This past September, MiLB.com's Ben Hill completed his #BenEverywhere goal of having visited all 159 active affiliated Minor League Baseball ballparks. He's visited 172 Minor League ballparks overall, many of them multiple times. This marks the sixth in a series of "Ben's Best" articles, in which Hill recaps his favorite people, places and things from his many seasons of professional travel.
Last month, the "Ben's Best" series kicked off with a level-by-level look at my favorite Minor League ballparks. This was followed three weeks later by a piece featuring the best ballpark views. Today, we move on to another ballpark-related category: unique stadium features. What follows is an overview of memorable site-specific quirks and amenities, encompassing everything from team stores to historical exhibits to group areas.
Triple-A: Simpsons characters on the concourse (Isotopes Park, home of the Pacific Coast League Albuquerque Isotopes)
The Albuquerque Isotopes' name is partly an homage to the city's longstanding connection to the field of nuclear science. But it is also, of course, a "Simpsons" reference -- in a 2001 episode of the series, Homer launches a crusade to keep his beloved Springfield Isotopes from moving to Albuquerque. At Isotopes Park, statues of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa (sorry, no Maggie) can be found throughout the concourse. These statues were procured during the 2009-10 offseason by Isotopes general manager John Traub, who spotted them on the premises of a kitschy Los Angeles furniture store.
Honorable Mentions: Guitar Scoreboard (Nashville Sounds), Ben Cheney seats (Tacoma Rainiers), "Hit Bull, Win Steak" sign (Durham Bulls)
Double-A: Choctaw Lazy River (Dr Pepper Ballpark, home of the Texas League Frisco RoughRiders)
The most unique and memorable group area in all of Minor League Baseball is the RoughRiders' Choctaw Lazy River. Situated beyond right field at Dr Pepper Ballpark, the 3,000-square foot figure-eight-shaped Lazy River gives swimmers and tubers the opportunity to watch the game while in the water. This truly one-of-a-kind attraction opened during the 2016 season, with Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki taking the inaugural ride.
Honorable Mentions: Lifesize Bobblehead Hall of Fame (Harrisburg Senators), Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum (Mobile BayBears), concourse train (Midland RockHounds)
Class A Advanced: Jackie Robinson Museum (Jackie Robinson Ballpark, home of the Florida State League Daytona Tortugas)
Daytona's venerable Minor League ballpark was renamed in honor of Jackie Robinson in 1990, in recognition of the fact that Robinson and his Brooklyn organization teammates played there during 1946 Spring Training. The outer concourse of the ballpark now includes a Jackie Robinson Museum, which offers photos and information related to Jackie's history-making time in Daytona. The museum also includes interactive elements, such as a long-jump sand pit. Can you jump as far as Robinson did during his illustrious track and field days? (Answer: no).
Honorable Mentions: Outfield barn (Visalia Rawhide), team-logo bathroom floors (Lake Elsinore Storm), Tito's Beach Party (Myrtle Beach Pelicans)
Class A: Former synagogue team store (Four Winds Field, home of the Midwest League South Bend Cubs)
As part of a series of ballpark renovations that took place prior to the 2013 season, the South Bend Cubs (then the Silver Hawks) refurbished a deconsecrated synagogue and made it their new team store. The synagogue, located beyond left field, operated between 1901 and 1991 and had since fallen into disrepair. Now known as "The Cub's Den," it's an unlikely majestic location to purchase hats, T-shirts and various other South Bend Cubs souvenirs.
Honorable Mentions: Nine-hole miniature golf course (Lakewood BlueClaws), The Summit group seating area (Fort Wayne TinCaps), concourse Ferris Wheel (Quad Cities River Bandits)
Class A Short-Season: Signs in Salish (Avista Stadium, home of the Northwest League Spokane Indians)
The Spokane Indians' team name, inspired by the Spokane Indian tribe, dates back to 1903. Beginning in the 1980s, the team adopted a policy of "respect through exclusion," refraining from including any Native American imagery in their logos or overall ballpark presentation. A better policy was adopted prior to the 2007 season, as the team collaborated with the Spokane tribe on a new set of logos. The fruits of this ongoing collaboration can be seen throughout the ballpark, with many signs featuring both English and the tribal language of Salish.
Honorable Mentions: Massive sunscreen (Tri-City Dust Devils), Ken Griffey Jr.'s first professional home run plaque (Everett AquaSox)
Rookie: Osprey nest (Ogren Park, home of the Pioneer League Missoula Osprey)
The Missoula Osprey are the only Minor League team that is named after an animal that lives at the ballpark in its natural habitat. Beyond right field, between the foul pole and a light stanchion, there is an elevated osprey nest. It's an ideal location for the osprey; the Clark Fork River runs directly behind the ballpark, providing a steady supply of trout.
Honorable Mention: Four-story multi-facility press box and group areas (Grand Junction Rockies)