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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Baseball's history in Gastonia, North Carolina, is a bit complicated. Sims Legion Park opened off Marietta Street in 1950, offering the game to residents of the smallish town 20 miles southwest of center-city Charlotte. Affiliated baseball joined the fray nearly a decade later, with the Pirates' Class-A affiliate relocating up Interstate 85 from Columbus, Georgia. Minor League Baseball placed teams in the city for just over 30 years, with stars like Al Oliver, Andy Van Slyke, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Ivan Rodriguez taking the field at Sims Legion Park on their way to the big leagues. A number of teams have shared the facility since affiliated baseball left, including everything from American Legion baseball to National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) softball.
The most important development for baseball in the city took place in 2002, however. The summer collegiate wood-bat Coastal Plain League placed the Grizzlies in Sims Legion Park, allowing players from some of the nation's top college programs to spend their summers plying their trade in an atmosphere very similar to that they will experience as professionals. The man in charge of the operation, however, has helped change the way his players spend their summers, and has defined how the paying customers enjoying the games should be treated.
Team owner Jesse Cole -- himself a former college baseball player -- and his group, Fans First Entertainment, have combined to form what is, to many, the gold standard in promotion and entertainment. Cole's group -- including his wife Emily, whom he met through the course of his work -- has revived both interest in the game and involvement in community, to the point where the team is hoping to move into a new stadium in 2018, as part of a continued revitalization effort in Gastonia. Until that move takes place, though, a night at Sims Legion Park is one of the most rewarding ways in the Carolinas to spend your entertainment dollar.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Baseball in Gastonia is an experience unlike virtually any other, and that translates to the food and drink offerings. You won't be stuck with just a hot dog and a bottle of water -- though you can certainly acquire those items, if you would like.
Concessions are largely served from a sizeable -- and constantly busy -- stand in the main building that also houses the seating behind the plate. The "main" category (entrees, primarily) feature eight options that are available either separately or as a combo, which includes chips and a drink. Among those choices are the aforementioned hot dog ($5.95 as a combo, $2.95 separately), cheeseburgers ($7.95/$4.95), and two unique items, the Donut Dog ($5.95/$2.95) and Donut Burger ($7.95/$4.95). The latter two are exactly what one might imagine, based on the description. There are eight total combo choices.
Snacks are next on the list, and this category contains a lot of the "staple" items one might expect at a ballpark. Cracker Jack ($2.95), sunflower seeds ($1.95), and pickles -- yes, pickles ($1) line the landscape. Salty and sweet choices complete the menu. The club also offers healthy items, and although the listing is somewhat small (turkey dogs, granola bars and water), the fact that these choices even exist is a nice touch.
You'll need something to wash down all that food, so grab a Coca-Cola product ($2.50, or $3.25 for a bottle), water or Powerade. If you are of age and want a cold brew to go with your food, you can get that in the Ole Dallas Brewery Beer Garden, which is down the third base line. Local brews are available on-tap in 16, 24 or 32-ounce sizes, or in bottles. National brands, along with "spiked" root beer or ginger ale, can also be purchased at reasonable prices.
If that weren't enough, concessions are also served from a small shed on the third base side, called The House. Many of the offerings from the main stand can be found here, along with Papa John's pizza slices ($2.50) and soft pretzels ($3.95).
Finally, fans are encouraged to take the Garbage Can Nachos "challenge" for the low price of $15. This concoction contains three orders of nachos, a chopped hamburger patty, two chopped hot dogs, an order of cheese steak, which is all covered with nacho cheese and chili. Jalapeno peppers are added for spice, and two glazed doughnuts are served on the side. (And yes, this is all apparently served on a clean garbage can lid.)
The atmosphere at a Grizzlies game can vary a bit, depending on the day of the week in which you attend and the promotions taking place. There is one word that is a constant, though -- fun.
Jesse is no longer front-and-center at every game -- his obligations in helping build Savannah prevent that -- but his imprint is still all over the club. An on-field emcee will guide fans through all the between-innings entertainment, with some of it even starting before the first pitch of the game. A kids home run challenge begins the festivities, as a specially-chosen child tries to hit a homer (spoiler alert: they do) against the Grizzlies.
There is always something to see during any break in the action, with the typical (t-shirt giveaway and dizzy bat race), the atypical (Finish The Lyrics) and the downright hilarious (hitting family members with pies) filling the down time. The team also comes out and joins the mascot in a dance routine set to the Sugarhill Gang classic "Apache".
Speaking of the mascot, he is a grizzly bear named Chizzle. Chizzle wanders through the stands throughout the game, posing for pictures with kids and shaking hands. He also competes -- and loses badly -- with kids in many of the between-innings challenges. Though this is not a second "mascot", a staffer also stands atop the visiting dugout posed as the Grim Reaper during the announcement of the visiting lineups. Instead of a scythe, though, this version wields a black baseball bat.
When you do have a spare minute -- and they will be few and far between -- a scoreboard in left-center shows the essentials you'll need to keep up with the progress of the game. There is also a text area for messages from the team, birthdays, promotional announcements and the like.
Sims Legion Park is in a residential and light industrial area, so there is very little to do in the direct vicinity of the stadium. There are a couple of restaurants and an Ingles grocery store just up U.S. Route 321 from the park, but unless gas stations and fast food are your thing, a short jaunt up Interstate 85 may be your ticket.
There are two shopping areas just up the interstate from the park, and these shopping areas contain a number of sit-down restaurants of all types. There are also a couple of sports bar-type places in Gastonia and Belmont. If you want more large-scale attractions, fear not: center-city Charlotte is only 20-30 minutes away, depending on traffic.
The Grizzlies are quite the draw. The club drew greater than 60,000 fans -- almost the entire population of the city -- in its 2015 season, and the turnstile numbers continue to click upward each year. The fans who fill the seats love their Grizzlies, and it's clear the team loves them back. The connection between the club and team is similar to that in many Coastal Plain League markets, and the mutual love affair makes for a pretty rowdy environment.
The only thing keeping the fan base from being even more remarkable is that there are some nights -- usually weeknights -- where the crowds considerably thin out. Some fans come out just for the fireworks, as they do in many other cities, but the club continues to market to everyone in the town -- even the fireworks lovers!
Parking at Sims Legion Park is a rather easy affair. Even on a tremendously busy night, there is plentiful free space in which to park. There is limited paved parking, so if a large crowd is anticipated, arrive early (the gates open an hour before first pitch) to claim one of those spots. The overflow parking is in a grass lot, but the team has attendants on hand to guide you. There are also two points of egress from the on-site lot, which helps to limit traffic backups after a game is complete. Returning to Interstate 85 takes just a matter of minutes, and you will soon be on your way to your preferred destination.
The bathrooms in the facility are underneath the main grandstand, and there are ample and clean facilities to accommodate even the largest crowd. The concession areas also freely move through the evening, despite the consistent business.
At $7 for a general admission ticket, the cost to get into the park is hard to beat. Combine this with free parking and reasonable concession prices, and attending a Grizzlies game leaves a fairly light dent in your budget. Souvenirs are also available for surprisingly low prices from a tent behind the third base dugout.
A general admission ticket, cheeseburger combo and parking will cost you under $15. Concessions alone may cost you almost that total at other affiliated ballparks in the area.
The Grizzlies offer online ticketing, but you will not be able to print your tickets at home. This may seem inconvenient at first, but there is a legitimate reason for operating in this manner. Each ticket to a Grizzlies game is a souvenir, dubbed a "Golden Ticket." There are coupons on the back of each ticket, but turning the ticket into a collectible offers more than enough added value.
Gastonia, as do many other CPL clubs, pauses to honor active duty and retired military at every game. The public address announcer invites those in this prestigious class to stand and be applauded.
In keeping with the American theme, there is an American flag sculpture on the hill beyond the fence in right field. This is one of the very few adornments on that hill, but certainly catches the eye as you scan the ballpark. There is also a shrubbery "sculpture" of the city's name beyond the fence in center field.
The Grizzlies do not refer to their games as simply games. The club markets them as a show. Signs saying "Show Tonight!" line the entrance to the ballpark, and a message saying "Welcome To The Show!" appears on the scoreboard before the game. The difference in mentality shows from the time you walk in the gates until the time you leave.
Any mention of extras has to include "The Man In The Yellow Tux." We've mentioned Jesse and his group, but his love for the game and those who sit in the stands oozes forth with every interaction. If you see Jesse at a game, introduce yourself and talk to him -- assuming he doesn't talk to you first. He's one of the friendliest people you'll meet in sports ownership, and he's always on the lookout for the next great entertainment idea.
There is plenty of baseball history in Gastonia. It is now obvious, though, that there can be no mention of baseball in Gastonia without mention of the Grizzlies leading the proverbial pack. With a 2011 Petitt Cup league title under its belt, many satisfied repeat customers and a possible new ballpark, the club might well go beyond being just a page and rewrite the entire history book.
Member Review by brian on Jun 06, 2012
To many baseball fans, summer collegiate wood-bat baseball is an unknown commodity. Many have seen the movie "Summer Catch", though the on-field action depicting the Cape Cod League took a bit of a back seat. Jim Collins' book "The Last Best League" tells a bit more of the story, with features on Padres righthander Tim Stauffer and others. Though the Cape Cod League is the most famous, it is not the only summer league in which the next wave of future professionals take their swings. There are at least 30 additional leagues throughout the United States.
One of these leagues is the Coastal Plain League, a 15-team circuit with teams in Virginia and the Carolinas. Over 350 players from the league have been drafted since its inception in 1997, with names such as Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, Justin Verlander, and Ryan Zimmerman among the many future pros who have worn Coastal Plain League jerseys. The Gastonia Grizzlies took home the 2011 Petitt Cup, so it is only appropriate to start our look at the Coastal Plain League in their back yard.
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