Over the course of the last several seasons, I have been fortunate enough to embark on a series of Minor League road trips, with the goal of documenting how teams operate and what they have to offer.
While on these trips, it is very much my goal to take a participatory approach. I say yes to anything offered to me, whether it's the chance to take part in a mascot race or to sample a humongous new concession stand item.
I was in Fort Wayne this past Tuesday as part of my ongoing Midwest road trip, and during that evening's TinCaps game -- a doubleheader! -- this philosophy was put to the test. Over the course of five hours and 14 innings, the team's indomitable front office had me participate in a seemingly endless cornucopia of ballpark activities. What follows is my attempt to make sense of it all.
Dance rehearsal (pregame): Soon after arriving at Fort Wayne's Parkview Field, I was ushered into Brad Shank's office. In addition to serving as the team's group sales director, Shank is a member of the hip-shaking groundskeeping squad the Bad Apple Dancers. I was to be a guest dancer on this particular evening, and it was time to rehearse.
Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." was the evening's chosen song, a song with self-explanatory choreography (i.e., nod your head when Miley sings "I'm nodding my head"). All four members of the Bad Apple Dancers and I went through the routine about a dozen times. Despite the simplicity of it all, I was having a hard time keeping up. Synchronized body movement is hard work.
Radio guest (second inning, Game 1): Dan Watson, the TinCaps' lead announcer, graciously extended the invitation to join him on the radio for the second inning. I was there to promote my work as a writer and blogger for MiLB.com, but the conversation also included gratuitous plugs for the new Weird Al album as well as Watson taking me to task for not pointing out that he had mayonnaise on his face when we had met earlier in the day. It's tough to get into a conversational flow on the radio, balancing an on-air interview with the need to narrate the events of the ballgame.
Television guest (third inning, Game 1): It's much easier to get into a conversational flow during a television broadcast, as so much less of the game action needs to be described. Watson and I shifted to the TV booth for the third inning, where we discussed my recent California League road trip as well as the TinCaps' culinary specialties (Apple Bosco Sticks, anyone?). It is worth noting that the TinCaps are the only Class A franchise to broadcast every home game on television.
Burrito-eating contest (middle of the fourth inning, Game 1): As soon as my stint in the broadcast booth concluded, I was met by assistant director of marketing Abby Naas. We hustled to the center-field portion of ParkView Field's 360-degree concourse. Private Griffith (attending as part of the team's military night celebration), a teenage fan named Caleb and I were set to participate in the Qdoba Burrito Eating Contest. As soon as the top of the of the fourth inning concluded, the three of us were broadcast on the video board and instructed to chow down on a chicken burrito.
I went for a two-handed, go-for-broke approach, biting with reckless abandon and eviscerating the once-neatly packed burrito in the process. But biting is easy. Chewing, not so much, and at the end of a minute, I had as much food in my mouth as was physically possible. The approach worked, as I was declared the winner and handed a Qdoba gift card for my efforts. Not my proudest moment as a human being, but I'll take it.
Subway $5 Foot-long Fling (end of sixth inning, Game 1): For this on-field contest, I was paired up with a TinCaps season-ticket holder named Michelle. She seemed to be very familiar with the team's nightly $5 Foot-long Fling, in which foot-long heroes are shot from a t-shirt gun toward a team of contestants tasked with catching the them atop a Subway banner. "They always fire the first one too long, and then the second is too short," she advised me. But when we got to right field, carrying the banner between us, it was a different story. The first shot was in fact too short, and despite our best efforts we were unable to reach it in time. The next shot saw the sandwich fall behind us to the left, while the third was again too short. Michelle and I had gone 0-for-3, shamefacedly walking back to the stands empty-handed.
And, for the record, these are subs in name only. Shank confided to me that they are in fact a pair of rolled-up t-shirts concealed in a Subway wrapper.
Ceremonial first pitch (between Games 1 and 2): The word "first" means "being before all others," but when it comes to ceremonial first pitches the word is used exceedingly loosely. I was one of more than a dozen "first" pitch honorees prior to the start of the second game, lining up amidst a motley crew of birthday celebrators and youth baseball participants. The team set up a mat well in front of the mound itself, making the ceremonial toss quite an easy one to deliver. I was one of many who threw what could be deemed a "strike," but my offering was quickly and dramatically upstaged. A wheelchair bound Lance Corporal, recently returned from Afghanistan, concluded the conga line of first pitches by firing one right down the middle. A prolonged and heartfelt standing ovation ensued.
Bad Apple Dance routine (end of third inning, Game 2): Fortunately, I had been too busy to think about this in the several hours that had passed since our rehearsal. But as I stood in the groundskeeper's room outside the home dugout, I did feel a sense of unease. This was compounded by the fact that I had never dragged an infield before, and became worried about placing the dragger upside down on the dirt or perhaps inadvertently erasing one of the foul lines.
But once the music started playing, Miley's lyrics came to life: "The butterflies went away." We hustled from first base around to third, dropped the drags and did our routine. I messed it up a bit, turning in the wrong direction during the "Moving my hips like 'Yeah!'" section. But we repeated the routine once we returned to the first-base side, and that time I nailed it.
Party in the U.S.A.!
Guess the attendance (end of fourth inning, Game 2): Not too much to this one. At the conclusion of the fourth inning, Shank and I hopped atop the visitor's dugout so that I could take a stab at the evening's attendance. Buoyed by the aforementioned Military Night celebration (which included a pregame flyover), the TinCaps had achieved their sixth sellout of the season. Despite being announced to the crowd as a "Minor League attendance expert," I incorrectly guessed choice D (6,679). Mocking The Price is Right sound effects then ensued, as I was informed that the correct choice was A (6,724). I still scored a gift certificate to nearby Champions Restaurant for my efforts, however.
Hamster ball race (end of fifth inning, Game 2): This was perhaps the strangest experience of the night. Nass led my opponent Joe and me outside the stadium and around to the outfield groundskeeper's entrance, where two massive uninflated "Hamster Balls" were laid out on the concrete. These were then unzipped, with Joe entering the red ball while I chose green. We were told to cover our ears while a leaf blower was inserted into the opening, inflating the balls while we were inside them. It was a disconcerting experience being inside these things -- in hamster balls, no one can hear you scream. As soon as the inning ended, we were directed onto the outfield grass and instructed to race down the third-base line. Moving while inside the hamster balls turned out to be fairly easy, a matter of synchronizing the movement of hands and feet, but I nonetheless lost to Joe. This race is under protest, however, as I was in the lead until receiving a push from ticket sales manager (and race overseer) Penny Wascovich. In her defense, Wascovich says I was about to run her over.
Epilogue: The hamster ball race finally, mercifully, ended my evening of on-field participation. The doubleheader ended shortly thereafter, with the TinCaps losing to Dayton by a score of 4-2 in Game 2. But, somehow, the TinCaps still weren't done entertaining. A postgame tennis ball toss followed, with fans attempting to throw numbered balls into hula hoops laid out on the infield. And this was followed by "Kids Run the Bases," with dozens of indefatigable children motoring around the infield. By the time the final participant had stomped on home plate, it was 11:41 p.m.
Just another night in Minor League Baseball.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com.