Friday, August 19, 2016

Jacksonville Suns 5 at Tennessee Smokies 1 (Southern League) - August 17, 2016

With the Nashville Sounds game ending at 2:40, I had just over three hours to drive the 200 miles to Kodak for a 7:05 start at Smokies Stadium (remembering that I would lose an hour by re-entering the Eastern Time Zone). After getting out of Nashville fairly quickly, I zoomed along I-40, only to be slowed by traffic where I-75 merges just outside of Knoxville. Once that cleared and I approached Kodak, I realized that I would be a few minutes late for the game. However, it started raining heavily around that time, so I pulled into a gas station to find out if the game would even be played. Thanks to social media, I discovered that the storm would be a short one and the game would be played after a brief delay. I thus continued on to the stadium, arriving around 7:30 just as the rain stopped, giving me about 30 minutes tour the venue before first pitch at 8:05.

Smokies Stadium rests atop a hill north of I-40 off Winfield Dunn Parkway on a small street cleverly called Line Drive. Parking in the lots near the ballpark costs $5, slightly too much for AA ball in my miserly mind. I did notice many cars parked in a grass field off Stadium Drive below the ballpark, but I couldn't figure out if they were going elsewhere or parking there parsimoniously. Anyway, I made my way to the box office and picked up the cheapest ticket, a berm seat at $9.

Smokies Stadium was opened in 2000 (and called Smokies Park back then) to replace Bill Meyer Stadium, which was located in Knoxville itself and hosted the Blue Jays AA affiliate from 1980-2002. With the move to Kodak, the team changed their name to Tennessee Smokies. The ballpark is fairly standard, with infield seats in Kelly green and benches down the lines. Part of the concourse is covered but further down you are exposed to the elements.

The stadium is symmetrical as you can tell by comparing the two pictures above.

What really impressed me here were the food choices, with several concession stands throughout the ballpark offering specialty items. The Smokies have been the Cubs affiliate since 2007 so you even have "A Taste of Chicago" as one of the options. The Thunder Road Distillery offers alcoholic slushies, but with still a few miles to drive after the game, I declined this temptation.

The best spot is the Smoky Mountain Brewery down the left field line, which offers a large menu of made-to-order pub grub and craft beers at reasonable prices, i.e. not much different from a restaurant. There is a seating area inside, while others order from the concourse and then watch the game from a nearby vantage point while their food is prepared. There is also a party porch above the left field fence called Calhoun's at the Yard after a local restaurant chain. Both these places are open to groups as well.

I found standing rails scattered around the concourse and used one for a couple of innings before moving into the seating bowl. The view from my spot is below; note that the netting does not extend the length of the dugout.

And that's about it. I didn't see much in the way of history on display, though it's possible that I missed some stuff as I did only a cursory tour due to fatigue and hunger. The Smokies website has an incredibly detailed history of baseball in Knoxville since 1896, so they definitely pay attention to it. With all the talented prospects that recently played here on their way to Wrigley, I'd expect an impressive "Road to the Show" exhibit after the Cubs win the next five World Series.

Overall, I liked this ballpark, but I did feel rushed a bit even with the delay. This will be the last time I visit two new venues on the same day, something I don't recommend because it can be overwhelming to take everything in. I might pay another visit to Kodak on my trip to Jackson, Mississippi next year to check it out in a more relaxed atmosphere.

The Game

The Jacksonville Suns (Miami) were the visitors in an ironic twist as the sun was nowhere to be found. They sent Chris Mazza (27th round in 2011) to the hill while Tennessee answered with Tyler Skulina (4th, 2013, below). After retiring the first four batters, Skulina gave up a deep fly ball to right field off the bat of Alex Glenn (12th, 2012 by Arizona). Ian Happ (9th overall pick in 2015, Cubs #1 prospect) went back and jumped to make the catch, but the ball bounced out of his glove and over the fence for a surprise home run. Jacksonville added two more in the third when Austin Dean (4th, 2012, Miami's 6th-ranked prospect) doubled home Kenny Wilson (Toronto's 2nd-round pick in 2008) and scored on a single from J.T. Riddle (13th, 2013, #11 prospect).

Tennessee got one back in the 4th when Happ singled, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly. It didn't take Jacksonville long to reply as Brian Anderson (3rd, 2014, Miami's #4 prospect) homered in the 5th, and they added a final run in the 8th when Glenn drove home Riddle as the Suns won 5-1 in a thoroughly forgettable affair.

You will note the number of top prospects mentioned in the brief recap, which shows that AA is really the best place for watching up-and-coming stars. Many are promoted directly to the bigs, bypassing AAA on the way, while AAA teams have a lot of AAAA players who jump back and forth between the majors and minors, as well as some over-the-hill guys playing for one last chance at The Show.


Just to the south of Kodak are three communities that cater to tourists: Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg. A couple of famous attractions are Dollywood and a Titanic Museum, but of course I didn't have time to visit. I did stop at Boogaloos, a dive bar with surprisingly good food and unsurprisingly bad karaoke (the food and service make the singing tolerable). If you do visit Kodak for a Smokies game, look for a hotel in one of these towns instead of Knoxville and stay an extra day to see some sights.



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