ON THE ROAD AGAIN

My most recent road trip took me back to the Carolinas so, as you can imagine, definitely no complaints from me. The two days we spent in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C., only reinforced my burning desire to eventually "retire" there … great weather (well, in theory), nice people, wonderful ambiance and Minor League baseball. What more do you need?

Unfortunately, I must have done something in this or another life to tick off the weather gods.

You know you are in trouble when you catch the Weather Channel on a TV at the ballpark and see Jim Cantore coming to you live from two miles from where you are at that very moment.

Who is Jim Cantore? Let me quote Wikipedia here: "When a major weather event has occurred or is imminent, Cantore provides live field reporting from that site. Clips of him reporting while braving hurricane winds are a staple of the channel. Jim has reported from so many hurricanes that residents along the coast have given him the nickname, "The Angel of Death".

Yeah. So. NOT good news to see good ol’ Jim live on the beach about a mile or two east of the ballpark in Charleston, I can tell you that. So we didn’t stick around for the whole game (not with a lot of expensive video equipment that would not have liked the first remnants of Audrey, the first named storm of the summer) but I saw enough to come away with a great impression of Joseph P. Riley Jr. Ballpark.

Located right on the river, it’s a beautiful setting for a park, in downtown Charleston which is such a gem in itself. I think my favorite part of the stadium was not actually within sight of the field, but rather on the outside concourse, where there is a row of white rocking chairs where you can relax and gaze out at the marshes (I think they’re marshes anyway).

Another great touch is at the bar behind third base (hey, I had just bought my souvenir T-shirt and was waiting for a co-worker and that’s where the Weather Channel was on TV!), the whole bar is laminated with really old Charleston Minor League baseball cards. I had a great time picking out old friends, including Mike Berger, currently a pro scout with the Blue Jays …

There is certainly never a dull moment in Charleston, which is co-owned by Mike Veeck who is known for showmanship, creativity and originality when it comes to promotions, on and off the field. In fact, they sell T-shirts there with his slogan FIG (Fun is Good!) …

The next morning, not knowing if Audrey was following us, we hit Route 17 north to Myrtle Beach, passing approximately 872 sweetgrass basket shops along the way. It was really strange, at one point we drove right into the heart of a storm so heavy we could barely see the front of the car (or the back of the truck right in front of us), but once we got past that cloud the skies turned sunny and blue. And, believe it or not, stayed that way for the rest of our Myrtle Beach stint.

The new stadium in Myrtle Beach is without any question the jewel of the Carolina League and you can bet I have already circled June 24, 2008, on my desk calendar when the Carolina-California League All-Star Game will be played there. GM North Johnson is one of the best in the business, not to mention one of the nicest guys around … we go way back to his Kinston days and my Carolina League beat writer days (and share a fondness for Buddy’s Barbecue in Grifton, N.C., right off Route 11).

Just a mile from the beach and right off the Grand Strand, the location can’t be beat nor can the first-class facilities, right down to the beach area in left field and the party deck in right field.

I almost felt bad for some of the players who come through town from cities with lesser facilities, They must be pretty jealous of the Braves Class A players.

And the team is as much fun to watch as the ballpark is to go to … from phenom shortstop Elvis Andrus who lives up to his hype, seemingly getting to every ball within his zip code, to hometown hero outfielder Quentin Davis (whose cousin is Orlando Hudson), who heads out to his position every night doing handsprings and flips. He’s the league’s most dangerous threat on the bases in the early going as well. On this night, we watched him steal third base … he was called out but we had a good seat right behind third base and from the video camera shot we got, he looked safe to us!

Pelicans manager Rocket Wheeler is also a hometown guy and a fan favorite for so many reasons. Wearing the No. 18 (as in 18-Wheeler), and helped out during BP by his son "Missile," he tosses bubble gum to the fans at the beginning of every game … in fact, his bobblehead doll last year had him holding the bucket of bubble gum!

We witnessed one great moment in the stands in particular. Sitting down in the front row just past the visiting dugout along the third base line was a family with a young son. There was another father and son sitting about three rows behind them across the aisle.

Potomac Nationals manager Randy Knorr flipped a ball to the boy in the front row and shortly thereafter Wheeler did the same thing. The boy, who could have easily gone home the proud owner of not one but two trophies for his shelf, took the second ball and went over and gave it to the other boy in the stands.

So my next trip will be taking me down to Alabama for the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham and then a Montgomery-Huntsville game in Huntsville … I’ll be back before then, though, to share my impressions from a recent trip to Frederick, Md., my "home stadium" where they have really spiffed up the place big time!

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