MINOR LEAGUE BALLPARK VISITS
July 8, 2010
While in the D.C. area on business week before last, I had a chance to take in a baseball game at the G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Virginia, between the Class A Potomac Nationals and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves organization. All I can say is: What a great night at the ballpark.
When I arrived at Pfitzner Stadium, there was a small jazz band playing in the entry plaza of the ballpark, consisting of three men who appeared to be in their 50s or early 60s and a delightful young woman, perhaps a daughter of one of the trio, who appeared to be perhaps 20 to 25 years of age, named Emma Bailey (no relation to Homer, I am sure).
Dame Fortune smiled on me that night as it happened to be Dollar Beer Night at Good Old Pfitz Stadium, and after investing my first Washington on the Longhammer IPA beer stock, I sat down at a table to listen to the intoxicating (in tandem with the Longhammer) voice of young Ms. Bailey as she belted out the most hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Moondance” (Van Morrison) that I have ever heard. It was love at first sound. As I continued to fish crumpled Washingtons out of my pocket to take advantage of the bargain beers, Ms. Bailey continued to wow our small crowd with one beautiful song after another, including “Proud Mary,” “Kansas City,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Alley Cat.” On a humid, 95-degree-plus tidal basin night, I had goose bumps on almost every part of my body.
After the pregame festivities concluded, I headed inside the ballpark for my seat in the fourth row, a Longhammer IPA in each fist and a sack of salted peanuts in my shorts pocket. To my great good fortune, the National Anthem that evening was sung by none other than our beautiful young Ms. Bailey, and a more beautiful version of the song I have never before heard –– at a ballpark or elsewhere –– including prior exposures to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the great saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and, egad, even Van Cliburn. If only my Hot Stove brethren could have been with me to thrill to the phenomenal music that blessed all of us at the Pfitz that evening.
Although the Pfitz is not one of the most handsome ball yards that I have been to, there was much about it and the game to commend it to others. A few of the highlights from the evening:
I don’t know the “when” or “where,” but I can’t wait to attend the next Carolina League baseball game. This is truly baseball as it is meant to be played and seen.
June 16, 2010
I had the good fortune on Thursday evening of last week, August 6, to attend a Triple A baseball game between the Albuquerque Isotopes and the Portland Beavers at Isotopes Field in Albuquerque. This is an absolutely gorgeous ballpark, as you can see from the pictures below.
Isotopes Park is located just across the street from the University of New Mexico’s Lobos Stadium, and this beautiful little jewel offers a spectacular view of the majestic Sandia Mountains in the background, reminiscent of the beautiful ballpark in Salt Lake City. There was absolutely nothing that I didn’t like about this ballpark. Some of its best features are: great concessions (The Sweet Spot and More;
the Pecos River Café; We’re Bananas; and lots more); cold Dos Eckes and Tecate on tap; a multi-tiered cheap seat berm area in right field, with kiddie rides and all kinds of family-friendly features behind it; a big, bright, colorful scoreboard; irregular outfield dimensions, 400 feet to dead center, but 428 feet to deep right center and deep left center, due to an unusual configuration; terrific organ music (can’t believe I’m saying that); fan-friendly music, games, contests and such; and of course, a madcap monstrosity of a team mascot by the name of “Orbit” (see pictures below), which McBlunder would absolutely love to hate.
Triple A baseball in Albuquerque has a rich and long history, mostly through its long-time affiliation with the Los Angeles Dodgers. For many years, the Albuquerque franchise went by the team name of the “Dukes,” until being renamed the Isotopes in 2003 after fan voting elected to take this name from the fictional “Springfield Isotopes” of The Simpsons fame. After being connected with another major league team for most of the past ten years or so, the Isotopes once again became affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009.
Tommy Lasorda managed in Albuquerque prior to taking the helm in Los Angeles. Numerous future Dodger stars (Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Mike Marshall) made their way through Albuquerque before starring in Los Angeles. Mike Marshall was a three-time PCL MVP while playing for the Albuquerque Dukes, including his Triple Crown year in 1981. Many people consider the 1981 Albuquerque Dukes the greatest minor league team of all time.
Anyway, if you ever get the chance to visit Isotopes Park, I highly encourage you to do so.
Being the church-going types that we are, our golfing quartet attended Saturday afternoon services at the beautiful Green Cathedral known as Scottsdale Stadium, where the hometown Giants took on the visiting Padres’ spring squad. Amidst a packed house of sun-drenched baseball fans and surgically enhanced young women
looking for future major league husbands or presently-wealthy baseball sugar daddies, we had a great time watching Cactus League baseball in this beautiful jewel of a stadium. As Itchie talked shop with his autograph stalker Coleman buddy, B.T. and I reminisced about an earlier visit to Scottsdale Stadium, when a screaming missile of a foul ball split the distance between his melon and Underbelly’s grape and plunked an old boy sitting behind us with a sickening thud, fracturing at least two or three ribs. We all sipped slowly (not really) on our first-ever eleven-dollar beers (hey, I’ll get this round, I’ve got a fifty right here), and B.T. discovered the Scottsdale Stadium All-That-You-Can-Eat-In-A-Box China Buffet, tearing into his pillow-sized carton of oriental goodies like an emaciated G.I. just rescued off of the Bataan Death March. Don’t get cheated, Rommel. All in all, a fantastic day to be alive.
As if my four days in the Valley of the Sun weren’t enough to make it a great week, the rigors of my law practice called me down here to Florida for Wednesday and Thursday of this week, for the purpose of taking the deposition of Grant Balfour—currently a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, but in 2007 a member of the Nashville Sounds, and the pitcher who threw a warm-up pitch in the visitors bullpen at Rosenblatt which eluded the bullpen catcher and doinked a fan in nearby Section 11. As the defender of the Omaha Royals, and indeed of the concept of open-air baseball without a protective netting around the entire ballpark, I was compelled to travel to Port Charlotte to defend the deposition of Mr. Balfour taken by the attorney for the injured fan. While some slackers might have thought it good enough to simply attend this deposition by telephone, in my ceaseless quest for justice and civil liberty I felt it my clear duty to make the sacrifice and travel to southwest Florida for the deposition.
FIRST STOP, McKECHNIE FIELD
After flying into Tampa on Wednesday morning, my rental car, as if pre-programmed, drove itself straight into Bradenton, Florida, hometown of former Husker Tommy Frazier and the spring training site since 1969 of my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. McKechnie Field, the beautiful baseball-bauble shown above, has hosted baseball since 1923, and was completely rebuilt in 1993.
With a near-capacity crowd on hand to watch the Pirates’ contest against the Minnesota Twins, I settled into my bleacher seat amongst the sun-splashed Pirate and Twin faithful. As I scanned the ballpark to take in the glorious sights and sounds, I immediately noticed a stark contrast between the fans at McKechnie Field and the gathering that I witnessed at Scottsdale Stadium last Saturday afternoon: These Florida fans were mostly old, wrinkled, deeply tanned and apparently quite comfortable in their own skin, as opposed to the much younger, neo-affluent, narcissistic, hyper-augmented Scottsdale Stadium attendees.
It was Old School fans versus See-and-Be-Seen Pseudo fans, a Cocoon showing versus the Nip-and-Tuck generation. In about twenty more years, when he is properly seasoned and grizzled, B.T. in his Rommel chapeau and a wrinkled, too-big shirt with a mustard stain on the collar, will fit hand-in-glove with the McKechnie Field faithful.
After savoring a frosty ale and a bag of salted nuts and five innings of splendor in the warm Bradenton sun, I bade a fond farewell to McKechnie Field and its Chamber of Commerce-friendly gate attendants (average age approximately 80) and hopped into my car for the forty-five minute drive to Port Charlotte. I hoped to catch the last few innings of the Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cincinnati Reds game at the Rays’ new spring training facility (Charlotte Sports Park, also the new home of the minor league Charlotte StoneCrabs) and especially that I might get to see that evening’s deponent take the hill for an inning or two. Just as I walked into Charlotte Sports Park before the start of the eighth inning, the P.A. announced that No. 50, the aforementioned Grant Balfour, was about to take the mound for the Rays. I quickly hustled inside and found a choice empty seat right behind home plate and just in front of five crusty, 60-ish female Cincinnati Reds fanatics, and settled in to watch Balfour retire the side in order, the final two hitters by strikeout. Mission accomplished. I stuck around for the rest of the game, won by Tampa Bay by the score of 7-3, and after picking up a couple of souvenir baseballs for Joe and Will, it was back in the car and down the road a bit to the Holiday Inn Express for Mr. Balfour’s deposition.
I had a great trip to North Carolina on Monday and Tuesday, including a visit to Duke University and to Five County ballpark in Zebulon, North Carolina, home of the Carolina Mudcats, a Double-A franchise of the Florida Marlins in the Southern League. If you ever get a chance to go to Five County Stadium, take it.
It is a beautiful and quaint little ballpark that was built specifically for the Mudcats, and hence has a decidedly fishy theme (i.e., Cattails Restaurant, “catfish on a stick,” etc.). Most intriguing to me was the team mascot, “Muddy,” a five-foot tall playful and mischievous catfish who tools around the ballpark on an ATV, pranking umpires, players and fans alike.
People who really love mascots, such as Stretch, can even sign up to be a “Muddy Buddy,” which would be a feather in anyone’s cap.
Anyway, although it was colder in Zebulon than the Omaha I left behind, I stayed warm in my new Mudcats jacket and watched the Mudcats dig themselves deep (6-0) into a hole against the Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds) before rallying in the 7th and 8th innings to take a 9-7 win. I was able to see former Senator draft pick Cameron Maybin patrol center field for the Mudcats, but after a pitiable performance at the plate, I can understand why he was sent down by the parent club for more seasoning at Double-A. Still, Maybin figures to be an MLB star of the future.
Walking up to the gate at game time, for ten bucks I was able to secure a seat behind home plate that was closer to home plate than is the pitcher’s mound. I loved looking at the program and trying to spot some ex-major leaguer who is now coaching for these minor league teams. There always seems to be a spot for an ex-major leaguer. At this game, I found former White Sox pitcher Chris Bosio listed as the pitching coach for the Mudcats. There were probably others, but Bosio was the only one that I recognized.
The best part of the game, though, was watching the Mudcats pitcher, Aaron Thompson, a tall and rangy lefty who reminded me of “Meat,” the character played by Tim Robbins in Bull Durham. In the first couple of innings, when he was mostly winning the pitching battles, he was stomping around the mound like a cocky rooster. However, when he started to tire and the visiting Lookouts started to smoke his “meat” pitches all over the ballpark, he began talking to himself and pulling his hat down over his eyes and generally losing the battle to stay focused on his pitching. After getting severely tattooed by the Lookouts, he left the game after 5 innings down 6-1, and looked to be the sure loser until the Mudcats forged their nifty comeback.
One of these days we need to steer our HSL trip over to a Double-A baseball game. There’s nothing like sitting in the third row behind home plate and watching these young players before they become spoiled multimillionaires.
Although my baseball administration duties have kept me chained up close to home these past few months, I had to venture down to Wichita for the deposition of an accident reconstruction expert (read: prostitute) two weeks before last. To my great good fortune, the AA farm club of the Omaha Royals -- the Wichita Wranglers -- was in town for a game, and the white-haired stadium in which they play, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, was just a quick walk over the Arkansas River from my downtown hotel. To my delight, I learned that it was “5-dollar ticket” night at the ballpark, in which all seats to the game were priced at only half a sawbuck. My crispy green Abe Lincoln got me a seat on the aisle a mere four rows behind the home dugout on the third base side, no better place in the galaxy to watch a game.
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is a darned good place to watch a baseball game. Although the infield playing surface is curiously composed of Astroturf -- which added nothing to the ambience -- the ballpark offers a charming view of the Wichita skyline, which is nothing to write home about, but pleasant enough. The scoreboard is old style, sans jumbotron and blaring rap music. The cleverly-named seating sections in the stadium offer “Marshall,” “Sheriff,” “Deputy,” and “Outlaw” game seats. Or, if one is particularly adventuresome, he or she can watch the game from the “Sunset Saloon,” featuring seating for 180 fans in front of the visitor’s bullpen down the right field line. If only the Omaha Royals had this kind of crackerjack marketing plan, they wouldn’t have to think about replacing Rosenblatt.
My program informed me that Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was built in 1934 to play host to the National Baseball Congress World Series, which continues to be an annual event at this ballpark. The park was originally named for Robert Lawrence, an influential former Wichita mayor and civic leader. Hap Dumont, the founder of the NBC tournament, was added to the marquee in 1972. The ballpark seats 6,111 fans, but if there were 300 people in attendance on the evening of May 30, I would be surprised. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is currently the 7th oldest ballpark in use in all of professional baseball. Which makes one wonder, what are the six ballparks that are older?
As the game start time neared, the National Anthem was sung by the gaily-festooned Air Capital Quartet, a cheerful band of aging baby boomers who knocked the socks off of the small but vocal throng in attendance with their harmonic rendition of baseball’s greatest song. And with that, the game was under way.
Unfortunately for the hometown faithful, the woeful Wranglers were pummeled by the visiting Frisco Roughriders, dropping their record to 22 and 30 and sinking them lower into the Texas league standings. Inasmuch as this will be the Wranglers’ last season in Wichita -- they are moving next year to the Bentonville, Arkansas area, where they will no doubt be renamed the Wal-Mart Mega-Merchandisers, or something similar -- this is not the way that the Wrangler faithful had hopes to finish their stay in Wichita.
Knowing of his love of wacky sports mascots, I heartily encourage our beloved Brother McBlunder to attend a Wranglers game before the end of this season, if for no other reason than to be able to set his eyes on Wilbur the Wrangler, a Mr. Ed look-alike who added great joy and frivolity to all in attendance on this magical evening. As I learned throughout the course of the evening, Wilbur is a bodaciously mischievous but lovable horse-like mascot whose madcap antics included “sneaking” out onto the playing surface and whipping the crowd into a lather by holding up a homemade sign which encouraged the rabid throng of attendees to chant, “Swing, batter, swing!” What will these crazy mascots come up with next?
And if that wasn’t enough, in the top of the 8th, who should show up at the ballpark but the “Garbage Gremlin,” encouraging all good little ballpark boys and girls to “clean up their litter” and to make the place tidy for the following evening’s game.
And if I forgot to mention it, one of the whimsical features of baseball at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is the sound of a horse whinny (no doubt that of Wilbur) whenever a foul ball hits the press box or comes in close proximity to it. Nice touch.
The World Baseball Congress has its own remarkable history, which is detailed in numerous places in the concourse. For example, Joe Garagiola played at this stadium during WW II, when he was stationed at an army base in Wichita as an 18-year-old. More recently, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Pete Incaviglia all played at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium as members of the same baseball team, participating in the 1982 (if memory serves) WCBC National tournament. Oddly enough, this talent-laden team did not even make it to the championship game that year.
And so on and so forth. I also learned that when the WBC hosts its national tournament in August, covering a 10-day time frame, the participant teams play around the clock during the concluding weekend of the tournament. Imagine playing your way through the losers bracket with a 4 a.m. start time! One of these days, I suggest that we load up the mobile sewage treatment plant and head the gang south to Wichita to attend this history-rich event.
During our family vacation, we took a drive to Sacramento and we had an opportunity to take in a minor league baseball game between the Sacramento River Cats, a Triple A farm club of the Oakland A’s, and the Colorado Sky Sox, the top farm club of the Colorado Rockies. The game was played at Raley’s Field, which is no great work of architectural wonder, but we did have a chance to see former Husker great Shane Komine pitch his final game for the River Cats before being called up to the Majors for his debut on July 30. Komine had a perfect game going through the first three or four innings, before giving up a blooper single to center field. He ended up pitching a gem of a game, going 8 innings and giving up 4 hits, while striking out 9 and walking not a single man. He has definitely put on a few pounds, and looks ready to begin a nice major league career. Had we known that he was going to debut in Oakland on Sunday, we probably would have made the drive to the Bay area that day to see him pitch, but I didn’t know about this until seeing the news that evening.
Also playing for the River Cats that day was former Husker hitting great Dan Johnson, who had been recently demoted by the parent club. With three hearty Husker fans there to cheer him on, Johnson smashed out a monster home run to right field that may still be bouncing in the parking lot, having cleared the fence by about 60 to 70 feet. As Possum might say, “The boy can ‘rake.’”
One final comment from this game in Sacramento. I noticed right away that the Sacramento catcher had about the biggest posterior and thickest chassis that I have ever seen on a baseball player, and I even pointed this out to the boys before I noticed in the program that his name was Jeremy Brown. I then remembered reading about Billy Bean drafting a big, slow-footed catcher from Alabama in the classic work “Money Ball.” Sure enough, they are one and the same. As I remember it, he was drafted by Bean because he had a very high on-base percentage, in spite of the fact that he has a very ugly, nonathletic-appearing physique. At the time of our game in Sacramento, Brown was only hitting about .240 or so, and his on-base percentage wasn’t published in my program, but I am guessing that he has been able to earn a lot of free passes. It will be interesting to see if he makes it up to the parent club and has any impact.
On Monday afternoon, after finishing with my deposition preparation sessions in Solon, Ohio, an eastern suburb of Cleveland, I drove down Highway 9 to Akron, Ohio, to catch a AA baseball game between the Akron Aeros and the Altoona Curve, a farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Had the Cleveland Indians not been away on a long road trip, I would have taken in a game or two at Jacobs Field, but since this was not an option, Akron turned out to be a pretty good alternative. While it is always a thrill to see a major league baseball game when I am in a major league city, I have recently found that attending minor league baseball games can be every bit as enjoyable, and certainly a much more intimate experience.
The Aeros play in a beautiful little jewel of a stadium known as Canal Park, located in the heart of downtown Akron. One of the coolest things about this ballpark is that it is located right next to a children’s hospital, and it looks like there must be 30 or 40 patient rooms which look out onto the field and which seem to afford a good view of the game to ailing children. On the opposite side, just outside the right field fence, there is a restaurant and bar which offers an enticing target to a left-handed pull hitter. I imagine that a few dinners and cocktail parties on the terrace have experienced the thrill of a ball being hit into their vicinity.
For a mere ten bucks, I had a terrific seat between home plate and third base, thankfully in the shade on this 95-degree evening. I shared the ballpark with several thousand participants and spectators of the National Soap Box Derby championship, which apparently is a fixture in Akron. Together we saw the hometown Aeros pummel the visiting Curve by a score of 7-1, featuring a grand slam by a promising young Aero named Kevin Kouzmanoff. I expect that he will be playing with the parent club -- the Cleveland Indians -- later this season when the major league teams expand their rosters, or at some point within the next couple of years. One of the side benefits of watching minor league baseball is seeing the future stars of the game before they hit it big.
No sooner had I landed home in Omaha from St. Louis than I had to pack for my next day’s trip to Salt Lake City for a couple of depositions. Justice knows no state borders. After finishing up official business in Park City on a beautiful Monday, I checked the local paper and learned that the Salt Lake City Bees, the Triple A farm club for the Los Angeles Angels, were hosting the Las Vegas 51s at Franklin Covey Field. So, lo and behold, my night’s entertainment was laid out before me.
When I arrived at the ballpark, about a mile due south of downtown Salt Lake, I saw what Rosenblatt Stadium once was and could be again: a beehive of activity, bustling with excited fans eagerly anticipating an evening of great minor league baseball and camaraderie. A sawbuck purchased a box seat directly behind the Bees’ dugout, where I immediately spotted Nuke LaLouche -- I mean Jered Weaver, freshly sent down from the parent club for more seasoning. Seeing Weaver and several other fuzz-faced teammates standing up in the dugout and eagerly leaning over the rail to watch the start of the game was a breath of fresh air, particularly when contrasted with the bored complacency of certain unnamed veteran major leaguers. The truth is, I knew immediately that I was in for a special evening.
The game was a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and smells, flooding the senses. The 51s had a big ol’ lefty on the mound, whose name I didn’t catch, but his batterymate was a young Hispanic named Dinor Navarro, whose batting average that night dipped from .045 to .042 (truly), but who is obviously on the team because he has a rocket launcher for a right arm, gunning out several would-be base-stealing Bees. The 51s also featured a hot-headed and erratic right-fielder by the name of Delwyn Young, whose play in right field can best be described as Lonnie Smith-like. Delwyn, who may or may not be related to Dmitri and the other mendacious Young, looked like he was on roller skates as he moved across the outfield trying to rendezvous with fly balls in his zone of responsibility. More than once when he realized that his mental vector diagram was off course, he started flapping his wings like a frenzied hummingbird as he attempted to shift directions to meet up with the white sphere, ultimately using his left arm to stab into the air like an errant knight to spear the ball. Some of the ugliest outs imaginable. Lonnie would look downright fluid alongside Delwyn.
Howie Kendrick, the Bees’ second baseman, made some of the loudest outs in memory as he watched his still-glistening batting average drop from .402 to .398. With Howie’s superlative batting average, his power, his speed and his prowess as a member of the keystone combination, it is hard to imagine why this guy isn’t in the Bigs. It’s not like the Angels have Rogers Hornsby or Eddie Collins playing at the second sack spot or anything.
Any one of you would have enjoyed watching Bees Coach Eppard, No. 10, a grizzled veteran baseball man, manning the box at first base, stopwatch in hand to time the throws, something sage to say to each and every Bees baserunner. I’d like nothing more than to sit down and have a cup of coffee, or better yet, a tall mug of cold beer, with Coach Eppard, to ask him a hundred questions about his career in baseball.
There was so much to like about this night at the ballpark that I can’t even begin to capture it in words, but I’ll try anyway: The Bees’ pitcher, Dustin Mosley, with his rocking-chair, fast-pitch softball pitcher windup, gritting it out for a complete game victory; the organist playing “Ooh, What a Lucky Man He Was,” when an opposing player rapped out a base hit, or “These Boots Are Made For Walking” when a player got a free pass; the perpetually happy Bumblebee mascot (Stretch would not be pleased) cruising around the field in his ATV, whipping the park youth into a frenzied lather; fresh, salty peanuts from local legendary vendor Western Nuts; the wholesome Utah Dairy Queen (no kidding) working the crowd, giving autographs; the educated Bees fans voting Yogi Berra as the most popular Salt Lake City minor leaguer ever, besting David Ortiz, Mickey Rivers, and former Bronx Bomber Tony Lazzeri; the Del Taco logo on the home and away batting circles; the “Injured? Go with the big hitter 1-801-ITS-EASY Keith Barton” lawyer advertisement adorning (putrefying) the top of the home dugout; the nubile young Honey Bees working the crowd, tossing Frisbees and tee-shirts, spreading enormous cheer and good will; the big tough Utah rancher sitting a few rows in front of me, with his finely waxed handlebar mustache and fingers the size of polish dogs, affectionately patting his red-headed pre-teen son on the back, sharing the bond of baseball; seeing 95%-deaf Curtis Pride, No. 19, veteran of many major and minor league campaigns, poised in the dugout and ready to be sent in if called upon by his manager, in this the last of his remarkable career. I’d love to be there when the crowd rises as one to applaud his legacy when he takes the field for the final time.
And perhaps best of all, this splendid day at the park blessed me with a million dollar view of the spectacular Wasatch mountain range to the east, framed perfectly by the ballpark architects, so beautiful that you just didn’t want to stop looking at it to watch the game. Heaven on Earth, right here at the ballpark.
If any of you ever have the opportunity, I heartily recommend a trip to Franklin Covey Field in Salt Lake to see a minor league game. You will not regret it.
Today and yesterday I had the good fortune of being able to visit Greenville, North Carolina, the resting place of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous--some would say infamous--major league baseball star for whom Joe Jackson Ernst is named. Shoeless Joe was born near here in the little mountain town of Pickens in northwest South Carolina in 1889, and returned to this area and settled in Greenville after he was railroaded out of baseball following the 1920 season in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series. Even though Jackson led both teams in batting average during the 1919 World Series (.375); led his team in runs scored (5) and runs batted in (6); hit the only home run of the whole Series; even though he didn’t make any errors in the field during the Series; and even though he was acquitted in the 1921 conspiracy trial, he was banished from the game by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis at the peak of his career. Moreover, Jackson has been kept out of the Major League Hall of Fame in Cooperstown because of the 1919 Series scandal, in spite of “retiring” with the third highest career batting average (.356) of all time.
Jackson used a bat called “Black Betsy” to get his many hits, and had a swing so pretty that it is said that Babe Ruth copied his swing from Shoeless Joe. Not only was Jackson a wonderful hitter, he was a swift and talented outfielder. It was said that Jackson’s glove was where “triples go to die.”
The town of Greenville erected a statue to Joe Jackson in the West Market area of downtown, which I visited this morning. Jackson is buried in this city as well, and there is a Joe Jackson Memorial Park, but time did not permit me to visit these two shrines. Next time, definitely. I was told that people regularly visit his place of burial and leave baseballs, letters and other memorabilia behind at his grave.
A trial deposition of Dr. James Sanders in the Estate of Daniel Messinger case brought me down to Asheville, North Carolina, yesterday. Since my flight to Asheville was scheduled to arrive there in the late afternoon, I thought that I should try to find a minor league baseball game in the area to watch, but in checking on the internet, I learned that the Asheville, N.C. Triple A team was playing on the road, as was the Knoxville, Tennessee minor league team. However, I discovered that the Greenville Braves of the AA Southern League were in town, and that Greenville was only an hour drive from Asheville, so Greenville, S.C. became my subdestination for this business trip. It was a brilliant, if seat-of-the-pants, decision.
After flying into Asheville, I drove down to Greenville on Highway 25, a drive of a little over an hour. I went directly to the center of the city and found a stately old hotel, known as the Westin Poinsett. It is a beautiful old hotel that recently underwent a $25 million refurbishment, and has a great deal of character. The price wasn’t bad, and they had a room at the inn for me, so I checked in and dumped off my belongings so I could head for the Greenville Municipal Stadium to see my first Double A minor league baseball game. What a terrific experience.
After arriving at the ballpark, I went up to the ticket window to see what was available. I learned that I could either put down $6.50 for a general admission ticket and sit in the bleachers, or pay a whopping $2 more and get a box seat in the front row directly behind the visitors’ dugout. I paid the extra two bucks for this premium spot. One of the two young ladies in the ticket booth told me I was a dead ringer for their local weatherman on Channel 4, while her giggling friend said I looked just like the sportscaster. After debating the issue, they decided that I was a mixed breed, looking halfway like the weatherman and halfway like the sportscaster. Like almost all of the people that I have come across in North and South Carolina, these young ladies were very friendly and advanced well the notion of Southern hospitality.
Being inside the Greenville baseball park is a slice of Americana. The field is a gorgeous combination of bright green grass and the reddish-brown dirt/clay that is native to this area. The outfield fence consists of three rows of large billboards, stacked one on top of the other. There is an ad for Ingles Supermarkets on the third tier of billboards in right center field which contains a circular bull’s eye, with the promise of a $1000 award if a player hits the bull’s eye. The vendors sell Thomas Creek beer and Grandpa’s Cajun Boiled Peanuts. The ballpark holds maybe 3000 people, and there were maybe 500 or 750 present for the game I attended.
I was going to buy a program, but the friendly lady at the concession stand handed me a free roster sheet showing the updated roster and stats of the Greenville Braves and their visiting opponents, the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. After grabbing a beer and some peanuts (of course), I headed down to my seat directly behind the visitors’ dugout. Joe and Will would have loved being there, because there was ready and unfettered access to autographs from the visiting players, who were only an arm’s length away. At the AA level, these young players are not yet spoiled or snooty and don’t charge for autographs, but give them away happily and freely.
The only other person in my row was a young lady named Diane who has season tickets two seats from where I was sitting, and who keeps score of each and every inning of each and every home game. Her friend Sheila sat in the row behind us. Sheila roams the stadium during games taking pictures of the Braves’ players, and then gets autographs from them. Diane, a divorced sales manager for a medical devices company, appeared to be in her late 30s, and Sheila, a mom and baseball fanatic who appeared to be in her mid-40s, are what I would call baseball “groupies,” and they reminded me a lot of the movie Bull Durham, in which actress Susan Sarandon played the part of a baseball groupie who followed a team and her young baseball playing boyfriend to each and every game.
Diane was a rich source of information on the Braves, generally knowing where each player came from and was headed to; about who was hot, and who was not; about who was a promising prospect, and who was a washed up has-been; and the like. When I asked her whether the starting pitcher for the Braves, Bubba (not kidding) Nelson, was a good pitcher, her simple response was that “He’s getting better.” I think she just couldn’t bring herself to utter any critical words about one of her “boys,” even though as the game wore on it was apparent to me that Bubba isn’t likely to be in the major leagues any time soon. To say the least, Diane was a well-informed fan, and it was a treat to sit near her and hear all about Southern League baseball. She invited me back to join her again for tonight’s game against the Diamond Jaxx, but I told her that I had to get back to Omaha. She was pretty impressed, by the way, when I told her all about Harbor Field, and in particular, about Joe Ernst being named after Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Sheila was less knowledgeable about baseball, and seemed to be more infatuated with the players. She proudly showed off her sheet with six pictures of the pitcher from the previous night’s game, Adam Wainwright, a handsome 6-foot-6, 190-pound 21-year-old who was a first round draft choice of the Braves organization in 2000. Sheila beamed as she showed us where Adam had autographed four of the six pictures that she had taken of him when she collared him at the ballpark earlier that evening.
I can’t forget to mention how interesting it was to watch the batboy for the visiting Diamond Jaxx, a local lad wearing a Braves uniform who bore a striking resemblance to the banjo-playing boy from the movie Deliverance. I don’t know how to describe him without sounding cruel, but he appeared to be the product of some hillbilly inbreeding. He certainly was having a good time at the game, exchanging glances, conversation and hand signals with everyone whose eyes he met in the stadium.
The Greenville Braves won the game by a score of 6 to 5, with 22-year-old pitcher Mike Nannini--just promoted from Roundrock, where he had a 7-and-10 record last year--picking up the win. Nannini started the game with five perfect innings before the Braves broke through for two runs in the bottom of the 6th. I also saw Jose “Hose” Velasquez, a 27-year-old from Guayama, Puerto Rico, hit his first home run of the season. At age 27 and still playing AA ball, Jose is probably a real long shot to make it to the major leagues.
This was my first minor league baseball game other than seeing the Triple A Omaha Royals playing at Rosenblatt. After this great experience, I am definitely planning on trying to work minor league baseball into my/our future travel plans, business and vacation.