Results tagged ‘ Southern League ’
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
So what do you think of the “Shuckers” name? Your feedback is always welcome, via whichever medium you might choose to deliver it.
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.)
Located on an incline, AT&T Field is the only Minor League ballpark (that I am aware of) which has its own outdoor escalator.
Fans disinclined to walk on an incline can also opt to take the team trolley, which runs from various downtown parking lots.
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.
Also in the parking lot was this vintage vehicle, although I’m not sure if it’s in working condition.
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.
Once 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.
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.
But Wanda was nowhere to be seen on this weekday afternoon, and neither was anyone else.
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.)
Some post-homestand turf maintenance had resulted in a pleasingly thick blanket of grass on the warning track.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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.)
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.