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Centene Stadium, Great Falls, Montana

Centene Stadium, Great Falls, MONTANA

Number of states: still 32
States to go:  18

Number of games: 1
First game:  July 5, 2013 (Great Falls Voyagers 7, Helena Brewers 1)

Click on any image to see a full-size version.

Maybe I was tired as I approached Great Falls:  it was the last in a three-games-in-three-nights-in-three-cities stretch.  While my family (my sons were 4 and 2 at the time) were game and had good attitudes, I think we were looking past this game to the sitting-down-and-doing-nothing-in-Glacier-Park

that followed.  But Centene Stadium left me very little to like about it: it lacked both old-time charm and modern amenities.  It was unattractive and an overall unfortunate place to see a game.

When I saw the ballpark on a map, I was intrigued.  It looked like it abutted the Missouri River, and as I drove to the park and saw how we were at the top of a significant canyon, I thought there was promise for some views.  But alas, the park is constructed in a manner that has literally no views from anywhere.  You’re inside a fortress with four tall walls, and all that’s available is the stadium itself, which, alas, is hardly physically attractive.

There were some sweet moments that will cause my memory of Centene Stadium to be positive overall.  We were greeted by a sweet

girl who I’d bet money was a prominent member of her high school’s drama club.  She sold me my program, and then told us that we got a free song with the program.  That’s a pretty good deal.  But when she offered to sing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song (since it was 50 cent hot dog day), I declined and instead asked her to sing “Bingo,” since my 2-year-old was a big fan of it.  I was a little surprised she needed help remembering the words.  Seriously:  A farmer.  Had a dog.  The name is given in the title.  The spelling isn’t tough.  But she did sing it and my toddler enjoyed it, and I am thankful for that.

Both of my kids were then treated nicely in a trip to the dugout, where catcher Zach Miller and especially shortstop Tyler Shryock signed

my kids’ scorebooks and spent some quality time talking to the kids.  (Shryock had three hits and two RBIs. Happy to bring my kids back as good luck charms, Tyler.)  Fist bumps, asking my kids if they were going to play baseball…and the like.  That made me feel good.

Although Centene Stadium mostly fails the do-you-have-any-idea-where-you-are-in-the-US test (since we can’t see mountains or river or even buildings from the inside of the ballpark), there are a couple of areas where they do well.  I was interested to see how the team handled

its rich history: nearly 20 years as a Dodgers affiliate, with nearly 20 years as a Giants affiliate before that.  The history was there if one was willing to look for it.  There were some old pennants honoring teams going back nearly a century near the entryway, and a brick baseball field made with donations from, if I recall correctly, the Great Falls Dodgers Booster Club.  (Steven enjoyed running around that diamond, occasionally to the cheers of affable locals.)  But beyond that, there was little.  The Voyagers name felt bizarrely out of place.  It would work if there were a Lewis and Clark theme—indeed, would work especially well in the Pioneer League.  But space travel?  What in the heck does space travel have to do with Montana, or vice versa?  The mascot, Orbit, is also therefore out of place.

Game presentation also left much to be desired: the game was viewed primarily as a promotions transference device rather than a baseball game.  It was an interesting contrast to Billings the night before, where I felt they might not have done enough: here, we were worried about the ballpark going to the excesses of Missoula, which remains (alongside San Jose) one of the most unpleasant nights of baseball in my life.  When the Voyagers had baserunners, the “ducks on the pond” were sponsored by AFLAC, and some fans busted out their duck calls.  Pretty weak tie-in, and results in too-frequent annoying sounds.  At another point, there was a request over the PA:  “Grounds crew, can we have the lights please?…[pause]…This request was brought to you by Suchandsuch Electric…”  Really?  Also, rather than just announcing names, the PA guy went overboard, shouting

“All right!” and “Nice hit!” and other vapid statements. The cheerleader PA guy is another of my pet peeves.  Do the Voyagers really believe their fans are so stupid as to need to be told this?

When all was said and done, the promotions seemed to ease up a little as the game went on, so we were still able to get in a nice night of baseball—the game operations didn’t

totally trip over their own feet.  But I would still like to see the whole experience toned down just a notch.  Maybe this will take place if the Voyagers ever leave this ugly spot.

It’s funny: there are old ballparks in the minor leagues that I enjoy for their oldness.  In some ways, I miss Eugene’s old Civic Stadium, and when the Brewers leave Helena (as seems inevitable) for some gleaming new ballpark by a river somewhere, that will be a loss as well as a gain.  But Centene felt like it gave all of the negatives of an old ballpark with none of the positives.  I believe the team and its fans could do far better.

Ballpark score:

Regional feel:  5/10

That’s the General Mills factory next door to the ballpark.  Normally, this would be a strong advantage in the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test. However, when in the ballpark, it is literally impossible to see outside of it: no mountains, no river, no factory…no Montana at all.  The sense of Montana baseball history in the ballpark is nice, and saves this from an even lower score.

Charm: 2/5

The ballpark has aged without gaining charm.

Spectacle: 3/5

Promotions were about right, but too much yelling and cheerleading for my tastes.

Team mascot/name: 2/5

The name does not seem to have anything to do with Montana, and the mascot and name feel forced.

Aesthetics:  2/5

Again, perhaps I’m unfairly comparing to the beautiful Billings ballpark I saw 24 hours earlier, but Centene Stadium offered nothing pretty to look at.

Pavilion area: 1.5/5

Much of the area was underground and charmless: only a little bit was upstairs in the sunshine.

Scoreability: 4/5

Fine job here: my 4-year-old and I were able to keep up.

Fans: 4/5

Very nice people who were smiling at my children at every opportunity.  Thanks, Great Falls.  Minor deduction for cheerleader-ness.

Intangibles:  2/5

I’m afraid that, on the whole, the ballpark did nothing for me.

TOTAL 25.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN THERE:

Jacob Morris had the big highlight of the night, with a 6th-inning grand slam that put the game out of reach.

Jose Bautista (no, the other one) pitched well to get the win.

Written July 2013.

DeVault Stadium, Bristol, Virginia

DeVault Stadium, Bristol, VIRGINIA

Number of states:  15
States to go:  35

First game:  July 23, 2006 (Johnson City Cardinals 5, Bristol Sox 2)

Much like Asheville, I was thrilled that my ballpark travels brought me to Bristol. When on earth would I have ever made it to the Virginia/Tennessee border otherwise?  There, I found a gorgeous ballpark in a charming, quirky town.  There was a big show on State Street and loads of activity on both Tennessee’s and Virginia’s sidewalks, but we headed a little ways into Virginia to enjoy my first-ever Rookie League game.

The trip there from Hickory, NC was a good chunk of the fun.  We took the Blue Ridge Parkway a lot of the way.  Who would want to ever

put themselves on an interstate again after that?  We were accompanied much of the way by a Christian motorcycle group, and then meandered up to the gorgeous NC/TN/VA tri-point.  Even with that much activity, we did make it to the ballpark just in time for first pitch.

On the way in, there’s a plaque commemorating the astonishing accomplishment of one Ron Necciai.  The plaque tells us that he pitched what can only be called a mega-perfect game…or so I thought.  A little bit of research revealed to me that he didn’t strike out 27 guys in a row.  In fact, with two out in the third inning, the catcher dropped one of his third strikes, thus enabling him to move on to strikeout victim #27.  One guy managed to make contact, and I’m not certain how many walked…so the accomplishment is a

little misleading.  On top of that, this English teacher is a little troubled by a critical misspelling…Necciai’s hapless opponents were the Welch Miners (of Welch, West Virginia) and not the Welsh Miners (who, for all I know, could be from Aberystwyth).  Still, it served as an excellent welcome to the stadium. It was nice to walk the lengthy trip from parking lot to stadium and be greeted by a sense of local baseball history.

DeVault Stadium is a part of a high-school complex (signs boast that Virginia High School plays there) in the midst of a gorgeous valley.  It does very nicely in the “regional feel” department because, literally everywhere I looked, there was something appropriate to the area.  In addition to the plaque, I could look past the outfield fence.  Past left field?  A valley, lined with trees on either side.  Check.  Past right field? 

A couple of small-towny houses.  Check.  Where am I?  Not far from the mountains in the small-town South.

Bristol manages to be small-town in its presentation as well as its location.  As best as I could tell, it was staffed entirely by local retirees–with few exceptions, I didn’t encounter anybody under 65.  I’ve got nearly 30 years left, but maybe I can talk my wife into retiring there.  Bristol looked beautiful, probably is not terribly expensive, and we could spend the summers of our golden years chilling out at a lovely ballpark. My favorite of the senior citizens was the PA guy. He was so laid-back it was hilarious. As kids got on the field to do the game-opening “find your shoe that we’ve stolen” game, for instance, he didn’t go overboard with the high-pitched, high-volume, the-Hindenburg-is-crashing excitement that so many PA guys are going with. Heck, he barely said anything…something like: “All right. We’re about to do the shoe race…and here it is.” Loved the guy.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the ballpark is the tree-lined hill behind the foul lines.  It

provides a place for people to sit back and watch the game and for kids to play ball.  It creates a buffer zone between the ballpark and the surrounding neighborhood, which I appreciate.  There are even trees that obscure the ballpark in a few places, which somehow adds to the charm.

It was here that I further developed a rule for minor-league ballparks.  Many minor league ballparks have grassy hills from which kids can watch the game.  Seeing what happens on the grassy hills is a good indication of how seriously a ballpark takes its baseball.  As best as I can tell, there are three levels.  The l

owest level is a place where kids are pounding the snot out of each other in a Lord of the Flies-style melee for nine innings.  That means that the baseball is incidental, probably both to spectators and management.  The next level up is a place where kids don’t pay attention to the game because they’re playing ball…playing catch, or, in the case of these kids at Bristol, taking grounders off of a wall.  The next level features kids predominantly watching the game, although occasionally burning off steam.  That’s an impressive level and worth striving for.  But at Bristol, I had to invent a new level, because I looked over at one point and found an empty hill.  The kids were all in the seats watching the game with their families.  That’s an extraordinary achievement.  Check out this rule the next time you are at a ballpark with grassy hills.

Further adding to Bristol’s charm: 

the least expensive concessions I have ever encountered at a ballpark, with all proceeds going to Virginia High School.

DeVault Stadium also marked the the first time that I encountered visiting play-by-play guys (or at least I think that’s what they were) at the ballpark.  I guess that the press box doesn’t offer too much space, because sitting in the top corner of the first-base bleachers were two guys wearing the colors of the visiting Johnson City Cardinals.   The play-by-play and color were provided by the same guy, and he didn’t seem to want to talk much.  It looks like the other guy is doing a video recording of the game: maybe he wants to critique his performance.  Perhaps he’s not the official radio guy for the Cardinals–maybe this is just what he does for fun, much like I would turn down the volume and do play-by-play in my basement as a child.  Still, it was bizarre to say the least.

Other things we noticed about the ballpark:  They put a radar gun right out

in the middle of the stands behind home plate.  Although they have a scoreboard display of the speed of the pitch, it’s pretty cool to be able to walk up to the actual gun.

These are the kinds of touches that made this such a marvelous stadium.  It just felt right.

Two bizarre incidents stand out on this night.  Michelle and I spotted a young woman who clearly was interested in hooking up with one (or more) Johnson City Cardinals.  She wound up hanging out in the stands by the couple of Cardinals who were to chart pitches. 

Needless to say, they were not at all interested in their job.  In fact, I actually saw one of them give a sustained caress to her butt.  She didn’t even recoil a little bit.  Hel-LO, kiddoes!  There are people behind that behind!  Get a room!  Looks like somebody doesn’t have enough interest in the craft of pitching to last.

The stud of the night was home plate umpire Tommy Sewell.  In the eighth inning, a foul ball smashed off of the dirt and into his left hand.  I’m 99% sure it broke his pinkie finger…and yet he finished the game, holding his hand awkwardly on his knee behind home plate.  I didn’t see him take so much as an aspirin.  Tommy–way to be, dude.

Also, In the midst of the night, Yolonda, the least baseball-crazy of the four of us taking this intense trip, seemed to have something click.  Even though we were sitting on highly uncomfortable cinderblocks (if I go back, I sit on the lawn instead), she got the point of these travels we were in the midst of.  “I can see the appeal of this,” she said, looking over the diamond at a Virginia sunset.

I’ll try to make it back to Bristol if I ever get a chance.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 8.5/10
Very good here.  Geographically gorgeous.

Charm:  5/5
As good as it gets.

Spectacle:  3.5/5
Quietly effective.  I’m sort of torn here, since I like a few promotions at my low-level minors, but here, the quietness added to the charm.

Team mascot/name:  2.5/5
No mascot–it’d have been nice to have one, but then again, I liked the laid-backness of living without one.  The name “Sox” fits in with the Appalachian League naming conventions, sort of.  (Why not “White Sox”?)

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Architecturally, it ain’t much, but oh those trees and that valley.  Flat-out beautiful.

Pavilion area:  5/5

Scoreability:  1/5
Many, many, many missed decisions.

Fans:  4/5

Intangibles:  5/5
A great little ballpark in a great little town.  I’ll do all I can to get back.

TOTAL:  39/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Henderson Lugo starts the 5-hit shutout…but only lasts four innings.  Oscar Lara finishes it with three innings of relief and gets the win.

(Written August 2006.)

Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, South Carolina

Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, SOUTH CAROLINA

Number of states:  14
States to go:  36

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 22, 2006 (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons 4, Charlotte Knights 3, 12 innings; game suspended at 3-3 after 10 innings and finished on July 23 without me)

(Click on any image to see a lager version.)

After a day hiking to Ellicott Rock (the place where Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina meet), we got to Knights Stadium a little late…the gorgeous roads through

the western Carolinas take a little longer to drive across than we had anticipated.  This led to an unprecedented event in my ballpark history:  unexpected free parking.  We were in a long, long line to get into the parking lot, worrying about whether we’d make the first pitch.  We got out a wallet to pay for parking, but when we got to the edge of the parking lot, they simply waved us in.  They passed up on hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars to make sure that the lion’s share of the huge Fireworks Night crowd could get in on time.  I appreciate that.

We approached the stadium as they sang the National Anthem.  It was a hot night with a foreboding storm approaching.  Outside the ballpark–very active on this fireworks night–I encountered what had to be a lost, disoriented, and terribly hot Santa Claus.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wearing shorts before, with the possible exception of the claymation Santa reclining and relaxing in Peter Cottontail. Michelle and I made it to our seats just as the first batter, Michael Bourn, was retired.

I’m afraid the ballpark had very little special about it.  While I liked the grassy areas down the foul lines, on the whole, Charlotte felt too big to be charming,

but too small to be expansively impressive.  It was a bizarre tweener with an identity crisis.  Where many AAA ballparks try to be like small major-league ballparks–which is its own problem sometimes–Charlotte seemed to go a different direction and instead tried to be a large minor-league ballpark, at least physically.  The two decks looked like something I’d see at a small park, only bigger.  On the other hand, the ballpark took some of my least-favorite aspects of big-time parks and incorporated them.

Let me take one example of this and make it as clear as I possibly can, hoping that ballparks everywhere heed me:  There is absolutely no reason, ever, anywhere, for any ballpark to have a carousel.  I’m fine with kids running around and jumping, and I can even live with the climbing wall.  But a carousel?  Ridiculous.  The idea of taking kids to a ballgame is to get them to like baseball, not to avoid it.  From now on, if I see a carousel in a ballpark, the ballpark will be penalized.  Severely.

Scoring was difficult at Knights Stadium as well.  They couldn’t keep track of who was at bat very well, and were completely absent on a key wild pitch/passed ball decision.  I find that these are the toughest

plays to score from the stands, but the most frequently ignored by scoreboard people, which is too bad.  Beyond that, however, the Knights did a decent job putting on a show.  Nothing special–not old-school reserved, not new-school fun–just serviceable.

What I’ll remember most from this night is wondering if we’d get a game in on time.  A big storm was building up to our north and west, and we could see lightning off on the horizon past left field.  Was the storm passing us to the north, or was it eventually going to nail us?  The game chugged along, and in spite of the light show, it was rain free.  But when Charlotte tied the game in the bottom of the eighth, and extra innings became imminent, well, it became unlikely we’d get to see the game end.  The umpires held out through some impressive rain in the bottom of the 10th as the Knights got two on with one out…but a double-play ended the inning,

and the tarp came out immediately.  We didn’t kid ourselves by trying to wait…the big storm was going to end baseball that night.

Much to my surprise, the Knights went ahead and had the fireworks show anyway while everyone ran desperately through the downpour to their cars.  I wish I were a more talented photographer, because we were treated to a display of fireworks going off above lightning strikes…very impressive indeed.  Also impressive was how well my wife drove through the thunderstorm to the hotel.

The Knights are building a new downtown ballpark to replace Knights Stadium, and this is a case where one is warranted.  The location will be better, and the personality-free Knights Stadium will likely not be missed by any fans.  But I’m thankful I got there…it enabled me to cross South Carolina off my list with only a very short jaunt across the border.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  5/10
Were it not for the thunderstorm, this score would be even lower–but truthfully, there was no way of telling where we were.

Charm:  3/5
Not much, but not totally impaired here either.

Spectacle:  3/5
A fair number of promotions–perhaps too many for AAA.  But the fireworks in front of the lightning stay in my mind as a heck of a spectacle.

Team mascot/name:  2/5

Homer.  Dumb name.  And what’s up with a dragon representing the Knights?  Don’t knights slay dragons?

Aesthetics:  3.5/5
Some trees.  Again, the score is aided by the fireworks-with-lightning.

Pavilion area:  2/5
Nothing doing.  It’s mostly cement, and where it isn’t cement, they’ve put in a carousel.  Ick.

Scoreability:  2/5

Fans:  4/5
I liked the huge crowd, their enthusiasm, and the way they stuck around, even though many of them ran for cover at the first tiny sprinkle. Come on, Knights fans…in Seattle, we picnic in sprinkles.

Intangibles:  2/5
The ballpark, on the whole, did nothing for me.

TOTAL:  26.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre took a 3-0 lead on a Josh Kroeger triple, but could not hold onto the lead.  They win in the 12th on a Brennan King home run…but by then, I’m most of the way to Bristol.

Ruben Rivera homers for Charlotte.

(Written August 2006.)