusing on that which occurred outside of the ballparks. So, please, keep coming back and, even more importantly, if you like this sort of thing then please spread the word.

Ben’s Biz Blog post #800 now terminates.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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