Today I embark on my final road trip of the year, a northward jaunt through the Pacific Northwest that begins in Eugene, Ore., and ends in the international wilds of Vancouver, B.C. Stay tuned to MiLB.com and Ben's Biz Blog
for copious coverage of this excursion.
But, of course, one doesn't necessarily need to travel across the country for unique adventures -- Minor League Baseball is everywhere. With this core truth in mind, over the past several weeks I have made a point to visit an array of teams located in and around MiLB.com's New York City headquarters. What follows is a brief rundown of some of the many Minor League experiences that can be found in the northeastern part of our wildly diverse country.
Past, meet Present
The so-called "ballpark boom" of the 1990s resulted in a thorough restructuring of the Minor League landscape, with many clubs moving from antiquated mid-century facilities to those boasting far more modern amenities. But few places offer a more immediate contrast between present and past than the New Britain Rock Cats, whose New Britain Stadium is located literally next door to its old home, Beehive Field.
Ben's northeast adventures in photos »
Beehive Field (a county-owned facility now used by New Britain High School) boasts plenty of old-school charm -- rickety bleachers are the primary means of seating, and netting stretching to the back end of the stands behind home plate offers plenty (some would say too much) protection from foul balls. Beehive Field served as the home of the New Britain Red Sox from 1983 to 1995, and future Beantown luminaries who suited up for the club include Roger Clemens, Ellis Burks and Curt Schilling.
Rock Cats vice president Jeff Garner explains that the New Britain-Boston relationship ended after the 1994 season; then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette wanted the club to re-locate to Springfield, Mass., but owner Joe Buzas was intent on securing funding for a new stadium in New Britain. Boston summarily changed affiliations, setting the stage for a relationship with the Twins that endures to this day.
"By now people are used to it," said Garner of the long-standing affiliation agreement. "We're bringing a little bit of Minnesota to Connecticut."
LV is a battlefield
Last Friday I stopped at a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game, where there is nearly always an over-the-top and raucous atmosphere (the IronPigs are the top-drawing team in Minor League Baseball). Highlights abounded, perhaps most notably when two friends of mine were recruited to compete in the two minutes of ritualized violence that is the nightly "Whack an Intern" competition (think Whack-A-Mole, but with interns. It's that simple).
But I was particularly interested in the fact that my visit coincided with the team's annual "Battlefield Challenge" homestand, in which the field of play is divided up into six "battle zones." Per the team:
"During Battlefield Challenge, the actual playing field at Coca-Cola Park is divided into six battle zones which the IronPigs and their opponent try to gain control of in an effort to conquer the entire playing surface. Control is gained or lost through plays that occur on the field such as hits, RBIs and home runs. Fans can follow the action via Coca-Cola Park's videoboard. When Lehigh Valley controls all six zones, all fans in attendance are rewarded with a 40-to-50 percent discount on all food and non-alcoholic beverages."
Fortunately the IronPigs were able to conquer the field (Sebastian Valle's two-run homer in the sixth inning sealed the deal), and the resulting concessions specials were truly spectacular. I was able to procure an order of "Philly Fries" (fries topped with chopped steak, Cheese Whiz, onions and peppers) for a mere $3, while a friend of mine snagged an order of pierogies for $1.50.
On a roll in Trenton
The IronPigs feature a nightly "pork race" between a triumvirate of meat product mascots, but they're not the only local entity with an affinity for such things. One of the Trenton Thunder's signature concession products is the pork roll sandwich, a New Jersey specialty and, more specifically, a product that was invented in Trenton. I can no longer enjoy this regional delicacy due to a recent diagnosis of celiac disease, but blog reader Jeff Vervlied volunteered to do so on my behalf. His verdict was decidedly lukewarm: "It's basically a pan-fried ham," he said. "Would I serve it to guests? Probably not."
Vervlied's assessment was almost, but not quite, an unintentional haiku. Those looking for more purposeful attempts at the 5-7-5 syllable scheme would do well to tune into Thunder broadcaster Jay Burnham, who, along with his partner Josh Maurer, closes each ballgame with a baseball haiku. I was invited to contribute my own haikus to the broadcast and was particularly pleased with this meditation on that evening's starting pitcher for the visiting Harrisburg Senators: Ryan Tatusko/His name has five syllables/Ryan Tatusko
Coney Island, baby!
When it comes to memorable Minor League environments, few teams can top the Brooklyn Cyclones' MCU Park. This is a stadium that borders the iconic Coney Island boardwalk, with the ocean breeze ever prevalent and historic thrill rides (defunct and otherwise) dotting the landscape. One of the area's most popular and recognizable attractions is the original Nathan's Hot Dogs, a bastion of encased meats whose neon splendor beckons dazed straphangers emerging from the gigantic subway terminal across the street. When it comes to their concessions, the Cyclones take an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em approach." Nathan's Hot Dogs are located at several stands throughout the park, along with the fast food chain's famous crinkle cut fries.
But fans shouldn't spend too much time in the concession lines, as the Cyclones' on-field entertainment approach is action-packed. The "Beach Bums" cheerleading squad can often be spotted performing atop the dugout, and on-field MC King Henry (a locally well-known party impresario and children's entertainer) struts his stuff in a regal fashion at every opportunity. I was disappointed that, on the night I was in attendance, a ballpark denizen known only as "The Pink Ape" failed to make an appearance. Cyclones general manager Steve Cohen later explained the reason why, via Twitter: "due to excessive heat this summer, we have limited the Pink Apes appearances per NY State's 'use of animals in baseball games' law."
Good to know!
Baseball has been ferry, ferry good to me
The Staten Island Yankees are going through a tough year both in the standings and at the gate, and it is my sincere hope that the team's new ownership group undertakes some much-needed marketing and community relations initiatives.
But such matters don't dilute the pleasure of going to a game at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, which remains a unique Minor League experience. The waterfront stadium provides a wonderful view of the Manhattan skyline, which is located across the Upper New York Bay. And, best of all, fans traveling to the ballgame from Manhattan can take a FREE ride on the Staten Island Ferry to get there -- a five-mile, 25-minute journey that offers scenic views galore (including an up close and personal view of Lady Liberty herself).
In addition to the chance to see up-and-coming Yankees prospects play in the shadow of the Bronx, the so-called "Baby Bombers" offer an action-packed slate of gameday entertainment that includes a ferry race on the videoboard, ballet dancing contests between burly Staten Island men and a nightly showing of David Hasselhoff's legendarily surreal "Hooked on a Feeling" video. If that's not worth the admittedly steep $20 admission charge, then nothing is.