This may be the first Ben’s Biz Blog post to appear in autumn, but the content remains rooted in the (seemingly) endless summer of 2012. Today we return, one last time, to the city of Memphis. I attended a game at AutoZone Park on June 12, and the following morning had a bit more time to explore before heading to the next destination of Jackson, TN.
One of the first sights I came across after departing the Sleep Inn in which I had been sequestered was this unorthodox art “battle.” Ghostly cowboy vs. tank-driving alien: who ya got?
From there, a bit of wandering soon brought me to this Memphis institution.
The Orpheum, 84-years young and (allegedly) haunted, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Also occurring in 1977 was the death of Mr. Elvis Presley — a nearby statue commemorates how he appeared in his prime, far removed from Me Decade degeneration.
I didn’t have the time to make it to Graceland this time around, but that remains a goal. (In the meantime I’ll just be hanging out here in New York City, looking for the human trampoline.) Walking along Main Street, I found a more recent example of a Memphis-based musical striver.
It’s easy to make fun of a dude named “Lil Wyte,” but he’s found a way to make a living as a rapper for 10+ years (largely via his own label) and that is something that takes a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication. I’m not all that into his style of hip-hop, but he has my respect. (In a perfect world, my Minor League Baseball road trips would be coupled with profiles of local rappers and doom metal bands, as a way of more fully being able to capture the personality of the city in question. But, for now, you’re left with out-of-focus pictures of telephone pole advertisements).
These wanderings through the relative desolation of Memphis’ Main Street did have a final destination: the Lorraine Motel. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated here in 1968, and the building has since been expanded into the National Civil Rights Museum.
Also part of the museum is this area directly across the street, which includes the perch from which Ray fired the fateful bullet.
I did not have enough time to tour the museum proper, but I did engage in a conversation with one of its biggest detractors.
That shadowy figure is one Jacqueline Smith, a former resident of the Lorraine Hotel who has since dedicated her life to railing against the museum. I went into the conversation with the intent of being receptive to her point of view — Ms. Smith is a life-long Memphis resident with a personal connection to the Lorraine Motel, and there is clearly much to be said about the mixed effects of gentrification as well as the mainstream co-option and subsequent neutering of radical modes of thought. But Ms. Smith has been on her single-minded crusade for so long that there isn’t any nuance whatsoever in her viewpoints (if there ever was). She told me that “black people who visit here are brainwashed” and that a “good white person is like finding a $3 bill,” and put me in a thoroughly no-win situation. If I agreed with any aspect of what she said, she’d berate me for my lazily acquiescence (“You don’t know anything, you don’t read anything, you just shake your head and say ‘yeah.'”). But if I disagreed, I was characterized as simply the latest deluded soul to wander by her quixotic encampment.
It was frustrating, to say the least, and I replayed the conversation in my head for hours afterward. (Being sensitive and overly-analytical is hard work!) My final conclusion was that her dismissive and oft-hateful viewpoints were a more substantial desecration of Dr. King’s memory than any aspect of the museum itself. But what do I know? She’s been camping out at that spot for 23 years. I wandered through during the course of an unfocused early afternoon.
Look, here’s a picture of a restaurant. I took it myself.
Did you know? The Arcade is Memphis’ oldest restaurant, and inside there is an “Elvis Booth” in memory of one of the establishment’s most dedicated customers.
The downtown walk continued to reveal locations both boarded up and still vital…
But, as always, my ultimate destination was a baseball stadium. The Redbirds were playing an early afternoon contest at AutoZone Park, so before heading on my way to Jackson I stopped in for the final few innings. This brief “fan mode” respite, I enjoyed it.
One last glimpse of the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball.
The RedBirds mounted a ninth-inning rally (three singles and a walk to start the frame), but in the end they couldn’t push across that crucial winning run. Final score Nashville 5, Memphis 4.
And with that, I left Memphis — but not before an attempt to find a meal on Elvis Presley Blvd. I ended up at Jack Pirtle’s, a Memphis institution that served up some quick and tasty fried chicken. (This would turn out to be the final time I enjoyed fried chicken, as upon my return from this trip I began a gluten-free diet.)
Livers and gizzards were on the menu, but I went with a good old-fashioned two piece meal.
You know what was in that cup, just beneath the fries?
Gravy. There was gravy in the cup.
Thus concludes all the odds-and-sods “Return to the Road” material that I have, not just from Memphis but the entire OKARKMOTN road trip. I hope you enjoy this sort of thing, because later in the week it’ll be time to “return to the road” once again. Next up, Pacific Northwest!
There’s a lot going on throughout the season, and therefore it can be tough to keep track of all the narrative threads that are dangling around me at all times (they taunt me, these threads). One thread that has been neglected since those halcyon days of late July is that which chronicled the non-baseball goings-ons of my MiLB.com-sponsored trip to Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. The previous post in the series ended with this shot — the view from the hotel parking lot after I arrived in the city of Memphis (home of the Redbirds).
“Jefferson Davis was fronting Deep Purple,” I wrote at the time, and I stand by this bon mot.
The Redbirds were in the midst of a ballgame when I arrived, but my plans with the team were for the next night (that evening is chronicled HERE). I therefore decided that my first order of business, as it so often is, would be to procure a meal. I began meandering about in downtown Memphis, and along the way got my first glimpse of AutoZone Park (home of the Redbirds).
My first choice for dinner was the very well-known and loved (and perhaps a wee bit touristy) Memphis institution known as “Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous.” But upon making my way to the eponymous alleyway which houses this establishment, I made the disconcerting discovery that it was closed on Mondays.
It was getting late, and I was tired, and seemingly everyone I encountered on the largely empty streets expressed the desire to show me a “good time” of some sort. These claims were of dubious validity and possibly nefarious intent, and I was beginning to feel a little besieged. So I took the path of least resistance and headed to the tourist mecca that is Beale Street. By Beale Street standards, the vibe was positively sedate.
I chose to patronize this presumably iconic establishment: the Blues City Cafe.
Where were you on the night that the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup? I was here, in full-on “awkward guy eating alone” mode, indulging in this meal at a rather desultory bar seating area.
Blues City Cafe claimed to have the best ribs in Memphis, but I cannot confirm nor deny as they were the only ribs I had in Memphis. Of more pressing concern to me, as I look at this photo, was the extent to which this meal was or wasn’t gluten-free (I adopted a gluten-free diet immediately upon returning from this trip, after being diagnosed with celiac disease). Eating in restaurants has become fraught with the unknown — what are the ingredients in the ribs? The baked beans? The cole slaw? The fries are gluten free, but what else was in the fryer? Who knows? Who cares? Why, in a blog ostensibly devoted to the business of Minor League Baseball, are you writing in hand-wringing fashion about a meal from nearly three months ago?
Time to blow this joint, but not before a little bit more narcissism. On the way back to the Sleep Inn, I noticed an alleyway which commemorated what happens to be the day on which I was born.
But why? The answer, courtesy of an article in Time magazine, is not one I would have expected:
[November 6th Street] commemorates the day in 1934 when Memphis, urged on by its utility-baiting political boss, the late Edward H. (“Mister”) Crump, voted against private power and for the Tennessee Valley Authority power system (it was the first major city to enter TVA).
In today’s political climate, such a resounding defeat of private enterprise would result in hysterical accusations of an impending government takeover by those secretly in thrall to Bolshevik theories. But maybe that was also the case in 1934? Who really does know? What I do know is that I had the entire next day to spend in Memphis. It began with some frenzied writing from the hotel room, which offered a great view for those seeking voyeuristic white-collar thrills.
The inexorable passage of time meant that another meal was in order, and I’ll write about this one sans-celiac hand-wringing. The destination was Cozy Corner, recommended by loyal road trip recommender Rex Doane. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I knew that it was gonna be good.
At this friendly and unassuming spot, one orders at the counter and then retreats to the dining area to await the comestibles that will soon be brought forth.
I ordered a Cozy Corner specialty, which was something one does not have the opportunity to order often: Cornish Game Hen. It was delicious!
After leaving the Cozy Corner, I made a pit stop at another Rex-recommended establishment: Shangri-La Records.
Record stores are my favorite of all establishments, and Shangri-La had an eclectic selection and very appealing sensibilities (with an emphasis on Memphis music, including that which has been released on their eponymous label). I was feeling a bit rushed, in that I had a ballgame to get to, and was therefore not on top of my record store game. But I did purchase the following:
Starting at the top and moving clockwise, that’s James Gang “Rides Again,” Bruce Springsteen “The Rising,” Rufus Thomas “Crown Prince of Dance,” Creedence Clearwater Revival “Mardi Gras,” and Oneida/Liars “Atheists Reconsider” split. I could discuss the motivations behind each purchase, but am already feeling a bit self-conscious re: the insertion of myself into this post.
So, y’know, I’ll just continue talking about myself. Inspired by my hotel bed record arrangement, I did the same with the road snacks I had accumulated. Three observations regarding this picture:
1.Despite being part of a snack food monolith, Doritos has become downright avant-garde in its relentless pursuit of new flavors and ways in which to present them.
2. Pork cracklins are far better than chicken cracklins.
3. When I am on the road and in a region in which cracklins are available, I quickly become addicted to them. As in, literally cannot stop eating them. (They are crazily unhealthy, so I am actually glad that they aren’t available here in the northeast.)
Finally, mercifully, it became time to head to AutoZone Park. This establishment was along the way, but I resisted from shelling out more of my cash toward the sort of food products I was already eating too much of. But, my goodness, it was tough to resist.
Also tough to resist: the urge to stop writing. This narrative thread has been pursued enough for today, but, as always, there’s more where that came from.
It’s time to end the blogging week by, yes, once again returning to the road. The last post in the series ended with a wonderful hamburger in Tulsa, and from there I drove on to Springdale in order to attend that evening’s Northwest Arkansas Naturals game. Perhaps you already read about it?
The next day, the plan was to drive from Springdale, AR to Springfield, MO — the home of the Springfield Cardinals. My lunch destination was the AQ Chicken House, which received a glowing recommendation from regular reader/grizzled Minor League traveler/esteemed DJ Rex Doane. The problem was that it was early on Sunday afternoon when I got there, and the place was overflowing with a post-church lunch crowd. I felt self-conscious waiting alone for a table amidst this rollicking social atmosphere, and scrapped my poultry-related plans.
I wish I had gotten to know thee, AQ Chicken House!
At this point it became time to improvise, and I settled on this unassuming Mexican place about 10 minutes down the road.
And you know what you get when you go to an unassuming Mexican restaurant? Unassuming Mexican food! This is never, ever a bad thing, especially when the salsa comes in a carafe.
I ordered a beloved old standby, which, in my new gluten-free reality, will only become more prominent. Huevos Rancheros!
Huevos rancheros gave me the strength I needed to complete the drive to Springfield, and I only stopped once along the way. I just couldn’t resist:
I found the items contained within this alleged village to be exceedingly tacky, and, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.
Upon arriving in Springfield, I checked into the University Plaza hotel. The following note was laid out on the pillow, and while some might be turned off by the overt religiosity I was impressed by its heartfelt and genuine tone. A real rarity in this day and age!
The business that brought me to Springfield did indeed prosper, as that evening I enjoyed a very well-attended Springfield Cardinals game. (And, again, you may have read about it.) The next day, my travel between the eternities included a pit stop in downtown Springfield. A reader had recommended that I check out the Springfield Brewing Company, and who am I to defy a reader recommendation?
This was a cool operation, as beer was indeed brewed onsite.
As for me personally, I felt a bit agitated. As I’ve mentioned several times before, this trip came after my celiac disease diagnosis but before I decided to strictly follow the gluten-free diet that such a disease requires. The menu of heavy beers and upscale bar food didn’t include many gluten-free options at all, and I felt bummed out that in the near future (as in, now) my options at such a place would be severely limited.
But, whatever. I was cheating. Therefore, I ordered an excellent dark beer (forget the name) and the “Brewben” sandwich ($7.95, a great deal!)
The Springfield Brewing Company’s website mentions that their establishment is “an anchor to the re-birth of downtown Springfield” and, indeed, this is a downtown area that is decidedly in flux. While there are many empty and dilapidated storefronts, there are also many creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs involved in a bona fide downtown renaissance.
I was just passing through, as I am wont to do, so I don’t know anything about the history of Springfield or the long-term goals of this ongoing revitalization project (if you do, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email). But I do know I enjoyed wandering around a bit, while sporadically documenting what I saw.
I wish I had done more investigating into this “Robert E. Smith” building (no, it was not named after the Cure singer). It turns out that Robert E. Smith is a “nationally known folk and ‘outsider’ artist.”
I heard that this establishment used to sell Philadelphia Hot Dogs:
This is the Springfield Little Theatre, over 100 years old and still staging live productions.
It took all of my will power not to go into this record store, my favorite type of store in the entire history of stores. But, alas, I was on a tight schedule and, therefore, unable to stick it in my ear.
And what a great entrance way!
Fortunately I was pretty well-stocked with new music as it is. I still buy cds (old habits die hard), and on each trip I give three recent purchases three listens each. Obsessive compulsive much? On this trip, the three honorees were:
— Neil Young and Crazy Horse — Americana
— Grinderman — 2 RMX (this song could not be any more awesome, the 2:20 mark is basically what I want all music to sound like always)
— Late Night Tales Vol.2 compilation, curated by Belle and Sebastian
(and, for my own enjoyment when I’m an old man reading this post, the three albums on the April/May Florida trip were Quakers self-titled, Nicki Minaj “Roman Reloaded,” and Unsane “Wreck.” If anyone ever wants to talk about music, you know where to fine me.)
But anyway! The ride from Springfield to Memphis was a long one, and was highlighted by some of the most low-hanging clouds I’d ever seen.
Pork skins and Mello Yello sustained me throughout, as did unexpected tributes to long-ago baseball greats.
And when I arrived in Memphis late that evening, none other than Jefferson Davis was fronting Deep Purple.
And that’s where we’ll leave off for now. (Sorry for using the royal we, which, really, should be reserved for assent-giving French monarchs).
Hey! Remember last month when I went on a road trip and visited Minor League stadiums in Oklahoma City, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee?
No? That’s okay. No hard feelings or anything.
But the trip did happen, and one only needs to scroll through the recent archives of this blog for proof. And, and is always the case, when I went on this trip I accumulated content above and beyond what occurred at the stadiums in question. So, starting today, I’ll “Return to the Road” with a series of blog posts highlighting some of my non-baseball “adventures” while on this trip.
It all started in Oklahoma City, home of the Pacific Coast League’s RedHawks. But before traveling to the “Bricktown” entertainment district where both my hotel and the ballpark were located, I stopped here:
I didn’t spend any time at the Stockyards proper, but the area surrounding them couldn’t have been any more evocative of the cattleman’s lifestyle. Some shots of the neighborhood:
It’s a sign!
But Flipper-referencing storefront tomfoolery was not the reason I visited the stockyards. It was lunchtime, and I was there to get a meal at the iconic Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. Somehow I failed to get a shot of this establishment’s exterior, but here’s the view from the inside.
Just so we’re all clear on the chronology here: this trip occurred after I was diagnosed with celiac disease, but before I went public with it in a professional context. My decision on this trip was to keep it under wraps and eat whatever I wanted to. It was, in effect, my final week of enjoying an unrestricted diet. So why not go all out?
I ordered the euphemistically-named “Lamb Fries,” but let’s identify them for what they really are: fried lamb testicles.
I ordered these out of curiosity, and you know what? They were good! The lemon and cocktail sauce gave the whole platter a seafood sort of feel, and the taste was relatively mild. I can understand why people might be repulsed by such a dish, but my take on it is that if you’re going to slaughter an animal for food then you really should make use of as much of it as possible.
Still, in giving the final word on the dish I have to defer to this far more eloquent write-up that I came across on roadfood.com:
They are earthy-tasting inside their golden crust, the exquisite organ meat quivery and moist, with nut-sweet savor.
I didn’t want to over-do it on this, my first meal of the trip, so I paired the lamb fries with a simple bowl of steak soup. Gluten-free? Probably not, as wheat flour was likely used as a thickener for the broth.
So long, steak soup, it was nice knowing you:
After lunch I made my way to the Brickyard, and that experience is already chronicled (and linked to above). But the next day, before heading onward to Tulsa, I made a stop at a location that was imminently worthwhile and exceedingly well-done: the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial to the 168 victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
This was one of the most thoughtful, tasteful and deeply moving public spaces that I have ever been to, and an absolute must for anyone visiting Oklahoma City. The outdoor memorial is adjacent to a museum that offered a thorough multi-floor interactive tour, and I would have loved to visit that as well if time had allowed.
But, as it was, I still had plenty to take in. The outdoor memorial is framed by the “gates of time,” which are described in the memorial brochure thusly: “These monumental twin gates frame the moment of destruction — 9:02 a.m. — and mark the formal entrances to the memorial. The East Gate represents 9:01 a.m. on April 19 and the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03 a.m., the moment we were changed forever, and the hope that came from the horror in the moments and days following the bombing.”
In between is the reflecting pool — the brochure explains that a “shallow depth of gently flowing water helps soothe wounds, with calming sounds providing a peaceful setting for quiet thoughts.”
Over 60,000 personal tokens have been left on this fence through the years, in remembrance of the victims. It’s just heartbreaking.
Graffiti left by a rescue worker in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
A park ranger speaks to a tour group about the “Survivor Tree,” a 90-year-old American Elm whose message to visitors reads “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
Again, I want to say that this memorial was phenomenal. I was deeply affected by it, and will not forget my visit. I hope to one day return and devote a full afternoon to it and the museum.
I apologize for the abrupt tonal shifts in this post, but what is life if not a series of abrupt tonal shifts? After visiting the memorial, my final task in Oklahoma City was to get some lunch. The night before, RedHawks corporate marketing manager Gary Olsen had recommend I check out a BBQ joint named “Leo’s.” I decided to follow this recommendation.
At first I ended up at a defunct location:
But if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again!
For future reference — Leo’s is located right across the street from Happy Foods.
Leo’s was, in a word, great. And, in another word, unassuming.
I got a small sampler platter, but in this case “small” was a relative term. Buried in here are brisket, ribs, sausage and fried bologna, with fried okra and cole slaw as sides. (And, yes, the plate is atop the Mad magazine that I was reading at the time. Old habits die hard.)
The ribs and the brisket were the standouts here, and coming in a distant last was the fried bologna (the version served at the Jackson Generals game turned out to be far superior). And as for my new $1,000,000 question — no, this meal was not gluten-free. But in the future I think I could still have meals here — no white bread or fried okra, obviously, but hopefully most of the meats would still be good to go. I’ll figure it out eventually.
Definitely not gluten-free, but definitely awesome, is the free cake that comes with each and every meal.
And with free cake I shall end this post. Perhaps I can make that some sort of new Ben’s Biz Blog tradition?
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.
The town of Jackson, TN is sandwiched between Memphis and Nashville along I-40, and boasts a modest population of 65,000. It’s not the most obvious Minor League market, given its small size and close proximity to glitzier locales, but has nonetheless been a proud host of Southern League baseball since the late 20th century.
1998, to be exact, a time of presidential perjury trials, overlooked Mudhoney albums, and the release of Free Willy back into the wild. And ever since those halcyon days, the team has called Pringles Park home.
And, yes, the team is called Pringles Park because the iconic potato snack product is manufactured in Jackson. (Proctor and Gamble sprung for the naming rights). And even though Pringles are potato “crisps” as opposed to chips, the stadium is still colloquially referred to as “The Big Chip.”
Right out in front of the stadium, whose address is the unforgettable “4 Fun Place, one finds this touching tribute to “the children of Tennessee’s Fallen Warriors.”
But let’s not enter the stadium just yet. Pringles Park underwent a $1 million improvement project this past offseason — and all of the improvement occurred outside of the facility. 40,000 cars pass by daily on I-40, and in the past the stadium view on offer was obscured by what Generals GM Jason Compton describes as “kudzu and piles of sand.” That distressing situation is now in the past, thanks to a little bit of land acquisition and a whole lotta landscaping.
“The best billboard is the park itself,” Compton told me, and it’s clear that he and his organization take a lot of pride in these exterior improvements.
Look, a fountain!
I was out in this area with media relations assistant Bradley Field, who reported that “there have been no splashdowns yet.” I then suggested that the team needs a name for the fountain, and Field responded with “Pringles Pond.” That’s a good start, but this is the kind of thing that can only be decided via the power of social media (well, either that or a half-drunken brainstorming session).
The Generals certainly leave no doubt as to their affiliation. Behold this phenomenal tourist attraction: the biggest Seattle Mariners billboard east of the Wasatch mountains. (Also note the new videoboard, coquettishly peeking out from beyond center field).
The team also advertises the affiliation of its opponent, via this sign:
As you can infer, on this evening the Generals were playing the Dodgers-affiliated Chattanooga Lookouts. There were no Lookouts to be found once I returned to the stadium’s interior, but there were myriad Generals in the midst of their pre-game preparations.
During this portion of the evening I interviewed Taijuan Walker and then Nick Franklin from a picnic bench beyond the left field fence. Franklin, who I also spoke with in High Desert last season, has since been promoted to Triple-A Tacoma along with ace pitcher Danny Hultzen. Walker, just 19, might not be far behind.
Basically, the Generals are stacked. They handily won the first-half North Division title (look for Friday’s MiLB.com piece about the improbable manner in which that all went down), and it could be argued that they’re the best team in all of Double-A. Broadcaster Chris Harris told me that there has been more media interest (local and national) in this team than in his previous three years combined.
After the interviews, I adjourned to the dizzying heights of the press box…
and interviewed team bus driver Thomas “Double T” Tansil about what it was like to be part of the team’s recent clinching celebration in Jacksonville (again, more on that over at MiLB.com, soon). Tansil radiated contentment and seemed to like everything about his job, saying “it’s all been good, I wouldn’t trade nothing for it.”
The game began soon afterward, with the since-promoted Hultzen on the mound in front of a rather sparse midweek crowd.
As for the crowd — it was a Wednesday evening and as anyone who works in Minor League Baseball knows, that’s just how it is sometimes. The Generals attendance is up this season, however, thanks to factors such as the ballpark improvements and on-field success and recent re-branding (they switched to “Generals” in 2011, after being known as the “West Tenn Diamond Jaxx”).
And there’s certainly room for further growth. Compton, a West Tennessee native who has been with the club since 2001, is in his first season as GM. He’s working on enlivening the entertainment and promotions, and efforts in that regard have been fruitful (that’s a play on words, as you’ll see soon enough).
At any rate, it was time for me to wander. That’s just what I do.
It was behind home plate that I first saw Sarge. He was playing a game called “stand like a statue while I gently caress the back of your hand.”
Down the third base line, manager Jim Pankovits was doing his best to keep the field clear of wayward bat shards.
My lone fish-eye indulgence of the evening.
As I made it back toward home plate, I was able to watch Sarge lead a crowd of young fans in the Chicken Dance.
I couldn’t participate in these fowl activities, however, as I had my own agenda. The nightly Fruit Race was coming up soon, and I had been recruited to participate.
When I asked Compton “Why a fruit race?” his response was one that I have heard many times over when traveling through the Minor Leagues: “Why not?”
The fruit race costumes were lovingly kept in a storage area behind the left field fence (close to my picnic bench interview spot). I chose Strawberry.
And here, things get a little weird. I handed off my camera so that the race could be documented by members of the promo team, and the first photo taken looks like this:
And then, there were eight consecutive “file not found” images before, finally, this shot showing the conclusion of the race (I came in second).
I really have no idea what happened — maybe some wrong buttons were pushed, or the camera was dropped. But it started working as soon as it was handed back to me, so my explanation is this: My camera loves me, and me only, and was probably dismayed to see me demeaning myself at a Minor League ballpark yet again. Its malfunction was a protest of sorts, motivated by a desire to only document me at my best.
I love you too, camera. I love you too.
I also love being on the radio, and after shedding my Strawberry skin and once again donning my wandering blogger outfit I went up to join Harris for an inning on the air. These digs are nicely appointed…sunset, headphones, ketchup — what more could you want?
Nothing works up an appetite like being on the radio (I mean, why not? Just go with me on this one). A grill behind home plate provided a fair number of options:
The “Ricoh Burger” listed above was created by — who else? — Ricoh. He’s the man manning the grill, and has been doing so for nearly the entirety of the team’s existence.
Ricoh told me what was in the Ricoh burger, but I neglected to write it down and have now, unfortunately, forgotten. It was definitely one of those “little bit of everything” creations, and seemed a bit too much for me to handle at the moment. So I went with the bologna sandwich, and stand by this choice:
I’d only had one other bologna sandwich in my Minor League travels, and with all due respect to the Danville Braves Ricoh’s version was far superior. After receiving the sandwich I went to a concession stand down the third base line, with one item in mind. Try to guess which one:
But I was denied! There were no fried green tomatoes at this portion of the evening, so that particular ballpark experience is going to have to come another day. Or not.
I instead bought a Yuengling (which had a personal significance that I’ll explain at a later date), and then did something I rarely do on these road trips: sat in one place, as a fan, for two innings straight!
From this vantage point, I watched the Generals win the ballgame.
A few players stopped to sign autographs on their way back to the clubhouse and, really, that was that.
After the game I was thoughtfully given a nice array of Generals merchandise, which will soon be given away, by me, on Twitter. Stay tuned! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fit this hat in my carry-on luggage.
On my way out of the stadium, a skunk crossed right in front of my car. I probably should have immediately gone in the opposite direction, but instead tried to document the moment for posterity. It didn’t turn out that well, so I have helpfully enhanced the photo so that you may see what I saw. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day you see a skunk in a Minor League parking lot. It was a moment to cherish.
And that’ll do it for me, from Jackson. I wrote this post in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and was going to link to this song but then got overwhelmed by how great it is so here ya go. (And kudos to the Generals for playing the Johnny Cash/June Carter version over the PA after the game.)
The bad news about this OK-ARK-MO-TN trip, accommodation-wise, was that the team hotels were more expensive than I had been used to. But the good news (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) was that many of them were walking distance to the stadium. And oh what a lovely perk this is — to step out of the Sleep Inn, strut a few blocks along South Main, take a left on Monroe and then — bam! — Memphis Redbirds baseball!
When I arrived there was, unfortunately, no entry between the legs.
But access was quickly gained nonetheless, and one of the first orders of business was to conduct a couple of player interviews with the trusty Flipcam.
Some of the players were taking cuts in a subterranean indoor location, alongside a mural that celebrates each season in which a Memphis professional baseball entity won a championship (the first flag, from that disease-plagued year of 1893, was earned by a team called the “Fever Germs.” Take note, Tim Hagerty!)
Other players were getting their work in, in the great outdoors. Eugenio Velez stood out in this regard, fielding ground balls on his knees in foul territory along third base. (Here’s hoping Velez makes it back to the Majors soon, so that he may enjoy a run of success comparable to last year’s futility!)
While down on the field, I got my first glimpse of what is, oh, I don’t know: THE BIGGEST VIDEOBOARD IN MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
60′ x 60′!
I’m jumping ahead in the narrative a bit, but this is funny: Prior to the start of the season the Redbirds’ ace video production team concocted the following fake-out graphic for the new videoboard. It expertly re-creates the look of the old board.
On Opening Day, the Redbirds fooled fans and media alike by displaying the above graphic when the gates opened. After enduring an hour of disappointed and/or critical remarks (“What about that big new board you guys said what you were getting?”), they finally switched over to the “real” thing.
But I digress. I hung out in the dugout as batting practice wrapped up…
interviewing third baseman Zack Cox (in his first game back after going on the DL with a concussion) and then highly-touted pitcher Shelby Miller. But first, I had to wait for Miller to get off the phone, as he was speaking with a writer from the esteemed Cardinals blog Redbird Rants.
Miller is struggling quite mightily with Memphis, and I appreciated that he was willing to talk about it in an honest and relatively unguarded manner. He was a good interview (it’s linked to above, if you’re into that sort of thing).
As for whether I’m a good interview — who knows? But after speaking with Miller I went upstairs and chatted with Redbirds broadcaster Steve Selby for his pre-game show. It was a loose conversation, and the main thing I remember is Selby talking about mascot Rockey’s huge calves and me responding that I always pay attention to mascot body part size.
And speaking of large organs, I was happy to see this beauty up in the press box:
(It unfortunately went unplayed on the Tuesday night I was in attendance, but still…)
Downstairs, upstairs, then downstairs again. This time my descent was because I had been tapped to throw a ceremonial first pitch, my second of the season (after Fort Myers). While waiting for my moment to shine, I met the aforementioned Rockey.
And, my God, look at those calves. Steve Selby was right!
I took the mound to wild, rapturous applause, and fired off an 85 mile-per-hour strike.
Or maybe it was indifferent applause and a 45 mile-per-hour lob that nearly went over the catcher’s head? I can’t remember.
The National Anthem was sang by this young woman, whose voice sounded far more mature than her years.
At one point during the anthem, I looked up at the (massive) videoboard and was dismayed to see myself in the shot (standing right behind the singer). I tried to move out of the way, but of course moved even more into the center of the shot. Being on a videoboard is disorienting! If I had to do it over again I would, but there are no second chances in life.
There are, however, seconds on the stadium clock.
Dinnertime, in other words! Out on the concourse, the biggest line was for the Redbirds’ world-famous BBQ Nachos.
Seriously — these things outsell even the hot dogs (or so I’ve been told). It’s chips, cheese, pork, and then sauce and dry rub provided by famous downtown BBQ joint Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.
This excellent creation was just one of many I was able to sample, for at this point in the evening I received an extensive food tour from Ovations concessions general manager Mike Brulatour.
We started with the BBQ Bacon Hot Dog — topped with a vinegar and mustard-based slaw, Rendezvous BBQ sauce and dry rub and, of course, a nice hunk of bacon:
And while I did not sample the aptly-named Big Dog, it sure lived up to its name:
The cheese and sausage plate is a common Memphis menu item, and the team offers their own version: polish sausage, cheese, peppers, and pickles:
I would have liked it better had there been less sauce and a little bit more separation of the items (the cheese was buried beneath the meat), but this is nonetheless a wonderful array of foodstuffs and something I’d LOVE to see more of at ballparks nationwide. Just sayin’ is all.
The “sleeper” item on the menu (and Brulatour’s favorite) is “Chicken on a Stick.” It’s a kabob of sorts, featuring chicken, potato, pickle and onion. I’d highly recommend it:
One of the sausages on offer was the red-hued Circle B, cut in half and grilled. I had a sample, sans bun, and it was really, really good. The woman working the concession stand was incredulous that I had never heard of Circle B — “It’s everywhere!” she exclaimed.
But that’s par for the course when it comes to regional food. I’m from the Philadelphia area, where a sign like this wouldn’t be necessary:
But Parker’s wasn’t serving, so I settled for a good old-fashioned Icee. Man, it had been a while!
But, listen: do as I say, not as I do. And what I say is, “Eat healthy!”
But in the absence of eating healthy, at least I get plenty of ballpark exercise. Brulatour and I ended up walking a lap around the stadium, and I took pictures along the way.
The visiting and home bullpens are separated by some pretty impressive center field foliage.
Out beyond left-center field, there’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere, as well as a impressively steep berm seating area.
The Brula-Tour continued on, this time with a visit to the suite level.
I wanted to get a closer picture of that (officially licensed!) Elvis the Redbird painting behind the bar. But as soon as the bartender saw me, he was like, “C’mon now, what you have to do is pose in front of the picture with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”
What a great bartender!
While the picture didn’t come out all that clearly, there’s something about it that I really like.
And how’s this for a sweet suite, decorated in the style of a funky BBQ joint:
But there wasn’t much time to explore, because as is so often the case I had an obligation.
I was a pulled pork sandwich in the nightly rib race, going up against arch-nemeses Rib and Seasoning:
The gladiators enter the arena:
Despite the fact that the sandwich had the most range of movement, I got out to a slow start and finished in last place. It was embarrassing.
A considerably less taxing job was to follow — operating the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball!
I did so under the able tutelage of marketing manager Erin O’Donnell, who explained things in a manner simple enough for an idiot (me) to understand. My notes are a bit garbled, however. They read: “Toggling btw viz ab and live shots…sponsor logos…Rockey cartoon overlay large and small…leave live shot when step in batter’s box — nothing may be moving in game.”
If you can make sense of that, let me know! All I know is that with a click of a mouse I made this happen:
Feeling giddy from this display of scoreboard power, I spent the rest of the evening trying to emulate Rockey’s cocksure strut. Things I saw on my wanderings included the team store…
and, outside of that, an outdoor display in which pitcher-turned-Redbirds broadcaster Charlie Lea (who passed away last year) delivers to notable Memphis native Tim McCarver.
And let’s not forget the specially marked “Albert Pujols seat” in right-center field, which commemorates his walk-off home run in the 13th inning of game four of the 2000 PCL Championship Series. It was all downhill for him from there.
And, hey, what do you know? The Redbirds won the game!
It was a result that was, truly, worth flipping out about.
And where else to end the night but here, between a pair of truly formidable calves.
Prior to embarking on this latest (and therefore greatest) road trip, I had never visited any of the seven teams on my itinerary. And of these seven, the franchise that I knew the least about was, undoubtedly, the Springfield Cardinals. They’re not the kind of team to stage goofy promotions or sell attention-getting food items, and their social media presence is minimal. They simply don’t indulge in the sort of Minor League antics that capture the interest of NYC-based niche bloggers such as myself.
That’s because Springfield is less a Minor League operation than it is mini-Majors — the club is owned by the parent Cardinals, and the fan base consists of passionate St. Louis partisans. I found this out immediately upon arriving at Hammons Field, as fans were lined well before game time in order to insure acquisition of a Matt Adams bobblehead (he slugged 32 homers for Springfield last season, and is now plying his trade in St. Louis).
Cardinals fans, Cardinals fans, Cardinals fans — as far as the eye could see. I felt like I was attending a convention of bibliophiles, because so many of the people were, well, red. (For more on all of this, please see my MiLB.com piece.)
After successfully navigating my way through this phalanx of amiable midwesterners, I met with broadcaster Jeff Levering and he helped facilitate a couple of player interviews that were conducted outside of the home clubhouse (thanks to outfielders Jake Shaffer and Adam Melker for tolerating my
completely unprepared off-the-cuff stylings). From there we walked into the attached practice facility (which is shared with Missouri State), where a few players were getting in the last of their pre-game cuts.
Next stop, press box!
And in said press box, there was one of the better pre-game meals I’ve eve seen provided to us working stiffs in the media: a well equipped nacho bar! Usually I skip press box meals in order to hit the concession stands later, but this I couldn’t resist.
After the above plate of nachos was consumed, I commenced to wandering. This was one of the wandering-est days I have ever spent at the ballpark, as I didn’t have nearly as specific an agenda as I often do on these road trip stops. I just took in as many vantage points as possible, which I will provide to you along with an (allegedly) informative running commentary.
Views of the immediate surroundings, taken from the upper level:
From there, I turned my thoughts (and actions) field-ward.
I soon made it down to the concourse, and spent a little time in the berm seating area in right-center field. A gaggle of young goofballs saw me taking pictures and demanded that I take one of them. I obliged:
That Alfred E. Neuman-esque character on the right, whose red socks and sandals get-up is just spectacular, then asked if he could take my picture. He seemed shocked when I said yes, exclaiming “You’re actually going to trust me?” in a cracked adolescent voice.
I mean, why not? I grew up with two idiot brothers and am an idiot myself, so I can relate to the random young idiots I meet at Minor League Baseball stadiums. Here’s the photo that he took:
But prolonged exposure to idiocy can be detrimental to one’s professional obligations, so I soon made my way back to polite society.
I stood for the National Anthem from this bullpen location…
and then made my way toward home plate. Some visuals from this portion of the journey:
Finally, against all odds, I made it to the bustling area behind home plate.
As “mini-majors” as Springfield may be, they’re not above indulging in goofy between-inning hi-jinx. This shot was taken during a plodding father-son wing-eating competition, during which the on-field host remarked “Once again, this is a contest, and we are timing you.”
Those aforementioned press box nachos sublimated my appetite, but I nonetheless made sure to take note of the food options. The “Popcorn Factory” featured an “endless” popcorn for $7, along with an array of seasoning options.
Apparently a “Latin Vibe” can be obtained via the combination of chocolate, marshmallow and jalapeno. Who knew?
I’m sure at this juncture you’re thinking to yourself, “This is all well and good, but can I build my own Doghouse creation?” The answer to that query would be an unequivocal “yes.”
I soon came across a contemplative Louie, who is, of course, a Cardinal. The costume leaves something to be desired, but this was a bird with soul.
I strongly contemplated taking a nap on the concourse…
but instead opted to explore the area surrounding Hammons Field. Directly across the street, one finds Jordan Valley Park. It is an oasis of public art, fountains, and views of a nearby scrap yard.
The industrial atmosphere is even more pronounced directly behind the stadium.
And since I live in NYC, the following counted as a bonafide wildlife sighting.
Finally, and apropos of nothing, I came across the Springfield version of Greenzo.
Back in the stadium, it was business as usual. A game of Angry Birds was taking place on the field, during which Louie may or may not have copped a feel.
I spent the next couple of innings within the upper press box and suite level, barred from the high life by a waist-length metal fence.
The Cardinals really started to run away with the ballgame at this point in the evening. As I engaged in conversation with a kindly elderly usher (Springfield native Joseph Jefferson, who declined my request to take a photo of him), several balls left the park.
I celebrated the home town success with a popcorn (sans Latin Vibe, not pictured), and then an ice cream helmet from the Springfield Creamery.
But if you’re going to be buying anything at Hammons Field, make sure you have cash on hand. This Empire Bank ATM charged $4 for the privilege of withdrawing money from it. Concourse extortionist!
$4 poorer but still spiritually rich, I made my way back to the berm area. There was a commotion going on in and around the visitor’s bullpen — Travelers relief pitchers were creating a kiddie stampede by throwing gum and candy onto the berm. This photo doesn’t really capture the action well, but it was the best I could do.
The Travelers’ even gave away their pink equipment backpack (a Minor League staple; you may recall the one I came across in Burlington, NC last season). In this shot, the kids holding the backpack were (unsuccessfully) trying to give the backpack back in exchange for more candy.
No wonder such frivolous antics were going on — the game had turned into an unmitigated disaster for the visiting Travelers.
Yes, the Cardinals put up 20 runs on the strength of 24 hits. This was the most runs I’d ever seen scored at a Minor League game (although, admittedly, I barely watched the game), and the team and fans went home happy.
The night officially concluded, for me, once this young straggler finally made it home during the post-game Run the Bases.
All in all, it was a night to be proud of for the hometown team. John Q. Hammons, a highly successful local entrepreneur and stadium namesake, bids you all a pleasant good night from Springfield, MO.
My Friday evening with the Tulsa Drillers was an absolute whirlwind, and resulted in so much content that I made the executive decision to divide it into two posts. Part one is HERE, or, if you’re not inclined to click on things, directly below this one.
Part two is here, as in here now, as in RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. There is no other place you’d rather be. And it begins where any good baseball narrative should — with a ceremonial first pitch. As part of Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebrations (which commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States) the team welcomed a pair of local Negro League icons to the ballpark.
Eugene Golden, who suited up for the Cleveland Buckeyes (among other clubs) looked much younger than his 87 years.
And then came 94-year-old Roosevelt Jackson, believed to be the oldest living Negro League alumnus. Dressed to the nines in a suit and tie, Jackson slowly made his way to an area in front of the mound. This was the prelude to one of the most memorable first pitches I’ve ever witnessed.
When it came time for Jackson to deliver the ball, he didn’t. He just stood there, leading to an increasingly uncomfortable silence. Was he unable to muster the strength?
It turns out that it was all a bit of showmanship, courtesy of an individual who clearly knows how to play to a crowd. Having drawn out the suspense long enough, Jackson danced into his wind-up, did a full 360 degree turn on the grass, and then, with an exaggerated flailing motion, delivered the pitch.
Bravo, Mr. Roosevelt, for showing us all how it’s done. Umps and managers agreed, it was awesome.
After a National Anthem performance by Divas for Jesus (which, incidentally, was also the name of a short-lived Oi band I played drums for in high school), the Drillers took the field. Having them run through a greeting line of local youth baseball players was a nice touch.
With the game now underway (it took me 1600 words over two blog posts to get to this point), I went upstairs and briefly visited with Drillers promotion manager Mike Taranto and BNSF Railways police officer Ray Tucker. The two have forged an unlikely friendship, with fireworks bringing them together. To get the scoop on all of that, please check out my article on MiLB.com (yes, many of my road trip posts have corresponding MiLB.com articles. Please support the entirety of the Ben’s Biz road trip experience, so that my existence remains justified).
Tucker’s job title, is, in actuality: “special agent in charge.” Mine is, in actuality, idiot:
This Alfred E. Neuman-esque image (which is now my new Twitter profile pic) resulted from my participation in the on-field “squeeze play” contest in the middle of the second inning. After donning the above outfit, all I had to do was sit in a chair while a sponge drenched with blue cotton candy coloring was squeezed into the pitcher perched atop the helmet.
I mean, duh.
I’m pretty sure my team won, but I was practicing transcendental meditation at the time and therefore unconcerned with temporal concerns. It did feel good to finally take that helmet off, though. (And I love the t-shirt style of the kid standing behind me.)
Upon getting cleaned up, I went back out onto the field to watch Golden and Roosevelt honored in a short between-inning ceremony.
My plan was to do a brief interview with these individuals, but then I realized I had already committed to a half inning on the radio with Drillers broadcaster Dennis Higgins. It was par for the course — me trying to explain who I am and what I do, while frequently pausing to allow Higgins room to actually call the action on the field.
The gist of it is that my name is Ben, I write about Minor League Baseball, and you should read this blog, my articles on MiLB.com, and follow me on Twitter (@bensbiz). Thank you for your support.
The view from the booth (note the colored highlighters, and read more about idiosyncratic broadcaster scorekeeping methods in this MiLB.com article).
After fulfilling my on-air duties, I met up with manager of game entertainment Justin Gorski for a brief tour of the concession options. As with Oklahoma City, concessions are provided by Professional Sports Catering. So, there was some overlap between the two parks.
Same Franx, different dogs:
The real action, food-wise, is to be found along the third base side of the concourse. There, one finds a little area dubbed “cart alley.”
As a Pitt alumni who once thought he was pretty boss, I opted for a “Pit Boss Burger.”
Clearly this wasn’t enough food, so a Firecracker hot dog (see above) and All-Star Wheat beer was added to the order as well. The beer is only available at the ballpark, and the name references the fact that the Drillers are the hosts of this year’s Texas League All-Star Game. It was a nice brew, smooth and drinkable but possessing more body than your run-of-the-mill ballpark pilsners.
Get me some napkins!
I spent the next inning and a half doing my best to put a dent in this meal (I particularly liked the Pit Boss, because pulled pork, slaw and pickles have to be one of the greatest of all topping triumvirates), but had to cut the mastication session short in order to go see cult ballpark celebrity Harry “Ruck” Caray (aka manager of video production David Ruckman) lead the crowd in the seventh inning stretch.
(Yes, somehow it was already the seventh. The entire game took just two hours and 16 minutes.)
The wig may be a reappropriated mullet from a “Redneck Night” promo, but nonetheless the resemblance is uncanny.
Refreshed from the stretch, I then headed back to the tunnel next to the home dugout to prepare for my second and final on-field appearance.
This time the game was “Nervous Nelly.” Three pedometers were strapped on each contestant (around the head and on each wrist), and the winner is he (or she) who goes on to record the most movement.
I was ready.
My opponent was a pink mohawked teenager by the name of Sergio, formidable indeed.
Once the contest started, I went into a shamanistic trance comparable to that of a Peruvian medicine man on ayahuasca. It was, truly, a spiritual journey.
And yet I still lost, 305-300. Congratulations to Sergio.
As for the next 20 minutes of my life? Suffice to say that they were not pleasant, as ballpark food followed by frenetic movement is not a good combination. But I recovered in time to make it out on to the field post-game, in order to get a fresh Launch-A-Ball perspective.
Meanwhile, in centerfield, preparations were being made for the fireworks show.
And once the all-clear was received, fireworks did indeed light up the night sky.
It was a great show, with a truly impressive finale, but as is so often the case the pictures didn’t really do it justice. I’ll close with this shot, simply because of its similarity to a Rorschach ink blot.
What’s your interpretation?
My interpretation of the Tulsa Drillers is that this is an organization firing on all cylinders — a vibrant market, beautiful ballpark, and creative and deeply engaged front office staff. Thanks for the hospitality!