Results tagged ‘ West Coast 2013 ’

On the Road: By Land and By Sea in Stockton

Usually, when writing these “On the Road” reports, I begin with my arrival at the stadium in question. But in the case of Stockton, let’s back things up a bit. This dispatch is instead going to begin with my arrival in the town of Stockton itself, as before heading to the ballpark I met with Stockton sports development director Tim Pasisz for brief tour of the city.

I wrote about this tour in an MiLB.com piece, along with some mild editorializing about how every city, no matter how embattled or beleaguered, is worth visiting. This fundamental belief has guided my approach to this job, and is one of the reasons that I like Minor League Baseball to the degree that I do: it helps contextualize American travels, giving one the impetus to visit places that they otherwise wouldn’t.  I will spare you any further editorializing however, in lieu of that which you came to see.

Pictures!

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That probably wasn’t the first image you’d expect to see in this post, but it shows the fertile Central Valley farmland that is in abundance just outside of Stockton proper. Said farmland is just a short drive away from the largest inland port in the country, whose existence has, of course, provided the inspiration for the name of the city’s Minor League Baseball team.

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Meanwhile, the combination of the city’s agricultural and nautical features has resulted in this alternate logo, in which a dockworker (Five O’Clock Dock, if you want to get specific) brandishing a piece of asparagus.

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Putting the “pee” in Ports

Hence, offerings such as the following are served at the Ports’ current home of Banner Island Ballpark.

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We’ll get to such things a bit later on (as in, the next post) but first let’s take a look at the facility that the Ports competed within before moving to their aforementioned current home of Banner Island Ballpark.

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That’s Billy Hebert Field, named after the first professional baseball player killed in action during WWII. The Ports played here from 1953-2004, but even in the absence of Minor League Baseball the stadium is still thriving. It is currently leased out to a private company that rents it out for amateur baseball and softball tournaments and the turf, it is artificial.

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Located nearby is the idyllic campus of the University of the Pacific. The campus’s Burns Tower is an impressive edifice, but as an alum of the University of Pittsburgh I have to say that it’s no Cathedral of Learning.

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Across the way is the Morris Chapel, which has a mammoth wedding wait list. Basically, if you want to get married here, book it now and then hope that you’ve got somebody when the day comes. (I booked myself for November 2015, ladies, so let me know if you want to get in on that.)

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But such a cart-before-the-horse mentality is erroneous, To get your mind right, head to Stockton’s gritty industrial southeast quadrant and visit the Wat Dharmararam Cambodian Buddhist Temple. I was only here long enough to get a superficial sense of what was going on, but, basically, moments from the life of the Cambodian Buddha are told via a series of boldly-colored larger-than-life statue vignettes.

This was one of the most unique places I’d ever visited whilst out here “on the road.”

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Consider that surreal spectacle the appetizer. The main course, as it always is on this blog, is Minor League Baseball. Banner Island Ballpark is located along the Stockton marina waterfront, adjacent to the Stockton Arena.

038The Stockton Arena is the home of the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder. Did you know that ECHL used to stand for “East Coast Hockey League” but is now an “orphan initialism” in that it stands for nothing at all? Other examples of “orphan initialism” include AT&T and ESPN and you heard it here first: if I ever have the wherewithal to start a record label, I’m naming it “Orphan Initialism.”

Marina scenes:

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Beyond Banner Island Ballpark lies this undeveloped expanse, as good a comment as any on the economic paralysis that seized Stockton in the wake of the 2007 collapse.

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The light, log and barrier are part of a conceptual art piece entitled “Do Not Pass Go.” My interpretation was that modernity (the lamppost) and traditional agrarian means of subsistence (the log) are blocked from reaching their potential by the myriad challenges currently facing the city (the barrier). But if and when they find a way around it, then the sky’s the limit.

The above paragraph is, of course, not true. But what is true is that I headed westward, working my way around the stadium’s perimeter in search of more and better vantage points.

043There were impromptu gatherings all along the waterfront, such as the following.

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Among those gathered were members of the Ports’ Silver Sluggers club, doing a little tailgating in the shadow of abandoned factories.

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Somehow, in my mania to get close to the illuminated edifice that is Banner Island Ballpark, I neglected to get a shot of the exterior. The next shot on my virtual photo roll is this, featuring fellow Minor League travelers Rex and Coco Doane.

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Rex and Coco, like myself, are based in Brooklyn. But here we were in Stockton on separate road trips, similar to that time in 2011 when we were in Winston-Salem on separate road trips.

(Shortly after this picture was taken, Rex let it be known that legendary b-movie director/producer Russ Meyer is buried in Stockton! Breast In Peace, Russ Meyer, the next time I visit Stockton I will be sure to make a pilgrimage.)

 I may have neglected Banner Island Ballpark’s exterior, but I had the interior covered.

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Shortly after arriving at the ballpark, I met up with Ports senior director of marketing Jeremy Neisser. Jeremy has been a strong supporter of the Ben’s Biz empire over the years, providing me with content related to my two all-time favorite topics: sexagenarian boxing and abdomen-based area code tattoos. So when he told me that he had something to show me, I knew that it would be in line with my sensibilities.

We proceeded through a vast expanse of cultivated greenery, and then beyond the outfield fence.

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And then, lo and behold, there it was: the Banner Island Ballpark Bullpen Memorial. Written upon this concrete wall are the names of every Ports players who has ever been a member of the bullpen, with a star indicating an eventual Major Leaguer.

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But at the moment that I was out there were no players to be found. Just detritus.

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Remember, Ports fans: dial #1947 for all your bullpen needs.

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Above the bullpen, there is a quality group seating area.

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The above location would be a good spot to enjoy some Kinder’s BBQ and,  as you can see, one of the options is a salad named after Ports president Pat Filippone. That salad sounds pretty good, and has a fairly high gluten-free probability.

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But perhaps a better location to enjoy BBQ would be this, which I’m going to go ahead and name the “Kinder Garden.”

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Awkward manchild alert!

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I emerged from this siesta in time to see a lone player make the desolate walk from the clubhouse.

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He went his way, I went mine, and within moments I came across this most unique concession stand.

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Run by a very friendly Filipino family (my notes are somehow devoid of their name), this kiosk is highlighted by the dry ice-based “Volcano Splash.” They insisted I try one, and who was I to disagree?

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This is a rare drink, in that its “fun facts” could double as a high school chemistry lecture.

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If he was back in the confines of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium, Blaze announcer Dan Besbris probably would have been smoking and drinking right along with me. But in Stockton, he was on his best behavior.

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I was in the press box in order to do a pre-game interview with Besbris’s Stockton counterpart, Mr. Zack Bayrouty. Here he is bracing himself for the night’s action.

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In exchange for doing the interview, I received this gift.

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“e no-alez in Sacramento ounce,” reports insane man

And, don’t worry, there’s plenty where that came from. Next to five boxes of “Hello Panda,” one could find nine boxes of Stauffer’s Animal Crackers.

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“That’s the best [sponsorship] deal that Minor League Baseball has ever done,” Bayrouty told me, pointing toward the boxed bounty. “Those have provided snacks for all of the broadcasters.”

That’s all well and good, but for my part I would rather have been given an inflatable bottle of Tabasco.

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Inflatables in the press box were joined by inflatables in the background, as various Ports warmed up prior to the ballgame.

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I was on the field in order to add to my impressive string of first pitch failure. After bouncing it in Modesto, this one was high and away.

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Fleeing the scene: 082

Apprehended:

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Splash liked my first pitch, but only because Splash has never not liked anything in the history of being Splash.

084 For those keeping score at home: three nights in a row I threw out a first pitch, and three nights in a row the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by professor Joe Price.

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Joe did better with his anthem rendition than I did with my first pitch.

“I’d give myself an A- on that one,” he said. “There were three notes where my pitch was off.”

And with that, there was nothing left to do but “Play Ball!”

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There will soon be a Part Two of this post and, wouldn’t you know it? It’s going to pick up right where this one left off.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Nutting but a Good Time in Modesto

When I am on these Minor League road trips I have become accustomed to showing up at a ballpark and being told “Too bad you’re here on a [insert day of the week]. Our best days are [insert different day of the week].” But when I arrived at Modesto’s John Thurman Field on a recent Tuesday, Nuts GM Mike Gorrasi took this familiar sentiment into bold new territory.

“Of the 70 games in which you could have attended, this would have been my 70th choice,” he said.

This is because Modesto schools, due to some Un-American-seeming directive that may or may not have a valid justification behind it, were starting the very next day. When the first day of school looms families aren’t exactly inclined to take the kids to a Minor League Baseball game, but the sparse attendance certainly didn’t detract from my time at the ballpark. Far from it! John Thurman Field is a relatively no-frills facility, but regardless of whether or not the school year is looming ominously it’s certainly worth visiting and I hope that the remainder of this post adequately justifies this sentiment.

I didn’t have a compass on me, but I’m pretty sure that I entered the stadium while walking in a westerly direction.

008I’m a man of the people, and these inherently populist tendencies generally cause me to reject overly opulent surroundings. But the Nuts had set aside a suite for me, and who was I to disagree?

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Meanwhile, next door in the press box, onfield emcee Michael “Mike on the Mic” Smith was deep in conversation with a man who was asleep. Nothing can stop Mike on the Mic!

013 Down on the lower level, the scene was luminous.

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At this juncture I was with Nuts front office staffer Robert Moulette, who told me “I have to escort you to your chariot.” The meaning behind this cryptic statement shall soon be revealed, but until then please enjoy the photos I took while being escorted to said chariot.

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Moulette and I then passed beyond the left field fence, where the chariot was revealed.

A 1959 Corvette! The Nuts had arranged for me to ride the Corvette en route to the mound for a ceremonial first pitch.

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The Corvette came out of left field, but this first pitch delivery method didn’t come out of left field. As famously depicted in the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti, Modesto is a hotbed of classic car culture and every year the city hosts an “American Graffiti Car Show and Festival (George Lucas was the grand marshal at this year’s edition). The Nuts, for their part, annually host a Graffiti Night promotion and as such they have copious contacts within the classic car community.

The owner and driver of the car was a friendly, soft-spoken man by the name of Gene Carranza. He told me that cars were a post-retirement hobby of his, and that he’d restored the Corvette himself. I felt like a doofus being driven around like some sort of beauty queen or politician, but this was a great experience and certainly a very memorable way to be transported to the mound.

photo: Joe Price

photo: Joe Price

The first pitch itself was not so memorable, as I bounced it (I am now suffering from a full-on case of ceremonial first pitch Steve Blass disease).

IMG_9570On the plus side — the first pitch led to this memorable photo op: ceremonial first pitch catcher Brian Humphries (or at least I think that’s Brian Humphries), me, Al Almond, Wally the Walnut.

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The game was about to begin, and on a more representative night the ballpark would have looked like this.

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Don's Mobile Glass Party Deck (3)

But all things considered, the crowd wasn’t too sparse. Maybe 69 nights are better (they generally are), but it was a beautiful evening and time for some California League baseball.

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Some Modestans opted to spend their evening amid the company of smaller balls, however.

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With the game underway, I retreated to the private suite so that I could rendezvous with the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Welcome, Joe and Bonnie Price!

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You may remember Joe from one of my Fresno dispatches, when he sang both the first and fourth stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner. He sang the National Anthem in Modesto as well and then went on to Stockton the next day and did it again. In the above photo he and Bonnie are wearing “Anthem Tour” shirts, which commemorate their season-long 2011 road trip during which Joe sang the National Anthem at over 100 ballparks.

But with singing duties complete, Joe and Bonnie were now free to sample the finest cuisine that John Thurman Field has to offer. They were joined in this endeavor by Jon Fischer, a good friend of mine dating back to middle school who showed up in Modesto simply so he could experience the ramshackle nightly improvisation that is the Ben’s Biz traveling roadshow. Jon now lives in San Francisco, where he teaches, curates art shows, blogs about his various creative endeavors, and wears t-shirts that display startling amounts of chest hair.

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Within moments, this unlikely triumvirate of gluten-tolerant suite denizens was faced with the following.

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Have at it, guys.

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As for what they were having at, the Super Pretzel is a jumbo pretzel whose negative space is filled with a variety of meat toppings (BBQ chicken, pulled pork, and tri-tip).  Chili and nacho cheese is served on the side, resulting in an “appetizer” that could serve as a meal and then some. The general consensus was that the meat toppings were well-seasoned and appropriately succulent, and the flavor of the chili surprisingly complex given that it was served in a plastic cup like some standard-issue condiment. The pretzel didn’t fare as well in the taste testing, however, as its best days (or day) seemed to be behind it.

“The pretzel is a little dried out,” said Jon.

“You’re not supposed to hear yourself eat it,” added Bonnie.

But on the whole the Super Pretzel was positively received, because on the holes were very tasty toppings. Pretzels have been a hard thing for me to give up in these post-gluten days, but there was no time to mourn. Because in addition to the Super Pretzel there was this:

As that comically inept Vine more or less conveys, this was nothing more and nothing less than bacon on a stick. Or, more specifically, bacon with brown sugar, maple syrup, and BBQ sauce. A product of Modesto’s Greens Market, it is thick, juicy, tender and altogether spectacular, one of the best concession items that I sampled all season. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a photo with just the bacon because my presence, it only detracts.

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Leaving Joe, Bonnie and John within their luxury digs, I headed back down to the concourse in order to investigate a certain piece of signage.

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This feline radio station mascot is surprisingly apprehensive and contemplative looking, not as fiercely resolute as one would expect. This KAT, like mainstream country in general, seems to suffering from an identity crisis. (The formula: pay hollow lip service to the legacy of Hank Williams while creating music that sacrifices Hank’s emotional complexity in favor of uber-condescending “pick-up truck, chewing tobacco, swimming hole and bonfire party” pop constructs that sound as if they were written by city slickers who’ve made a living on the conceit that the rubes don’t know any better. Rise up!)

And speaking of signage, here’s a concession stand pricing rundown. (The Super Pretzel was a suite-only item, I believe, while the bacon on a stick is available elsewhere in the facility.)

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My lackluster signage investigations didn’t last for long, as I soon returned to the field of play.

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And — look! — it’s Mike on the Mic!

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Mike’s name may not be original, but he is.

“I’m aware of two other Mike on the Mics [in Minor League Baseball], but I consider myself to be the most unique,” said Mike, now in his fourth season. “I’m just a man of the people, and make sure everyone’s having a good time. I have more energy and enthusiasm than anyone I know.”

Mike and the on-field promo crew had invited me to be a part of the next on-field promotion, launching t-shirts into the crowd via slingshot. This is an activity that I deeply enjoy.

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Al and Wally were on the field with me, but apparently they are a couple of omniscient nuts. The legume duo were up in the suite when I returned, engaging in one of their patented mascot dance parties.

They were also engaging in what can only be described as shenanigans.

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Being force-fed bacon on a stick by an anthropomorphic nut isn’t exactly my idea of a good time (although it is pretty close), so I headed back out for a bit more wandering and almost immediately ran into this character.

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That’s ballhawk Nick Badders, a Bay Area native who was on his way to snagging a career-best 13 baseballs on the evening. I had never written about a Minor League ballhawk before, so I rectified that situation by composing an MiLB.com piece about Nick and his hobby. You can read that HERE, and then you can go ahead and check out Nick’s account of the evening HERE (he even has a Vine video of me bouncing my ceremonial first pitch).

After interviewing Nick I was re-joined by Mike on the Mic, who was once again including me as part of the between-inning proceedings.

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I was a contestant in a videoboard trivia contest. A clip from a movie (American Graffiti, naturally) was shown on the screen, and I was then tasked with answering a question regarding what it was that I had just seen.

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The answer, I did not know, so there was nothing to do but grin and bear it as I suffered what was approximately my 125th ballpark failure of the season.

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Still single, ladies.

Back in the suite I alleviated my frustration via the consumption of pulled pork on a tapioca-based gluten-free bun.

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You can see Bonnie enjoying some St. Louis-style ribs there in the background. Jon, meanwhile, was enjoying them in the foreground.

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Simply the chest

The ribs were a popular item, and Bonnie, pointing to a stain on her shirt, lauded them for their “decorative appeal.” Joe, meanwhile, raved about the this chicken wrap.

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“One of the good things about the wrap is that it’s not simply lettuce, it’s radicchio,” he said. “It adds more body and flavor and adds a crunchy nip to it. Not a full bite, just a nip.”

Given that the Nuts are named the Nuts I was expecting the Nuts to have voluminous amounts of Nuts throughout the ballpark. This wasn’t exactly the case, although they did produce these limited edition delicacies when they hosted the 2011 California vs. Carolina League All-Star Game.

085Our ragtag group soon migrated next door so that Joe and I could lead the crowd in a poorly-documented but satisfying-in-the-moment rendition of the seventh inning stretch.

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I then stuck around for an inning on the radio with Nuts broadcaster Alex Margulies.

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By the time I returned to our palatial estate, said ragtag group was well into a dessert of “chimis” (cheesecake, raspberry and dulce de leche) and baked smores.

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My documentation skills were starting to wane at this juncture of the evening, but please let it be known that Bonnie exalted the Raspberry Chimis above the Dulce De Leche because the latter was “sweet on top of sweet” and hence too sweet.

Also let it be known that a baseball game transpired during the course of all of this nonsense. The hometown team, desirous of victory, emerged with just this.

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And with the cessation of play comes the cessation of this blog post. Take it away, Mike on the Mic!

Thanks, Mike on the Mic. Ben on the Blog is now over and out.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Around, Down, Up, Over and Out in Fresno

Part One of this Fresno saga featured slow elevators, neglected stanzas, mascot wardrobes and deceased appliances. It was a masterwork, in other words, and like all masterworks it is bound to be neglected until long after I, its creator, have shuffled off of this mortal coil and back into the flux. I accepted this fate long ago and am at peace with it, having learned to still the superfluous concerns of the raging ego within the infinite beauty of the eternal present.

And speaking of infinite beauty, on the evening in which I was in town Chukchansi Park and its immediate surroundings were positively radiant.

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I took these pictures from a perhaps not-so radiant area of the ballpark, as Grizzlies media relations coordinator Chris Kutz and I were wandering in and around Chuckchansi’s obscure backroads.

Gotta love it!

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The Grizzlies are the most prominent occupants of Chukchansi Park, but they’re not the only ones. The Fresno Fuego soccer team plays in the facility as well, and when they do they play upon an uncoiled iteration of this massive turf lollipop.

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Beyond the tarp lies glorious piles of detritus, and beyond the detritus lurks an orange-shirted team employee tasked with operating the manual right field scoreboard.

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But this team employee is not alone among the debris. He’s got these guys to keep him company.

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Perhaps the cats know what this vehicle is used for, because none of the humans I talked to had any idea.

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And finally, there is this.

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I don’t know what “C.B.T.” stands for, but I do know that visiting clubhouse manager Joe Castillo smokes ribs in this thing at the end of a homestand and then serves said ribs as the centerpiece of a post-game meal. My guess is that Mr. Castillo receives better-than-average tips for his efforts, and between him and the legendary tacos often prepared by head groundskeeper David Jacinto it is apparent that the Grizzlies are among the best post-game food providers in the PCL.

While I was loathe to leave the ramshackle charm of the Grizzlies’ storage area, Chris and I soon proceeded to the outfield area proper. Again, let it be said that it was a beautiful night in downtown Fresno.

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In the outfield one can find the “Grizzlies Garden,” created and cultivated by the 2013 graduating class of downtown Fresno’s Acel Charter School (located the proverbial “hop, skip, and a jump” away from the stadium).

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The school year was over and the garden’s best days were behind it, but the students had grown the likes of apples, corn, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, oxford commas, and chard. This project was under the umbrella of the Grizzlies “Farm Grown” program.

“We’re trying our best to tie in [the Central Valley's] agriculture industry and community with the Grizzlies,” said Chris. “We’re all farm grown. The players are farm grown through the Giants system and we in Fresno are farm grown because so much of our food is grown here locally.”

Chris went on to explain that the high school garden was the beginning of a much larger project, as the Grizzlies are seeking to “tie in the farming community with our urban environment.” To this end, they’ll soon be turning this expanse of outfield area dirt into a garden featuring demonstration plots of prominent local crops.

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Also tied in with the “Farm Grown” initiative is this very cool recurring promo advertised on the concourse.

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Chukchansi Park was built in 2002, just before what Chris called “the berm rage,” and as such there isn’t a lot of berm seating.

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But there is a small berm area that surrounds the pool, the centerpiece of a private outfield group area available for rental on a per-game basis. At this moment in time the life guard had no lives to guard, thus calling into question the essential premise behind her reason for being.

(And, for the record, the last Grizzlies player to have achieved a so-called “Splash Hit” was Cole Gillespie this past June.)

086 There were people out here, however. It was just that the food and beverage options were, at least at the moment, more enticing than going for a well-guarded dip.

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And when the focus finally moves from the food to the field, let it be known that the view is spectacular (not-so spectacular: the sound of the stadium PA blaring from directly above).

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When Chukchansi Park was built, one of the guiding principles behind it was that people would come in and out of the park via downtown Fresno. Hence, this prominent outfield entrance that connects the park with Fulton Mall’s pedestrian walkway.

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Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out the way that its planners intended. The pedestrian walkway is well maintained and public art can be found throughout, but most of the storefronts are empty. Even though there was a game going on at the time, there was no signs of additional life outside the stadium.

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Given the state of Fulton Mall, it’s easy to interpret the above statue as a cry of frustration. A feeling of “what should’ve been” pervades, as this seems like a perfect area for the usual array of bars, restaurants, retail establishments and refurbished theaters and concert halls that play such a major role in downtown revitalization projects. I don’t know the factors that have led to Fulton Mall’s current air of desolation, but Chris told me that “parking is a big issue and one of the reasons that this hasn’t worked. The lot for season ticket holders is on the other side of the ballpark, and they have no reason to walk through here.”

As I mentioned in the last post, Chris is a Fresno native and this was his last homestand as a Grizzlies employee before moving on to a job within Kansas State’s sports information department. He loves his hometown and wants to be a part of its long-term success, but also felt that he had no choice but to leave.

“Growing up I always heard about Fresno’s ‘brain drain’ and was told to get out, to leave while you can,” he said. “I guess [succeeding in Fresno is] too tall of a mountain to climb sometimes. A lot of my heart and soul is in this stadium and a lot of my heart and soul is in this downtown. But if you can’t create an environment for someone like me to make a difference then you’re going to face this problem.”

Chris Kutz, now working at Kansas State

Fresno native  and Grizzlies media coordinator Chris Kutz, now working at Kansas State

This moment of poignant pondering complete, Chris and I wandered back into the stadium and through the concourse on the third base side. On this particular Monday there was plenty of room to move.

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It was also quiet outside of the stadium’s front entrance.

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But during busy nights, the above area is anything but empty. Here’s the scene at this year’s “Taco Truck Throwdown,” which attracted more than 14,000 fans. (And, yes, as I mentioned in the last post: this month will not end without me producing some taco-related Fresno Grizzlies content).

photo: Fresno Bee

photo: Fresno Bee

There’s also a carousel outside of the stadium.

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Beware! Terror monkey resides therein.

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But why focus on primate horror on such a beautiful evening? At this particular moment in space and time the ballpark atmosphere was idyllic.

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Given the taco-related activities that had taken place earlier in the day (again, I will be writing about this), getting some food during the game itself had become a bit of an afterthought. But the show must go on, and the Grizzlies had recruited three fans to serve as the evening’s “Designated Eaters” (you know, those who consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

From left to right, meet Derek Pharis, Joel Medina, and Jace LeVasser. The three all went to high school together in Porterville, CA (located about an hour south from Fresno), and Derek and Joel are now attending Fresno State.

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Jace quickly emerged as the star of the show because, well, Jace really liked this giant hot dog.

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“It has a lot of flavor and is very delicious, but I did not feel dignified while eating it. I think a piece of me died inside,” said Jace. “I’d probably order it again.”

Derek and Joel were presented with Dinger Dogs, in which the frankfurter is butterflied open and topped with pulled pork onions, peppers and (optional) cole slaw.

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Have at it, guys.

This thing got absolutely rave reviews from Derek and Joel, although this was mostly conveyed via raised eyebrows, incredulous stares, and thumbs-up gestures.

“I thought that food here was just nachos and pizza,” said Joel.

“Me too,” said Derek. “I had no idea that [the Dinger Dog] was here, but I’m definitely glad that I found it.”

I thanked Derek, Joel, and Jace for their service and soon I was on my way. Sun or no sun, the atmosphere remained beautiful.

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At this late juncture in the ballgame the player’s headshots had morphed into an advertisement for California’s premier fast food establishment.

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And speaking of Animal Style, Chris and I soon found ourselves under attack.

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But it would have taken more than an onslaught of silly string to impede our progress. Soon enough we were within the relative safety of the Grizzlies’ front office.

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Would you believe that Parker has his own desk? It’s true, and it’s easy to tell which one is his.

Fun is guaranteed, and brainstorming encouraged.

133“This is how we think. These are the thoughts of people who can’t get their thoughts together,” said Chris. “We come in here and brainstorm, this is the room to do that.”

135Chukchansi Park is the rare two-level Minor League stadium. Here are some views from the top.

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139Back at ground level, I watched Parker get ejected from the ballgame for reasons that have since receded from memory.

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141With the concession stands about to close, it suddenly occurred to be that I had neglected to provide a stadium #cupdate. A certain subset of my readership craves such things, and on this particular trip I did not do a good job when it came to providing regular cupdates. I apologize, but one day it will please us to remember even this.

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144My last act at Chukchansi was to interview Dan and Milana Shydler, a pair of loyal and enthusiastic Grizzlies fans who bring dozens of homemade signs to each and every game. I wrote an article about them for MiLB.com, which you can and should read HERE.

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These sentiments are most apropos: Bye Bye Baby, and good night from Chukchansi Park! Before closing the book on my visit to Fresno, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Providing the Grizzly Details in Fresno

This West Coast road trip began with Bakersfield and then continued on to Visalia before bringing me here, the largest and, arguably, most in-chargest city to be found in California’s Central Valley.

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Welcome to Fresno, home of the Pacific Coast League’s Grizzlies, who play in the downtown facility that is Chukchansi Park. My day in Fresno actually began hours earlier, when I and two members of the team’s front office staff visited three of the region’s most venerated taco trucks (the Grizzlies, as you may know, host an annual “Taco Truck Throwdown” promotion that has become of their most popular nights of the year).  These corn tortilla-inspired peregrinations will be detailed in full later this month, but today (and tomorrow’s) Fresno-based dispatch shall remain focused on this particular Monday evening at the ballpark.

An elevated view of Chukchansi’s environs:

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The above views can be obtained from the upper level concourse, looking out from what would be the first base side of the stadium.  But as is my general tendency, attention soon turned inward.

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The outfield entrance of Chukchansi Park opens out into a pedestrian walkway that leads to a variety of Fulton Mall retail establishments (or the ghosts thereof), and one of those retail establishments was Luftenberg’s Bridal. While not located in the stadium proper, the Luftenberg’s signage in left field is a distinctive Chukchansi characteristic and it will be interesting to see what becomes of it now that the business in question has re-located (after more than 70 years occupying the building seen in the above picture).

Accompanying me for the bulk of my evening at Chuckchansi was media relations coordinator Chris Kutz, a Fresno native who was in his last week with the Grizzlies before moving on to a job within Kansas State’s sports information department. I was glad to have Chris around, as he was a wellspring of local knowledge in general and Grizzlies knowledge in particular. For instance, he told me with pride that Chukchansi Park boasts this, the slowest elevator in Minor League Baseball.

053When it comes to that elevator all you can do is grin and bear it  (sorry, but there’s a claws in my contract that gives me free reign to make such jokes). We made it down eventually, and soon discovered that the scene at ground level was just as beautiful as that which had existed above. It was a beautiful day in Fresno. Amid the beauty, some early arriving fans had taken it upon themselves to snag some Grizzly autographs.

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But who cares about players when Parker’s around?

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I had actually scored an interview with Parker soon after arriving at the ballpark, a journalist coup if there ever was one. We touched on a variety of topics, most of them having to do with his presumed supremacy over all other mascots, but due to rampant fluctuations between the first and third person our conversation was largely unusable. These are the hazards that come with interviewing a mascot, who aren’t accustomed to communicating within the realm of words, but nonetheless I thank Parker for his time.

While he wasn’t the only mascot at Chukchansi that evening, he was still atop the bill. Duck, you sucker!

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Stare into the maw of eternal darkness

It’s probably a good idea to duck when I’m on the mound, as ever since throwing a perfect strike in Great Lakes my ceremonial first pitch offerings have been atrocious. Similar to Bakersfield, I overcompensated for my fear of bouncing it by tossing an ineffectual airmailed lob.

Ben on mound

Parker the arbiter

All alone in failure:

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Parker, gracious bear that he is, nonetheless gave me the thumbs up.

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My first pitch segued into the National Anthem, which was to be sung by Joe Price.  Joe is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College and, as you may recall, he took a sabbatical in 2011 so that he and his wife, Bonnie, could traverse the Minor League landscape in an RV.  Joe sang the National Anthem at over 100 ballparks that season, which he dubbed “The Anthem Tour,” and I wrote an MiLB.com feature story about it HERE (the ongoing Anthem Tour blog, with dispatches from these ballparks, can be read HERE).

“I always love for people to join in, and for the anthem to be sung together regardless of political orientation,” said Joe, in my aforementioned 2011 feature story. “This can, potentially, be everyone’s national anthem. And as a result it can bridge the gap between the Tea Party and liberals, between hawks and doves. Because, even though it is a wartime song, it was written as a celebration of freedom. The preservation of our freedoms is what lies at the heart of it.”

Joe at the ready, as the fans sitting in the Dugout Club suites behind him engage in an amateur otolaryngological exam.

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Given the depth and breadth of Joe’s National Anthem knowledge, the Grizzlies had agreed to allow him to sing the song’s fourth stanza as well as the first. (Read the lyrics HERE.) Unfortunately there was confusion in the Grizzlies PA booth regarding just what it was that Joe would be doing, and most fans were summarily confused by his double-length rendition. Nonetheless, it was cool to see this lesser known portion of the song get a public airing and I hope Joe gets the chance to do it again sometime.

With the game almost underway, Chris led me on a tour of Chukchansi’s labyrinthian corridors. The Grizzlies, a Giants affiliate, were playing the Albuquerque Isotopes, a Dodgers affiliate, and this would explain one of the first things we came across: a decimated prop from one of Parker’s recent skits.

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Parker and a camouflage-adept accomplice, hastily departing from the scene of their Dodger-bashing crime.

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Parker was able to escape to parts unknown, but he didn’t exactly disappear without a trace.

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As for the rest of Parker’s belongings? They can be found here:

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All sorts of sartorial wonders lurk within this room.

And let it be known: in addition to having the slowest elevator in Minor League Baseball, the Grizzlies can also boast of having the largest number of non-functioning industrial kitchen appliances.

Outside of the Grizzlies clubhouse, a series of motivational signs have been posted by the parent club. They are very well done, these signs.

066Each sign features a player who exemplifies the characteristic in question. Here’s a closer look at “The Journey,” as personified by the long, unpredictable and ultimately triumphant career of Ryan Vogelsong.

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But is that really the best quote they could come up with? Bochy’s syntax is exquisitely mangled: “Well, I’ve said so many times about Ryan is how impressive his perseverance has been through everything.”

After trying to process that tortured mouthful of inspirational managerial verbiage I needed a breath of fresh air.

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And alright! A game was going on!

That’s my cue to end Part One of this blogging odyssey, and my promise is that Part Two will pick up exactly where Part One left off.  Until then, thank you for putting up with me, reader. Well, I’ve said so many times about you is how impressive your perseverance has been through everything.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: On Top of the Action in Visalia

Part one of this current mini-saga was good for what Visalia, as it detailed the charming quirks, historical markers and reptilian wrath appeasement efforts to be found throughout Rawhide Ballpark. We now pick up where we left off, with the game having just begun.

A modest Sunday evening crowd had filtered in, many of them settling atop the gunite slab of a grandstand (Rawhide Ballpark has just fewer than 2000 fixed seats, the smallest total in affiliated professional baseball).

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The ballpark features minuscule amounts of foul territory, meaning that concourse vantage points are very close to the action. And the dugout view is particularly unique, in that you can look straight down on the players below.

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As for looking down into the dugouts, this Vine video should illustrate my point. (Also, I like that it captures an audio snippet of someone saying “Colt 45.” I have no idea what this was a reference to as neither guns nor malt liquor are sold at the ballpark.)

The up close and personal nature of the ballpark also means that you can hear just about everything that is said. While I was standing here Rancho Cucamonga hitting coach Johnny Washington, who was coaching first base at the time, ambled over to the dugout and said something to the effect of “Did you check the [expletive deleted] outfield? That’s a [expletive deleted] horse [expletive deleted] lead. That’s [expletive deleted] terrible! C’mon!”

Kids, take it from me: if you want to take your profanity game to the next level,  then hang out near the dugout at Rawhide Ballpark when the Quakes are in town.

But let’s take things back in to the realm of the family-friendly. Here’s Tipper, the Rawhide mascot (I’m kicking myself now, for neglecting to include him in one of my boVine videos).

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A local cheerleading squad was on hand, performing before the game as well as several times during it. Between routines they practiced on the Pasture, which increased the evening’s “charming Americana” factor by 1.5.

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A photo collage along the front entrance gates features this absolutely classic moment, from the Rawhide’s absolutely classic “Belle of the Ballpark” promo. (I wrote about the 2011 iteration HERE).

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The above photo is across the way from, yes, the best gunite-coated dirt slab to be found in all of Minor League Baseball. Here’s yet another look at it:

080But back to the concourse, because I’m not quite sure how I got away from there in the first place. Looking across the way toward the home dugout, I was intrigued by what looked like a painted white cross on the wall. While trying to land a picture of the cross, I instead got this image of crotch-grabbing in action.

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And, yes, that is a large white cross painted on the dugout wall. I forgot to get the background story on why it’s there, but it seems out of place within the ostensibly secular confines of the ballpark. (This picture also gives a good indication of the extent to which the concourse is literally atop the dugouts.)

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Perhaps the most famous denizen to be found within the home dugout is batboy Les Kissick. He’s held the job for 14 years, and when I first posted the following Vine video it was met with a stream of responses from Visalia diehards along the lines of “Les!!! He’s the best!!!”

Meanwhile, one could find guest emcee Chad Stafford, a DJ on Visalia country station KJUG, patrolling the concourse.

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Chad had another duty to perform on this particular evening, as the Rawhide had recruited him to serve as the designated eater. (You know, the individual who consumes and critiques the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits.) He and I soon adjourned to the Hall of Fame Club, where food and beverage director Chris Lukasiewicz was waiting with an array of items.

Welcome Chad and, yes,  welcome giant pretzel.

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That’s the Texas Twist, a 24 ounce monster whose holes are filled with warm cups of nacho cheese. Chad gave it a try and reported that “it might be a little too salty, but it’s soft on the inside. For one person it’s a bit excessive, but it’s great for a lot of people to share.”

There’s no doubt that this would be way too much pretzel for one person, but nonetheless the Rawhide have devised a “Texas Twist Challenge” that is open to all fans. Lukasiewicz carved out six seconds of his life in order to offer the following explanation:

Meanwhile, I was presented with this off-menu offering, which Lukasiewicz often prepares for the gluten-free girlfriend of a Rawhide front office staffer.

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That’s a “Fajita Dog” bratwurst with garlic aioli sauce atop a bed of peppers, onions, melted Montery Jack cheese and fries which have themselves been tossed in fresh minced garlic.

I approve!

Chad, meanwhile, approved of the burger that had just been presented to him.

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That’s the “Cowboy Burger,” to be exact, topped with Kinder’s BBQ sauce, cheese, three slices of Applewood bacon and two onion rings.

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Chad, a BBQ aficionado, said that he liked the Cowboy Burger because “the onion rings are great and whatever cheese they use is perfect for it.”

But as for what cheese that is, I neglected to find out. It shall always remain a mystery.

Less of a mystery is this, the final item to be highlighted:

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Those nachos are of the “loaded asada” variety: nacho cheese, shredded cheese, salsa, dried onion, jalapenos and your choice of meat.

“The salsa, that’s the kicker,” said Chad, who’s been a presence on the Visalia airwaves over the last eight years. “And it’s all covered, which is just how I like it.”

Also all covered is the food portion of the evening. Thanks to Lukasiewicz and thanks, of course, to Chad.

Out on the concourse I struck up a conversation with Rawhide community relations manager/Hispanic marketing manager/on-field emcee Jesus Romero (he of the gluten-free girlfriend). As you can see, Jesus is loyal to his employer.

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With the game in its final third, I slowed my pace and did a final lap around the ballpark.

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I then settled into a seat in Row M, the highest vantage point available at Rawhide Ballpark (save for the skyboxes).

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Or, if awkwardly conceived panoramas are more your thing:

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The ballgame was tied entering the bottom of the ninth inning, meaning that it time for a visit from Jesus Romero and the Rally Squad.

The Rally Squad are great at their jobs, as in the bottom of the ninth inning this place was rocking! Visalia fans know how to support the hometown team.

And with the place a rocking the Rawhide offense came a knockin,’ as Tom Belza singled to lead off the inning and, two batters later, scored on a Sean Jamieson single. It was a good day to be a Rawhide fan and, thus, a good day for me to have visited.

As the crowd filed out I paid one last visit to team broadcaster/historian/reptile hex articulator Donny Baarns, whose computer screen displayed a list of dozens of ways to say “here’s the pitch.” Perhaps he should get a copy of The Baseball Thesaurus?

100As Donny took his listeners through the ups and downs of the ballgame, I watched the last “run the bases” straggler finally reach home plate.

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And that was all that she wrote (she being me, of course).

Gunite from Visalia!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Gunite for Greatness Amid Reptile Dysfunction in Visalia

“Structurally unique, I guess you’d call it.”

That’s how Visalia Rawhide broadcaster Donny Baarns summed up Rawhide Ballpark, his place of employment since 2008. And with Donny, I would agree. This place is structurally unique.

020At its core, the ballpark (known as “Recreation Park” for the majority of its existence) is as no-frills as they come. The current grandstand, built in 1963, is little more than a huge mound of dirt repurposed from Route 198 construction efforts poured over with concrete and gunite. I don’t know much about gunite (Baarns told me it was “all the rage in the ’60s, apparently”), but it appears to be a construction method in which concrete is shot out of a hose. Who Pneu?

The grand gunnite structure seen above faces outward toward this idyllic (at least at that moment) intersection.

021On the inside, there’s a whole lot more than just an outsized gunnite slab. A series of renovations over the years 2003-2011 has given the ballpark a second life and then some, with a 360 degree cavalcade of new wild west and/or dairy-themed additions.

Here we are in “The Pasture,” a grass seating area wrapping around the right field foul line.

022Behind that is the Toyota Terrace, Kids Corral, and Alliteration Alcove.

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024Within this area, one can secure a unique visitor’s bullpen vantage point. Or, as I like to call it, a VBVP.

025A vast expanse of grass, as seen through the chain link.

027Looking homeward, sans-link:

028There is a small parking lot behind the terrace, and a quite verdant lot at that, but vehicular occupation of this area will soon cease to be as the Rawhide are partnering with the local Rotary Club and turning it into a “Splash Pad” that will be open to the public on non-game days as well.

029This sign shows the distance from Visalia to other Diamondbacks affiliates as well as the distance to the parent club. Of course, the “Yakima” sign is no longer valid as that franchise has since moved to Hillsboro (the concluding  stop on this very road trip). Also, I find it interesting that there is a “Visalia 0″ sign. I mean, isn’t that implied? That when you are in a certain location then you are zero distance away from it? Right now, I am 0 miles away from writing this blog post although I was I wish I was .25 miles away playing pinball in my local laundromat.

Anyhow, signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.

031The above sign shows the formidable distance to Cooperstown, but the Rawhide’s “Hall of Fame Club” is a much less daunting journey. It’s just a hop, skip, and and 100 foot jump away.

033That Kirby Puckett quote is in such a prominent position because Kirby is the lone Visalia player to have been enshrined in Cooperstown. He played the entire 1983 season as a member of the Visalia Oaks (his lone full Minor League campaign), and hit .314-9-97 and stole 48 bases over 138 games. A more recent assortment of notable Visalia alumni can be seen in this photo collage located to the right of the bar.

034Further historical perspective can be gleaned while watching the ballgame through the Hall of Fame Club windows, as the tabletops are adorned with a chronological array of press clippings.

038Or, if gunnite slab views are more your thing, you could take a seat here.

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Fans of chronology, gunnite, and the intersection of the two will really and truly love this ballpark. (I’m hoping that this appears as a pull quote in future Rawhide promotional materials)

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As will fans of history in general. Baarns (who, given his name, should really be working in Double-A), has worked hard to research and publicize the rich history of Visalia baseball. He gave a speech about just this at the 2011 Baseball Winter Meetings, which soon led to this impeccably written MiLB.com article.

For one final bit of history, we go to the Visalia Hall of Fame located along the concourse on the first base side.

060The Hall of Fame, established in 2009, features plaques created by a skilled local craftsman.

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The final plaque features not a player, but a team.

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Would you believe that even though the Cal League only has 10 teams, and that, currently, six of those teams make the playoffs every season, 1978 marks the last time that Visalia has won a championship? After some diligent research, the team was able to ascertain that this prolonged title drought (and a long string of bad luck in general) can be attributed to the vengeful ghost of Joe Charboneau’s pet alligator. His name was Chopper.

This curse is totally legit, as I discovered, and for far more please read my MiLB.com piece that is dedicated to this subject and this subject only. Those who are truly serious about appeasing this spiritually unsettled deceased reptile can buy these shirts in the team store.

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Meanwhile, this Chopper replica can sometimes be seen lurking about the Pasture.

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Rawhide GM Jennifer Pendergraft told me that she always wanted a pet alligator and, thus, wanted to get one for the ballpark. 

“But it turns out that they’re highly illegal in California,” she said. “And I didn’t want to have PETA coming after us.”

Those seeking refuge from alligators, or the ghosts of alligators, or whatever it is that’s going on right now, would do well to visit the Fan Dugout. Here, there is no afterlife turmoil to be found.

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The Rawhide have what just may be the least amount of foul territory in all of Minor League Baseball, and as such these seats might be closer to the action than anywhere else. (I know that the Asheville Tourists, among other clubs, would beg to differ). At any rate, these dugout seats are available for groups of 20-25 and Baarns noted that they are “great for softball or Little League teams.”

The view, obscured:

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Moving back to the concourse, one can visit the Watering Hole in order to satiate any lingering food and beverage needs.

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One of those food options is tacos, which, pictorially, look delicious.

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From there, our tour moves across the way to the Snakebite Saloon — because nothing says refreshment like dying a slow and agonizingly painful death as poisonous venom courses through your system! (The establishment’s slogan, if my notes are to be believed.)

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The prices at the Snakebite Saloon seemed reasonable enough to me, but either way they’ve got you over a barrel.

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 Take these broken wings and learn to fly because in the nearby Cold Zone they have misters, Mister.

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At this juncture of the evening the gates were open and it was nearing game time.

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Baarns and I headed up toward his press box abode, but not before one final tour stop. To once again paraphrase my favorite insufferable protest chant: this is what a Class A Advanced Skybox looks like:

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The view toward the field:

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And the views from behind:

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On the cusp of game time, I retreated to the Rawhide commissary and furtively ate some Buffalo Wild Wings (gluten-free!) like a scared chipmunk.

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And with that moment of dignity, I’ll conclude Part One of this Visalia blogging saga. Hopefully Part Two will be Gator than the sum of its parts.

068benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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On the Road: Wieners and Weirdness Abound in Bakersville

I’ve seen and done so much on this west coast road trip, but yet again here I am, in some random hotel room (this time a Days Inn in Klamath Falls) writing about my evening at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium. Already I’ve written this MiLB.com piece about the Blaze (“exemplary,” crowed the New York Times), and this blog post (“good,” noted USA Today), and now here I am with this:

BAKERSFIELD BLAZE BLOG POST, PART DEUX (that’s French for Three Times One Minus One)

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When we last left off, the game had just begun. And when a Blaze game begins, you can count on pre-med student turned Class A Advanced broadcaster Dan Besbris to keep you abreast of the action.

As Besbris compassionately elucidated the faults of a hometown player, a voice of an even more striking nature could be heard on the concourse. “Froggy,” the team’s assistant clubhouse manager was selling programs.

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I really should have done a Vine video featuring Froggy, as his nickname is indeed an accurate descriptor of the sound of his voice. At one point in the evening I began to walk toward him to do just this, but he was in a contentious-seeming discussion about clubhouse ice (or lack thereof) and I felt uncomfortable interrupting. I did learn, however, that Froggy is a Game Show Network aficionado, that Bobby Bonds taught him to do the YMCA, and that, most impressively, he got married at Sam Lynn’s home plate last season.

Speaking of plates, it was time to put food on them. The evening’s designated eater was a long-time Ben’s Biz reader by the name of Charles Pannunzio, who came to the ballgame with his wife Christina Hennessey. (The designated eater is, of course, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Pannunzio had volunteered for the “honor” via email, and he and Hennessey were ready to go.

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Charles and Christina live in Torrance, CA, and during the season a common question in their house is “What games can we see this week?”

“We go to college, Minors, Majors, everything,” said Charles.

“We even went to a game in Tijuana!” added Christina. And, indeed, they did!

But tonight they were in Bakersfield, the Tijuana of the Cal League. Blaze food and beverage director Bruce Gerber was ready for them, bestowing Christina with a Farmer John’s Polish Sausage (with Hollen’s mustard, a California brand I had never seen before) and Charles with the brand-new “Blaze Burger” (A burger topped with a mound of pulled pork and jalapenos).

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Christina praised the sausage, saying “I’d get it again,” but the Blaze Burger is what elicited the most attention.

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“It’s overwhelming in that it’s more of a BBQ sandwich than a burger,” said Charles. “I couldn’t imagine any more condiments being on it.”

“We really need napkins!” added Christina. And indeed, they did! (Meanwhile, instead of helping them, I drank a gluten-free cider).

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Napkins were soon acquired, as were a plate of tacos.

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And, also, a tri-tip sandwich.

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This round of offerings was not as successful. Christina liked the salsa (Phillip’s, a local brand), but said that overall the tacos were “cold and bland.” The tri-tip, meanwhile, was said to “taste like the grill, like they’re trying to cover up a bad flavor.” (I sampled the tri-tip as well, and would agree that it was less than stellar.)

Meanwhile, Gerber was kind enough to bring out a hot dog on a gluten free bun along with a wide array of (mostly meaty) toppings.

Here’s a picture of the hot dog, which includes a video still of me ogling the creation (it tasted good, but the gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately).

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Heater is a fan of weiners, gluten-free or otherwise.

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Heater also enjoys harassing designated eaters (I think it says that in his bio, even).

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But this segment of the post, like Heater, is dragon on too long. Let us bid adieu to Charles and Christina, who recommend that you order a Blaze Burger the next time you’re at Sam Lynn Stadium. (As you can see they also got ice cream in a helmet, and I was derelict in my duties by not documenting this.)

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In my aforementioned Bakersfield Blaze MiLB.com piece (which Lewis Lapham said “is to the zeitgeist what an expert poacher is to the African rhino”), I talked about the many strange and unique moments that are bound to occur at Sam Lynn on any given night. Many of these moments take place during the between-inning breaks, thanks to the off-kilter humor of Spanish anarchist turned poolboy turned wannabe drawbridge operator turned Blaze assistant general manager Philip Guiry (who had recently returned to the club after serving a suspension for using “performance-enhancing jokes” that had all been lifted from Family Circus comic strips).

All of the above paragraph is true, save for my critical accolades, and it is also true that the Blaze have often fielded a line-up this season consisting of four players named Juan (Perez, Silverio, Duran, Silva). During one inning break, Guiry asked a multiple choice trivia question (“What Blaze player hit a grand slam yesterday?”) and all of the choices were named Juan. The contestant, a Girl Scout, chose the right Juan and Guiry then gave her a box of cookies because “no one ever gives a Girl Scout cookies.”

(For those who were Juan Duran, the correct answer was Juan Duran.)

Later in the evening was the Dizzy Bat Race, a Minor League Baseball staple. The Blaze stand out, however, as Guiry lets the contestants spin (and spin and spin and spin and spin) for an agonizingly long time. In this Vine video, he makes small talk with the mascots — “Panda’s a big golf guy” — before even beginning his countdown.  “We don’t care much about the race,” Guiry told me. “Just the dizzy.”

Please note that in the above video, the kid on the far right (who inexplicably identified himself as “Habib”) is using a broom. And I have no idea what song is playing, but let it be known that these days most of the between-innings music played at Sam Lynn is ’90s southern hip-hop (lots of No Limit stuff, and at one point I heard “Tootsie Roll” by the 69 Boyz). But in this particular Vine, you’ll hear “Sexy Back.” This is because mascot Heater decided to show the crowd that he is sexy all over by streaking across the outfield. Also, please note that he is followed, inexplicably, by a square pixelated ghost.

And speaking of wieners, which we kinda sorta were, there was, of course, the Wiener Launch. Watch it HERE, as I cannot embed an MiLB.com video on this MiLB.com blog. Here’s Guiry, post-weiner launch, surrounded by his adoring fans.

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Of course, in the midst of all of this, there was a game going on. There always is.

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Did you know that, at 354 feet, Sam Lynn features the shortest center field fence in all of Minor League Baseball? Or that the giant green sunscreen wall in center field was built in November and thus at the wrong angle to most effectively block the summertime sun? Or that Sam Lynn used to have “sun delays” during the moment in the evening when the sun was shining through the gap between the sunsreen and the outfield wall? (This gap has since been filled in with plywood).

It’s true. All of it true. It’s also true that this ballgame soon came to an end, with the Blaze emerging victorious. Here’s Besbris doing his signature “Who loves ya, wall?” catchphrase after the win.

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Win or lose, the Blaze players and coaches (including superstar manager Ken Griffey Sr) have to proceed through a gauntlet of autograph seekers en route to the clubhouse.

Come Juan, come all

Come Juan, come all

The game was over, but the evening was not. Girl Scouts, prepare to sleep over!

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It was during this portion of the evening that I met Ryan Salisbury, who, during the game, was donning the Heater suit. At one point late in the contest, Ryan was handed an envelope from an anonymous benefactor. The outside read “End of Season Bonus 2013,” and inside was a $10 bill. These are the sort of things that just seem to happen in Bakersfield.

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Ryan is a San Francisco resident (by way of Pensacola and Philly) who currently makes a living as a bike messenger. He doesn’t have a car, so when it comes to commutes he has to improvise.

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See, these are the lengths that people will go when a MiLB blogger is in town (me, I think). Ryan and his dog, F.D. (“it stands for what you want it to stand for”) eventually got a ride from a musician/landscaper who apparently once worked for one Jerry Garcia. As for me I’m grateful to be finishing up this blog post, and also grateful to not be dead. For Sam Lynn, in addition to everything else about it, houses some sort of homemade nuclear reactor in a concourse storage shed.

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Just one more reason to build a new ballpark, I suppose, but for all its faults (and there are many) a lot of people are going to miss Sam Lynn when it is finally gone. I for one, am going to miss writing about it, but soon it shall be time for me to write about Visalia and the many wonders to be found there. To whet your appetite, please read this MiLB.com piece about how the Rawhide are haunted by the ghost of a dead alligator. 

Weirdness abounds.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Trying Not To Stare at the Sun in Bakersfield

Today marks the beginning of another deluge of road trip content, this time from the west coast, and to begin I’ll let you in on a little Minor League Baseball writing secret:

Instead of referring to a stadium as “past its prime,” “dilapidated,” “outmoded” or “ratchet,” it is a good idea to use the word “venerable.” This adjectival euphemism bestows a grace and dignity upon the facility that these other words lack, while still hipping the in-the-know reader to the fact that it has seen better days and then some.

So, with that said, let it be known that Bakersfield’s 72-year-old Sam Lynn Stadium is the most venerable stadium in all of Minor League Baseball.

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Sam Lynn currently hosts the Blaze of the Class A Advanced California League, two classifications below the tire shop located directly across the street.

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Upon turning onto the road that leads to the stadium parking lot, one passes a different sort of baseball facility. These are the Bakersfield batting cages, open to those who have not yet been drafted by a Major League organization as well as those who never will be.

2923

Ringing the perimeter of the parking lot, on what is either the north or south side (I left my compass at home) is some sort of armed forces facility. I wish I could tell you what sort, but that would have required reportorial initiative well beyond my pay grade.

2925

But as for Sam Lynn, there is no directional confusion. To get to Sam Lynn, you walk west.

2924

Before it was dumb-downed for an increasingly unsophisticated American audience, the main entrance to Sam Lynn was known as the “Menage a Trois.”

2926

The above sentence may or may not be true, and most likely isn’t. But, at any rate, by the time I arrived at the stadium there were already a considerable amount of people waiting to proceed through the Three-Way.

2927

Will Call: located at the base of a tree, apparently

My status as America’s 1456th most well-known sports blogger allowed me to proceed past the hoi polloi, and soon I came face to face with that which I alluded to earlier. This is, perhaps, Sam Lynn’s single-most defining characteristic: IT WAS BUILT FACING THE SUN.

2929

Sam Lynn is the only ballpark in Minor League Baseball that “enjoys” this distinction, which forces the Blaze to start their games at 7:30 if not later. The denizens of the press box have learned to adapt to this strange reality.

2936

“Strange reality” describes nearly everything about the Blaze and their operation. For far more on the surreal nature of Sam Lynn (or at least what I perceived to be the surreal nature of Sam Lynn), then please check out my MiLB.com piece. (THIS IS AN ORDER.)

In case you didn’t know, the Blaze are a Reds affiliate.

2932

And, also in case you didn’t know, last season Billy Hamilton stole 104 bases with the Blaze while en route to an all-time professional record of 155.

2931

That cushion was being used by Dan Besbris, pre-med student-turned-Blaze broadcaster. Here, he and lawyer-turned-Blaze general manager Elizabeth Martin enjoy a pre-game beverage.  That’s just how they roll in Bakersfield.

2933

At the right hand side of the press box resides official scorer Tim Wheeler, who hasn’t missed a game since he began doing the job in 1995. And not only that! Wheeler also reported that he’s “never left the press box to take a leak” during a game either.

2937

The scoreboard, like pretty much everything else about Sam Lynn, is  venerable. And, also, it’s haunted.

“The board is possessed,” said Besbris. “In the seventh inning, a seven comes up no matter what we do.”

2950

Mysterious sevens notwithstanding, Wheeler does a yeoman’s job of operating the scoreboard (although, admittedly, I don’t know what a yeoman is or what sort of job he would do). His operating module is a work of art, adorned with press clippings, souvenir detritus and the phone numbers of relevant league personnel (including that of legendary California League historian/statistician Bill Weiss, who passed away in 2011. “I keep it there just because I like to see his name,” Wheeler told me).

2935

The Blaze press box was a fun place to be, featuring more Gallo’s humor than a comedy show catering to low budget oenophiles. But duty, as she so often does, was calling me in her soft yet persistent singsong voice.  With the sun just beginning to descend behind the giant wooden sunscreen in center field, I proceeded to the mound and threw out a first pitch.

2938

The good news on that first pitch was that I didn’t bounce it. The bad news was that it was significantly high and would have  hit an average-sized right-handed hitter in the jawbone (presuming that said hitter was somehow unable to move out of the way of a 47 mile an hour offering). The first pitch was caught by Blaze reliever Jimmy Moran who, upon meeting me, said “Hey, the guy who writes for Minor League Baseball!”

Also, I’m the guy who didn’t try his shirt on before buying it. Somehow I’m still a “small” at Uniqlo, because I look like a total fool in this medium.

2939

 Jimmy Moran is now my favorite player in the California League. Not only did he recognize me, but he later tweeted the following.

I left the playing field expecting a rapturous reception, but instead everyone’s attention was on the mascot. This is Heater:

2940

And this is a creature that, until being reappropriated by the Blaze, had only been associated with particularly traumatic psycilobin experiences. Its name is Torch.

2941

Meanwhile, the playing field was downright incendiary looking. If you look closely, you can see that there are players on that field stretching.

2942

The fans down the first base line were making like Eleanor Friedberger:

2943

Other fans, meanwhile, escaped the descendant wrath of the fiery orb by stocking up on provisions.

2944

2945

Give us a taco we demand or close down this taco stand!

2946

But for the players, and those watching the players from an intimate vantage point, the waiting was about to come to an end.

2947

2948

The crowd was instructed to rise, with an additional instruction to the gentlemen to please remove their hats, so that we could honor our country by listening to an instrumental version of the National Anthem played over the PA.

2949

And with that, the game was finally, mercifully, underway! And with that this post has finally, mercifully, drawn to a conclusion! Stay tuned for part two, featuring designated eating, dizzy bat small talk, nuclear storage and poolboy anarchism. And, of course, make sure to read my Blaze article on MiLB.com.

Until then, thank you for reading the most venerable blog in all of Minor League Baseball!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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