MiLB.com's Ben Hill is one of my favorite writers, mainly because he covers minor league baseball in the way I'd like to: by getting out there and experiencing as many ballparks and promotions for himself as he can.
Unfortunately, as he told me via email yesterday, this requires a basic level of organizational skill, which probably means I'm out of luck. But if you want to know more about Hill's favorite ballpark experiences, his personal feelings on the separation of fan and media, and what goes into his road work for MiLB.com and his MLB blog(Ben's Biz Blog), by all means, read on.
What is your writing background? How did you land the gig at MiLB.com?
I graduated from Pitt with a Communications degree in 2001, and while I was interested in both baseball and writing it wasn’t a career I actively pursued. I started at MiLB.com in July of 2005, working part-time night shifts during the first season of the site’s existence. Things were so new then that specific hiring guidelines had not yet been established, and I got the job because a friend of mine already worked there and he recommended me. What can I say? I got lucky.
As for my niche as a Minor League game operations/promotions/business writer, that wasn’t something I planned for either. I took over the “Promotion Preview” column in 2006, and quickly became interested in all the funny, absurd, and strange things the Minors have to offer. Ben’s Biz Blog started as an offshoot of that in 2007, and things have evolved from there.
When we started Bus Leagues in 2007, one of the key things we wanted to do was try looking at minor league baseball through the eyes of the fan. That seems to be an approach you take to your work as well. Was it your idea to go on the road and see firsthand what teams were doing? If so, how did you sell your bosses on the idea?
It was my idea to go on the road, and something I had wanted to do for quite some time. It’s an idea my bosses have always been on board with, although, as with most such endeavors, budgetary constraints can be an issue. It helps if each proposed trip has a “big game” hook – the 100th Anniversary of Rickwood Field is what brought me down South, and the Midwest trip was motivated by the last game at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.
How many different ballparks did you end up visiting this season? How do you decide where you're going to go?
That’s a good question…let me go check.
[14 minutes pass]
I visited 17 Minor League parks over four separate road trips, and attended games locally in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Trenton. I also visited two defunct stadiums: the aforementioned Rickwood Field in Birmingham and Engel Stadium in Chattanooga. Altogether, that’s 22 ballparks that I visited as a so-called “professional.” Also, I got to attend the Keystone Mascot Camp in central PA.
As touched upon earlier, a “big game” helps me focus in on an area. From there, I cobble together an itinerary based on my budget and the vagaries of the schedule. It’s actually a very time consuming task to put together a agenda and then take care of all the logistical odds and ends, but it’s satisfying once it all comes together.
Do you have a general routine that you follow whenever you arrive at a new ballpark, or is every one treated differently?
The general routine is to arrive on time while using the power of positive thinking to ward off anxiety attacks. But, really, it often depends on the ballpark and what my “angle” is that evening. The nights I like best are generally those where I have ample opportunity to simply wander around and soak up the scene, but it’s also great when the front office goes out of its way to include me in between-inning shenanigans and/or point out interesting things about the stadium, fans, concessions, etc. There’s so much going on during a game, it helps to be nudged in the right direction.
What is your favorite minor league ballpark?
While I am really impressed by some of the newer, larger facilities (Lehigh Valley, Gwinnett County, etc), my favorites are generally the older parks. FirstEnergy in Reading is definitely a favorite – sixty years old and still vibrant. I’m also a big fan of Bowman Field in Williamsport (PA), Community Field in Burlington (IA), and Modern Woodmen Park on the banks of the Mississipi in Davenport, IA.
If it's not putting you the spot too much, what's your least favorite minor league ballpark?
That is a tough one to answer, but of the parks I’ve visited this year Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium stands out as the facility most in need of extensive renovation. It would be great to see that city get a new ballpark, and I hope something can be worked out.
What was your best ballpark experience this season? What was the best promotion you saw?
The best ballpark experience was probably the Rickwood Classic, a rare opportunity to see professional baseball within a 100-year-old facility. Truly, a surreal time warp experience. Other great memories include suiting up as a mascot in Harrisburg, throwing out a first pitch in Des Moines, and serving as the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor’s apprentice in Reading. That last one was probably the best promotion I saw – “Salute to the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor.” Who knew an ostrich-riding frankfurter purveyor could become an honest-to-God ballpark celebrity? Kids came to the ballpark dressed like him, and there was a big line for his autograph.
We read a great blog post the other day by Erika Lynn of I-70 Baseball, in which she wrote about her experience covering a game for the first time, and the conflicting emotions that come with it when you're used to being a fan. This is something our writers have struggled with as well (our founder, Eric Angevine, wrote in response to Erika's piece, "I hope she retains that joy. I know I never hide the fact that I'm enjoying myself immensely when I'm at an event, even on a media pass"). Given the nature of much of your work, do you ever run into situations where the line between media and fan becomes blurred?
As much as I try to convey the fan experience, I’m a member of the media first and foremost. This doesn’t preclude enjoying myself, but above all I have a job to do. Sometimes it can be frustrating, as I get so caught up in documenting the situation that I don’t really take the time to appreciate and enjoy it. Often I fantasize about returning a ballpark strictly as a fan, with no responsibilities other than to sit there and soak it in.
That said, I’m not complaining! I’m very grateful I’ve found a way to make a living doing what I do.
How much, if at all, do you follow independent baseball?
Not all that much, just in that it’s not something I’m able to write about within the confines of MiLB.com. I’m still interested in what those teams are doing, however, and I know that quite a few indy league front office members are regular readers of my blog.
I tend to follow minor league baseball for the prospects. We had a writer last year who loved it for the bobbleheads and personal connections he could make with players. Another of our contributors, Will Georgantas, once said, "It's all baseball, and to me, it's all good." What is YOUR favorite thing about minor league baseball?
More than anything, I like how Minor League Baseball as an industry encompasses the entirety of America. With 160 teams in affiliated ball alone, the Minors represent a great opportunity to explore and learn about our country while enjoying the greatest game ever invented. Baseball has always served as a reflection of American culture, and this is certainly true in the Minor Leagues. And if the reflection resembles that of a fun house mirror… all the better!