Results tagged ‘ Travel ’

On the Road: Slammed, Dunked, and Stuffed in Akron

The fifth and final stop in this, my most recent Minor League road trip, was Akron’s Canal Park. This  facility has served as the home of the Double-A Aeros since 1997, and is located in the heart of downtown.

To give you an idea of the general surroundings, the stadium is located just down the street from the Civic Theater.

And across the street from from a closed storefront featuring this interesting artwork.

Large municipal buildings abound throughout the area, and some are even called “Municipal Building.”

And the streets are litter-free, thanks to Akron’s passion for the regional sport known as “Trashball.”

Canal Park offers a decent urban view from the seating bowl, with many of the buildings associated with the renowned Akron Children’s Hospital.

And Canal Park got its name for a reason — Akron was settled at the summit of the Ohio-Erie Canal, and developed into a  manufacturing and transportation hub. Beyond left field, there are still some aquatic reminders of the city’s history.

The view toward center field reveals an 18″x25″ digital scoreboard, as well as an inflatable slide that takes up seemingly every inch of available space.

Above the seating bowl are 25 suites (20 owned by the team and five by the city). They were personally decorated by the stadium’s original suiteholders, with motifs that could be characterized as  “ladies sewing circle” and “old man’s den.”

On this particular evening, early-arriving fans received a “Batman” bobblebelly in honor of the Aeros’ iconic on-field dancer and bat retriever.

The promotion that I was really looking forward to was “Car Survivor,” in which five contestants vie to win a car by seeing who can live inside of it the longest. But, as it turned out, the contest had ended the day before on a technicality.

But the car was still there on the concourse — a 1996 Lexus with 182,000 miles already on it.

The fact that the Aeros are staging promotions such as “Car Survivor” can largely be attributed to new COO Jim Pfander, who spent the last decade with the Mike Veeck-owned Charleston RiverDogs.

One of Pfander’s beliefs when it comes to in-game entertainment is that “it doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be fun.” Perhaps that best explains new mascot Homer the Polka-Dot Pigeon.

This hallucinatory inflatable (the result of a staff meeting in which half the room was asked to suggest an animal, and the other half a color combination) is joined by long-time mascot Orbit.

As well as a fast food representative desperately promoting the consumption of a rival species in order to save himself.

And speaking of animal consumption, you may recall that the Aeros received a lot of attention this past offseason after unveiling gargantuan meat creations like the Three Dog Night and Nice 2 Meat You burger.

But such innovations are just a small part of a larger story, which is that the club has totally revamped its concessions. Pfander recruited fellow Charleston RiverDog Jason Kerton to serve as food and beverage director, and under his direction each of the six concourse concession stands has taken on a distinct theme.

For example, “Rabbit Food” is available at the health-conscious “Farmer’s Market.”

The menu at the left field grill stand is considerably less healthy.

A large array of franks are available at “The Dog Pound” (with the menu done up in Cleveland Browns colors).

The Major League-referencing “Jobu’s Voodoo.”

The self-explanatory Biergarten

While “Taters” is the only stand equipped with fryers (which are used to fry up pickles and sauerkraut, among a bevy of more standard fare).

But my food-centric wanderings were soon interrupted, as I was asked if I’d like to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

But of course!

But don’t let those flawless mechanics fool you — I bounced it, for the first (and I hope only) time in my ceremonial first pitch throwing career.

As penance for this lack of control, I accepted an invitation to spend some time in the dunk tank located down the right field line. But since this necessitated a change of clothes, so I ducked into the team store.

I selected the following retro-themed tee, which was then personalized with “Ben’s Biz” across the back (it’s always great when teams are able to provide this service).

The dunk tank is one of the kid’s area amusements, and usually occupied by interns. $1 buys two throws.

This kid, one “Heckman” from the nearby town of Solon, was relentless. He must have spent at least $15 at the tank, and knocked me into the water again and again and again. In the following picture, I am most likely saying “What the heck, man?” That was my go-to line.

But the water was refreshing, and all in all this was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of innings. I liked interacting with the various kids, and quickly judging whether to taunt them (as with Heckman) or attempt to increase their confidence via exaggerated displays of fear.

Upon leaving the dunk tank, I threw on my shoes and was immediately escorted to the top of the first base dugout for the nightly “Pie an Intern” contest. Usually this is preceded by some sort of trivia contest before the inevitable pie-ing, but time was short so on-field MC Calvin Funkhouser simply told the young contestant to “Go ahead and hit him with a pie.”

And so he did.

The pie was then removed, and I was turned around and put face to face with that menacing triumvirate of faux-Mexican wrestlers. Then, I was hit with a pie again.

Walking back up the stairs toward the concourse, I found it impossible to wipe the smile (or the whipped cream) off of my face. I was soaking wet and covered in whipped cream, and somehow still operating within a professional context.

And to top it all off, it was a beautiful summer evening.

I cleaned myself off the best that I could, changed back into my regularly-scheduled outfit, and met up with Kerton for dinner — Akron Aeros’ style!

Nice 2 Meat You Burger meets Three Dog Night

The Nice 2 Meat You Burger, which could feed two people easily, consists of two 1/3 pound patties, two hot dogs, bacon, cheese, and onions. It is honestly more than a publicity stunt — it’s very tasty. The key is that the meat well-done, providing a uniform crispness throughout.

Keep your distance, Chik-Fil-A cow.

Damp, sticky, smelling like whipped cream, and eating a giant hamburger. The apex of my life so far.

“Dessert” was the Three Dog Night — a hot dog stuffed inside a brat stuffed inside a kielbasa, placed on a hoagie roll and then slathered with sauerkraut and spicy stadium mustard.

This, too, was tasty. But it was more like eating a hot dog stew than some magical combination of meat, in which kielbasa combined with brat to create some heretofore unknown taste combination.

One thing I liked about the Aeros’ approach to “extreme” concessions was that 1. they actually taste good and 2. they are available at all times. And, as a result, they are actually selling. Kerton estimated that through Saturday, intrepid Akronites had consumed 1000 Three Dog Nights and 600 Nice 2 Meat You Burgers.

And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the mustard atop of the Three Dog Night is Bertman’s. The Aeros even have it for sale in the gift shop, and I am happy to report that I smuggled it through airport security and now enjoying it in NYC.

Kerton also sent me home with an array of peanuts from the iconic Peanut Shoppe. This Akron institution is located across from the stadium, and their products are available at Canal Park. I really wish I had had the chance to visit.

Another place I wish I could have visited was Chrissy Hynde’s VegiTerranean restaurant. The meatless fare offered by the Pretenders frontwoman would have been a welcome counterpoint to ballpark cuisine. Also, the Pretenders are awesome.

After the game, while gathering my scattered belongings,  I met longtime team owner Mike Agganis. We engaged in a freewheeling and rather absurd conversation, often punctuated with remarks like “I bet you’ve never met an owner like me!”

No, Mr. Agganis, I hadn’t.

After leaving the stadium, I happened upon the latest installment of Akron’s Saturday night “Lock 3 Concert Series.”

That’s Hotel Calfornia up there on the stage, an Eagles tribute band. I have no love for that particular rock entity, but it was an admirably flawless replication. They closed with “Life in the Fast Lane”, an apropos selection for any road trip soundtrack. There’s never a dull moment.

But, for now, I am back within New York City’s comforting embrace. To those who have sent me blog-worthy material over the past week — THANK YOU. It’ll be featured here soon, promise.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Citizenship and Costumed Characters in Toledo

Yesterday’s post ended on a spectacular cliffhanger, in which the ceremonial first pitches at the Toledo Mud Hens game were about to transition into a Naturalization Ceremony. And –spoiler alert! — my MiLB.com article on the ceremony appeared later in the day.

If you haven’t read said article I certainly suggest that you do. I tried real hard and used big words and everything, and there are even links to a photo gallery and player interviews. But in the interest of continuity let me pick up the narrative thread here as well.

As far as I know, the Mud Hens are the only team that stage annual ballpark Naturalization Ceremonies. They were inspired to do so by the parent Detroit Tigers (who served as the venue for Placido Polanco’s naturalization), and this year individuals from 13 countries officially became Americans.

The Honorable David Katz, presiding

Their first act as Americans: shake hands with a Mud Hen

I’ll be honest — a lot of patriotic ballpark events seem to be of the “going through the motions” variety, comprised of standing, rising, rote memorization, and unthinking applause. But I was truly inspired by this, that the 20 people on the field renounced the governments of their native countries in order to make a go of it in Toledo. It was a great reminder that this country is still a wonderful and highly desirable place to live, despite pervasive post-industrial economic malaise compounded by partisan strife and the frequent inability to find something good to eat while writing in a hotel at 1:30 a.m.

And the pomp and circumstance only continued, as one of the first promotions once the game began was the “seat graduation.” I loved the creativity here, as the Mud Hens tweaked the standard seat upgrade gimmick by having the two chosen fans (Steve and Stu from Wisconsin) march to their new seats whilst wearing gowns. Upon arriving at their new location, they were instructed to move their tassels from right to left before sitting down.

But graduation gowns are nothing in the overall scheme of things, for Fifth Third Field is a wall-to-wall funhouse of outlandish costumes. Over the course of the next innings, I ran into the following individuals on the concourse:

The first two individuals are representatives of the ECHL’s Toledo Walleyes, who share an ownership group with the Mud Hens. In fact, many Mud Hens employees also fill a similar capacity with the Walleyes. They’ve got dual-sided business cards and everything.

And that inflatable Mud Hen is just plain terrifying — it has a fully operational tongue and will not hesitate to lick you. And then there are these characters, named after Toledo celebrities Jamie Farr, Jim Leyland, and (in the background) Katie Holmes.

Jim Flealand, Jamie Farrmadillo, Kittie Holmes

These three individuals take part in a nightly on-field race, and I was given the honor of suiting up as Jamie Farrmadillo (who, truth be told, should probably be wearing women’s clothing ala Klinger).

I can’t tell you much about this race, except that I did not win and was winded afterward. I then stuck around with the promo crew for the next inning break, running onto the field and displaying my gross ineptitude with a t-shirt gun. Video of this exists, and I hope to soon share it with you.

But, for now, its best to leave things to the professionals. Like primary mascots Muddy and Muddonna, seen here doing dancing during a between-inning skit.

And wouldn’t you know it? This cavalcade of costumed characters was taking place while there was a professional baseball game going on. Who knew? Here are a few Fifth Third points.

The right field “Roost” overhang, accommodating 350 fans and usually sold as part of a group package.

Concourse, behind home plate:

Outfield walkway:

But all vantage points are enhanced by victory. As this hallucinogenic scoreboard graphic makes clear, victory was indeed achieved.

Welcome to America!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

(I finally hit 1000 Twitter followers yesterday! Thanks, and here’s to 999,000 more!)

Wrapping Up the Road: Sonora Dogs, Settlements, and Swag

A major challenge for me when on the road is finding time to explore the area outside of the ballpark. This has been frustrating, because one of the greatest things about Minor League Baseball is that it organizes and contextualizes American travels. The presence of a Minor League team can serve as motivation to visit a place one otherwise wouldn’t.  And, once there, why not find the time to take in the unique things that the surrounding community has to offer?

A Minor League road trip can (and should) be about much more than baseball. It is, quite simply, about America!

Professional obligations have, thus far, kept me from practicing what I preach in this regard (Click HERE for a sidebar compiling all output on the latest trip: five MiLB.com features, eight blog posts, four photo galleries, and 14 player interviews).

But every once in a while I can sneak something in. On May 12 in Tucson, I acted on a commenter tip and got lunch at El Guero Canelo. This place had great food and tons of character.

The Guero Canelo specialty is the “Sonora Dog”, a Tucson favorite in which the dog is wrapped in bacon and topped with cheese, salsa, onions, tomatoes, beans, mayonnaise and who knows what else. All of this was safely ensconced in the specially-crafted (and delicious) roll and served with a roasted pepper on the side.  Tough to photograph in all its glory, but here’s my attempt:

Soon thereafter I toured Hi Corbett field, and followed that up by taking in its Reid Park surroundings.

May 13 was my first-ever road trip “travel day”, dedicated to driving from Tucson to Lancaster, CA (nearly 600 miles). Along the way I stopped at the “Casa Grande Ruins“, just because I saw a sign. It turned out to be an archaeological site, featuring the remains of an approximately 800 year old Native American settlement.

It’s hard to tell, but the hollowed out area in the picture below is of a ball field.

I’d love to learn more about this ancient game and how it was played, but was put off by this book’s rigorously academic tone. Perhaps someone can summarize for me?

Unfortunately, once I got to California it was pretty much all bizness all the time. I didn’t even have time to check out a tip from reader Rex Doane, what he dubbed “the most pathetic tourist attraction in the continental United States”: Adelanto, CA’s decaying lot of plastic dinosaurs! Fortunately he sent along a picture:

But I am now back in NYC, decaying in front of a keyboard. You may or may not have noticed that I have a new profile  pic, one depicting the serenity I have found amidst my latest haul of road trip swag.

I didn’t actually acquire that vast array of mini-bobbleheads while on the road, but since they are all part of the Lancaster JetHawks’ “Hangar Heroes” series I included them in the photo (Lancaster was one of the teams I visited).  But there was even more stuff I didn’t include.

Lake Elsinore Storm “Homewrecker” shirt, Iowa Cubs yearbook (received in mail), two Tucson Toros yearbooks, Lake Elsinore Storm cap, Cal League Baseball, San Bernardino Spirit Cap, Inland Empire 66ers souvenir baseball, Lancaster JetHawks camo cap, Charlie Sheen-Co De Mayo bobblehead, Lake Elsinore Storm toothbrush, “Goshen and Giddings” book on Visalia baseball history (by Rawhide announcer Donny Baarns), IE 66ers Ken Griffey Jr. “gold” bobblehead.

As you may recall, in my post on the Lancaster JetHawks I expressed a desirous attitude toward the following poster:

Three days later, I was handed this very poster at Lake Elsinore’s The Diamond by Storm fan (and Biz Blog reader) Ryan Bethell. Then, upon my return to NYC, there was a package waiting for me from the Minor League Baseball head office that included the past three editions of said poster.

The funny thing about all this is that with the exception of the poster, I didn’t ask for any of the swag depicted above. But I have a policy of saying yes to everything (both swag offers and requests to participate in aspects of the ballpark experience), and I take home as much as I can stuff into my carry-on luggage. Some of it ends up on my desk here at work, some in my apartment, and much is given away. But I greatly enjoy the absolute randomness of it all, and am quite proud of my ever-growing collection of Minor League detritus.

But one thing I am still missing is the woman of my dreams, who appeared on the Arizona highway like some sort of desert mirage.

I’ll catch up to you eventually, Biz Girl!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: “2 Hours and 43 Minutes of Bliss” in Lake Elsinore

The final team on my “Hill in the Desert” road trip itinerary was the Lake Elsinore Storm, that irreverent crew of Cal League contrarians and trendsetters. My day started not at the ballpark, however, but “Annie’s” — a popular local breakfast and lunch spot. I had been invited there by George and Ryan Bethell, loyal members of the Storm booster club and readers of this blog ever since the latter was featured in a post on fish tossing.

Upon being introduced as a first-time Annie’s patron, I was greeted with a handshake from waitress Wendy. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a newbie!”, she yelled, and the entire restaurant broke out in applause. Then a lobster hat was placed atop my head. Standard operating procedure.

That gentleman in the background is Storm manager Carlos Lezcano. George and Ryan introduced him to me, a gesture that helped to facilitate my clubhouse interview attempts later that afternoon.

I then booked into the Storm’s team hotel, a refreshing change of pace from the generic string of interchangeable lodging houses I’d become accustomed to.

This place doesn’t have the greatest reputation among Cal League players and personnel (pitcher Dirk Hayhurst issued some strong condemnations in his “Bullpen Gospels” memoir), but it has been recently renovated and I found it to be completely acceptable (the excellent internet connection sure helped). But I wasn’t on the road to write about hotels (or to gamble) — I was there for baseball!

The Diamond sure is a great place to watch some.

Like all of the ballparks I visited on this trip, there was plenty of room to move on the inside and out.

Once inside, there is the feeling of being watched.

Those eyes are everywhere!

Even between elevator buttons

And lording over the restroom

The bathroom features induction lighting and waterless urinals, two of many eco-friendly elements to be found around the ballpark. The Storm have been leaders in this area, and are the originators of the “Going Green” promotional nights that have since become common around Minor League Baseball.

Green is one of many clothing colors available in the team store. The Storm have one of the best-selling logos in all of Minor League Baseball (read about it in my MiLB.com piece), and offer a dizzying number of eye-centric clothing choices.

An item available through the club's "Storm Thredz" clothing line

Out of the store and into the open air, some shots from around the ballpark while waiting for the gates to open.

Concessions, where are concessions? Where do you need to be, if you want to eat? (sung to the tune of “Obsession” by Animotion).

Oh, here they are!

The Storm have a fully-operational restaurant on the premises — the Diamond Club. It was closed on on the day I was there due to the team’s “All-You-Can- Eat” Fat Tuesday promotion, but it’s a pretty swanky joint.

I was particularly interested in trying “The Homewrecker,” best explained via t-shirt.

Here’s concessions general manager Arjun Suresh pulling it out of the oven.

Team president Dave Oster, Suresh, and executive chef Steve Bearse marvel at their creation.

The four of us went to the vacant owner’s suite to give it a try. It was delicious! And since it can be easily shared, it’s a bit more justifiable than other recent over-sized items unveiled throughout the Minors.

But my homewrecking companions soon departed (to, you know, do their jobs). After an inning of solitary luxury in the owner’s suite, I went downstairs to watch a couple of innings with the Bethells. They sit just to the left of the screen behind home plate, providing fantastic views.

I had a tough time getting a good shot of it, but the Storm did indeed retire Wild Thing’s #99 as part of their recent “Sheen-Co De Mayo” promotion.

While with the Bethells, I witnessed two top-notch elements of the Storm game entertainment experience. First up was a skit featuring Thunder the mascot. He took the field in order to play fetch with the batboy, who decided to have a laugh at Thunder’s expense by faking a throw. This enraged Thunder, who stole the batboy’s shoe and ran into the dugout. The action then switched to the videoboard, where Thunder was seen abusing the shoe in a number of ways (slamming it in a locker, cooking it in a pot, attempting to flush it down the toilet, etc). Finally, the shoe was thrown out onto the playing field with the humbled batboy limping to get it.

I detailed all of the above because it was an excellent example of a team going above and beyond with their game operations. Even on a cold Tuesday night in a front of a sparse crowd, an effort was made to do something thoughtful, fun, and original. The little things go a long way.

My pictures of Thunder came out very poorly. Thankfully, George Bethell sent over this one. It is of Thunder and his Mom Thunderella:

Also courtesy of Bethell, here’s the Grounds Crew Gorilla.

On Tuesday, the Gorilla was upstaged in a dance contest by a younger, more nimble female gorilla (once again, my pictures were horrible). This enraged him, so he darted into the visiting dugout and then up the hilly berm area. At the top of the hill, he picked up a portion of the fence separating the berm from the concourse and threw it with all his might. The aftermath:

At this point I was thoroughly frozen (note to anyone visiting southern California in May: bring a jacket!), so I decided to visit announcer Sean McCall in his well-appointed play-by-play palace.

Help yourself to a pocket schedule and a toothbrush

Most announcers don’t like to be bothered during games (and I can’t say I blame them), but McCall is uber-hospitable. “Soda, water, beer?” he’ll ask, gesturing to his fully-stocked refrigerator. “Make yourself at home.”

Two unexpected guests in the booth were the mother and aunt of pitcher Hayden Beard, watching him play in person for the first time since a disastrous outing in 2006.

Beard breezed through the eighth inning, to the relief of his extremely nervous family members. Afterwards, mom Vicki spoke with me about how she works as an official scorer in Australia. This is not uncommon, as women make up the majority of scorers in her country. “Men do the on-field stuff, women keep score,” she told me.

McCall is the dean of Cal League broadcasters, and extremely entertaining to listen to. He combines a polished and professional technique with deadpan, absurdist humor — the Harry Nilsson of Minor League broadcasters, perhaps. Sample banter, after a bit in which he shared notable sports moments that had occurred on May 17: “This day in history brought to you by me, reminding you to say please and thank you (pause) Thank you.”

The title of this post is also a McCall quote, uttered upon the conclusion of the ballgame (a 12-1 win over the no-longer voodoo-enhanced Inland Empire 66ers). It was indeed two hours and 43 minutes of bliss.

As for me, my time out west was approximately 190 hours of sleep deprivation and anxiety. But no complaints! It was an honor and a privilege and I thank everyone involved for their hospitality. I’m already plotting the next one.

But, for now, I am ecstatic to be back within NYC’s comforting embrace. And since my return, one of my cats has made a new friend.

Please get in touch, at any time and for any reason. Any reason at all.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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