Guest Post: My Ridiculous, Unreasonable, Fantastic Minor League Baseball Trip
My Appalachian League blog posts are now complete. There are more road trip posts to come, but today the plan is to clear the palate with a guest post.
The following post was written by Ben Curtis, a high school junior at North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Florida. He is approximately one third of the way toward his goal of visiting every Major and Minor League ballpark in the United States. Today, Ben provides the lowdown on a trip he embarked upon over the summer.
The one constant throughout the years has been baseball (thank you, James Earl Jones). But its 160 Minor League stadiums are different, each with its own design features, neighborhood charm and cultural flair (or, in a few cases, lack thereof). To compare them, there’s only one logical and sane thing to do: Drive 2,750 miles — from the Mississippi River’s southern tip, through the South and back north to the river — to see 12 games in 12 cities in 12 days. So that’s exactly what I did.
Warning: Average fans should not attempt.
Day 1: Zephyr Field, Metarie, Louisiana
New Orleans Zephyrs (Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins) hosting the Sacramento River Cats (Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants)
First stop: the Big Easy, sort of. Located in the suburbs, away from the French Quarter excitement of the Crescent City, Zephyr Field was underwhelming. After a rainout the previous night, the skies were still angry and the stands were uncharacteristically empty. I may not have seen Zephyr Field at its finest.
I liked: At too many ballparks, an onslaught of advertisements immediately slap you in the face. Zephyr Field properly balances ads with the baseball field’s natural beauty.
I didn’t: Save for one concession stand selling crawfish tenders and a single pregame playing of Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard Take 5, the Zephyrs didn’t take advantage of New Orleans’ incredible culture.
Day 2: Hank Aaron Stadium, Mobile, Alabama
Mobile BayBears (then the Double-A affiliate of the Diamondbacks, now with the Angels) hosting the Jacksonville Suns (Double-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins)
Day two brought me to the home of the Southern League’s Mobile BayBears. Nearly the entire field-level area was uniquely taken up by suites — a great view for groups and corporate sponsors, but leaving most fans far down the lines or in the second deck. Just outside the right-field concourse was the stadium’s crown jewel, the actual childhood house of the ballpark’s namesake. Removed, relocated and restored from its original spot in Mobile, the whitewashed home includes artifacts from Aaron’s Hall-of-Fame career, including his 715th home run ball.
I liked: The radio broadcast played in the concourse, keeping fans connected to the game even outside the seating bowl.
I didn’t: Only one main concession stand was open, leading to a massive line all game.
Day 3: Regions Field, Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham Barons (Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox) hosting Montgomery Biscuits (Double-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays)
Wow. Radio play-by-play broadcaster Curt Bloom welcomed me to, as he put it, the “Taj Mahal of Minor League Baseball.” He was right. Imagine everything good about Minor League ballparks, then combine them in one Double-A setting and you have Regions Field. Three runs in the ninth gave the Barons a walk-off win, punctuating a great night in the Deep South.
I liked: Batting cages in right, a hotel in left and interactive activities throughout the concourse created a fun and comfortable experience for everyone.
I didn’t: An inconvenient lack of concourse WiFi.
Day 4: State Mutual Stadium, Rome, Georgia
Rome Braves (Class A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves) hosting Lexington Legends (Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals)
A slightly odd baseball experience: Braves game-day staff included cheerleaders, which made for some uncomfortable moments involving the largely male, older crowd of 2,300 boisterous fans. The music was overkill, booming not only between batters and innings, but also within at-bats.
I liked: I’m a complete sucker for berms filled with kids chasing foul balls. The ballpark has one down each line.
I didn’t: Lexington starting pitcher Emilio Ogando was throwing heat. But without radar, we never could truly tell how hard anyone was throwing.
Day 5: Smokies Stadium, Kodak, Tennessee
Tennessee Smokies (Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs) hosting Mississippi Braves (Double-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves)
Stars in the Smoky Mountains: Braves prospects Ozzie Albies and 2015 top overall Draft pick Dansby Swanson won, 3-0, over Cubs prospect Ian Happ and rehabbing Major Leaguer Jorge Soler. The fans were fun and genuinely interested in the outcome of the game, something you don’t always get in Double-A.
I liked: Rally Llama! A longstanding video tradition of a prancing animal on the scoreboard got the crowd going in the late innings. A classy restaurant and bar down the left-field line, with closed-circuit TV, also enhanced the experience.
I didn’t: A canned “Whoo!” sound effect played virtually every other pitch, and the crowd responded with a “Whoo!” of their own. Cool maybe the first five times, but redundant and annoying after.
Day 6: Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington, Kentucky
Lexington Legends (Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals) hosting the Columbia Fireflies (Class A affiliate of the New York Mets)
Deep in thoroughbred country, the day-game temperature went through the roof, creating a real summer atmosphere. A seven-run eighth inning, a walk-off homer (my third walk-off in four nights) and an engaged crowd made up for a bland ballpark.
I liked: The “porch” area down the right-field line, commonplace at Minor League ballparks, was in the shape of a stable, drawing on the area’s horseracing culture.
I didn’t: Timing of the music was completely off, blaring excessively loud before the game, but without any typical mid-game music to keeps fans entertained.
Day 7: Louisville Slugger Field, Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds) hosting Charlotte Knights (Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox)
A fantastic Major League-level experience. The George Rogers Clark Bridge beyond center field evoked Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and the beautiful brick-and-iron entrance reminded me of classic ballparks. Meanwhile, speed pitch cages and a left-field berm kept fans in the fun, Minor League spirit.
I liked: Sparkling clean. While it may go unnoticed, a clean or dirty facility could make or break a fan’s experience.
I didn’t: With Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger factory and big-time college sports, Louisville is one of the best sports cities without a Major League team. I would have liked to see more connection to the city.
Day 8: Modern Woodman Park, Davenport, Iowa
Quad City River Bandits (Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros) hosting Peoria Chiefs (Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals)
After a perfect Cubs game at Wrigley, I was back in the creative world of Class A ball: A Ferris wheel beyond left field, a mini amusement park down the first-base line and a corn field by the home bullpen — all at a vintage facility overlooking the Mississippi River. Another walk-off win, the fifth of my trip, sent the Iowans home happy.
I liked and didn’t: The illuminated Ferris wheel was fun and engaging for little kids and non-baseball fans — but boy were all those blinking lights distracting.
In between the eight stops detailed above, I also managed to hit an independent league game in Joliet, Illinois, as well as three Major League games in the Great Lakes region.
Sure, the trip was crazy, but it was an incredible experience. And a little crazy. But who cares? You never can have too much baseball.
Thanks, Ben. Stay tuned for more from me, another Ben, as I’ve got one more road trip to chronicle. That begins tomorrow.