In 2005, Minor League Baseball returned to the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, in the form of the Double-A Hooks. This marked the first time since 1959 that the city had fielded a Texas League entity (that 1959 club, the Corpus Christi Giants, featured a 20-year-old pitcher named Gaylord Perry in its starting rotation).
2014 marks the Hooks' 10th season at their memorably named home of Whataburger Field, and the team is marking the occasion in a variety of ways (Whataburger, now with more than 700 locations, opened its first location in Corpus Christi in 1950). A 10th-season logo was unveiled during the offseason, the 10th Anniversary Team was named shortly thereafter, and all 2014 home games begin at 10 after the hour.
I visited Whataburger Field on Monday, the penultimate stop of a ballpark road trip that began in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and concluded in Round Rock, Texas. In keeping with the Hooks' deca-centric anniversary celebrations, here are 10 things I learned about the park during the course of my evening-long ballpark wanderings.
Say hello to my gigantic friend: Minor League teams are fans of hyperbole, quick to brag that they possess the biggest videoboard or the widest concourse or the most absurdly unhealthy giant hamburger. I heard no such boasts from the Hooks regarding the statue outside of their front office, but I would not be surprised if it could be advertised as "the tallest public art installation in Minor League Baseball." The work in question is Seth Vandable's cast iron sculpture "For the Love of the Game." It features a (literally) chiseled ballplayer holding a bat across his shoulders, and clocks in at an imposing 22 feet.
Speaking of gigantic: For the first nine seasons of the Hooks' existence, Whataburger Field had a videoboard that measured approximately 16-by-21 feet. This is a veritable black and white TV with a bunny-ear antennae compared to the videoboard that the Hooks unveiled prior to 2014. At nearly 21 feet high and 48 feet wide, this gargantuan Daktronics-brand monstrosity is more than three times larger than the old board. The team reports that the board is "82 baseballs tall and 192 baseballs wide" or, for those who prefer more modern-day comparisons, it is the equivalent of 2,300 iPads.
I asked Hooks senior director of communications Matt Rogers if this was the biggest videoboard in Double-A baseball. He wasn't entirely sure but soon regained his footing and proudly declared that "I know that it's biggest south of San Antonio!"
Stop the presses! Framing the new videoboard, one can find imposing examples of Corpus Christi's industrial past in the form of two 1920s-era cotton presses. These rusted corrugated-steel structures were kept intact when the ballpark was built, as was the huge boiler that powered the two presses (the boiler is located directly behind a concourse basketball court). The cotton warehouses that used to permeate the area are an architectural motif at Whataburger Field, which features recurring instances of corrugated steel and wood beams.
Smash hits: Several of the cotton press windows are broken, but only one of them was broken by Hunter Pence. The future Major League star spent the entire 2006 season with the Hooks, and at some point during that campaign, he launched a batting practice home run to left field that smashed through a window and traveled into the cotton press itself. The Hooks' commemorated Pence's blast by installing a sign below that window that reads "Bam-Bam." This was Pence's nickname, in that his personality reminded many observers of the id-driven, club-wielding baby on the Flintstones.
Splash zone: Beyond right-center field, located between the ballpark and Corpus Christi Bay, sits the privately owned Hurricane Alley water park. A sign reading "532" has been affixed to the the top of a staircase leading to Hurricane Alley's tallest water slide, denoting the fact that it would take a blast of (more or less) 532 feet to hit the waterslide on the fly. Thus far no player, not even "Bam-Bam" Pence, has been able to accomplish the feat.
Neon at night: The backdrop of Whataburger Field is striking if a bit cluttered, as the view includes cotton presses, the videoboard, a water park, wind turbines, cranes, train tracks and boats of all sizes navigating the Port of Corpus Christi shipping channel. Nonetheless, Harbor Bridge still stands out. Clearly visible from beyond the right-field fence, the 55-year-old bridge, which provides an elevated path above the shipping channel, is illuminated in blue and red via an LED lighting system. At night this results in one of the best backdrops in all of Minor League Baseball, almost on par with the view of Centennial Bridge at Quad Cities' Modern Woodmen Park.
Anthropomorphic fishing equipment: Given its waterfront location, Corpus Christi has long been a popular destination for both commercial and recreational fishing. Hence the name Hooks, and hence the team's one-of-a-kind mascot, Rusty, who is an actual hook. On the night I visited, Rusty was wearing a poncho in honor of the fact that it was Cinco de Mayo. His mascot counterpart, Sammy the Seagull, refrained from any holiday attire and roamed the stands in his usual outfit of a backwards cap, team jersey and shorts.
Whata name: The connection between Whataburger and the Hooks goes beyond the stadium name, as the fast-food chain is incorporated into several between-innings promotions (such as the "Fry Shuffle" game on the videoboard). More strikingly, there is an actual Whataburger location on the concourse. Shockingly, Whataburger is best known for its burgers -- the iconic "original" is a meal unto itself, but the truly hungry (or gluttonous, depending on your perspective) can opt for a Triple Meat Whataburger. Tagline: Once, Twice, Three Times a Burger.
The Babe Ruth of hot dogs: MiLB.com staged its #FoodFight competition in 2013, a bracket-style tournament that sought to determine the best concession item in Minor League Baseball. Inspired by the contest, the Hooks created an absurd concoction called "The Babe," a cheddarwurst wrapped in hamburger, wrapped in bacon. This thing makes the Triple Meat Whataburger seem like a healthy choice, but fortunately Javier Rodriguez was up to the challenge. Rodriguez was my "designated eater" for the evening, recruited so that he could consume food items that my gluten-free diet prohibits, and he was a fan of the Babe.
"The Cheddarwurst makes it so that the whole thing isn't as dry as you would think," said Rodriguez, a middle school math teacher and high school baseball coach. "And anything wrapped in bacon is a can't miss."
On as scheduled: Over the course of their existence, the Hooks have only had five of their home games affected by the weather. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Corpus Christi region doesn't receive much rainfall, but what Rogers calls "an incredibly effective drainage system" plays a major role as well. There are six inches of sand beneath the playing surface, and six inches of gravel below that. In between the sand and the gravel is a conduit that transports water out of the ballpark and directly into the shipping channel.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.