Sometimes when I visit a stadium, my interactions with the team in question don’t extend much beyond a curt hello and a cursory “let us know if you need anything.” Okay, that’s cool, you’re busy and understaffed, I get it.
But on the far other end of the hospitality continuum exist entities such as the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who over the course of a two-day visit ran me ragged back and forth across Appleton’s Fox Cities Stadium while involving me in seemingly every aspect of their game-day entertainment. The end result was a blur of toilet paper, duck calls, air-blasted bratwurst, (evil) mascot antics, bullpen tomfoolery, tailgating, club level feasting, pyrotechnic viewing and, of course, cheese curds. This is Wisconsin, after all.
And on top of all that I even landed an interview with the Dean of the Midwest League himself, enigmatic Timber Rattlers announcer Chris Mehring! What a journalistic coup, what a whirlwind couple of days, and don’t even get me started on my time away from the ballpark (in which uber-hospitable Appletonians, working in shifts, gave me a tour of the sights, sounds and, of course, the food of their beloved hometown. Appletonians love their food, I’ve learned).
I’m not sure how to best present all of this material, all I know is that it’s going to be spread out across several platforms and that it’s going to take awhile. So — deep breath! — let’s just do the most sensible thing and start at the beginning. The rest — from Appleton as well as the ensuing five cities on this trip — will follow.
Friday, June 21. 5:30 p.m.
I arrived at Fox Cities Stadium 90 minutes before game time, and already there was a phalanx of fluorescent parking attendants directing a steady stream of cars.
Many of these early birds were here to tailgate, an activity rarely associated with Minor League Baseball. But in Wisconsin, it’s simply standard operating procedure for all professional sports events.
“[Tailgating] is just part of the culture here,” Timber Rattlers president Rob Zerjav told me. “Packers, Brewers, Timber Rattlers, it doesn’t matter.”
Therefore, the Timber Rattlers are just fine with their ballpark’s location. “Downtown revitalization” is an industry catch phrase and current most common justification for a new stadium, but Zerjav remarked that “we wouldn’t want to be downtown. We’d lose the tailgating.”
Not that the T-Rats need a new stadium. Fox Cities Stadium was built in 1995, and underwent a $6.2 million renovation prior to this season. It’s doing just fine. As the gates opened at 5:30, there was already a formidable line to get inside.
Okay, fine, the stadium is currently called “Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium.” But since this blogging platform charges me on a per-word basis, I’m going to just call it Fox Cities Stadium.
Upon entering the ballpark, fans were presented with complimentary Kleenex product.
The gratis facial tissue was part of a “Salute to Paper” promotion, staged annually in honor of Appleton’s paper industry The city is even home to the Paper Discovery Center, an institution which takes it upon itself to induct individuals into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame (PIIHOF which I pronounce phonetically as Pie Eye Hoff as that sounds like the name of a 19th century baseball player.)
Further back on the concourse, one could find this surprising edifice.
In the above photo, the Timber Rattlers’ 2012 Midwest League Championship banner is obscured by a two-ply toilet paper pyramid. Perhaps this can be seen as an unwitting metaphor for Minor League Baseball’s overall entertainment priorities, but, point is, the Timber Rattlers are coming off of a great season.
Their championship trophy is on display in the lobby of the newly renovated front office.
The team also won Minor League Baseball’s Larry MacPhail Trophy, awarded annually in honor of overall promotional excellence. Talk about firing on all cylinders! (Perhaps this is why T-Rats staffers could be seen flaunting huge wads of cash at last December’s Baseball Winter Meetings.)
Zerjav gave me a tour of the new and improved front offices, but somehow the only pictures I managed to take involved the only in-house taxidermy studio in Minor League Baseball.
Actually, the above montage was in preparation for the following day’s promotion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Another major part of the renovations was this year-round club level area. It can fit approximately 250-300 people, and the Timber Rattlers are renting it out for events on non-game days (a wedding reception was held there recently, for example).
It was turning out to be a beautiful evening, and as I was up there in the club level assistant director of food and beverage Chumley Hodgson displayed his superhuman strength by lifting up the glass panel windows and stacking them vertically off to the side.
Hey, nice view!
The renovations also included the addition of nine suites (there are now 12 total). The centerpiece of these new suites are sturdy and quintessentially Wisconsonian tables made of reclaimed barn boards that date back as far as the 1780s.
I’ve gotten complaints that this blog has become too reclaimed barn board-centric, so let’s move back down to ground level. As part of the “Salute to Paper,” an endearing arts and crafts center had been set up down the third base line.
Nearby, one could find the best seat in the house.
Fox Cities Stadium doesn’t have a 360 degree concourse, but it’s getting there. Zerjav mentioned that that’s the ultimate goal, and that the team is expanding by degrees as time and money allows (the team, like the nearby Green Bay Packers, is community owned. That’s a tangent for a future blog or article, but let it be known that team shares can be had for $50).
A recent addition, and an unexpected one, can be found beyond the picnic area.
Zerjav says that this sandy area was inspired by the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
“In Myrtle Beach you’d expect a beach, but by putting one out here we didn’t know what to expect,” said Zerjav. “Girls in bikinis? Turns out that the kids love it, and parents love it too because it looks like they’re watching their kids when they’re really watching the game.”
The view from the boondocks:
With game time approaching, I traveled 180 degrees and onto the field. There was important business to attend to.
Toilet paper first pitch!
This next photo, taken by Timber Rattlers creative director/team photographer Ann Mollica, demonstrates my flawless toilet paper mechanics. And please believe, I totally threw a strike.
Proudest moment of my life!
But I wasn’t the only one throwing toilet paper. After the National Anthem, just before taking the field, the Timber Rattlers threw roll upon roll into the crowd.
This calls for the first of MANY Vines that have been/will be produced on this road trip. (Follow me on Twitter and/or Vine to see them all, and please let me know your favorites and least favorites. I’m working toward becoming a Vine auteur.)
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 22, 2013
And I now call upon myself, in the interest of writerly sanity, to end this post. There will be much more to come from Appleton, and much more to come from the Midwest League. I guarantee it.
As part of my desire to milk my road trip content to the largest extent possible, I have been periodically posting odds and sods from my recent journey to the Carolinas. Part One featured crabs and a Civil War landmark, while Part Two highlighted regional fast food and North Carolina baseball history.
And that leads us to — what else? — part 3. This chapter starts with Day 5 of the trip, which started in Durham and ended in nearby Burlington. Let’s repeat that, this time in bold:
Day 5 — Durham to Burlington
I attended an eventful game on Saturday evening at palatial Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), and followed that up the next morning by dropping in on the team’s former home. That would be the similarly-named but drastically different Durham Athletic Park (The DAP), which housed various incarnations of the club from 1926-94.
The ballpark is world-famous as a result of having been featured prominently in the classic film Bull Durham, but fell into disuse after the Bulls re-located to the DBAP. Minor League Baseball, in partnership with the city of Durham, have since renovated the facility and it is now used as a training center for all manner of baseball jobs (more on that HERE).
The DAP also serves as the home field for a variety of youth and recreational leagues (including the excellent Durham Long Ball Program), and on the morning I stopped by I was expecting to tour the facility while one of these games was going on. But, as I later found out, all of the day’s activities had been canceled due to the heat.
Therefore, I was left to wander the perimeter of the stadium by my lonesome. Truly, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
The area surrounding the stadium had a somnambulant vibe as well, fitting for such a soporific Sunday morning.
But at least there were some unexpected patches of city-owned greenery.
Durham to Burlington (home of the Appalachian League Royals) is only about 35 miles, resulting in one of the lightest travel days of the trip. I took my time on this particular journey, first stopping for a late breakfast at reader recommended fast food chain Biscuitville.
The ambiance was a bit lacking, but I was able to obtain a country-fried steak biscuit, grits, and a sweet tea for the eminently reasonable price of $3.94. I really wish I had this in front of me right now:
Upon leaving Biscuitville, I decided to locate some of this “Cheerwine” soda that had been so enthusiastically recommended to me by this blog’s contingent of North Carolina-based readers. I stopped at three convenience stores along the way and while none stocked Cheerwine I did nonetheless obtain some regional snacks.
For instance, I learned that Tom’s Potato Chips offers separate “Vinegar and Salt” and “Salt and Vinegar” flavor combinations.
But the above items were downright healthy compared to this devastating 1-2: Fatback and Fried Pork Skins from Carolina Country Snacks. Even though fatback is hard, unhealthy, and tough to eat I really like the stuff. I ate the whole bag that evening, yet another shameful solitary moment in a lifetime full of them.
And while not specifically a southern treat, nothing washes it all down better than a Mello Yello (in the absence of the still-elusive Cheerwine, of course).
I think the main reason I keep buying this stuff is because I’m in love with the logo, which implies that the double-Ls in both words carry on past the label and into infinity.
I was soon distracted in my Cheerwine search by a series of billboards for a so-called “shopper’s heaven” by the name of J.R’s. The first billboard I saw advertised the store as the “USA’s Largest Cigarette Dealer,” but it only got more interesting from there. “Everything From Brassieres to Chandeliers!” was my personal favorite billboard, with “Awesome!” being a close second. It was duty to make a pit stop.
Shopper’s heaven included cigarettes, dolls, books…
And, of course, Sarah Palin toilet paper.
I was very proud of my personal J.R. haul, which probably sums up me as a person more than I’d care to admit.
Pretty self-explanatory, I think, except for the fact that those “Mr. B’s” peanuts are deep-fried and meant to be eaten shell and all! As a regional snack food aficionado I was very happy to have found them, but it’s an idea that is better in theory than in practice.
The next stop on my detour-laden journey was Cookout, yet another reader-recommended regional fast food joint. The place turned out to be a “Double Drive-Thru,” with no indoor seating.
I ordered a “slaw dog” and — yes! — a Cheerwine float.
My first Cheerwine experience, albeit one compromised by vanilla ice cream. I still don’t know how to describe Cheerwine — it’s like a milder-tasting Cherry Coke with a hint of Dr. Pepper, but with a sparkling effervescence all its own.
Thank You God For America!
Cheerwine appeared in my post on that evening’s Burlington Royals game, a dispatch which also included this image of the team’s men’s room:
However, I have since been informed, by reader Matt Campbell, that the Thome nameplate has gone missing! Observe:
If anyone has any info on what happened to the Thome nameplate, then please get in touch!
But in happier news, it is worth noting that the Burlington women’s bathroom is decorated in similarly appealing fashion. Reader Rebecca Campbell (yes, Matt’s wife) was kind enough to send along these images of a land in which I had not dared to tread:
Could all of this lead to an extensive series of “Bathrooms of the Appalachian League” blog posts? I can only hope! If anyone can assist with this endeavor, then you know where to find me — alone and in front of a computer: