Monday, August 15, 2016

Greensboro Grasshoppers 2 at Columbia Fireflies 3 (12, South Atlantic League) - August 14, 2016


My trip continued with a visit to another buggy baseball stadium, this time Spirit Communications Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies. The Fireflies were the Savannah Sand Gnats (insects are very popular mascots in the South Atlantic League) last season and I visited Grayson Stadium exactly one year ago. The team was sold to Hardball Capital, an investment firm that also owns the Fort Wayne TinCaps and the Chattanooga Lookouts, who moved them to Columbia for 2016 where they took up residence in SCP. Built on the site of an old mental health institution, this is the only new venue in minor league ball this season as the bozos in Hartford never opened Dunkin' Donuts Park. Spirit Communications Park is the centrepiece of a billion-dollar development in north Columbia that will take 20 years to complete, but has just gotten started. As such, the ballpark is currently surrounded by parking lots though there are pockets of construction that can be seen. There is nothing within walking distance here yet, so you will have to pay three dollars to park.



Aesthetically the park is very attractive, especially from the outside, where the main entrance is up a large wide staircase and is denoted by four wide arches, with the ticket windows to the right.



Note the red building below; this is an original edifice to the area that has been incorporated into the overall experience. I am not sure what will end up residing there, but it gives you an idea of what is planned. Also note that the will call window is actually just a booth.



There are 14 ticket categories, including a $5 general admission ticket, which is my recommendation as there are some nice seats along the outfield concourse that are worth checking out for an inning or two before moving into the seating bowl, where ushers are friendly but don't check tickets. Netting extends to the far end of the dugouts so there are not many seats in the bowl with a completely unobstructed view of the action.



There are several "neighbourhoods" around the ballpark with special seating areas, such as the permanent tables (above) which have four fixed chairs that rotate. Many of these are sold on a season-long basis but a few are left open for game day purchases if you have a group of 4. Below are picnic tables in the left field corner that face the infield.



You can walk around the entire concourse, and if you are lucky you can snap a picture of the sun setting behind home plate through the lounge windows.



Historical tributes are found on a wall behind the batter's eye, and including plaques honouring Frank Robinson who played here, and Larry Doby, who grew up in South Carolina.



On Sundays, a right field plaza becomes the Splash Zone, where an old repainted fire truck sprays fans who might be suffering from the heat. Not good for those with scorebooks though.



The team store is huge, rivaling some of those in the major leagues, with an unbelievable variety of goods for a team in low Class A. It is known as the Mason Jar, because that is what you use to capture fireflies.



A kid's zone sits beyond left field, highlighted by a large inflatable Mason (the mascot) in which youngsters can jump around. The huge scoreboard is just beyond left field; remember this is Class A, the lowest full-season level in the minors. Really, this could be a Double-A park and is better than a few I have seen at that level.



Four permanent concessions serve essentially the same thing, while there are 23 carts around the entire ballpark that serve a specialty item, such as boiled peanuts for just $3.50 or four fried Oreos for $4 (plus proof of health insurance). Columbia has a good collection of microbreweries and Conquest's Sacred Heart IPA is one worth trying here at $7 for a pint.

The only thing that bothered me here was that short music clips or bits from movies were played far too often, sometimes between every pitch. I much prefer when the action on the field isn't regularly interrupted by an intern trying to be funny in the press box.

Overall, this really is a beautiful new venue, but fans don't seem to be impressed yet, as attendance is falling short of expectations. Certainly the newness effect has worn off this late in the season, but to make matters worse, the Columbia summer is very hot and humid. Although most of the seating is in the shade by the time a 7:05 game starts, it can still be very muggy, as it was on this Sunday evening, a 5:05 start. Indoor entertainment is probably a more comfortable option around this time of year. As the development starts to take place and there are more retail and commercial options nearby, I expect that attendance will rise, but we are several years away from that happening. Still, it is worth a visit to see this park in its infancy, and before the area becomes an attraction in itself.

The Game

The insect idea continued with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Miami) in town. Trevor Richards, an undrafted free agent who spent a year in independent ball started for the visitors, while Chase Ingram (6th round in 2015) took the hill for Columbia (Mets). The Fireflies opened the scoring in the bottom of the fourth on a walk, double, and wild pitch while Ingram had not given up a hit through five frames. With one out in the top of the 6th, Isael Soto sent a fly ball to right center that could have been caught but the fielder ran into the corner of the wall (you can see the odd configuration below, those corners are tough to navigate when you are running backwards). The ball fell just to his left and Soto had a triple. He scored on a single from Angel Reyes, who later followed him home when Aaron Blanton (9th, 2013) doubled, ending Ingram's evening.



Columbia tied it up in the bottom of the 8th when Tucker Tharp (30th, 2014) singled, moved to second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on an infield single from J.C. Rodriguez, and scored on a sacrifice fly from Dash Winningham. Neither team could produce a run in the ninth, and we went to extra innings. The 10th and 11th passed without a decisive play. In the bottom of the 12th, Shane Sawczak (recently called up from Batavia) entered for Greensboro and got two quick outs before Rodriguez and Winningham (8th, 2014) singled to bring up Tyler Moore (6th, 2014), who made everybody merry with a game winning single. Get it? Tyler Moore, merry? Bwahahahahahahaha. Anyway, the game took 4:22 thanks to 16 walks between the two clubs but at least the Fireflies won. Thanks to my friend Meg for joining me for this one; it was fun to have someone to keep me awake in the heat.

Notes

We had a meeting of Stadium Journey writers on Saturday and one of the owners of Hardball Capital took us on a private tour while the game was going on. We saw every nook and cranny of the stadium, but what was more interesting was his explanation of the thinking behind the design decisions. They plan to add new features as the years pass and these have already been incorporated into the design. It will be very interesting to return here in a few years to see how the final version of both the ballpark and the entertainment district turns out.

Next Up

I'm back in Bluefield to see the Blue Jays after the game I was planning to see last month was cancelled at the last minute due to a protest. Check back tomorrow for a recap of that as I complete the Appalachian League ballparks.

Best,

Sean

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