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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
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.
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".
It may seem easy to have lower expectations for this level of baseball in terms of food and beverage options. Gastonia is well-known for its concessions, however. All of the normal classics are available at the concession areas, including nachos ($3.50), hamburgers ($4), barbecue sandwiches ($4), cheeseburgers ($4.50), hot dogs ($3), and candy ($1.50). Pretzels ($3) and cotton candy ($2.50) are among the other available standards.
The Grizzlies are a very fan-friendly organization, and the team will often involve its fans in its decisions, including some of its concession items. The team debuted a waffle burger ($5) for the 2012 season, which is a cheeseburger between two Belgian waffles with maple syrup. This item accompanies the doughnut dog ($3.50) and doughnut burger ($4), in which a glazed doughnut serves as the "bun" for either item. There are also more conventional extras, such as cheese steak sandwiches ($5), bratwursts ($4), and sausages ($3.50).
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.) If you can eat all this in ten minutes, the team will pay for your nachos and put your picture on a wall of fame. My picture will not grace this wall.
There is a fine balance in having a gameday experience where there is a quality product on the field and a fun time in the stands. Gastonia does a great job with both. There are some rather unique promotions on the field, including "Pie Your Dad", where a fan has to choose between a Grizzlies souvenir or getting to hit his father with a pie. The fan on this night chose all three opportunities to blast his father with a pie, and was rewarded with all three souvenirs anyway. There was also a "pass the monkey" promotion, where an inflatable monkey was passed down each base line, and whichever arrived in the seats behind the plate first was the winner for its respective base line. Of all the promotions I have witnessed in all the ballparks I have visited, this is my first time getting to pass (well, have thrown at me) an inflatable monkey.
Another interesting addition to the atmosphere is public address announcer Brian Rushing. The man simply does it all on the microphone in Gastonia, singing the national anthem, announcing batters and even providing his own sound effects. Many of the normal sounds one expects to hear at a ballpark, including the sound of breaking glass on a foul ball, come from this one voice.
The only real complaint about the atmosphere was that the public address system was not loud enough. I was sitting down the third base line and often had to strain to hear what was being said. The music between innings was virtually inaudible. This created a bit of a hassle throughout the game, as not only could I not hear who was batting for either team, the repeated announcements for fans to move their cars went virtually unheard through most of the game. The team did not gather license plates on the cars that needed to be moved until the bottom of the eighth inning, which was almost too late. There is also a large bear mascot named Chizzle, but he only made a couple of appearances.
Sims Legion Park is in a residential 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 this is too small-town for you, fear not: center-city Charlotte is only 20-30 minutes away, depending on traffic.
Before continuing, let it be said that the Grizzlies set an all-time attendance record for a single game on the night I attended. The announced crowd was 4148, which is tremendously impressive for a team in this league. The Grizzlies outdrew affiliated teams in Hickory and Kannapolis, both within reasonable driving distance of Gastonia.
The disappointing part of all this was that, despite the large attendance number, a lot of the fans' priorities seemed to be elsewhere. There is a beer garden down the left field line, and it appeared that a lot of fans were there to drink and socialize. Many rarely even bothered to look at the game action. The large crowd was great, but it felt a lot like a missed opportunity. The lack of engagement made for a less festive atmosphere.
A lot of the fans in my section spent their evening getting up and sitting down. Some fans got up over ten times. The general admission seats are one continuous set of bleachers, with no obvious point of egress. This meant fans had to weave through open areas to descend the bleachers, and this caused some concerns for those who were trying to watch the game. The lack of steps on the bleachers also made climbing and walking down the bleachers a rather dangerous affair, as one fan slipped trying to walk down the bleachers.
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.
The bathrooms in the facility are underneath the main grandstand, and there did not appear to be any major lines or troubles accessing the bathrooms, even with the large crowd. The concession areas also seemed to be moving rather freely throughout the evening.
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.
There are some additional perks (more on these in the Extras section) that make this even more of a great deal.
The toughest part of completing this section is limiting the extras to four. The club really does get it in terms of innovative marketing and making the connection with fans, and it is obvious from the moment you book your seat.
Speaking of booking your seat, if you order tickets online, there is no convenience fee to do so. In an era where there are sometimes multiple added fees with your online ticket order, what you see is what you get with the final ticket price. As you enter the gates, you are greeted by a Grizzlies player handing out a free program. This helps build the connection between the fan and team in multiple ways. When you leave the park, the staff is waiting at the gates to personally thank you for attending the game. This group includes Managing Partner Jesse Cole, who is one of the more fan-friendly front office types anywhere in the game. It's not an act, either; the Grizzlies staff seems to really love what they do and appreciate the fans who make it possible.
There was also an interesting twist before the game, as a fan was "chosen" to win a 2011 Grizzlies championship ring, and while she was taking pictures with the Grizzlies staff, her boyfriend sneaked onto the field behind her to propose. (She thankfully said yes.) The game closed with fans being allowed onto the field to get autographs from the players, which was a nice touch.
There is a lot of baseball history in Gastonia, including several stints with affiliated baseball. The Cardinals, Expos, Tigers, and Rangers have all fielded teams here, with the Gastonia Expos winning the South Atlantic League title in 1983. Andy Van Slyke, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, and several other future big leaguers have all spent the summer in Gastonia.
The Grizzlies are adding their own chapter to Gastonia's baseball history, with constant yearly attendance records, Coastal Plain League championships and a really fun, competitive brand of baseball. If you've never seen a wood-bat game, you owe it to yourself to go see these future stars. If you need a good place to start that journey, Gastonia is a great place to do so.
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