Results tagged ‘ Texas League ’

On the Road: Dancing and Digging with Fellow Travelers in Arkansas

Yesterday’s post barely scratched the surface of my Arkansas Travelers experience, seeing as how it concluded with the game’s first pitch. Now it’s time to dive in, headfirst, to part II!

I was in the press box for the singing of the National Anthem…

and then it was time to — yes — Play Ball! It sure took long enough!

And with the game finally, mercifully, underway, I commenced to wandering. I hadn’t yet worked up an appetite, but couldn’t help but take note of the various concourse food options.

Premium popsicles, courtesy of “Le Pops.” I really should have ordered a salted caramel!

The more standard concessions were all reasonably priced, and this is one the hallmarks of the Dickey-Stephens experience ($3 hot dog, $3.50 sausage, $3.75 nachos, etc).

The open-air wandering was good for both soul and constitution, and provided pleasing vantage points aplenty.

But soon I returned to the press box, for this is my destiny. For the sixth (and final) time on this trip, I spent an inning on the radio (I’ll forgive the Springfield Cardinals for being the only team not to extend the invitation).

Here’s the view from the booth, presided over by RJ Hawk (left) and Phil Elson. One of the topics was the impending post-game Diamond Dig, which Hawk was slated to MC. He informed me that it would be an excellent place to meet young single women, and my last words on the air were “I’m gonna get married tonight.” It didn’t happen, but — foreshadowing alert! — there were indeed single women aplenty and they were beautiful.

I’ve been a fan of Elson’s broadcast work ever since 2005, when I listened to him call the controversial ending of that year’s Texas League Championship Series between Arkansas and Midland. Here’s how I described it in a 2007 MiLB.com article:

The Travelers were trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases empty when Jason Aspito came to the plate representing Arkansas’ last hope. The left fielder worked the count full, and then took ball four. Except plate umpire Steve Fritzoni had apparently lost track of the count and ordered Aspito back into the batter’s box. He struck out on the next pitch — on a 4-2 count! — handing the RockHounds a season-ending championship victory.

Elson was furious at this turn of events, and bitterly  spit out the phrase “Have a nice career, Fritzoni!” That has since become a personal motto of mine, whenever I (or someone around me) messes up. “Have a nice career, Fritzoni!” I say to myself.

I’ll end this nerdy digression by turning to something even nerdier, which I know a portion of my readership will be deeply interested in: a Texas League memo regarding proper conduct toward official scorers:

The next order of business – and I’m all business on these trips — was a concourse interview with assistant park superintendent Reggie Temple. In addition to his official job duties, Reggie spends the bulk of every game washing and detailing cars in the parking lot. (This side business is known as “Reasonable Reggie’s Car Wash” and his oft-stated motto is “Gimme Your Keys!”)

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Reggie Temple.

But that’s not all. Of course not. Reggie is also an accomplished and enthusiastic roller skater, and he brings his skates to the ballpark with him. Throughout our conversation, he would stop and dance whenever snippets of music played over the PA.

The funny thing about Reggie was that he didn’t seem to be showing off for me, or anyone. He was totally nonchalant and business-like, like “Music comes on, I skate. That’s what I do.” (More on Reggie in my MiLB.com piece).

My Reggie rendezvous occurred just outside of the “Travelers Baseball Museum,” so naturally that was my next destination. It is what its name implies — an area packed to the gills with memorabilia from Little Rock’s long and distinguished professional baseball history.

This cartoon good-naturedly pokes fun at legendary Travelers owner and operator Bill Valentine (now retired).

And here’s Valentine’s desk, from old Ray Winder Field.

A few more museum shots:

Okay, now it was time to eat. Travs general manager Pete Laven had told me that the team sold a “Deer Dog” (as in, venison), a locally-made creation that alluded to the prevalence of hunting in the Arkansas region. I did a quick run-through of the concourse in search of one, but, somehow, failed. It’s my fault — it was getting late in the game at this point, and I had wanted to make it back to the press box in time for the seventh-inning stretch.

So, as is so often the case in life, I settled for a big ol’ corn dog. (Like my Yuengling in Jackson, this corn dog had a special significance to me,  and I’ll explain why in my next post. It will be a “very special” edition of Ben’s Biz Blog, don’t miss it).

C.D. in the P.B.:

The seventh-inning stretch is sung by Elson himself, and he takes these duties very seriously. Here he is, plunging the depths of the soul, waiting for the sound of the organ to waft through the ballpark.

And, truly, he really belts it out, with the last note of the song sustained for a good 15 seconds or so. Perhaps a video will one day emerge, but this is all I’ve got.

I spent the remainder of the ballgame speaking with (and being interviewed by) Matt and Carolyn LaWell. They are a 20-something married couple in the midst of a season-long trek through the entirety of (full-season) Minor League Baseball, and their dispatches from the road are chronicled at their website aminorleagueseason.com. They are truly skilled and committed writers, and it was a fortunate (although not entirely surprising) happenstance that our paths ended up crossing. I’ll have a little more on them later, but the next order of business was something truly special.

The post-game Diamond Dig! This is a Minor League promotional staple, in which the women in attendance (18 and over) are invited on to the field post-game in order to dig (with a plastic spoon) for a small box buried in the infield dirt. And this box? It contains a diamond ring.  As soon as the game ended, the combatants lined up for their shot at post-game treasure.

In the following shot, the individuals with the cameras are the aforementioned Matt and Carolyn LaWell.

The women soon streamed forth onto the infield, and then patiently waited for the announcement that it was time to start digging.

And…begin!

I will take a conservative approach regarding which, and how many, photos I post here, but I would like to say that I was truly astounded by the number of beautiful women who were on the field. Like, this is just who happens to be in Little Rock for a Minor League Baseball game on a Thursday night? It was amazing.

After about 10 minutes of fruitless digging, Hawk (the MC) gave the clue that the diamond could be found on the right side of the infield. A migration ensued:

The digging then resumed in earnest, but soon there was commotion from just beyond second base. Heads began to turn in that general location…

and for good reason! The diamond had been found!

I made my way through the scrum to get a closer look…

and — YES! — there it was in all its glory! Here’s the winner, looking both relieved and elated.

This woman was a skilled competitor. If you go all the way back to my first Diamond Dig photo, of the women waiting on the stairs, you’ll see that she was first in line and plotting her strategy. Congrats!

And now the evening — and my road trip — was finally over. But I was in no hurry to leave. I watched the indefatigable interns clean the stands, before retiring to their on-site apartment for the evening.

And then snapped a photo of the LaWells in the home dugout.

But it all ended with this photo, as accurate a summation of the Minor League life as there ever was.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Hook Sliding into an Action-Packed Night in Arkansas

This most recent trip, which I never came up with a proper name for beyond “OKARMOTN,” wrapped up with a return engagement in the “AR” part of the equation: Little Rock, home of the Arkansas Travelers.

Since 2007, the Travs have made their home within the spacious confines of Dickey Stephens Park:

Dickey-Stephens is a great place to watch a game, and I had a phenomenal time during my lone evening there. It was action-packed, full of memorable characters and situations, and there’s a good chance that this post will be broken up into two pieces. (That’ll be a play it by ear kind of situation, keep reading and I’ll keep writing.)

But all that said, I’ll tell you right now that, on one level, my trip to Little Rock was a total failure. This is because I didn’t make it to Ray Winder Field, which served as the Travelers’ home from 1932-2006. (This photo taken from ArkansasRoadStories.com)

Word has it that the facility is in bad shape these days, a most dispiriting situation, but I wanted to get to Ray Winder because nearly everyone I spoke to at Dickey-Stephens said I needed to. It is a place with mystique, where irascible owner Bill Valentine (now retired) ran a no-tech operation that was high in charisma and “only in Minor League Baseball” eccentricity. Broadcaster Phil Elson, who spent six years at working at Ray Winder, regaled me with tales involving beer can pyramids, midgets on scooters, and not-fit-to-print owner-umpire repartee before wrapping it up like this:

“You can come to a game here [Dickey-Stephens] and enjoy it. It’s great. But if you used to go to games at Ray Winder, then you still have Ray Winder in your heart.”

(So, yeah, I’m frustrated I didn’t make it there. I didn’t have the time, pre-game, because of an agonizingly slow drive coming in from Jackson on I-40 that afternoon. And, my attempt to stop by the next morning before flying out of Little Rock was stymied by what was, apparently, the wrong address. But enough rambling justifications, which I wrote down solely to appease my own tendency toward self-criticism…)

There is still PLENTY to write about, live and direct from Dickey-Stephens Park!

That post-game Diamond Dig was just fantastic, and we’ll get to that in due time.

But the first order of business was, as usual, a player interview. While I waited for Elson to procure a victim (thanks, Darwin Perez), I followed up on a commenter’s tip and investigated the interior of this unassuming structure located down the right field line:

It looks like it would house team offices, perhaps, or maybe a storage area. But, no — this is an intern living area! Six young men in their early 20s, co-existing in harmony (more or less). Steven Kettler, a West Virginia native, was the only one “home” when I stopped by for a visit.

Kettler gave me a tour of this humble abode, which has been used as such since Dickey-Stephens opened in 2007. It consists of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms (with two beds apiece) and, as you might imagine, is a bit on the “messy” side of the housekeeping equation. For more, read THIS MiLB.com article.

The top TV simply carries a live feed of the nearby baseball field, so that the occupants always know what’s going on and what may need to be done (setting up and taking down BP is one of their many daily duties, for example).

This hallway leads to the bedroom suites, which are, of course, impeccably maintained. Just take my word for it.

Reminders of Ray Winder Field are plentiful throughout Dickey-Stephens Park. This storage shed, located a proverbial hop, skip and a jump from the intern apartments, has seats from the old stadium stacked up against it.

Meanwhile, these Winder relics have been pressed into active duty at Dickey-Stephens:

Dickey-Stephens boasts a downtown location, and plenty of Little Rock landmarks can be seen from the outfield concourse. The white structure in front of the skyscraper is the Old State House.

Per that unassailable information source that is Wikipedia, the Old State House is ” the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. It is known best as the site of President Bill Clinton‘s election night celebration in 1992.” It has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.

I made my way back to the front entrance just before the gates were scheduled to open. Outside, a crowd had formed.

Many of these early arriving partisans were eager to get their hands on the evening’s giveaway, which was stacked up in huge quantities on a full-to-bursting concourse table.

That would be a Garrett Richards replica jersey t-shirt, distributed to the first 1000 youths in attendance. Many of these youths made an immediate wardrobe change upon procuring one.

Upon entering the stadium, many of the fans make an immediate right. To the beer garden!

The beer garden’s bleacher seating is an homage to Ray Winder Field.

“Hook Slide Corner” is what this area is officially known as, and boy oh boy is there a story behind that. To a large degree, this drawing tells the tale:

Walter “Hook Slide” Bradshaw was a regular at the Ray Winder beer garden. His nightly routine, as captured in the above drawing, was to do his “hook slide” into a popcorn box base, on concrete, while wearing jean shorts. And the reward for his effort was free beer from his fellow fans, which, once consumed, would inevitably end up as part of a teetering can pyramid.

It’s hard to imagine a Minor League team condoning such behavior, let alone making it a part of its franchise mythology, but this is just one of the reasons that the Travelers stand out. I couldn’t find any pictures of Bradshaw online, but here’s a shot of a newspaper tribute that I took while visiting the ballpark museum (more on that later):

And now, Hook Slide Bradshaw has obtained Beer Garden immortality!

A mascot based on Hook Slide Bradshaw would be awesome, but the Travs, understandably, went a safer route:

That’s Shelly the Horse, hanging out by the inflatable-laden “Kidz Korner.”

A better vantage point can be obtained simply by turning in the other direction, however. Texas League Baseball!

Some 1050 words later, I’ve finally reached a point in the narrative where the ballgame is underway. And there’s still so much more to write about! Including but not limited to: a roller-skating, car-washing member of the grounds crew, a phenomenal seventh-inning stretch, an encounter with this season’s premier Minor League nomads, and the embarrassment of riches that was the post-game Diamond Dig.

Yep, this one is definitely gonna be a two-parter. Thank you for your patience; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: An Embiggening of the Baseball Spirit in Springfield

Prior to embarking on this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, I had never visited any of the seven teams on my itinerary. And of these seven, the franchise that I knew the least about was, undoubtedly, the Springfield Cardinals. They’re not the kind of team to stage goofy promotions or sell attention-getting food items, and their social media presence is minimal. They simply don’t indulge in the sort of Minor League antics that capture the interest of NYC-based niche bloggers such as myself.

That’s because Springfield is less a Minor League operation than it is mini-Majors — the club is owned by the parent Cardinals, and the fan base consists of passionate St. Louis partisans. I found this out immediately upon arriving at Hammons Field, as fans were lined well before game time in order to insure acquisition of a Matt Adams bobblehead (he slugged  32 homers for Springfield last season, and is now plying his trade in St. Louis).

Cardinals fans, Cardinals fans, Cardinals fans — as far as the eye could see. I felt like I was attending a convention of bibliophiles, because so many of the people were, well, red. (For more on all of this, please see my MiLB.com piece.)

After successfully navigating my way through this phalanx of amiable midwesterners, I met with broadcaster Jeff Levering and he helped facilitate a couple of player interviews that were conducted outside of the home clubhouse (thanks to outfielders Jake Shaffer and Adam Melker for tolerating my completely unprepared off-the-cuff stylings). From there we walked into the attached practice facility (which is shared with Missouri State), where a few players were getting in the last of their pre-game cuts.

Next stop, press box!

And in said press box, there was one of the better pre-game meals I’ve eve seen provided to us working stiffs in the media: a well equipped nacho bar! Usually I skip press box meals in order to hit the concession stands later, but this I couldn’t resist.

After the above plate of nachos was consumed, I commenced to wandering. This was one of the wandering-est days I have ever spent at the ballpark, as I didn’t have nearly as specific an agenda as I often do on these road trip stops. I just took in as many vantage points as possible, which I will provide to you along with an (allegedly) informative running commentary.

Views of the immediate surroundings, taken from the upper level:

From there, I turned my thoughts (and actions) field-ward.

I soon made it down to the concourse, and spent a little time in the berm seating area in right-center field. A gaggle of young goofballs saw me taking pictures and demanded that I take one of them. I obliged:

That Alfred E. Neuman-esque character on the right, whose red socks and sandals get-up is just spectacular, then asked if he could take my picture. He seemed shocked when I said yes, exclaiming “You’re actually going to trust me?” in a cracked adolescent voice.

I mean, why not? I grew up with two idiot brothers and am an idiot myself, so I can relate to the random young idiots I meet at Minor League Baseball stadiums. Here’s the photo that he took:

But prolonged exposure to idiocy can be detrimental to one’s professional obligations, so I soon made my way back to polite society.

I stood for the National Anthem from this bullpen location…

and then made my way toward home plate. Some visuals from this portion of the journey:

The reason so many people got to the ballpark early

No comment

Finally, against all odds, I made it to the bustling area behind home plate.

As “mini-majors” as Springfield may be, they’re not above indulging in goofy between-inning hi-jinx. This shot was taken during a plodding father-son wing-eating competition, during which the on-field host remarked “Once again, this is a contest, and we are timing you.”

Those aforementioned press box nachos sublimated my appetite, but I nonetheless made sure to take note of the food options. The “Popcorn Factory” featured an “endless” popcorn for $7, along with an array of seasoning options.

Apparently a “Latin Vibe” can be obtained via the combination of chocolate, marshmallow and jalapeno. Who knew?

I’m sure at this juncture you’re thinking to yourself, “This is all well and good, but can I build my own Doghouse creation?” The answer to that query would be an unequivocal “yes.”

I soon came across a contemplative Louie, who is, of course, a Cardinal. The costume leaves something to be desired, but this was a bird with soul.

I strongly contemplated taking a nap on the concourse…

but instead opted to explore the area surrounding Hammons Field. Directly across the street, one finds Jordan Valley Park. It is an oasis of public art, fountains, and views of a nearby scrap yard.

The industrial atmosphere is even more pronounced directly behind the stadium.

And since I live in NYC, the following counted as a bonafide wildlife sighting.

Finally, and apropos of nothing, I came across the Springfield version of Greenzo.

Back in the stadium, it was business as usual. A game of Angry Birds was taking place on the field, during which Louie may or may not have copped a feel.

I spent the next couple of innings within the upper press box and suite level, barred from the high life by a waist-length metal fence.

The Cardinals really started to run away with the ballgame at this point in the evening. As I engaged in conversation with a kindly elderly usher (Springfield native Joseph Jefferson, who declined my request to take a photo of him), several balls left the park.

Touchin’ ‘em all.

I celebrated the home town success with a popcorn (sans Latin Vibe, not pictured), and then an ice cream helmet from the Springfield Creamery.

But if you’re going to be buying anything at Hammons Field, make sure you have cash on hand. This Empire Bank ATM charged $4 for the privilege of withdrawing money from it. Concourse extortionist!

Avoid!

$4 poorer but still spiritually rich, I made my way back to the berm area. There was a commotion going on in and around the visitor’s bullpen — Travelers relief pitchers were creating a kiddie stampede by throwing gum and candy onto the berm. This photo doesn’t really capture the action well, but it was the best I could do.

The Travelers’ even gave away their pink equipment backpack (a Minor League staple; you may recall the one I came across in Burlington, NC last season). In this shot, the kids holding the backpack were (unsuccessfully) trying to give the backpack back in exchange for more candy.

No wonder such frivolous antics were going on — the game had turned into an unmitigated disaster for the visiting Travelers.

Yes, the Cardinals put up 20 runs on the strength of 24 hits. This was the most runs I’d ever seen scored at a Minor League game (although, admittedly, I barely watched the game), and the team and fans went home happy.

The night officially concluded, for me, once this young straggler finally made it home during the post-game Run the Bases.

All in all, it was a night to be proud of for the hometown team.  John Q. Hammons, a highly successful local entrepreneur and stadium namesake, bids you all a pleasant good night from Springfield, MO.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Right and Natural in Northwest Arkansas

After the non-stop endurance test that was my night in Tulsa, I could’ve used a breather. But there’s no rest for the wicked, as they say, and, independent of that, there’s no rest for self-pitying Minor League Baseball writers either. So straight outta Tulsa I went — and straight into Northwest Arkansas!

That would be Arvest Ballpark, specifically, the home of the NWA Naturals. Upon pulling into the stadium, I told the parking lot attendant that I was with Minor League Baseball’s website. His response?

“That’s close enough to media. You can go in.”

Folks were lined up early on this fine Saturday evening, milling about the general area and planning their point of entry attack.

The reason for this punctual approach was because it was Eric Hosmer bobblehead night. I realized after the fact that I neglected to get a photo of this item, and part of my excuse for that is because bobblehead giveaways are really boring. I’m not knocking bobbleheads themselves (that would be like a prominent pontiff saying he’s not all that into mass), it’s just that as a promotion it involves a bunch of people forming a line and, eventually, being handed a white cardboard box. The bobbleheads themselves are rarely seen.

The vagaries of my schedule had precluded me from attending the night before, when the Naturals staged a promotion I was really and truly interested in: a “What Might Have Been” theme night in which they imagined that they were known as the “Thunder Chickens” (the runner-up in a 2007 “Name the Team” contest). An in-depth piece on the promo, which you will surely read and tell your friends and family about, can currently be found over on MiLB.com. But let it be known that the players took the field in these jerseys:

Meanwhile, Thunder Chickens hats and t-shirts were available in the team store (and only in the team store, in a run of 125 for the hats and 250 for the shirts). When I was there on Saturday, the only hats left were in “off” sizes such as this Bruce Bochy-esque 8.

The shirts were a bit more plentiful.

My first game day duty on this particular trip was to interview pitcher Steven Dwyer in the home dugout. From there I was summoned to the home radio booth to be the interviewee, as part of broadcaster Steven Davis’ pre-game show. This was my third radio appearance in as many stops, and I am currently 5-for-6 on this still on-going trip.

The view from the booth.

As you can see from the photo, Arvest Ballpark is surrounded by, well, not much. The facility, owned by the city of Springdale, AR, was envisioned as the centerpiece of a larger development project that has not yet materialized. So, for better or for worse, coming to Arvest Ballpark simply means coming to Arvest Ballpark. There aren’t any peripheral complementary entertainment options.

Upon finishing my interview (in which, upon review, I found myself to be kind of a jerk) I did a 360 degree lap around the outside of the stadium.

Nobody here but us Thunder Chickens!

I couldn’t help but wonder how the occupants of this home felt, living directly across the street from a stadium.

Now how’s this for a spacious berm? It’s a nice place to relax, for the short term (“Weekend at Bermies”) or long (“Bermanent Vacation”).

To my right (baseball field left), I was pleased to see a team-sanctioned Wiffle Ball game in full swing.

Then it was back inside the ballpark, for a little pre-game wandering prior to the first pitch.

Weighing the options:

The long and (not-so) winding road leads to both inflatables and a playground, depending on which way you take it.

Warming up for the game, as the kids look on:

The National Anthem was pretty cool, as the performer whistled it. (I’ll try to confirm the guy’s name, in my notes it looks something like “Stephen Spino.”)

With the game underway, I took a tour of the ballpark with GM Eric Edelstein.

The “Community Room,” available for your next board meeting.

I didn’t even use the fish-eye effect for this locker room shot:

The weighting game? (Maybe you can come up with something better. Why do I have to do all of the heavy lifting?)

But the subterranean wanderings soon came to an end, in favor of an extended stint at “The Cider Shack.”

Concessions are handled by the Patina Restaurant Group, and the Naturals are the only Minor League team in their portfolio. There is some seriously high-quality stuff on offer, just check out this triumvirate of a bbq brisket platter, funnel dog, and BBQ Nachos.

The brisket is one of several BBQ platters available in the Cider Shack (which, incidentally, is located down the right field line). Everything but the slaw is housemade.

The Funnel Dog is one of the team’s signature items, and has garnered attention across the land in various “crazy Minor League food items” articles that end up plagiarizing off of each other in an infinite internet loop. The story behind it is that one of the grounds crew members wanted a corn dog for his birthday, and since the chef didn’t have corn dog batter he used funnel cake batter instead. It went over well, initially, but it wasn’t until the inspired addition of powdered sugar that it became a sensation.

I wasn’t expecting to like the funnel dog, but it works! Edelstein said that some fans put mustard on it, and I tried it that way as well. The mustard gave a tart counterbalance to the sweetness of the funnel cake, but, ultimately, I decided that I liked it unadorned.

But the piece de resistance was the BBQ Nachos, possibly the best nachos I’ve ever had at a ballpark. This is a work of art: avocado cream sauce, mango, red pepper, scallions, pulled pork, sour cream, and a few other things (my notes at this point in the evening were too sloppy even for me to read, and stained with BBQ sauce).

So, yeah, BBQ Nachos at Arvest Park are now on my “best Minor League food” short list. As soon as I make such a list.

While the food tasting was going on, the Naturals ran one of their nightly adoptable dog promotions. A dog from one of two local shelters is taken on to the field, in the hopes of finding him or her a home. The program has been very successful, and has certainly saved the lives of abandoned pets who would otherwise be euthanized. Edelstein later sent this photo to me, taken last month. He wrote that the dog in the photo “was from the Rogers Shelter so this family took custody at the game and went home with their new family member that day…Pit bulls are so tough to get adopted once they enter a shelter, so this one made me especially happy.

The Naturals are a very animal-friendly team in general, and I’ll have more on that in tomorrow’s “Farm’s Almanac” piece on MiLB.com. For example — groundskeeper Monty Sowell always comes to work with Ruby, a 12-year-old black lab. In this photo, she couldn’t be bothered to look at the camera and I don’t really blame her.

Ruby is well-known around the ballpark, a bonafide canine celebrity. These items, in fact, are hot sellers in the team store. Ruby dolls!

Lest the evening go totally to the dogs, I adjourned to the press box and eavesdropped on a passionate debate regarding arcane scorekeeping decisions.

While I was up there, the following graphic was displayed on the scoreboard while an instrumental track from founding NWA member Dr. Dre played over the sound system. Coincidence?

This leads to an interesting debate — if you ran the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, would you incorporate “NWA” into your logo in the hopes that the hats and jerseys would be worn as a hip-hop/pop-culture fashion statement? You couldn’t market it as such, obviously (given NWA’s lyrical content, not to mention the acronym itself), but it could be a nice way to boost merchandise revenue. The long-rumored NWA biopic is apparently moving forward, so the group’s exposure is only going to increase…

But I digress, and while digressing the game nearly came to an end. I took this picture of Strike the Sasquatch when the Naturals were on the cusp of victory. Two outs and two strikes in the ninth, and then a pitch that was called a ball that just missed the plate. Strike looked incredulous, but then again this is how he always looks:

But the borderline call merely delayed the inevitable: a home team win.

Afterward, the bat boy hung around to sign autographs (yes, this is really the bat boy).

And with Hosmer bobbleheads in hand and BBQ nachos in belly, the crowd streamed toward the Arvest moon.

And…scene!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Never A Dull Moment in Tulsa

My Friday evening with the Tulsa Drillers was an absolute whirlwind, and resulted in so much content that I made the executive decision to divide it into two posts. Part one is HERE, or, if you’re not inclined to click on things, directly below this one.

Part two is here, as in here now, as in RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. There is no other place you’d rather be. And it begins where any good baseball narrative should — with a ceremonial first pitch. As part of Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebrations (which commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States) the team welcomed a pair of local Negro League icons to the ballpark.

Eugene Golden, who suited up for the Cleveland Buckeyes (among other clubs) looked much younger than his 87 years.

And then came 94-year-old Roosevelt Jackson, believed to be the oldest living Negro League alumnus.  Dressed to the nines in a suit and tie, Jackson slowly made his way to an area in front of the mound. This was the prelude to one of the most memorable first pitches I’ve ever witnessed.

When it came time for Jackson to deliver the ball, he didn’t. He just stood there, leading to an increasingly uncomfortable silence. Was he unable to muster the strength?

It turns out that it was all a bit of showmanship, courtesy of an individual who clearly knows how to play to a crowd. Having drawn out the suspense long enough, Jackson danced into his wind-up, did a full 360 degree turn on the grass, and then, with an exaggerated flailing motion, delivered the pitch.

Bravo, Mr. Roosevelt, for showing us all how it’s done. Umps and managers agreed, it was awesome.

Bro, did you see that?

After a National Anthem performance by Divas for Jesus (which, incidentally, was also the name of a short-lived Oi band I played drums for in high school), the Drillers took the field. Having them run through a greeting line of local youth baseball players was a nice touch.

Obermark, Taylor, and Slaughter: Tulsa’s number one law firm, circa 2044.

With the game now underway (it took me 1600 words over two blog posts to get to this point), I went upstairs and briefly visited with Drillers promotion manager Mike Taranto and BNSF Railways police officer Ray Tucker. The two have forged an unlikely friendship, with fireworks bringing them together. To get the scoop on all of that, please check out my article on MiLB.com (yes, many of my road trip posts have corresponding MiLB.com articles. Please support the entirety of the Ben’s Biz road trip experience, so that my existence remains justified).

Tucker’s job title, is, in actuality: “special agent in charge.” Mine is, in actuality, idiot:

This Alfred E. Neuman-esque image (which is now my new Twitter profile pic) resulted from my participation in the on-field “squeeze play” contest in the middle of the second inning. After donning the above outfit, all I had to do was sit in a chair while a sponge drenched with blue cotton candy coloring was squeezed into the pitcher perched atop the helmet.

I mean, duh.

I’m pretty sure my team won, but I was practicing transcendental meditation at the time and therefore unconcerned with temporal concerns. It did feel good to finally take that helmet off, though. (And I love the t-shirt style of the kid standing behind me.)

Upon getting cleaned up, I went back out onto the field to watch Golden and Roosevelt honored in a short between-inning ceremony.

My plan was to do a brief interview with these individuals, but then I realized I had already committed to a half inning on the radio with Drillers broadcaster Dennis Higgins. It was par for the course — me trying to explain who I am and what I do, while frequently pausing to allow Higgins room to actually call the action on the field.

The gist of it is that my name is Ben, I write about Minor League Baseball, and you should read this blog, my articles on MiLB.com, and follow me on Twitter (@bensbiz). Thank you for your support.

The view from the booth (note the colored highlighters, and read more about idiosyncratic broadcaster scorekeeping methods in this MiLB.com article).

After fulfilling my on-air duties, I met up with manager of game entertainment Justin Gorski for a brief tour of the concession options. As with Oklahoma City, concessions are provided by Professional Sports Catering. So, there was some overlap between the two parks.

Same Franx, different dogs:

The real action, food-wise, is to be found along the third base side of the concourse. There, one finds a little area dubbed “cart alley.”

As a Pitt alumni who once thought he was pretty boss, I opted for a “Pit Boss Burger.”

Clearly this wasn’t enough food, so a Firecracker hot dog (see above) and All-Star Wheat beer was added to the order as well. The beer is only available at the ballpark, and the name references the fact that the Drillers are the hosts of this year’s Texas League All-Star Game. It was a nice brew, smooth and drinkable but possessing more body than your run-of-the-mill ballpark pilsners.

Get me some napkins!

Pit Boss:

Firecracker:

Dinner spread:

I spent the next inning and a half doing my best to put a dent in this meal (I particularly liked the Pit Boss, because pulled pork, slaw and pickles have to be one of the greatest of all topping triumvirates), but had to cut the mastication session short in order to go see cult ballpark celebrity Harry “Ruck” Caray (aka manager of video production David Ruckman) lead the crowd in the seventh inning stretch.

(Yes, somehow it was already the seventh. The entire game took just two hours and 16 minutes.)

The wig may be a reappropriated mullet from a “Redneck Night” promo, but nonetheless the resemblance is uncanny.

Refreshed from the stretch, I then headed back to the tunnel next to the home dugout to prepare for my second and final on-field appearance.

This time the game was “Nervous Nelly.” Three pedometers were strapped on each contestant (around the head and on each wrist), and the winner is he (or she) who goes on to record the most movement.

I was ready.

My opponent was a pink mohawked teenager by the name of Sergio, formidable indeed.

Once the contest started, I went into a shamanistic trance comparable to that of a Peruvian medicine man on ayahuasca. It was, truly, a spiritual journey.

And yet I still lost, 305-300. Congratulations to Sergio.

As for the next 20 minutes of my life? Suffice to say that they were not pleasant, as ballpark food followed by frenetic movement is not a good combination. But I recovered in time to make it out on to the field post-game, in order to get a fresh Launch-A-Ball perspective.

Meanwhile, in centerfield, preparations were being made for the fireworks show.

Backstreet Boys, circa 2035?

And once the all-clear was received, fireworks did indeed light up the night sky.

It was a great show, with a truly impressive finale, but as is so often the case the pictures didn’t really do it justice. I’ll close with this shot, simply because of its similarity to a Rorschach ink blot.

What’s your interpretation?

My interpretation of the Tulsa Drillers is that this is an organization firing on all cylinders — a vibrant market, beautiful ballpark, and creative and deeply engaged front office staff. Thanks for the hospitality!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

Under Attack! (And It Feels So Good)

siege.jpgThe World Series ended last night, but that wasn’t the biggest piece of news to emanate from the baseball world.

Of far greater import was the discovery, during a routine Google search, of a press release attacking my skill and integrity as a journalist. That the release was written a month and a half ago is beside the point, what matters is that it exists and I now have something entertaining to write about this afternoon.

On September 19, the day after losing the Texas League Championship, the Midland RockHounds issued forth a missive entitled “Benjamin Hill Was Wrong.

Their beef seems to stem from a single paragraph in my TL Championship preview, in which I wrote: “… the RockHounds went 35-35 in both halves and made it to the playoffs by virtue of playing in the league’s thoroughly lackluster South Division.”

But hell hath no fury like a RockHound very mildly scorned. Let’s go to the invective:

Either Mr. Hill was absent during “research week” in school (sir, the word “thoroughly” in your so-called “preview” constitutes an editorial) or his research is, itself, “thoroughly lackluster.”

rock.jpg

First, Mr. Hill completely overlooked the fact that the North included Arkansas, the second worst team in all of Minor League Baseball (gee, Ben, think THAT might have inflated some win-loss records?). Second, he ignored the fact that the South was very well-balanced…Last, Ben Hill knows precious LITTLE about Darren Bush ‘s baseball club.

And, later: Note to Ben Hill. Both Midland College and the University Of Texas Permian Basin (in Odessa, if that’s more convenient) offer excellent journalism courses. Perhaps a refresher is overdue.

Let me make clear that I am not upset by any of this in the least. But as this is the only blog material I have today, I’ll make a few observations:

– Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to have written this release BEFORE the RockHounds lost in the Finals?

– Rivalries are fun, and it’s always great when teams can feed off of bulletin board material. I would love to see front offices deliberately cultivate rivalries throughout the playoffs, antagonizing the opposing team in order to create greater fan interest.

Or, conversely, you can wait until after the playoffs and then attack a so-called “journalist” who had no interest in the outcome whatsoever.

– Midland RockHounds? More like Middlin’ RockHounds! Am I right or am I right?

– Finally, I write about Minor League Baseball year-round and go out of my way to make sure my readers can get in touch. If your team wants to go after me, then please let me know! I’m totally on board, and will do my best to promote your endeavors.

It’s fun to be insulted! Feel free to give me the what-for at any time and for any reason:

benjamin.hill@mlb.com
twitter.com/bensbiz

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