On the Road: An Embiggening of the Ballpark Spirit in Albuquerque
It’s a word if you’re a Simpsons fan, at least. The motto of Springfield, bestowed upon it by town founder Jebediah Springfield, is “A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man.”
The Albuquerque Isotopes are most definitely the biggest Simpsons fans in Minor League Baseball, as the team name is a direct reference to an episode of the show in which Springfield’s Minor League team almost moves to Albuquerque. I, like many of my generation, am a huge Simpsons fan, so I was psyched to begin my 2014 Minor League Baseball travels in a ballpark with such a direct tie-in to my youthful (and now, manchild) obsessions.
Welcome to Isotopes Field, home of the — wait for it — the Albuqerque Isotopes.
Upon entering the ballpark, this is the first person that greets you.
I went on to write a detailed story about the origin of the team name as well as the Simpsons family statues that can be found throughout the concourse. I suggest that you read it, and if I was able demand such a thing then a demand it would be.
Now that you’ve read that particular piece, let’s move on to a little tour of the ballpark. With the players warming up on the field, Isotopes broadcaster Josh Suchon led me on a 360-degree walk of the facility.
First things first, the team had a new videoboard installed prior to the season. That’s the new one on the left, complementing the old board on the right.
I asked Suchon whether the Isotopes were making any claims regarding it being the biggest/tallest/widest board in Minor League Baseball, because those are the sort of things that Minor League Baseball teams do. His reply was that “It’s bigger than El Paso and that’s the most important thing. Everything is a rivalry with El Paso now.”
I was going to respond that “Well, yeah, it’s easier to be bigger than a Chihuahua,” but then realized that no team in professional sports history has ever named themselves after something smaller than an isotope.
There’s plenty of room to move at Isotopes Park, which opened in 2003. Multi-tiered berm seating is not something you see every day, unless you work in a park that has multi-tiered berm seating.
Remember when you read that story I linked to, which explained that the Isotopes acquired their Simpsons statues at a Los Angeles junk store run by the inimitable Nick Metropolis? Well, the team also acquired this Hollywood sign from Mr. Metropolis. It is a reference to Albuquerque being, as Suchon put it, “the Minor Leagues of Hollywood.” The city provides tax breaks to film companies who work in the region, and the fact that Breaking Bad took place there certainly raised the region’s profile in the industry (and America) at large.
This Captain Morgan statue was also obtained via Nick Metropolis and his impressive junk world connections.
We soon made our way back on the concourse and — look — here’s Lisa.
It seems fitting that Bart is below an advertisement for “pest management.”
Isotopes Park was built where its predecessor once stood — Albuquerque Sports Stadium (or A.S.S., as I prefer to call it). At that facility, fans could park beyond the outfield wall and watch the game from their cars.
But these days, fans watch the game from their eyes, man. From their eyes!
Isotopes Park is one of several sports facilities in the immediate area. This, as viewed from outside the suite entrances, is the home of University of New Mexico basketball and it is called “The Pit.”
Meanwhile, over here, you’re apt to see the pigskin get tossed around.
Turning my camera in the other direction resulted in a view of a facility that hosts baseball — Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes. (I almost forgot where I was there for a second).
I neglected to ask why the Isotopes took a multi-hued approach to their glass panel installation. It’s pretty cool, though.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
Finally, I spotted Marge. In a decidedly uncharacteristic move, she had Coke up her nose.
At this point, you’re probably asking the same question I was.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
It was around this time that I met Isotopes general manager John Traub, who told me the Simpsons stories that ended up in the MiLB.com article that you already read. But one more thing that I didn’t mention is that Traub is the (once) proud owner of an Alex Rodriguez signed bat. Traub was formerly the general manager of the Calgary Cannons (the team that moved to Albuquerque in 2003), and got that bat when A-Rod was in Calgary in 1994.
After speaking with Traub, I went down to field level in time for the National Anthem. And look who I ran into — Mr. Clint Belau! Regular readers of this blog (I hope that you are one of them), will recognize Clint as one of 2012’s Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journalists. That employment seeking effort eventually landed him a job in Albuquerque, and he is now in his second season with the Isotopes and his first as an assistant groundskeeper. Clint remains as I described him back in 2012: irrepressibly optimistic. Dude just loves working in baseball, and was so committed to breaking into the industry that he moved to Albuquerque at the age of 35 to be a stadium operations intern.
Clint had also recruited my designated eater for the evening. You know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Today’s eater would be Megan Black, an Oregon native and girlfriend of Isotopes groundskeeper Casey Griffin. In the above photo, Megan is mid-bite on a Lasorda Dog: two hot dogs, deep-fried jalapenos, bacon, sour cream, and cheese in a flour tortilla. “The bacon’s really good with it, though I guess it’s a little fatty if you want to get technical,” said Megan. “This thing, it’s got a good kick to it.”
Next up was the Tortilla Burger, available at the team’s “items with self-explanatory names” kiosk. Megan was a little taken aback, saying, “I don’t know, it’s a lot of meat….the fries are good.” Casey soon chipped in, adding that “it almost tastes like meat loaf. The meat’s real tender and good, but a little plain.”
Pizza’s not the most exciting item to photograph and write about, but the Isotopes offer Dion’s at the ballpark. Dion’s is a well-respected local chain, and, I’ve gotta say, it looked far better than your average slice of ballpark pizza. “Okay, it’s really good,” is all that Megan had to say about Dion’s. The view from our second-level location was really good as well. Finally, we went back inside for some Bananas Foster, which I don’t believe I had ever seen at a ballpark before. I’m not exactly sure what was in this Isotopes mini-helmet rendition, though it must have been some combination of bananas, ice cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, liqueur, and (of course) whipped cream. (In retrospect I should have walked down to the stand where these were being made, as there was some flambe action going on.) Megan and Casey were less than thrilled by this poorly lit “romantic” photo, but I can’t resist including it. Although I couldn’t immediately ascertain whether or not the Bananas Foster were gluten-free, I went ahead and gave it a try (when in doubt, I should NOT try something, but I guess I don’t always follow that rule). I’ve never liked bananas in any context, really, but that was a great dessert!
And with dessert concluded, it was time to say goodbye to Megan and Casey and move upward and onward — to the broadcast booth with Josh Suchon! After a pleasant inning on the air chatting with Josh about the start of another season of Minor League travel, I peeked my head into the control room. Everything was copacetic. For whatever reason, I seem to have a habit of visiting teams on “off” nights when it comes to attendance. This game took place on a Monday, and it was freezing! The temperature was in the low 40s once the sun went down, with winds whipping about at approximately 35 miles an hour. Hence, a pretty small crowd. I needed to move in order to stay warm, so I moved on down into the tunnel adjacent to the third base dugout. Clint had invited me to “help” drag the infield. I’ve dragged the infield a couple of times before — generally as part of a dance routine — but for whatever reason I still felt a little nervous prior to taking the field. But it was like riding a bike, in that once you get out there you just have to rely on muscle memory.
What form! What skill! What daintily-fitting tapered-leg jeans! I forget what led to what, and it’s barely documented, but I soon ended up in a mascot race dressed as “Green Chile.” I did not win. That bottle of salsa was, like, way ahead of me. Lost within the bowels of the stadium after the race, I happened upon this awesome painting. Dancin’ Homer! After getting situated again amid the general population, I opted for some dinner. One of the main concession stands had a promising (albeit) vague sign advertising a “gluten-free sandwich.” I got one. It was a turkey sandwich, apple, and a bag of chips. Good for what it was, I suppose, and certainly better than nothing. I appreciated that it was on offer in the first place. But, thinking long-term, my opinion is that gluten-free ballpark food should adhere as closely to food that people usually want at a ballpark. This might not be feasible in all situations, but with a little bit of effort regarding inventory and staff training it is possible to offer gluten-free hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, nachos, beer and more at the ballpark. Please, make it happen if you’re not making it happen already. My fellow celiacs will thank you, and even shake your hand so long as you are not made of wheat.
Off of my soapbox, for the time being, I did a lap around the stadium. It was the ninth inning, and it was cold and deserted throughout the park (save for a cluster of hardcore fans behind home plate). While I was wandering, the Isotopes plated a run in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 3-3. The game ended up going into extra innings, which I commemorated by wandering into the team store. Orbit says welcome. This is the team’s standard Simpsons-inspired logo. But the team also pays homage to Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston is a fan of the team, and while the show was filming in Albuquerque he helped organize celebrity softball tournaments. (Unfortunately, there was nary a Weird Al homage to be found in the team store. Nonetheless, Albuquerque remains one of the best songs he ever wrote!)
Finally, one can buy a copy of a book that Traub co-authored, Dave Rosenfield’s Baseball: One Helluva Life.
Rosenfield has his own Simpsons connection, as the MiLB.com article that you already read made clear: “Dancin’ Homer,” the episode in which the Springfield Isotopes were first introduced, was written by former Norfolk Tides broadcaster Ken Levine. Levine drew on his experiences with the Tides in writing the episode, and Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield even makes a cameo (in name only) as the owner of the rival Capital City Capitals.
But anyway, for the first time all night I decided to just sit down and relax. When the Isotopes make the call to the bullpen, this bullpen cart is driven around the field. I don’t think any pitchers ever ride in it, though. Despite the fact that a game had been going on for almost four hours, Homer still had his sights oriented away from the field. The Salt Lakes Bees reminded me of a cartoon at this point, in that their infield was “drawn in.” The drawn-infield wasn’t able to prevent the run from scoring, as Jamie Romak hit a single to score Miguel Rojas with the winning run.
And that, my friends, was all she wrote. She being me, and this blog post being that which got wrote. I hope you found it to be more than a rote effort, and are excited (or at least mildly curious) about the dozens of “On the Road” posts that are still to come this season.
The next post in this “On the Road” blogging series will feature the El Paso Chihuahuas. It is scheduled to run on Smarch 16.