Ben's Biz: An evening with the Single-A Athletics

May 24th, 2024

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE.

The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League Ballpark Guides. Plan your road trip today, and check out the Stockton Ports Ballpark Guide HERE.

As if the headline and the photo didn’t give it away: My recent visit to Banner Island Ballpark occurred on May 4, as in May the fourth, as in “May the force be with you.” It’s an unofficial holiday dedicated to the celebration of all things Star Wars, and many Minor League teams schedule Star Wars theme nights on or around the date.

I had spent the previous evening in Modesto, birthplace of Star Wars creator George Lucas, so it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to see his characters at the ballpark in nearby Stockton. They’re practically locals.

Truth be told, I don’t even like Star Wars. But I do like Minor League Baseball, and it was nice to be back at Banner Island Ballpark (my third visit, following stops in 2013 and 2016).

Banner Island Ballpark -- also known as Stockton Ballpark -- is situated in the city’s waterfront area and still holds the distinction of being the newest ballpark in the California League. It opened in 2005, constructed in conjunction with the arena that looms beyond left field. (Banner Island no longer exists. The name lives on, applied to the San Joaquin River delta area where the island once was.)

It was a beautiful evening for a ballgame, albeit chilly, but it had rained nonstop from the wee hours of the morning until 4 p.m. This undoubtedly hurt attendance, and it also affected my plans to explore Stockton prior to the game. There are a few things I can tell you from previous visits, however:

Banner Island is speculated to have been the site of Ernest Thayer’s immortal 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat.” Stockton was commonly known as “Mudville” in the 19th century, and the city’s team played at a ballpark located in the same area where the Ports play today. In 2016 I visited Stockton’s Haggin Museum to learn more and wrote an article about my findings.

Oh, and fun fact: In 2000 and 2001, Stockton’s team was known as the Mudville Nine. Back then the team played at Billy Hebert Field, which still exists today. Here’s a photo I took of that ballpark in 2013.

One of my favorite Stockton memories is also from 2013, when I visited the Wat Dhammararam Cambodian Buddhist Temple in southeast Stockton. Moments from the life of the Cambodia Buddha are told via a series of statue-based scenes and the result is bold and surreal. A dream landscape within an otherwise gritty industrial area.

The only pregame exploration I did on this Saturday involved a late afternoon lunch at the Market Tavern, accompanied by Ports president Pat Filippone and GM Jordan Feneck. The place was packed in the middle of the day, so reservations are recommended. I got a burger because they had gluten-free buns.

OK, let’s get back to the ballpark.

On this evening, the Ports -- affiliate of the Oakland Athletics since 2005 -- took on the Visalia Rawhide.

On the concourse, amid the Stormtroopers and Sith Lords, I found author Eric Vickrey. Eric was a recent guest on’s “The Show Before the Show” podcast, talking about his book “Season of Shattered Dreams." (Subtitle: “Postwar Baseball, the Spokane Indians and a Tragic Bus Crash that Changed Everything”)

I would recommend reading it.

I next spoke with ballpark regular Pat Riley, a real character, not to be confused with anyone else with that name. He told me that his personality is “a combination of Groucho Marx and James Rockford,” and rarely answered the questions I asked him (in lieu of that, saying whatever he wanted to).

“I come to the Ports games because I wore out my welcome everyplace else,” Pat told me, his voice a gruff bark. He lamented the Stockton of old, where you could go square dancing on Mondays and see a “wrasslin’” match on Tuesday. In the absence of those things, the Ports will have to do.

Pat Riley had a passion for wrasslin.’ Ports mascot Splash has a passion for splashing. It says so on the back of his shirt (trust me on this one).

On this evening my Designated Eater was Stephanie Leung, a fan of “unique baseball foods that you can only get at the park.”

Stephanie is wearing a Stockton Ports asparagus hat, an alternate logo that celebrates Stockton’s status as “the asparagus capital of the world.” (Did you get out to this year’s Asparagus Festival, which took place April 12-14).

Asparagus-themed concession specials are sometimes available at Banner Island Ballpark, but not on this evening. Stephanie instead got a Jambalaya Bowl, marking the second time in as many years that I have documented ballpark jambalaya (the first was in Biloxi).

“The sausage is tasty, and the flavoring’s good,” said Stephanie. “The rice is a little mushy. I’ve had jambalaya before, but this is a new concept for me.”

The jambalaya wasn’t served in a helmet, sadly, but these loaded nachos were.

“The good guacamole makes it extra fancy. These are bougie nachos,” said Stephanie, who was at the ballpark with her boyfriend, Derek Nyquist.

I’d met Derek before, as he was my Modesto Nuts Designated Eater in 2016. Stephanie says that “girls are natural born detectives,” so before her first date with Derek she did an internet “background check.” My post on his Designated Eater exploits was the most detailed result she found for him and, fortunately, it didn’t scare her off.

Now, Stephanie and Derek are both members of the Designated Eater club. Congrats!

My next destination was the broadcast booth, where I spent a couple innings with Ports play-by-play man Tim Fitzgerald.

This was my first in-game radio appearance of 2024, and it felt good to be back on the air. It may look like Tim was calling the game while wearing a bathrobe but let me remind you that it was Star Wars Night.

While I was on the air with Tim, the home-plate umpire stopped the game and told a fan behind home plate to stop waving his light saber because it was distracting the pitcher. When it comes to fan misbehavior, that’s mild. Will MacNeil remains the only fan I know to have been tossed from a Minor League game.

Will was ejected during the late stages of a wild 17-inning Ports game in 2013, after directing derogatory language at the umpire. That didn’t damper his enthusiasm for the Ports, or the region’s professional teams in general. He estimates that he attends upwards of 300 sporting events a year and, case in point, drove to Banner Island Ballpark direct from that afternoon’s extra-inning A’s game (he’s a right-field regular at the Oakland Coliseum).

Final score: Ports 5, Visalia 4. Fireworks ensued, and Splash was into it. He’s got a passion for blastin’.

And, of course, thank you for reading. Get in touch anytime. My upcoming road trip itineraries can be found HERE.

Designated Eaters still wanted. Get in touch about that, or anything at all, at any time.