Results tagged ‘ Southern Swing 2013 ’

Return to the Road: Restricted Diets, Restricted Access, and the Godfather of Soul

One more time, with feeling!

In other words, it’s time for November’s third and final “Return to the Road” installment, in which I highlight that which was experienced above and beyond the ballpark during my road trip travels.  The first post covered May 8 and 9th in Bowling Green and Nashville, and part two involved the events of May 10th and 11th in Nashville, the Smoky Mountains, and Asheville. Which brings us to, yes, May 12th.

I woke up early in Asheville on this fine Sunday morning, after attending a Tourists game the night before that was eventually covered HERE, HERE, and HERE. (Thirsty Thursday origin story!)  I woke up so early, in fact, that I forgot to do the obligatory road trip hotel room review and thus had to improvise.

The inability to “Sleep Inn” was because my next destination, Savannah, GA, was over four hours away and I was scheduled to attend a Sand Gnats Mother’s Day matinee at Grayson Stadium that began at 2 o’clock. The only documentation that I possess of this journey is this rather underwhelming photo of Talmadge Memorial Bridge.

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Underwhelming photo, perhaps, but the bridge is anything but. Named after Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, it connects downtown Savannah with Hutchinson Island and spans a distance of two miles. The Talmadge is  imposing and picturesque, and it makes one’s entryway into Savannah proper a truly memorable experience. It astounds me, however, that what is surely the most iconic structure in a city with a majority black population is named after a politician who viciously and unapologetically espoused racial hatred and exploited racial tensions.

There’s really no way to smoothly segue from the above sentence, so I’m not even going to try. I crossed the bridge, attended the Sand Gnats game (read all about it HERE! And HERE!), and after the game found myself in a bit of a quandary in that was early evening on Mother’s Day — not exactly the best time for a  traveling gluten-free Minor League Baseball writer to do a bit of exploring and socializing. Savannah’s waterfront downtown area was packed, and I simply drove along the cobblestone streets at about one mile an hour with absolutely no idea regarding what it was that I was looking to accomplish. I snaped a few underwhelming photos out of the driver’s side window and then got out of Dodge as quickly as I could.

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My lack of a plan and general feelings of alienation from the scene around me put me in a grumpy frame of mind.

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So I did what I always do in these situations: went to a diner, ordered steak and eggs, and then brought a stash of pork cracklins and Mello Yello back to my hotel room to serve as writing fuel. It was a beautiful night.

But frustration continued to follow me the next day, eventually catching up with me somewhere between Savannah and my next destination of Augusta. My problem was that it was lunch time and in the breaded and fried deep South it can be difficult to stay true to the gluten-free diet that a battery of medical professionals have insisted that I follow.

I was hungry and not seeing many viable options along whatever lonely stretch of road that I was on,  so when I spotted a sign advertising one “Bay South” restaurant I figured I may as well roll the dice and give it a try.  At the very least I’d be supporting a humble local business as opposed to a monolithic chain entity doing its part to further exacerbate America’s descent into corporatized homogeneity, and that’s half the battle right there.

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The restaurant didn’t have a menu, just a small board listing the day’s specials. I was hungry, and as a stranger in a strange land I was feeling a little self-conscious and didn’t really want to give the waitress a spiel regarding my dietary needs. I simply ordered the pork chop special with field peas and stewed tomatoes and hoped for the best. This is the platter that soon arrived:

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Don’t get me wrong — that’s a good looking plate of food, and in my pre-gluten free days I would have devoured it without a second thought. But that pork chop was heavily breaded, the peas were in a thick sauce that likely used flour as a thickener, and bread crumbs were mixed in with the tomatoes. The piece de resistance in this fete de gluten was the cornbread, which is to the South what pickles are to a Jewish deli.

“I made my bed, now I’ve got to lie in it,” was the thought that went through my head, so I went ahead and ate the whole plate of food. And, no surprise, it was delicious. I experienced no side effects from this major diet deviation, as I am an asymptomatic (or “silent”) celiac. It’s weird — in a way I almost wish I had symptoms, because the debilitating short-term side effects of eating gluten would serve as a safeguard against the long-term bodily damage that occurs as a result of “cheating” episodes along the lines of that detailed above (which I really don’t do very often at all).

But enough gnashing of teeth, as tautologically speaking celiac disease simply is what it is. I’m just trying to articulate the tortured mental gymnastics that accompany most restaurant meals these days, as these minor setbacks within a life of immense privilege really take a lot out of a guy!

And speaking of immense privilege, the next stop on my itinerary was none other than this esteemed locale.

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I arrived at this legendary expanse of greenery  with one Chad Walters, an Augusta resident and founder of Lean Blitz Consulting (who served as Designated Eater at that night’s GreenJackets game). Chad kindly spotted me a set of clubs, and I strode toward the entrance gate all like “Oh, no big deal, I’m here every day.”

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I’ve actually never played golf in my life, and in one of the most predictable outcomes of all time I was turned away by a guard who denied Chad’s requests to take a picture. Whatever lurked beyond this road way was going to remain a mystery.

013 I sat dejectedly by the curb for the next 110 minutes, thinking about how this had been the first day of my life that had included both celiac disease snafus and country club exclusion.

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Desultory contemplation complete, this Augusta excursion ended with a walk down the surprisingly pedestrian (but not pedestrian friendly) pathway that separates Augusta from the strip mall homogeneity that surrounds it.

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Fortunately, Chad had one more Augusta landmark to show me and this one was far more accessible. We drove into downtown proper and, after taking advantage of the ample parking opportunities, made our way to this location.

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Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul! Presiding over all that he sees!

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Brown was not an Augusta native, but he did spend his formative years here. Per the plaque that resides at the base of the structure, Brown “has called Augusta ‘home’ since moving here when he was five. It was in Augusta’s Lenox Theatre that he first received recognition for his talent by winning an amateur contest.”

Perhaps the James Brown’s of tomorrow are honing their chops at downtown Savannah’s I-3000 Club, although the focus there seemed to be more on adult entertainment.

025At the very least, one can obtain some James Brown recordings at nearby Pyramid Music.

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After that it was goodbye downtown Augusta and hello GreenJackets. (I wrote about that ballgame HERE and HERE, as I am wont to do.) The next day it was on to Birmingham,  where I closed out this trip by attending two games at the Barons’ new home of Regions Field. (Check it out, if you are wont to do such a thing.)  My time in Birmingham yielded two blog posts and two MiLB.com features, virtually exhausting all of my Dream City content, so all that I have left to share is this: before leaving for the airport, I stopped for a meal at the Birmingham BBQ institution that is Dreamland BBQ. 

I patronized the 14th Avenue South location, which is located in a rather residential area.

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The majority of the patrons on this Tuesday afternoon were sitting in the booths…

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but given my lonely traveler status I opted for a seat at the bar and promptly ordered a half slab of ribs. They were delectable (and gluten-free).

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During the meal I made small talk with the bartender, who turned out to be the younger brother of outfielder Josh Phelps (now retired). This minor but nonetheless interesting baseball-related happenstance marked the conclusion of this particular road trip, as from Dreamland I went straight to the airport. I am happy to report that the boiled peanuts made it home safely. 

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: A Tourist Within the Realm of the Tourists

Welcome to the second 2013 installment of “Return to the Road,” in which I highlight that which was experienced above and beyond the ballparks during my road trip travels. Part one covered May 8 and 9 in Bowling Green and Nashville, and today’s post picks up in the early afternoon of Friday, May 10th. I had attended the previous night’s Sounds game at Nashville’s Greer Stadium — read about that HERE — and upon checking out of the hotel (complete with Road Trip Hotel Room Review #2) I made my way back to the area surrounding the ballpark.

My destination was Gabby’s Burgers, an unassuming but very well-regarded burger joint located the proverbial hop, skip, and jump away from Greer.

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The above photo was taken as I was leaving Gabby’s, but when I arrived there was a line that snaked all the way out of the door. It was hard to take pictures within such a cramped environment, but this more or less conveys what the scene was like inside.

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As many of you know, a celiac disease diagnosis has forced me to adapt to a gluten-free diet. Ultra-specific fast food establishments such as Gabby’s can sometimes be difficult to navigate, but I had been informed the previous evening that they did in fact offer a “jazz style” burger in which the bun was replaced with lettuce. Not ideal, perhaps, but perfectly acceptable! I ordered a “Seamus burger, jazz-style” and then snagged a seat at the counter. About 10 minutes later, this arrived.

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I’m writing this six months after the fact, so perhaps my adjectival command is not what it might have been, but I can say without equivocation that this burger was STUPENDOUS, easily one of the top three that I’ve ever had in my life. If you’re in Nashville, and especially if you’re in the vicinity of Greer Stadium, then you owe it to yourself to make a visit.

Greer Stadium’s iconic guitar scoreboard can be seen from the Gabby’s parking lot, and a record pressing plant (!) is located just down the street as well. Burgers, baseball, and vinyl — what more could you want from life? (Well, actually, I can immediately think of a few other things.) But all good things must come to an end, even if they come in threes, and soon enough I was off to Kodak (or would that be Sevierville?), home of the Tennessee Smokies. My journey was not without its miscues, as you may recall from my Smokies’ “On the Road” post:

I arrived at Smokies Park a bit later than I was aiming for, due to a GPS/common sense snafu in which I drove to a “Stadium Drive” in Knoxville instead of the one in Sevierville. It wasn’t until I made a turn onto “Peyton Manning Pass” that it occurred to me that I may have driven to the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium instead.

This, perhaps, was not my finest moment. But I was nonetheless in good spirits when I arrived at the Hampton Inn. You can see the ballpark from the stadium!

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I wrote all about my visit with the Smokies, HERE and HERE and HERE. The next morning I posted Road Trip Hotel Room Review #3, and then embarked upon the long and winding mountain drive to Asheville. Upon arriving I found myself with about two hours of free time, and I decided to make the most of it by doing what I do best: wandering the downtown area in search of independent record stores. In Asheville, a city that prides itself on its cultural eclecticism and general open-mindedness, it didn’t take long to find one.

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Static Age was a bit dungeon-esque, but it didn’t make me crabby. They had a bunch of Record Store Day stuff that had long become unavailable in New York City, and I was glad to snag Mercury Rev’s “Deserted Songs” as well as a free Sub Pop sampler (they also still had limited edition Bardo Pond and Mugstar releases and in my head I was like “Yo, Asheville heavy psych bros, you gotta get on that.”)

After leaving Static Age I soon came across Voltage Records.

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While combing through the stacks at Voltage, I looked up and saw a most familiar site. I had this poster hanging in my bedroom, circa 1996.

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Downtown Asheville was bustling on this Saturday afternoon, and despite what some of these pictures may convey it was truly a vibrant and spirited atmosphere.

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Downtown also boasts this iconic art deco beauty, the S & W Cafeteria.

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S & W was a chain restaurant that served inexpensive (but presumably delicious) Southern cooking. The Asheville location was open from 1929-74, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. For better or for worse, it is currently being renovated into condominiums.

Interior-wise, the most physically impressive establishment that I visited was the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. This multi-level book store is well organized and offers plenty of comfortable nooks and crannies to sit and drink coffee, wine, and yes, champagne. It’d be a great place to hang out for an hour or two, but, as is often the case on these trips, I just didn’t have the time. And, as is also so often the case, my pictures do not do it justice.

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Back outside and once again wandering about, I soon noticed that one of these things is indeed not like the other.

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I was not in the market for a red, white, and blue bandanna, but I was in the market to visit another bookstore. I always am. Here’s some interior shots of the plainly named and plainly awesome Downtown News.

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Perhaps the best thing about Downtown News was their exemplary (maga)zine selection.

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Arthur is currently my favorite magazine and if over the course of reading this blog you’ve found that your sensibilities are similar to mine then please take the time to check it out (I also copped that Mojo with Sabbath on the cover).

022I of course realize that there is far more to Asheville than its book and record stores, but given a limited amount of time that’s what I chose to focus on and I hope you were able to pick up on at least a little bit of what I was putting down.

I’ll end with a total non-sequitur, as I have one other photo in this particular road trip folder that is totally out of context. I imagine that this is something that I stumbled upon at a gas station somewhere between the Smoky Mountains and Asheville, but certainly it is not something that I have seen before or since. The object of this game was to use a joystick to control a pair of scissors that could then cut the string holding one of two prizes: a Nikon camera and a wad of money. I don’t remember operating this ridiculous contraption, but if I did I failed.

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And with that, I have no more outside-of-the-ballpark detritus to share from what were my third and fourth days of 2013′s “Southern Swing.” Thanks, as always, for sticking with me.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Return to the Road: Nashville, Bowling Green, and Points In-Between

With quasi-arbitrary personal and professional milestones firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s now time to move confidently into the future by dwelling in the past. In other words, it’s time to Return to the Road! Some of you may be familiar with the “Return to the Road” concept, but for those who aren’t:

Each season I go on several Minor League Baseball road trips, documenting the ballpark experience as thoroughly as I am able. But, of course, part of the beauty of this sort of road trip is that it gives gives one the opportunity to explore not just the ballpark but the city itself. And that’s simply what these posts are — an offseason opportunity for me to re-visit my 2013 road trips by highlighting that which was seen and experienced outside of the ballpark. (Even if it wasn’t much — I’m on a tight schedule!)

2013′s slate of peregrinations began with May’s Southern Swing trip, with stop #1 being in Bowling Green. I attended May 8′s Hot Rods game, and the next morning, after recording the first of what would become several dozen “Road Trip Hotel Room Reviews,” I was able to explore Bowling Green’s downtown area (located the proverbial “hop, skip, and a jump” away from the stadium). The focal point of downtown is “Fountain Square Park,” which is ripped straight out of Norman Rockwell’s America.

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Per the Bowling Green Convention and Visitor’s Bureau:

Restored facades of 19th-century buildings, a renovated Art Deco movie theater, thriving businesses and bustling professionals surround the park’s historic fountain, statues, flowers, shrubs, mature trees and benches. Once the site of prohibitionist marches, trolleys, livestock trades and scrap drives, today it is the host of summer concerts, parades, arts and crafts shows and many other festivals and events throughout the year.

Here’s what I saw on a sleepy afternoon in early May, beginning with the titular fountain:

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But not all of downtown Bowling Green was as genteel as the images seen above. Here’s Rocky’s Bar, located at 322 E. Main Street.

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Inebriates in the know know to order Gorilla’s Blood.

Unfortunately, that little spot of downtown wandering was about all that I had time for whilst in Bowling Green. I was listening to local country radio as I drove out of the city, and would you believe that Lee Greenwood was playing at the exact moment at which I passed the Greenwood Mall? It’s true. My notes also indicate that I heard George Strait and Alan Jackson’s “Murder on Music Row” as well, and that this song is “a much-needed corrective to condescending schlock.”

I can’t tell you where I was, exactly, but about an hour or so later I drove by this establishment and immediately did a u-turn so that I could photograph it. This, to me, is beauty incarnate:

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Of course, one of the best things about trips such as these is stopping at kitschy rest stops for gas/food/totally unnecessary and irredeemably tacky but nonetheless irresistible souvenirs.

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At Sad Sam’s, one is greeted by this statue. It is as vividly rendered as it is culturally insensitive.

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This guy is a behemoth!

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I limited myself to three items while at Sad Sam’s: An “anti-snoring” contraption consisting of a small clothespin in a wooden box (sadly not pictured), a can of boiled peanuts and the bizarrely wax-like peanut patty.

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Out in the parking lot of Sad Sam’s an older gentlemen with greased-hair and a pack of Pall Malls in his breast pocket struck up a conversation with me. He was curious as to whether I liked the Kia I was driving (my rental car), and when I replied that it was adequate but unremarkable he told me that he bought an “alien green” Kia for his wife.

“She likes it, but I’m a retired auto worker,” he told me. “If I drove it to our union meetings everyone would make fun of me.”

And with that, it was on to Nashville. En route to Greer Stadium, home of the Sounds, I was able to make a brief detour at Grimey’s. Behind this humble domestic facade lurks one of the best-regarded record stores in the city.

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I enjoyed browsing the stacks — both at Grimey’s and its next-door “Grimey’s Too” location — and ended up purchasing three new 7″ records (two of which were on Nashville’s Third Man record label), a couple of used LPs, and the awesome issue of Juxtapoz that was dedicated to the visual aesthetic of the Beastie Boys.  My notes also indicate that the Fiery Furnaces cover of “Single Again” was playing in the store and that I “should get that.”

Grimey’s Too:

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Grimey’s was very close to Greer Stadium, and my next stop was even closer: Fort Negley, a Union fortification built during the Civil War, is located adjacent to the ballpark.

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Greer Stadium is actually visible from the base of Fort Negley.

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I’m going to go out on a limb and declare this to be the only guitar-shaped scoreboard that is visible from a National Historic Landmark.

033I wandered about the fort for a half hour or so, but unfortunately these are the only photos that have survived my travails.

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And from there, it was off to the ballgame. As I noted at the time, the Sounds were expecting me.

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You can read all about my night with the Sounds by clicking HERE, but as for this particular post this is all I’ve got. I’ll close by noting that I have a pork cracklin addiction, and had to ration myself to one bag for every day that I was on this road trip. Nothing like pulling a blogging all-nighter in a hotel while eating a bag of Golden Flakes and drinking Mello-Yello!

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Thanks for “returning to the road” with me. Post #1001 is now complete.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Grinnin’ and Baronin’ It in Birmingham

Welcome back! When the previous post had concluded, a Southern League baseball game had just broken out at brand-new Regions Field in downtown Birmingham.

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With the game underway, it was time, of course, for a trip to the concession stand. You probably know the drill by now — my gluten-free diet prohibits me from enjoying most ballpark food items, so at each stadium I visit I recruit a “designated eater” who samples the cuisine instead. In Birmingham this individual was Abby Southerland, a University of Alabama graduate now in her second season as a media relations intern.

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Despite the fact that Abby was a team employee and I the world’s most talented, beloved and universally respected Minor League Baseball blogger, we were left to the wolves when it came to food procurement. The Barons hadn’t had much time to prepare after moving in to the new ballpark, and the lines at the concession stands were long and slow moving.

Like the Davies brothers waiting to use the treadmill, there were still some Kinks to work out.

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A new location of Alabama’s iconic Dreamland BBQ now exists in Regions Field’s outfield entertainment area, but it wasn’t yet open on the night I was in attendance. So Abby and I instead braved the line at Piper’s Pub and Grill, which, as a consolation prize, featured several items that incorporated Dreamland ingredients.

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We ended up with this array:

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Item Number One, on the far left, is the Magic City Dog (Magic City is Birmingham’s nickname, but you knew this). This item is comprised of a 1/4 pound smoked sausage, cole slaw, BBQ sauce, and spicy brown mustard.

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Abby gave it a go:

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Abby’s take: “The spiciness of the mustard gives it a kick, and the cole slaw gives it a real Southern feel. And then the sausage, that’s classic, so altogether this is a good ballpark food.”

Next up was the Dreamland BBQ Nachos:

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“You come to Birmingham, you want good Southern food, you go to Dreamland. That’s what people will tell you,” said Southerland, a Birmingham native. “This is a good finger food, one of those things you just have to try.”

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As for me? While people are often deeply sympathetic to my gluten-free circumstances, I’m always like ‘Nah, it ain’t that bad” and explain that there are always options. My attempt to consume a small orb of concourse luminescence turned out to unsuccessful…

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but I had no problem with this pickle. More teams should sell pickles!

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New online dating profile pic

It took a while for me to get the pickle out of my mouth, but once I did I looked up and realized that a dual no-hitter was going on.

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The first hit of the game occurred almost immediately after I took the picture. That’s how these things work.

But anyway, with the concessions portion of the evening out of the way — thanks, Abby! — I was pretty much left to my own devices. Just an ineffectual man wandering around with an ineffectual plan, of no concern to the stadium’s elite and hoi polloi alike.

I took pictures, I did.

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Like Dreamland BBQ, this “Power Force” batting cage wasn’t yet open on the night that I was in attendance. But it’s pretty unique in that it’s the batting cage the players will use, and fans can then take their hacks during the game.

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But who wants to be in a cage on such a beautiful night?

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This outfield play area, manned by a gameday employee (on the mound) is really cool.

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It was all very vague, but earlier in the evening I’d been told that I was to be a participant in some sort of between-inning tomfoolery. This allowed for a stop at my favorite area of any ballpark: the promo closet.

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Turns out that I was selected as a Chicken Dance participant. I mean, sure, whatever, dude’s got to make a living. I gave my camera to a promo intern to document my fowl maneuvers, and I guess she thought I wanted her to take a picture of me right there and then.

Oh, hello.

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She also took a picture of her and a friend, who now achieve internet immortality by appearing on this blog.

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I think this picture  sums up my enthusiasm for this particular iteration of the Chicken Dance.

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If you’re one of those people who is obsessive about team store ceiling height, then you’re going to want to contact the Barons for the specific dimensions of this imminently airy retail operation. It’s vertically proficient!

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Segues are for losers. Long streams of disconnected images, on the other hand? That’s where it’s at!

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Oh, hey, look, the Barons won! I had barely noticed.

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And when the Barons win, you win! And when something is free, you don’t have to purchase it! Who knew?

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The game may have ended, but this post (and, by extension, this seemingly never-ending stream of road trip coverage) is going to keep right on going. I spent that night in the Birmingham Sheraton, and, as you can see, I loved it there:

 

That morning was an 11 a.m. Education Day game or Kid’s Day game or Kidpacalypse or whatever you want to call it, so back in the rental car it was for one final stadium drive. I was a bit late in arriving, and the parking lot I had utilized the day before was full. I  then circled around construction sites and detour signs and dead ends until I began to feel like I was trapped in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

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So close, yet so far

I eventually found a spot about 11/32 of a mile from the ballpark, and upon entering the stadium found myself in the midst of madness. My take on Kid’s Day promos can be summed up thusly:

Kids were everywhere, most of them shrieking like insects out of Hades, but looking on the bright side it was a beautiful day. Here’s another barrage of photos for you, largely unencumbered by words.

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introspective mascot

introspective mascot alert

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Can’t get no relief

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A great way to spend three innings or so.

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This shot of the first base concourse  illustrates Regions Field’s impressive (and imposing) steel warehouse motif, as well as its altogether Brobdingnagian dimensions.

137 For one inning there toward the end, I actually sat down and watched the game like a normal person. It didn’t feel right.

139But you know what does feel right? Bringing this blog post to an end. Eight MiLB.com features, 10 blog posts, and two dozen Vines later, road trip number one of the 2013 season is now officially in the books.

Thank you for reading. Next time I file an “On the Road” dispatch, it will be from the great state of Wisconsin.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: From Very Old to Very New in Birmingham

My first road trip of the season ended in Birmingham, and it ended in Birmingham for a reason: the Barons’ Regions Field is one of two new Minor League Baseball stadiums to open in 2013 (the other is in Hillsboro, Oregon, home of the brand-new Hops. I’ll be visiting on August 10).

Driving into Birmingham, I had a stadium’s address entered into my trusty GPS — 1137 2nd Ave. W . But this address wasn’t the one belonging to Regions Field. It brought me here instead:

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Yes, 103-year-old Rickwood Field, home of the Barons from 1910-1986.

If you ever get the chance to visit Birmingham, then Rickwood is a must. It’s kept in great shape by the non-profit Friends of Rickwood organization, and is open to the public daily for self-guided tours. I visited in 2010 for the annual Rickwood Classic (in which the Barons return to their old home for a mid-week matinee), and coverage from that event can be read HERE and HERE.

But let’s move from the there and was to the here and now. As you may have noticed in this post’s second photo, there was a gathering of people on the field at the time I arrived. This wasn’t just any gathering of people — it was members of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, the first integrated sports team in the history of Alabama. They were in town for a reunion, which was inspired by the release of Larry Colton’s new book on the team: Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race. 

As I arrived at Rickwood, the ’64 Barons were posing for pictures for a small assemblage of local media. Colton is third from the left (holding a copy of his book), while prominent alumnus Blue Moon Odom is fourth from the right.

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I made it there just in time, as mere seconds after this photo was taken these old teammates dispersed and left Rickwood in order to travel to Regions Field for the evening’s ballgame. I lingered around for another 10 minutes or so, taking pictures all the while.

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The locker rooms now serve as a makeshift museum and Friends of Rickwood office space.

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All things considered, the showers are in good shape.

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Even though I missed most of it I’d like to thank Friends of Rickwood member Joe DeLeonard for alerting me to the 1964 Barons Rickwood visit. At the very least, it gave me an excuse to visit this beautiful old ballpark.

This was my view from the Rickwood Field parking lot…

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and approximately 10 minutes and two-point-something miles later my view was this:

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 This is the parking lot, or at least one of them, for Regions Field. Its ramshackle nature is indicative of the area as a whole, which is the midst of being  – buzz word alert — revitalized! From this parking lot one can be driven to the stadium in style, but being a proud biped I chose to walk.

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 The short walk to the stadium exemplifies the current bedraggled state of the area surrounding Regions Field, as well as its promise. This is something that I wrote about more extensively in my MiLB.com piece on the stadium, which I hope you might take the time to check out.

Wide open spaces:

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A team bus cozies up to its improbable best friend abandoned building. (I’m in the midst of writing a pilot script for a proposed sitcom entitled “The Adventures of Team Bus and Abandoned Building.” Let me know if you want to contribute to the Kickstarter.)

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 Relics of an industrial past.

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 After walking underneath this bridge (as a freight train rumbled overhead), the scenery changed quite dramatically.

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 For there, on the left, is Railroad Park. This public space opened in 2010, and is the literal centerpiece of these downtown revitalization efforts.

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 I’m no cartographer, but I believe that Regions Field abuts the north side of Railroad Park. You can’t miss it.

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One thing I did miss, however, was a decent photo of the brick and steel facade that features “BIRMINGHAM” in huge letters. This aerial photo from the team’s website illustrates just what it is I’m talking about here.

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Birmingham, Birmingham, Sweetest city in Alabam

 First impressions:

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 A next level view:

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 I had proceeded to this elevated vantage point in order to see my old friends the 1964 Barons, who were conducting a pre-game press conference.

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 After a general Q and A session with local media, I had the chance to interview Colton and Odom about the groundbreaking ’64 campaign. You can read that  – please! — over on MiLB.com.

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Immediately after the interview concluded we descended to the level of Barons and Biscuits alike.

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 The 1964 Barons odyssey continued, as now they were gathering on the field for a ceremonial first pitch.

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 The purpose of this photo is two-fold — gaze upon Minor League Baseball’s newest videoboard whilst learning facts about Blue Moon.

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 Ceremonial first pitch chaos:

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 The Biscuit contingent had risen rapidly since the last time I had checked in on their visitor’s dugout environs.

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 So many ups and downs! For reasons I can’t quite recall, I was soon back up on the second floor. On the journey there I snapped this photo of the expansive bar and lounge area down below.

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 My destination was a bit more modest, however, as down this corridor lurked the press box.

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 Define “working”

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 It is from this location that I watched the game begin, with the Biscuits taking on the Barons in Minor League Baseball’s newest facility.

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I’ve got quite a bit more to report from Regions Field, so I think the best course of action would be to make this a two-part post.

But since I’m still a bit under my self-imposed 1000 word minimum, a limerick:

There once was a team called the Barons

On the side of caution, they weren’t erring

Displaying operational agility

They moved to a new facility

And well they seem to be faring

What? I’m still not at a thousand words? This is crazy. Here’s a haiku:

I’m wasting my time/obsessive and compulsive/For word counts, care not

I am STILL not at 1000 words, but at the end of this completely gratuitous sentence I will be. Or at least I thought I would be. I do my best.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Much S’more to Love in Savannah

The previous missive in this low-stakes blogging odyssey ended in Asheville on a Saturday night, and my next order of business was to be in Savannah on a Sunday afternoon. As you can see from this road trip map (made by MiLB.com’s ace editorial team), I had a lot of driving to do in a very short amount of time.

tripmapI felt so rushed on Sunday morning that I almost forgot to do a road trip hotel room review on Vine (a new tradition), but after a coffee and cracklins-fueled journey I did indeed make it to Savannah’s Grayson Stadium in time for this Mother’s Day matinee. And let me tell you, when you’re in Savannah you definitely know you’re in Savannah. The landscape, it’s just different, and a lot of that has to do with the flora and fauna.

The Sand Gnats are a Mets affiliate. Or, should I say a Pal-Met-to affiliate?

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These are the idyllic grounds of Savannah’s Daffin Park, of which Grayson Stadium is a part. The stadium is located across the street from this upbeat amateur facility.

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The stands were half-full

I’d say that Grayson, despite being 87-years-old, has a fairly youthful and optimistic outlook as well. (For much more on my Grayson stadium experiences, please read my MiLB.com piece! My MiLB.com pieces are the hand-rolled cigars that perfectly complement the glasses of single-malt Scotch that are the blog posts).

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As I walked to the stadium, I could hear Andrew W.K.’s “I Love New York City” playing from inside. This created a welcoming atmosphere for a Big Apple-dweller such as myself, even though the price of admission was far less than anything that would be found in NYC and the surrounding tri-state area.

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Prior to my arrival, the Sand Gnats held a contest on Facebook to find my designated eater (you know, the fan who samples the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). It was a pretty cool looking contest:

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Unfortunately the winner (one Joey Chiarello) wasn’t able to make it for whatever reason, so the team recruited an intern in his stead.  Hank Garcia was his name, food and beverage was his game, and almost as soon as I walked through the gates he suggested that some eating should commence.

Who am I to argue? Our first stop was this unassuming concourse stand.

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But the item that Mr. Garcia walked away with was anything but unassuming. The Godfather (list price $10) consists of Italian sausage, cheesesteak, pepper, onions and jalapenos. It is a huge mass of sandwich.

Garcia and the Godfather:

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A closer look:

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Consumption!

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Garcia praised the Godfather, noting that the savory sausage was a perfect complement to the saltiness and spice of the cheesesteak and vegetables.

“It results in a plethora — wow, I just said plethora — of flavors,” he said. “Sorry, I just watched The Three Amigos.”

You’d think that Garcia would have been done after the Godfather, but no. Dessert was on the agenda as well!

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“It’s Italian Panini bread with Nutella, marshmallow fluff, crushed up graham crackers and powdered sugar,” explained Garcia. “Then, after it’s warmed up in a Panini press, chocolate syrup is added on top.”

This six seconds of video, via Vine, is all you need.

If you thought this food and beverage tour was over, then think again! Like most old stadiums there is limited room for concessions at Grayson, but the team still found some room for the hard stuff.

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Garcia ordered and off-menu specialty, and I’d suggest that if you’re of age and at a Sand Gnats game then you do the same.  This drink consisted of Horchata (a sweet, rice-based Mexican drink) and Red Hot cinnamon whisky.

“It’s like a liquid Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” explained Garcia.

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While I could not immediately ascertain whether or not this concoction was gluten-free, I went ahead and gave it a try (read: gulped it down). My verdict is, word-for-word, the same as Garcia’s on the S’mores Panini: Delicious! (You watched the Vine video, right?)

I chased down the “Liquid Cinnamon Toast Crunch” with a certifiably gluten-free offering: Michelob Ultra cider. That, too, was tasty (despite what my perpetually angst-ridden expression might lead you to believe).

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A couple drinks to start my work day had me seeing things.

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That fluorescent amphibian soon disappeared beneath a patch of foliage, leading me to believe that it was a hallucination with the power to later manifest itself within the realm of digital photography. I blinked, and it was gone.

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This wall, located on the stadium’s third base side, has an interesting history. Read about it on MiLB.com! Less interesting but more scenic is this, the most beautiful front office in all of Minor League Baseball!

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Inside, it’s perhaps not quite as beautiful. The master bedroom of this enshrouded shack has been transformed into the main office.

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The bathroom (note the shower stall on the right)  is now a storage area. No one ever said that working in Minor League Baseball is glamorous!

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The front office is located behind a courtyard and picnic area, which provides views of the action from down the third base side.

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It was while in this area that I spotted a real-life Sand Gnat.

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That would be Gnate, who like a real G moves in silence like lasagna. A cartoonish and altogether more intimidating version of Gnate can be seen on Grayson’s brick facade.

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And, yes, the team is named “Sand Gnats” for a reason. These six-legged nuisances are known to swarm over the stadium at night, although they made themselves scarce on the afternoon I was in attendance. THEY KNEW BETTER THAN TO OFFEND A BLOGGER.

But anyway, there was a game going on amidst all of this wandering. Really!

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A rather sparse Mother’s Day crowd was taking in the action (Savannah is a church-going town, I was told, so Sunday has always been a difficult draw. The social demands of the holiday only seemed to exacerbate the problem).

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I spent much of the afternoon with Sand Gnats director of sales Jonathan Mercier, seen here at the base of “Land Shark Landing” while radioing his co-workers that “the blogger is under control.”

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Land Shark Landing, which opened on July 4, 2010, is certainly one of Grayson’s more modern-seeming elements.

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Meanwhile, many of the fans chose to sit beneath one.

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But no matter where you were sitting, or what you were doing, there was no doubt that it was a beautiful day in Savannah.

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Up close and personal:

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As you can discern somewhat in the above pic, Grayson boasts an interesting press box. While I’m no stranger to roof top press boxes (Hagerstown and Vancouver spring immediately to mind), this was more of a roof bottom press box.

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I was intrigued, so Mercier and I headed up there. I took pictures at various stages of this arduous journey.

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The path to the professionals:

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I was pretending that these guys were the pilot and co-pilot of a flying stadium spaceship. Set coordinates for family-friendly entertainment!

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The view:

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This picture doesn’t do it justice, but the press box walls were recently re-painted in a rather striking light green hue (about the same color as the lizard featured at the beginning of this post).

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Sand Gnats graphic designer Vince Caffiero was the man responsible for this interesting choice, and when I asked him about it he shook his head slowly from side to side.

“I’m getting a lot of flak,” he said in a deadpan tone. “So much flak. It’s not fair.”

As it turned out, the path from the press box was almost an exact approximation of what I have dreamed that the path to the afterlife will look like. (The fans, in my vision, are the people I’d have to leave behind within this earthly realm.)

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It turned out, however, that there was to be another stage to our journey.

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The roof! The roof! The roof is 100% free of any sign of fire!

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I didn’t want to get too close to the edge, so I laid flat on my stomach, extended my arms out in front of me, and took the following shot.

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Finally ready to retreat to the stands, I snapped a picture of this fan-friendly view.

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Back at sea level, my ballpark tour continued. Mercier and I looped past the verdant batting cages and visitor’s bullpen en route to a truly exclusive view.

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This is the rear end of a pig!

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As aviator pig, if you want to be specific about it.

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“From the stands it looks professional, but seen from below it’s definitely amateur hour,” said Mercier of his and his co-worker’s pig-mounting abilities.

View from the pig:

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To the left of the pig one can find the manually-operated scoreboard.

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For when things really get out of hand.

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The view of what’s in front of the scoreboard is a little bit better than the view of what’s behind it.

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With the game winding down, I headed to the seats — nay, benches — located behind home plate in order to watch the game like a normal person. While there I was photographed with a prop.

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This bat — named “The Phoenix” — is the source of much mayhem and mirth within the Sand Gnats front office. To make a long story short —  an argument erupted between Caffiero and ticketing manager Joe Shepard over the offseason, regarding just who it was that the bat belonged to. In response to this bickering the bat was hidden from both of them, and now both parties are being subjected to taunting photos such as the one seen above.

And so it goes.

And so it went. As I was posing with heavy lumber the game ended, with the visiting Rome Braves earning the win.

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And even though it was Mother’s Day, the moms assumed picture-taking duties as their kids ran the bases.

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Man down!

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But as for me? I’m a man done. A man done blogging. Over and out from Savannah.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Moon Pies and Clear Skies in Asheville

Part one of this Asheville Tourists saga included ziplining onto the field from a hill overlooking the stadium, so I suppose you could say that it was a real cliffhanger. Today that cliffhanger concludes in stunning fashion, so long as your definition of “stunning” is more along the lines of “exactly what you would expect.”

Let’s get to it! When we last left off, the skies were clearing and this Saturday evening ballgame was finally ready to begin.

061But as the ballgame was beginning, I was not in the seating area. Instead, I had taken advantage of the delay and met up with one Kelly Noble. Mrs. Noble, a mother of two boys who lives in nearby Hendersonville, had been chosen as the evening’s “designated eater” (for those new to the blog, the “designated eater,” or DE, consumes the ballpark delicacies which my gluten-free diet prohibits).

The team held a Facebook contest prior to my arrival to choose the designated eater, and she earned this honor by responding thusly:

Because I am a mom of 2 teenage boys who love baseball and so I usually end up with the last chip, fry, an empty cup. Plus I work full time and today’s lunch was a bagel I found in the fridge from last week. I would love a fresh hot dog and nachos I don’t have to share!! 

Most of the available seating options were a bit damp after the recent rain storm, so Kelly and I sat on a circular brick wall in the concourse area. Tyler Holt, an intern with Professional Sports Catering (the Tourists’ food and beverage company), soon arrived bearing gifts.

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Contained underneath was an order of pork nachos and, in keeping with the Asheville Tourists’ lunar theme, a deep-fried Moon Pie!

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My designated eater was all for a dessert-first approach. Ladies and gentlemen, Kelly Noble!

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I am always hesitant to take pictures that seem like they were simply meant to embarrass, but Kelly had a great attitude about the whole thing.

“I just want my boys to be able to laugh at me,” she said with a smile, while posing for a series of pictures such as the above. Kelly grew up with brothers and now has sons, and was clearly used to being in the minority, gender wise. I appreciated her great sense of humor and could relate somewhat —  I am the oldest of three boys , and growing up my own mother took a similarly light-hearted and tolerant approach to our relentless competitions and bodily function-based comedic approach.

And you know what? Since this game actually occurred during Mother’s Day weekend I’d like to belatedly wish Kelly, my own mother Elaine Cooper and, well, all moms a belated “Happy Mother’s Day!”

But we were on the subject of Moon Pies.

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“I’m trying to think of the best adjective to describe it. Wow…yeah…I don’t know! You’re the writer!” said Kelly, before finding the words. “It was delicious and filling!”

The Moon Pie was part of a smorgasbord that included the pork nachos, a “Wee-Heavyer” ale from Asheville’s French Broad brewing company and a gluten-free option in the form of chips and hummus (!)

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But this being Asheville, it wasn’t just any hummus.

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I hope you think this is funny, boys.

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Speaking of, they soon showed up to check out what was going on.

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Kelly’s sons are the two in the middle, 12-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Taylor. The friend on the right was turning his head because he was on a quest for phone numbers from young female fans and one must have been walking by. Even though he was 14 he seemed to think he had a shot with anyone up through age 20 or so. I admired the confidence.

And then, because too much is never enough, more food arrived. Pulled Pork Dog!

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“The key is if the BBQ is good, and this is. It’s BBQ central down here,” said Kelly. “This is a great combination of flavors and…I don’t know. You’re the writer!”

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Despite Kelly’s best efforts there was quite bit of food left over. “Time to use Mom skills,” she said, and within two minutes the entire smorgasbord had somehow been reduced to a neat stack that was easily taken back to the seats by her and the boys. And with that, Designated Eater #4 of the 2013 season had concluded her duties.

I’ve written about 1900 words over the course of  these two Asheville-based blog posts, and yet still haven’t arrived at a point of time in which actual professional baseball was being played on an actual professional baseball field. Let’s rectify by taking a trip out there.

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I loved this general admission seating area located down the first base line, which features plenty of room in which to spread out. Some fans bring their own chairs, and I was told that on hot days sunbathers are a common sight.

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McCormick Field is 89 years old, and as such the amenities are sometimes in short supply. This converted office building located down the first base line is the only suite available.

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In talking about McCormick, Tourists president Brian DeWine told me that “we’re as landlocked as landlocked can be.”  This concourse photo gives an indication of just how constrained the team is in their operations.

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Despite my previous concessions-based coverage, I never showed any pictures of the concession stands themselves. Again with the rectification:

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Back in the seating area, I noticed that Mr. Moon’s attention was directed skyward.

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He was checking out the rainbow!

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Okay, Vine Time! Six seconds of brilliance, guaranteed.

The rainbow.

An observation, perhaps unfounded, that the PA announcer sounded quite a bit like a Simpsons character. 

And, finally, Mr. Moon was out there for more than just rainbow observance purposes. Would it surprise you to know that he can do the moonwalk, and is a great dancer in general?

As night fell, the already picturesque surroundings became even more picturesque. I will illustrate this with pictures.

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Action in the home bullpen:

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But for an even closer view of the action, try the dugout suites. $30 buys a catered meal from the fried chicken and biscuits juggernaut that is Bojangles (the seating area’s sponsor) and one of the closest views of the action one can find in professional baseball.

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While sitting in this area, I made the following Vine. It is, truly, six seconds of brilliance.

 I then retreated to the area behind home plate, in an attempt to document the perfect example of a 90 degree leg kick. I certainly took this picture at the right angle!

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That young man on the mound, whoever he was, soon closed out the victory for Asheville. Good game, good game.

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And good night from McCormick Field! I’ve been to a lot of ballparks over the last four seasons, but this one was an all-time favorite.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Tourist Visits the Tourists in Asheville

I arrived at McCormick Field at about 6 o’clock on a rainy Friday evening, and I must have been in a rush as it appears I didn’t take any shots of the stadium before entering. The saga begins, photographically, with this:

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That’s none other than Mr. Moon, who was introduced as part of the Tourists’ re-branding campaign prior to the 2011 season. I wrote an article about it at the time, which included the following quote from (then) new president/ownership group member Brian DeWine.

“We had the desire to change and wanted something fun and exciting that told the history of baseball in Asheville,” said Tourists president Brian DeWine. “The original [professional] team in Asheville was called the Moonshiners, and that got us thinking about the moon and how many people have watched Tourists baseball under the moon through the years….Plus, we always joke that the moon is the ultimate Tourist destination.”

Good to know, but that begs the question: Why is this team called the “Tourists” in the first place? DeWine explained that one to me shortly after I arrived at the stadium:

“The name was first used in 1915….Everyone on the team was from out of town, so the locals said ‘Well, we’ll call them the Tourists, then.”

And here we are, 98 years later, and the team is STILL the Tourists. Meanwhile, they’re playing in a stadium that’s almost as old as the team name. McCormick opened in 1924, with Ty Cobb playing the outfield on Opening Day. By my reckoning that makes it the second-oldest Minor League stadium, behind only Vermont’s Centennial Field.

But anyway — I fear that this early influx of words has caused me to lose a sizable portion of my readership. Here’s a picture:

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The above photo is by no means a good one, but it illustrates three things:

1) It was a pennant giveaway night, which is what Mr. Moon was brandishing in that first picture.

2) The main entrance is on a residential street. (Depending on one’s perspective, it would be either really cool or deeply annoying to live so close to a stadium.) This is indicative of the extent to which the field is tucked into its surroundings, with no room whatsoever to expand.

3. As a result of some long-ago architectural misfire, the ticket window is located inside the stadium. That leads to the rather awkward entrance set-up, in which fans pass under the archway, advance to the ticket window, and then proceed through a small opening in the improvised barricade.

The view on this overcast evening, immediately after passing through said barricade:

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 I soon made it on to the field and, uh, what’s this?

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To answer a question I already knew the answer to: That is a zipline, extending from the backstop some 300+ feet all the way up to a hill overlooking left field. Before every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday contest the game ball is delivered by a fan via the zipline.

Unprecedented!

From my recent Tourists-themed MiLB.com piece: 

This endeavor is sponsored by Asheville Zipline and Canopy Adventures, one of the region’s many providers of outdoor entertainment. The company’s employees are on hand to set up and take down the zipline (DeWine boasts that it can be done in six minutes flat), and also accompany the chosen fan on the 300-foot journey homeward.

“The first year we did [the zipline] 70 times, but found that it got a little repetitive, so now we save it for the bigger games,” said DeWine. “On Boy Scout night, the kids will do it until midnight, when we finally have to curfew them.”

I went up there to check it out.

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Soon enough, I was invited by the friendly zipline guides to give it a try for myself. All I had to do in exchange was sign my life away.

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Ready!

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Set!

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Go!

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It was fun, although our combined weight was a little above optimal and we didn’t quite make it to the designated target laid out just to the right of home plate. (I am, as I type this, the fattest I’ve ever been in my life). Upon landing my guide and I looped back up to the top of the hill, and I am including this picture of our walk partially as a means to convey just how verdant McCormick’s surroundings are.

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 Upon arrival, I handed off the zipline reins to the fan who had been chosen (via a concourse raffle) to deliver the game ball. She was psyched. (I apologize that I do not have her name, nor the name of my zipline guide. My excuse was that it had started to rain by this time, and I didn’t want to get my notebook soaked.)

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Want to see the zipline in action? Here’s my Vine video, which, like all Vine videos, is six seconds long.

Usually the game ball delivery signifies the start of the game, but the rain was coming down hard enough that its start was delayed. So, more pre-game wandering was destined to occur.

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It may be a bit difficult to see, but here there are two things I’d like to point out.

1). The right field fence is only 297 feet away. This is certainly tempting for left-handed batters, but home runs are harder than they appear because what the fence lacks in distance it makes up for in height. At 36 feet, it is just a foot shorter than Fenway’s iconic Green Monster.

2). The scoreboard reads “Visitors” and “Tourists.” Never not funny.

This shot of the visitor’s dugout also provides a good view of the roof, which is held up with imposing concrete slabs that convey a sturdy masculinity.

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McCormick was originally a largely wooden edifice, but has taken on a more concrete form after renovations in 1959 and (especially) 1992. Its old-time charm is completely intact, however, as I hope these pictures have shown and will continue to show.

Signage!

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This picnic area, located down the third base line, was pretty sedate on this drizzly evening.

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If I had been at McCormick Field just one day earlier, however, it would have been a far different scene. For Asheville is the original home of the Thirsty Thursday promotion, and it remains the most popular night of the week. I wrote all about this in my aforementioned MiLB.com article; click HERE to read it.

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Trademarked!

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Next to the picnic area is the visitor’s dugout, where coaches and players (and what appears to be a cop) were waiting out the rain delay.

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That mural may look familiar, as it is featured in the movie Bull Durham. Crash Davis ends his career as a member of the Tourists, and a scene was shot at McCormick. WATCH!

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Want an idea of just how long McCormick Field has been around? This photo hangs in DeWine’s office, taken during the 1924 season. As was standard practice in the South at the time, the seating areas were segregated. Behind home plate was for whites while black fans had to watch from down the third base line.

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Meanwhile, here on a Friday evening in 2013, the skies had begun to clear.

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Get out to the grandstand, Mr. Moon. It’s almost game time!

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As you may have been able to guess, this post is going to be a two-parter. If Mr. Moon could talk, he’d surely tell you to  check back soon for the riveting conclusion of this McCormick Field saga.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A Sweltering Chicken Meets a Managerial Burger in Tennessee

As you surely recall, my last post had a cliffhanger ending. I was at the Tennessee Smokies game, the National Anthem had concluded, and the game was about to start.

So what happened then? In this, part two of my Smokies blogging saga, all will be revealed.

In a shocking twist, the ballgame began very shortly after the anthem’s conclusion. At this juncture, I found myself in the right field berm area and my vantage point was as follows:

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Thus began a lap around the stadium’s (almost) 360 degree concourse, heading plateward.

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178 As I was making my way up the third base side of the stadium, disaster struck!

Well, it almost struck, at least. A member of the visiting Barons, I’m not sure who, flailed at a pitch, lost his grip, and sent his bat hurtling into the stands. This photo shows the immediate aftermath, as ushers and director of entertainment Ryan Cox (white cap, uber-stylish shirt) survey the scene as concerned Barons look on from the visiting dugout. The bat was retrieved by the long-haried gentleman at the back of the shot, some 12 rows deep.

180All’s well that ends well, as no one was hurt. In the photo below GM Brian Cox (not be confused with Ryan Cox, sitting right next to him) is in the process of retrieving the bat from the fan. Following standard protocol, the fan was eventually given a different bat in return.

181And since we’re on the topic of being attacked by bats —  none other than Dan Wagner was in the starting line-up for the Barons. Here’s some scoreboard proof of this, taken later in the ballgame.

217Wagner knows how it feels!

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That photo was taken during my 2011 visit to Winston-Salem, and that following offseason I devoted a blog post to Wagner’s re-telling of the incident. 

A choice quote:

[The bat] was clamped on my leg, so I swiped it off with my glove and it ended up on the ground opening and closing its mouth at me. I could see the fangs. It was super-creepy, worse than a spider or a rat, just nasty.

What an awesome tangent that was! I call this the “best Minor League Baseball blog of all time” because it is, and if someone could give me a “Best Blog” award along with, like, $750,000 in cash I’d really appreciate it.

But to return to the narrative at hand, all I can tell you was that the rest of my lap around the stadium perimeter wasn’t very eventful.

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186Although, I did witness an earnest conversation  between Cox and the Statue of Liberty. He was gently trying to tell her that “Salute to Huddled Masses” night wasn’t a very good idea for a promotion, especially since Huddle House wasn’t interested in sponsoring.

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I might have heard that conversation wrong, but my hearing was about to get a whole lot worse. For it was I who had been recruited to suit up as “Clucky Jacobsen” in the Smokies’ nightly Chicken Race, a costume that comes complete with a stiflingly hot, senses-obscuring rubber mask.

The Chicken Race, in which a group of kids chase Clucky across the outfield, is a long-standing Smokies tradition. The rules:

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I wrote an MiLB.com article about my Chicken Run experience, and it turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written in a professional context. Click the link to read it — please — and then return here to the blog for the following supplementary pictures:

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The luxurious changing area…

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plus this…195

equals this:

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Mingling with the masses

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202Clucky and his pursuers

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205Disappearing into the night.

207Minor League Baseball is a beautiful thing.

Upon changing back into my civilian attire, I convened with my designated eater (for those new to this blog: I have recruited a “designated eater” at each ballpark I visit, to consume ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet does not allow).

Frederick Love, ladies and gentleman!

209Love, who grew up in Seattle, is no stranger to the world of stiflingly hot ballpark costumes. After graduating from college, he went on to suit up as Louie for the Bowie Baysox and Hornsby for the Tulsa Drillers. His current mascot gig is as “Chilly” for the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL, and his sister, Baylor, works for the Smokies as a group sales representative.

In the above photo, Love is sitting outside the Double Play Cafe with a Buddy Bailey Burger (named after the Smokies’ alliterative manager) and an order of BBQ Pork Nachos.

The Buddy Bailey Burger —  1/2 pound beef patty, cheddar cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato — was the main event, and Love dug right in.

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Buddy Bailey Burger on Ben’s Biz Blog

“It has a sweet smell, very appetizing, and I wanted to get the first bite in right away,” said Love of the Buddy Bailey Burger. “I threw a little ketchup and mayo on there, and it all mixes together well. The burger is well cooked, very juicy with a lot of flavor.”

As for the nachos, Love had had those before.

“They’re one of the best things they have here,” he said. “They’ve got a perfect smoky taste.”

As he spoke, various food products raced by on the field.

213Thanks to Love for volunteering for the greater good. He is designated eater #3 of the 2013 season, and I appreciate his service.

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We had, at this juncture, entered into the latter third of the ballgame.

Images:

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Both man and beast remained vigilant as the game entered its tense final inning. (WATCH on Vine)

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Despite a late rally, the Smokies went down in defeat. This was their sixth loss in a row, part of an agonizing streak that had earlier included three straight shutouts followed by a 12-11 defeat. But win, lose, or draw, it doesn’t matter. It was Friday, and that meant fireworks were a comin’.

The pyrotechnics display was enjoyed by Soppets and non-Soppets alike.

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It was past 10:30 at this point, but it’s Friday night and who cares about bedtime? The kids, they then ran the bases.

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Being too old for such shenanigans, I instead went on a search for impromptu works of art. (WATCH)

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Suitable for framing

All that was left to do now was take a walk back to my hotel room. The Hampton Inn and Suites, it beckoned me. (WATCH).

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Good night from Sevierville!

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Getting My Bearings in Tennessee

Like their Southern League cohorts the Mississippi Braves, the Tennessee Smokies are that rare Minor League entity that identify themselves by state as opposed to city or region. But, unlike the Mississippi Braves, the “Smokies” team name actually denotes the region of the state in which they play. If teams throughout the Minors took this approach, it would result in entities such as the Pennsylvania Lehighs, the Arkansas Northwests, and the Florida Palm Beaches.

This is all a convoluted way of saying that the Smokies play in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain region (located in the far eastern portion of the state, Sevierville to be precise), and that their team name is unorthodox. So, yes, with that out of the way:

Welcome to Smokies Park, home of the Smokies, and, also, home of a Smoky Mountain visitor center!

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I arrived at Smokies Park a bit later than I was aiming for, due to a GPS/common sense snafu in which I drove to a “Stadium Drive” in Knoxville instead of the one in Sevierville. It wasn’t until I made a turn onto “Peyton Manning Pass” that it occurred to me that I may have driven to the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium instead.

They don’t pay me the big bucks for nothing.

Within half an hour I was in the correct location, and totally psyched because the team hotel (WATCH) was located within walking distance from the stadium (the second-most important hotel amenity, behind a good internet connection). As I jauntily strolled through the parking lot in the fashion of R. Crumb’s “Keep On Truckin’” character, the first fans I passed were these guys.

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“Hey, that’s the blogger,” said the cornholer in red to his cornholing companion. The cornholer in red turned out to be Frederick Love, who had volunteered to be the evening’s designated eater (the designated eater is an individual I recruit at every ballpark, to eat the concession foods that my gluten-free diet does not allow). Psyched to be recognized so quickly in the evening, my walk became even jauntier. Even what appeared to be copyright infringement couldn’t slow me down.

Expect a call from Fresno, Grainger band.

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A nice crowd had gathered out front for this fireworks Friday, a gathering comprised of humans and bizarrely-colored bear alike.

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I made a quick stop in the press box upon arrival.

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To the right of these gentleman, taking up nearly an entire wall, is this cartoon tribute to late Smokies beat writer Nick Gates.

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Gates covered the franchise from their 1972 inception as the Knoxville White Sox (Knox Sox!) all the way through the 2010 season, when health issues forced him to retire. He died in 2012 at the age of 62.

For a variety of reasons — the ailing state of the newspaper industry chief among them, as well as the team’s ability to easily disseminate information themselves —  Minor League beat writers are an increasingly rare species these days. It was a great gesture by the Smokies to pay tribute to Gates and the nearly lost era of journalism that he represents.

Another touching tribute can be found behind home plate, as the team has installed a permanent seat in honor of POW/MIA American servicemen.

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The plaque:

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The POW/MIA seat came about as part of the club’s annual “Tribute to Heroes” promotion (the 2013 iteration of which took place Saturday, the day after I was in town). It pre-dates similar efforts not just in Minor League Baseball (Lowell, Mobile), but also the more heralded efforts of the New England Patriots as well.

All of this is to say: the Smokies were at the forefront of the POW/MIA empty ballpark seat trend, which is slowly gaining traction around the world of professional sports as a simple and eloquent way to honor those who are not with us.

A seat-based tribute of a different sort can be found in the right field section of the berm seating area.

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These seats, rickety as a Pittsburgh rock n’ roll house party, are from the team’s former home of Bill Meyer Stadium in Knoxville. The Smokies played there from their 1972 inception as the Knoxville White Sox (Knox Sox!) through 1999, but the stadium itself opened in 1955. I hadn’t been familiar with Mr. Meyer, but he enjoyed a long career in baseball, most of it based in the Minors. He played one game as a member of the 1913 Cubs and, 39 years later, skippered the worst Pittsburgh Pirates team in franchise history.

Speaking of notable managerial campaigns…

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As you may recall, Ryne Sandberg managed the Smokies in 2009, the second stop in a Cubs organization managerial journey that began in Peoria and later continued on to Triple-A Iowa. Having a Hall of Famer manage the club is a big deal, obviously, and “Sandberg Alley” is where the fans would line up for pre-game autographs.

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As Smokies Director of Entertainment Ryan Cox explained to me, “This wasn’t [Sandberg's] first rodeo. He’d sign there in front of the dugout for 10-15 minutes before every game, and then it’d be ‘Okay, I’ve got to go.’”

“When the umps walked to home plate for the manager’s meeting, that was his cue to exit,” added team president Doug Kirchhofer. “If he didn’t do it that way, he’d be there all night. There’d be no end in sight. He would do it on the road, too, and throughout the season I heard from a lot of teams that they were very appreciative of that.”

You may recall my post on the Smokies’ Sandberg Alley, which included this picture of the ribbon-cutting ceremony:

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The following season the Iowa Cubs adapted the “Sandberg Alley” idea. I was there. I took these pictures. I am omniscient.

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One blog post, so many digressions! To return to the narrative at hand, I was a honored to be one of the guests on assistant general manager Jeff Shoaf’s pre-game show.

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This interview was broadcast live over the stadium PA, and as usual I struggled a bit with hearing my words booming back at me. I guess you get used to it, but I do not like the sound of my voice unless it is rapping the Humpty Dance at a Koreatown karaoke joint.

You could say that hearing my voice is hard to “bear,” but you’d only say that in order to facilitate a lazy segue to a picture I don’t remember taking.

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I do remember the National Anthem, however, as performed by the Fresno Grainger Grizzlies band. The bombs bursting in air were punctuated by actual bomb-like air bursts.

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Folks, my loquaciousness has gotten the best of me. This post is gonna have to be a two-parter.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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