Tag Archives: double a

Dickey-Stephens Park, Little Rock, Arkansas

Dickey-Stephens Park, Little Rock, ARKANSAS

Number of states: 27
States to go: 23

Number of games: 2
First game:  April 4, 2008 (Midland RockHounds 3, Arkansas Travelers 2, 10 innings)
Most recent game: April 5, 2008 (Midland RockHounds 2, Arkansas Travelers 1)

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

It was the best of parks, it was the worst of parks.  Michelle and I were both tremendous fans of Dickey-Stephens Park

pretty quickly.  Its location on the river and views of downtown (quite lovely…trust me, sit on the third-base side!) and even of the state capitol building (if you stand on the walkway in left-center field, crane your neck just so, and look out past the right-field foul pole), make for a lovely aesthetic experience.  And the Travelers Baseball Museum on site is precisely my favorite kind of thing to see.  Celebrations of Arkansas-area players and–be still my heart!–umpires abound.  Did you know that Bill Valentine umpired the 1965 All-Star Game?  Did you know that two recent Travelers who have pitched no-hitters–Jose Jimenez and Bud Smith–each went on to pitch a no-hitter as a rookie?  And that Bud Smith did it in spite of an incredibly unfortunate anagram for his name?  I love locally-oriented baseball museums.  I wish they hadn’t charged me a buck to get in there, especially since it’s less a museum and more a walk-in closet filled with memorabilia, but I still really enjoyed it.  The ballpark did very nicely in exuding Arkansas to me, and since my wife and I were fans of Little Rock as a city (recommended:

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a burger and shake at the Purple Cow), we liked that feeling.

In addition to the museum, there were a couple of other nice touches to the place.  The ballpark hasn’t (yet) pimped out its name to the highest bidder; indeed, it’s named after two sets of brothers who were instrumental in Arkansas baseball’s past.  (The “Dickeys” are baseball playing brother Skeeter and Hall-of-Famer Bill.)  As one approaches the ballpark, lampposts are festooned with shots of the Dickeys and the Stephenses from back in the day.  That’s wonderful.  Isn’t is sad that it’s now considered quaint and retro to have a stadium named after an owner?  But keep it.  The name might be verbose, but I like it. Additionally, the ballpark features a nice perk for its high-paying customers and groups who have the barbeque porch down the right-field line.  As people

eat there before the ballgame, they are positioned in a spot that the players walk through between the clubhouse and the field.  As such, all of the players and coaches on both teams have to walk through the barbeque area both before and after the game.  I can see where it would be a pain for players to have to walk through fans twice a day (as they do at High Desert), especially at the double-A level where legitimate rising stars might fight through decent-sized crowds.  So while I don’t usually like segregation by economic status at ballparks, I’m okay with groups having to pay for a shot at an autograph.  And I especially like the way that the players stood for what seemed to be a very long time signing.  (In the nearby photo, that’s Midland’s Tommy Everidge and an unidentified Traveler.)

But once the game got started, I’m afraid Dickey-Stephens Park had too many flaws in the way it presented the game to be ignored.  I’m always a fan of getting loads of information in my programs, etc.  At Dickey-Stephens Park, I learned that it’s far better to have no information than to have inaccurate information.  The scoreboard, the PA announcer (who had an awesome voice, by the way), and the uniform numbers never seemed to agree on who was at the plate.  Of course, if there were a pinch-hitter or other change, the PA guy took his sweet time letting us know, if he did at all.  There were ballplayers on the field who were not in the program, which, while acceptable on opening night, is not at all OK on the second and third nights in the program inserts, since they are printed out that day.  Net result:

in our efforts to score the games, Michelle and I came up very, very wanting in terms of good information.  They tried to keep track of players’ stats on the scoreboard, but there were times I simply didn’t know what they were talking about.  Plus, they sure did look like they were dropping an F-bomb at me, perhaps because I was looking at the scoreboard for accurate information:   Now, seriously, did they really have to use such language towards us?

Promotions were at times distracting.  I’m not a huge fan of the guy walking around the stadium filming people going batty for the scoreboard video screen…and I’m especially not a fan of his when he stands in front of me for several pitches, blocking my view.  I’m not anti-promotion–hey, I had the lucky program and won an Outback Bloomin’ Onion!–but I am anti-distraction, so this dude needed to sit down.

In any event, this was a beautiful ballpark in a nice city, but there was enough negative–poor presentation, icky brown grass, and a cameraman blocking my view–that it won’t get a very high score.  Still, in spite of that, it’s well worth a visit.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
Fantastic.  The museum, coupled with the river and the downtown skyline, make for an unquestionably Arkansan experience.

Charm:  4/5
Pretty nice here.

Spectacle:  3/5
I like winning contests, but I don’t like sitting behind a standing camera guy for several pitches.

Team mascot/name:  1.5/5

Here I am with that something-or-other…a horse?  a moose?  a whatever?  His name is simply an abomination to all that is holy…Shelly.  Please note the Shell Oil logo under his left elbow.  That’s right:  the Travelers have pimped out the name of their mascot to big oil.  Ick.  This makes me want to buy a hybrid even more.

Aesthetics:  5/5
A gorgeous place.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
Very nice.  360-degree walk leads to even better views of the river, etc.

Scoreability:  0/5
The scoreboard and PA actually led to more confusion than clarity.  If I can score a game easier without the ballpark’s “help” than with it, that’s a pretty severe repudiation of a ballpark’s ability to do what a ballpark ought to be doing.

Fans:  3/5

Intangibles:  2.5/5
What can I say?  There were parts I loved and parts I really, really didn’t love.

TOTAL:  32.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Myron Leslie hits a game-winning solo shot in the 10th for Midland.

Huge pitching in the second game.  Andrew Bailey pitchers 6 innings of 2-hit ball for the win for Midland.

(Written April 2008.)

Hammons Field, Springfield, Missouri

Hammons Field, Springfield, MISSOURI

Number of states: 26
States to go: 24

Number of games:  1
First game:  April 3, 2008 (Frisco RoughRiders 6, Springfield Cardinals 5)

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

I’d never been to the Ozarks before when I arrived for the 2008 Spring Break Trip. 

Michelle and I spent the night in Branson–no shows, since we got in too late, but long enough to get the sense that we brought the average age of the town down by about a decade.  We tooled around mountains and caves for a few days before doing Opening Day 2008 at Hammons Field.  Results were decidedly mixed.

First of all, as you can probably tell, the place is physically quite lovely.  It’s faced in the wrong direction–downtown is behind home

plate–but there’s nice flat prairie beyond the outfield and a Budweiser sign, which means that Hammons Field does well on the regional feel test.  They rolled out the red carpet to start out the year, putting each player in a red pickup truck and driving them around the parking lot of a grand beginning.  The ballpark is new, and Springfield only recently regained affiliated ball, so it’s pretty clear that they’re proud of their ballclub.

But in the end, there were too many problems to be ignored.  Most jarringly, where were all the fans?  Forecasts were grim–I’m surprised that they got the game in, actually–but the rain did hold off, and it was Opening Night, for goodness sake.  Second, when it did rain (for about two minutes in the third inning), a good chunk of people took off, and many others put up umbrellas.  It’s rude to put up umbrellas (there are people behind you, dammit), and

you can wait through the first few raindrops, can’t you?  Michelle and I did what they all should have done–waited a second, then found a dry seat in the back row, where we stayed through the rest of the (dry) night.

Second, we were pretty well astonished by the prices for double-A ball.  (Indeed, these prices might explain why so few people had shown up.)  Tickets were nearly twice as expensive as comparable ones cost us the following night in Little Rock, and

when the woman told me that a 22-ounce bottle of Sprite would cost me four bucks (I declined), I got the sense that the Cardinals thought that “big-time” meant nothing more than “really, really expensive.”  Heck, if memory serves, at Safeco Field I can get an entire vat of soda for about five bucks.  Why bleed your ticketholders dry, particularly during a recession?

Third, the place just didn’t celebrate baseball enough.  In the obligatory place-where-kids-can-run-around-and-burn-off-steam section, there was a basketball hoop and a pop-a-shot.  Nothing baseball related!  To be fair, when I think of basketball, I do think of Springfield.  The bad news is, I think of Springfield, Massachusetts.  I’m not sure why Hammons Field doesn’t have any baseball-related fun for the kids, but they don’t and it felt weird.

Finally, there was the strangeness of Team Louie.  A group of four nubile young women wore windbreakers that said “Team Louie” on the back.  I figured they’d be Louie the Mascot’s handlers, running around

with him and helping kids get to see him.  That didn’t happen, and so I was baffled as to the women’s purpose other than to be hot and young.  A quick internet search reveals that “a brief choreographed dance” is part of the tryout for team Louie.  So, alas, the women were glorified cheerleaders.  I don’t want my baseball teams to have cheerleaders.  They take away from the baseball.

There are certainly a few positives to the place.  The Cardinals have obviously succeeded in capturing the fans of this part of the state from the Royals–at least judging by the immense majority of spectators wearing red on this night.  There is a good, long walk that one can take almost all the way around the stadium–way out beyond the scoreboard and onto a grassy hill invisible

from the field where I encountered a good number of junior-high kids goosing each other.  The Cardinals were conscientious about scoring decisions on the scoreboard.  And the gorgeous clouds in a gigantic sky might be the number one memory I carry with me from this ballpark, as well as watching the fireworks they set off (clearly to celebrate Michelle’s birthday).

So, on the whole, it was a night at the ballpark, and it’s almost impossible for that night to be a bad one.  But when all was said and done, this gorgeous place left me wanting a little more.  Springfield is a little bit out of the way, so I don’t see myself returning any time soon, but I do hope they make Hammons Field into a baseball experience more worthy of the physical beauty of the ballpark.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  7/10
Budweiser, prairie, and Cardinal red.  The ballpark does fine here, although I’d like to see more about southwestern Missouri and less about St. Louis.

Charm:  2/5
Too corporate and expensive to be truly charming.

Spectacle:  3/5
OK for double-A level–nothing interfered–but what’s up with Team Louie?

Team mascot/name:  3.5/5


Louie on top, and Fetch, Louie’s pet dog, on the bottom.  I’m fine with Louie, but Fetch is a pretty transparent promotion aimed at the pre-potty-trained crowd.

Aesthetics:  3.5/5
Not bad, but the view is a little dull.

Pavilion area:  4/5
Would have been a five were it not for the basketball.

Scoreability:  4.5/5
I appreciate how carefully they put up decisions.

Fans:  2.5/5
Not enough of them.

Intangibles:  2.5/5
I’m totally ambivalent about this place, which, while pretty, left me feeling kind of flat.

TOTAL:  32.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Matt Harrison–who the Rangers got in the offseason Mark Teixeira trade–pitches very well, striking out six in 5 2/3 innings of 4-hit, 1-run ball for Frisco.

Chris Davis has three hits for Frisco. Diminutive Shane Robinson collects three for Springfield.

(Written April 2008.)

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton, New Jersey

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton NEW JERSEY

Number of states: 23
States to go:  27

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 16, 2007 (Trenton Thunder 8, Portland SeaDogs 4)

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

It is indeed a challenge, I learned back in August of 2007, to make it from the Philadelphia Airport to the Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark for a game…but it is, indeed, possible.  Because the 2007 baseball trip was the

first in my history that involved no driving (in an effort to be both cheap and green), I dashed from my flight to my SEPTA train in perhaps record time.  Since I had no luggage to check, I made it onto a train that left only ten minutes after my flight arrived.  And since I wanted to be totally sure that I could legally hop onto the train downtown (for a transfer to Trenton), I even asked the man who was working on the ticket machine…could I buy a ticket on board?  Yes, he told me.  Well, nobody asked me for money or a ticket or proof I belonged there or absolutely anything else all the way to Walnut Street, where I detrained, feeling lucky and a little bit dirty.  If anybody from SEPTA happens to read this, I owe you seven bucks or whatever it was.  I wasn’t trying to dodge a fare (as should be noted by the way I duly paid my way from downtown Philly to Trenton).  I asked if I could pay on the train, got on, and then nobody asked me for a cent.  Please do not prosecute me.

The fine folks who work with the Trenton Thunder will work with you if you

happen to be crashing on their park directly from the airport, I learned.  The Thunder were nothing but nice to me.  I phoned ahead to ask them if I could keep my bag somewhere during the ballgame and pick it up afterwards…I had no time to get to my hotel prior to the game, as I simply took a cab from the train station to the ballpark.  I therefore got to meet several of the fine folks from the Thunder, who didn’t seem to mind when I had to unpack a lot of my suitcase to get to my hat, scorecard, and pencils (and thus unwittingly let some of the fine folks of south Jersey see a few pairs of socks and underwear).  Indeed, after the game, they were nice enough to call me a cab, and when that cab never showed up (the dispatcher seemed to have far more important social engagements than to help me), a worker told me that the nice hotel I had treated myself to, the Trenton Courtyard by Marriott, would routinely send a van to the ballpark to pick up a guest.  Sold!  So, even if it weren’t a great ballpark, the Thunder won me over with fine customer service.

The good news for them is that they work at a splendid ballpark.  I was a big fan of Mercer County Waterfront Park almost from the moment of my arrival.  I was a little bit concerned when my cab took me through slum after slum until we were just a few feet from the ballpark, simply because I was worried that the ballpark would have a Comerica Park feel…a baseball theme-park fortress designed to get me to ignore the urban blight around me.  But it didn’t have that feel, I think because of the immediate surroundings.  The ballpark is right on the Delaware, so if George Washington were a lefty pull hitter with power, he could knock one into the river (although likely not over).  It’s possible to walk along a path between the ballpark and the river, and some of the crappier seats in the ballpark offer a view across the river of Morrisville, Pennsylvania.  And with some rowdy fans on hand (the Yankee-affiliated Thunder were facing the Red Sox-affiliated

Portland SeaDogs), there was no question where I was.  The ballpark therefore aces the important Is There Any Question Where You Are test.

Further, Trenton does well in celebrating Trenton baseball history rather than concentrating on Yankee baseball history. 

A look at their retired numbers tells the story–Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Clark share billing with Jackie Robinson.  The idea that a ballplayer best known as a Red Sox gets a nod with a retired number at a Yankee-affiliated ballpark tells me that they have their priorities straight–Trenton first, parent club second.  Additionally, I was struck by a female name, Nicole Sherry, on their list of former Thunders (what is one member of the Thunder called anyway?  A Clap?) who have made the show.  A quick Google search reveals that, after two years in Trenton, Sherry went on to become head groundskeeper for the Orioles.  It’s great that they give her some recognition.

I got one of my favorite seats on this night…in the very front row, in a seat that juts out from the main stands into foul territory.  I could look back into the Trenton dugout from my position, but more importantly, I got an opportunity to watch the work of the first-base umpire (whose name I can no longer locate) quite closely.  No close plays transpired at first this night, but I enjoyed seeing the difference between his regular “out” call and his sell “out” call.  On the former, he wouldn’t even vocalize at all, but on the latter, he sure would.  On top of that, I got to enjoy all of this while taking advantage of the significant ledge in front of me as a table:

A cheap cheese steak, a FREE scorecard, a gorgeous night on the river, and up-close double-A baseball.  What more can a guy ask for?

Hell of a nice night at Mercer County Waterfront Park.  If you’re in Philly or South Jersey, it’s worth the trip up.  It’s definitely one of the top ballparks I’ve been to on the East Coast.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
On top of everything else the ballpark had going for it–the river, the cheese steak, the retired numbers–they have concession stands shaped like commuter trains.  Nice!

Charm:  4/5
Quite nice.  Might have scored even higher were it not for the nearby urban blight.

Spectacle:  4/5
I know there were some promotions, but I can’t remember them.  That’s a good sign for quality double-A ball.

Team mascot/name:  2.5/5

Boomer with handler.  Nothing special about him or his name–I can’t even tell what he is.  Also, I’m not a fan of the name “Thunder.”

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite a nice place right there on the river.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
I especially like the places where the river is visible.  And I’m sort of counting the river walkway outside the stadium.  It’s my party and I’ll break my rules if I want.

Scoreability:  5/5

That’s right…FREE SCORECARDS.  And they say to PLEASE take one.  Then, they follow that up with conscientiously-placed scoring decisions, including the too-often-skipped wild pitch/passed ball calls.  One of the best ballparks I’ve ever been to in this regard.

Fans:  3.5/5

Intangibles:  4.5/5
It was a splendid night.  This is a ballpark I want to visit again.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Gabriel Lopez is the batting star for the Thunder, going 4-for-4 with 3 RBIs.

Andrew Pinckney homered for the SeaDogs.

(Written April 2008.)

Blair County Ballpark, Altoona, PA

Blair County Ballpark, Altoona, PENNSYLVANIA

Number of states: 21
States to go:  29

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 4, 2006 (Altoona Curve 6, New Britain Rock Cats 4)

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

A ballgame was welcome after a day of American Tragedy Tourism.  I spent much of the morning at the Shanksville memorial, which is a pilgrimage I believe

every American should take, and then at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, which was depressing in an entirely different way.  Blair County Ballpark was a refreshing change at the end of the day. I had heard many positive reviews of the ballpark–some call it the best in the United States–and while I prefer a few others to this one, it still was a tremendous place to see a ballgame, and well worth a detour if you’re anywhere nearby.

Blair County Ballpark sits adjacent to Lakemont Park, and a roller coaster sits past right field. This creates a carnival atmosphere to the ballpark. I could see this being a bad thing–after all, I loathe any ballpark with a carousel, and

I don’t like distractions during my baseball (though between innings, they’re fine).  But Blair County Ballpark manages to take its baseball seriously without taking itself seriously, which is fantastic.

First, the bit about not taking itself too seriously. There’s plenty of wackiness going on, and not just from the multiple mascots. The night I attended was a promotion to honor bowling in the Altoona area.  Kids could bowl out on the concourse, and the first pitch was bowled out (a bowling ball painted to look like a baseball).  There were

about 800 first pitches, including one from Mrs. Pennsylvania (I didn’t know they still did that), and loads of promotions between every inning.  Many of the distractions were quite hilarious–they recruited youngsters to walk along the tops of the dugouts between every inning with a card saying the inning number, like the ring card girls in boxing.  It was really very funny.

On the other hand, however, when it came time for baseball, the ballpark provided a great experience.  Unlike any other lower-level ballpark I’d been to, the ballpark gave in-progress scores of other minor-league games.

A true fan of the Eastern League could keep track of the divisional races on one of the two big video screens.  Speaking of which, I was impressed that a double-A ballpark would have two big scoreboard screens.  Some might feel it’s unnecessary, but I don’t see anything wrong with a small-town park having a gorgeous couple of scoreboards that they use properly.

And who can come up with a better use for a scoreboard than to put me on it?  Altoona’s radio pre-game show interview takes place on the concourse behind home plate, and is broadcast on the scoreboard.  That means that, if I place myself just right, I can see myself on the scoreboard, and if I bring a camera and are especially vain, I can photograph the back of my purple T-shirt as broadcast on the scoreboard, just over the guest’s right shoulder.

Memory of the game:  a foul ball glanced off of a three-year-old girl a few rows behind me.  Sweetly, the entire Curve dugout came out to look and see if the kid was okay.  I believe Steamer came to give her a Diesel Dawg stuffed animal.  People are really nice.

I had the pleasure of hanging out with a great guy for most of the ballgame.  As usual, the conversation began when we both scored the game.

He’s a history professor (emeritus? I don’t remember) at nearby Indiana University of Pennsylvania. We talked a bit about teaching, baseball, and travel. I teach history sometimes (although literature is more my game), and I recognize that a love of history plays into a love of baseball.  I had spent an entire day reflecting on the history of our nation, both distant and recent, and was in a place that respected its history–from the locally-appropriate name to the plaques honoring every former Altoona player to make the majors. Hearing about the area through the eyes of a historian was a nice touch–the icing on the cake. He was kind enough to give me a business card…which I, like a bonehead, have since lost.  Nonetheless, thanks for the conversation, Professor.

On the whole, it’s a unique ballpark experience in a lovely, while often overlooked, part of the country.  It lands very near the top of my list.  The atmosphere was the perfect blend of frivolous and baseball-respecting, and the people were quite fun.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 7.5/10
Pretty good, but not quite great.  I like the unique feel of watching a game in the shadow of a roller coaster, but I can’t say I could look around and now where I was.  Still, the team name and a sense of local baseball history is apparent.

Charm:  5/5
Nice.

Spectacle:  5/5
They get this right.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Steamer and me above, and Steamer’s pet dog Diesel Dawg below.  Steamer has his own email and his own pets.  Weird.  I like the idea of Steamer, but he looks derivative of the Phillie Phanatic, and the dog, while adorable, could be anywhere.

Aesthetics:  4/5
Not bad.

Pavilion area:  5/5
Loads of activity, all within view of the ballgame.

Scoreability:  4/5

Fans:  2.5/5
Surprisingly quiet.

Intangibles:  4/5
On the whole, a fine night, but maybe I had my expectations too high.

TOTAL:  40/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Brett Roneberg’s first-inning two-run triple gave the Curve the lead they never gave up.

Milver Reyes goes three-for-four.

(Written December 2006.)

Joe Davis Stadium, Huntsville, Alabama

Joe Davis Stadium, Huntsville, ALABAMA

Number of states:  still 32 (cancellation)
States to go:  18

Number of games: 0
July 28, 2006 (game cancelled–unplayable fields)

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

It had rained all morning the day we headed to Alabama, but cleared up significantly in the afternoon.  I went back and forth all day on whether there would be a baseball game played that night.  Even as I walked up to the stadium, I thought that maybe there was a shot at a game.  The lawns surrounding the stadium were dry to the touch.  But the game was cancelled–unplayable fields.  Which led my wife and I to speculate:  how could the field

be unplayable when the lawn outside was nearly dry?

Our conclusion:  in spite of the forecast, somebody must have forgotten to cover the infield before the rain began.  Not impressive.

The Stars were running a promotion that day where fans could get in free with a donation to a local food bank.  Workers for the food bank were outside taking canned food and exchanging it for tickets to future games.  These nice people said I could probably find someone to talk to at the ticket office.

I wanted to ask for two things, both of which were longshots.  First of all, I wanted to see if I could get a refund for our tickets.  In the past, efforts to do this had been a mixed bag, but I was deeply appreciative last year when the folks in San Diego offered refunds for their freak rainout for anyone from out-of-state.  I understand that baseball teams have to make a buck, but this seems a reasonable policy to me.  Secondly, I wanted to see if, after all of that effort to get there, somebody might let me into the ballpark to

take a few pictures.

There was nobody from the Stars anywhere to be found.  (They should take a customer service lesson from the food bank people, who were all over the place.)  That’s strike two–they forgot to cover their field, and now they’re nowhere to be found.

The next morning, while on the road to Nashville, I called the Stars and talked to a staffer.  While she stated that they couldn’t offer a rebate, even to an out-of-stater, I was disappointed but not surprised.  She offered me an exchange for merchandise at their store, but I had already left the state.  Oh well.

What followed was breathtaking.

ME:  “Do you work with any charities that my wife and I can donate our tickets to?”

HER:  “No.”

ME:  “You don’t work with any charities?”

HER:  “Not that I’m aware of.”

ME:  “Not Big Brothers/Big Sisters?  Not the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs?  Nobody?”

HER:  “Hold on…let me check.”  Long pause while she checks with co-workers.  She then returns.  “Sir?  We don’t work with any charities.”

Net result:  we decided to send the tickets to a Huntsville charity on our own.  And, as beautiful as I found the Huntsville area (gorgeous country there in northern Alabama), you can bet that I won’t go back for a Stars game.  When I return to officially cross Alabama off the list, I will do so in Birmingham, Montgomery, or Mobile.

(Written August 2006.)

Smokies Park, Kodak, Tennessee

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!).

BALLPARK SCORE:

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.

Charm:  5/5
Lovely architecture and nice surroundings.

Spectacle:  5/5
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).

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite lovely.

Pavilion area:  4/5

Scoreability:  4/5

Fans:  5/5

Intangibles:  5/5
Just tremendous.  A great VIP night with fellow baseball-lovers.  One of the best nights I’ve ever had at a ballpark.

TOTAL:  43.5/50

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.)

Drillers Stadium, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Drillers Stadium, Tulsa, OKLAHOMA

Number of states: 3
States to go: 47
Number of games: 1
First game: April 11, 2004 (Tulsa Drillers 1, Frisco RoughRiders 0)

I attended the ballgame in Tulsa on Easter Sunday.  I challenge anyone to find another person who visited Tulsa that holiday who was not drawn there by family or business.  The best part about the trip to (and from) Tulsa was avoiding the interstates.  Just like I had done

with my father nearly twelve years earlier on our trip to Arlington Stadium, I stayed entirely off interstates–on state and county roads, my preferred mode of travel.  And wow, was it fun.  Driving through the little towns along the way in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma…with every tiny town the host to one (or more) big churches, and every church packed to the gills with cars.  I must admit, that morning was a little I-love-the-USA moment for me.  Because of my recent ancestry, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Midwest, and looking at all of these packed churches even made my then-lapsed religious self feel like we are a country filled with a lot of decent, kind people.  Sure, if I’d taken the time to step into, say, the First Baptist Church in whatever tiny town and listen to the sermon, I may well have been blown out of my I-love-the-USA reverie by whatever makes-me-embarrassed-to-be-Christian garbage was emanating from the pulpit, but on this morning, I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.  I drove through the crops on a cool sunny Easter with Jesus Christ Superstar cranked up on my rented car’s CD player.  And I felt good.

I only wish the charm of my journey to Drillers Stadium was matched by the charm of Drillers Stadium.  The stadium fails on a few counts, but mainly this one:  it is absolutely impossible to tell what city you’re in while seated in the stadium.  Seriously.  Check out the photo here. 

Were it not for the Tulsa World advertisement, would you have any idea what city you were in?  What state?  What region?  There is literally no hint to that in the photo.  We had a Walgreens past left field, a Lowe’s past right, and a city utilities department behind a foul line.  There’s no skyline in view (although within city limits, the ballpark is several miles from downtown, in a suburban-feeling location near the state fairgrounds and an old horse track…cars park on the infield of the track).  There are no natural landmarks to see from the park (the nearly dried-up Arkansas river runs on the other side of town), and not even any local promotion that leaps out at me as “Only in Oklahoma” or even “Only in the Southwest.”  Look, I know we’re losing regional differences in this country, almost to the point where only weather, flora, fauna, and natural landscapes differentiate us.  I bet that, with literally every ballpark on this journey, I’ll be able to sip a Starbucks before the game and head to either a TGIFridays, Outback, Chili’s, or Applebee’s afterwards.  This bothers me, and the ballpark needs to combat that.  It’s not that I’m incapable of grading suburban parks highly, even with our nation’s similarities between suburban locations–Everett, for instance, is in a humdrum suburban location, but redeems itself by providing a huge grassy pavilion and a view of the mountains.  Tulsa does nothing, and as a result, is charmless.

Even the mascot, which I felt was promising at first, fell flat when measured for local color.  The blue-colored bull (with whom I asked an usher to photograph me…only to find when I got home that he didn’t properly take

the picture…what’s with my luck in choosing only complete incompetents to take my picture at ballparks?) is named Hornsby.  What an awesome name for a mascot.  I asked the mascot if it was after Rogers Hornsby.  He gave me a thumbs-up.  (He could only communicate with charades.)  I then asked the mascot if Rogers Hornsby was from Tulsa.  The mascot shrugged.  I really wanted Rogers Hornsby to be from Tulsa, or at least Oklahoman.  Didn’t turn out to be true…he just turned out to have played in the Texas League for a while.  Close to a great mascot idea, but no cigar.  There’s just a tiny little hint at Drillers’ history in the ballpark, and it’s misplaced…it’s on the inside of the seating bowl, right under the press box behind home plate.  There are nice paintings of past great Drillers, mostly Texas Ranger products of the ’80s and ’90s like Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez.  Surely Tulsa has a richer history than that.  Another near miss.

My ballpark experience was certainly not helped by an astonishing screw-up by Drillers ticket staff.  Not long after my arrival, a good-natured guy seated a few seats to my left asks me a strange question.  “Did they sell you that seat?”  The answer was yes…row two behind third base, right on the aisle.  “Really?  Man.  I bought that seat as a season ticket, and they’ve been selling it to people.”  Geez, I said, do you want me to move?  (Hardly a problem, due to the very low attendance on a chilly Easter Sunday afternoon.)  He said it wasn’t necessary.  Apparently the fine folks at the Drillers had taken his money for season tickets…and then went ahead and sold his seats to anyone who wanted them on Ticketmaster.  Worse, when he called to complain, their solution was this:  that, in the event there was another patron with his seat, he was to tell them to report to the ticket office for reseating.  Amazing.

It was here, in the fifth ballpark of the minor-league quest, that I became conflicted about the “Promotions” portion of my score. 

Tulsa did few, if any, between innings.  But it occurred to me that, at least with quality Double-A ball in front of me, I didn’t miss them.  Short-season A ball?  Okay, distract me a little between innings (but never during the game).  So I will take care to remember that only distracting promotions are to be penalized from now on.

So, in the end, the nice people of Oklahoma were the best part of this ballpark.  Although I can’t say I had a rip-roaring conversation with any of them, one did let me stay in his season-ticket seat without sending me to the ticket office as he’d inexplicably been asked to do.  Good thing, too…being in the second row of a quiet, nearly-empty ballpark like this enabled me to hear Tulsa manager Tom Runnells argue a safe call at third base.  (He was actually quite polite in his disagreement…no foul language or personal attacks.)   Another let me take a photo of her with rabbit ears on her head.  And this high-school-aged couple were terribly cute and clearly quite affectionate for each other without any groping or tonsil hockey…it was very sweet to watch.  So it was certainly a nice Easter at the ballpark, but I’m afraid the ballpark left an awful lot to be desired.

I know there’s a lot of Tulsa/Oklahoma City rivalry, but if ever I’m back in Oklahoma, I’ll look forward to visiting the ballpark in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown.  It certainly looks to be superior to Drillers Stadium.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  2/10
Quite simply none.  The Walgreens in left is hardly Fenway’s Citgo sign.  The Lowe’s Hardware in right could be any Lowe’s.  Flat Oklahoma offers no real views from the seating bowl.  Drop me in the ballpark and cover up any text that says “Tulsa,” and I would have no Godly idea where I was.  Only the few photos of ex-Drillers save this score.

Charm:  1/5
Simply none.  Between the utilities plant and the former horse track…nothing to show any personality.  I’m writing this two weeks after my visit, and I barely remember anything about it.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
Nicely and quietly integrated promotions…both quiet and effective.  Strangest promotion…the Kansas City Royals, neither the parent club of the Drillers nor at all close to Tulsa, advertised heavily, including giving away tickets to home Royals games.

Team mascot/name:  4.5/5
As I said, I have minor quibbles with the name “Hornsby,” but the name “Drillers” may be one of the best nicknames in the minors.  Perfectly locally appropriate, unique, and sort of intimidating. The usher screwed up my picture of Hornsby, so instead, I will reproduce this photo of this innocent, completely non-stereotypical mascot from a local Mexican restaurant.


Aesthetics:  1/5
Neither the ballpark nor its surroundings do anything for me.

Pavilion area:  3/5
Not bad.  Good lineups, but not a lot of character.

Scoreability:  5/5
Excellent job by the scoreboard guy communicating a tricky passed ball/wild pitch ruling on a botched intentional walk.

Fans:  3.5/5
Nice people, but not enough of them.

Intangibles:  3/5
Maybe I was just tired from the drive, but there just was nothing that seemed to impress me on this day.  The game was pretty good, though, which helps.

TOTAL:  26.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A pitchers’ duel between Tulsa (the Rockies’ affiliate…the Rockies basically only draft pitchers because they figure no decent free agent will willingly pitch for them) and Frisco (the Rangers affiliate, who had drafted a lot of pitching lately due to a complete lack of it with the big club).  Justin Hampsen and Kameron Loe, the starters, put a lot of zeroes on the board.

RoughRiders reliever Frank Francisco (that’s Spanish for Frank Frank) gives up the only run of the game in one of the most bizarre fashions I’ve ever seen.  Bottom of the eighth.  He walks the Drillers’ Tony Miller, who steals second.  He strikes out Jayson Nix, then intentionally walks Shawn Garnett.  But catcher Josh McKinley lets the ball get by him on the first pitch of the intentional walk.  Passed ball.  First screwed up intentional walk I’ve ever seen at any level, in person or on TV.  So, they finish the walk.  First and third, one out…and Francisco balks in what turns out to be the winning run.  Weird.  Minor league baseball…catch it!

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Wichita, Kansas’ ballp

wichitaexterior

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Wichita, KANSAS

Number of states: 3
States to go:  47
Number of games: 1
First and last game: April 10, 2004 (Arkansas Travelers 10, Wichita Wranglers 0)

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is no longer used for the affiliated minors as of the 2008 season.

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

Spring Break 2004.  I set out for my spring break, leaving chilly, rainy Seattle for warmer climes–Wichita, Tulsa, Arlington, and Houston.  Why did I have to pick a week when Seattle had beautiful, record-setting temperatures and a mass of Northern air settled over Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas?  The first Saturday night of the baseball season in Wichita was colder than the proverbial witch’s tit (and, I am sure, colder than a literal witch’s tit…not that I have any experience.  With witches.)  Thank goodness for the $23 K-Mart jacket I secured earlier that day.  In any event, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was an excellent Texas League ballpark that nobody in Wichita seems to have found.

For starters, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has a rich sense of baseball history.  Its pavilion makes a special point to commemorate Wichita baseball history, most notably the National Baseball Congress

tournaments held there through the years…basically the semipro baseball championship.  There are plaques all the way around the ballpark talking about folks from Whitey Herzog to Mark McGwire.  A fun walk!  I must admit, I enjoyed that a good deal, but I felt it was sort of cheating.  I mean, it’s just a tournament they host…not really related to Wichita minor league history.  But when I learned that Mr. Dumont was responsible for the tournament, I relaxed my concerns a bit.  After all, it was he and Mr. Lawrence, the mayor of Wichita, who decided to build the stadium.  Hence, that pesky hyphen in “Lawrence-Dumont Stadium”:  it’s named after two guys, not one.

But the walk around the stadium also teaches us about Wichita’s minor league past.  Included in this was a list of all of the teams that have played minor league ball in Wichita. On that list, I was delighted to find the infamous Wichita Jobbers. 

Now maybe I’ve watched a few too many episodes of Beavis and Butthead, but I couldn’t stop snickering about that.  Somewhere, after squandering a series of late-inning leads, an article must have been written under the headline “Jobbers Blow Another.”  So I’m walking around enjoying a juvenile snicker (and thinking that, as bad a nickname as “Jobbers” is, it’s actually better than “Jabbers” or the feminine “Witches”) when I come upon a plaque commemorating the 1910 Jobbers, considered one of the best minor league ballclubs in history.  And what picture did they put next to it?  God as my witness, they put it next to popular former Wichita Aero and major league stalwart Pete LaCock.

Perhaps most impressive was the story–I hope it’s true–that Joe Carter hit a home run during an NBC tournament that hit the Metropolitan Baptist Church on one bounce.  The church is nearly 900 feet away.  This picture probably doesn’t do it justice, but still, check out this view of the church from home plate.  The church is the red brick building with the white steeple beyond the left field wall.


On the whole, this was an excellent night of baseball. The staff with the Wranglers have done a fine job of putting together solid entertainment.  They ran wacky ads starring their young staff (a send-up of The Apprentice, for instance).  There were frequent promotions, but not so frequent as to take away from the baseball.  The ballpark has a fine location on the Arkansas river–there’s a view of downtown right past the outfield fence.  And Double-A baseball is great entertainment in and of itself.  Still, only 155,547 showed up to watch the Wranglers in Wichita in 2003…barely 2,000 per game, only about a quarter of the league leaders and behind even Midland, which is a far smaller city than Wichita.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  It’s not because they have a less-than-good ballpark…Lawrence-Dumont is a great place.  It’s not because it’s a poorly-run night of baseball…it was excellent.  It’s not because it’s inconveniently located…it’s right in the heart of town.  There’s no excuse, Wichita.  Get out to your wonderful ballpark.  You’ll have at least as good a time as I did.

Okay, now that I’ve said that, let me cut the Wichita folk some slack…the weather certainly was the lion’s share of the reason that attendance was so abysmally

low the night I was there (announced as 528, but that was a laughably high number…I put attendance at 130.  That’s right, I actually counted…I figure that the people who were in the bathroom are counterbalanced by ushers I mistakenly included in my count.)  It’s funny who you see among the most die-hard fans who would show up on a 40-something degree night in April with horrendous winds.  I noticed a good number of women sitting alone and wondered why.  Of course!  Wives and girlfriends.  And there were a good number of scouts with radar guns.  Also, several close relatives.  Notable among the latter were the friendly brother- and sister-in-law of a backup catcher I chatted with throughout the game…I had a long conversation with their four-year-old son.  It’s awesome how four-year-olds start conversations.  His starter?  “I have the same name as my grandpa.  His name is James…and my name is James!”  And later:  “I live out in the country.”  Cool kid!  He’d get along with my nephew, but as his mother said, “1500 miles is an awfully tough play date.”  I like the Midwest.  Friendly people.  Women with ponytails and minimal makeup.  People who assume you’re a good guy and talk to you.

And I like Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which more Kansans should get out to see, especially on a night where they can’t see their breath.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9.5/10
The celebration of Kansas baseball in the museum-like pavilion is fantastic.  Add to that a location on the Arkansas river, a view of downtown Wichita, and a few friendly Kansans, and there’s not a doubt as to where you are.

Charm:  2.5/5
There’s a contagious love of baseball here.  But ICK!!!  The astroturf infield with the grass outfield?  WHY????  Back when Wichita fed the Astros, it made sense.  But now they feed Kansas City, who has a grass infield.  It’s just an eyesore now.  Lose it.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
Didn’t get in the way…but I didn’t see much of the mascots.

Team mascot/name:  5/5


Didn’t see much of Wilbur–the best I can do for a picture is the distorted shot at left. I think the cold night kept him in.  I did take a shot with the Garbage Goblin, however, on the right.  Please note that a gust of wind has gone up my K-mart jacket…that’s not my belly under there, it’s mostly cold Wichita air.  I never saw Wilbur and the Garbage Goblin together, which strongly leads me to suspect they’re the same guy. “Wranglers” is a completely appropriate name for Wichita, and the horse totally appropriate as a mascot…although, upon reflection, aren’t horses the natural adversaries of wranglers?

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite nice, with a view of downtown and the river.

Pavilion area:  5/5
A wonderful walk through Wichita baseball history that starts at home plate and goes all the way back to center field.  Lots of good stories.  The best part of the ballpark.

Scoreability:  4/5
No major issues here, but no major plusses.

Fans:  1/5
Nice people, but far too few of them.

Intangibles:  4/5
In spite of the weather, the sparse crowd, and the incredibly lousy game, I got a great feeling from this place

TOTAL:  41/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A god-awful game in hellish cold.  Arkansas pounds out 19 singles and a double.  The worst part was that 5 of the runs were in the 9th inning, just as all of us were ready to head home.  If I’d had a date with me who wanted to take off, I would have probably demurred…and that is saying something.

3 RBIs for Traveler Jason Aspito.

Tim Bittner pitched 6 innings of 4-hit ball for the win, with Cam Esslinger and Dan Mozingo closing out the 4-hit shutout.

The Arkansas Travelers’ road uniforms read “Little Rock.”  Their jackets read “Angels.”  The Arkansas Travelers are neither Arkansas nor Travelers.  Discuss.