Cool things to see around the Sally League

West Virginia's new Power Park is one of several new stadiums that have given the historic South Atlantic League a jolt of energy in the past few years. (West Virginia Power)

February 28, 2006 4:55 AM

The South Atlantic League -- or Sally, as it's commonly called -- can accurately be referred to as the quintessential Minor League: a smorgasbord of both new and old stadiums littered throughout small towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard and Appalachia, each with its own local charm. Some ball fields, like Savannah's Historic Grayson Stadium and Hagerstown's Memorial Stadium, pre-date World War II while Greenville's new ballpark doesn't even have a name yet.

The Sally League's ballparks also seem to be arranged not only in geographic divisions but by their ages, as well. Three of the league's four stadiums that are 50+ years old are in the Southern Division while only one stadium in the Northern Division is past its 13th birthday.

Young or old, many of the Sally League's ball fields have their own unique quirk or trademark feature that makes them stand apart from not only the other stadiums in the league, but all other ballparks in the country. Let's take a quick trip around the Sally League to find some of those neat little features that help give the stadiums their own personal flavor.

Appalachian Power Park - West Virginia Power The West Virginia Power's old ballyard, Watt Powell Park, had become dilapidated and lifeless over its final years. Despite offering a beautiful panorama of the Appalachian Mountains beyond the advertisement-riddled outfield walls, the red, blue and yellow seats under the grandstand were mostly empty, and the barren white exterior left nothing to the imagination. That all changed last season with the debut of Appalachian Power Park.

Built in Charleston's downtown neighborhood, this low-lying ballpark shares the retro look and modern amenities of many new stadiums. While the Power added many new features to their current ballpark, they took the time to honor their past when they installed two rows of seats from Watt Powell Park directly underneath the scoreboard in left-center field.

The thing that separates this stadium from the rest of its Sally League counterparts is the franchise's headquarters and stadium entrance, located near the right field foul pole. This four-story red-brick building, on the corner of Morris and Lewis streets, serves as the Power's center of operations.

What used to be an abandoned warehouse is now home to the Power's ticket office, general offices, clubhouses, indoor batting cages (complete with windows to the outside) and the new Power Alley Grill, which is scheduled to open by April 1. The brand new eatery will be under the guidance of Chef Robert Wong, who was honored by Gourmet magazine as one of the country's top up-and-coming chefs, which acts as a savory complement to the up-and-coming talent in the Milwaukee Brewers system.

Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park - Charleston RiverDogs Speaking of tasty ballpark delights, Joseph P. Riley Park might have cornered the league, if not all of the Minors, in diamond delicacies. Riley Park, which opened in 1997 along the Ashley River in Charleston, S.C., has developed some of the most unusual hot dog varieties ever concocted.

Riley Park has six separate concession stands, with several of them featuring their own signature hot dog. The Greenhouse's turkey dog goes along with the stand's more health-minded fare, while The Doghouse offers the River Dog, which is an odd combination of mustard, BBQ sauce, coleslaw and okra. The Bighouse features the Jailhouse Dog, which only has sauerkraut added, but it also sells the Elvis sandwich -- The King's personal favorite snack of peanut butter, bananas and honey.

The ballpark's varied menu attracted so much attention that last April, the Food Network's Rachel Ray filmed a segment called "Rachel Ray's Ballpark Café" at Riley Park, sampling all of the stadiums best offerings. The three-part series that also looked at Boston's Fenway Park, Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium and Brooklyn's KeySpan Park.

While enjoying a selection from one of the ballpark's concession stands, you might want to wander down the right field line toward a sand-filled embankment. There you'll find Shoeless Joe's Hill, a multi-tiered area lined with palmetto trees named in honor of South Carolina native Joe Jackson, the great White Sox hitter from the early 20th century, who would have been a Hall of Famer had he not been implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Another tribute to this fallen star is planned at a new ballpark on the other side of the state.

Downtown Ballpark - Greenville Drive After the Black Sox scandal blew over, Jackson settled in Greenville, S.C. until his death in 1951. 55 years later, as the Greenville Drive prepare to enter their new ballpark, the team will honor its famous resident with his own special suite.

"What makes this suite special is that it will be our best suite, a VIP suite, and it is named after Joe since he was a Greenville native," Eric Jarinko, the Drive's Director of Media Relations said. "We've even tried to contact Ray Liotta [who played Jackson in the film "Field of Dreams"] to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Maybe we'll just put some cut-outs of Liotta around the suite, too."

While Jackson gained his fame with the White Sox, the Drive's parent organization is Red Sox, and that fact will not be lost on any patron once they enter the stadium. The new, still-unnamed stadium was built to be a miniature Fenway Park, featuring everything from the Green Monster and hand-operated scoreboard in left field, to the Bermuda Triangle in center, to Pesky's Pole in the right-field corner. All the dimensions, nooks and crannies that you would find in the Major League's oldest ballpark are exactly the same in the Minor League's youngest.

Applebee's Park - Lexington Legends A few hundred miles to the north lies Kentucky, the land of race horses and bourbon whiskey. And the designers of Applebee's Park used both of those themes throughout the stadium.

When you walk up to the stadium, you'll immediately feel like you're approaching one of the Bluegrass State's massive stables, the roof adorned with four spires resembling those of the famous Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby. The Legends went so far as to name one of their picnic areas the Budweiser Stables. And while you won't find any Clydesdales around, as many as 300 patrons can take in a Legends game in these comfortable surroundings.

Right behind home plate is where you can find a reminder of that second great Kentucky tradition of whiskey making. Maker's Mark -- one of the top-selling brands in the industry -- has set up an open-air, full-service restaurant right at field level. The fans, though, aren't the only ones that can take advantage of Maker's Mark's generosity.

Beyond left-center field, on top of a 40-foot tall bat, is a baseball covered in Maker's Mark trademarked red wax, which they use to seal each bottle of spirits. As part of a promotion, the company has pledged to make a $500,000 donation to a local charity if any Legends player hits that ball with a home run during a game.

No player has made good on the offer yet, though Hunter Pence -- the Sally League's top power hitter in 2005 -- came within 30 feet of the target during a midseason contest last year, according to Lexington's Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations, Larry Glover.

McCormick Field - Asheville Tourists So many of the new ballparks rely on eye-catching gimmicks or snazzy promotions to keep spectators coming, but there are still a few stadiums that rely on good, old-fashioned charm for repeat customers. The Asheville Tourists' McCormick Field has been charming fans for over three-quarters of a century, since the legendary Ty Cobb hit the stadium's first home run during an exhibition game back in 1924.

Built between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains in western North Carolina, McCormick Field is a simple bowl stadium with blue bleachers and red seats that are partially sheltered from the elements by a low-lying roof. What sets this little baseball outpost apart from the rest is its enormous, 36-foot tall right-field wall, which sits just 300 feet down the line from home plate.

"The Wall," as it was simply known, was a bane for many pitchers and helped many hitters move up the Minor League ladder through the years. It was torn down this past winter as part of a long-term refurbishing project for the stadium, which has already seen one facelift in 1992, but will be replaced with a modernized version, complete with a video screen and scoreboard that will be three times as long as its predecessor.

Historic Grayson Stadium - Savannah Sand Gnats As this tour winds down, it finishes with another relic from the Sally League's past. Historic Grayson Stadium would just become eligible for senior citizen benefits this year, as it enters its 65th season of service. It was originally built as a high school football stadium in 1927, and reminders are still prevalent today, with the old football press box being reinvented as a skybar on the first-base side.

The visitor's bleachers currently serve as one of the few outfield seating areas in the Minors, just beyond the left-field fence, which is a mere 290 feet from home. There are currently plans to move the fence back a few feet and tear down the stands for a grassy berm, but these changes are projected to be a few years away.

The Sand Gnats also recently changed from having an electronically-operated scoreboard to a manual one. The decision was not based on creating a specific atmosphere, but rather from an economic and safety considerations. The old scoreboard had suffered from so many lightning strikes in recent years that it was no longer operational.

A final odd quirk to this old ballyard is its brick-faced concourse. The stadium's current configuration was built back in 1941, but construction halted on Dec. 7, the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, leaving the concourse wall unfinished towards the third-base side of the stadium, and so it remains to this day.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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