Smokies Park, Kodak, TENNESSEE
Number of states: 18
States to go: 32
Number of games: 1
First game: July 27, 2006 (Tennessee Smokies 6, Carolina Mudcats 5)
(Click on any image to see a larger version.)
“Hi, Paul,” the friendly email, subject line “Continuing Your Quest,” began. “I was searching the internet for promotions ideas and I came across your website…I see that you have not been to Tennessee yet. I am not saying
that you will have a better experience than at any other minor league game, but I can assure you that you will enjoy yourself…I look forward to hearing from you and hope you will consider the Smokies for your Tennessee trip.”
With that email from the Smokies’ Dan Blue, I was hooked. The idea that a guy in the front office of a minor league club
would take the time to actually invite me to a game…well, that flattered me. Since Tennessee was on the list for that summer anyway, I told him sure. He then tried to talk me into a VIP package. It was a little spendy, but it included killer seats, a free hat, and a chance to throw out the first pitch. That sounded pretty good, but since there would be four of us traveling, I wanted all four of us to have something for that kind of money; not just one of us throwing out the pitch and one of us getting a hat. He threw in an autographed baseball and a chance to announce a batter over the PA. SOLD! We divided out the tasks: Rob would throw out the first pitch, Yolonda would get the hat, Michelle would get the ball, and I would get to go to the press box and announce a batter. It was official: I was a VIP. Seriously. Look–I really was:
With that, the fun began. Rob had to get his arm in gear for the first pitch. We snuck past a “no admittance” sign
back by one of the foul poles and got Rob’s arm into shape. Nobody stopped us…indeed, I’m not sure anybody noticed us. We all threw a baseball around, and Rob warmed up.
Next, Rob made it to the field. He was one of about eight “first” pitches. Included in that group was the Shoney’s bear and a boy celebrating his tenth birthday. Here’s where we learn Rob is a fairly sick man. The birthday boy didn’t know why he was on the field–I guess his parents wanted
it to be a surprise. So Rob told him: “I think you’re going to sing. Do you know the words? ‘Oh say can you see…'” The kid would have nothing of it. “I don’t know that!” Rob said “Well, how about this one? ‘Take me out to the balllllgaaame…'” He said he could sing that. But he threw out a pitch instead. As did Rob…a strike into the glove of left-handed pitcher Bill White, who signed the ball (which Rob subsequently annotated).
With that, we got going with the game.
What a gorgeous ballpark Smokies Park is. The outfield is surrounded by hills. They’re not quite as gorgeous as the nearby Great Smokies, but they provide a lovely backdrop. In fact, just past the right-field wall, there’s what
might be the best picnic-table-for-baseball-fans in the US. It was, at least at one time, the KOA Kampground for East Knoxville. I currently cannot find a KOA listing for East Knoxville, but the picnic table remains. There’s a good view of the field from all seats and just about all of the concourse. One can circumnavigate the stadium on a walkway, or sit and chill on a grassy hill beyond the outfield wall.
On a night warmer than Waffle House syrup, it’s nice to see the hills fade into darkness behind quality double-A baseball.
The Smokies did well balancing the wacky promotions with the baseball. There were some promotions between innings–a three-legged race which caused a pair of siblings to become exceedingly angry with each other, for starters–but for the most part, they let the baseball take center stage. Dan came by to hang out with us for a couple of innings, chatting about his past experiences in baseball with me and my wife–a veteran of the minor league baseball milieu. He addressed the unique challenges of promoting the Smokies; since they play so close to the most-visited national park in the USA (in fact, there’s a National Park office in the stadium building), about 25% of their visitors are
tourists. It certainly held true to my experience–I chatted with a mother from Florida for a good part of the game.
Next came my big moment. In the fifth inning, I headed up to the box with Dan and awaited my big moment announcing a batter.
This was no consolation prize to Rob’s throwing out of the first pitch. I wanted to do this. Big time. I serve as the PA announcer for the football team at the high school where I work. The key to it, as I see it, is to avoid cheerleading for the home team, and to keep the voice under control. In fact, during high school games, when I give credit to the chain crew, spotters, and scoreboard operator, I finish by saying: “And I
‘m Bob Sheppard
.” So to avoid the sins of some other PA guys I’ve heard
, I knew what I would do. Take it easy. Take it slow. Give the number, position, and name. Savor the syllables. But at Smokies Park, I actually felt a little bit guilty taking a batter away from George Yardley, the PA announcer. He may well be the best PA guy I’ve ever heard at a minor league ballpark…a deep, deep voice with just enough of a gorgeous pecan-pie Southern accent to remind me where I was. George: you’re the man.
I didn’t expect to enjoy being in the press box as much as I did. The guys–mostly good ol’ Tennessee boys–made me feel exceedingly welcome. They clearly loved doing what they did for a living. They have the best view of the game of anyone. The scoreboard operator was even wearing a glove. They were enjoying a conversation with me about my ballpark travels as Mark Reynolds came to the plate…
and that conversation was soon
interrupted by their whoops. Reynolds hit a massive home run off of the scoreboard. It was awesome to be there for what turned out to be the biggest play of the game. In the midst of the cheering, George grabbed a stuffed bear, squeezed it so that it made a heartbeat sound, and held the bear to the microphone. That sound reverberated throughout the ballpark.
Unfortunately, I had to follow that up, so it’s possible nobody heard my big moment. George said: “And now, to announce the next batter, here is V.I.P. Paul Hamann.”
All I wanted was a batter with a kick-butt name; ideally a Hispanic one (I, like Sheppard, love pronouncing those Latino players’ names). And I got it. Complete with pregnant pauses, and without a hint of homerism:
“Now batting…the first baseman…number thirty-one…Augustin…Murillo.”
Sheppardesque? Yardleyish? Maybe not. But damn fun. (For the record, Murillo popped to the catcher.)
Ever wonder how they figure
out how far a home run is hit? I saw the incredibly scientific process take place right in front of my eyes. Somebody asked: “Where did that ball hit?” They figured out that it hit an advertisement on the base of the scoreboard. After some argument as to whether it reached there on the fly or on the bounce, the best PA guy in the minor leagues got out a list of distances. He ran his finger down to the distance to the base of the scoreboard, added a few feet, and queried: “Does 441 feet sound okay?” They agreed, and he informed the crowd in his million-dollar voice: “That last home run by Mark Reynolds traveled 441 feet!” Not exactly a scientific process, but they did the best they could with the tools they had.
I don’t have anything bad to say about Smokies Park, and that is reflected in its very high score. Does the score have anything to do with the fact that Dan bumped up his VIP package to include getting me onto the microphone? Absolutely! This isn’t Congress. This isn’t Consumer Reports. Bribery is completely acceptable here. (Minor league salespeople everywhere: take note!).
Regional feel: 7/10
Could do a little better here: perhaps it’s hard to feel local-Tennessee when one is surrounded by so many tourists. But the surrounding hills help this score.
Lovely architecture and nice surroundings.
My VIP experience was filled with baseball-centric spectacle.
Team mascot/name: 4/5
Three mascots. The top one is from Shoney’s: he threw out a first pitch after Rob. In the middle is a shark from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. At the bottom is Slugger with the annoying promotions guy. The team name is great, and I like the multiple mascots, who were fun while never interfering with the game. But I’m not a big fan of the generic name “Slugger” (or of his sister’s name, “Diamond,” not pictured).
Pavilion area: 4/5
Just tremendous. A great VIP night with fellow baseball-lovers. One of the best nights I’ve ever had at a ballpark.
BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:
Mark Reynolds is the difference-maker, hitting a three-run homer as far as you’ll ever see a ball hit.
Augustin Murillo went 2-for-4 with two runs.
Brett Carroll his a 2-run home run for the Mudcats to make it closer.
Ria Cortesio serves as the first-base umpire, making this the first baseball game with a female umpire I’ve ever attended–at any level.
(Written August 2006.)