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VOL. 43 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 14, 2019

'I don't care if I never get back'

A day in the life of the Nashville Sounds, First Tennessee Park

By Chip Cirillo

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Lightsabers glowed from the stands. One fan wore a Dark Side jersey. The Sounds came out in R2-D2 jerseys.

It was the start of Star Wars Weekend at First Tennessee Park as Nashville hosted the New Orleans Baby Cakes on May 31.

A gorgeous night for baseball on a Friday with temperatures in the 70s.

Snapshots from a day at the ballpark:

Booster, the Hot Chicken

When First Tennessee Park opened in 2015, Booster became the Sounds’ new mascot, replacing Ozzie, the Cougar.

“We wanted something that was going to say Nashville, something that was Nashville and when you have the hot chicken what is more Nashville than that other than music,” says Buddy Yelton, who serves as “concierge” to Booster. “I mean, that’s one of the big staples of this town.”

Inflatable Booster the hot chicken keeps kids occupied with bouncing fun.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow

Booster is occasionally mistaken for a duck. The mascot doesn’t speak so he uses charades to explain what type of bird he is to confused fans. Yelton says the costume isn’t as hot to wear as it appears on warm days. He was Ozzie for 15 years and spent the last five as Booster.

“You get people who still want Ozzie, and so they’ll be, like, where’s Ozzie,’” Yelton adds. “Booster points to his heart. He’s in our hearts. Ozzie retired; he’s living on the beach somewhere. Everyone thinks he was left at Greer Stadium.”

Booster was part of the rebranding after the Sounds left Greer, their original park.

The big bird welcomes fans at the gate and celebrated the Sounds’ win on this day (6-5) by running onto the field afterward with two oversized sparklers.

“He’s got promotions he’s got to do,” Yelton says of Booster’s game activities. “After that, he’s what we call the free-range chicken. He tries to check on everybody to make sure everyone is having a good time.”

Kayla Kleibs, who is expecting her first child, and her mother, Kim Johnson, wife of Sounds hitting coach Howard Johnson, enjoy a game of cornhole at First Tennessee Park.

Booster made an appearance on America’s Funniest Home Videos about three years ago.

“There is a little girl who was probably 3 at the time and she loved Booster,” Yelton recalls. “But Booster out in left field is a lot smaller than Booster two seats down from you. She’s running at Booster and all of a sudden as she gets 2 or 3 feet from him, she realizes that Booster is not an inch tall. Booster is 6-foot-2.”

Frightened, she stopped and ran the other direction. So did Booster. “(She) and Booster have become best buds,” Yelton notes. “She’s probably 5 or 6 now.”

Keeping the field immaculate

Sounds groundskeeper Thomas Trotter puts in long days, working from about 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. His crew mows the park’s 100,000 square feet of grass every day.

Light sabers light up the stadium during Star Wars night at First Tennessee.

The grass is a mixture of perennial ryegrass and hybrid bermudagrass. As the weather warms, Bermuda pops through the ryegrass. Mowing patterns form subtle lines.

The dirt is 4 inches deep and is tightly packed. It’s 60 percent sand, 20 percent clay and 20 percent silt.

Conditioner is added to the top layers of all the dirt areas to make the ball play smoother and help runners slide better. The top layer of dirt looks like kitty litter or oil dry.

Drag mats give the top layer consistency and breaks down dirt chunks. The dirt is hard and the grass is cut at about 5/8 inch, making First Tennessee a fast-playing field.

The crew waters the field most of the day. There are four or five workers on the day crew and four more report two hours before home games.

The most stressful part of the week for Trotter comes during rain delays when the crew covers the infield area with a tarp.

Eric Spindler takes a picture of his daughter Brooklyn Spindler, 5, posing with Sounds mascot “Booster” the hot chicken dressed up like a Star Wars Storm Trooper.

“If the tarp stays on the grass too long, it can burn it,” Trotter explains. “A lot of times, if the team has had the tarp on a lot, you’ll see the outline of where the tarp would have been on the grass. So it can damage the grass.

“Every minute that tarp is on when the sun is out, the clock’s ticking. It’s smoking the grass under there.”

Trotter interned with the San Diego Padres for a year and worked for the Louisville Bats, Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, for three seasons before arriving in Nashville in 2009.

Sounds VP fills many roles

Doug Scopel, vice president of operations, does a little bit of everything for the Sounds.

People enjoy the Band Box area at right field, where games often overshadow the action on the field.

“Every day for me, especially, is different,” Scopel says. “If we have weather involved, it’s pretty much Thomas and I that are looking at the radar and making decisions on when we tarp the field and how we handle different things.”

He greeted the New Orleans squad at the Nashville Airport at 8 a.m. May 30 to make sure the team’s travel went smoothly.

On some days, he helps coordinate community appearances for the players. He oversees six or seven departments with different needs.

Scopel checks with each team daily to see if they need any assistance and helps news outlets with anything they might need.

There was a fireworks display after the May 31 game, so Scopel assisted that crew.

He even worked with the clubhouse manager and front-office personnel on the Star Wars uniforms for several players who had to use different numbers.

Scopel started with the Sounds in 2000 as a media intern in the first of four or five roles with the team.

Tyler Pill, right, breaks his bat on a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning that gave the Sounds a 6-5 lead.

“We always say in baseball you wear many hats,” Scopel points out. “Everybody on our staff deals with somebody from every other department on a daily basis. It’s a cohesive unit.”

He started at declining Greer Stadium before moving to brand-new First Tennessee Park.

“Night and day isn’t even a strong enough difference,” Scopel acknowledges. “Here we’ve got the video boards, great interactive LED walls, great audio and video systems. Every seat is great.

“Greer had none of that. We had a very basic scoreboard. It was an old stadium where to get a refreshment of any sort, you had to go away from the playing field down underneath where it wasn’t very wide. It wasn’t accommodating to fans.”

Crowds of people surround the bar area at First Tennessee Park.

Scopel says the staff did a great job with what it had at Greer, but the modern technology at the new park creates a better fan experience.

Surprising bestseller

The park sells several thousand hot dogs on a typical night, but the most popular food or beverage is bottled water.

“If it’s a hot game with a good crowd, we could sell 3,000 bottles of water, and we have water fountains everywhere,” says Dave Keitel, Centerplate food and beverage general manager. “People just love their bottled water.”

Hot dogs and hot chicken tenders are the top two selling food items.

The park sold over 6,000 beers during a Throwback Thursday game against Memphis on May 23. ($3 for 16-ounce beer cans, and the Sounds wear retro uniforms)

Two unique food items at Budweiser Grill in left field: Honey bun burger (1,700 calories) and grilled cheese burger. “Those are two wacky items that have been selling really well this year,” adds Keitel, a seven-year veteran with the Sounds.

Different kind of GM

Booster celebrates victory flag after a Sounds win.

The general manager in most sports franchises puts a team together, but not so with the Sounds.

“My job is completely different,” Sounds general manager Adam Nuse says. “My job would be more like president of business operations. We run the whole business from the entire fan experience from start to finish and we try to think of everything.”

Nuse adds the Sounds try to throw 70 parties a year at the home games.

Neighborhood boost

Von Elrod’s, a beer garden and sausage house across the street from the home plate entrance, gets a bump when the Sounds or the Nashville Soccer Club play home games at the park.

“Baseball games, you get a wave right before and you get a wave after,” Von Elrod’s service manager Jerret Towns says. “It helps us so much, tremendously in sales. You get the beer before the game and then after the game they come back and have a blast here. Both of the teams help us.”

‘Best roof-top bar in Nashville’

The Band Box, an outdoor bar in right field, is one of the most popular concession spots in the park.

“I kind of like to think of it as the best roof-top bar in Nashville,” Band Box manager Buddy Richardson points out. “We have that outdoor ambiance and really nice feel. We have the best backdrop in the city.”

Customers can watch the game from the bar, and there is a stunning view of the downtown skyline beyond the outfield.

Frozen drinks are popular at the Band Box, especially the Frozen Dickel (George Dickel Tennessee Whisky) and cola.

“We sell hundreds of those a day,” Richardson adds. “On a busy night we’ll go through 100 gallons of frozen drinks.” The frozen dreamsicle is another big seller.

Richardson says the Sounds are the first minor league team with an outdoor bar, but others are starting to pop up.

Must-try food item: Band Box dog (pimento cheese hot dog, crumbled potato chips, pickled onions). Richardson gets at least one every homestand.

‘Oh, we love it’

Robert Russell of Mt. Juliet watched Friday’s game with his wife and three children in seats behind the plate.

“This is our fourth game,” says Russell, a former McGavock catcher. “Oh, we love it. I love baseball, they love baseball, so we just have a good time. It’s a fun night, pretty cheap.”

Hero for a night

Tyler Pill’s two-run double in the bottom of the seventh inning gave the Sounds a 6-5 win in front of a sellout crowd of 11,097.

“It was a tough situation: bases loaded,” Pill said after the game. “The previous at-bats I was in kind of the same position, but wasn’t successful.”

Pill got the pitch he was looking for, a slider, and drove a broken-bat hit up the middle before hustling to second base.

It was just Pill’s 14th at-bat with Nashville. He was a pitcher for eight seasons before switching to outfield this year.

More than just baseball

There’s lots to do besides watching the game. The park has a nine-hole mini golf course, four cornhole games, Mojo speed pitch (clocks your fastball in miles per hour), basketball goals, bounce houses and an inflatable slide for kids, four ping pong tables and a shuffleboard.

So close to action

The first row of seats behind the plate is closer to the plate (about 50 feet) than the pitcher’s mound (60 feet, 6 inches).

Picnic area in left field

Hundreds of fans watched the game sitting in a grassy picnic area behind the left-field wall.

Simmons throws first pitch

Titans first-round draft pick Jeffery Simmons (6-4, 301 pounds), a defensive tackle from Mississippi State, threw out the first pitch this day. Sounds relief pitcher Zac Curtis, a former Hendersonville and Middle Tennessee State star, was the honorary catcher.

Park on historic site

The park is built near the old Sulphur Dell site, where baseball traces back to the 1850s. The Nashville Americans and Nashville Vols played minor league baseball at Sulphur Dell between 1885-1963.

An ancient Native American city inhabited by mound-building Mississippians once stood near the park and other parts of Nashville. In 1885, a mastodon tusk from the Ice Age was discovered in Sulphur Springs Bottoms near the park.

Outfield plaques commemorate the neighborhood’s history.

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