I have never heard a man laying on his death bed with seconds to live mumbling how he just didn't spend enough time in the office. What's wrong with us Dad's? Why do we keep telling ourselves that this year is going to be different? This year I will lose 20 pounds. This year I will read my Bible cover to cover. This year I will be a better father! Well, this year I will be a better father.

When you close your eyes and vision that perfect childhood memory, what do you see? For me, it was the smell of Wrigley Field (for better or worse). It was the sound of the organ, the roar of the crowd, and the electric energy that follows the game that I loved best...Baseball! I wanted those same memories for my kids. We live just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina which puts us right in the middle of some of the best minor league baseball in the country. I figure I have a good 12 years left with my kids in the house and time is flying by. I cancelled a few meetings and took them to our local ballpark.

I have 3 kids ages 6, 12, & 14. They are great kids and I love every minute that I get to spend with them. I want to start creating a legacy of memories that continue for many generations. Baseball will live long past me and will continue to provide those memories in my absence. The purpose of this blog is to not only document the moments I get to spend with my kids, but analyze every minor league ballpark in the United States. My kids will be doing the analysis as well as many of the blog posts. What ballparks are family friendly? What parks give your family the most for their money? What do the players have to say about their team and the park they play in? Who has the coolest uniforms? Right from the mouth (or fingers) of babes. That's 240 teams in 12 years, an average of 20 games per year. We might not reach our goal...but man is it going to be fun trying!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Jupiter Hammerheads / Palm Beach Cardinals

Jupiter Hammerheads / Palm Beach Cardinals - 8.2
     Five miles in from the majestic coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Jupiter, Florida you will find a series of well placed geometrically designed shapes.  No, these are not the lost lines of the Nazca Indians or mysterious crop formations designed by visitors from other planets.  These are the fields surrounding Roger Dean Stadium.
     Every spring this facility is overrun by two unique species of bird and fish.  It is the home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins.  So whether a player is called to report to the major league camp or are working their way up through the minors, everyone reports to the same location.  Roger Dean Stadium not only plays host to over 170 games in a year, but is also a "Mecca" for baseball in March for two very exciting clubs.
     When the park is not hosting major league talent, it is home to the Jupiter Hammerheads and the Palm Beach Cardinals. Both are Single A Advanced teams in the always sunny Florida State League.  Since 1998, this park has been host to a plethora of big league talent in both ball clubs from the major league and minor league perspective.  Some notable names are: Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo "Mike" Stanton, Miguel Cabrera in 2002, Andrew Miller, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Matt Carpenter.
     Our visit this trip was hosted by Jason Cantone, who is the assistant GM at Roger Dean Stadium and the GM of the Jupiter Hammerheads.  Upon immediately entering the Hammerhead's clubhouse, we could tell that this was a busy park.  The offices were scattered with giveaways from every unique and creative promotions.  People were running around giving little thought to what anyone else was doing.  We settled in to Jason's office to find out exactly what makes this ballpark and club so successful.
Parking - 9
     I can't imagine what parking is like during Spring Training at this ballpark.  We were fortunate to find street parking outside the ballpark and did not have to pay to park.  It did look like there was grass lot parking along the left field section of the park and a parking garage across from the home plate entrance.  Street parking is available on the right field street parallel with the St. Louis Cardinals training facility.  We parked our car, and in HWTM tradition, proceeded to the main entrance to Roger Dean Stadium.
Out of Park Experience - 10
     We were invited to the stadium on a Thursday night, so not much was happening in the surrounding community.  Taking the opportunity to add some steps onto my iPhone pedometer, we walked around the neighborhood to see what there was for a family to do.  Along with every brand of beer from multiple bars and breweries, there were a lot places to get some food.  You can find everything from a burger to sushi, a quick meal or a sit down restaurant.  There is a hotel directly across the street and let's not forget that the ocean is a beach ball throw away.  I can see why this park is as busy as it is.  If you are a fan coming to watch a major or minor league game or one of thousands of amateur baseball events that take place year round, you will be entertained every hour of the day.
Ticket Price - 10
Click to Find Seats
     The Hammerheads have plenty of ticket options to get you to the games.  Individual tickets can be purchased for $9 for adults and $7 for kids.  Veterans and active military are always free with an ID.  Since every seat is a general admission seat (my favorite option), everyone has the chance to sit anywhere you enjoy watching the game.  You can also purchase group packages that give you various benefits like meeting the team or playoff tickets.  Although Spring Training tickets are a bit more expensive, you can't beat the deal to be that close to these superstars.
Team Store - 8
     Walk into the ballpark and take an immediate right to find all four club's Team Store.  The store was well organized and had plenty of options for both fans.  The prices were moderately set and a good discount area was provided for the budget conscious family.  Parks need to realize that families with a few kids can't dish out $30 per kid for a hat.  My youngest's go to is the famous team mini bat.  I bought a Hammerhead and Ethan went with the Palm Beach Cardinals.  I still have not been able to convince him that "real" baseball players curve their bills.  Oh
Team Hat / Logo - 8
     I find myself needing to control my bias while rating this category.  As a life long Cubs fan, it is difficult to not only own a piece of merchandise that has a cardinal on it but to review it in a positive light as well.  I will try my best.  
     Both clubs have a very unique and contagious brand.  The clubs have done well at using colors that people like to wear while staying true to what makes each club special.  This is very important when you consider that these clubs share a field and play each other over 15 times per year.  They are in essence competing for their fan base under the same star lit roof.  These clubs both have multiple uniforms and although they I did not see any hat variation, they offer their fans a lot of ways to catch their fever.
Ball Park Bling - 6
      That Thursday night we walked right into Woman's Business Night.  The concept seemed great, but I did not see a lot of women coming to the park just for that event.  I give them an A for effort.  There is always so much for boys and baseball fans to do at the park.  Giving the "non-baseball fan" mothers a chance to connect and add purpose to their night out is fantastic.  
     I am not sure if it was the night we came or a regular practice, but there was not much for the kids to do.  Being a baseball purest, I want my kids to watch the game.  I am also a baseball realist in that my 7 year old sometimes needs something to do in between eating and chasing players down for balls.  I did see a few deflated bouncy houses, but their lack of air was not doing me much good.  I am not a big fan of diluting the game just for the sake of entertainment, but a good balance must exist.  Maybe we just caught them on an off night.  
Seating - 9
     If you are not a fan of the sun, don't sit down the first base line.  We started out behind home plate and as the sun went down, worked our way around the park.  The cool thing about general admission tickets is we could sit anywhere that we liked.  The Hammerheads are also experimenting with their Bullpen Club in right field.  They will offer four-top tables and a new way to watch the game.  Jason made a great point on the psychology of seat selection.  He remembered the games that he went to his father when he was a kid and how they would always try to sit on the first base side at every game.  He doesn't know why, but he always finds himself walking into the park and taking a right.  Baseball is full of memories that help shape who we are and sometimes...where we sit.
Food - 8
     Once the seat selection was accomplished, it was time to answer the calling of our stomachs.  Jason recommended we look at what he called the "Dean Dog".  It is a footlong hotdog that provides you with twelve inches of intestinal goodness.  If a deal is what you are looking for then Thursday is the day to venture out.  Regular sized hot dogs and soda were only $1.  Just coming from a large lunch, we opted for the $1 meal.  The dog was well cooked and the soda will last you if you ask for it without ice.  A family of five could easily eat on Thursday night for $10.  Very nice!
Bathrooms - 8
     Roger Dean Stadium used their bathrooms to the fullest and here is why.  I really liked how they incorporated advertisement.  They realize that they have a "captive" audience with nothing to do but read a few signs.  They were the first club that actually advertised inside the urinal...hmmm...interesting.  They even had a reminder as you were leaving to check out the Team Store.  The restrooms were clean and well lit.  My only complaint was the bathroom I visited was being used as a part time storage closet for picnic tables.  
Hype Man / Mascot - 6
     The Jupiter Hammerheads did not use an on-field hype person.  At this game, they made their announcements from above with staff controlling the chaos from below.  Doing this gets the job done, but does not get the fans into the action like someone talking on the field.  They provided fun mid-inning entertainment such as their mascot racing a pizza and some other food item I could not identify.  I was not sure of the significance of the other food items, but it was fun to watch.  
     Hamilton R. Head is a 7'5" hammerhead shark who's hero is Aquaman and favorite golfer is Greg Norman.  He was not an overly energetic shark and had bulging eyes that seem to stare right into your soul.  Mr. Head did have a way with the kids though.  Unlike most oceanic predators, Hamilton was great with kids and seemed to be pretty safe to share the water with.
Kid's Thoughts - 8.2
     Ethan enjoyed the visit to the Jupiter Hammerheads and the Palm Beach Cardinals.  The ballpark, although dark and concrete in appearance at first, opened up into beautiful landscape of grass, white chalk, and palm trees.  Looking out at the major league clubhouses in right and left field add a tinge of "cool factor" knowing who plays here every spring.  Roger Dean Stadium provides you with almost year round entertainment at all levels.  This is a gem in the community that not only provides hours of fun for the locals but offers a haven to weary beach goers that have travelled here from more unfortunate climates.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Daytona Tortugas

Daytona Tortugas - 8.4
     For most people that travel to Daytona Beach, their trip ends at the Dayton Speedway.  What they don't know and what I am imploring you to discover, is a rare gem of baseball history placed neatly on City Island by the baseball gods.  Constructed in 1914, this 102 year old icon of baseball history has seen baseball at its best and baseball at its worst.  It broke barriers in 1946 by becoming the first ballpark in America to allow a black man to play Major League Baseball in a sport dominated by the opinions of ignorant people.  Jackie Robinson, the field's namesake, first walked on to that field as a Montreal Royal given the chance by the great Branch Rickey to break the long standing color barrier.  
     "The Jack" reminds you of everything that is pure about baseball.  It is the iron and concrete, the echo of the crowd off of the old grandstands, the ghosts of baseball's past that sit next to you while cheering for your favorite player, and so many other things that immediately brought me back to my childhood.  The Daytona Tortugas are a Single A Advanced affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs before that.  While taking a walk around the field, we quickly noticed the "Wall of Fame."  Some of the 190 names that have made it to the Show are Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Chris Archer, Jeff Samardzija, Kerry Wood, and the great Ryne Sandburg to only name a few.
      We had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with the Tortugas General Manager, Josh Lawther.  We grabbed a drink and headed for the nearest picnic table.  It was a perfect back drop to talk baseball.  The setting sun was hitting the Halifax River just right, making the steady breeze blowing in from the ocean an almost hypnotic experience.  I could tell right away that Josh was passionate about his club.  We dove into the history as well as the future direction of the Tugas.
Parking - 9
     You would think that on a tiny island it would be difficult to find good parking.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was wrong.  Parking is located behind right field in the court house parking lot and will only cost you $2 cash.  It is a very short walk if you want to enter the park from right field but keeping with Hanging with the Minor's tradition we walked to the main entrance, and I would recommend everyone do the same.  Take a minute to get your picture taken with Jackie and give a quick salute in appreciation to everything he accomplished.
Out of Park Experience - 10
     Hello...this is Daytona Beach, do I need to say more?  You have quick access to the Dayton Speedway, plenty of food and libation options on Beach Street, and you are a short drive away from the Daytona Beach Boardwalk.  There is something to do in this town no matter what the season is.  You won't have a problem making a day of it at this park.
Ticket Price - 10
     General admission tickets can be purchased for $8 for adults and $6 for kids, seniors, and military.  There are also VIP tickets that you can purchase at the door for $12.50 which include your own wait staff...very nice!  The Tugas also provide package deals for children and seniors as well as flex plans so families can attend multiple games at a discounted rate.  They also feature what they call Belly Buster Mondays and that is exactly what it is.  For a $12 GA ticket, you can eat all that your heart (or belly) desires.  I will explain this in the food section.  Ethan and I did not take much deliberation on our score for ticket price and selection.  This is the best deal in town...a perfect 10.
Team Store - 5
     If there is one area that can be improved on at this park, this is the area.  It looks like they took an old concession area underneath the home plate grandstand and converted it into their team store.  The front of the store is exposed to the elements with a mesh net covering another side.  The apparel is located outside the concession booth for the public to browse through different t-shirst, sweatshirts, and jerseys.  I didn't like that the on-field hats were kept inside the booth and not accessible to shoppers.  These hats are like snowflakes (no two are alike) and need to be handled before purchase, especially when considering the big difference in quality between US and China made hats.  (I will explain this in a future article)  I had to settle for a China made 59Fifty for the comfortable price of $28.  The shop was convenient and the prices were fair, but it was difficult to shop and the selections were few.  Hey...we can't all be perfect.  I did like the fact that they had a merchandise guy walking around the park promoting the brand.  I have not seen this in a lot of other parks, but I like the convenience. 
Team Hat / Logo - 10
      How do you argue with Baseball Digest when they named the Daytona Tortugas as the Best New Logo/Branding for the year of 2015?  I am not going to.  After an affiliation change, the Daytona club quickly found themselves needing a complete makeover...and that is exactly what they got.  Not only was the green and white Spanish turtle well received by the home crowd, but widely accepted as "must have" merchandise across the country.  This is also the only hat that I saw at multiple parks during our tour of the Florida State League.  
Ball Park Bling - 9

     The Tortugas provide a unique experience that is very different than most parks.  They don't have huge bouncy houses, a massive series of playground sets, or beautiful fountains that dance in the sunlight.  What they do have is a lesson in baseball that all kids need to experience.  They show the sport in all of the glory that made watching players like Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Willy Mays, and Hank Aaron so special.  I mean this with all the sincerity I can muster when I say that I actually felt like my father getting ready to watch my baseball heroes in the 1950's.  
     You enter the park and your eyes are immediately captured by the beautiful Halifax River.  Your site line moves left to right taking in the brick courtyard and the high concrete grandstands that makes the crowds voices echo back and forth.  The night we visited was a food extravaganza.  For the price of your ticket you are given a band that gives you unlimited food samples from vendors around the community.  You also quickly notice the Jackie Robinson timeline of accomplishments along the river.  You can test your skills at the sports Jackie excelled at while at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA.  These activities include track & field, football, and basketball.  I did not want to embarrass anyone with my 2" vertical, but if the mood strikes you go ahead and measure yourself compared to Jackie.  You not only learn of the accomplishments of great leaders from the past, but you can participate in them as well.  Parents can teach their kids along with learning a few things themselves.  We are never too old to do that.  As previously re-quoted by the great Winston Churchill, "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."    
     The Jack also features a nice playground set for kids behind the first base grandstand and plenty of room for kids to run and chase foul balls next to right field.  The most important things to remember at this park, is that you are here to watch a game and to watch the game the way it was years ago.  It is the perfect balance between young and old.
Seating - 8
     During our talk with Josh Lawther, we asked him to point us in the direction of his favorite seats.  Without hesitation he told us to head for the top row of the 3rd baseline bleachers.  Not only is it the highest elevation to watch the game and get a breeze, but the view of the bridge going over the Halifax River on its way to the ocean is absolutely breathtaking.  If you consider yourself a ball hunter, this is also a great location.  Have your glove ready because it is a magnet for a left hander foul.
     I would also recommend checking out the grandstand.  They are actual seats compared to the bleachers and great protection during the rain.  The only negative is the direct beams from the sun.  This area is very bright so either bring your sun glasses or move to the bleachers out of the sun.  You can also try the Bullpen in right field if you are feeling thirsty and want to have a conversation with the team's pitching staff.

Food - 9
     We were lucky to be invited to the park on Belly Buster Monday.  We had unlimited access to pizza, ice-cream, burgers, fish tacos, and much, much more.  There was very little wait and plenty of seating to sit back and enjoy the ambiance.  We did purchase a soda for $3 and a Wendy's Frosty, which by the way is considered a separate category on Ethan's food group chart.  If you come on a regular day you will find the food prices are much like their tickets, low in cost and plenty of options to choose from.  The Tugas also cater to the fans of the visiting clubs.  For example if the visiting team is the farm club of the Yankees, then they will feature a signature New York dish.  Based on the Frosty alone, Ethan scored the food a high 9.
Bathrooms - 7
     The bathrooms were what you would expect of a ballpark that has been around longer than your grandpa.  They were old and allowed you to do the basic necessities that a bathroom should.  I will say that they were clean and the smell wasn't too pungent, although I would not spend any more time than necessary hanging around in them.
Hype Man / Mascot - 7
     Shelldon, the Tortugas mascot,  seemed to not only be a favorite of the kids but of the adults as well.  My heart goes out to mascots that perform their duties flawlessly while baking in the hot Florida sun.  I can almost hear them thinking they wish they were Bob Brown Bear or one of his infamous Sushi Mascots of the Vancouver Canadians short season team.  You got to love that northern climate.  Regardless of the heat, Shelldon had good energy (for a turtle) and spent time taking pics with all the fans.
     The Tugas did not use an on-field hype man for this game.  If you have read my past blogs, you know how I feel about that combination.  Mid-inning entertainment has been around for decades and the proper pairing seems to bring the crowd together the most.
Kid's Thoughts - 8.4
     Since this was Ethan's favorite stadium so far, I will let him sum up the experience.  It was great to see this from the eyes of my dad.  So many parks we visit seem to put the baseball game last and focus so much on everything else.  The Tortugas did a good job of balancing both.  This park was original.  I loved seeing the stadium and the history that happened in it.  The park seemed to be alive with the river, the trees, and the electric attitude of the fans.  In my opinion, this is a season ticket ballpark.  I wish I was a little closer so I could say hello to Jackie more often.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Jacksonville Suns

Jacksonville Suns - 8.0

     Nestled in the urban landscapes of Jacksonville, Florida, between the picturesque Mathews and Hart bridges, lies Bragan Field the Double A home of the Jacksonville Suns.  This stadium is not difficult to miss.  If you find yourself looking in one direction and seeing Veterans Memorial Arena and Everbank Field (home of the Jaguars) in the other direction, then you are in the right place.  The stadium was built in 2003 and had the same ownership until this year when it was purchased by the owner of the Akron RubberDucks, the Double A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.  
     Jacksonville has played host to many players both legendary and soon to be legendary.  These names include Jose Fernandez, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew Miller, Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, Giancarlo "Mike" Stanton, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan.  Not bad for a little club in the heart of the City of Jacksonville.  If you head out to the Tiki Bar in left field, you will find the team sets from the years past.  You will see all of these player and many more.
     We sat down with Noel Blaha, the Assistant General Manager of the Suns, for a quick chat in the Sundowner Lounge located in what was the old press box.  With it's large windows that captured every blade of grass on the field, it was the perfect backdrop to talk baseball and find out why Suns Baseball should be the go to choice of every family.
Parking - 8
     A large benefit of being located in the middle of two other large venues is that parking is abundant and in close proximity to the stadium.  The area is strictly commercial so you don't have a lot of people loitering around outside the arena.  We quickly found two different areas to park, one being a garage by the home plate entrance and the other a lot directly behind center field.  We chose the lot so we could get a good look a Everbank Field.  The cost to park was $5 cash and the lot was well lit and provided a safe voyage both to and from the park.
Out of Park Experience - 6
     This is always a difficult score to give.  I know that parks can't usually dictate what happens around them, but it is an important score when trying to make it a day out of going to the ballpark and  everything in the area needs to be factored in.  In the case of the Suns, I am sure that it is very seasonal depending on what other sports are playing.  The only option we had outside of the park was a local sports pub that had a decent review on Google.  I can't speak to the family friendly environment of the pub, but if you are wanting more to do in the area then that is it.  The kids gave it a 6 because of the opportunity of doing other things like a stadium tour or maybe a cool tailgate the closer you get to football season. 
Ticket Price - 8
     With a $5 ticket and the dedication to get up to the park early, a fan can race right up to the Sundowner Lounge and get an air conditioned seat in the sky.  Not much of a chance to get a foul ball, so you will have to explain that to your little one.  If you want assigned seating, your choices are either $9 terrace seats or right behind home plate for $18.  There are also great group options that give you access to probably the best seats in the house in the Sky Decks.  
Team Store - 8
     The Sun's Souvenir Store is located at the top of the stairs when you enter the park from home plate.  It is a well organized store with a good assortment of options for both adults and kids.  As usual, my boys and I are all kids in a candy store.  I make a break for the hats and my youngest heads straight for the mini bats.  I was a bit disappointed in the hat selections.  They had the usual adjustable hats and a few options of New Era 59 Fifties, but all of them in high crown.  Do people really still buy those?  Trying on one after another hoping for something that didn't make me feel like I was wearing a ten gallon hat, it reminded me of my grandpa strapping on his overalls and putting on his local farm implement hat.  I eventually came across the hat that you see in the photo above.  It was a promo hat that they had marked down to only $10.  It won't get much dome time, but for 10 bucks...why not?
Team Hat / Logo - 8
     Let me first throw out my bias for the colors gold and black.  As a Cubs fan, those colors have never been palatable to my eyes.  With that disclaimer, I will do my best to provide a fair opinion.  The logo can be seen in a couple of forms.  It is either a winking sun or a capital J.  The uniforms are different variations of yellow, white, grey, and black.  There is nothing widely creative about the uniforms or the logo and nothing that indicates that they are a Marlins ball club, but they don't really have to.  With traditions that date back to 1962 and a good brand in the local community and Minor League Association, it just kind of works.  
Ball Park Bling - 10
     Like rising into the gates of heaven your family is first greeted by music from a local musician and then an unbelievably refreshing breeze that sweeps off the concourse and right into your soul.  You emerge right behind home plate and directly into everything that the Suns have waiting for you, and for our visit it was a Ninja Turtle, a face painter and a balloon guy.  Arlis was not quite sure, but reluctantly posed for a brief picture.  In the ballpark you can also play at the playground in center field or if you brought your cash and always give into the pleading of your children, you can pay to do the bouncy houses located behind the play set.  Don't worry Dads, you still have a pretty good view of the field while hanging out with your little ones.  At the Suns' ballpark, you will always have something to do.  If you usually find it difficult to make it 9 innings, you won't have that issue here.
     Other things that impressed our family were the activities that they had structured exclusively for the family.  You can play family catch before the game on the field, run the bases after the game, and the general manager reads a book to the kids between innings.  Wow...way to go!
Seating - 9
     We were given the opportunity to sit wherever we wanted to and chose to sit behind home plate about 5 rows down.  They are great seats, but exposed to both sun and rain.  A tip that was given to us by Noel and is applicable at this point of the review is that the weather changes at this point rather quickly.  A rain poncho may come in handy, and you can probably guess it...we did not have one.  With a storm approaching and the fact that the net behind the plate extends over the seating (making a foul ball impossible and one upset 7 year old because of it) we decided to try out Noel's favorite spot. 
     We relocated to Sky Deck 4 overlooking the entire field from the 3rd base line.  What a view!  I would also recommend trying to see a night game at the park from these seats.  The lights of the park mix perfectly with the glow of the bridges off the water surrounding Everbank Field.  Considering the view and the many options for general admission tickets, the kids scored the seating and easy 9.
Food - 8
     After finally settling in to dry seats with a great view, it was time to find some grub.  I had asked Noel to give me some ideas of the ballpark fan favorites.  I was impressed at the unique choices, including grilled cheese sandwiches, brunswick stew, a Philly cheesesteak hotdog, and the always available $2 hotdog.  The Philly hotdog was my top choice and kids decided to go with the $2 hotdog and the $4.25 Coke.  I like the creativity of the Philly, but that was a lot of food.  It is definitely a 2 person dog.  The kids dogs were cooked perfect and they had them downed before we were back sitting in our seats.  
     The park also has food vendors that walk around with items such as peanuts and snow cones.  I was talked into getting a snow cone, which turned to be more like snow cubes.  I found out that my children do not discriminate the type of sugar that enters their body and made quick work of the them.  There are plenty of options and many places to enjoy those options with great customer service at each locations.  You can see above that the Philly hotdog team wanted us to know just how much fun they have each day.  The prices were fair and the food was decent.  The kids decided that a Family Friendly Score of 8 should be the number.
Bathrooms - 8
     The bathrooms were clean, and I felt that it was a safe environment for a family to use.  There was nothing flashy, but as my wife says..."They're just bathrooms!"  They served their purpose, and I was glad that they had them scattered throughout the park.
Hype Man / Mascot - 7
     I love seeing how different teams handle this role.  In the case of the Suns, they use an announcer that stays in the booth and their mascot Southpaw.  Being a southpaw myself, I liked the silent dog that did a great job at visiting with the crowd and being the center piece of all of the on-field antics.  It is my opinion, but I prefer an on-field hype man over a "voice from above".  They get the crowd going and make mid-innings games flow much smoother.  I am not saying the the Suns did not do a good job at getting the crowd going, I have just seen better results from a live person.
Kid's Thoughts - 8.0
     Noel told us that the motto of the ballpark is to provide you with excellent customer service and an experience that you will always remember.  The Jacksonville Suns delivered on that promise.  We were entertained the moment we hit the front gates.  The new owners have not only lowered the ticket cost, but decreased the price of some food items.  They have created new areas for families to watch the  game, and provided great activities that do not distract you from the real reason you are watch the greatest game ever played.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Carolina Mudcats


     If you are passing through Raleigh, North Carolina and have a few hours to spare, I have a must do suggestion.  Head east of town, go past a few tobacco fields, a couple heads of cattle, and toothless guy named Jim and you will find a hidden jewel in Zebulon, NC.  This ballpark represents everything that is wholesome about the game of baseball.  It is a good local crowd that is literally hovering over one of the most interactive ballpark experiences in the game today.  You can't miss the park as you are driving down the road.  Look for the water tower baseball and you know you are close to some baseball magic.

Parking - 9
     I like it when a ballpark keeps it simple.  The Mudcats have one parking lot that you will find the moment you enter the park.  With the gravel and dirt lot please don't wash your car ahead of time.  It really isn't a big deal because your total drive will be less than 100 yards in any direction.  You are greeted by friendly staff the moment you pull in.  Make sure to bring $5 in cash to take care of the parking fee.  This is not much to pay to be so close to the entrance of the park.  You can either enter directly from the parking lot on the right field entrance or you can walk up the hill to main entrance behind home plate.  I am a home plate guy so that is the direction we headed.  All three of my kids agreed on the Family Friendly Score (FFS) of a 9 due to the price and location to the field.
Out Of Park Experience - 5
     I tried very hard to look for any "experience" I could find.  The best I could do was an adventurous journey into a local gas station bathroom before the game.  This is a small town that does not provide anything outside of the park to do.  If you asked toothless Jim, he would probably tell you he was heading to the ballpark.  What the town lacks is compensated by what Five County Stadium provides.  Let me preface by saying that the FFS score is not the fault of the Mudcats.  It simply represents what is available to do during a day to the ballgame.  The kids gave the OPE a 5.  It makes it a half day trip to the park rather than a full day, and for most families that is just right.  
Ticket Price - 10
   I was shocked when I paid for my tickets.  This was not a "big city" shock, but more of a Mayberry...Andy Griffith shock.  I arranged to have my youngest son's machine pitch team be a part of their Field of Dreams program.  What we got for the price was simply jaw dropping!  We paid $13 for each ticket which included a meal.  For each child, I paid $18 per ticket which included a great seat, a hot dog meal with drink, a ticket to the speed pitch game, a logo ball for autographs, and the opportunity to meet the team before the game.  They were allowed to go on the field before the game and run out to each position with the Mudcats.  I can't show in pictures the level excitement in each child's smile.  This is a memory that will continue with them for the rest of their lives.  I was also impressed with the level of interaction that the Mudcats Team had with each child.  They went out of their way to high five and talk with each kid.  This is the reason why I love minor league baseball and the Mudcats set the standard that all teams should follow.  They scored a perfect 10 on the FFS.
Team Store - 9
     As you pass through the main gates and look to the right, you will see the Mudcat's Team Store.  It is clean and well organized with plenty of staff to take care of everything.  I didn't have my usual New Era goosebumps since I was already wearing my hat from last year.  As I was passing by a clearance bucket below the hat wall, I noticed some fitted hats for only $15.  There it was at the bottom of the bucket.  A brand new 7 5/8 fitted New Era!  Like Harry Potter's wand choosing the young sorcerer, this hat chose me to wield its future magic. After spending an additional $5 for a mini wooden bat, we were on our way to check out the rest of the Five County Stadium.  With those prices and that great find, we scored the team store an easy 9 on the FFS. 
Team Hat / Logo - 9
     Pylodictis olivaris does not have as cool of a ring to it as a Mudcat and probably not the most sexy of corporate logos to hang your hat on.  With that said, I must say that Carolina does a good job at pulling it off.  Their logo is quite contagious and with the red and black color scheme, I would call it one of the coolest brands in the league.  You know how I love hats, so when you combine the $15 deal with this cool hat...pure magic!  Sorry kids but this is my call.  I give the Mudcats an FFS of a 9.
Ball Park Bling - 7
     This is a park that you don't need a lot to do.  You are so close to everything and the Mudcats do a great job of getting you involved not only between inning but during them as well.  It is a small park that really only has the room for a speed pitch inflatable on the 3rd base side of the stadium.  When considering the interaction my kids had before the game and the entertainment during, they did a pretty good job.  My youngest boy rated the Bling at a firm 7.
Seating - 9
     Five County Stadium has a cool vertical presence about it.  You feel like you are hovering over the action.  My youngest said it the best, "These are good ball catching seats!"  We sat in two different sections for this game.  Arlis loves sitting in section 210.  Not only is it great foul ball territory, but it is a really cool place to watch the game.  To avoid the sun, we also sat in section 402.  There were not many people over here so the kids got to run around and have a good time.  The older kids enjoyed sitting down by the wall in section 301.  It is a great autograph area for both teams coming into and out of the park.  With each child having their favorite seat to sit in, it was pretty easy to give the seating a Five County Stadium a 9 on the FFS.
Food - 7
 Click the Pic to see Cattails!
Click the Pic to see Cattails!
     It is my opinion, and I probably have no way of proving it, but the Mudcats have the most food options per square stadium foot than any park in the United States.  Every opening in the wall is a place to buy food, and that does not count the multiple stands available at each seating section.  You can buy everything from local beer to a plate of BBQ nachos.  For all of my Midwestern teammates out there...BBQ in North Carolina is considered pork.  If you are doing anything else, you are just grillen' out.  The food is priced comparably to any other park unless you come on a dollar hot dog and drink night.  The best deal was the hot dog, drink, and chips that we got with the Field of Dreams package.  Five County Stadium is also home to Cattails Restaurant.  I have heard great things about their food and prices, but have not had the pleasure of eating there yet.  I would like to try and get there later this year for a "date night" with my wife.  With all of the options combined with the price, we score the food as a 7 on the FFS.  This number is subject to change after a Cattails visit.
Bathrooms - 7
     A bathroom is a bathroom is what I am told.  To me it easy for one to be sold.  You have their attention for a minute or two, to show them a deal or maybe a few.  I am glad that they're clean and the plumbing works great.  A fine sanctuary to remove what you've just ate.  An experience I argue should be had by all, in a seat, at the food cart, and even the bathroom wall.  I cannot admit that in there I found heaven.  We all can agree that the bathrooms were a 7.
Hype Man - 9
     The job of hype man has been split in a few direction at Five County Stadium.  The voice of the Mudcats is a gentleman that does a great job getting the fans going.  If someone can help me with his name that would be great.  I searched their website, but they don't do a good job of marketing what he does.  I have been there on a night with only a few fans and have seen the same performance as if the place was sold out.  Muddy is the face of the Mudcats.  My son loves Muddy and goes out of his way for a high five.  It is for Muddy alone that both of my boys score the Hype Man as a 9.  Sometimes we are even graced by the presence of his best friend Mini Muddy.  He is great with a four wheeler and a water gun and always keeps his fans on there toes.  He is a must meet when you head to the park.
Kid's Thoughts - 8.1
     I have said in past blogs that Minor League Baseball has been losing its identity over the years.  This game was created for the family to not only enjoy playing but watching as well.  The Carolina Mudcats have restored my faith in purity of the game.  They provide you with a family experience that keeps you entertained from batting practice to the last pitch.  My 7 year old is usually a 4 or 5 inning soldier, but at the Mudcats game he went the distance.  I cannot encourage you enough that when you are traveling through Raleigh take a half day and come experience this for yourselves.  It doesn't matter if you are a first time participant or an extreme baseball fan.  Five County Stadium will take you back to a time when everything was good and life went at a much slower pace.  Until next time...see you in the batter's box!

   Family Friendly Score
 Category Score
 Parking    9
 Out of Park EXP    5
 Ticket Price   10
 Team Store    9
 Team Hat/Logo    9
 Ballpark Bling    7
 Seating    9
 Food    7
 Bathrooms    7
 Hype Man    9
 Total:   8.1

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Peoria Chiefs

     Welcome to my home baseball stadium!  Well, that is not exactly correct.  The Peoria Chiefs are part of the Midwest League and have played host to a large amount of baseball's greatest talent.  For example in 1985, the Chiefs were coached by a younger Joe Madden on his way to now being the manager for the Chicago Cubs.  The team has bounced back and forth from a Cards/Cubs affiliate for 30 years.  Some of the talent I had the pleasure to witness as a child were Greg Maddux, Joe Girardi, Albert Pujols, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ryne Sandberg to name a few.
      I remember meeting Albert Pujols and his wife at the stadium.  She would walk around the park handing out signed baseball cards of Albert, each one having his testimony written on the back.  I have never really cheered for his teams, but you just can't hate a guy like that.  Another fond memory was the day I got to meet my childhood hero...Ryne Sandberg.  He was coaching the Chiefs at the time and my kids were selected to have a picture taken with him for the local paper to support the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  They had no idea who they were in the presence of, but I was as giddy as a little school girl waiting for the grand opening of an American Girl store.  For those of you fathers that have only boys, let me translate...that's a pretty big deal!
PawPaw's First Selfie!
    This is where it all started for this blog.  Let me quickly explain how it happened.  My wife and I (mostly my wife) have been homeschooling our 3 kids for over 6 years.  I am at work during most of their school day and have always struggled with not playing a major role in their education.  I was looking for a way to get involved.  Fast forward to present day.  We are visiting our family in Illinois and decide to go down to the ballpark.  I am sitting in the seats looking at 3 generations enjoying the sport that I have always loved and it hit me!  I can take something that is a passion for all of us and turn it into a learning event.  Hanging With The Minors was born.  I get to travel with my kids, watch baseball, eat, meet players, see unique ballparks, eat, collect really cool hats, teach the kids how to promote their brand online, and did I!  I never knew teaching could be so fun.
     Dozer Park, the newest stadium named after Caterpillar, is located in downtown Peoria, IL just off of the Illinois River.  Free parking is a challenge at this park.  There is not a designated parking lot owned by the Chiefs.  You can brave parking on the street if you get there early, park down closer to the river for free and walk a ways, or pay to park in the Caterpillar office building across the street.  Having family in the area, we got dropped off at the front gate.  Considering all of the parking options and feeling generous because we got dropped off, my oldest gave the Chief's parking an 8 out of 10 on the Family Friendly Scale (FFS).  Downtown Peoria has tried to re-invent itself many times but has never seemed to find it's niche.  There is only one restaurant within a baseballs throw of the park and it's immediate neighbors are the police station and the unemployment office.  There is a lot of real estate available and right investment could be very lucrative, but for now...this is a day game park for families.  My son gave the the Out of Park Experience a 5 and I tend to agree.  Put some money into the building across from right field and that number quickly jumps up a few points.
     If you purchase tickets ahead of time, you can enter at the left field entrance and either head straight to your seats or make a quick left to the bouncy house and playground equipment.  We already had tickets, but there is just something magical about entering the front gates of a ballpark.  The Chief tickets cost us $9 per person and put us in the field box on the third base line.  This is a great deal for a clean well designed baseball park.  Ethan scored the ticket price as an easy 9 and the seating selection a 9 as well.  There is not really a bad seat in the house.  You still have your lawn of sadness if you want to brave the kids or the Legends Landing area if you want to picnic with the family.
     You enter the ballpark greeted by Big Pete.  The Chiefs owe a lot of their success to their founder Pete Vonachen, a long time friend of the thick glassed icon Harry Carey.  A rather large and odd shaped bronze statue can be found in the entry paying homage to his contribution.  Note to my wife...please do not duplicate my image in bronze.
     Located directly behind Section 112 is the team store.  I could feel my empty head (no pun intended) being magnetically pulled in that direction.  I had to get my hands on a New Era.  I have grown up with this logo and have seen it change over the years, but I must say that this is my favorite conception of what a Peoria Chief should be.  As you can see in the middle picture, it features a fire dog with a nasty sneer.  In the past it has been a cardinal and even an Indian.  I am not usually on the PC bandwagon, but from a branding standpoint this reduces issues from both club switches as well as keeping the local tribes at bay.  The prices were affordable and considered average as far as team stores go.  Ethan gave the appearance and prices an 8 on the FFS.  In regards to the logo and the uniforms the Chief score an 8 for originality and brandability of their mascot.
   As we do in all of the parks, we took our seats and performed our pregame ritual.  Take a look around and see who is joining us.  Take a deep breath...close my eyes...listen to the sounds of the park.  Listen for the pretend sounds of an old pipe organ, a bat cracking for BP, metal cleats on concrete, and ever popular phrase "Peanuts!".  That is what this game is to me, and my kids and I encourage you to approach this game as a kid.  It will always stay fresh that way.  Every site and smell is a little different, but they always say one  After my brief moment of nostalgia, we strapped on our hunting gear and went in search of a bathroom and the best food deals in the ballpark.
     I would like to say that our hunt for deals was successful, but there really weren't many to be had.  The prices weren't outrageous, but I couldn't really say that I got a deal either.  With sodas and drinks, the cost was just over $20 for 3 meals.  I can say that Ethan rated this hot dog pretty high on his pig intestine scale.  Overall all he gave it a 7 on the FSS.  A quick stop at the bathroom also proved uneventful.  The bathrooms were clean, but nothing special.  I am still waiting for the ballpark that takes advantage of that 30 second captive audience to continue to build that brand relationship with their ever changing customer.  With that said, we gave the average bathrooms a on the FFS because they were clean and the plumbing made everything go in the direction it should.
     Ethan was quite impressed by the pregame entertainment.  The Chiefs were graced with the presence of two world superheroes...Captain America and Ironman.  They seemed friendly at first until Captain America threw out the first pitch.  Ironman called it a ball.  Cap was visibly upset over the call and it went south pretty quick. Soon superheroes were flying in from all sides of the park.  Punches were thrown (much better than the first pitch I might add), seats were getting broken, and the crowd was running for the door.  It turned into a real Civil War!  Just kidding. They did a great job and the kids enjoyed it.  This made up for the fact that the hype man really had no rememberable presence for the rest of the game.  The crowd was left to enjoy the game without any distractions.  The lack of a hype man is good for baseball watchers, but does not cater to a family atmosphere.  We gave the overall experience a 7 on the FSS.
We saved the ballpark bling for last because it had the greatest impact on our experience.  Ethan, my dad, and I gave this score a 9 and here is why.  We felt welcomed here in Peoria.  There was something for everyone to do.  Adults could grab a not too expensive beverage as their kids wondered over to the Kids Zone to play on the playground behind center field.  Not only were we greeted by friendly smiles from the staff but also a fantastic firework show that would rival any 4th of July celebration.  Like many clubs, they are dealing with the sad decline of minor league fans across the country.  These parks are assets to our community that need to be frequented by families.  The Peoria Chiefs are well on their way to realizing this goal.  If the city and local investors would rally behind their efforts and what they have already accomplished, Peoria would be a small gem in the minor league heart of America.  So until next time...see you in the batter's box!

  Family Friendly Score
Parking   8
Out of Park EXP   5
Ticket Price   9
Team Store   8
Team Hat/Logo   8
Ballpark Bling   9
Seating   9
Food   7
Bathrooms   7
Hype Man   7
Total:  7.7