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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 and last 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)

(Knights Stadium was no longer used for baseball as of 2014, and was demolished in 2015.)
(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.)

Mile High Stadium

photodraw240

From “Ballparks of Baseball” website.  Used by permission.

Mile High Stadium, Denver, CO

Number of minor league games:  A dozen or so (no stats or results survive–just a few memories)
First minor league game:  Probably late summer 1978 (Denver Bears 8, Wichita Aeroes 5)
Last minor league game:  Probably August 1991 (Denver Zephyrs vs. Iowa Cubs)

Number of Major League Games:  4
First Major League Game:  June 5, 1994 (Pirates 4, Rockies 3)
Last Major League Game:  June 28, 1994 (Padres 11, Rockies 3, 11 innings, 2nd game of doubleheader)

Mile High Stadium was demolished in 1999.

It has been destroyed along with so many other multipurpose stadiums, but I’d have to say Mile High Stadium is probably the best multipurpose stadium I’ve ever seen.  It’s because of those awesome movable East Stands, which actually glided on water to move from a cozy football position to a more distant baseball position.  And for a time, after Coors Field opened, there were a few people bemoaning the loss of Mile High, which averaged more in attendance than Coors could seat.  But those third-deck seats in Mile High were really, really up there–quite far away, especially if you were down the lines.  And those seats in center field…my, but they were a million miles away (although I liked that they sold them for a buck).  So Coors is a definite improvement, but I don’t think there was too much wrong with Mile High.  It was wonderfully quirky, in fact…homers to left were insanely easy, but homers to right were very difficult (I think it was something like 370 feet down the right field line, and the wall quite high.)

My very first pro baseball experiences were here.  The first pro game I ever attended would have been in the late summer of my 2nd or 3rd grade year…likely 1977 or 1978.  My T-ball team headed there one night to see the Montreal-affiliated Denver Bears beat the Wichita Aeroes 8-5.  I’m 99% sure that’s the score because I remember the linescore:

Wichita 050 000 000
Denver   111  111   02X

There was a bell to signify how many runs the Bears scored in each inning, so we kept hearing “The toll for the inning…[ding!]…one run.”  All else I remember from that night was missing a home run while in the bathroom, being uncomfortably near a foul ball, and being amazed that I was out at the ungodly hour of 10PM.

I recall snippets from the next 16-17 years of American Association baseball, through Expos, White Sox, Reds, and Brewers affiliations: a ceremony to honor Tim Raines’ record 77 stolen bases in a year (1980), Lloyd McClendon hitting for the cycle, several “let’s impress the major league teams and show that we love baseball by having a bunch of people show up at the park” nights, and singing the national anthem with my high school show choir.  Darryl Hamilton was signing autographs before the game on that anthem night, and I remember how game he was, signing whatever words we asked (I had him write “thanks for the tips!”, fellow HS singer Sheila had him write an elaborate love note along the lines of “you are my life…”) and how gracefully he handled it when Sheila asked him to prom.

Those minor league memories set the table for my major league experiences at Mile High, which were exclusively during the 1994 season.

I enjoyed one of these games with friends Michelle and Robby.  Robby scores the games too, but he uses wacky hieroglyphics only decipherable to him.  Archeologists could unearth my scorebook in ten thousand years, and would have no trouble whatsoever determining exactly what Eric Young did in the eighth inning that June day.  If they unearth Robby’s scorecard…well…they’ll probably think it’s some failed architectural plan.

Mile High was also host to my only-ever scheduled doubleheader.  I figured, hey, how could it get any better than this?  A doubleheader with dad.  That there is some father-son bonding.  But there’s a problem…Rockies pitching.  The doubleheader lasted absolutely forever.  It resulted in one of only two times in my life I’ve been compelled to leave a game early…the damn 11th inning of the damn second game was positively–and unprecedentedly (see below)–endless.  So I took pity on my Dad sometime during the eighteenth pitching change of the eleventh inning and let him take me home.

As much as I like the idea of the doubleheader, and as much as I laud suggestions that scheduled doubleheaders should be made more commonplace (this will never happen, however, as owners need each of the 81 games of revenue), I have a suggestion:  schedule no doubleheaders between teams whose earned run averages, when added together, are higher than 9.  We can’t handle that many walks and hits.

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

In the first game of the June 28 doubleheader, the Rockies come back from an 8-run deficit to win, a Rockies record at the time (over the year and a half they’d existed).

The Padres set a record in the second game for most runs scored in an 11th inning (since 1900), lighting the Rockies up for nine.  It’s the only 11-3 pitchers’ duel I’ll ever see.

(Written July 2001.  Last updated July 2009.)