Like 3D Television, light beer, and marriage, Minor League Baseball home run derbies are often far better in theory than they are in practice. The thrill of seeing emerging baseball superstars belting balls out of the park often gives way to a monotonous string of foul balls and harmless outfield flies.
In order to avoid such an underwhelming spectacle, the Quad Cities River Bandits — hosts of the recent 2011 Midwest League All-Star Game — put an entirely new twist on this year’s Derby. One glance at the field should tell you just how different this particular contest was.
As River Bandits marketing and promotions manager Shelley Heward explained in an email:
What the home run derby became was a hitting contest with over 50 targets and prizes scattering the outfield, ranging from a River Bandits-themed van, sponsor banners, cutout beer bottles and even a dunk tank with Hooters girls ready to splash down…. We even gave away $2 beers when a batter hit the cardboard beer cutout which sent the crowd racing to the concession stands.
The team invited category leaders from each division, including home runs, batting average and stolen bases, and points ranging from one to 15 were awarded for various hits and points were deducted for foul balls and swinging strikes. Each player represented a fan and a charity. The fan received prizes as their player hit targets.
This culminated in a highly entertaining event with four on-field emcees, a charity receiving over $2,500 in donations and the event coming down to one final swing that had the fans on their feet. While the final hit did not result in a home run, it was still good enough for the player to win and get mobbed by his teammates.
Derby winner Travis Witherspoon and his designated fan.
In conclusion, Heward writes that:
The River Bandits redefined the home run derby with this event, involved local media, fans, charities and gave not only the All-Star players, but also thousands of fans, a memory that will not soon be duplicated.
Thanks to Heward for writing a detailed enough email that all I had to do was cut and paste. I’ll close today’s post by once again mentioning that, apropos of nothing, I am currently soliciting introspective mascot photos such as the one seen below.
I will not stop soliciting these until I have at least 10 (the current count is three), so please do your part and send ’em to me.
The fifth and final stop in this, my most recent Minor League road trip, was Akron’s Canal Park. This facility has served as the home of the Double-A Aeros since 1997, and is located in the heart of downtown.
To give you an idea of the general surroundings, the stadium is located just down the street from the Civic Theater.
And across the street from from a closed storefront featuring this interesting artwork.
Large municipal buildings abound throughout the area, and some are even called “Municipal Building.”
And the streets are litter-free, thanks to Akron’s passion for the regional sport known as “Trashball.”
Canal Park offers a decent urban view from the seating bowl, with many of the buildings associated with the renowned Akron Children’s Hospital.
And Canal Park got its name for a reason — Akron was settled at the summit of the Ohio-Erie Canal, and developed into a manufacturing and transportation hub. Beyond left field, there are still some aquatic reminders of the city’s history.
The view toward center field reveals an 18″x25″ digital scoreboard, as well as an inflatable slide that takes up seemingly every inch of available space.
Above the seating bowl are 25 suites (20 owned by the team and five by the city). They were personally decorated by the stadium’s original suiteholders, with motifs that could be characterized as “ladies sewing circle” and “old man’s den.”
On this particular evening, early-arriving fans received a “Batman” bobblebelly in honor of the Aeros’ iconic on-field dancer and bat retriever.
The promotion that I was really looking forward to was “Car Survivor,” in which five contestants vie to win a car by seeing who can live inside of it the longest. But, as it turned out, the contest had ended the day before on a technicality.
But the car was still there on the concourse — a 1996 Lexus with 182,000 miles already on it.
The fact that the Aeros are staging promotions such as “Car Survivor” can largely be attributed to new COO Jim Pfander, who spent the last decade with the Mike Veeck-owned Charleston RiverDogs.
One of Pfander’s beliefs when it comes to in-game entertainment is that “it doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be fun.” Perhaps that best explains new mascot Homer the Polka-Dot Pigeon.
This hallucinatory inflatable (the result of a staff meeting in which half the room was asked to suggest an animal, and the other half a color combination) is joined by long-time mascot Orbit.
As well as a fast food representative desperately promoting the consumption of a rival species in order to save himself.
And speaking of animal consumption, you may recall that the Aeros received a lot of attention this past offseason after unveiling gargantuan meat creations like the Three Dog Night and Nice 2 Meat You burger.
But such innovations are just a small part of a larger story, which is that the club has totally revamped its concessions. Pfander recruited fellow Charleston RiverDog Jason Kerton to serve as food and beverage director, and under his direction each of the six concourse concession stands has taken on a distinct theme.
For example, “Rabbit Food” is available at the health-conscious “Farmer’s Market.”
The menu at the left field grill stand is considerably less healthy.
A large array of franks are available at “The Dog Pound” (with the menu done up in Cleveland Browns colors).
The Major League-referencing “Jobu’s Voodoo.”
The self-explanatory Biergarten
While “Taters” is the only stand equipped with fryers (which are used to fry up pickles and sauerkraut, among a bevy of more standard fare).
But my food-centric wanderings were soon interrupted, as I was asked if I’d like to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
But of course!
But don’t let those flawless mechanics fool you — I bounced it, for the first (and I hope only) time in my ceremonial first pitch throwing career.
As penance for this lack of control, I accepted an invitation to spend some time in the dunk tank located down the right field line. But since this necessitated a change of clothes, so I ducked into the team store.
I selected the following retro-themed tee, which was then personalized with “Ben’s Biz” across the back (it’s always great when teams are able to provide this service).
The dunk tank is one of the kid’s area amusements, and usually occupied by interns. $1 buys two throws.
This kid, one “Heckman” from the nearby town of Solon, was relentless. He must have spent at least $15 at the tank, and knocked me into the water again and again and again. In the following picture, I am most likely saying “What the heck, man?” That was my go-to line.
But the water was refreshing, and all in all this was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of innings. I liked interacting with the various kids, and quickly judging whether to taunt them (as with Heckman) or attempt to increase their confidence via exaggerated displays of fear.
Upon leaving the dunk tank, I threw on my shoes and was immediately escorted to the top of the first base dugout for the nightly “Pie an Intern” contest. Usually this is preceded by some sort of trivia contest before the inevitable pie-ing, but time was short so on-field MC Calvin Funkhouser simply told the young contestant to “Go ahead and hit him with a pie.”
And so he did.
The pie was then removed, and I was turned around and put face to face with that menacing triumvirate of faux-Mexican wrestlers. Then, I was hit with a pie again.
Walking back up the stairs toward the concourse, I found it impossible to wipe the smile (or the whipped cream) off of my face. I was soaking wet and covered in whipped cream, and somehow still operating within a professional context.
And to top it all off, it was a beautiful summer evening.
I cleaned myself off the best that I could, changed back into my regularly-scheduled outfit, and met up with Kerton for dinner — Akron Aeros’ style!
The Nice 2 Meat You Burger, which could feed two people easily, consists of two 1/3 pound patties, two hot dogs, bacon, cheese, and onions. It is honestly more than a publicity stunt — it’s very tasty. The key is that the meat well-done, providing a uniform crispness throughout.
Keep your distance, Chik-Fil-A cow.
Damp, sticky, smelling like whipped cream, and eating a giant hamburger. The apex of my life so far.
“Dessert” was the Three Dog Night — a hot dog stuffed inside a brat stuffed inside a kielbasa, placed on a hoagie roll and then slathered with sauerkraut and spicy stadium mustard.
This, too, was tasty. But it was more like eating a hot dog stew than some magical combination of meat, in which kielbasa combined with brat to create some heretofore unknown taste combination.
One thing I liked about the Aeros’ approach to “extreme” concessions was that 1. they actually taste good and 2. they are available at all times. And, as a result, they are actually selling. Kerton estimated that through Saturday, intrepid Akronites had consumed 1000 Three Dog Nights and 600 Nice 2 Meat You Burgers.
And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the mustard atop of the Three Dog Night is Bertman’s. The Aeros even have it for sale in the gift shop, and I am happy to report that I smuggled it through airport security and now enjoying it in NYC.
Kerton also sent me home with an array of peanuts from the iconic Peanut Shoppe. This Akron institution is located across from the stadium, and their products are available at Canal Park. I really wish I had had the chance to visit.
Another place I wish I could have visited was Chrissy Hynde’s VegiTerranean restaurant. The meatless fare offered by the Pretenders frontwoman would have been a welcome counterpoint to ballpark cuisine. Also, the Pretenders are awesome.
After the game, while gathering my scattered belongings, I met longtime team owner Mike Agganis. We engaged in a freewheeling and rather absurd conversation, often punctuated with remarks like “I bet you’ve never met an owner like me!”
No, Mr. Agganis, I hadn’t.
After leaving the stadium, I happened upon the latest installment of Akron’s Saturday night “Lock 3 Concert Series.”
That’s Hotel Calfornia up there on the stage, an Eagles tribute band. I have no love for that particular rock entity, but it was an admirably flawless replication. They closed with “Life in the Fast Lane”, an apropos selection for any road trip soundtrack. There’s never a dull moment.
But, for now, I am back within New York City’s comforting embrace. To those who have sent me blog-worthy material over the past week — THANK YOU. It’ll be featured here soon, promise.