My night with the Memphis Redbirds – Aug. 10, 2012

After two games in two nights on my way to Stillwater, Okla., I capped my road trip with a stop in Memphis, Tenn., to take in a game at AutoZone Park between the Tacoma Rainiers and Memphis Redbirds at the start of the 35th anniversary of Elvis Week.  Beyond attending a game at a great ballpark and enjoying some delicious food, I went to the Friday night game because I wanted an Elvis bobblehead.

There was a large crowd waiting outside the gates to claim their personal Elvis.  I don’t understand the baseball player astride the entrance, but it is a great entrance to a fantastic ballpark.

Main entrance to the ballpark.

The Redbirds run a block party on Friday nights, which featured a band performing covers of Elvis songs.  With $2 Coors Light drafts and good music, it’s a fun way to start the weekend.

A band performs in the entry plaza before the game.

The block party also featured an Elvis impersonator who took photos in front of a Graceland backdrop, so naturally I had to get my picture with him.

The King lives on!

If Elvis wasn’t enough, the Budweiser Clydesdales greeted fans outside the stadium.

The Budweiser Clydesdales along Third Street.

Like many other ballparks constructed during the late 1990s to early 2000s, AutoZone Park opened in downtown in a previously rundown area.  City and team officials hoped the ballpark would revitalize the surrounding area, which from what I can see had mixed results.  The warehouses and other previously abandoned buildings provides a great backdrop for the ballpark, but it doesn’t appear that the immediate area has stimulated new construction.  Regardless, fans get a great view from behind home plate.

Memphis Redbirds left-handed pitcher Tyler Lyons delivers the first pitch to Tacoma Rainiers center fielder Darren Ford.

It was extremely difficult deciding upon food at the ballpark.  I had to decide between BBQ nachos (which I’ve now learned is way more common at Minor League stadiums than I expected), the BBQ bacon hot dog, the Big Dog, and chicken on a stick.  Many people around the stadium suggested the BBQ nachos, but I declined because I had some within the past few weeks at another Minor League game.

After much debate and introspection, I opted for the Big Dog.  The Big Dog is a foot-long hot dog covered in chili, shredded cheddar cheese, topped with three large onion rings, and served very appropriately with a fork and knife.

The appropriately named Big Dog.

Upon further review, this camera angle may not give the Big Dog its due respects.  I debated upon getting a dessert item afterward, but I was too full from the Big Dog.

I had quick success getting a shot with Memphis’s Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird.  Immediately after first pitch I found him on the concourse, and got my picture.

Me and Memphis Redbirds mascot Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird.

The Redbirds did a great job with in-game presentation, as Memphis players had their headshots converted into Elvis-style headshots for the game.

The scoreboard in right field with special player headshots in honor of Elvis Week.

Elvis may not resonate with everybody, but he is still clearly a favorite in Memphis and an Elvis bobblehead helped drum up a big Friday night crowd.

The King is in the ballpark.

The sightlines are great from every seat in the ballpark, as I was easily able to capture a couple of action shots during the game.

A very minor downside of the stadium design is that the concourse does not wrap around the entire park.  As has become more common, the bullpens are beyond the outfield walls, which assuredly affected the ability to build a concourse that connected all the way around the park.  Fans are able to walk far enough around in left field to capture a view of the entire grandstand and some of the city’s impressive buildings in the background.

A view of the grandstand with the historic Peabody Hotel overlooking the ballpark.

From beginning to end I enjoyed my experience at AutoZone Park.  The block party is a great way to start off Friday night, especially because I was just passing through and didn’t have to wake up early the next morning.  The music was great and the drink specials were worthwhile, so much so that I didn’t buy another beer at the ballpark.

The food was delicious, and amazingly tempting.  I wanted to sample the BBQ bacon dog, but I was too full from the Big Dog to even consider it.  I really love bacon, so it will be the next encased meat of choice when I visit AutoZone Park in the future.  I know I missed something special the following night when the Redbirds honored the Negro Leagues, but I was thrilled with my Elvis bobblehead and the entire evening.  Kudos to the Redbird staff!

Final: Tacoma 1, Memphis 3
Box Score

My night with the Mississippi Braves – Aug. 9, 2012

The last affiliated minor league team in Jackson, Miss., left after the 1999 season.  While the city had some independent-league teams, residents did not get the opportunity to see affiliated ball until 2005 when the Greenville Braves relocated to the suburb of Pearl.

The renamed Mississippi Braves opened Trustmark Park on the eastern outskirts of Jackson.  Friends have told me that there was almost nothing around the stadium when it opened, so the presence of the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World means that development has grown up around the stadium.  Unfortunately, the stadium blends into the surrounding when you pass by it on I-20.  In fact, I didn’t realize it had its own exit when I first went into Jackson for some sightseeing before the game.  I only noticed the stadium exit the next morning.

The main entrance is in right field, which is quite unusual for modern minor league stadiums.  I also hoped and expected to see a grander entrance, but it was just a gate with signage.  Nothing stood out about it.

Main entrance to the ballpark.

The view from behind home plate meets a trends I have noticed recently with newer minor league stadiums.  The scoreboard in left center was nice, but the view beyond the outfield is just a cadre of trees.  It can be somewhat disappointing to fans who expect and want a great view at every ballpark, but the reality is that not every stadium can have a fantastic view.  It’s OK to be utilitarian and get the job done.

I hoped to get a photo with the M-Braves mascot, Trusty, but I never saw him in the crowd.  I only saw him on the field with the motorcyclists because it was Bike Night, and bikers got $5 tickets.  I have no clue how to describe him, but for those who haven’t seen him I wanted to include the best photo possible.

Mississippi Braves mascot Trust high-fiving players as they run onto the field during introductions.

Per my routine, I camped out behind home plate after player introductions so I could capture the first pitch of the game.

Mississippi Braves right-handed pitcher David Hale delivers the first pitch to Birmingham Barons center fielder Justin Greene.

I hoped to find something unique to eat at the park, but had a very difficult time settling upon something.  As usual, I talked to employees and fans asking for suggestions.  I was told to try a Philly cheese steak, but couldn’t force myself to eat that in the South.  After reviewing all the concession stands and seeing that the food was simply generic – hot dogs, burgers, chicken tenders, etc. – and that nothing stood out as special I opted to eat at the Farm Bureau Grill. A ticket taker told me he really liked the gumbo and shrimp po’ boy, so I opted for the po’ boy.

I wanted to try the Knuckle Balls (naturally named for Braves legend Phil Niekro), but my request to get one each of the beef, chicken, and pork variety was rejected.  I hoped to sample a variety, so instead I stuck with the words of wisdom of the ticket taker.

The shrimp po’ boy I ordered at the Farm Bureau Grill in right field.

However, my experience with beer at the ballpark was better.  As I searched the concessions stands for something interesting, I stumbled upon a craft beer stand tucked behind a corner.  The stand had Shock Top, Blue Moon, and some other national varieties but the saving grace was the local choices.  I sampled three different brews and settled upon Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.  I got a 32-oz. drink for $8, which is a great bargain for this quality of beverage at a ballpark.  It was a tasty treat that complemented my shrimp po’ boy, and I’d definitely sample some of their other beers in the future.

After eating and having a drink, I wandered the ballpark to capture a variety of perspectives.  Like many newer baseball stadiums, Trustmark Park has a wrap-around concourse, so I was able to capture a shot of the grandstand from the outfield.

An overview of the grandstand from center field.

Before too long I returned to my seat and focused on taking some pictures of the game and other features of the stadium like the scoreboard.

Overall, I enjoyed Trustmark Park.  I wish the team store had their mascot on sale instead of generic hot dogs and peanuts with the M-Braves logo, but apparently the staffers don’t control what products get sent their way.  It was interesting to see team caps in the colors of the state’s three major universities: University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and University of Mississippi.  These weren’t caps for each of the schools, but instead the M-Braves logo on a cap in Golden Eagle or Bulldog or Rebel colors.  I’ve never seen that before at a minor league stadium, but it was a unique touch.

Final: Birmingham 3, Mississippi 4 (13 innings)
Box Score

My night with the Montgomery Biscuits – Aug. 8, 2012

On my way back to Stillwater for the school year I took a somewhat scenic route to watch some baseball games, and see some sights along the way. My first stop on the way from Georgia was Tuskegee, Ala., where I saw Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. Both sites were especially compelling because of the role they played within American – especially African-American – history.  However, back to one of the primary reasons I took circuitous route to return to graduate school: attending a Montgomery Biscuits baseball game at Riverwalk Stadium.

The stadium is built into a former railroad building, which is clear from the signage at the corner of Coosa and Tallapoosa streets. The building still bears decorative signage dating from 1898 as home of the Western Railway of Alabama.

Main entrance to Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium incorporates part of a former train shed.

The view from home plate does not provide fans with a spectacular view, but there is a nice scoreboard in left center and fans get a nice, open view of the field.  The signage in the outfield isn’t obsessive, so fans can watch the game for the sake of watching a game without being inundated with advertising.

Montgomery Biscuits right-handed pitcher Merrill Kelly delivers the first pitch of the game to Jackson Generals third baseman Francisco Martinez.

The crowd was almost nonexistent when I went to the game, and I’m not sure why.  It was a Wednesday night in August, so it’s not a prime game-night but I expected the crowd to be better than what I saw.  Official attendance listed the gathering at 1,681.  I won’t argue about attendance figures, but there were not that many folks in the stands from what I saw.

Anyway, onto the food.  With a team called the Biscuits and being in the South, I had to try the biscuits at the ballpark.  The biscuit stand is on a wide concourse immediately behind home plate, so you can’t miss it.  I had a few options for my biscuits, but settled on plain biscuits for a handful of reasons.  #1: I didn’t want to eat JUST biscuits, so I couldn’t get chicken biscuits or biscuits and gravy and feel like I could eat something else.  #2: I almost went for the strawberry shortcake biscuits, but passed when I learned that the strawberries were not fresh and came from a can.  By default that meant I had to get plain biscuits and cover them with butter and either syrup or jelly.

Biscuits with butter and syrup.

Growing up in the South I’ve had biscuits with honey or jelly quite often, but I’d never had biscuits with syrup until this night.  I faced a difficult decisions: Alaga syrup or Yellow Label.  After taking into consideration some sage advice from the veteran biscuit seller and sampling the two varieties, I opted to mix and match.  So I combined the yellow label with the original cane flavored syrup for a delicious treat.

For my sustenance I opted for a foot-long red hot sausage at the Sausage Shack.  I love encased meats, so I had to go for the locally-made sausage.  I’ve never heard of Conecuh before, but I was very pleased with their meat.  Yes, insert inappropriate meat joke.  I got my sausage topped with grilled peppers and onions and added sauerkraut before topping it with just a touch of yellow mustard.

A foot-long Conecuh red hot sausage.

I also tried another beer from Back Forty Beer Co., which is based in Gadsden, Ala.  I tried their Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale previously (read my visit to Regions Park for more details), so I decided to stick with the local craft brew and branched out with their Naked Pig Pale Ale.  It was a good pairing with the spicy sausage, and I’m glad I stuck with a brand I already knew.

The food I missed out on were Dreamland BBQ nachos, but I had them at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., a few weeks prior to this trip.  So I didn’t feel the need to sample them again, but many folks told me to try something from the South of the Border cart because it was the best bang for my buck.  So maybe next time I’ll experiment with Mexican food at an Alabama ballpark.

Food is always great, especially when it’s unique to the ballpark or region.  However, I think the best moment of the game was getting my photo taken with Biscuits mascot Big Mo – the biscuit lovin’ beast.  I don’t know how to describe him, and some friend said he looked like an anteater.  I guess it just goes to show you that some creatures are beyond description, and you just have to love them for what they are.

Me with Montgomery Biscuits Big Mo.

The game moved along fairly quickly as the Biscuits rallied in the 9th to claim a 2-1 victory over the stunned Jackson Generals.  A dribbler down the first base line left the pitcher and first baseman confused as to who should cover the base and who should field the ball, so the runner on second raced around the bags as the batter dove head-first and under the tag of the first baseman to give the home team the win.  It was a great finish to the game!

Regardless of how the game’s score, I loved my experience at Riverwalk Stadium.  It is a great location in downtown with ample street parking nearby, and it wonderfully incorporates an old building into a newer structure.  To top it off, the Biscuits’ staff plays up the aspects that make people fall in love with Minor League Baseball.

Final: Jackson Generals 1, Montgomery Biscuits 2
Box Score