Return to the Road 2015: Trip IV, Chapter I
Things are getting busy here at MiLB.com HQ, as the season is now only five weeks away. Therefore, while I still have the sliver of opportunity, I am return to my ongoing “Return to the Road” series of blog posts.
Today marks the first installment in a series of posts that will cover my late July/early August trip through the South. The journey began in New Orleans on July 27th and ended in Nashville on August 6th.
I arrived in New Orleans on July 27th, a day before I was to see the New Orleans Zephyrs. So, I had a little free time. A mini-vacation, if you will. I got a cheap hotel room at the Hotel Royal in the French Quarter (it was a last-minute booking for a Monday night in late July, a great time to get affordable lodging in New Orleans).
The room itself was unremarkable, but the courtyard was great.
I didn’t see any ghosts while I was in New Orleans, but I could occasionally feel them whispering veiled allusions into my subconscious. The whole city is haunted, apparently, to the point where real estate signage actually makes it a selling point.
I am saddened and embarrassed to report that I didn’t make the most of my “off” night in New Orleans. I was kinda stressed about the trip, and had many logistics to coordinate and writing to get caught up on. When not in the hotel room I just kinda wandered around, including a depressing 90 -minute jaunt amid the claustrophobic clamor of the Bourbon Street tourist traps. I sulked about, hand grenade in hand (drink, not weapon), and soon called it a night.
The next afternoon was better, as I spent a couple of hours with my friends Rachel and D.J. (who live in the city and — hey! — just had a baby. Congrats). They live in Uptown, on a street boasting “only in New Orleans” parking signage.
Rachel and D.J. took me to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, a New Orleans institution.
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz sells sno-balls, a New Orleans specialty. They are basically high-quality snow cones, in which flavored syrups are poured atop soft mounds of shaved ice. I was overwhelmed by the number of flavors available.
The evening of July 28th was spent with the New Orleans Zephyrs, who are actually located in nearby Metairie. A dedicated “Return to the Road” reader has since informed me that Gram Parsons is buried in Metairie. (The legendary country-rocker died in Joshua Tree, and getting his body back home was, to put it mildly, a complicated situation.)
My final act in New Orleans was to have lunch at the Camelia Grill with Rachel and D.J. Behind the stately exterior lies a beloved greasy spoon diner known for its bow-tied wait staff and cramped, communal counter seating.
Thus concludes one of the most ramshackle and arbitrary New Orleans write-ups that has ever graced the internet, as I was soon on to Biloxi. Please, stay tuned. There will be more where this came from, all the way until there isn’t.
To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part Three) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.
2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!
If there’s one thing you think about when you think about New Orleans, it very well may be “food.” From jambalaya to crawfish to oysters to muffalettas to Po’ Boys to gumbo to beignets and beyond, this is a city with no shortage of distinct culinary specialties.
Zephyr Field offers a solid array of region-specific concession items, allowing fans to forgo the traditional hot dogs and Cracker Jacks options endemic to the baseball culinary experience. The forgoing of hot dogs became a foregone conclusion on the Tuesday evening in which I was in attendance, as the local “Lucky Dogs” stand was closed for the evening.
Boudreaux’s Smoke House, named after the team’s nutria mascot, did not serve nutria stew and thus that was skipped over as well.
Instead, we settled on the unnamed stand located to the right of the Smoke House. There, one could find an array of New Orleans-centric items.
In the above paragraph, when I said that “we” settled on the above concession stand, I was referring to myself and my designated eater (you know, the individual who consumes the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). On this Tuesday night in New Orleans, that individual was one Eric Olsen. He was in attendance along with his wife, Ami.
Eric has actually appeared on this blog already this season, albeit in an incidental, extremely subtle way. He’s a member of the “Little Piggy Wall-O-Shame,” as a result of failing to complete the Norfolk Tides’ “Salute to Pork Challenge.” Unbeknownst to me, but when I visited Norfolk last month I snapped a photo that included Eric within it. Within this melange of stuffed and defeated men, he’s in the first vertical row, second from the bottom.
Ami was not the biggest fan of Eric’s pork-eating endeavors.
“For the love of our name, don’t throw up,” was the thought running through her mind at the time. “Better a quitter than a puker.”
Eric grew up in Queens, New York and moved with his family to the New Orleans area when he was a teenager. He met Ami via a blind date, and it was Ami who helped him land his current job as a “master control operator” with a local television station. (She moved on to the position of “station operations manager.”) The couple have worked together for the better part of the last two decades, and they often attend Zephyrs games together as well. Eric, a dedicated autograph collector, estimates that he visits Zephyr Field 60-65 times each season.
“This is what he loves,” said Ami. “We already spend eight hours a day together, so we might as well spend a couple more watching baseball.”
But when it came to designated eating, Eric was on his own.
Go for it, Eric:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 28, 2015
“It’s good. Has a nice kick to it, and the etouffee has a good flavor to it. I’d definitely get this again,” said Eric, who had never ordered this particular item before. “You’ve got the crunch of the sausage, the spice, the onions and the peppers. I’ve had fried alligator before, and like everyone says, it tastes like chicken. But, to me, this is almost like a Spicy Italian.”
“It’s not a typical po’ boy bun, it’s more a hoagie than French bread,” he added. “They’re stretching the definition just a tad.”
For the record, Eric’s favorite place to get a po’ boy is Short Stop, located in Metairie. He also reported that his crawfish cravings are most thoroughly satisfied at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter.
Ami, too, is a Gumbo Shop fan.
“The blackened catfish nuggets? Oh, my God,” she said. “You get them with a Creole honey mustard meets orange marmalade dipping sauce.”
Such recollections complete, we then moved on to the ballpark jambalaya. It’s shot through with sausage and shredded chicken.
“It’s good, spicy, and there’s a lot of sausage,” said Eric.
That’s a solid quote, succinct and descriptive, so with that we’ll say goodbye to Eric. His designated eater duties were completed successfully, ensuring that he would not be inducted into another food related Wall-O-Shame.
Once is enough.
To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.
2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!
So, as I was saying in part one of this New Orleans blog saga, I happened to visit Zephyr Field on what was a low-key Tuesday night.
While the Zephyrs play in a sizable market, they’re in a tough situation regarding their ability to consistently draw large crowds. There are endless year-round entertainment options in New Orleans, so professional baseball in a neighboring suburb is bound to get overlooked by locals and tourists alike. Plus, the area is one of the few in the country where college baseball — particularly Louisiana State University — is a major draw in its own right. The biggest crowd in Zephyr Field history was in 2001, and it wasn’t to see the Zephyrs. Rather it was to see LSU take on Tulane in the super regionals.
College football is massively popular in the greater New Orleans as well, and of course the National Football League Saints are a year-round concern. There’s also an National Basketball Association team — the Pelicans — whose name is, at least in part, an homage to the New Orleans Pelicans Minor League club that operated throughout the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Pelicans owner Tom Benson (who also owns the Saints) tried to relocate the (then) Double-A Charlotte Knights to New Orleans in 1993. If he had done so, he would have named them the “Pelicans.” This move never came to fruition, however, as the Denver Zephyrs relocated to New Orleans instead (more info on that move can be found in the previous post).
The Saints train in Metairie, and their preseason facility is visible from Zephyr Field. It’s that rectangular building in the distance, not-so-secretly containing an indoor football field.
If one was to then move one’s head, and thus, eyes, to the left, then one would then see that Zephyr Field has a pool.
There is also a small concourse arcade, for those who just can’t, under any circumstance, bring themselves to watch baseball. (For the record, I was once pretty good at “Cruisin’ USA,” a staple of boardwalk arcades during my teenage years.)
But while cruisin’ is allowed, smokin’ is not. There was something about this signage that captured me; at first glance it appeared to be a cryptic communique from a lost civilization.
Crusin’ back to the field of play, here’s how things looked from the third base side.
When in the press box, idle wandering wasn’t my primary concern. I ended up spending an enjoyable inning and a half on the air with the Zephyrs broadcast team of Tim Grubbs and Ron Swoboda (yes, the Ron Swoboda, of 1969 Miracle Mets fame). Grubbs calls all 144 Zephyrs games each season and also coordinates team travel; Swoboda, a veteran TV sports journalist who has long called New Orleans home, joins him for every home game.
During the course of our on-air conversation, we got to talking about my recent story on Norfolk Tides executive vice president Dave Rosenfield. I mentioned that Rosenfield was once name-checked on The Simpsons and Swoboda mentioned that he was as well.
Wow, I had forgotten about that! It’s in the season 22 episode Moneybart:
Marge: Lisa, can’t you let your brother back on the team? Fly balls and fungoes come and go, but family is forever.
Homer: Sorry, Marge, I got to call bullcrap on that one. The ’69 Mets will live on forever, but do you think anyone cares about Ron Swoboda’s wife and kids? Not me, and I assume not Ron Swoboda.
Swoboda laughed off this out-of-right-field swipe, with an attitude of “Hey, at least people are still talking about me.”
Anyhow, thanks to Grubbs and Swoboda for having me on. This photo of the three of us, taken in rushed circumstances during a commercial break, is not ideal. But it’s all I’ve got, and I’m happy to have it.
To see all posts from my July 28, 2015 visit to the New Orleans Zephyrs (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.
2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!
Quick! What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of the city of New Orleans?
No matter what you said, I can (almost) guarantee that it wasn’t “wide open spaces.”
But, yet, here we are at Zephyr Field, a baseball stadium in a wide open space that serves as the home of the New Orleans Zephyrs. The Zephyrs play in the Pacific Coast League. If there’s one thing you think of when you think “New Orleans,” I can (definitely) guarantee that it isn’t the Pacific Coast.
Technically, Zephyr Field isn’t even in New Orleans. It’s in Metairie, a suburb located a few miles northwest from New Orleans proper. I was there on Tuesday, July 28, with Zephyr Field the first stop of my Deep South “Shucking and Driving” road trip.
At the time that I arrived, the gates had yet to open. The concourse was largely deserted…
…as was the upper level.
My companion during these pre-game wanderings was Zephyrs media relations director Dave Sachs, who was full of facts, figures, anecdotes and wry asides. He told me that the franchise’s previous incarnation was the Denver Zephyrs of the American Association, who moved to New Orleans after the 1992 season to make way for the Major League expansion Colorado Rockies. The New Orleans Zephyrs played at Privateer Park — the home of New Orleans Privateers college baseball — for the first four seasons of their existence before moving to brand-new Zephyrs Field in 1997.
The Zephyrs were a Brewers affiliate during those first four years, but when they moved into the new ballpark they dumped the Brewers in favor of the Astros. This is very similar to what happened to the Brewers this past offseason, as they got dumped by the Nashville Sounds (in favor of the Athletics) just as the Sounds were moving into a new ballpark. What I’m trying to say is that over the past two decades the Brewers have not been treated well by their Triple-A affiliates.
Furthermore! In today’s Minor League Baseball landscape, where unique regional identity is everything, it seems inconceivable that a team would keep the same name after moving to another location. The Denver Zephyrs were an homage to the iconic Denver Zephyr passenger train, which ran nonstop to Chicago. But the “Zephyrs” name, as luck would have it, had a New Orleans tie-in as well. Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, defunct since 1983, had had a popular roller coaster named the Zephyr. Thus, the team kept the name upon moving to New Orleans. Until visiting Zephyr Field and talking to Dave, I had not known this backstory, incorrectly and smugly assuming (as I am wont to do) that the only team in Minor League Baseball named after a roller coaster was the Brooklyn Cyclones.
This bar on the concourse is called the “Last Ride,” paying tribute to what had once been Pontchartrain Beach’s star attraction.
Dave also told me that Zephyr Field’s outfield berm, nicknamed “The Levee,” allegedly boasts the highest elevation in New Orleans. We’ll put aside the fact that Zephyrs Field is not actually located in New Orleans, as that kind of complicates this factoid.
Soon after arriving at Zephyr Field, I interviewed infielder (and former Louisiana State University standout) Austin Nola regarding his “name on the front/ name on the back” jersey status. Pretty cool, right?
My story on Nola and his NOLA connection, which also includes his thoughts on how he might fare against his brother (pitcher Aaron, now with the Phillies) can be found HERE.
The Zephyrs NOLA uniforms are part of a larger emphasis on displaying New Orleans pride. Prior to the 2010 season, the team adopted a Fleur de Lis primary logo:
The Fleur de Lis mark replaced a Nutria-themed logo, featuring mascot Boudreaux. In an article on the new logo, a writer (me) explained that nutria are “orange-toothed, semi-aquatic rodents that are prevalent in the city of New Orleans.” This article also featured the brilliant lede of, “In with the new, out with the nutria.”
Nutria, for the record, are fit for human consumption. Boudreaux the mascot is NOT fit for human consumption, however. Do not try to eat him. Or his wife, (the former Clotile Picou). Or their six kids (Beauregard, Cherie, Claudette, Jean-Pierre, Noelle and Thibodaux). Mascot procreation is alive and well in Metairie, though the specifics of this act and subsequent childbirth are closely-guarded industry secrets.
The Zephyrs front offices are located on the ground floor. Clearly, the team had recently staged a Back to the Future promotion.
Here’s Dave Sachs in his office, which has become a storehouse for All-Star Game voting stations. Paper balloting has been discontinued, thankfully. Otherwise he’d soon have run out of room.
Soon after the above photo was taken, Dave departed for the press box. I, meanwhile, headed to the stands. It was a low-key night, another thing you probably don’t think of when you think of New Orleans.
This season, when I’m on the road, I’ll be writing an on-the-spot blog post about each Minor League ballpark that I visit. Then, upon my return home, I’ll provide the multifaceted blog coverage that you have come to know and, perhaps, even love. Let’s get to it, lest it get to us!
July 28, 2015: Zephyr Field, home of the New Orleans Zephyrs
Opponent: Colorado Springs Sky Sox, 6:05 p.m. game time.
Zephyr Field, from the outside:
Your groundbreaking and subversive ballpark joke of the day, New Orleans Zephyrs https://t.co/GziZBieH9Z
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 29, 2015
Biloxi Shuckers: 7/29-30
Mobile BayBears: 7/31
Montgomery Biscuits: 8/1
Mississippi Braves: 8/2
Jackson Generals: 8/3
Nashville Sounds: 8/5