BY CAROLYN LaWELL
ROME, Georgia | What is a baseball game without hot dogs, the first pitch or walkup music? Just men playing a game in front of a crowd. The traditional baseball experience fans love and expect when watching the game from the stands is lost.
The Rome Braves front office sat around a table last offseason to discuss promotions and wondered how to alter the fan experience. Not eliminate it, just flip it for some fun. They started shouting out and writing down ideas, and soon the list became longer than they imagined.
Months later, on a brutally hot Friday night, fans purchased box seats discounted from $6 to $1. They ate hot dogs in hamburger buns and hamburgers in hot dog buns. The public address announcer introduced the Braves Brigade dance team instead of the players. Another p.a. announcer rattled off the lineups in Spanish. A mascot kicked the first pitch.
Something Different Night started at the front gate and lasted until the ninth inning. Nearly everything had a twist.
The first female p.a. announcer in Rome Braves history called batters to the plate. Walkup songs included The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men and R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly — for the home team. The grounds crew and the Braves Brigade switched duties between innings. The grounds crew danced on the dugout. The dancers smoothed the infield.
About the only changes the organization couldn’t pull off were an inning of silence, ruined by the Braves actually scoring and, because the league didn’t approve, dressing umpires in vertically striped football officials jerseys.
The night embodied minor league baseball's core: The tradition of the game with a whole lot of other fun.
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Time for minor league trivia. Since baseball returned to Rome in 2003, the team has been known as the Braves. During baseball’s first years in the city, residents welcomed the team by giving it what name? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Down six runs, the Braves broke out in the fifth inning and rallied for an 11-9 win over the Kannapolis Intimidators. The Braves still trailed by two into the bottom of the seventh, but four singles, a wild pitch and a throwing error allowed Rome to score five more runs and secure the lead. Braves centerfielder Tony Mueller, first baseman William Beckwith, third baseman Brandon Drury and shortstop Elmer Reyes each drove in two runs. Both starting pitchers — Rome’s David Filak and Kannapolis’ Eric Johnson — lasted five innings. Neither figured into the decision.
As Filak fired the first pitch, the temperature flashed in the bottom right corner of the scoreboard, three digits in red: 108. Fans tried to stay cool by sitting still and praying for a breeze. The 2,609 devoted enough to attend the game also tried to hide under umbrellas, fan their faces with programs and line up at the concessions stands for ice cream. It was our hottest day of the season and, even as the sun went down, the temperature never seemed to cool.
The Braves who make it from Rome to Atlanta will recognize the dimensions of Turner Field. State Mutual Stadium’s field was built with mirror dimensions of the Major League park — 335 feet to left, 401 feet to center and 330 feet to right.
Want the answer? When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The city has had professional baseball for 22 seasons over the last century or so, during which time the team has played as the Romans (1910, 1912-17), the Hillies (1911), just Rome (1920-21), the Red Sox (1950-51) and the Braves (2003-present). All roads still lead to the Romans.
And in random statistical news, the game started five minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter singled to first. The Pelham Street Brass, a Jacksonville State University quintet of two trumpets, a horn, a euphonium and a tuba, played the national anthem in 1 minute and 7 seconds. We ate chicken nuggets and fries in the press box and, later, after walking around the stadium in the beating sun, cooled off with ice cream.
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