Last month, after stops in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction, 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 fifth 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.
Minor League Baseball stadiums are social gathering places. As such, it's a virtual guarantee that at each park you visit you'll meet interesting people. But some people make outsized impressions, either by design or simply because they can't help themselves. In this, the fifth installment of the "Ben's Best" series, I take a level-by-level look at individuals whose personalities significantly impacted -- and enhanced -- the ballpark experience.
(Note: Five of the six individuals listed appeared in the 2017 Topps Pro Debut "Ben's Biz" insert set.)
Triple-A: Fred Costello (Rochester Red Wings organist)
Ballpark organists are a rare breed these days, and there's no one in the Minors who's been tickling the (synthetic) ivory longer than Rochester's Fred Costello. A Syracuse native, Costello settled down in Rochester after a stint on the West Coast; for the past 42 seasons his quick-witted and lively playing -- as well as his "Here Come the Red Wings" theme song -- have been a significant part of the Frontier Field experience.
Honorable Mentions: Conehead (Buffalo Bisons), Lloyd "the Suspect" Broadnax (Syracuse Chiefs)
Double-A: Crazy Hot Dog Vendor (Reading Fightin Phils frankfurter dispensation expert)
Matt Jackson, the Reading Fightin Phils' director of graphic arts, has an alter-ego: The Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. Decked out in a wig, paper hat, thick-framed black glasses and a red and white vertically-striped shirt, the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor mounts his trusty ostrich Rodrigo and maniacally throws hot dogs into the crowd. It's an act that has spawned imitators around the Minors, but he's the original.
Honorable Mention: Wade Vadakin (Mobile Baybears)
Class A Advanced: Paul "Super Churros Man" Cerda (San Jose Giants vendor)
"Churro, churro, churro time, best churros!" If you hear those words ringing through San Jose's Municipal Stadium, then, well, it's time for dessert. Paul "Super Churros Man" Cerda, the man responsible for these fried dough treats, is a ballpark icon; the Giants even sell T-shirts that say "I'm just here for the churros." Last season, the team went a step further and suited up as the "Churros" while giving away Churros Man bobbleheads.
Honorable Mentions: Hot Rod Will (Lancaster JetHawks), Ace the Fastest Squirrel in the World (Lake Elsinore Storm), The fans of Ken's Place (Potomac Nationals)
Video: Power fan Toastman leads cheers
Class A: The Toastman (West Virginia Power fan, bread tosser)
Few, if any, Minor League fans are as fully committed as the Toastman (a.k.a. Rod Blackstone, deputy mayor of Charleston, West Virginia). He can be found behind home plate at every West Virginia Power game, leading cheers, displaying homemade signs, lobbing well-researched taunts at opponents and, most crucially, throwing toast in the stands after every opposing team strikeout. ("You're toast!") How does he do it? Well, the Toastman's front row seat is equipped with a nearby electrical outlet so that he can plug in his toaster.
Honorable Mention: Zeb (Greensboro Grasshoppers), Pedro Florimon Fan Club (Delmarva Shorebirds), Grace Phillips (Beloit Snappers)
Class A Short Season: Erik the Peanut Guy (Tri-City Dust Devils on-field emcee and peanut vendor)
Erik Mertens began working for the Tri-City Dust Devils in 2001, the team's inaugural season. While he was initially "just" a peanut guy, he soon took over game-day emcee duties as well. He remains a ballpark dual threat, enthusiastically officiating between-inning contests and, in the later innings, slinging peanuts into the stands. Mertens calls his "Peanut Guy" persona an "amped-up, caffeinated, super-fan version of me." It's a version that Dust Devils fans know and love.
Honorable Mentions: Rhashan (Williamsport Crosscutters), The Hanson Sisters (Hudson Valley Renegades)
Rookie: Henry "Double Out" Belcher (Bluefield Blue Jays iron-lunged superfan)
If you've been to a Bluefield Blue Jays game, then chances are that you've seen -- and heard -- Henry "Double Out" Belcher. (His nickname is a reference to his preferred term for a double play.) You can find Henry in the eighth row of the Bowen Field grandstand, bellowing out cheers and jeers that resonate throughout the scenic, rustic ballpark. His favorite targets are the umpires, whom he sometimes accuses of being so dense, they failed kindergarten four times.
Honorable Mention: Pirate Dewayne Woods (Bristol Pirates)