A Visit To Tennessee Smokies Park

My recent absence from blogging (and, indeed, life in general) can be blamed partly on my launching of a new company (if your business needs video marketing services, look no futher!) and a number of trips taken in between long hours of shooting and cutting video. These trips were planned long before my entrance into the world of Funemployment and, while fun, did little to assuage my anxiety to get the new business launched on schedule. These trips were also virtually baseball and sportscard-less for the most part. But my most recent trip was a little jaunt to the south. We went to Pigeon Forge, TN based solely on having heard the name somewhere before. Turns out it’s basically the Wisconsin Dells of the south. If you don’t know about the Dells, just know that its nickname among locals is “White Trash Disney Land.”

A bit harsh, though I will admit that the unbelievable amount of truly hideous development in the very foothills of the Smoky Mountains (and right at the entrance to Smoky Mountain National Park, no less) disturbed me greatly. I couldn’t help but wonder what all that beautiful land looked like before the adventure golf and Olive Gardens paved their way into the hills.

But, to the point. After a lovely day of mini-putting and a nice dinner at Olive Garden, we went along to the most awaited portion of the trip: a minor league game starring none other than the Cubs’ AA affiliate Tennessee Smokies!

See any bats?

Smokies Park is located in a little town called Kodak, TN and looks a lot like other minor league and independent league parks I’ve seen: 20 or 30 rows of seating on one level, some bleachers off on the sides and lawn seating (for $5!). It’s been built relatively recently so the scoreboard/LED screen is pretty high end. They had little ESPN-like intros for each player, some of them utterly awkward and hilarious. But the best part about the night that we ended up there was this:

Boba Fett is still cool.

That’s right. Of all nights to end up at Smokies Park, we showed up on Star Wars night! They had some poor college kids (it was sponsored by a local community college) dressed up in Star Wars garb, lots of video clips on the scoreboard (including this hilarious take on Who’s On First, which I had never seen) and some pretty funny imitations of Darth Vader and Yoda doing the player intros for a few innings. But the best part was the images for the opposing team (the Huntsville Star(s) Wars) on the scoreboard.

Jar Jar is still uncool.

At first I thought that they all got a version of Jar Jar or Jabba. Then I saw a Salacious Crumb and nearly lost it. I was disappointed when the top of the order came around and some of them had cool characters like Mace Windu and Qui-Gon Jinn (cool for the new trilogy anyway, right?). I had really hoped that they would all be Star Wars scrubs, but alas, there were no Lobots in the bunch.

After a few relatively uneventful innings, I stopped by the gift shop to grab a hat for my buddy who collects minor league logo hats and took a peek at the team sets. They looked decent enough, with Starlin Castro right on top!

Get your Starlins heeeayh! Get 'im while he's hot!

Then I saw that little label on the bottom. In case you can’t make it out, that’s the price. And it’s $10. I was shocked at how pricey they were. They still had lots of last year’s team set (at the same price) and a couple going back to 2006 at slightly discounted prices. Now, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you know I’m a stickler for value. And $10 for team issued minor league cards is not much of a value, so I passed. Now, if they had been limited to a certain number (say, 1,000 or 2,000), I might have been interested. But, since they could just keep printing these things as long as they wanted (a la the junk wax era), I just couldn’t justify the purchase. If I had arrived at the game early enough to get some autographs, I might have changed my tune a bit.

Anyway, the game was actually pretty awesome. The Smokies came roaring up in the 8th inning and scored something like 9 runs and that was basically the game. Home runs by catcher Steve Clevenger (starting in place of the recently called-up Wellington Castillo) and third baseman Russ Canzler helped seal the deal. Canzler is currently batting .295 with 18 homers on the year. Now, I’m no professional scout, but I’ve played my share of MVP Baseball 2005, and a guy at AA hitting like that gets the call from me if I’m GM. But what do I know. This is why I don’t prospect!

One very strange thing happened during the game. At one point the opposing team’s second basemen adamantly called time and pointed to the ground. The game screeched to a halt while everyone and their mother came out to look at what was going on. They were around something on the ground and smiling a bit… we thought maybe a raccoon had gotten on the field to do his business or something. Eventually, a batboy came and wrapped whatever they were looking at in a towel and carted it off. This exact thing happened again 2 innings later. Then I noticed that there were some bats flying around above the field and thought that maybe they were rescuing bats that had fallen from the sky. This seems reasonable enough until my sister claimed she saw the bat boy STOMP on the towel after he wrapped whatever it was up. Clearly they’re not killing bats at a baseball game… right? Anyone have any insight here?

At any rate, the game was a blast and it reminded me how much fun minor league games can be. As a kid growing up in Rockford, IL I got a chance to see guys like Delino DeShields and Marquis Grissom play for the single A Rockford Expos (later the Rockford Royals, Rockford Reds and Rockford Cubbies) and had a great time at those games. It’s cheap fun, too, so if you’ve got a park within reasonable driving distance that you haven’t checked out yet, make sure to get there before summer is gone completely.

We also stopped by the Louisville Slugger bat factory and museum. Took a pretty cool tour- we got to see Joey Votto’s bats being made! They tour was fascinating- the whole process is really interesting and for a guy who used to program CNC machines back in high school, it was fun seeing their machines crank out 30 bats an hour. A lot of it is still done by hand, including the branding of the logo. Which logo? Oh yes, this one.

I wonder what his bed post looked like...

Obviously they’ve changed the logo a bit since Babe Ruth was carving notches in his. I also highly doubt that any major league player today hits 20 HRs with the same bat. They touched on the “more bats are breaking now” argument but they claim the bats are made from the same wood that’s all treated the same way as always. Strange…

But that wasn’t the only bat they had on display. They had a little section where you could hold a game used bat. I didn’t see anyone go for the Evan Longoria bat… I saw a few people go for the Johnny Bench bat… but most people went for Mickey Mantle’s.

Can you tell I'm not left handed?

I have to admit, holding that bat did feel a little special. But, more than that, it made me a little sad. There aren’t a ton of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle bats around… and the card companies cutting them up seems especially cruel after holding one. I know that one bat makes a million relic cards… but maybe it’s time to lay off the “Piece of History, “Fabric of the Game” and “Classic Cuts” stuff for a while. Besiders, themarket is saturated with that kind of thing anyway. Modern players I don’t care so much about- the folks at the factory said an average player plows through 120-150 bats a year now. But isn’t it time to try that “redemption card for a whole game used onject” thing folks have been talking about for a while? Seems that’s the way the Mick would’ve wanted it. I know. I’ve held his bat.

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