Results tagged ‘ Southern League ’

On the Road: Oysters and So Much More in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

Before visiting the Biloxi Shuckers home of MGM Park, there was one thing I was certain of:

There will be oysters.

I mean, if this is your logo, then there better be oysters:

shcuksHowever, I was unprepared for just how much else there was, and I think that you will be as well.

MGM Park’s concessions are overseen by Mike Brulatour, general manager of Ovations Food Services for the Shuckers. On this blog, which I aspire to write in a light-hearted and conversational tone, I usually refer to people by their first name. But I will refer to Mike Brulatour as “Brulatour,” because it’s a cool-sounding surname and allows us to imagine him as some sort of all-powerful Minor League food god. The Mighty Brulatour!

Brulatour had previously held a similar position with the Memphis Redbirds (whom I visited in 2012), where Barbecue Nachos are king.

“In Memphis, we claimed that we were the only ballpark where hot dogs weren’t number one,” he said.

It should come as no surprise that, under Brulatour’s watchful eye, the Shuckers offer their own take on this Memphis specialty: Shuckers Barbecue Nachos. The cheese sauce is actually made in Memphis, while the pulled pork is local (more on that in a moment).

045For comparison’s here are the “Rendezvous Barbecue Nachos” that were on offer when I visited the Redbirds’ home of AutoZone Park (Brulatour was my tour guide there as well).

memphisnacho

The Shuckers’ iteration is the result of a partnership with The Shed, a barbecue joint in nearby Ocean Springs. Here, The Shed co-owner Brad Orrison poses alongside his ballpark kiosk with his three “Little Shedheads” (check the shirts).

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Alongside me for this food-based juncture of the evening was Cale Merrill, my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Oh, Cale. He was so young then, so innocent, so entirely unaware of the culinary challenges that awaited.

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Cale, an insurance agent who lives in Gulfport, recently returned to the Mississippi after a stint living in Houston. He’s a proud advocate of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, which he says does not conform to the rural backwoods stereotypes that are often associated with the state. Cale’s also proud of his alma mater, collegiate baseball powerhouse Mississippi State University.

“You’re not gonna find bigger baseball fans than MSU, and don’t let LSU tell you something different,” he said. “You can print that.”

Cale is also a fan of the Shuckers, of course, whom he embraced as soon as they arrived.

“In the South, being outside in the Summer is what it’s all about,” he said.

And as for the Shuckers barbecue nachos?

“The pork is delicious, not just run-of-the-mill,” said Cale. “I like the sweet sauce. I’m not a mustard or vinegar-y kind of person. I’ve always loved [The Shed’s] food.”

Next up: Po’Boys.

049Here’s the Shrimp Po’Boy, with remoulade sauce, which Cale immediately stripped of all vegetable matter. Cale is kind of a picky eater.

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And here’s the team’s Oyster Po’Boy, in its natural state.

051Fortunately, Cale’s college buddy Turner was able to lend a helping hand with this (and many other) concession items. Turner lived in Washington D.C. for the past four years, but returned to the Biloxi area to help manage a casino construction project.

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“What you’re eating was fished out of these waters yesterday,” said Brulatour, just before the above photo was taken. He also noted that the Po’ Boy sandwiches utilize “good to the last crumb” bread from New Orleans-based Ladenheimer Bread Company.

Cale said that he’s “Not a huge Po’Boy fan” and that he “doesn’t do lettuce.” Turner, perhaps more well-versed on the subject, said that “these are as good as you’ll find anywhere.”

Meanwhile, did you know that Barq’s Root Beer was founded in Biloxi?

“The people here drink it like it’s going out of style,” said Brulatour.

Therefore, it was imperative that Barq’s be served at the ballpark.

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Cale, clearing the palate with a Barq’s Root Beer float.

055Next up was a Pimento and Cheese Burger with house-made chips, which Brulatour had procured from the Beacon Grill.

“It’s not frozen,” he said. “We use fresh meat, and you can tell.”

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“With pimento cheese, you can’t go wrong,” said Turner, again ably assisting in concession consumption. “I don’t understand why it’s not used more. I’ve never seen it on a burger, and it’s great.”

Brulatour, meanwhile, was plotting his next move. This is the only photo I have of him.

057His next move, in this case, was the centerpiece of the Shuckers oeuvre. 

Aw, Shucks.

058At Aw Shucks, one can get fresh oysters, fresh off of the grill. The oysters, provided by local Crystal Seas Seafood, are shucked offsite, shrink-wrapped and delivered to the stadium. This makes sense from an operational standpoint — on-site shucking would require additional space and resources — but it was disappointing to find out that no actual shucking goes on during a Shuckers game. I was naive enough to believe that it might.

This Vine appears to have been shot in reverse, I have no idea how that came to be.

The Aw Shucks Grill also features, among other things, Bayou Jambalaya served in a helmet. Cale enjoyed some.

060But those oysters! Though pricey ($15 for 8), these garlic butter bivalves are one of the best things I’ve ever seen (and tasted) at a Minor League Baseball game. They are served “on the fly” (as in “atop a Frisbee”) and accompanied by a hunk of French bread. In deference to my gluten-free reality, we forwent the French bread.

IMG_0036Usually I do a “designated eater checks in” Vine at the beginning of a post. Better late than never.

The Aw Shucks grill also features boudin, a Cajun specialty which is, essentially, a rice-stuffed pork sausage.

063I couldn’t get immediate confirmation that the boudin was gluten-free. Yet, I tried it. Forgive me, gluten, for I have sinned. Boudin is delicious.

069Meanwhile, Cale and Turner had become inundated with Brulatourian offerings.

071Here, Cale chows down on a “Grilled Chicken Sink” sandwich from the “Shuck and Cluck” chicken stand.

068In this case, I believe that “kitchen sink” can be interpreted to mean “provolone, mushrooms, peppers and onions.”

067“You can tell, they’re very proud of their food here,” said Cale. “I’m not a good judge of the peppers, but there’s a lot of chicken in that sandwich.”

This, meanwhile, appears to be the grilled Italian Sausage.

064And this? This appears to be a different sandwich than the one seen above. I think that it’s the “Brewers Beer Brat,” which, like the sausage, is available at the Home Plate Hot Dogs stand.

066“I’m gonna have nightmares about you,” said Cale to Brulatour. He had reached his limit.

073And yet, the Brula-Tour continued. At this point in the evening, maybe 10 minutes after the above photo had been taken, the game was in a rain delay and the tarp was on the field.

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After an impromptu upper-level ballpark tour, Brulatour led us into the Shuckers main kitchen area. This is the domain of head chef Bob Barlow, an old crony of Brulatour from his Memphis days.

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Here, Cale, have a cookie. Brulatour said that it’s called “The Royale” and that “its got everything in it.”

089While in the kitchen, we were also presented with deep-fried cheese curds. These, a suite-only delicacy, do not scream “Mississippi Gulf Coast.” But keep in mind that the Shuckers are a Milwaukee affiliate and general manager Buck Rogers is a Wisconsin guy. So, why not?

090But this isn’t Biloxi’s only instance of commercial cheese curd availability. I know this because Buck’s been on the lookout.

With the weather having cleared up and the game ready to resume, Brulatour led us back to the concourse and promptly handed Cale a BBQ Shrimp Pizza.

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“Two hours ago, I was sad not to be eating the shrimp pizza,” said Cale. “But now…”

He didn’t even finish his sentence. He looked like he might pass out.

094Brulatour then emerged with a corn dog. Cale had now had all that he could stand. Therefore, he couldn’t stand no more.

“I’m not eating anymore! I’m a small man!” Cale yelled into the unforgiving abyss of night.

He did, however, consent to pose with the corn dog.

093Cale and Turner, both shell-shocked, stood dazedly on the concourse as Brulatour bid them adieu. When I came upon them again, nearly an hour later, they were being regaled by Shuckers GM Buck Rogers with the sort of story that only Buck Rogers can tell. From my notes:

“Buck is talking about drinking beer in Central America to stay hydrated for rabies shots after getting bit by a vampire bat.”

096Despite his fully-stuffed status, Cale was now in good spirits.

“I made a mistake. I ate a bunch of nachos right at the beginning,” he said. “But no regrets. I’d been looking forward to this, and it was first class.”

Cale had survived his brush with the mighty Brulatour, and has the souvenirs to prove it.

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On the Road: The Raining Champ in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, clickHERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

Part one of this Biloxi blog saga gently deposited us at the door step of game time. In this, part two, we’ll quietly open the door and step inside. The date was July 29th, and the Shuckers were taking on the visiting Jackson Generals in an evening contest at MGM Park.

048Shortly after the game begin, I rendezvoused with designated eater Cale Merrill and director of food and beverage Mike Brulatour. My time with these individuals was extensive, and will be documented in the following blog post. It encompassed the first four innings of the game as well as, inevitably, a rain delay.

082Fans took shelter under a concourse overhang, as they are wont to do.

083Ballpark VIPs, such as daredevil clown Bello Nock, waited out the rain delay from the comfort of a private suite.

084Some fans tired of waiting, and headed out into the Mississippi night via the long, winding, gently sloping exit.

085Finally, the tarp was removed and the game picked off just where it had left off. With normalcy restored, I engaged in conversation with Shuckers ticket executive Kevin Trembley.

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Kevin, a 2013 college graduate, is the son of former Baltimore Orioles manager and current Atlanta Braves director of player development Dave Trembley. Kevin has known Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers since he was a kid, when he was a batboy for the turn-of-the-21st century Daytona Cubs.

In those days, Kevin’s dad was the Daytona manager and Buck was the GM. These days, Kevin works in the ticket department by day and serves as on-field emcee by night. There are, most likely, many chapters in his baseball career yet to be written.

Further wanderings brought me to the berm area, where the view was as pleasing as the grass was wet.

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My wandering also brought me into contact with a fan by the name of Charlie O’Brien, who was wearing this irreverent and self-deprecating Huntsville Stars shirt. (The Stars, of course, are the team that moved to Biloxi and became the Shuckers.)

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This shirt gives an accurate peek into the mindset of Stars fans and front office members during their final years of existence, when they were overseen by an absentee owner and left to languish in a decrepit city-owned facility. Buck Rogers was the general manager there (he moved with the team to Biloxi), and this shirt has “Buck” written all over it.

“This is Huntsville Stars baseball,” the shirt reads. “This ain’t Montgomery and we ain’t perfect. Our ballpark is a train wreck. We have a skunk for a mascot. Out videoboard is shot. But ya’ know what? We don’t care! The drinks are cold and & the ‘dogs are great! Stars fans are my family. And this is my team! 

But wait — there’s more. I’m not gonna transcribe this side, for I am only one man.

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When I met Charlie, I assumed that he was a die-hard Stars fan who, like a jilted lover stalking an ex, had come to check out the team’s new digs. But, once again, my assumptions proved unverified. He’s a committed ballpark traveler who chronicles his journeys over at charliesballparks.com

“I just roll along,” Charlie told me.

And so do I. More accurately, I roll in slow circles around the perimeter of the ballparks I visit.

IMG_0038This picture was aided and abetted by Instagram.

IMG_0041I spent the waning moments of the ballgame speaking with Shuckers co-owner Tim Bennett, who has an interesting story to tell regarding how he got involved with professional baseball and his future goals in the industry. An article based on this conversation is “in the works,” but most likely won’t appear until sometime in September.

106That did it for my evening at the ballpark, with the Shuckers losing to the visiting Jackson Generals by a score of 3-2.

But wait! There’s more!

As an anti-rainout insurance policy, my itinerary included two nights in Biloxi. Shortly after waking up the following morning, I belatedly issued forth a “groundbreaking and subversive” Vine joke.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time exploring Biloxi on this Thursday afternoon, which was largely dedicated to writing this MiLB.com piece on the MGM Park experience. When I returned to the ballpark that evening, this was the scene: Another day, another tarp on the field. It’s just been that kind of season.

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I hope that this maintenance vehicle made it through the storm unscathed.

My rain-soaked meanderings eventually brought me to the “Shuckers Shop,” which is overseen by retail manager Babs Rogers. 007Babs is the wife of GM Buck Rogers. The couple’s two daughters — Bree and Holly — work retail for the Shuckers and Babs’ father serves as an usher. For the Rogers family, baseball really is a family affair.

“It’s always been that way,” said Babs. “Back to the days of our daughter doing her homework at the fan assistance desk in Daytona.”

Shuckers merchandise has been a hot commodity in Biloxi, ever since the team name was announced this past offseason. Babs said that this shirt — simple, eye-catching, elegant — has been the number one seller.

005With the tarp still on the field and more bad weather still expected, I had to find ways to pass the time.

For a while I engaged in conversation with usher Mike Steer, a resident of nearby Ocean Springs. He said that his town had plenty to recommend on the culinary front, and then went about recommending it: –

Murky Waters Barbecue: “Get there by 12 if you want the burnt ends,” said Mike. “Get there at 12:05, there ain’t no burnt ends.”

— The Tatonut Donut Shop: “Go there for breakfast. It’s donuts, but they use potato flour.”

Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant: “All you can eat catfish and shrimp.”

McIlroy’s on the Bayou: “Go there for oysters.”

For the record, I went to Murky Waters for the next day in search of burnt ends. This mission was a success. IMG_0059

IMG_0058

I hope to do a series of “Return to the Road” posts in the offseason, chronicling my divers and sundry off-the-field photos and observations. But, for now, let’s get back to this riveting Biloxi Shuckers rain delay.

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The Buena Vista Beer Garden is named after the Buena Vista hotel, which once existed where MGM Park now stands.

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The hotel opened in 1924 and was destroyed by fire in 1991.

Public domain photo taken from Wikipedia.

Public domain photo taken from Wikipedia.

My wanderings eventually brought me to the press box, where I joined Chris Harris for a radio interview. The game was officially postponed just before our interview began, but this did not postpone our chat.

Chris interviewed me, but I also interviewed him as well. The former Jackson Generals broadcaster has had an eventful year, to say the least. After accepting a job with the Shuckers, he set up the team’s broadcast agreements and then, once the season started, embarked on a 54-game road trip. This epic jaunt was necessitated by MGM Park’s construction schedule, as the facility didn’t open until early June.

011Soon after parting ways with Chris, I parted ways with MGM Park. All that was left to do was make one last stab at my nightly groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke.

I spent two nights in Biloxi, enduring a rain delay on the first and a rainout on the second. Furthermore, two of the three times I visited Huntsville had resulted in a rainout as well. None of this was lost on Buck, who, the next morning, held a brief ceremony naming the MGM Park tarp after me.

What an honor.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: The Shucking Begins in Biloxi

To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE! 

Remember last year when I visited Joe Davis Stadium, so that I could see a Huntsville Stars game during what would be their final season? The game got rained out and the whole visit turned out to be a whole lot of not much, but, still, it was a worthwhile endeavor. I’m glad I got the chance to say goodbye.

After the 2014 season, the Stars relocated to Biloxi, Mississippi and rechristened themselves with the bivalve curious moniker of Shuckers. The Shuckers play at MGM Park, a new ballpark located on land owned by MGM and overshadowed by the gambling conglomerate’s Beau Rivage hotel and casino. This would be where I spent my time on the evenings of July 29 and 30.

The above paragraph oversimplified the circumstances of the Shuckers’ 2015 season, as their relocation from Huntsville was anything but smooth. I’ve written about these circumstances ad nauseum, most recently for a piece that ran late last month on MiLB.com:

During the first half of the 2015 Southern League season, no team posted a better home record than the Biloxi Shuckers‘ mark of 22-13. This was more than a little improbable, given that the Shuckers didn’t play a game in Biloxi until June 6.

Up until that point, the Shuckers, Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, had played 55 games in locales other than Biloxi. Their “home” games, such as they were, took place in the visiting teams’ ballparks as well as the franchise’s former abode of Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Alabama.

But on June 6, that all changed, and it changed in a big way. After myriad budgetary negotiations and corresponding construction delays, MGM Park opened its doors to a crowd of just over 5,000 fans. This marked the first time in some 107 years that Biloxi had hosted a Minor League Baseball team, a void that had persisted since the Biloxi-Gulfport Sand Crabs played their one and only season in 1908.

MGM Park, while open for business, is not a finished product. For proof of this assertion, please view this curated collection of short video images.

Only one entrance to the stadium is currently functional, and much of the exterior perimeter is surrounded by dirt, barricades and divers and sundry construction vehicles. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Don Quixote lately and have been looking for an excuse to incorporate “divers and sundry” into a blog post. It’s just an archaic, and therefore pretentious, way to say “various.”)

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This soon-to-be entrance is located directly behind and below the batter’s eye.

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Finally, (the royal) we arrive at the main entrance. The stairs lead up and onto the left field side of the concourse.

007While I was admiring this impressive elevation into a new baseball reality, I ran into former Mobile BayBears assistant general manager Mike Callahan. He was accompanied by his daughter, Brittany, who writes the “Talk Baseball to Me” blog (click HERE to read her interview with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner). Photos were taken, social media was utilized.

I would have loved to join the Callahans for a pre-game daiquiri, as this seemed like a fitting prelude to a ballgame in Biloxi (daiquiri bars are numerous in the city).  But I’m a professional (I kept telling myself), and must forgo tropical drinks until after (or maybe during) the ballgame. Therefore, I entered MGM Park in a state of pristine sobriety and it was in this state that I met the one and only Buck Rogers.

036Buck’s the general manager of the Shuckers, which is the same position he held with the Huntsville Stars. In the above photo he’s wearing his tarp clothes (including a Stars shirt), as it had rained earlier in the afternoon and the forecast was less-than-ideal going forward. Of course, the inclement weather was my fault because it always is. Even the radio guys are piling on now.

Buck expressed optimism that the show would go on.

“There are eight inches of sand underneath, this is the best-draining field I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s a real-life lifesaver.”

But at the moment in which I met Buck, the skies were clear and drainage an abstract concern. We immediately proceeded on what he dubbed the “nickel tour” of the ballpark, presumably named as such because it appeals to the “five cents-es.” We began in the murky depths of the facility, where the rubberized flooring hasn’t yet been permanently installed.

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It’s all a work in progress.

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A service road wraps around the ballpark, which, of course, is highly beneficial from an operational standpoint. Buck pointed out that the three trailers located at the end of the road are currently used as fireworks transportation devices.

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“We load ’em up, hook ’em together, put ’em on a tractor, bring ’em out to the field and start shooting fireworks right from the field. It just has to work,” said Buck.

And work, it (usually) does.

An unfortunate necessity of ballpark construction was the removal of 19 live oak trees from the property (though many were rotting and diseased). But survivors remain.

016 For a while there, the tour was a blur of corridors and doors. Behind one door I discovered this trio of game ball mud rubbers.

020I was gonna tell you dumbbells the name of this room immediately, but then decided to make you weight for it.

021Sorry about that. I’ll present this picture sands joke.

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The area seen above is the domain of groundskeeper Jamie Hill, a one-time Stars groundskeeper who Buck persuaded to make the move to Biloxi. Buck called Hill the “Sodfather” as well as “the Duke of Dirt.”

“I’ve got an All-Star staff,” said Buck. “I just stay out of the way.”

Rushed construction sometimes results in interesting bloopers, such as this: A foul pole installed in front of the wall.

026“I don’t think they understood that we wanted the pole behind the wall,” said Buck. “We said, ‘Just leave it, we’ll pad it, and we’ll make the other one the same way.”

But, hey, there are no bloopers to be seen in this direction. Only a beautiful baseball field, enveloped in a grandstand’s warm embrace.

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We then moved on to the upper level, where netting had to be installed in some places as a means to protect cars driving by on interstate 110. (Or was that 90? The ballpark is flanked by these two major roads.)

“The net wasn’t originally in the plans, but the interstate is right by and so that cost an additional $25,000,” said Buck, before resorting to tautology. “It is what it is.”

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This building, located across from the stadium, is the horticultural office of the Beau Rivage. Once construction is complete, the denizens of this office will also be responsible for beautifying the perimeter of the stadium.

031There are plans for a lot more development in the area surrounding the stadium, much of which will be overseen by Shuckers co-owner Tim Bennett.

“This is the way back from Katrina, 10 years later,” said Buck. “There are so many kinds of people here — Yugoslavian, Slovenian, Vietnamese — and they’re as hard-working and honest as the day is long. I’m proud to be a part of this community.”

Moving indoors, this is the Mercedes Benz Club. It fits over 100 people and is available to rent on a year-round basis.

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Benz Biz Blog

Bon Voyage, Benz. Bonjour, Beau Rivage.

033The concourse is wide, clean and monochromatic.

034Game time was approaching, which meant that it was time for me to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I threw out the first first pitch, more accurately. The headliner was Bello Nock, the world’s greatest daredevil clown and a regular performer at the Beau Rivage.

037My first pitch was kinda forgettable, in that I genuinely can’t remember how it turned out. I probably bounced it, and am now blocking out the memory.

039Of course, Bello’s first pitch was far more theatrical. His appearance on the mound was preceded by a videoboard presentation of one of his most memorable stunts, in which he hangs from a helicopter with only one foot. Bello then hammed it up on the mound for a bit, before throwing a perfect strike.

041It was fitting that a daredevil was in attendance on this evening, as Bello’s presence served as a fortuitous throwback to the first time I visited the Huntsville Stars. The year was 2009, the stadium was Joe Davis, the general manager was Buck Rogers. Following a rainout, sword swallower Dan Meyer still went ahead and performed for a crowd of about a dozen people. This performance was capped by Buck and bullwhip.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stay tuned for much more from my evening(s) with the Shuckers.

 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Jackson Generals, August 3, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 3, 2015:  The Ballpark at Jackson, home of the Jackson Generals

Opponent: Chattanooga Lookouts, 7:05 p.m. game time.

The Ballpark at Jackson, from the outside: 

003The Ballpark at Jackson, from within: 

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Culinary Creation: Sarge’s Late Night Snack (1/4 pound burger topped with barbecue pork, bacon, Philly steak, white queso, onion, lettuce, tomato and pickle).

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Ballpark Characters: Sarge and security guard Jimmy Barnes, preparing to drive out onto the field before the game.

015 At Random: Pac-Man, four children and a blue ghost walk past the visitor’s bullpen.

038Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Next Up: 

Desultory Wandering: 8/4

Nashville Sounds: 8/5

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Mississippi Braves, August 2, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

August 2, 2015: Trustmark Park, home of the Mississippi Braves 

Opponent: Montgomery Biscuits, 5:00 p.m. game time.

Trustmark Park, from the outside: 

003Trustmark Park, from within: 

021Culinary Creation: Uh, here’s a hot dog with mustard. What more do you want?

038Ballpark Character: Me. Why not? This was taken on the concourse, via an iSnap photo booth.
isnap1At Random: It’s been a while, so here’s a #Cupdate:

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Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: 

Next Up: 

Jackson Generals: 8/3

Nashville Sounds: 8/5

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Richmond Flying Squirrels, June 25, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us! 

June 25, 2015: The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants)

Opponent: Trenton Thunder, 6:35 p.m. scheduled game time. Start delayed by rain for one hour and 19 minutes.

The Diamond, from the outside: 

002The Diamond, from within: 

014Culinary Creation: Boss Hog (pork roll, fried egg, pepperoni and American cheese on a pretzel bun)

043At Random: It was “The Many Faces of Robin Williams Night,” complete with Jumanji jersey

Ballpark Character: On-field emcee Murph, in full Peter Pan regalia

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Your Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark Joke of the Day: This, clearly, was a rain-shortened game

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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About Last Night: Jacksonville Suns, April 18, 2015

This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing a short, on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon returning to New York City’s comforting embrace, I will provide the unimpeachable blog coverage that you have come to know and love. So let’s get to it, lest it get to us!

April 18, 2015 — Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville (Bragan Field), home of the Jacksonville Suns (Double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins)

Opponent: Montgomery Biscuits, 8:47 p.m. ET start time (after a rain delay of one hour and 42 minutes)

Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, from the outside: 

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The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, from within: 

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Culinary Delight: Salt and Vinegar Pork Rinds and Sweet Tea, from third party ballpark vendor Front Porch Kettle Corn:

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Waiting for the Punch-Vine (my nightly attempt at telling an “original” ballpark joke in six seconds):

Does this count as a joke?

At Random: Suns owner Peter “Pedro” Bragan Jr. in his office

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Last Song Played Over the PA: Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”

Next Up: I AM HOME. Click HERE to see all of my 2015 trip itineraries.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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The Southern League Hall of Fame: How I Voted (Now Updated with Election Results)

(Note: On March 4th, the Southern League announced its 2015 Hall of Fame inductees. This post is therefore now updated to include not just my selections, but the actual voting results as well.)  

For the most recent edition of “Minoring in Business,” I wrote about establishing Halls of Fame in the Minor Leagues and the tricky issues that that endeavor raises. The piece begins thusly:

Minor League Hall of Fame.

To some, this is an inherently contradictory concept. How can there be a Hall of Fame for individuals who competed within a professional baseball realm that, by its very definition, exists only as a proving ground and launching pad for greater accomplishment?….How does one establish the criteria for a Minor League Hall of Famer? What is the voting and induction process? And will this Hall of Fame occupy a physical space or simply exist within a virtual realm?

I then attempted to justify the reasoning that has led 11 leagues across Minor League Baseball to establish a Hall of Fame, using the Southern League as an example.

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Why the Southern League? For one, this Double-A circuit is the most recent Minor League to have established a Hall of Fame, having done so in 2014 as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. And, not insignificantly, they had asked me, earlier in the week, to be one of 31 voters on their 2015 Hall of Fame class. This marks the first year that the Southern League has factored outside voting into the equation, as in 2014 they simply allowed each of the 10 teams in the league to choose their inaugural inductee. This year, each team has submitted multiple nominees. The process, per Southern League Hall of Fame Committee head Jason Compton:

As you know, the SL HOF is in its infancy and is still very much a work in progress.  During our December, 2014 Hall of Fame Committee Meeting, it was decided that we would allow one (1) inductee from each organization in the 2015 class.  So, you are to vote for one (1) nominee from each organization.  

As a voter, I thought it would be fun and educational (my two favorite activity qualifiers) to share the ballot with you and explain the reasoning behind my choices. I may not be a BBWAA member, but BBWAA nonetheless is an apt acronym for how I hope you feel about me: Ben’s Biz Writes Awesome Articles.

And now, to the ballot! If you have any critiques or criticisms of my reasoning, then please let them be known. In true Hall of Fame fashion, let’s make this as contentious as possible.

Team: Biloxi Shuckers (choosing on behalf of their previous iteration, the Huntsville Stars)

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Nominees: Scott Brosius (player, 1989-90), Rocky Coyle (1985-1986), Jimmy Jones (1987-88)

My Pick: Jimmy Jones

Why: This slate of choices is indicative of the murky criteria that surrounds virtually all Minor League Hall of Fame elections. Should priority go to future Major League stars or those who made the most impact in the Minor League cities in question? I may not vote consistently as regards this conundrum. My preference, on the whole, is to go with those in the latter category, especially when the future Major League standout (in this case, Brosius) is not of superstar caliber and/or did not accomplish anything spectacular in the Minor League city in question.

Per the “supporting information” PDF that was included with my ballot, Rocky Coyle played two seasons with the Stars and was named “Star of the Decade” at the conclusion of the team’s first 10 seasons as a result of his community-friendly approach. I went with Jones, however, despite his negligible impact on the playing field. Upon retiring as a player, Jones remained in Huntsville and became a team and community fixture. Per the supporting information:

“Never asking for anything in return, Jimmy has taken the road from the Minor League Baseball player to the consummate supporter of everything happening at the ballpark. Our experience with Jimmy has gone way past player, season ticket holder, or friend of the team…he’s essentially become a family member that the team can’t live without.”

2015 Inductee: Scott Brosius

Team: Birmingham Barons

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Nominees: Rollie Fingers (1967-68, Birmingham A’s), Frank Thomas (1990)

My Pick: Frank Thomas

Why: Okay, so now the choice is simply between two big league Hall of Famers who passed through Birmingham en route to superstardom. So what criteria should I apply here? The strength of the numbers that they put up in Birmingham? Whom I feel had the most impressive career overall? I went with Thomas, simply because he was extraordinary as a member of the 1990 Barons (Baseball America 1990 Player of the Year, including an unreal .487 OBP). His time with the club was more indicative of future success than Fingers, who was primarily a starter throughout his two seasons in Birmingham.

2015 Inductees: The voting ended in a tie, so both Fingers and Thomas are going to go in. Here’s hoping that this results in a dual bobblehead promotion.

Team: Chattanooga Lookouts

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Nominee: Trevor Hoffman (1991-92)

My Pick: Trevor Hoffman

Why: They didn’t leave me a choice! I’ve got nothing against Trevor Hoffman, but, c’mon Chattanooga. Up your nominating game.

2015 Inductee: Trevor Hoffman (shocker, I know)

Team: Jackson Generals (nominating on behalf of their previous iteration, the Memphis Chicks)

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Nominees: Charlie Lea (1978-80, Memphis Chicks), Razor Shines (1981-83, Memphis Chicks)

My Pick: Charlie Lea

Why: Both Lea and Shines played three seasons in Memphis, and both put up generally solid if generally unspectacular numbers. Shines has gone on to manage in the Southern League (he spent 2014 looking out for the Lookouts), but he made his biggest impact as a player with Triple-A Indianapolis and not the Double-A Memphis Chicks.

Lea, however, was a Memphis icon. He grew up in the city, went to college there, and later broadcast games for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds (he passed away in 2011 at the age of 54). And while it’s a very small sample size, his 1980 season with the Chicks was a thing of beauty: Nine starts, nine wins, seven complete games, three shutouts, and an ERA of 0.84. That effort earned him a promotion to the Montreal Expos, for whom he would pitch seven seasons.

2015 Nominee: Razor Shines

Team: Jacksonville Suns

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Nominees: Randy Johnson (1987 Jacksonville Expos), Gabe Kapler (1998), Larry Walker (1987 Jacksonville Expos)

My Pick: Randy Johnson

Why: In this case, we have three recognizable names, each of whom played one season with the Suns. Kapler’s 1998 season in Jacksonville was truly spectacular (28 home runs, 146 RBIs, .976 OPS) and Walker was a force to be reckoned with as well (26 homers, 83 RBIs, .917 OPS). Both men were better during during their one season in Jacksonville than was Johnson. The future pigeon killer was solid (11-8, 3.73 ERA) but predictably wild (128 walks in 140 innings) during the 1987 campaign. Still, I went with Johnson because, well, it’s Randy Johnson. The Big Unit is set to be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer; why not now take the opportunity to immortalize him in the Southern League as well?

2015 Inductee: Randy Johnson

Team: Mississippi Braves (nominating on behalf of previous iteration the Greenville Braves)

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Nominees: Steve DeSalvo (executive, 1987-2004 Greenville Braves,  2005-present Mississippi Braves), Tom Glavine (1986 Greenville Braves), Chipper Jones (1992 Greenville Braves)

My Pick: Chipper Jones

Why: DeSalvo has a very distinguished track record as a Southern League executive, and there’s no doubt that he will one day be enshrined in the league’s Hall of Fame. But the Southern League Hall of Fame is a new creation, and in the early going it’s probably better to induct candidates who have a little more sex appeal (with all due respect to Mr. DeSalvo’s sex appeal). I went with Jones over Glavine because, as the first pick of the 1990 draft, he came into the Southern League with high expectations and proceeded to meet them and then some. He hit .346 with Greenville over 67 games, compiling a .961 OPS in the process. That 1992 squad went on to win 100 games, a very rare feat in Minor League Baseball.

2015 Inductee: Chipper Jones

Team: Mobile BayBears

Mobile_BayBears

Nominees: Tony LaRussa (player, Mobile A’s 1965-67), Turner Ward (manager, 2011-12)

My Pick: Turner Ward

Why:  Tony LaRussa is known as a manager, not a player, so I did not want to select him for enshrinement in that capacity. That leaves Ward, who, yes, is better known as a player (he played in the Major Leagues for 12 seasons). But Ward has genuine Southern League managerial bonafides, as he piloted the BayBears to back-to-back championships in 2011-12. That 2012 team finished with a losing record, but no matter. A championship’s a championship.

2015 Inductee: Turner Ward

Team: Montgomery Biscuits

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Nominees: Steve Grilli (1972-73 Montgomery Rebels), Gabriel Martinez (2003, 2005-09), Lou Whittaker (1977 Montgomery Rebels)

My Pick: Lou Whitaker

Why: Kudos to Montgomery for nominating such a diverse group of candidates, as here we have a pitcher for two championship teams (Grilli), a 21st century mainstay (Gabriel Martinez) and a bonafide star (Lou Whitaker). One could make a case for any of them, I think, but I went with Whitaker primarily because, last season, Alan Trammel was selected for the Southern League’s inaugural Hall of Fame class. It only seems fitting that his long-time double play partner should now join him. (Whitaker and Trammel were Montgomery teammates in 1977, marking the first of 19 seasons in which they played together).

2015 Inductee: Lou Whitaker

Team: Pensacola Blue Wahoos (nominating on behalf of previous iteration the Carolina Mudcats)

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Nominees: Trent Jewett (manager, 1995), Jason Kendall (1994-95), Tony Womack (1993, 1995)

My Pick: Jason Kendall

Why: In choosing these nominees, the Blue Wahoos clearly had notable alumni of their 1995 champion Mudcats squad on the brain. Jewett was the manager, and future Pirates standouts Kendall and Womack were key components. This was a tough choice and, honestly, none of them jumped out at me. I went with Kendall because his 1995 season was truly impressive, as he hit .326 and struck out just 22 times in 429 at-bats.

2015 Inductee: Jason Kendall

Team: Tennessee Smokies (nominating on behalf of previous iterations the Knoxville Smokies and Knoxville Sox)

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Nominees: Chris Carpenter (Knoxville Smokies, 1995-96), Carlos Delgado (1993 Knoxville Smokies), Tony LaRussa (manager, 1978 Knoxville Sox)

My Pick: Tony LaRussa

Why: I couldn’t get behind Mobile’s nomination of LaRussa as a player, but as a manager? No problem. LaRussa made his managerial debut with the 1978 Knoxville Sox, leading them to an 88-56 record. He then joined the Chicago White Sox coaching staff at the end of the season, and in 1979 was named manager of the White Sox. The rest, as they say, is history. Carpenter and Delgado are solid nominations as well, and I imagine that as the years go on they, too, will be inducted into the Southern League Hall of Fame.

2015 Inductee: Carlos Delgado

So there you have it: the logic (or lack thereof) behind my Southern League Hall of Fame ballot. I find this to be an interesting, if not somewhat absurd, process, and enjoyed putting this together. So what are your thoughts? Who would YOU have voted for, and why? Let me know, in the comments section, on Twitter, or send me an email. I’d like to hear from you.

Final Analysis, now that the inductees have been announced: Seven of the 10 players I chose were inducted. The overall preference among the voters was to prioritize the biggest names, in that regard there are no true “upsets” to be found. It is worth noting that Tony LaRussa went 0-for-2 on the ballot, failing to receive induction as both player and manager.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Shuckin’ with Buck in Biloxi

On Monday evening, Biloxi’s new Southern League franchise announced that it will go by the name of “Shuckers.” This is nothing to do with an action that is often performed in tandem with jivin’; rather it is an homage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast city’s thriving seafood industry. Oysters, which must be shucked by, yes, shuckers, are a big part of this industry.

main logo biloxi

My MiLB.com story on the new name was published on Monday evening, in conjunction with the team’s official announcement. The story includes a cornucopia of quotes from Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers, who held the same position in the team’s previous home of Huntsville, Alabama.

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

Buck Rogers file photo, circa 2010

If you’ve ever spoken with Buck, you know that he’s never at a loss for words. In fact, I would go so far as to dub him “the most loquacious dude in the industry.” This was certainly the case when I spoke with him for my MiLB.com story. In fact, I ended up with a veritable novella’s worth of surplus verbiage. Being a conservationist at heart, I figured that I’d now share some of this surplus with you, the presumably interested and undeniably attractive reader.

On capitalizing on the Shuckers’ name:

Milwaukee, our parent club, has the sausage race. In Huntsville we did a superhero race. Here in Biloxi, we can do a seafood race. The sky’s the limit! (Note: Buck said “the sky’s the limit” a half-dozen times during our conversation.)

Maybe we can call up Smuckers — get a mascot that’s a jar of strawberry jam. The sky’s the limit….I guarantee you, if we take our staff to a beachside bar, get a pizza and some barley sodas and start brainstorming, we’ll come up with a big list of ideas.

I’d love to get Blue Oyster Cult out here to play a post-game concert. They’re my favorite rock band of all time.

On the potential negative of naming the team “Shuckers”:

You can take any name and turn it into something perverse. This is a local name with a local logo, and it’s reflective of the Gulf Coast. We didn’t have Willie-Off-the-Pickleboat design this. It’s professionally done, and we’re really proud of it. This whole thing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. New team, new name, new stadium. Everything’s brand new. This is Christmas, New Year’s, Mardi Gras and your birthday all rolled into one.

biloxi cap 2

On the Shuckers’ ownership group, which is headed by Ovations Food Services president Ken Young (whose portfolio also includes the Albuquerque Isotopes and Norfolk Tides):

This isn’t their first rodeo. We’ve had members of the Albuquerque staff out here, and they’ve helped tremendously. It’s been a great team effort. Ken owns Ovations, so you know the food here is going to be first class. We had Ovations when I was working in Brevard County [Buck was GM of the Manatees] and I’m happy to be back in that family. We have to think that the sky’s the limit. I’m not gonna tell them “Serve this, serve that.” They know what they’re doing. I expect shrimp po’ boys, oysters, all that kind of stuff. The concession stands will reflect the flavor of the Gulf Coast.

On keeping the Shuckers name a secret: 

The Albuquerque staff took the lead on ordering the merchandise. Thank God, because we’ve had so much to do. So a lot of the merchandise was shipped there first, because we didn’t want a box showing up here that said “Shuckers” on it. But we worked really hard to keep the name off of any boxes or labels; we needed the whole thing kept under wraps. All you want to do is reward the locals. If you reveal the name, then you took the prize away, you took the present away. It’s like showing a kid his Christmas presents two days early. You took the joy away. We’ve had people from all over trying to find out the name. I just told everyone “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Lie, deny and counter-accuse. It’s the military way. [Buck is a former airborne infantryman, who took part in the 1989 mission to apprehend Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.]

bilxoi cap 4

On the perks of operating in Biloxi: 

We’re right across from the beach, and the team hotel is 100 steps away. We’ve got night life, gambling, clubs, concerts, shows and everything else. This is a good destination. Teams are going to like coming here. We’re going to have the best home record in the league, because the guys on the visiting team, they’ll all have sunburn and will be tired from having spent the night at the casinos.

bilxi cap 3

So what do you think of the “Shuckers” name? Your feedback is always welcome, via whichever medium you might choose to deliver it.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Lonely Weekday Matinee in Chattanooga

I have now visited AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, on two occasions. On neither of those occasions did I see an actual Southern League baseball game. The first such occasion was in 2010, as a torrential downpour began just before game time and resulted in a rainout. I was still at the ballpark long enough to get a blog post out of it, which you can peruse HERE.

I visited AT&T Field again earlier this month, and this time there wasn’t even a hint of a game. The Lookouts had completed a homestand the day before, but — hey! — when in Rome. Why not stop in and say hello?

AT&T Field, which opened in 2000, is located in downtown Chattanooga. I parked my rented Volkswagen Bug on Chestnut Street, safeguarded all valuables, exited the car, began walking, and, soon enough, made a quick left on “Power Alley.” (This is a common feature of modern day Minor League ballparks, in that they are located on streets that have been re-christened with a baseball-themed name. This can wreak havoc if you are getting to the ballpark via GPS, which may not have been programmed to recognize “Home Run Drive” or “Fastboulevard” or “Respect the Game Lane” or what have you.)

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Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.

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Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.

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Somewhat mysteriously, this trolley was idling in the parking lot unattended with its doors open. While I did not commandeer it for my own usage, I did hop aboard and take this world-exclusive picture of the interior.

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Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.

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As for the stadium itself, it’s a solid if unspectacular turn-of-the-century model. It’s efficient, reliable, and looks pretty good, but if it was hanging out with other Minor League ballparks at a Minor League ballpark social function it would blend in with the crowd pretty easily.

004Once inside the ballpark, I met up with Dan Kopf (media relations manager) and Alex Tainsh (corporate sales). They insisted on being referred to as “esteemed tour guides.” Kopf is the guy on the right and, for the record, “Kopf and Tainsh” would be a good name for a basic cable show about crusading maverick lawyers.

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It was a pretty sleepy afternoon at the ballpark, given that the Lookouts had concluded a homestand the day before. I was poking around for something to write about (as in, for an MiLB.com article), but that’s tough to do when very few people are around and not much is going on. However! My esteemed tour guides said that, should I ever actually do my job properly and see an actual Lookouts game, Wanda Goins would be a good person to write about.

Wanda is a veteran program vendor, so well known that on the rare occasions in which she cannot attend the team plays a recording of her. And, like any Minor League celebrity worth her salt, she has been the recipient of her own bobblehead. (Which reminds me, when am I going to be honored with my own bobblehead?)

Anyhow, if you want a Wanda Goins bobblehead (and cd!), it can be currently be had for the (not-so-low) price of $75 on eBay. 

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But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.

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As you’ll see in the picture below, AT&T Field lacks an open concourse. For all I know, it may have been the last Minor League stadium to have been built without this feature (prove me wrong, readers. You always do.) In looking around for more info, I came across this Ballpark Digest tidbit about how the stadium was funded:

Frank Burke bought the Lookouts in the mid nineties but felt the team had to have a new stadium to stay in Chattanooga. In the fall of 1998, Burke announced that he and his ownership group would build a privately funded ballpark if the team could sell 1,800 season tickets. The 1800th ticket was sold on January 28, and construction of the park started in late March 1999. The Lookouts ended up selling over 2,200 season tickets.

Is that the only MiLB stadium to have been funded in such a manner? The only other completely privately-funded stadium I can think of, at least within the past two decades, is the West Michigan Whitecaps’ home of Fifth Third Ballpark. (Note: I have since been informed that the Lexington Legends privately funded their ballpark in 2001.)

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Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that there used to be a cannon positioned in the outfield, which would make loud exploding noises after home runs. However, the shells for this cannon are no longer commercially available. (I blame Obama.) There is a home run choo-choo train, however.

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It hasn’t happened yet, but any Lookout batsman with the wherewithal to blast a ball through the crook of this angled dirt-scoop receives  a cool $500.

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My esteemed tour guides told me that this block of outfield seats did not have a name. I was surprised they weren’t called “The Lookout Seats” or “Lookout Landing” or something like that.

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There is a “Lasorda’s Landing,” however. Tommy doesn’t have any deep personal connections to Chattanooga, but the Lookouts are a Dodgers affiliate so there you go.

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And, well, that’s all I’ve got. Upon bidding adieu to my esteemed tour guides I trekked back down the hill to Chestnut Street, and noticed that there is a movie theater right there on the corner. Minor League Baseball teams are in a mortal war with movie theaters! Both want to procure as large a portion of your “family-friendly entertainment” expenditures as possible, and there’s only so much to go around.

IMG_1489I have now written two posts about this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, and neither have taken place during an actual game. Third time’s the charm?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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