It is physically impossible to get tired of baseball in Ohio. Outside of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds, the great Buckeye State has a bevy of minor league and independent teams to choose from. In this summer series, I will take a look at as many alternative options as I can, reporting on the pros and cons of the game experience. Whether you’re a family looking for a good time on a budget, or just a baseball fanatic who absolutely needs to be at a ballpark every weekend, this series will explore all the great state of Ohio has to offer.
Akron, Ohio is a weird city (and I mean that in the best possible way). It sits a mere 40 miles from the heart of downtown Cleveland, existing in this bizarre twilight zone between suburb and separate metropolitan area. Some people would probably argue that Akron is part of the Greater Cleveland Metropolitan Area, but others (like one LeBron James) would argue that Akron and Cleveland are rivals, and that the former is always stuck in the shadow of its big brother. From my perspective as a born-and-bred Clevelander, Akron is a cool little city with great beer (Thirsty Dog Brewing can hang with Great Lakes any day of the week), a fun public university, and a scrappy little baseball team.
The Akron Aeros have been the Indians’ AA minor league affiliate since 1997, when they took over for the Canton Indians (who had held that position since 1989). The Aeros were usually a good draw for the AA Eastern League, leading that league in attendance on multiple occasions. Canal Park, still the home of the Akron franchise, was and is regarded as a great minor league park, featuring cheap ticket prices, great views, and a great fan base that has a close connection to the parent club.
In 2012, the Aeros were sold to Ken Babby, who sought to upgrade Canal Park and re-brand the team. Since purchasing the team, Babby has invested more than $5.5 million dollars into renovating the stadium: 2013 brought a new HD scoreboard, but this current 2014 season brought the most sweeping changes: two new party/group areas alongside general stadium renovations and, of course, the rebranding to the Akron RubberDucks.
Wait — RubberDucks? Really?
Yes, really. Akron’s nickname is the Rubber City (alternatively the Rubber Capital of the World), and the team sought to incorporate this fact into their new image. The name change made headlines when it was announced, but I see no problem with the idea. First of all, the team colors changed from Black, Purple, and Silver to Black, Blue, and Orange (with some Yellow thrown in), which is a definite upgrade. Though it may be unconventional, it is important to note that Minor League baseball thrives on unconventional ideas.
Consider the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the AAA Affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, who introduced a scratch-and-sniff Bacon T-shirt this season. No, I’m not joking. Within hours of releasing the t-shirt, orders poured in from all 50 states! I remain convinced that there is no greater bastion of outside-the-box thinking in America than baseball’s minor league system, and the very idea of the Akron RubberDucks fits perfectly.
While I’m on the topic, it seems that the IronPigs set the standard when it comes to, ahem, unique promotions. They found themselves nominated twice for Minor League Baseball’s “Best In-Game Promotion” in 2013. The two promotions nominated: PorkCenter (some kind of interactive social media thing), and the eventual winner “Interactive Urinal Gaming System,” (again, I am not making this up), which offered male fans the opportunity to play video games with their streams of urine.
Truly, Lehigh Valley is on the cutting edge of truly weird promotions.
Anyway, back to the RubberDucks — it is an unconventional name, but it is hardly out of the ordinary in the cutthroat world of minor league baseball. I think it is a great homage to the city of Akron and fun enough to draw some press and (perhaps most importantly) some additional fans through the gate. Quite honestly, I love the quirkiness of the name change, and it’s easily my favorite Indians Minor League Affiliate mascot.
Evaluating the Rubber Ducks
As part of this series, I was able to take in a game at Canal Park courtesy of the Akron RubberDucks (special thanks to Adam Liberman, Rubberducks director of Public Relations). My day with the RubberDucks actually took place over a month ago (on 04/12 against the Bowie Baysox), but not much has changed with the franchise since then. Before I get into the actual rating of the experience, here are the criteria that I will rate the RubberDucks (and all subsequent teams) on:
1) Talent Level – With a nod to the fact that these teams are all Minor League for a reason, the quality of the players on the diamond should be an important consideration for anyone who might buy a ticket. I wouldn’t pay $5 to go see my second cousin’s husband play against his drinking buddies, but I would definitely pay $8 a ticket to see the top prospect in the country learn the ropes. Talent matters.
2) Ticket Prices – Piggybacking off the last point, how much is it going to cost for me to see a game? What kind of a seat will $10 get me? What about $15? For the budget conscious among us, and those who have to worry about entertaining an entire family, this is a crucial point.
3) Stadium – Minor League stadiums are generally not cathedrals of the game, but the atmosphere, comfort, and sight lines of the minor league stadium are important. Are the seats cramped? Are sight lines unobstructed? Am I going to be sitting on a metal bench in 90-degree weather melting like a stick of butter in a skillet? These are important considerations.
4) Concessions – Baseball teams of all levels are getting more and more creative with their concessions, from gastronomic abominations to culinary creations, teams have learned that unique offerings bring in needed press coverage and put butts in seats… but are the risks worth it? I’ll evaluate the options.
5) Overall Value – A final rating taking everything into account, this is meant to convey a final evaluation of the total package value offered by a night at the ballpark for a given team.
All ratings will be on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is the lowest value and 10 is the highest value.
So, without further ado, I present my day with the Akron RubberDucks:
Major League Baseball teams have a fair number of minor league teams, ranging from Fall Rookie Leagues to Low A Ball and all the way up to AAA Baseball, which features rosters of top prospects and journeymen who have had a taste (sometimes very brief) of the Major Leagues. With all that said, however, it won’t be easy to find a more exciting roster than what the Indians have assembled in Akron, Ohio.
Obviously, all discussion of talent starts and ends with uber-prospect Francisco Lindor. The shortstop has been rated as one of the top prospects in all of baseball for the last two seasons, and will almost certainly be in Cleveland by the beginning of 2015 taking over for the lame-duck incumbent Asdrubal Cabrera. Lindor brings a major-league ready glove, a patient eye, and a competent bat to the table, and he stands to improve over the coming months and years.
Outside of Lindor, however, the Akron roster is stacked: Cody Anderson (Starting Pitcher) has the stuff to be part of a major league rotation, but the lineup is a virtual murderer’s row for the AA level. Joe Wendle (2B) got off to a slow start this season but has been coming around. Tony Wolters (Catcher) is also on the future radar for the big league club, and I haven’t even mentioned Tyler Naquin (CF) who was the Indians first round pick in 2012.
The RubberDucks currently lead their division in the Eastern League, and there’s an argument to be made that they are currently underachieving.
Talent Level Rating: 9/10
Here’s what you need to know: the most expensive regular ticket you can buy in advance for a RubberDucks game is $9. That’s cheaper than the cheapest ticket to see the Indians play at Progressive Field. There are some more expensive special options, but for a regular ticket, you simply cannot beat that value.
As part of the renovations taking place at Canal Park, the bleachers in Right Field and several sections in deep Left Field foul territory have been removed and replaced with special areas. The left field area, aptly named the “Fowl Territory Terrace” offers seating for groups, and the same is true for the Right Field area, which is themed with a Tiki Bar and rebranded as the Tiki Terrace (obviously).
Tickets in either of these group areas will run you $20/person, but these tickets include an all-you-can-eat buffet, so it’s still a pretty good deal.
The other ticket option available to fans is seating in “Duck Row” which is actually in front of the “Fowl Territory Terrace” in Left Field. These tickets will set you back $17 each (still cheaper than most tickets at Progressive Field), and include seating in special swivel seats as well as seatside service for concessions. It’s a bit of a luxury, but it’s still a really good deal.
Let me put it this way: there is a great chance that someone on the RubberDucks roster will make a name for themselves at the Major League level — this may be your only chance to see Lindor or Anderson before they blossom into the stars of tomorrow.
Ticket Price Rating: 9/10
Canal Park is not an old stadium. It opened in 1997, and it has aged well in the ensuing 17 years. As I mentioned above, however, the new owners saw fit to pour millions into the stadium to bring some modern amenities to the park. The park now features a brand new HD scoreboard (much smaller than the behemoth scoreboard at Progressive Field but a huge upgrade over the old hand operated board), and a couple new party areas were added to the seating bowl (covered above).
Additionally, the park features some great views of downtown Akron, and sunset at Canal Park is usually a picturesque event that just seems to fit perfectly with an evening of baseball. It’s nothing truly exceptional, but it serves it’s purpose and Canal Park remains a great destination for an evening of baseball.
Stadium Rating: 7.5/10
Admittedly, I’m torn on this subject when it comes to the RubberDucks. Before I get into my analysis, let me highlight some of the offerings on the menu at Canal Park:
The Pineapple TeriyAKRON Bowl: Half a pineapple is hollowed out to create a bowl, which is then stuffed with white meat chicken, white rice, and pineapple, along with a generous drizzle of Teriyaki sauce. The bowl itself will set you back $11 and can be found at the Nice 2 Meat You Grill behind the Fowl Territory Terrace in left field.
The Ugly Duckling: Sixteen ounces of Irish stout (yes, that’s beer) poured over three scoops of vanilla ice cream, topped with sprinkles and chocolate syrup. This item is obviously for adults only and costs $9.75. Beer-infused desserts are on the rise in baseball — they’re popular sellers in several minor league parks and the Minnesota Twins offered their own alcoholic dessert at their Spring Training games this season. Thirsty fans can find the Ugly Duckling at the Sock Hop Ice Cream Shoppe on the right field concourse.
Duck Floats: Continuing along with the family-friendly theme, the team also has an assortment of new desserts that should appeal to fans of all ages. Duck Floats are similar to the Ugly Duckling, but they mix soda with ice cream instead of beer. There are several Duck Float varieties available, all based on a famous duck: there’s ‘The Scrooge’ (Mountain Dew + Vanilla), ‘The Howard’ (Mug Cream Soda + Chocolate), ‘The Donald’ (Orange Crush + Vanilla) and still others, as well. Duck Floats are available in two sizes: 16oz ($5) and 32oz ($8) and can be found at the Sock Hop Ice Cream Shoppe (along with The Ugly Duckling).
These items join “The Screamer” and the “Nice 2 Meat U Burger,” two signature extreme food items that double as stuff-your-face eating challenges. The Screamer is a 5-pound ice cream sundae that comes in a full size batting helmet filled with 21 scoops of ice cream, while the N2MU burger is an amalgamation of over-sized burger (1.25lb) stuffed with a half-pound hot dog, and a quarter-pound of bacon, cheese, and onions. If you come to Akron to challenge these family-sized extreme eats, be prepared to spend upwards of $15-$20 each.
The rest of the ballpark fare here in Akron is pretty standard, but I will say that the vast majority of the offerings are reasonably-priced. While concessions aren’t precisely cheap, everything seems to cost 75-80% of what a similar item would cost at Progressive Field.
I have two complaints with the concessions:
1) They’re hard to find! I expected the team to advertise the heck out of these special offerings, but you have to know what to look for and then seek it out. I knew about the Pineapple Bowl ahead of time and I still couldn’t find it at first because it is only offered in this little white tent all the way out in field field. The same caveat applies to the big food challenge items — it almost seems like the team is ashamed of offering them. My view is that you either embrace offering them and feature them, or you don’t bother.
2) The Duck Floats were advertised with name-brand soda, but my Howard Float was definitely made with generic Cream Soda. I still enjoyed the treat, don’t get me wrong, but it rubbed me the wrong way to see bargain soda. I won’t deduct too much for this, but it was a sour note in an otherwise pleasant experience.
Concessions Rating: 6.5/10
Overall, the RubberDucks offer a great baseball product for a steeply discounted price. As I write this in the wee morning hours of May 30th, I can still grab two tickets in the second row behind home plate for tonight’s game for a measly $9 each. That’s a small price to pay to be able to say that you say 30 feet away from Francisco Lindor when he was still just a minor league player (to say nothing of the rest of this stacked roster).
While the Indians defense and offense flounders through the Spring, consider bringing the family down the Akron for a night of value-priced baseball fun (and maybe a signature duck float, as well). It is sure to be a fun night for all!
Overall Rating: 8/10
I want to extend another special thanks to the Akron RubberDucks for the opportunity to sit in and review their gameday experience. I had a great time, and I hope many of the fans who read this article will give the Akron team a chance on a warm summer night this year.