Ben Hill has seen it all and done it all when it comes to the antics of minor league baseball. By the end of this season, he will also have visited all of minor league baseball’s ballparks over his career of covering the wild and wacky side of the sport for milb.com. The journey marks quite a milestone for Hill, who has become an expert on minor league promotions and ballpark entertainment since joining MiLB.com in 2005 and launching his popular Ben’s Biz Blog two years later.
In his “On the Road” columns, Hill provides a first-hand look at a team’s promotions and ballpark entertainment, often participating in a variety of on-field shenanigans and giving a dining guide to concession fare—the latter he has passed on to “Designated Eaters” since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. His weekend “Promo Previews” have been a must-read for people in the industry and passionate fans.
What follows is my conversation with Hill about his path and experiences in minor league baseball. The transcript has been edited in places for length and clarity.
You certainly are not a traditional journalist. You have a beat that you cover, but your cover it almost from the inside. How would you describe what you do?
Sometimes I ask myself that: What exactly am I? In a way I still don’t know. My official title is writer at MiLB.com and it has been pretty much since I was part-time to start this in 2005. When I try to describe what I do in a fairly succinct way, what I tell everyone is that I cover the business and culture of minor league baseball for MiLB.com. That is about as simply as I can put it. I think that sums up the beat pretty well: business and culture.
Do you feel as if, through your relationships with various minor league teams, that you have become part of the industry that you cover?
To an extent, I’m part of the industry in that I have covered it for so long and we are the official website of minor league baseball. But at the same time, despite how embedded I’ve been within it, when I visit a ballpark I try to bring an outside observer’s perspective. I’m here for one night. And while you might not do some of the things that I do, like join the dance team and do some onfield routines, a lot of it is trying to bring a fan perspective and bring an outside perspective. I’m here for just one night and here is what that one night is, for better or for worse. I try to convey things positively but I also try to convey them honestly. I’m not there to just criticize. But I think when people are looking at what I’m writing or what I am doing, they can say that’s what stands out to Ben.
How did you get this job? How did Ben’s Biz Blog come to be?
It all started in 2005. That was a period of time when I was temping and just trying to do anything. I graduated college in 2001. I moved to New York City in 2002 and did a bunch of education jobs primarily culminating in becoming a teaching assistant at a charter school in Brooklyn, a third grade teaching assistant. And I was doing sketch comedy at the same time. It was a crazy time in my life, to the point where I thought maybe I don’t want to be in education, but at the same time I don’t know what I want to do, and sketch comedy pretty much being my job based on the time I put into it.
During the period, it was Zack Hample of all people, the celebrity ball collector, who got me involved with minor league baseball. I had actually met him a couple of years prior through Craigslist because he had just put up an ad wanting to hit fungos to someone in Central Park, and so I go to know Zack. And one day he called me and said ‘I’m writing game recaps for MiLB.com. It just recently started. You love baseball and you seem like you can write, are you interested?’ So, I said yeah, sure. I was saying yes to anything, but at the time I didn’t look at that as a foot in the door to some lifelong dream or career goal. I was looking at it very much in the context of being in my mid-20s and saying yes to everything.
I had never had a writing job. I had nothing on my resume that was writing related. So I would never get hired today. But at that time the website had just started and so everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. That was the foot in the door. So I started coming in during the day during the offseason because there was literally nothing to do at night and I would help out during the day. So, I started getting assigned random articles. One of the editors was writing a promo column and he had a bunch of stuff on his plate, and said do you want to to write this promo column? And I said sure.
All of a sudden, I was like ‘This is great. I’m writing about baseball, which I love, but I am also writing about these promotions that are absurd and silly. And I can sort of riff on these promotions and get in some wordplay and punchlines and dumb things.’ So that is kind of how my whole beat started.
Then I started getting feedback, especially from people in the industry who wanted more of it because there had never been a full-time, week-to-week column chronicling what was going on in the industry. Obviously everyone wants to steal everyone else’s ideas and see what other people are doing, and nowadays with social media and Twitter everyone knows what everyone else is doing. But at the time, that beat didn’t really exist. It was a need that needed to be filled but no one even knew it needed to be filled at that point. I kind of accidentally discovered that. I liked writing about it, so I started focusing more and more on that.
I started the blog, Ben’s Biz Blog, in 2007 as an additional outlet for that kind of material, and I did it long enough that I got offered full-time in 2009 to stay on that beat. And that led to the idea that if I am going to be allegedly an expert on this entire world or facet of the industry, I need to visit some of these places. At that time I had only been to a handful of parks, so I started doing the traveling in 2010, and made that more and more the focus as much as I could. And at the end of this season I will have visited every active minor league park.
Can you tell me a little bit about your comedy background, and what sort of sketch comedy you were doing. Do you still do any comedy, other than through your writing?
I started taking classes in 2003 through a New York outpost of Second City, which is a comedy institution in Chicago. I took a lot of writing and improv classes from 2005 to 2008 and performed all over the city. When we imploded and broke up in 2008, one of my justifications for not pursuing another group was because I am adding this comedic element to my professional career and I am able to incorporate this comedy background into the writing I am doing.
It very much played a huge role in the approach I took to the ballpark visits, just the comedy principle of “yes and.” Just saying yes to anything that was happening during the ballgame. Yeah, I’ll dress up as whatever you want me to and do something on the field. Yes, I’ll get on the dugout and sing. Whatever it was, I was willing to do it. I don’t think I would’ve taken the approach I did if I hadn’t performed comedy all over the city and just learned that the worst that happens is that it fails and then everyone forgets and you move on.
What is your routine like when you get to a ballpark or a town? You’re obviously not just showing up and going to a game or sitting in the press box or the stands.
I never sit in the press box and I never sit in the seats. It just is kind of a constant wandering. Even if I don’t have anything to do to specifically, I just wander. I can’t sit still.
I reach out to the teams beforehand and get on the same page with them and say, ‘Hey I’m coming.’ I reach out on social media to teams and whoever I know and say what I am looking to do is highlight what makes each ballpark unique. That could be something with players, if a player has a backstory or a hobby. Or fans, of course. I love talking to the idiosyncratic fans and sort of weirdos that populate the stands. And I mean that in a very endearing way, being a weirdo myself . . .
At the game, I have a designated eater at every ballpark, so I try to meet up with them early in game and try to spend a couple of innings with them sampling the food. It was an idea that I had shortly after I got diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012 to keep covering the food, especially since I couldn’t do it myself.
In a sense I leave it up to the teams. If the team says, ‘Do you want to take on our reigning knockerball king? Do you want to dress up as a cockroach? Do you want to dress up as an eyeball? I’ll say yes to as much as I can do, to embed myself in the experience. But I also don’t make any demands at all. I don’t come to a place and say I need to do this. Some visits I just kind of do the whole experience myself and some I collaborate with the team.
You have obviously been around a lot of teams and ballparks and promotional staffs. While teams may take different approaches to promotions and gameday operations, is there a common ingredient that you see among the really successful teams?
It’s so hard to compare things across minor league baseball given how diverse teams can be and what level of play they are at. One thing for me, I often show up at a ballpark on an off night, on a Monday or a Wednesday or whenever. I always hear from the teams, that ‘you should have been here yesterday or you should have been here on Saturday,’ wishing that I was there to cover some energetic night. What I find is the teams that still bring it on those off nights are a lot of my favorite teams. Where there might not be much going on in terms of crowd energy, but they are like ‘This is our job and this is what we have planned and let’s just go for it.’
And I think that is really important, to keep up that energy even on the bad nights. I think that in a lot of cases where you can see people trying and see people have this spirit of why not? That is what I relate to most and I do think that translates to an overall successful front office, because I think it ends up with people invested in the product you are trying to provide every night.
One thing that makes baseball great is the ballpark experience. Unlike other sport stadiums, ballparks can be quite different from one another from a design standpoint. What sort of traits do you think make for a great ballpark?
The No. 1 question I get asked from people is what is your favorite ballpark. It is so hard to say, because I like different aspects of different places, and it’s like apples and oranges in comparing it. For new ballparks, I like distinct architecture. Because every new ballpark at this point is going to have a great scoreboard, 360-degree concourse, and nice group areas and all that. But I like architecture elements that distinguish it, so that you don’t feel like you are in a ballpark and it feels like you are somewhere else.
Like being in El Paso with some of the outfield structures they have in right field that stand out, and Mexico right behind you and the Franklin Mountains in the outfield. You really feel like you are in El Paso, just to use one random example. I do like a sense of place wherever possible for a successful ballpark. It is tough to compare, however, because there are so many different variables.
I do love a newer ballpark like El Paso. Or making it to Hartford last year, where in spite of all the troubles they had, I think is an impressive new ballpark. But at the same time, I equally love, or in a way even more love, going to the Appy League and seeing a game in Elizabethton or in Bristol where they don’t even have a full-time employee at all, it’s volunteer run. I like being in that kind of throwback environment, where there are a lot less bells and whistles, but where it is still professional baseball and feels like a throwback.
Before you were diagnosed with celiac disease and were limited with what you could eat, what were some of the more unusual things you ate a ballpark?
Even now, having celiac or not, I am trying to highlight unique things. In some cases that might be the over the top, oversized items. But my favorite are the regional items. When you say OK, you are with this team and I am going to get something specific for this team, like getting Speedy’s in Binghamton, or again in El Paso, getting really authentic Mexican food, or in Biloxi you get oysters served in a Frisbee. That kind of thing. I think the main thing to highlight, again kind of like I said architecturally, you want a sense of place and I think food ties into that, too. I like any item that provides a sense of place, where you say I couldn’t get this any place else.
Obviously having celiac disease is a serious matter and can really be a hardship, but in your line of work, is it a curse or a blessing?
I’m fine with [celiac disease] with the ballpark coverage, because I don’t know if I would want to dive in every time to every single item. I would get tired of all those pictures of me all the time, and I think other people would too. And I would like to think I would’ve come up with the Designated Eater concept even if I hadn’t had celiac disease, just to bring other people into the coverage . . .
It’s a strange dynamic. Even though it is Ben’s Biz Blog and I have a logo and all of that, I also want to do as much as I can to highlight not me, but just use my work as a way to highlight other people.
By the end of this season, you will have been to every affiliated minor league ballpark. How does it feel to have reached such a milestone?
I am really proud of it. I think very few people will have done it in a professional context. I mean I think very few people overall have done it, but particularly in a professional context. This job never had a template, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I have been able to make it up as I go along and keep finding ways for it to grow and expand. But it is also a curse in that there has been a ton of anxiety [for me] over the years. What am I doing? What is this? Who can I talk to for advice? Who has done anything like this that can help me? I have often felt lost and kind of anxious about what to do, and there haven’t been many built-in milestones where I can take a moment and say, ‘Wow I did it.’
I don’t know if it means anything to anyone else, I’m not saying it should, but to me it means a lot that this job I walked into sort of circumstantially in 2005, 13 years later, I turned that part-time job into visiting every single minor league baseball ballpark in a professional context.
I won’t ask you to pick out a favorite, because that’s not fair to you or the teams that you cover. But what are some of your more memorable ballpark visits?
It is tough to isolate. Most purely memorable, would have been last year on the day of the national eclipse when different teams in the path of totality staged some daytime ballgames with built-in eclipse delays. I was in Columbia for that. I would say that was the No. 1 just most memorable moment . . .
To be in a ballpark with 10,000 people and experience that collectively in the context of baseball, it is just truly amazing and surreal. They played the first four and a half innings just like normal, then all of a sudden there was a delay. And the delay was just half an hour and then the game just started again. And in that little moment where the delay hit, it was something that no one who was there will ever forget. I think it is cool that that could happen in the baseball context.
What are some of the more memorable ballpark promotions or in-game antics that you’ve been involved in?
Sort of in a bad way, in Sacramento I participated in the Heads of State Race. Sacramento is the capital and they have three former governors, Ronald Reagan, Gray Davis and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger. I dressed up as Reagan. The race itself cuts across the outfield, from the right-field side to the left-field side. Then at that point you walk up the stairs and loop back around on the concourse back to where you started.
It was a pretty hot night, and maybe I’m not in the best of shape, I just remembering panicking in the heat in the Reagan head and just being so desperate for someone to lead me away from fans stopping for pictures. I just remember thinking, ‘Am I going to have a moment one of these days where I collapse while dressed up as a former president.’ Maybe I need to know my limitations. Because I say yes to everything and sometimes maybe you should pass on this one. It’s a young man’s game.
You’ve been to so many different ballparks over the years. Do you ever hear from teams asking you for your opinions on promotions?
Yeah, quite a bit. A lot of it is very random. ‘Have you ever seen a team do such and such?’ I think people get in touch with me based on that premise that you have been writing about this for a decade or whatever. Because every minor league team wants to say they were the first to do something, a lot of times, they’ll ask ‘Have you seen this before?’ with the hope that if I say no, that’ll be enough for them to say they were the first to do it.