Sunday, August 17, 2014

South Atlantic League Wrap

Seeing all 14 teams in the South Atlantic League this summer was a challenging but rewarding adventure. 

It was a little more costly than I would have guessed. Even midweek tickets are not cheap at many venues - the very best deal was a web Wednesday deal in Hickory for $6 right behind home plate. Most parks averaged $10 or so down the baselines. It's a good value, and you get more ambience for your buck at some parks than others.

I was struck by how the league ranges from urban to rural and from older stadiums to new. The new parks are mostly in the ten-year-old range, but the oldest ones and from a century ago. It's a nice spectrum. 

The costs also include travel expenses -- even though several parks are within driving range of Charlotte without needing hotels, there are still several that require a good bit of planning (I'm pointing at you, Delmarva and Lakewood!). 

I would go out of my way again to visit these: Greensboro (if only for the bat dogs!), Kannapolis (such a short drive for us in Charlotte and such a great park!), Charleston (but no beer shakes), West Virginia (also in Charleston but the other one), and I never would have believed it four months ago - Hagerstown (it's still everything a ballpark should be). 

Since we saw him last, Kannapolis catcher Jeremy Dowdy (Raleigh Wakefield, Appalachian State), has been promoted to the Class AA Birmingham Barons. Also, Crawdads RHP Josh McElwee was promoted to the Class A+ Myrtle Beach Pelicans. 

It's been fun, but I'm very much looking forward to next summer's Carolina League slate - they have only eight teams!

My mom, Julie Ritterskamp, was able to visit all but two of the Sally League teams with me. Here are her reflections.

Mom's Take

I was fortunate enough to be able to travel with Ellyn on her tour of the Sally League baseball teams' summer games. If I had known I was going to miss only two stops, Rome, Ga., and Augusta, Ga., I would have tried to make sure I saw them all. But the twelve games I did get to were amazing, fun, and very much family oriented. Any baseball game at this level is an inexpensive way to enjoy a summer evening.  Here are a few highlights, from my point of view:

Best national anthem: Krystal Marshall Kasten, Charleston RiverDogs

Most unbelievable drive: Richmond, Va., to Lakewood, N.J.: $22 in tolls, but worth the drive.

Most eye-catching stadium decoration: Three huge lifeguard chairs around the outfield in Lakewood, N.J. - people can actually climb up and sit on them!

Most interesting parking lot attraction: Kannapolis, N.C. - One of Dale Earnhardt's cars that you can touch and get your picture made with.

Most old-fashioned baseball stadium feeling:  Hagerstown, Md. 

Best example of wretched excess in a food item: S'mores panini at Savannah - the thing would have fed six people!

Most fun mascot: Charleston, W.V. This guy interacted with kids and families in a wonderful way. This stadium also has the most fun staff and attendees. The Toastman alone is worth a trip.

Stadium where we could have gotten in for free: Asheville, N.C. We won't tell you how, but it involved climbing a high hill ... we paid, of course!

Best overall stadium experience: Greensboro, N.C. The three charming bat dogs, Miss Babe Ruth, Miss Lulu Gehrig, and Master Yogi Berra, make any game fun. I took more people back twice, just to see the dogs. The last time a very helpful employee, Tim, made sure that my request was honored to be seated where we could see the dogs the best, and the kids I brought from Charlotte have three new best buddies. 

Thanks go out to friends in Richmond, Va., who let us make their home our base for visiting three stadiums. At the Salisbury, Md., venue, we were joined by a high school friend we had not seen in many years. 

In Lexington, KY,  we visited the Woodford Reserve and picked up a bottle of their finest double oak bourbon, a gift for a friend. Driving around that area was just lovely with lots of horse pastures. 

I count myself lucky that my daughter looks on me as a suitable traveling companion, and that my husband Jack does not mind me leaving him with the house and kitties. It has been a super summer!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Greenville's not a bad Drive

Observations from Greenville, S.C.

Greenville didn’t disappoint in our final stop of the season in the South Atlantic League. It was the third-hottest game of our summer tour - Savannah was 97 degrees and Charleston 92 in early July - but you expect that. We were just glad the rain held off.


We parked for free on the other side of Falls Park and walked through it. This is a must. The waterfalls are just breath-taking for a downtown setting. There is a free shuttle for before and after the game, but ride it on the way back, at night. Walk through the park (be careful on the first set of stone steps, though!).

The story is that the Drive are so-named because of the nearby BMW plant. It may be the weakest name of the league.

There seemed to be even more youngsters at this game than any other we saw all season, especially for a night game. There was an infant race between innings to promote a local college that was pretty embarrassing, but sitting on the left-field grass provided lots of kid-watching excitement the rest of the game.

The grass seating brought another a big chuckle when a loud song stopped unexpectedly between innings and a nearby fan was in the middle of blurting out, “Let’s go home and smoke a blunt!”

The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum across the street is open from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.on Saturdays.

The field is built to the same specs as Fenway Park, though the Green Monster is seven feet shorter to allow condo owners to see the field. Those owners on terraces in center field got to scrap for a home run ball.

Drive Carolinas Connections

Pitcher Ty Buttrey, Providence High
Pitcher Jamie Callahan, Dillon (S.C.) High

Friday, August 8, 2014

No power outage here

Observations from the West Virginia Power

Best team store name so far - the Power Outlet. 

Downtown Charleston, W.V., is a great location for a Class A-level ballpark. There is a high hill nearby with a cemetery overlooking the field. A hospital next door means plenty of foot traffic that made us feel safe about our car being parked at a meter a few blocks from the park. Warehouses windows across the street from left make inviting home run targets.

The logos are baseballs with pirate hats and eyepatches, to salute the parent Pittsburgh Pirates. A previous Charleston team was named the Charlies, so the mascot is Chuck the Pirate. 

Besides the five teams close to Charlotte, this is another close one, where it's not out of the question to drive straight up I-77 for a game and come back without having to pay to spend the night. A day game would be very easy, with an early start.

Power's Carolinas Connections

3B Chris Diaz, N.C. State

Everything is StacheTastic in Lexington, Ky.

Observations from the Lexington Legends

The mascot is Big L, a hefty fella with bats crossed over his shoulders and an enormous handlebar mustache. The StacheTastic theme is everywhere.

Tuesdays feature 37-cent hot dogs, sponsored by the Ford F-150, which they say has been the top-selling pickup truck for 37 straight years. Pretty cheap dinner.

Section 203 was a great view and angle for $10, but it took a few innings to identify a strange sound every 90 seconds or so - it turned out to be the rotating advertising sign in front of the section.

It was hard to take seriously a promotion for Hearing Loss Awareness night a few days after our visit that also included fireworks. Why not go ahead and destroy what's left of folks' hearing?

Legends' Carolinas Connections

Pitcher Matt Tenuta, Apex High (son of Jon Tenuta, Virginia defensive coordinator. He was also the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at North Carolina in 2001 and was the linebackers coach at N.C. State from 2010-12. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Worth the drive to the Eastern Shore

Observations from Delmarva

This is a great park in one of the league's more remote locations. As the crow flies, it's 165 miles from Richmond (our home base for a trip to see the league's northernmost three teams - thanks, friends!), but Chesapeake Bay prevents that sort of direct path. Our drive was five hours from Richmond by the northern route (slowed by Annapolis rush hour) and more than four hours by the southern route (slowed by overnight bay tunnel construction). It would have been great to pair this visit with Lakewood N.J., but our schedule and the games didn't match up that way.

The fellow behind us sounded exactly like Wilford Brimley.

Shorebirds starter Luis Gonzalez (6-0 in 12 starts) had a nice outing, throwing seven strikeouts in six shutout innings in a 4-0 win Wednesday against Lakewood.

Food highlight: The Swamp Dog, a spicy sausage with shrimp and grits on top.

Shorebirds' Carolinas Connections

Pitcher Hunter Harvey - Catawba Bandys High (son of Bryan Harvey, brother of Kris Harvey)
Pitcher John McLeod - Wake Forest (on disabled list)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hagerstown: This place still smells like a ballpark

Observations from Hagerstown

Municipal Stadium was built in 1930, putting it in the same category as Asheville and Savannah in this league for elderly stadiums. This one has a great feel to it -- the concessions were simple and the crowd much more, well, non-urban than I'd expected, but all in a good way. The atmosphere is only improved by the manual scoreboard with three guys we could watch changing the numbers, the absence of a radar report or even clock, and yes, the smell of hunks of meat being grilled near the gate. It all added up to a great experience. The left-field picnic area is just steps away from the visiting team's warm-up area -- I had a nice eye-catching moment with a reserve outfielder before the game, and a couple of kids got easy foul balls during the game.

Former Clemson catcher Spencer Kieboom made a great play at the plate to end a scoring threat in the sixth inning of an 8-4 win on Tuesday
Retired jersey numbers: 42 Jackie Robinson, 24 Willie Mays, 50 John Henry Moss (commissioner of current and previous incarnations of the Sally League for 50 years).

The Suns are pretty proud of Bryce Harper's 72 games during the 2011 season in Hagerstown: .318 average, 14 home runs, 46 RBIs

Suns' Carolinas Connections

Catcher Spencer Kieboom - Clemson
1B Carlos Lopez - Wake Forest
Utility player John Wooten - East Carolina and Goldsboro's Eastern Wayne High. Wooten was called up to the Carolina League's Class A+ Potomac team on July 28.

The Sally League's northernmost stop

Observations from Lakewood, N.J.

A Monday night game sold very well with Gaylord Perry in the house to throw out the first pitch and sign autographs.

Retired jerseys: Ryan Howard (29) and Cole Hamels (19)

The mascot is not any sort of creature with claws, as we'd expected (but which might have scared  kids), but a critter named Buster who is not any particular sort of animal, just like the major league club's Philie Phanatic.

Cool feature: 12-foot beach chairs in the outfield grass seating areas (use at your own risk).

Fans here are no better than Southerners at waiting until the end of an inning (or even an at-bat) to leave for the concession stand.

Highlight: about six service dogs in training, learning how to behave in crowds.

Superlative: The largest scoreboard in the league I've seen so far (three parks to go).

BlueClaws Carolinas Connections