I attended a game at Gwinnett County's Coolray Field on Saturday evening and ended up with termites in my pants.
It happened at the conclusion of the first inning, when I was brought onto the field while wearing a pair of billowing pantaloons. A member of the promotions staff used a slingshot to launch stuffed termites into the air, and it was my job to catch them. In my pants.
I am pleased to say I succeeded at this all-important task, safely ensconcing three of these pests betwixt my oversized trousers and lower body. I was declared a winner in front of the 7,508 fans in attendance and exited the playing field in triumph.
Now, I can die happy.
Welcome to the neighborhood
Participating in an absurdist between-inning contest is one of many potential highlights of the Coolray Field experience.
The sprawling facility, home of the International League's Gwinnett Braves, is in its second year of operation and still feels like a just-opened toy on Christmas. And that sense of newness is palpable, especially since the team is operating in a market that is getting its first taste of the Minor League Baseball experience. An Atlanta suburb, Gwinnett County is growing at a meteoric rate. Its population is approaching 1 million and it boasts one of the largest and fastest-growing public school systems in the United States.
The Gwinnett Braves played their inaugural season in 2009 after relocating from Richmond, Va. The location is a perfect fit for the franchise, and not just because of the region's burgeoning population. The club is owned by the parent Atlanta Braves and the close proximity between the two franchises greatly facilitates player transactions and scouting opportunities. The proximity also gives fans a built-in rooting interest, providing a chance to see future (and former) Atlanta players in an intimate and affordable environment.
The lack of Minor League baseball in Gwinnett County's past has been something of a challenge for the G-Braves, who need to expose fans to a more irreverent way of doing things without alienating them. When was the last time someone had termites in their pants at Turner Field?
"We're bringing everyone into the shallow end first," said G-Braves community relations director Courtney Lawson. "[Minor League baseball] is a different experience and a different perspective.
"There are still so many people in this area who don't realize we're here or that we play as many games as we do. That's why we stage as many non-baseball events as we can, because we know that once people see this place they're going to want to come back. We're very confident in our product."
At the helm of the operation is general manager North Johnson, a veteran of more than 30 Minor League seasons who most recently presided over the Carolina League's Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Johnson was hired in January, giving him a very small window to get acquainted before the onslaught of the regular season.
"It's a fun challenge, taking this over," Johnson said as he gave me a tour of Coolray Field. "After my first season in Myrtle Beach, we experienced an attendance increase of one third. And that's what I hope to do here."
If Johnson is successful, the average Coolray crowd would approach 7,000. The outsized stadium easily can handle those numbers, boasting dozens of concession stands, a sprawling grass seating area and an open concourse that allows 360 degrees of unique vantage points.
"The basics are the same here as they were in Myrtle Beach and [previous employer] Rancho Cucamonga, but I'm still learning the intricacies because everything here is on a larger scale," Johnson said.
As if to illustrate this point, he opened the doors to the kitchen that handles all the food orders in the upper-level suites. In a typical Minor League environment, the visual would be interns speedily putting plastic wrap over metal trays filled with hot dogs. At Coolray, however, there's a full-time kitchen staff operating in a fully stocked professional environment and presided over by an executive chef with extensive culinary training and experience.
A symbiotic relationship
In fact, it is chef Blake Stembridge who is responsible for one of the Gwinnett Braves' most distinct selling points: The Knucksie. Named after the specialty pitch of Atlanta Braves legend Phil Niekro, this creation features pulled barbecue pork, pickle chips, caramelized onions and two kinds of barbecue sauce served atop toasted corn bread. At CoolRay, it is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones -- the supreme concession stand experience.
What's more, The Knucksie has gotten the callup to the bigs and is now being sold at Atlanta Braves games. In exchange, the G-Braves began serving one of Turner Field's specialties: The Hammer. Named for Hank Aaron, this dish features a fried chicken breast topped with bacon, onions, cheese and mayonnaise and served on toasted waffles.
This sort of teamwork exemplifies the bigger picture in Gwinnett -- the new kid on the block working in close conjunction with the more established parent club.
"The [Atlanta] Braves have been a big help, sharing with us their knowledge of the market and giving plenty of advice on who to work with and who to avoid," said Johnson. "We're the little brother and they protect us."