My sixth and final stop on this, my first road trip of the 2014 season, was Round Rock, Texas. The Express, Triple-A affiliate of your Texas Rangers, are one of Round Rock’s (and the greater Austin area’s) top attractions.
The Express play at the Dell Diamond, which was built by legendary train robber Sam Bass in 1877 for use as a hideout from the law (either that, or I have misread the Wikipedia entry). These days, the trains are safe from the likes of Mr. Bass. This one sped past as I was entering the stadium, unencumbered from the constant threat of a hostile takeover.
As for the team’s name of “Express,” that’s a nod to the nickname of team co-owner Nolan Ryan. ( It costs $8 to park at Dell Diamond, a rather high rate by MiLB standards, and the comparative exorbitance of that fee is particularly striking in light of the fact that Ryan issued a Major League-record 2,795 free passes during his career.)
Upon entering the stadium I was greeted by Express director of communications Jill Cacic, who immediately led me and my guest for the evening (you’ll meet him later) on a tour of Dell Diamond.
Upon further investigation, it appears that Dell Diamond opened not in 1877 but in 2000. For the first five seasons of the Express’s existence they played in the Double-A Texas League. That team relocated to Corpus Christi in 2005, becoming the Hooks and staying under the Ryan-Sanders ownership mantle, while the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League relocated to Round Rock and assumed the identity of the Express. Make sense? It’s kinda like that time that the Carolina League Kinston Indians re-located to Zebulon and assumed the identity of the Carolina Mudcats, while the Double-A team that had been the Mudcats relocated to Pensacola and became the Blue Wahoos. That’s the sort of comparison that everyone knows and relates to and can understand right away with no confusion whatsoever.
Anyhow, perhaps the most important thing that you need to know is this: there are a lot of Golden Chicks in the Dell Diamond dugout.
A cool quirk — or a #cooquirk, to use the internet parlance of the day — of the Dell Diamond is that the players enter and exit the field via this staircase located down the left field line. The purpose of this is to promote fan interaction with the players; like it or not, they’re gonna have to mingle with the hoi polloi. (The Corpus Christi Hooks’ home of Whataburger Field utilizes a similar strategy, except that the player entrance is located amid the third base stands as opposed to straightaway left field.)
At the top of the stairs one finds the entrance to the clubhouse. And, yes, players interacting with fans.
The view from the player’s entrance. It’s a long way to the Golden Chicks.
After going up the stairs we went right back down the stairs. Such is life. The purpose of our descent was so that I could be interviewed on the field by Express director of entertainment Ballpark Rob Runnels.
So we meet again, Ballpark Rob. My appearance has degenerated since the last time that I saw you.
Rob and I spoke about life, love, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept, pre-code Hollywood, DIY pickling techniques, the deleterious effects of clickbait on social discourse, maintaining a connection with God amid an increasingly secular society, and Minor League Baseball.
My time on the videoboard, and on the field, continued beyond the interview. Next up was a ceremonial first pitch. The pictures tell the story.
Fortunately, there weren’t too many people who witnessed my bounced first pitch. It was a Monday evening, and as the game started the crowd was rather sparse.
Nonetheless, the Express are averaging 7,985 fans per game this season, best in the Pacific Coast League. It is a fact of life that I always visit teams on off nights, and they always make sure to tell me so.
It’s not the size of the crowd that matters anyway, it’s how you use it. Spike, he always does his best to entertain.
Speaking of Spike, one Spike Owen is on the Express coaching staff and Steve Buechele is the manager. As someone who collected baseball cards between the years 1986-1992, I am very familiar with these names. You probably are too.
With the game underway, I did what I do best: not watching the game. Instead, our ballpark tour resumed. Later, guys.
All of the Express’s food and beverage options are now handled in-house, via the newly-created Ryan-Sanders Sports Services (RS3 for short). I’ll have more on that later, but, for now:
This is the “Brew @ The Rock” bar, which features 16 beers on tap.
Those pieces of wood affixed to the bar are used as serving containers for “beer flights” ($8 for four four-ounce glasses), and they’re made out of baseball bats. I’m not sure when, but it’s a guarantee: other teams will steal this idea.
Teams will not, however, use this sign as a template. There’s a semi-colon where the comma should be, which completely changes the sign’s intended meaning.
Triple-A rosters are often comprised of veteran guys, who are for more likely to have wives and families than any other level of the Minors (guys at other levels of the Minors are far more likely to have video game systems, a dozen pairs of flip-flops, and the Tinder app on their phones). Hence this room, reserved for the families of the players.
There are plenty of other places in which to lounge at the Dell Diamond. These rocking chairs are available to anyone with a berm ticket, for an additional cost of $5 (first come, first served).
The members of the Express bullpen like to put their feet up as well.
As do the grounds crew.
RS3 also offers sports turf services throughout Texas, so this storage area has room for equipment above and beyond what is need to maintain their field. (When I post pictures such as these, I imagine MiLB groundskeepers in less lavish environments pounding their fist on the desk, spitting coffee onto the computer monitor, and yelling obscenities).
Looping around the stadium’s exterior, we soon came upon the player’s parking lot. You can generally tell which cars belong to players; there’s all sorts of overcompensation going on.
The owner of this vehicle possesses what very well may be the most bird poop-splattered Mercedes in all of Minor League Baseball. Get in touch if you are aware of any competition in this category.
The batting cage, and the motivational literature contained therein.
All of the above apply to Ben’s Biz Blog, which, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest Minor League Baseball blog of all time as well as most underrated entity in all of sports media. You know this. Tell a friend.
You don’t see this at most ballparks.
Earlier on this trip, I visited the Midland RockHounds and made a note of the huge rock sitting just outside of the stadium. Flipping the script, the Express have a huge rock inside of the stadium. Fitting, as they are one of the boulder teams in Minor League Baseball.
If you’re not into sitting in front of a big rock, you can go swimming instead. I’m not sure if one can stand in this swimming pool or not. Guess that deep ends.
Our lap of the stadium complete, it was once again time to return to field level. Hola, Spike.
I was back on the field in order to compete in a between-inning shirt shag, in which I was tasked with catching t-shirts (launched from a slingshot) with a net.
I missed the first one due to lack of skill, as it clanked off the side of the net. I caught the second.
The third one was a soft launch, and I had to hustle for it. This photo makes it appear as if I might catch up to it, but I didn’t.
And what’s this? STOP THE PRESSES — full video documentation.
Okay, fine, whatever. Another on-field failure. But there’s no crying in Minor League Baseball blogging, a fact of life when you’re born with defective tear ducts.
Time to eat! My designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits) was Austin resident Phil Boyd.
Phil and I were friends (and, for three years, roommates) at the University of Pittsburgh. We initially bonded over a shared love of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his band Shockwave Riderz had just gotten off of a tour in which they opened for the Blues Explosion. Check out these Shockwave Riderz oscillations, and then cop some music here! It’s an In the Red Silver Apples synthscuzz Suicide attempt, like Dirty Beaches once the sleeping pills wear off.
Round Rock turned out to be a very good location in which to be a designated eater. As mentioned before, the team is now doing all of its concessions in-house, and executive chef Ed Ebert and food and beverage director Jay Kudla were psyched to show off their new creations.
What’s up, guys?
I wrote a MiLB.com feature about the concessions, and will try my best not to be overly redundant here. Each concession area is now a standalone, separately-branded entity, and there are a ton of options. Our first stop was the Metro Deli, which has three sandwiches named after Texas icons.
You’ll also notice the words “gluten-free market” on the above sign. The Express cater to gluten-free diets whenever possible, and the staff is fully trained as regards food handling procedures as well as the specific ingredients in each item. They’re doing it right.
While my photo documentation is poor (by this point my camera batteries had died and I was fumbling around with an iPhone), Phil ended up with a McConaughey.
My notes regarding Phil’s opinion of this sandwich were much like McConaughey himself: kinda hard to comprehend. In a nutshell, he liked it but wasn’t blown away.
Meanwhile, I was trying my hand at the Big Kahuna Dog — a quarter-pound Nolan Ryan beef hot dog topped with mango salsa, pineapple mustard and avocado and served (for me) on a gluten-free bun. On the side are house-made sea salt and pepper chips (when the Express say that everything is made on-site, they really mean it. There are no bagged chips to be found, and homemade is MUCH better).
The gluten-free bun fell apart almost immediately (such is life, gluten is a binding agent) but this is a great dog and indicative of the Express’s attention to detail. Ebert and Kudla can (and will!) explain every component of every item in exacting detail. The result of this approach is food items that are uniformly fresh and flavorful.
Also available from the 50’s diner-themed “Fairlane’s” concession stand (or “storefronts,” as the team now calls them) is the James Dean hot dog. It’s topped with bleu cheese slaw and Frank’s Red Hot:
“This is a classic Buffalo wing flavor, and the bleu cheese slaw is great,” said Phil. “This is a good dog, man.”
Also named after a 50’s icon, but far less traditional, is “The Elvis.” Banana and peanut butter on a bun, drizzled with honey.
The Elvis apparently sent Phil into a state of bliss.
“The cool thing about it is that’s dessert, but not that unhealthy,” said Phil. “It’s so cool to have a dessert that’s not, like, a ton of ice cream.”
And then there’s this: the Grilled Cheese Dog. No explanation required.
Man, I wish I could have tried this one. But this garlic fries on the side are EXCEPTIONAL. Much crisper than your usual garlic fries, and seasoned to perfection.
Here’s Phil watching the game with the Grilled Cheese Dog, his steadily growing array of food items laid out in front of him.
“The dog is the first thing you notice, but it’s followed by that buttery grilled cheese flavor,” said Phil. “It’s a fun idea.’
Hey! Remember back in 2010, when “Rojo Johnson” made a relief appearance at a Round Rock game? If not:
Rojo is now back at the ballpark, in the form of “Rojo’s Southwestern Hideaway.”
Lots of great gluten-free options here, such as this “Taco Flight” — pork carnitas and chicken verde with shredded romaine, cotija cheese, and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.
In lieu of a written opinion, a picture:
Even better were the nachos, which are some of the best to be found anywhere in Minor League Baseball. Red, white and blue tortilla chips, pork, “Queso Rojo,” jalapeno, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Things like this represent the best kind of gluten-free ballpark options, in that they are naturally gluten-free as opposed to a compromised consolation prize.
Next up for Phil was the beer shake, available at the Frozensational Tiki Bar. This is a Convict Hill oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream.
“You’re gonna want a straw with that,” said either Ebert or Kudla (my notes are unclear). “This is not a beer with milk in it, it’s a milkshake with a shot of beer.”
And — yes! — a gluten-free beershake was concocted for me using Redbridge. Cute hair, bro:
By this points most of the concession stands (or, sorry, “storefronts”) were shutting down. But we weren’t done yet. Here, Phil “The Bottomless Pit” Boyd poses with a brisket BBQ plate from the South Side Market (a third party vendor that has a restaurant in Elgin, Texas).
Once again, a picture says more than words ever could.
RS3 has come very strongly out of the gate, and the long-term plan is, as Kudla said “to make it salable and take it elsewhere.” Could the Grilled Cheese Dog be coming soon to a ballpark near you?
This extensive food tour brought us right through to the end of the game, but it was worth it. The only thing I regret is that Phil and I missed seeing this:
That dude clearly put a little too much herb mayo on his Willie Sandwich.
In keeping with the theme of this Texas-sized road trip, I arrived in Corpus Christi shortly before the game began and didn’t really have any time to get the lay of the land. But my first impression of Corpus Christi was that it was a pretty swanky place, at least in the waterfront area where my hotel was located. On these trips I am used to staying in nondescript establishments located within homogeneous swaths of depressingly generic chain establishments. But the Corpus Christi Holiday Inn was 20-something stories tall and located right on the water, definitely not a typical Minor League hotel!
The view from my room:
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to access the balcony. How’s this for some strangely-worded hotel room signage?
“We would like to make you aware”?
This grandiose sense of scale carried over to the ballpark itself, which opened in 2005. Welcome to Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks.
This statue, sporting the disappointingly generic title of “For the Love of the Game,” is 22 feet tall. Is it the biggest statue in all of Minor League Baseball? I don’t know, you tell me.
I wrote about this statue, and many other aspects of the Hooks experience, over at MiLB.com. Please read it, as I am going to do my best not to be redundant when it comes to what I cover here in this blog post.
As you’ll see in this photo, and throughout the post, the landscape surrounding Whataburger Field is rather cluttered. There are cranes, ships, bridges, train tracks, wind turbines (and more). Much of this industrial activity is affiliated with the Port of Corpus Christi, which, per Wikipedia, is the sixth largest port in the United States as regards cargo volume.
The wood beams incorporated into the stadium’s facade (as well as the corrugated steel paneling along the upper suite level) are architectural nods to the cotton warehouses that used to permeate the region.
During the days when cotton reigned, baseball in Corpus Christi was more apt to resemble this.
The AutoNation Club group seating area features this view of Harbor Bridge (it’s much prettier at night, as you shall soon see).
There are a lot of Minor League groundskeepers out there would will kill (with their bare hands, if necessary) for storage space like this.
Another perk of groundskeeping in Corpus Christi, as detailed in my MiLB.com piece:
Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn’t receive much rainfall, but what Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers calls “an incredibly effective drainage system” plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel.
Tanks, a lot:
Cotton presses, still standing in their original location, flank each side of the (brand-new) scoreboard. The “Bam Bam” sign below the window commemorates a batting practice home run hit by Hunter “Bam Bam” Pence while he was with the Hooks.
The boilers that once drove the presses now serve as the backdrop for an outfield basketball court.
Beyond the boilers one finds this youth field, which has games taking place at 5:45 most days of the week. On the day I attended, the Challenger League was in action.
And here we have a rock wall, which has not yet achieved sentience.
The view from the 407 Club, so named because it sits just beyond the deepest part of the ballpark.
Even deeper, but not part of the ballpark proper:
The Hooks’ Splash Zone is a bit more modest than the water park seen above.
The view from the right field entrance.
After taking this lap of the surroundings (thanks to Matt Rogers for the tour), I went down to the playing field for a pre-game interview with Hooks broadcaster Chris Blake.
No pictures of this interview exist, but rest assured that I was charming and witty and incredibly knowledgeable. That’s Chris there on the left, and that guy on the right is wearing a poncho in celebration of Cinco De Mayo. This photo also provides a good view of the cotton press as well as the team’s new scoreboard.
The dugouts are sponsored by the Downtown Marina Holiday Inn, who would like to make you aware that the balconies are not accessible.
A pre-game autograph session featuring both players and mascots.
And, yes, that is an anthropomorphic hook wearing a poncho. I don’t think that I had ever seen that before.
As the game began, I was in a storage area among “Only in Minor League Baseball” accoutrements such as a super-sized order of Whataburger Fries.
Greetings from Corpus Christi https://t.co/0GERpnzXH6
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I started off strong, but at some point during the race my foot slipped off of the pedal and I never regained my speed. I finished in second (of three).
Many of our adventures together throughout the evening were chronicled on the videboard, but the video I obtained lacked audio and I have decided not to use it. Hopefully these pictures will suffice, please send any complaints regarding my subpar content to email@example.com
Ballpark Chuck and I then adjourned to the outfield for the “Whataburger Fry Shuffle” contest. (Similar to a cap shuffle or what have you). For participating in this contest, I received an oversized Whataburger t-shirt. Please, pay no attention to my emerging manboobs.
Our ballpark journeys now segued into a now common segment of the Ben’s Biz Blog “On the Road” experience. It was time to meet my designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
Say hello to Javi Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach in Corpus Christi. Javi was at the ballpark with his wife, Megan (also a teacher), father Jaime and son James (that James and Jaime in the background).
“I just love Minor League Baseball, and reading the different blogs,” said Javi. As for his designated eating duties, he remarked that “My wife couldn’t believe it, but she said ‘If if it’s going to be anyone, I guess that it’d be you.”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
Yes, “The Babe.” Created last season in response to MiLB.com’s “Food Fight” competition, “The Babe” is cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger wrapped in bacon.
“The cheddarwurst makes it so it’s not as dry as you would think,” said Javi. “And anything wrapped in bacon is a can’t miss. This is Texas, so when you put those meats together it’s good stuff.”
Next up was the Taco Dog — a hot dog in a crispy corn taco shell in a soft flour tortilla, topped with ground beef and pico de gallo.
Javi simply remarked that this was a “good doubledecker, there’s a lot going on.” We then moved on to the mac and cheese dog, which I failed to take a good picture of.
“This is good, but it could use a little ketchup,” said Javi. “Some people say that’s sacrilegious, to put ketchup on a hot dog.
At one point Javi attempted to enlist 14-month-old James as a designated eater, which would have made him the youngest designated eater in the history of designated eating. James was having none of it, though.
Thanks to Javi and his family for taking the time to do some designated eating! When I asked if it was embarrassing to sit at a table and have someone take pictures of him eating, he said “Nah, I’m a teacher. You have to embarrass yourself in the classroom every day.”
That’s the spirit!
For the record, Whataburger Field has its own Whataburger (which the locals pronounce “Waterburger.”) The fast food franchise began in Corpus Christi, and still has its headquarters there.
Enshrouded in the shadows, one can also find Nolan Ryan’s “Smoke 5714” BBQ stand. (The Hooks were originally owned by Ryan-Sanders. Nolan Ryan struck out 5714 batters over the course of his 63-season career.)
And don’t forget. There was a game going on! There is always a game going on.
As alluded to previously, the Harbor Bridge is beautiful at night.
Ballpark Chuck and I had made our way back down to the playing field so that I could emcee a “Finish the Lyrics” competition. Madalee and McKayla ably finished the lyrics (of a pop song I can no longer recall); fun was had by all.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 6, 2014
I then emceed a Dizzy Bat Race, because why not? I wish I had proper video of this, as my comedic chops were on point for a change.
Taking a phone call while the contestants spin.
After the Dizzy Bat Race, I interviewed Hooks super-fan Tammy Tucker about the myriad ways in which she supports the team. You can read that interview HERE.
You don’t need a fancy lens to get a good picture of Harbor Bridge.
With the game just about over, I made a pit stop at the press box. Like seemingly everywhere else at Whataburger Field, there is plenty of room to move.
The Hooks do not acknowledge the existence of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
A unique aspect of Whataburger Field is this radio studio, located on the ground floor of the stadium and visible to fans. Here, outfielder Mark Wik does a post game interview with Chris Blake after homering in his Corpus Christi debut. I’m not sure of the machinations that led to Wik being in Corpus Christi, but he came straight from extended Spring Training, played two games with the Hooks, and then went to Class A Advanced Lancaster and played two games there. He is now back in extended Spring Training (I think), and will most likely appear again with Class A Short Season Tri-Cities once their season begins. What a life.
As I observed this interview, a man I had met previously in the evening, one Douglas Calhoun, tapped on the window and waved a ball and pen at me. I assumed he wanted me to get Wik to autograph the ball, but he wanted my autograph (!!!) I was happy to oblige.
If you would like me to sign an autograph for you, then get in touch. I am a very accessible celebrity.
Fun fact: Although just 20 years of age, San Antonio’s Wolff Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the eight-team Texas League.
Funner Fact: For the first eight seasons of its existence, Wolff Stadium was the newest ballpark in the Texas League. Its descent from “newest” to “oldest” occurred over a span of just nine seasons; Midland (2002), Arkansas (2007) and Tulsa (2010) built new ballparks for previously existing teams, while Frisco (2003), Corpus Christi (2005), Springfield (2005), and Northwest Arkansas (2008) began play in new facilities after re-locating from elsewhere.
The Texas League, where change is the only constant!
I arrived at Wolff Stadium after a long drive from Midland, during which I got caught in rush hour traffic. I arrived at the ballpark around 6 p.m. (much later than originally intended), changed clothes in the parking lot, and then snapped this shot of the ballpark’s exterior.
Welcome to the Wolff, man:
Wolff Stadium is located across the street (more or less) from Lackland Air Force base. This base serves as the sole location for Air Force basic training, meaning that impossibly fresh-faced recruits are a common sight at Missions games. The sounds of planes flying overhead has also led some (or at least one) to dub it “The Shea Stadium of Minor League Baseball.” (At Shea Stadium, planes flying in and out of LaGuardia airport lent the ballpark a certain acoustical ambiance.)
I was joined on this evening by one Jon Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist who recently completed a piece in which I am depicted blogging sans shirt.
Jon and I went to high school together (Wissahickon Class of ’97, for those keeping score at home). He was last seen on this blog at a Modesto Nuts game, eating meat-stuffed pretzels. Here he is upon entering Wolff Stadium, brandishing a brobdingnagian team-logo mug that was the evening’s giveaway item. (I now allow myself one use of the word “brobdingnagian” per season. Look forward to seeing the word again in 2015.)
Some stadium views, captured upon arrival. Though it was a Friday, the Missions drew a lackluster crowd due to the fact that the Spurs had a Game 7 playoff game that evening. When you’re a Double-A baseball team, it’s kind of hard to compete with a championship-caliber NBA team in the same market. But what can you do?
The National Anthem was adorable. For maximum enjoyment, listen to this at least 145 times in a row. I did!
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
I taped that anthem snippet in the press box, a domain occupied by shadowy figures.
And while in the press box, I got my first glimpse of iconic Missions mascot Ballapeno. For more on Ballapeno and his arch-rival, Puffy Taco, read my MiLB.com article on the subject. I COMMAND YOU.
I also got my first glimpse of Alex Vispoli, broadcaster for the visiting Frisco RoughRiders. If broadcasters were ranked as MLB prospects in the same manner that players are, Vispoli would be high on the list. (Actually, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? But what methodology would be used? It’s a hard thing to quantify.)
My interaction with Vispoli was brief, for the game was ready to begin.
Following standard protocol, I did not settle in to watch the game. I commenced to wandering.
And in the course of that wandering, I soon ran into my designated eater for the evening (you know, the individual who eats the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).
That’s Darren Smith, who drove in from Austin for the occasion. “I just wanted to see a new ballpark and shoot the [shoot] about baseball,” he told me. Smith currently works for an Austin-area summer camp that specializes in outdoor education, but in a previous life he worked for the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton as well as the Bradenton Marauders during their nascent years of existence.
After talking with the team, it was decided that Darren would sample the “Nacho Dog.” It’s nacho dog, it’s Darren’s.
Have at it, Darren.
Darren was less than enthused with the Missions’ culinary concoction.
“The chili’s not great, the cheese is okay, but the bread is the worst,” he said. “It’s rock hard and cold. [Ballpark sponsor] Mrs. Baird’s is a Texas brand and you’d think they’d use that. The only thing that makes this a nacho dog is the chips, otherwise it’s a chili-cheese dog.”
We then stopped by Tony T’s Ballpark Treats, a third-party vendor, and got their signature Ribbon Fries.
Darren was a fan of these, lauding their look, crispness, and overall flavor.
I loved these (gluten-free!) creations as well. Tony T’s is a winner.
Fischer took the above photo, and he took this one as well. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of my professional career that one can find.
Finally, we stopped by another third-party vendor: Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse.
Darren, an expert when it comes to the Austin-area BBQ scene, opted for the brisket sandwich. He said that “In Texas, you know a place has good BBQ if they have a good brisket.”
Oh, and a Frito Pie was involved somehow.
Have at it, guys.
In case you prefer your images of 30-something white men eating to be of the moving variety:
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
“I’m pretty sure that the bread here is Mrs. Baird’s,” said Darren. “By Texas brisket standards, this is at the level of a Dickey’s [a BBQ restaurant chain]. It’s pretty commercial, there’s no burnt stuff or smoke lines.”
And with that we bid adieu to Darren Smith, a tough but fair designated eater. I then re-commenced wandering.
Some two decades into its existence, Wolff Stadium is in need of a little TLC. This metal fence could use a touch-up, for example.
And this isolated area, located behind the berm, was just a dump.
But for the most part, Wolff Stadium gets the job done. It is neither old nor young, just plugging along and maintaining its status as a San Antonio summertime entertainment staple.
Of course, the aforementioned Ballapeno and Henry the Puffy Taco are a big part of the ballpark experience. Here, a gaggle of children chase Ballapeno across the field.
I really wish I had been able to properly capture this moment. Ballapeno, in the act of waving to a young fan, accidentally slapped her in the face instead. The girl, more shocked than hurt, began to cry. In the below photo, Ballapeno is attempting to apologize, but, you know, it’s hard to apologize when you can’t talk.
But don’t worry about it, Ballapeno, as it was clearly unintentional. Get in touch if you need me to provide a statement exonerating you of any wrongdoing.
I was back up in the press box during Henry the Puffy Taco’s nightly humiliation. Not only does he lose every base path race, but the victor then stands upon him and gloats. Once again, my attempt to capture the action was subpar. (Everybody has their off nights, no matter what the job, and I had a blogging off night here in San Antonio).
Humiliated or not, Henry the Puffy Taco still loves to dance.
The game was moving rapidly, leading me to a sort of existential crisis. I’d been out and about and on my feet throughout, but what had I done? Anything? It didn’t feel like much, kind of like those recurring dreams I have where I’m at a ballpark in order to write about it but instead remain stuck in one place. (I really and truly have these dreams on a regular basis.)
But I wasn’t stuck, it was time to move. I had to get to the illuminated truth of this multi-tiered conundrum.
But all I found was that the game was over, and fans were now attempting to throw tennis balls into a chimney. Typical.
This was one case where people actually wanted to come down with the flue, but it was not to be. “Oh my God that was so close. Oh! Oh!”
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) May 3, 2014
My previous post on the Chihuahuas ended mid-narrative, but I had a good reason for ending it when I did. I didn’t want to bury the lede, and the lede is this:
The El Paso Chihuahuas have really, really good ballpark food. Like, really good, easily within the top five of the 110 or so ballparks that I’ve visited over the past five seasons. I learned this first-hand on April 29, the Chihuahuas second-ever home game, when Jeff Hanauer, general manager of Ovations food service at Southwest University Park, gave me a whirlwind tour of the team’s many concession offerings.
It’s all kind of a blur, but I’ll do my best to share with you what I remember….
Prior to meeting up with Hanauer, I’d snapped a few stray food-related shots. In keeping with the team’s “living the brand” philosophy, this concession stand is called the Rio Gr-r-r-r-r-rande Grill.
The thing to do with Chihuarrines is tear open the bag and douse with hot sauce (That’s what I was told, at least. The first ingredient was wheat flour, making it a no can do for a celiac such as myself).
Pre-packaged snack food aside, the Chihuahuas have adopted an “everything’s fresh” concessions philosophy. Items throughout the ballpark are made to order on the premises. “You’ll never see a pre-wrapped hot dog here,” Hanauer told me.
There are a series of food kiosks located along the third base concourse (many of them offering food from local vendors), and Hanauer and I began with a seafood taco stop. $10 is a bit pricey for a taco platter, but it’s a lot of food. (And gluten-free!)
One shrimp, one tilapia. I preferred the shrimp.
Hanauer told me that, in a market like El Paso, it would be foolhardy for the team to offer its own, quite possibly inauthentic, Mexican food. Why not just go straight to the source? The Chihuahuas have therefore partnered with Leo’s, a famous restaurant with several locations in the area. Here are the folks at Leo’s, doing their thing.
And that thing, in a word, is meat. Meat that has been cooked slowly throughout the day, for hours and hours and hours, so that by the time its served its exceedingly tender. The burritos are minimalist affairs — maybe a little sauce is added, but its pretty much just meat.
But these pork carnitas nachos were the star of the show, just amazingly good. The meat was so tender, yet crisp on the edges, and tasted amazing on its own along with the chips and queso. With all apologies to places in which I’ve had exemplary ballpark nachos (Memphis, Northwest Arkansas, Round Rock), these just might be the best.
Hanauer, watching me tear into these things, mentioned that he didn’t think they were gluten-free (as in, the chips had wheat flour). I should have asked about this right off the bat, but when these things appeared in front of me that part of my brain went off. I just started eating as if there was no tomorrow. (And who knows? There might not be.) In this particular instance I am at peace with my transgression. These nachos were just that good.
Anyhow, this is a picture of a margarita.
Why is this significant? Because the margarita was prepared using the Bottoms Up dispenser, in which the cup fills from the bottom. Bottoms Up took the industry by storm a few years back, but I had never seen it used for anything other than beer. (Unfortunately, my video of the margarita being filled up was plagued by technical glitches, so this is just one more thing that you’ll have to trust me on).
Speaking of technical glitches, this is one poorly lit photograph.
That there is the Flamethrower, a half-pound burger with ghost peppers, deep-fried jalapenos and jack cheese. Ghost peppers are the hottest peppers in the world, so they’re incorporated into the mix pretty sparingly — LEST SOMEONE DIES. Still, this thing packs some serious heat and just might be the spiciest hamburger in Minor League Baseball. Tell me it isn’t.
Here’s the Frito Pie, served up in a dog bowl. Absolutely fantastic, and gluten-free! I went at this one pretty hard for a minute.
I’m not sure if the Frito Pie is always served in a dog bowl, but these steak nachos definitely are. And these things did not skimp on the steak, as big tender chunks are distributed throughout.
Here we have a foot long hot dog with chili con carne:
Healthy options. They exist.
I don’t know exactly where I was at this point, except for “in the stadium.”
Men were at work.
And — what’s this? — eggs were on the grill.
Eggs are a key component of the Huevos Rancheros burger, a variation of the Mexican breakfast staple.
The burger is topped with egg, cheese and salsa verde, and if you stick a fork in it the egg yolk oozes out as a sort of bonus condiment. (I had one of these, sans bun, and it was probably better that way. I plan on making these at home.)
And then there was the Juarez dog, a variation of the Mexican street food classic.
That is an applewood bacon-wrapped beef hot dog topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, cole slaw and chicharrones. Think about that mix of flavors and textures for a second, it really is extraordinary.
Juarez dogs on the grill:
This one was firmly in the “look but don’t touch” category for me: Buffalo Chicken and Waffles:
Dessert Nachos, because too much is never enough.
But speaking of dessert — the Chihuahuas offer what is now MY FAVORITE DESSERT IN ALL OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
Here’s what I wrote over at MiLB.com: Quite simply the best dessert I’ve ever had at a Minor League ballpark. You could compare Raspas to a snow cone, but that would be like comparing Leo’s to Taco Bell. Shaved ice is topped with one of six fruit flavors, and a variety of condiments can be added to provide an additional kick of sweet, sour and/or spicy flavor.
The Raspas stand is run by local concessionaire Elizabeth Triejo, who has a true passion for this traditional Mexican dessert. I stopped by the next day and got another one.
There are two key elements that make Raspas so good. One is that all of the fruit flavors are made in small batches by Elizabeth, so everything is all natural and tastes that way. And then there are the condiments, such as Chamoy and Tajin, that deliver a customized mix of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.
So, yeah, if you’re ever at an El Paso Chihuahuas game then get a raspa. My adjectival accolade abilities are failing me, but they are almost certainly better than any ballpark dessert you’ve had before.
My itinerary on this particular road trip began in Albuquerque and ended in Austin, my primary motivation for traveling to this area in the first place was so that I could visit El Paso. For it is in El Paso that one will find the biggest story of the 2014 Minor League season, the El Paso Chihuahuas. This Pacific Coast League entity played its first-ever home game on April 28 (after opening the season in their old home of Tucson), but I spent that evening in Albuquerque. I was on hand for the second-ever Chihuahuas game, however, as on April 29 I arrived in the city and quickly made my way to Southwest University Park in order to see what all the fuss was about.
And believe you me, there was a fuss. Upon entering my hotel room, I found a limited-edition Chihuahuas-themed can of Pepsi:
The newspaper coverage during the days that I was in town was extremely enthusiastic.
And the one time I turned on the radio while driving in El Paso, I happened to hear a morning talk show in which one of the co-hosts was being lambasted for wearing a Chihuahuas hat after having initially bashed the team name and all it stood for. In short, the Chihuahuas aren’t just the biggest sports story in El Paso, they’re the biggest story in El Paso. Period.
I have already written a long MiLB.com story about the Chihuahuas and their home of Southwest University Park, which provides far more context regarding how and why the team came to be. The Chihuahuas are going to be an interesting team to follow for quite some time, on several levels, but this post is gonna keep it simple. This post will simply walk you through (a portion of) my night at the park.
My hotel, a Holiday Inn, was on Missouri Avenue in downtown El Paso. From there it was just a short walk to the stadium.
And then — bam! — the ballpark.
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t ever spent time in a town that borders Mexico. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by just how close Mexico was to El Paso — what was I expecting? — but seeing signs such as the above just felt surreal to me. (This says more about my northeastern upbringing and perspective than it does about anything having to do with El Paso and Juarez.)
The gates hadn’t yet opened at the time I arrived, but anticipation was high. People were lined up on all sides of the ballpark, hundreds deep. I had never seen so many people waiting to get into a Minor League stadium, ever.
Once I got inside, I took this photo of the field itself. Those are the Franklin Mountains looming beyond left-center field, and later on during my stay I learned that the Rocky Mountains extend to El Paso as well.
Taking a cue from the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Chihuahuas’ logo features a prominent set of eyes. Here’s an eyes-olated view, which I snapped on the staircase.
Quite unexpectedly, just prior to the game I received an invite to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While this was the second game of the season, there was still an Opening Day-level of excitement. Politicians, media personalities, pop singers, youth baseball players and military members were all gathered in this little “room” adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. Being from out of town, I kind of felt like an interloper amid this display of local pride.
As for my first pitch — it was a strike, but no evidence seems to exist. Or, if there is evidence, I don’t have it. Hey, does anybody out there have any evidence? Chico?
I know you can hear me, Chico! Don’t walk away from me!
Eh, nevermind. I have no idea what I’m talking about anyway. After throwing my first pitch, I returned to the concourse and embarked on a solo walk around the facility. A pictorial tour, or, as I like to call it, a pic-tour-ial, will now commence.
See that brick structure out in right field? Keep that in mind, we’ll visit that later.
Berm seating is $5.
The Splash Zone, which remained splashless on this pleasant Spring evening.
The Chihuahuas bullpen is ensconced in a little alcove located down the third base line, while the visitor’s are caged within the bottom floor of this outfield structure.
As I mentioned previously, the Mexican city of Juarez is located directly behind the ballpark. Juarez is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua (hence the team name), and residents of the city represent, at least potentially, a sizable portion of the of the fan base.
Turning inward, and then outward again.
That picture was taken through a window, as I was standing in a hallway located outside of the suite area. This area is decorated with a surprisingly diverse array of artwork.
This is Tom Lea’s The 2,000 Yard Stare, a famous portrait of post traumatic stress disorder and the visual equivalent of a punch in the gut.
This Warholian expression of team pride was created by a local non-profit called “Creative Kids.”
Around this point in the evening I ran into Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor, and he led me on the so-called “nickel tour” of the ballpark. Specifically, he wanted to show me the aforementioned three-story brick structure that sits just beyond the right field fence. It is called “The Big Dog House,” and the first level houses the City Hall Grill.
This establishment got its name because it stands where El Paso City Hall once stood. City Hall, as you may recall, was imploded in order to make room for the ballpark. Was this an example of visionary leadership, or a wasteful, hubristic and ultimately self-defeating folly? That question that has been hotly debated in El Paso (and elsewhere) over the past year, leading to some criticism that “City Hall Grill” is a disrespectful name. (Somewhat akin to clearing a forest to make room for a housing development, and then naming all of the streets in the development after trees.)
This plaque is currently displayed in the City Hall Grill.
Taylor brushed off this controversy, saying that “Once [those critical of the City Hall Grill] realized that we had no intent to mock them, I think they understood our vision. We’re just paying tribute to those who preceded us.”
We then walked up one floor, to the Sun Kings Saloon.
The Sun King Saloon is named after one of El Paso’s former Minor League entities (the Sun Kings were not blown up in order to make room for the Chihuahuas, however). The walls of the saloon are decorated with El Paso baseball memorabilia, often with a Chihuahuas twist.
This advertisement is interesting, in that it lauds the Sun Kings as a Minor League Baseball success story as a result of almost drawing 100,000 fans in their debut 1962 season. It’s comparing apples and oranges, but I’d be surprised if the Chihuahuas draw less than 600,000 in 2014.
Finally, at the top of the building, one finds the “Wooftop Deck.” It was largely empty on the night I visited, but this would be a great place to watch the game!
From the Woof Top Deck, one can see the side profile of El Paso’s famous “Mountain Star.”
Another view from the Woof Top:
From there we made a brief stop the WestStar Bank Club, located on the second level behind home plate, an appealing place to get a drink despite its less-than-appealing name. (The next afternoon, I saw people chugging beer from a dog bowl at the bar.)
Somehow my next picture is from the far left field corner of the stadium. I guess we walked over there.
The seats out here, they swiveled! Swiveled, I tell you!
You know, it’s like that old gypsy woman once told me: “Once the seats start swiveling, the blog post must end.”
Part Two of this El Paso Chihuahuas saga shall appear on Monday, then. It’s gonna have a lot of pictures of food.
It’s a word if you’re a Simpsons fan, at least. The motto of Springfield, bestowed upon it by town founder Jebediah Springfield, is “A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man.”
The Albuquerque Isotopes are most definitely the biggest Simpsons fans in Minor League Baseball, as the team name is a direct reference to an episode of the show in which Springfield’s Minor League team almost moves to Albuquerque. I, like many of my generation, am a huge Simpsons fan, so I was psyched to begin my 2014 Minor League Baseball travels in a ballpark with such a direct tie-in to my youthful (and now, manchild) obsessions.
Welcome to Isotopes Field, home of the — wait for it — the Albuqerque Isotopes.
Upon entering the ballpark, this is the first person that greets you.
I went on to write a detailed story about the origin of the team name as well as the Simpsons family statues that can be found throughout the concourse. I suggest that you read it, and if I was able demand such a thing then a demand it would be.
Now that you’ve read that particular piece, let’s move on to a little tour of the ballpark. With the players warming up on the field, Isotopes broadcaster Josh Suchon led me on a 360-degree walk of the facility.
First things first, the team had a new videoboard installed prior to the season. That’s the new one on the left, complementing the old board on the right.
I asked Suchon whether the Isotopes were making any claims regarding it being the biggest/tallest/widest board in Minor League Baseball, because those are the sort of things that Minor League Baseball teams do. His reply was that “It’s bigger than El Paso and that’s the most important thing. Everything is a rivalry with El Paso now.”
I was going to respond that “Well, yeah, it’s easier to be bigger than a Chihuahua,” but then realized that no team in professional sports history has ever named themselves after something smaller than an isotope.
There’s plenty of room to move at Isotopes Park, which opened in 2003. Multi-tiered berm seating is not something you see every day, unless you work in a park that has multi-tiered berm seating.
Remember when you read that story I linked to, which explained that the Isotopes acquired their Simpsons statues at a Los Angeles junk store run by the inimitable Nick Metropolis? Well, the team also acquired this Hollywood sign from Mr. Metropolis. It is a reference to Albuquerque being, as Suchon put it, “the Minor Leagues of Hollywood.” The city provides tax breaks to film companies who work in the region, and the fact that Breaking Bad took place there certainly raised the region’s profile in the industry (and America) at large.
This Captain Morgan statue was also obtained via Nick Metropolis and his impressive junk world connections.
We soon made our way back on the concourse and — look — here’s Lisa.
It seems fitting that Bart is below an advertisement for “pest management.”
Isotopes Park was built where its predecessor once stood — Albuquerque Sports Stadium (or A.S.S., as I prefer to call it). At that facility, fans could park beyond the outfield wall and watch the game from their cars.
But these days, fans watch the game from their eyes, man. From their eyes!
Isotopes Park is one of several sports facilities in the immediate area. This, as viewed from outside the suite entrances, is the home of University of New Mexico basketball and it is called “The Pit.”
Meanwhile, over here, you’re apt to see the pigskin get tossed around.
Turning my camera in the other direction resulted in a view of a facility that hosts baseball — Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes. (I almost forgot where I was there for a second).
I neglected to ask why the Isotopes took a multi-hued approach to their glass panel installation. It’s pretty cool, though.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
Finally, I spotted Marge. In a decidedly uncharacteristic move, she had Coke up her nose.
At this point, you’re probably asking the same question I was.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) April 28, 2014
It was around this time that I met Isotopes general manager John Traub, who told me the Simpsons stories that ended up in the MiLB.com article that you already read. But one more thing that I didn’t mention is that Traub is the (once) proud owner of an Alex Rodriguez signed bat. Traub was formerly the general manager of the Calgary Cannons (the team that moved to Albuquerque in 2003), and got that bat when A-Rod was in Calgary in 1994.
After speaking with Traub, I went down to field level in time for the National Anthem. And look who I ran into — Mr. Clint Belau! Regular readers of this blog (I hope that you are one of them), will recognize Clint as one of 2012’s Winter Meetings Job Seeker Journalists. That employment seeking effort eventually landed him a job in Albuquerque, and he is now in his second season with the Isotopes and his first as an assistant groundskeeper. Clint remains as I described him back in 2012: irrepressibly optimistic. Dude just loves working in baseball, and was so committed to breaking into the industry that he moved to Albuquerque at the age of 35 to be a stadium operations intern.
Clint had also recruited my designated eater for the evening. You know, the individual who consumes the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits. Today’s eater would be Megan Black, an Oregon native and girlfriend of Isotopes groundskeeper Casey Griffin. In the above photo, Megan is mid-bite on a Lasorda Dog: two hot dogs, deep-fried jalapenos, bacon, sour cream, and cheese in a flour tortilla. “The bacon’s really good with it, though I guess it’s a little fatty if you want to get technical,” said Megan. “This thing, it’s got a good kick to it.”
Next up was the Tortilla Burger, available at the team’s “items with self-explanatory names” kiosk. Megan was a little taken aback, saying, “I don’t know, it’s a lot of meat….the fries are good.” Casey soon chipped in, adding that “it almost tastes like meat loaf. The meat’s real tender and good, but a little plain.”
Pizza’s not the most exciting item to photograph and write about, but the Isotopes offer Dion’s at the ballpark. Dion’s is a well-respected local chain, and, I’ve gotta say, it looked far better than your average slice of ballpark pizza. “Okay, it’s really good,” is all that Megan had to say about Dion’s. The view from our second-level location was really good as well. Finally, we went back inside for some Bananas Foster, which I don’t believe I had ever seen at a ballpark before. I’m not exactly sure what was in this Isotopes mini-helmet rendition, though it must have been some combination of bananas, ice cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, liqueur, and (of course) whipped cream. (In retrospect I should have walked down to the stand where these were being made, as there was some flambe action going on.) Megan and Casey were less than thrilled by this poorly lit “romantic” photo, but I can’t resist including it. Although I couldn’t immediately ascertain whether or not the Bananas Foster were gluten-free, I went ahead and gave it a try (when in doubt, I should NOT try something, but I guess I don’t always follow that rule). I’ve never liked bananas in any context, really, but that was a great dessert!
And with dessert concluded, it was time to say goodbye to Megan and Casey and move upward and onward — to the broadcast booth with Josh Suchon! After a pleasant inning on the air chatting with Josh about the start of another season of Minor League travel, I peeked my head into the control room. Everything was copacetic. For whatever reason, I seem to have a habit of visiting teams on “off” nights when it comes to attendance. This game took place on a Monday, and it was freezing! The temperature was in the low 40s once the sun went down, with winds whipping about at approximately 35 miles an hour. Hence, a pretty small crowd. I needed to move in order to stay warm, so I moved on down into the tunnel adjacent to the third base dugout. Clint had invited me to “help” drag the infield. I’ve dragged the infield a couple of times before — generally as part of a dance routine — but for whatever reason I still felt a little nervous prior to taking the field. But it was like riding a bike, in that once you get out there you just have to rely on muscle memory.
What form! What skill! What daintily-fitting tapered-leg jeans! I forget what led to what, and it’s barely documented, but I soon ended up in a mascot race dressed as “Green Chile.” I did not win. That bottle of salsa was, like, way ahead of me. Lost within the bowels of the stadium after the race, I happened upon this awesome painting. Dancin’ Homer! After getting situated again amid the general population, I opted for some dinner. One of the main concession stands had a promising (albeit) vague sign advertising a “gluten-free sandwich.” I got one. It was a turkey sandwich, apple, and a bag of chips. Good for what it was, I suppose, and certainly better than nothing. I appreciated that it was on offer in the first place. But, thinking long-term, my opinion is that gluten-free ballpark food should adhere as closely to food that people usually want at a ballpark. This might not be feasible in all situations, but with a little bit of effort regarding inventory and staff training it is possible to offer gluten-free hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, nachos, beer and more at the ballpark. Please, make it happen if you’re not making it happen already. My fellow celiacs will thank you, and even shake your hand so long as you are not made of wheat.
Off of my soapbox, for the time being, I did a lap around the stadium. It was the ninth inning, and it was cold and deserted throughout the park (save for a cluster of hardcore fans behind home plate). While I was wandering, the Isotopes plated a run in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 3-3. The game ended up going into extra innings, which I commemorated by wandering into the team store. Orbit says welcome. This is the team’s standard Simpsons-inspired logo. But the team also pays homage to Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston is a fan of the team, and while the show was filming in Albuquerque he helped organize celebrity softball tournaments. (Unfortunately, there was nary a Weird Al homage to be found in the team store. Nonetheless, Albuquerque remains one of the best songs he ever wrote!)
Finally, one can buy a copy of a book that Traub co-authored, Dave Rosenfield’s Baseball: One Helluva Life.
Rosenfield has his own Simpsons connection, as the MiLB.com article that you already read made clear: “Dancin’ Homer,” the episode in which the Springfield Isotopes were first introduced, was written by former Norfolk Tides broadcaster Ken Levine. Levine drew on his experiences with the Tides in writing the episode, and Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield even makes a cameo (in name only) as the owner of the rival Capital City Capitals.
But anyway, for the first time all night I decided to just sit down and relax. When the Isotopes make the call to the bullpen, this bullpen cart is driven around the field. I don’t think any pitchers ever ride in it, though. Despite the fact that a game had been going on for almost four hours, Homer still had his sights oriented away from the field. The Salt Lakes Bees reminded me of a cartoon at this point, in that their infield was “drawn in.” The drawn-infield wasn’t able to prevent the run from scoring, as Jamie Romak hit a single to score Miguel Rojas with the winning run.
And that, my friends, was all she wrote. She being me, and this blog post being that which got wrote. I hope you found it to be more than a rote effort, and are excited (or at least mildly curious) about the dozens of “On the Road” posts that are still to come this season.
The next post in this “On the Road” blogging series will feature the El Paso Chihuahuas. It is scheduled to run on Smarch 16.