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Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos

The Blue Wahoos have a nice, shiny new and rather generic AA stadium next to the water. Someone clearly put some thought into which way to face the stadium because when I got there at about 5:30 large roofs were providing shade for almost all the seats - a necessity in a place that's 80+ degrees at time of game in April (who knows what it must be like in August).  There were surprisingly few luxury boxes which seemed to be limited to the third base side and behind the plate. The rest of the stadium was entirely field level seating. I must admit that I was a little shocked that there wasn't more to the stadium. After all, this is the place where the Mudcats were drug off to to make a better life as the Blue Wahoos and I thought the stadium would actually be better than the one in Zebulon. The best I can really say is that it's newer.

The crowd was one of the strangest I've seen in baseball. Few were wearing the Wahoos horrendous logo (see my comments here), although there were a surprising number of people there wearing Cincinnati Reds hats and jerseys. The stands were pretty full for a Tuesday night game but the crowd was eerily quiet. There wasn't even the ambient background chatter that you hear from crowds at most parks. The announcer would play about one thing between innings and not much ever between batters - which was a pretty good call because the crowd just remained silent. After a while it really became noticeable and I started looking for explanations. I thought that maybe it was because the stadium was beside a large body of water which was somehow muting the noise, but as I looked around I noticed that very few people were talking much. They were just sitting there. Weird. The best I can figure is that maybe it's a feedback loop. The water causes an atmosphere where sound is muted and consequently the crowd doesn't make noise.

During my trip to the souvenir shop to buy the pennant and baseball I buy at every stadium, a wave of guilt hit me. I am at least nominally a Reds fan and this team is a Reds affiliate. Since I was at the stadium, I should buy a hat. Heck, last year I bought a jersey and hat at the Dragons' stadium. Overcome by guilt I walked over to the hat racks, but the just couldn't make myself buy the gawdawfulfugly primary logo hat. I eventually salved my conscience by buying a hat with the hook-P. I can wear that one; people just won't know what it is.

The Game: Homer Bailey is down in the minors recovering from Tommy John surgery and started the game for the Wahoos. And he got rocked. To be fair, 4 of the 5 runs the Jackson Generals scored against him in the first three innings would not have occurred without the 5 errors his infield had in those innings. In fact, I think the only infielders without errors that led to runs were Bailey and the third baseman. Well, technically the first baseman didn't have an error; he just dropped a really simple foul ball fly that your basic little leaguer would have caught. Bailey threw fairly hard (once I figured out where the pitch mph was I saw several 94mph's) and showed flashes of really good control. However, AA Jackson's batters weren't having a whole lot of trouble putting wood on the ball - not that this would have mattered much with a little solid fielding behind him. A few better plays and he would have gotten out of his innings having given up only a single run and you could see that Bailey knew it and was frustrated.

After the third inning the Wahoos settled down and stopped the Generals' scoring machine, but it was too late. As they rolled into the bottom half of the 9th, the Wahoos trailed 5-3 and the guy running the scoreboard tried to get the crowd fired up by playing some vignette with a fish acting as a secret agent and then flashing psychedelic multi-color fish outlines with the words "RALLY FISH!!!" splashed across them. It was bad and I don't mean cheesy fun bad. That was obviously what they were going for, but it failed miserably and the crowd totally ignored it. The crowd finally did start making some noise, but I think that was in actual reaction to the game situation, not anything anybody up in the booth was doing. In any event, the best Pensacola could do was get a single off the bat of Calten Daal before the General's closer finished them off.

All-in-all, the stadium is nice and there's not really a bad seat in it. Would I go back if I was in the area? Yes. But at least part of that would be because I am a Reds fan. I wish I could get there during a weekend game to see if the crowd engages.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Mobile BayBears

Take a rookie league stadium, put it on the surface of the Sun, add about 95% humidity, and cram a AA team into it and you have the Mobile BayBears during a mid-day game. The day I went to Hank Aaron Stadium the game started at 11:05. It was in the mid-80's although intermittent breezes brought occasional relief. In the stadium proper there was no shade unless you were in the very top rows (which were occupied by several high & middle schools on field trips) or you had seating down on the ground level which was reserved boxes with their seats in front of them. This is the worst AA stadium I've seen and it hovers somewhere along the line between single-A and rookie league stadiums. In fact, I've seen a rookie league stadium which is better than this (the Greeneville Astos). In case you cannot tell, I was deeply unimpressed.

In fact, the only things that impressed me were the name of the stadium and the fact that in the concourse they had old seating from various MLB stadiums including the stadium the Milwaukee Braves played in, the field which preceded Turner Field in Atlanta, and Wrigley (who knows why).

The Game: The BayBears took a brief lead in the 2nd inning with a 2 run homer, but then the Tennessee Smokies took control and just slaughtered them. By the end of the game it was 11-2 in favor of the Smokies and both teams limped off the field exhausted. The Smokies at least were wearing the (gawdawfulfugly) light Cubs blue uniform, but the BayBears were wearing dark blue uniforms with dark blue hats. What ever happened to home wears white? They must not have any light colored uniforms because if you ever wore them you would for a boiling hot and humid mid-day game. I never saw a player from either team not try, but by the 4th inning nobody on that field was moving if they did not have to and every time they had to run you'd see the a player afterward standing there miserable, looking like he was desperately trying to just breathe and stand still for a few seconds so his body could cool enough that he wouldn't fall over. By about the 7th inning, after I'd mostly adjusted to the heat and 95% humidity, I started feeling a bit like a vulture who was watching to see which player would be the first one to keel over.

Look, I'm sure that for a nighttime game this stadium is perfectly adequate and there's nothing that a better stadium could do about the heat and humidity of a mid-day game in Mobile. However, there's little good that I can say about my experience here. The staff was friendly enough. Whoever was in the mascot costume was a true champion to stay in that thing through the game. The girls trying to run games between innings gave a great effort although I think they almost gave some little four year old girl heat stroke when they had her race the mascot around the bases. The stadium has a cool name. And that's pretty much all the complimentary stuff I can come up with.

Next stop . . . Pensacola

The Montgomery Biscuits

Yes, it's a dumb name, The receptionist at my hotel even commented on how much the locals hated it at first and then kind of learned to live with it. And, when you get to the stadium you don't see a whole lot of the locals wearing anything with the biscuit mascot on it. You see a lot of the "B" hats and less often the hats the the "M" and the biscuit peeking over top of it, but I'm not sure I saw any of the hats with the full on biscuit which were prominent at the souvenir store actually being worn by anyone. Personally, I was disappointed that the on the field mascot was some sort of aardvark and not a biscuit.

Anyway, the park is very nice. It's a solid AA stadium which had about 40% of the concessions shut down the night I was there, but it was a Monday with a moderate crowd so that was understandable. It looked like when they open it up full throttle this can be a really good park. I like the fact that it I like the fact that it has grass you can sit on in the outfield. The people were all very nice and there was a reasonable variety of different ballpark food - including actual biscuits - much of which was in kiosks around the main entrance. An interesting thing about the field is that there seems to be a railroad switchyard out behind left field. Many times during the night you could hear trains passing, but the only time the track right behind the field was in use was shortly before the game.

As for the game itself, the Biscuits were playing the Jacksonville Suns and looked pretty good for the first couple innings as they drove a run across in the 1st and 2nd innings with some extra-base hits. In the 4th, the Suns tied it with a two run homer, but the Biscuits took the lead back with a single run homer of their own. Unfortunately, a fielding error, a triple, and a single put the Suns up for good in the next inning and the rest of the innings were zeroes across the board.

Monday, April 25, 2016

And Then There's Atlanta

Turner Field is in its last year of use and it's a shame. I like this park, although I must admit that I'm glad I came to a game in April rather than July.

The field has its parking behind the outfield and an outer fence and gates which you enter to find an area with various statues of various ballplayers including Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb. It's also the area within which tickets are sold so once you wander about a bit looking at the statues you head through a second gate where they put you through a metal detector and take your ticket. Things were a little more relaxed and friendly here than they were when I went to Comerica Park last year. Heck, the guy at the metal detector even chatted with me about the fact that I was wearing a Carolina Mudcats hat.

Inside the park there is a big entertainment area around a stage where they were presenting a band heavy on the drums. At least in a couple places there were markers showing you exactly how far you were from home plate. I will say that prices at the souvenir store were amazingly low for a major league team. In fact, while the baseball I bought was about $4 more than I would have paid at most minor league stores, the pennant I bought was less than the one I bought at the single-A Rome Braves the night before.

Inside, the concourse around the stadium is enclosed and air conditioned. One part of it has pitching and batting games as well as a museum. The rest of it is just a well laid out concourse with about three types of concession stands repeating around the stadium (four if it hadn't been Sunday and Chick fil-A had been open). The only thing that really didn't make sense to me is the statue pictured to the right. And even it was interesting.

So, then I went to my seat which was 22 rows up on the first base side. It was a good seat and the walk up and down to it didn't involve the stairs of death like it does at many stadiums. All the championships at various levels are up on the stadium and there is a giant Coke bottle over top of the left field wall.

After a little bit, I started to realize that the seats in the sections close to the field weren't filling in as much as I would have expected. Oh, the 20 or so rows close to the field were mostly filling in, but it got sparse beyond that. Then I looked around and realized that all the seats in the shade under the upper levels were packed. At this point I should have realized that the locals knew something I didn't. The game started at 1:35 and I swear by the end of the fourth inning I was sweated out and starting to parboil quite nicely. I even paid for a $4 water from the vendor walking by and debated whether I would drink it or pout it over my head (I drank it). An inning later I went back to the concourse and bought the biggest drink I could find and got the girl to fill it with as much ice as would fit. I spent the rest of the game eating the ice to keep from keeling over with heat stroke. And this was just an 80+ degree day. I can't imagine what that place must get like when it gets truly hot for Georgia.

Blair's First Pitch in the MLB
The Game: This was the first MLB pitching outing for the Braves' big prospect, Blair. He had a bit of a rough first inning (giving up one run), but then he settled down and pitched a solid game until the sixth when his coach left him in for at least one batter too many resulting in two runs. He seems pretty solid although (without looking at the actual statistics) he seemed to be more of a cause the batter to hit for an out kind of guy rather than a strike out monster.

The biggest surprise of the game for me was the seventh inning stretch when the Braves brought an opera singer out in a full-on tux to sing God Bless America. It was unusual to hear it arranged that way and I was impressed that the guy shrugged off the heat in that suit like it was nothing. They followed him with most everybody in the park singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game and then the Devil Went Down to Georgia and then they started the tomahawk chop. It was fun and shortly after that somebody even started the wave.

Going into the ninth the Braves were down by 2 and the crowd started going nuts. The tomahawk chop music was played between pitches and everybody in the whole dang park was doing it. It really ramped up the energy in the park and apparently unnerved the Mets enough that the Braves got a run in and even got a couple more hits to put people on first and second before the Mets finally got it together to end the inning.

All-in-all, it was a great experience and it felt a lot like the really excellent AAA experiences which have been created at Charlotte, Nashville, Columbus, etc. I worry that this will be lost when they get their new stadium up and running. Which is a shame. If you can get there before it closes up for good I recommend the experience. Just be smart enough to get a seat where there is shade like the locals do. I was cooked through and through (sun-burn et al.) by the end of the game and just sitting in the heat pretty much wiped me out for the rest of the day. Still, I wouldn't have missed the experience - I'd just bring some sunblock with me the next time. :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Rome Braves

This year's trip began Saturday with a drive to Rome, Georgia to watch the Rome Braves host the Asheville Tourists (with a side trip en route to play disc golf in Dalton, Georgia).

Rome has shown all the creativity in choosing its name that all the Braves minor league affiliates do (except for the awesomeness that is the Carolina Mudcats) and is yet another "Braves." However, in Rome they have concentrated less on the "Braves" part and more on the "Rome" part.  The predominate logo you see is a baseball with a centurion's helmet. When you don't see that the logo you see usually involves a Roman column with a tomahawk. I really like the helmet logo and had to stop myself from buying more than  just the hat I planned to. If I have enough money left, maybe I'll swing by on my way back to Virginia and buy a shirt or even a jersey.

The Stadium: Rome has a pretty decent stadium. The concourse was surprisingly well filled with various food vendors of different types and at least three souvenir sellers in addition to the main shop. Most of the seats are located around the infield, although there is a place where you can sit on the grass beyond the right field wall. On both sides of the field, once you get to the outfield there are places for people to sit on the grass and watch the game and behind those are tables for people to sit and watch the game. All-in-all, it's a solid single-A ballpark.

The Show: I didn't get to see the local mascots in action much because Rome had some "famous" imported mascot whom I had never heard of. He did a fairly good job with skits between innings that kept the crowd entertained. They also had cheerleaders. And I don't mean the one or two girls (or guys) standing on the dugouts you see at many places who do a skit or two. Nope. Five or six girls were on each dugout between innings and up in the crowd during play. I've not seen that in American baseball before; it felt like I was watching Taiwanese games in the Premiere 12.

The Game: Rome and Asheville played an interesting game. Asheville seemed to have the better fielders and the Braves made some errors that hurt them and allowed the Tourists to play small ball and score single runs in both the third and the sixth. Rome got a homer from Jonathan Morales in the bottom of the seventh to bring the game within one run.

When the bottom of the ninth came around and the Braves were only down by one the crowd, which had shown a fair amount of interactive interest to that point, went nuts. The guys running the scoreboard encouraged them to scream between each pitch, ran the "charge" bugle call, and played the music for the tomahawk chop (every kid in the stadium knew it and did it).  Asheville's pitcher got rattled and walked two batters, which made the crowd get even louder and more worked up. Unfortunately for the hometown fans, then the Asheville pitcher calmed down and struck everybody else out. Still, it was great seeing the crowd become so live and into the game.

Overall, it was a fun experience and a good way to start this year''s Big Vacation. It's not quite the same experience as starting last year's at the Dayton Dragons, but nothing I've seen in the lower leagues is. If you are in Georgia it's worth making a trip to stop in Rome for a ballgame.

Monday, April 4, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: August

August had two trips which were born out of my determination to get to all the minor league parks in North Carolina and Tennessee. The first took me all the way across Tennessee to get Memphis and then back through Jackson, Nashville, and finally Elizabethton (already covered - the night it flooded). The second took me to the last two Appalachian League teams I had to get (already covered them) as well as Durham and Greenesboro.

Let's start with the Memphis Redbirds. Much like I said about Johnson City, the Cardinal sin of the Redbirds is that they are affiliated with the Cardinals. This, combined with the fact that they are waaaaaaaaay over on the other side of an extremely long state, probably means I won't go back to see them any time soon. However, I can't wave anyone else away. The stadium was very nice and was the best lit stadium I saw all summer. In fact, I'm not sure how the players were able to see fly balls with that much light glaring down on them. During the pregame, I went around to several souvenir shops they had set up looking for a logo baseball. All any of them had was a ball with pink flowers and curly-que script Red Birds on it. I want you all to know that I truly tried to find a better ball, but in the end that's the one which ended up in my display case. It wasn't hate for the Cardinals - No really it wasn't. Really.

The Jackson Generals are a rebrand of the horribly named West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. It's AA and a nice little stadium the holds about 5-6,000. The mascot is a big bulldog with a WWII helmet that has three stars on it. The kids loved him and chased him all over the stadium. This is the only park all year long where I caught a foul ball. I was walking down the concourse when a foul flew past me. I turned and it bounced off the wall right into my hands. And, I almost got a second one in the 9th inning when it happened again, but a kid came running out of nowhere and leapt right in front of me to snatch it away.

The Nashville Sounds have a really sweet stadium. There's a big out door bar out on the right field fence (no last call at the 7th inning stretch here) and they have a monster scoreboard in the shape of a guitar which must be seen to be believed. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful and I spent a good portion of the game chatting with an usher whom I believe mainly had the job of keeping us hoi-palloi from sneaking into the better seats - not that I had a bad seat; there were just really nice seats down behind home plate which were all sold out by the time I bought mine. I've heard a lot of talk over the years throwing out Charlotte and Nashville as possible locations for MLB franchises and this visit convinced me that Nashville is the better option.

Everybody knows about the Bulls because of the movie, but it's not a single-A team anymore. Now, it's a AAA team in a really nice stadium. The place is decked out and they play up the movie connections in a big way. They have a bull above the outfield wall that promises a free steak if hit and the big screen on the outfield is constantly playing clips and purpose made audio is piped in done by actors in their movie roles. On top of that, the crowd wasn't your typical AAA crowd. It felt (at least where I was) a lot more like a lower level team where the fans knew the players personally and took it all seriously. And, the local fans are extremely loyal to their concessions people. Some poor guy came down pretending to sell peanuts (as what turned out to be part of a skit) and I thought for a second that they were going to ride him out of town on a rail for poaching. Not surprisingly, the souvenir store was the busiest I've seen short of an MLB park. And, I admit it, I bought a hat and jersey. All around, it is one of the better experiences I had that summer.

The Greensboro Grasshoppers had a decent stadium and were giving away a free hat to anybody who brought in a receipt which proved he had bought honey. I bought a $4 bottle of honey and got a $15 hat. Greensboro has a pretty good logo when it's just the grasshopper, but the intertwining of the "G" with it on most of their logos makes it mediocre. By the end of the game I was watching from an area down the right field line where there were some tables set up and I enjoyed the experience.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: The Appalachian League
The Two in the Middle of Nowhere

The last two Appalachian League teams I went to see were way out in the middle of nowhere near the Appalachian Mountains. The Danville (Virginia) Braves and the Burlington (North Carolina) Royals are close enough to each other, but they are both really too far east to be in the league. These teams need to move somewhere further west or the Appalachian League should put a couple more teams out there. They are far enough away that I only made one trip out that way in order to watch each team in its natural environment.

The weekend I was out that way was the last weekend of home games for each team and, at least in Danville, you could tell. The park felt like it was 75% shut down the entire night. You could barely get the girls in the concession stand to serve you - there were at least eight girls back there and they were serving people one at a time and they still couldn't get it right. The place felt like a ghost town and I've got to admit the two police officers who stood around at the back of the stadium looking like they were ready to go to war were a little unnerving. A lot of parks hire an officer or two and they usually show up wearing casual clothes or class-b uniforms, wander around, watch some of the game, and intervene if they have to. These two guys looked like they were armed for bear, and they were wearing bullet-resistant vests, and they stood out behind the stadium for the entire game. They looked like they were some sort of ready-reaction force. The park itself was decent enough and I have to believe it's better during most of the year. I guess I can forgive not being totally into it all at the end of the season. Of course, the souvenir stand did not sell pennants.

The next night I went to the Burlington Royals' game expecting much the same and I was very pleasantly surprised. People were crowding into the Burlington stadium from the moment the gates were opened. It was a live crowd which was happy to be there and there were lots and lots of kids running around having fun. There was a lot of fuss over the mascot and I must admit at first I did not get it. Bingo doesn't look like much, but whoever was in the costume did an amazing job running around playing with the kids and dancing between innings and everything. People were having a great time, the stadium was run well, and I would have sworn it was the first weekend of the season instead of the last. The only ding I have on the whole place is that the souvenir stand did not sell pennants.