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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: The Appalachian League
Virginia and West

Down around the bottom of West Virginia where it boarders Southwest Virginia there are three more Appalachian League teams - 2 in Virginia and one in West Virginia.

The one in West Virginia is the Princeton Rays. It was a fun little stadium and on the day I went if you were shaved bald you got a t-shirt and a free hat (so I was bald). They were celebrating a coach whose name I can't remember (All I know is that his nickname is Alby because the t-shirt proclaims me to be part of "Alby's Army"). I sat behind the home plate and they had concession service at your seat, which was an unexpected bonus at a rookie league game. After the game the guy running the stadium stood at the gate wishing us all a good night as we left. I really enjoyed my day at this park.

Twenty minutes down the road, just across the state border is the the Bluefield Bluejays. Everyone I talk to remembers this as an Orioles franchise, but I think it has been affiliated with the Bluejays for a while now. Still, when you go in all the  fixed seating is bright Oriole orange. Most of the seats are in a rather steep stadium seating area behind home plate. It's a pretty good setup as long as you don't sit behind one of the beams holding the roof up.  There's reserved seating up close to the net behind the plate and off to the side, but it's really cheap plastic seats and I don't think you can buy tickets for it at the gate. On the other hand, down the third base side there was a fenced off bar area which had seats up next to the fence on ground level (probably the best seats in the house).

And then there's the Pulaski  Yankees. Apparently, the Pulaski stadium used to be a municipal stadium, but it was bought out by private businessmen and converted to a private stadium. They fixed up the seating behind the plate so that it is pretty sweet and there are nice private boxes closer to field on the 1st base side. The 3rd base side had concrete tiers which people filled with their own lawn chairs etc. The stadium was a work in progress with mixtures of really good with really bad. The parking situation was horrendous. I got there over an hour early and actually got some of the very limited parking but when I left I drove past tons of cars parked along the highway roads around the park. They had no ticket booths and tickets were being sold from folding tables. On top of that, the girls selling the tickets didn't understand what "will call" was. I had to explain it a couple times to get my ticket. Most annoying of all, this was the only park I went to all year where the souvenir stand didn't sell souvenir baseballs. In fact, they didn't sell anything worth taking home to display: no pennants, no foam fingers, nothing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: The Appalachian League
The Tennessee Area

After THE BIG TRIP, I spent a good portion of the next two months spending my weekends going to games at the (generally) much closer Appalachian League parks. The Appalachian League is a high rookie league, which basically means it's the first level at which you have to pay to watch a game, but it's really low on the totem pole. Four of the league's teams are in Eastern Tennessee (Greeneville, Elizabethton, Johnson City, and Kingsport) and a fifth is just across the border in Bristol, Virginia (for now - talk is that Bristol Tn. might snatch it out from under them). A second cluster of teams is on the Virginia-West Virginia line (Pulaski Va, Princeton WV, and Bluefield Va). Finally, there are two teams orphaned out way far away from any others in Danville, Virginia and Burlington, North Carolina.

I'm not going to talk about the Appalachian League by date attended, but by location and today's post is going to focus on the Tennessee Area teams.

Furthest west is the Greeneville Astros. Strangely enough, the team isn't actually in Greeneville. It's in Tusculum, Tennessee at Tusculum College. In fact, the first time I went, I had some trouble even finding the stadium. However, once you get there, the stadium is the best in the League. It is a really pretty brick stadium with plenty of nice seats and it feels like a nice medium sized Single-A stadium. In fact, off the top of my head, I can say it is better than the stadiums of the Asheville Tourists and the Potomac Nationals. And the crowds are pretty good for an area (Greeneville & Tusculum combined) which has a population in the 20,000 range. They even have fairly well done, between innings games and interesting events. Be careful about the last though. I drove the hour or so it takes to get there from my house one day because they were having some sort of beerfest only to find out once I got there and bought my tickets that the beerfest was another twenty dollars. Now, I like craft and international beer as much as the next guy, but I wasn't going to drink twenty dollars worth (especially since I was driving home after the game). I didn't pay. The bait-and-switch left me in a truly foul mood as I walked around for the next hour waiting for the game to start. And they don't sell pennants in their souvenir shop. Overall though, Greeneville has the best stadium and that alone makes the experience more enjoyable.

The Kingsport Mets: This is the nearest stadium to where I live. It is, in a word, functional. Everything is serviceable, but it's right in that zone where there's nothing to complain about, but nothing to brag about either. The souvenir stand doesn't sell pennants. The worst part of the stadium is that it was poorly built in considering shade for the fans. On a hot night you will be broasted. After an hour or so (assuming the typical 7 pm start) shade will cover the first base bleachers, but you're just gonna fry on the third base side until it's just about time for the game to be over. They don't even have any kind of shade over the "good" seats behind home plate. It's a fairly damning flaw that could have been dealt with if the stadium had been built facing east so they could put roofs over the seats. As it is, I don't think it's fixable.  Usually, there are pretty decent crowds, although the weekend crowds seemed to be much more family friendly. Worth going to see a few games each year here (especially if it's a cloudy day).

The Johnson City Cardinals: Okay, so the cardinal sin here is that they are a Cardinal franchise, but I go just because I'm a masochist. Actually, it's an old municipal stadium and if you get seats behind the plate it's pretty decent. And the fans sitting back there showed a lot of baseball savvy during the game. They were discussing prospects for various players and what they were going to have to do to improve. The souvenir shop was in a shack out back - no pennants - and the concession stand was back that way too. The biggest problem with this stadium is if you are sitting in the seats off to the side, behind the dugouts. They are terrible. The seats aren't that bad and they would have a decent view except for the fact that they have chain-link fencing between them and the field. If you look straight ahead you can see okay. However, if you turn your head to view anything at a slant it is bad. If you must go to watch a Cardinals franchise team, you can't go too wrong going here as long as you get tickets behind the plate.

The Bristol Pirates: First of all, the Pirates actually play in Bristol, Virginia. I don't know how long that will be because Bristol, Tennessee has made noises about snatching the team, but for now they are still in Virginia (barely). This is another municipal field and it definitely has its quirks. Again, this field has a shade problem, but everybody knows about it and there is a grassy hill on the third base side where people sit in the shade for the first part of most games. On the first base side, behind the dugout, there is a big concrete block which has tiers cut into it for seating. I don't know what kind of concrete they used, but it stays amazingly cool in the beating sun. The concession stand and souvenir stand are behind home plate. Again, the souvenir shop does not sell pennants. However, it almost makes up for it by selling cool foam pirate swords. I like the people and the quirks of the this place and recommend it to all.

The Elizabethton Twins: This was my favorite Appalachian League experience last year. The Twins are playing in a municipal stadium on a county park, just above a river. Their souvenir shop is small, but it had all the stuff you could want, including - and it was the only Appalachian League team to do this - pennants. The stadium has good seats next to and behind the dugouts. It also has decent seats behind home plate. Between these seats are to raised boxes. One of those appeared to be for press and the other for VIP's. Underneath the boxes were cement areas where people were allowed to bring their own chairs and watch the game fro right up next to the net. The people there were generally the local every night fans who even left their chairs there between games. These are the kind of people who come to the games to have fun and they gave the umps and opposing team players hell the three games I caught there.

Things that happened at Elizabethton which I have never seen at another park. (1) A skunk wiggled under the wall into center field causing the outfielder to retreat most of the way to the infield. The little guy ambled around for about five minutes and then wiggled back out under the fence. Then the game resumed.  (2) I came in the front gate one day to see two cows standing there. Before the game started, they had both teams come out and they had a contest to see who could get the most milk out of the cows. It was hilarious, fun, and entirely unique. I just can't picture that happening anywhere else. (3) I was there the last weekend of the season and they delayed the game for quite a bit of time because rain was coming. I was confused. I'd seen any number of games played in the rain and didn't understand why it was different here. Then the rain started. Some guys ran out and flipped up a cover over a big drain behind home plate. Again, I was confused. And then the rain started flowing down the field toward the river behind the stadium (behind home plate). The water got to at least eight inches deep and it was roaring across the field and down that huge drain (I assume to the river). One of the regulars started talking about how, before the drain was put in the water would get several feet deep behind home plate and just sit there until it seeped away. Anyway, the rain stopped and they whipped that stadium into shape in a half hour and the game ended way too late, but it got played - even without anybody building an ark.

Elizabethton is my favorite of all the Appalachian League stadiums. The people are down-home fun, they try to do some different fun things, and it's just a good all-around experience. I wish I lived close enough to be a regular.


And that's my breakdown of the Tennessee part of the Appalachian League. Tomorrow I'll try to get something up about the West Virginia / Virginia portion of the league.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Div-II Baseball

This year's first baseball game wasn't a minor league game, it was college. To be specific, I went to watch the UVa Wise Cavaliers host the West Liberty Hilltoppers. It was double header, but I must admit that I left about four innings into the second when the 40 degree temperature and the spitting, frozen rain finally got to me.

In the meantime, I got to watch some decent baseball at a nice, tiny park (maybe 200 people could fit if you crammed the bleachers). I was actually a little surprised that over 50 people were there when the game started. After I left, the second game apparently turned into more of a contest (Toppers had to come back in the 9th to win 9-6), but the first game was under the Toppers control pretty much from the beginning. The Toppers' pitcher had a good arm with some speed and accuracy and while the Cavs could get some metal on the ball, they really couldn't get the pitcher in trouble until the 6th inning. Still, they only put three runs on the board and the Hilltoppers had that much just from their two homeruns (Toppers 6 Cavs 3).

Things I found of interest:

From going to minor league games, I was used to grounds keepers. Apparently, that's not the way it works in Div-II baseball. The home team did everything: raking the dirt, laying down lines, breaking down the portable batting cage, et al. And there wasn't any of this raking between innings that you see at a lot of parks. The field was as the field was once the game started.

As well, while the field was in pretty good shape, it obviously wasn't as fussed over and primped as professional fields tend to be. More than once I saw a player set up to get the ball where it should bounce to only to see the ball careen off in a weird direction. Most notably, a Cav infielder leaned down to get a screaming ground ball before the ball hit something and bounced ten feet in the air over his head.

METAL BATS – Holy crud, I didn't even know they still made metal bats.

The scoreboard was broken. This makes you pay a lot more attention to the game as you try to keep track of outs and balls/strikes. I did get a little worried at one point when it started to get dark because the clouds got thick. I was concerned that if the scoreboard was down the field lights wouldn't be working either.


All-in-all, it was a good experience which would have been a lot funner if I wasn't sitting on metal bleachers in 40 degree weather with the collar of my coat turned up and my hands crammed in its pockets (and spitting sleet/rain). Still, none of that's the UVa Cavaliers' fault. Go watch a game and support the program (if you're local). This is the kind of sport a small, local college playing higher than its level (honestly, Uva Wise should be Div-III in most sports) could actually carve a niche in. More power to them and all the luck in the world.

Monday, March 14, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: July THE BIG TRIP

This was the month of THE BIG TRIP. I started my planning for the baseball Summer with this trip as the anchor and all the other trips grew from there. The goal was to visit every team in Michigan and I got 'em all. And I picked up a few in Ohio to boot.

In fact the first stop was in Dayton. I'd heard great things about the Dayton Dragons, but driving through Dayton itself didn't give me much hope. I'm sure there are nicer parts of town, but I think I single-handedly managed to tour all the not so great ones. Everywhere I went seemed run down and falling into disrepair. Then I got to the ballpark and saw the dragon-scoreboard from a few blocks away from the stadium (best scoreboard except for maybe Nashville's giant guitar). Then I got inside and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. They had every multimedia gimmick you could imagine going including an outfield wall which projected images of flames etc. throughout the game. Between innings they had the best entertainment, bar none, that I saw at any stadium. Instead of the tired, old games most places roll out, they had groups of kids running out onto the tops of the dugouts dancing to to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, dressed in 40's era uniforms. The crowd was into it all and actually watching the game. The seventh inning drain off of fans didn't happen. Heck, when the 9th inning ended and I left there weren't many people leaving with me. All-in-all, the best experience I've had at a stadium. Period. And, this is a single A team. I was dubious when the only ticket I could buy was a ticket in the grass beyond the right field wall, but the place was packed to the gills and once I was there, I actually felt a little lucky to get a ticket at all. While I was watching the game they were announcing that if you wanted a chance to get season tickets for next year you needed to apply now - and I'm pretty sure they were serious. Signs on the outfield indicated that they had sold every game since about the beginning of time. I intend to go back and watch another game this year, so I'm basically stalking the Dragons website hoping I can snag a couple as soon as they go on sale. Best baseball experience all year. If you get a chance, leave your job (vacation), leave your family (for a day or two), and go see a game in Dayton.

Next came the Detroit Tigers.  What to say? Ummm . . . Once I was in the seat it was okay. I honestly mistook this stadium for one of the old 70's era stadiums that was built to be converted for multiple uses. I just figured Detroit was too cash strapped to build a new one. Thankfully, I didn't raise this point with anybody sitting around me (I was later informed that this was one of the "new" stadiums built to replace the old 70's ones). The concourses are a disaster zone. Apparently, they didn't build in enough concession stands so every square inch along the back of the seats (where most nicer stadiums place places to stand, eat, and watch the game) was filled with kiosks selling food. There was a food court away from any place you could see any of the game (where I got ripped off when the kid took my money at the counter and disappeared). It had TV's set up so you could watch - not a single one of which was on.  And I haven't had to stand in that long a line to use the restroom since the last time I went to a game at Riverfront (the Reds' old, 70's era stadium). There were some cool statues out past the outfield wall including Ty Cobb (probably the greatest player of the dead-ball era) sliding in with his spikes up. And the outside of the stadium is cool too, with sculpted Tigers on the walls and giant ones outside the gates.

The Lansing Lugnuts: Cool logo (yes, I know it's a bolt), nice enough stadium (named after a law school). The only problem was that the "front row" seats I had bought didn't actually put me behind the screen where I could watch the game. Nope, they put me behind a pit about 4-5 rows back where I got to spend the game watching bored teenagers shepherding excited younger kids in the pit each inning as they waited to play whatever the between innings game was going to be. It was not conducive to watching the game.

The Great Lake Loons: I don't know where Midland, Michigan is exactly, but I do know that I drove through a lot of farmland and country roads to get there (following my phone's GPS). It was well worth it. The stadium is unique, the people were friendly, and I enjoyed it. The stadium is one of the rare ones where you enter through the outfield. As soon as you do you are faced with a firepit.I think there was another one at the far side of the outfield and there was a big fireplace back in the concourse behind the plate. I asked one of the kids working whether there was some symbolic meaning or if it just gets that cold here.  He grinned at me and said "It just gets that cold here." It took we a while to realize that the strange noise they were playing at important game events was a loon's cry, but once the fog of my ignorance cleared I thought it was unique and pretty cool.  About halfway through the game I went up to get a beer  and stood at a table the rest of the game behind the top row of seats talking to a couple of local guys. It was a good experience. If I'm ever up in Michigan again this is a place I'd go back to.

Traverse City Beach Bums:  Traverse City has the most unique stadium I think I've seen. The back side of the stadium where you enter looks like a giant beach house or apartment. They have beach chairs in the reserved seating areas.

Beyond that, this game had the best ending I saw all year. Down by a run in the 12th, the home team Beach Bums had two outs and a man on first. It looked like the home team was finished. Then, the batter tagged a long line drive. The right fielder got to the fence and leapt as high as he could. The ball went directly over the outstretched glove by a couple inches, giving the Bums a one run victory. It was a heck of a way to end a game.

The West Michigan Whitecaps: Good game; decent stadium. The main thing I remember is being really bugged by the number of fans (the stands were almost full) and not anybody wearing Whitecaps stuff. Instead, they were all wearing Detroit Tigers stuff (they are part of the Detroit organization). Even the souvenir store seemed to be 40% filled with Tiger merchandise. Yeesh, I know the logo's not great, but you'd expect some of the loyal fans to wear it anyway.

The Toledo Mud Hens: Yeah, those Mud Hens. The one's Corporal Klinger used to talk about all the time on MASH. This may be the second most well known minor league club (behind the Durham Bulls) partly because of the TV show and partly because they are one of the oldest franchises around.  I was there for a double header. In the first game they dressed in old-timey uniforms and the scoreboard had an oldish monochrome brown tint. Then they came out with futuristic costumes (apparently the future will be garish and in bad taste). My best memory of the day was going through the souvenir shop trying to figure out which hat I was going to buy. After a lengthy internal debate, I got the one with the modern chicken head logo.

The Columbus Clippers: I'll admit it, I don't get the Clippers' logo. I stood in the souvenir shop (once I found where was hidden back behind the outfield) just staring at the items covered with double masted sails. Eventually, I pulled up a map on my cell phone just to make sure and Columbus is completely land locked. Not a port or ship within at least 100 miles. I'm confused . . .

However, beyond the strange logo, the stadium is pretty sweet. I had a ticket on the third base side out in right field, but I never actually sat in my seat. First, it was a hot day and I would have baked out there. Second, the whole area around my seat seemed to be filled with 8-12 year old boys. Maybe somebody's little league was taking advantage of an afternoon game? Anyway, before the game even started, I found a seat on the right field wall where they have a long bar and high chairs set up on a first come first serve basis. It was a great seat to watch the game and once you got a seat the usher assigned to the area would even hold it for you when you went to get something to eat. I sat chatting with a local guy throughout the game and it was a pleasant afternoon.

And then came the 5 hour drive back and so endeth THE BIG TRIP.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

43 Parks in a Year : June

The Louisville Bats: This was the time that I splurged for the more expensive seats upstairs behind the guarded elevator (saw this at a few stadiums, but this was the only one I bought a ticket for). The view from behind and above the plate was perhaps the best I had all season and the private concourse for upstairs looked like it could be good, but on that day seemed like a ghost town with only one concession stand open.

The Bats had some lame entertainment between innings consisting of some guys running around with trash cans pretending they were drums - interesting the first time, maybe two, but not the seventh or eighth. However, much of it was salvaged by the mascot. The purple bat ran around like a maniac keeping every break entertaining. Still, the highlight of the day was when two birds were fighting over territory and the younger one flew under the row of chairs, including mine, to get away from the older.

The Lexington Legends: A really nice park once you get inside, but not exactly in the nicest part of town. Sitting behind home plate you get service to your chair which is nice. The Legends have moved away from the old kind of classy logo with an "L" encompassing Kentucky and a star over Lexington toward an old fashioned mustache. This blue on green, goofy thing was everywhere. On the other hand, I did like the fact that they used a different soundtrack from the generic one most stadiums use. Most notably, at the beginning of the game they played the call to post rather than having someone yell "play ball." It was cool.

The Potomac Nationals:  When I thought of baseball in Northern Virginia, I thought I'd be arriving at a really fancy, really nice stadium. Instead, I got there and there was a stadium that would have fit in nicely in the middle of the pack in a the Appalachian rookie league. It's located on a municipal park and you walk past several local league softball fields to get from the parking lot to the stadium. The stadium itself seems to be one of the municipal fields converted over. It wasn't a terrible experience; it just wasn't what I expected. However, the Potomac Nationals do have a really cool logo.

The Richmond Flying Squirrels: Okay, it's a goofy name and the logo is poor (I usually have to explain what it is to people). However, the mascot - a superhero squirrel - is downright awesome. The Squirrels are in the old AAA stadium that the Braves abandoned and they get really nice size crowds because they are in an overly large stadium. It felt about what it felt like going to a Richmond Braves game did back when I lived in Richmond. The Squirrels keep making noises about a new stadium, but they are doing quite nicely where they are now and don't have nearly the realistic expectation that the AAA Braves had.

The Norfolk Tides: Everybody kept telling how cool it was that the Tides had ferry boat service across the water, but it was closed down (at least the day I was there). The stadium was out of the way, but had parking under the elevated roads and regular bus service so everybody could get there. I accidentally drove on a toll road on my way there (billed by mail 4 months later thru a letter with a picture taken of my license plate and car). The crowd was a hard working bunch and there was more beer being lovingly consumed here than I recall at other fields, but everyone was having fun. They had a weird squid mascot which kept trying to get some drunk lady a couple rows in front of me to flash her tatas at him (to be fair she was trying to him to throw prizes to her and encouraging him). I wonder if the squid survived their rebranding over the summer.

The Carolina Mudcats: One of my favorite logos in all of sportsdom. It's almost unforgivable that the Reds let themselves get pulled away from this team for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (one of the very worst logos in baseball). The stadium was a bit out of the way, but well worth the trip. It was a sweet stadium for an A+ team and everybody was extremely friendly and I had a great time despite a lightning storm which hit mid-game and put the power out for about ten minutes. While we were all huddling in the concourse area, they played their major league affiliate's game on the monster sized scoreboard (converted to a mega-big screen for the duration of the rain).

The Winston-Salem Dash:  From one of my favorite logos, I went right to my least favorite logo of all the teams I actually visited last year. Every time I look at the Dash's logo all I can think is "constipated baseball." The stadium was nice enough and the experience wasn't bad, but this team really needs to rethink its name (too cute by half) and logo. What was wrong with "Warthogs" or "Spirits?"