Bill Valentine, legendary Arkansas Travelers executive and former American League umpire, was named”King of Baseball” at the 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego. The day after his crowning ceremony, I sat down with Valentine, now in his 80s, for a wide-ranging interview. This chat has already resulted in one MiLB.com feature, but , as I noted at the time, there was PLENTY more where that came from.
During the course of our very long conversation – if you know Bill Valentine, then you know that he likes to tell stories – I asked him if, as King, he had any advice for his “subjects” now working in the industry. His advice, in so many words, could be summarized as “Keep it simple, stupid.” But I’ll let him tell it. The floor is now ceded to the King, so that he may enlighten the next generation of Minor League Baseball executives on a variety of topics.
Finally, it would be a good idea to listen to this classic Valentine voicemail message before reading the remainder of this post. It really helps to have a sense of his distinct (and often hilarious) manner of speaking.
(Note: This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Minor League Baseball industry newsletter The Dugout.)
Bill Valentine on ballpark food
People don’t know this, but when Bobby Bragan was the president of the Minor Leagues I started the Freitas Seminar [a Minor League business seminar held during the Winter Meetings]. It wasn’t called that then, I just had a seminar. I brought the general managers in to speak, but we talked about soft drinks, we talked about food, we talked about promotions, we talked about ticket sales, we talked about the souvenir stand.
You know what people want when they come to the ballpark? Peanuts, popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, a cold beer and a soft drink. They can get a brisket sandwich for lunch or anywhere else. But when they come to the ballpark, even if they’re in $40,000 suites, they want ballpark food. I found that out. And it’s true to this day. You can’t make a hamburger better than Five Guys. There ain’t no way you’re going to do those type of things better than the local guys. You can’t do barbeque better than some guy who owns a barbeque place. But hardly anybody in town is doing peanuts, popcorn, nachos and hot dogs.
You got high profit in it. And I tell people, no one ever said “Hey, let’s go to [the Travelers home of] Dickey-Stephens Park tonight. They’ve got great sushi.” Stick with the basics. Put your emphasis on what I just told you. Keep the popcorn hot, make sure you’ve got an all-meat fantastic hot dog, and the beer should be the coldest of anywhere in town. Seriously, [slapping hands for emphasis] that will make you a lot of money.
On team merchandise
My idea of souvenirs was to have my logo in the community. I wanted everyone to have Traveler ballcaps. I wanted the kids to have Traveler wristbands. I wanted them in a Travelers t-shirt…..So, a $10 t-shirt. They don’t blink. But a $22 t-shirt? Jeez.
The team cap, one size fits all? Maybe $10, $11. The one that’s a real team hat? In the $20s, maybe. Then have a lot of things, like a logo baseballs. You get the damn things for a dollar and a half. Sell it for four. Sell all that stuff, get a nice little margin but try to push it out the by the barrelful.
On customer service
I really think that, every game, there should be someone at the entrances with a club hat on welcoming people. And at the end of the game, same people, saying “Hope you come back.” And I think people enjoy that, they say, “You know, they were really nice.” I think that can go a long way. Just saying thank you.
Every night I would send out ‘mystery people’ to the concession stands. One had a $20 bill, and the other had a $10 bill. And they would go to the stands and buy something, and if the person selling said “Thank you” then the mystery person would give them the money. It really turned them around. Our employees were saying “thank you.” It’s just a nice courtesy. I had everyone around the ballpark saying “thank you.” I did it by passing out some money.
On the primary importance of the women’s restroom
I had never seen a line at the men’s restroom. So when we built [Dickey-Stephens] ballpark I said “We’re going to take half the men’s restrooms and add them to the ladies’ room.” They told me I couldn’t do it, because of federal things. I said, “I get to build this ballpark. The mayor gave it to me and it’s my ballpark.” So I made the ladies restroom twice as big as the men’s room. The ladies restrooms probably had 30 commodes in them. I mean, really.
Opening night, a guy came over from the television station and said “Okay, Mr. Promoter. What’s the one thing tonight you think people are going to notice?” I said “I’m going to tell you something. The first time a woman goes to the women’s restroom, if I’m nearby they’re going to come out and hug my neck and say to me that it is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever seen.”
Well, when Opening Night came and the gates opened [the TV reporter] put me at the exit of the ladies restroom. The first lady came out, ran over, hugged my neck and said “That was the most fantastic bathroom I have ever seen in my life.” And [the reporter], he just threw his hands up and said “You SOB.”
I’m going to assume that, at this point in time, you have already thoroughly scoured my post on 2014 road trip itineraries. (If you haven’t, then please click HERE). Thanks to all who have provided feedback on that post; more is always encouraged via firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/bensbiz
But enough about me! Did you know that, in recent weeks, several new Minor League mascots have made their debut? I am sensing a profoundly ambivalent response to that query, but soldiering on in the face of ambivalence is what I do best. Therefore, let’s start with Chico of the El Paso Chihuahuas, who I will be able to meet in person on April 29th. Say what you will about the Chihuahuas name/logo/overall branding efforts, but one thing they are definitely not is bashful. Chico, who came into the world without even a scintilla of an origin story, is IN YOUR FACE.
(This, and all Chico photos, courtesy Peter Svarzbein/El Paso Chihuahuas)
Let’s back up a little…
From the rear. This photo could in no way be misconstrued.
I do my best to refrain from lazy “only on the internet” phrases such as “nightmare fuel,” but there’s no doubt that Chico has a bit of an edge too him. He’s got red eyes, a dog collar necklace, and a cockeyed, teeth-baring grin, three presentational elements that are rarely associated with the Minor League mantra of family-friendly entertainment.
El Paso Chihuahuas — on the cutting edge, or missing the mark? I have a feeling that Chico doesn’t care what your opinion is, whatever it is. He will be performing for a fan base that includes Pauly Shore and Cheech Marin (really!), so chances are that he’ll fit in just fine.
Meanwhile, a couple thousand miles to the northeast, the Akron RubberDucks have unveiled “Webster.”
And, yes, let’s get this out of the way. As noted by more than one of my Twitter followers, Webster appears to be Minor League Baseball’s version of “Poochie,” the superfluous Itchy and Scratchy sidekick whose cynical conception and even more cynical demise was the subject of a classic Simpsons episode.
It turns out that, in the flesh, Webster is downright endearing. Chances are slim that he will die on the way back to his home planet, I look forward to meeting him when I visit Akron on July 18.
— Webster RubberDuck (@WebsterInAkron) April 12, 2014
Out in Modesto, Al the almond and Wally the walnut have long held things down on the mascot front. You’d think that the team would be content with displaying their pair of nuts at every home game, but, no, they want more. Get ready for a female pistachio!
Like all female pistachios, this one needs a name! Fans are invited to choose among Penny, Patty, Shelley, Bella, or Polly, but why isn’t “Ms. Tachio” one of the options? I need to start a consulting company so that such wordplay opportunities are always taken advantage of within the industry. I would be good at this, and you know it.
Finally, in Little Rock, the Arkansas Travelers have unveiled not one and not three but yes two mascots: Ace and Otey. Sez the team:
Ace is a native Arkansan who grew up rooting for the Travelers. He proudly served his country and upon returning to the Natural State competed and won the Mascot Tryout. With a name like “Ace” of course he is a pitcher and stands at a very menacing 7′ 2″ tall and weighs 501 pounds with a size-36 hoof.
From the Travs’ Opening Day Facebook photo album:
At 7’2″, Ace’s height is even greater than former Arkansas Traveler Loek Van Mil!
This, also from the Travs, might be one of my favorite mascot bios in recent memory.
Initially the idea was for just one mascot, but when Ace introduced the Travs and Hughes Agency to his best friend “Otey the Swamp Possum” during the interview process all bets were off. Just like Ace, Otey is also native to the state hailing from Southeast Arkansas. He grew up watching Travs games with his family from underneath the stands at Little Rock’s Ray Winder Field. Otey, who was named after former Traveler infielder and groundskeeper R.C. Otey, claims that he is the Travelers’ “Good Luck Charm”. In fact Otey believes that his superstitions helped the Travs win the 2008 Texas League Championship even though their 62-78 regular season record was the worst for a champion in Texas League history. Otey stands a stout 5 feet tall, he is a fan of second base and the “phantom double play” and his favorite number is .984, which was R.C. Otey’s career fielding percentage.
And with this memorable bio comes a very memorable mascot.
Okay, let’s back it up just a bit…
Otey inspired a brief burst of snark and faux-outrage from amateur hour internet hyperbolists, but so what? As Otey’s bio makes clear — and this is something I learned firsthand when I visited in 2012 — the Travs and their fans have a strong nostalgia for their colorful Ray Winder Field past. So much so, the beer garden at their current home of Dickey-Stephens Field is named after a well-known and often well-lubricated fan who would slide, in shorts, into a popcorn box base. Otey should fit right in.
And with that, it’s time for me to hook slide on out of here.
Yesterday’s post barely scratched the surface of my Arkansas Travelers experience, seeing as how it concluded with the game’s first pitch. Now it’s time to dive in, headfirst, to part II!
I was in the press box for the singing of the National Anthem…
and then it was time to — yes — Play Ball! It sure took long enough!
And with the game finally, mercifully, underway, I commenced to wandering. I hadn’t yet worked up an appetite, but couldn’t help but take note of the various concourse food options.
Premium popsicles, courtesy of “Le Pops.” I really should have ordered a salted caramel!
The more standard concessions were all reasonably priced, and this is one the hallmarks of the Dickey-Stephens experience ($3 hot dog, $3.50 sausage, $3.75 nachos, etc).
The open-air wandering was good for both soul and constitution, and provided pleasing vantage points aplenty.
But soon I returned to the press box, for this is my destiny. For the sixth (and final) time on this trip, I spent an inning on the radio (I’ll forgive the Springfield Cardinals for being the only team not to extend the invitation).
Here’s the view from the booth, presided over by RJ Hawk (left) and Phil Elson. One of the topics was the impending post-game Diamond Dig, which Hawk was slated to MC. He informed me that it would be an excellent place to meet young single women, and my last words on the air were “I’m gonna get married tonight.” It didn’t happen, but — foreshadowing alert! — there were indeed single women aplenty and they were beautiful.
I’ve been a fan of Elson’s broadcast work ever since 2005, when I listened to him call the controversial ending of that year’s Texas League Championship Series between Arkansas and Midland. Here’s how I described it in a 2007 MiLB.com article:
The Travelers were trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases empty when Jason Aspito came to the plate representing Arkansas’ last hope. The left fielder worked the count full, and then took ball four. Except plate umpire Steve Fritzoni had apparently lost track of the count and ordered Aspito back into the batter’s box. He struck out on the next pitch — on a 4-2 count! — handing the RockHounds a season-ending championship victory.
Elson was furious at this turn of events, and bitterly spit out the phrase “Have a nice career, Fritzoni!” That has since become a personal motto of mine, whenever I (or someone around me) messes up. “Have a nice career, Fritzoni!” I say to myself.
I’ll end this nerdy digression by turning to something even nerdier, which I know a portion of my readership will be deeply interested in: a Texas League memo regarding proper conduct toward official scorers:
The next order of business – and I’m all business on these trips — was a concourse interview with assistant park superintendent Reggie Temple. In addition to his official job duties, Reggie spends the bulk of every game washing and detailing cars in the parking lot. (This side business is known as “Reasonable Reggie’s Car Wash” and his oft-stated motto is “Gimme Your Keys!”)
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Reggie Temple.
But that’s not all. Of course not. Reggie is also an accomplished and enthusiastic roller skater, and he brings his skates to the ballpark with him. Throughout our conversation, he would stop and dance whenever snippets of music played over the PA.
The funny thing about Reggie was that he didn’t seem to be showing off for me, or anyone. He was totally nonchalant and business-like, like “Music comes on, I skate. That’s what I do.” (More on Reggie in my MiLB.com piece).
My Reggie rendezvous occurred just outside of the “Travelers Baseball Museum,” so naturally that was my next destination. It is what its name implies — an area packed to the gills with memorabilia from Little Rock’s long and distinguished professional baseball history.
This cartoon good-naturedly pokes fun at legendary Travelers owner and operator Bill Valentine (now retired).
And here’s Valentine’s desk, from old Ray Winder Field.
A few more museum shots:
Okay, now it was time to eat. Travs general manager Pete Laven had told me that the team sold a “Deer Dog” (as in, venison), a locally-made creation that alluded to the prevalence of hunting in the Arkansas region. I did a quick run-through of the concourse in search of one, but, somehow, failed. It’s my fault — it was getting late in the game at this point, and I had wanted to make it back to the press box in time for the seventh-inning stretch.
So, as is so often the case in life, I settled for a big ol’ corn dog. (Like my Yuengling in Jackson, this corn dog had a special significance to me, and I’ll explain why in my next post. It will be a “very special” edition of Ben’s Biz Blog, don’t miss it).
C.D. in the P.B.:
The seventh-inning stretch is sung by Elson himself, and he takes these duties very seriously. Here he is, plunging the depths of the soul, waiting for the sound of the organ to waft through the ballpark.
And, truly, he really belts it out, with the last note of the song sustained for a good 15 seconds or so. Perhaps a video will one day emerge, but this is all I’ve got.
I spent the remainder of the ballgame speaking with (and being interviewed by) Matt and Carolyn LaWell. They are a 20-something married couple in the midst of a season-long trek through the entirety of (full-season) Minor League Baseball, and their dispatches from the road are chronicled at their website aminorleagueseason.com. They are truly skilled and committed writers, and it was a fortunate (although not entirely surprising) happenstance that our paths ended up crossing. I’ll have a little more on them later, but the next order of business was something truly special.
The post-game Diamond Dig! This is a Minor League promotional staple, in which the women in attendance (18 and over) are invited on to the field post-game in order to dig (with a plastic spoon) for a small box buried in the infield dirt. And this box? It contains a diamond ring. As soon as the game ended, the combatants lined up for their shot at post-game treasure.
In the following shot, the individuals with the cameras are the aforementioned Matt and Carolyn LaWell.
The women soon streamed forth onto the infield, and then patiently waited for the announcement that it was time to start digging.
I will take a conservative approach regarding which, and how many, photos I post here, but I would like to say that I was truly astounded by the number of beautiful women who were on the field. Like, this is just who happens to be in Little Rock for a Minor League Baseball game on a Thursday night? It was amazing.
After about 10 minutes of fruitless digging, Hawk (the MC) gave the clue that the diamond could be found on the right side of the infield. A migration ensued:
The digging then resumed in earnest, but soon there was commotion from just beyond second base. Heads began to turn in that general location…
and for good reason! The diamond had been found!
I made my way through the scrum to get a closer look…
and — YES! — there it was in all its glory! Here’s the winner, looking both relieved and elated.
This woman was a skilled competitor. If you go all the way back to my first Diamond Dig photo, of the women waiting on the stairs, you’ll see that she was first in line and plotting her strategy. Congrats!
And now the evening — and my road trip — was finally over. But I was in no hurry to leave. I watched the indefatigable interns clean the stands, before retiring to their on-site apartment for the evening.
And then snapped a photo of the LaWells in the home dugout.
But it all ended with this photo, as accurate a summation of the Minor League life as there ever was.
This most recent trip, which I never came up with a proper name for beyond “OKARMOTN,” wrapped up with a return engagement in the “AR” part of the equation: Little Rock, home of the Arkansas Travelers.
Since 2007, the Travs have made their home within the spacious confines of Dickey Stephens Park:
Dickey-Stephens is a great place to watch a game, and I had a phenomenal time during my lone evening there. It was action-packed, full of memorable characters and situations, and there’s a good chance that this post will be broken up into two pieces. (That’ll be a play it by ear kind of situation, keep reading and I’ll keep writing.)
But all that said, I’ll tell you right now that, on one level, my trip to Little Rock was a total failure. This is because I didn’t make it to Ray Winder Field, which served as the Travelers’ home from 1932-2006. (This photo taken from ArkansasRoadStories.com)
Word has it that the facility is in bad shape these days, a most dispiriting situation, but I wanted to get to Ray Winder because nearly everyone I spoke to at Dickey-Stephens said I needed to. It is a place with mystique, where irascible owner Bill Valentine (now retired) ran a no-tech operation that was high in charisma and “only in Minor League Baseball” eccentricity. Broadcaster Phil Elson, who spent six years at working at Ray Winder, regaled me with tales involving beer can pyramids, midgets on scooters, and not-fit-to-print owner-umpire repartee before wrapping it up like this:
“You can come to a game here [Dickey-Stephens] and enjoy it. It’s great. But if you used to go to games at Ray Winder, then you still have Ray Winder in your heart.”
(So, yeah, I’m frustrated I didn’t make it there. I didn’t have the time, pre-game, because of an agonizingly slow drive coming in from Jackson on I-40 that afternoon. And, my attempt to stop by the next morning before flying out of Little Rock was stymied by what was, apparently, the wrong address. But enough rambling justifications, which I wrote down solely to appease my own tendency toward self-criticism…)
There is still PLENTY to write about, live and direct from Dickey-Stephens Park!
That post-game Diamond Dig was just fantastic, and we’ll get to that in due time.
But the first order of business was, as usual, a player interview. While I waited for Elson to procure a victim (thanks, Darwin Perez), I followed up on a commenter’s tip and investigated the interior of this unassuming structure located down the right field line:
It looks like it would house team offices, perhaps, or maybe a storage area. But, no — this is an intern living area! Six young men in their early 20s, co-existing in harmony (more or less). Steven Kettler, a West Virginia native, was the only one “home” when I stopped by for a visit.
Kettler gave me a tour of this humble abode, which has been used as such since Dickey-Stephens opened in 2007. It consists of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms (with two beds apiece) and, as you might imagine, is a bit on the “messy” side of the housekeeping equation. For more, read THIS MiLB.com article.
The top TV simply carries a live feed of the nearby baseball field, so that the occupants always know what’s going on and what may need to be done (setting up and taking down BP is one of their many daily duties, for example).
This hallway leads to the bedroom suites, which are, of course, impeccably maintained. Just take my word for it.
Reminders of Ray Winder Field are plentiful throughout Dickey-Stephens Park. This storage shed, located a proverbial hop, skip and a jump from the intern apartments, has seats from the old stadium stacked up against it.
Meanwhile, these Winder relics have been pressed into active duty at Dickey-Stephens:
Dickey-Stephens boasts a downtown location, and plenty of Little Rock landmarks can be seen from the outfield concourse. The white structure in front of the skyscraper is the Old State House.
Per that unassailable information source that is Wikipedia, the Old State House is ” the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. It is known best as the site of President Bill Clinton‘s election night celebration in 1992.” It has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
I made my way back to the front entrance just before the gates were scheduled to open. Outside, a crowd had formed.
Many of these early arriving partisans were eager to get their hands on the evening’s giveaway, which was stacked up in huge quantities on a full-to-bursting concourse table.
That would be a Garrett Richards replica jersey t-shirt, distributed to the first 1000 youths in attendance. Many of these youths made an immediate wardrobe change upon procuring one.
Upon entering the stadium, many of the fans make an immediate right. To the beer garden!
The beer garden’s bleacher seating is an homage to Ray Winder Field.
“Hook Slide Corner” is what this area is officially known as, and boy oh boy is there a story behind that. To a large degree, this drawing tells the tale:
Walter “Hook Slide” Bradshaw was a regular at the Ray Winder beer garden. His nightly routine, as captured in the above drawing, was to do his “hook slide” into a popcorn box base, on concrete, while wearing jean shorts. And the reward for his effort was free beer from his fellow fans, which, once consumed, would inevitably end up as part of a teetering can pyramid.
It’s hard to imagine a Minor League team condoning such behavior, let alone making it a part of its franchise mythology, but this is just one of the reasons that the Travelers stand out. I couldn’t find any pictures of Bradshaw online, but here’s a shot of a newspaper tribute that I took while visiting the ballpark museum (more on that later):
And now, Hook Slide Bradshaw has obtained Beer Garden immortality!
A mascot based on Hook Slide Bradshaw would be awesome, but the Travs, understandably, went a safer route:
That’s Shelly the Horse, hanging out by the inflatable-laden “Kidz Korner.”
A better vantage point can be obtained simply by turning in the other direction, however. Texas League Baseball!
Some 1050 words later, I’ve finally reached a point in the narrative where the ballgame is underway. And there’s still so much more to write about! Including but not limited to: a roller-skating, car-washing member of the grounds crew, a phenomenal seventh-inning stretch, an encounter with this season’s premier Minor League nomads, and the embarrassment of riches that was the post-game Diamond Dig.
Yep, this one is definitely gonna be a two-parter. Thank you for your patience; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
To that end, today’s post features my 10 favorite photographs from the recently deceased campaign. All of these pictures appeared on this blog at some point during the season, and are presented in the order in which they originally appeared.
Remember — it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Let’s all take a look at once was:
Snowpening Day — Freezing precipitation prevented the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers from playing their first scheduled home game, causing the players to release their start-of-the-season aggression upon hapless snowmen (note the Rattlers’ scoreboard message, a nice example of thinking ahead).
Catatonic Cauliflower — Jerry “The King” Lawler visited Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium, leaving no doubt as to his feelings regarding rampaging vegetables.