BY CAROLYN LaWELL
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas | Ben Hill stands in the middle of hundreds of screaming women on their knees.
Oh, wait. That came out wrong.
The women are digging up the infield, looking for a diamond ring buried somewhere in the dirt. Every one of them is oblivious to Hill, who can’t stop smiling and shooting photos.
He smiles because of the absurdity of this scene – hundreds of women, inches apart, shoveling dirt with fragile, plastic spoons, thinking they’ll be the one who finds the sparkling diamond on a random Thursday night. He smiles because he realizes this is his job, to watch humor, joy and, sometimes, chaos all unfold in minor league parks just like it is at Dickey-Stephens Park.
"I feel like I’ve found this perfect intersection of comic absurdity and baseball." – Ben Hill
Hill didn’t bury the diamond in hopes of proposing to the lucky girl who discovers the ring box – though that might not be a bad promotion, either. No, this is an Arkansas Travelers promotion, one of the hundreds of teams Hill writes about every year in feature stories and on his popular blog, Ben’s Biz, for Major League Baseball Advanced Media.
Hill covers the business side of minor league teams’ operations and travels the country reporting on the geniuses behind culinary and promotional gems. At times, Hill himself is part of the act, running around dressed like a strawberry or a toothbrush or a cream donut with boxing gloves. It’s a job baseball lovers dream about – traveling from stadium to stadium to learn about how parks come to life and how concepts move from ideas to on-field entertainment and must-see attractions.
Yes, it’s fun and games. Yes, it’s actually a job.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a communications degree, Hill wasn’t set on a career path. He joined AmeriCorps, started tutoring, took a job with UPS, moved to New York City for little more than an opportunity to live in a rent-controlled apartment, taught in Brooklyn and tutored in the Bronx. Then a friend, Zack Hample – who Hill had met through a Craigslist ad that advertised a desire to hit fungos in Central Park – said Minor League Baseball was looking for writers to turn around game recaps once the short-season leagues started. For $13 an hour on the night shift, part time, Hill said yes. His climb with MLBAM was as unpredictable as the game itself.
Even though the features for milb.com are a bigger portion of his job description, he’s known far more on the road and among minor league diehards for his blog. His position is always evolving.
“One of the biggest blessings and curses of my job is no one has done what I’ve done before because there was no milb.com, there was no system in place to support it,” he says. “I don’t have any mentor or any template to follow, or anyone to say, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing and here is what I would do.’”
Every minor league staff has its fill of driven young professionals on a path to become a general manager or maybe reach the Majors. Hill is trying to define his top goal. What will the long hours and the travel and all the content he has packaged and produced mean for his career? Will Ben’s Biz continue to evolve? Will he write a book? Become a consultant? Run a minor league team? He has given thought to all of those ideas.
“Living in New York, I’ve fantasized about taking over the Staten Island Yankees,” he says. “In New York City, you could sell out the entire stadium, and they don’t. I fantasize about brining a hip, tapped-in cultural perspective to minor league baseball. Certain teams, certain markets, the ones where you sense that camaraderie among the staff, I feel like I could be a leader in this context, but I could also be part of something larger.”
There are still plenty of questions for Hill to ask about minor league baseball and about his own career. Until then, fans can look out for him later this season during a Northwest swing that starts August 17 in Eugene, Oregon, and ends August 24 in Vancouver, British Columbia, where, for the first time, he will no longer be the one stuffing his face with new food creations: He was recently diagnosed with celiac disease and most ballpark food, sadly, is not gluten free.
He will be the one with a notebook, pen and camera in hand, though, dressed perhaps as some sort of anthropomorphic mascot or just standing in the middle of hundreds of women.
“I love the absurdity,” Hill says of his job. “When I take a deep breath, maybe have a drink, I think, ‘This is my job.’ It’s tailor-made for who I am and my sensibility and growing up and loving baseball, but also loving MAD magazine and puns. I feel like I’ve found this perfect intersection of comic absurdity and baseball.”
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Time for minor league trivia. The Travelers have one of the longer histories in minor league baseball. Since 1901, how many years have they failed to field a team? (Keep reading for the answer.)
The Travelers ninth-inning rally ended with two runners on and the tying run in the on-deck circle in a 5-1 loss to the Tulsa Drillers. The Travelers and Drillers both put nine men on base, but only the Drillers were able to turn hits into runs. Travelers shortstop Jean Segura hit his fifth homer of the season for the team’s only run and, in a statistical abnormality and twist of moniker irony, no Traveler walked.
The Travelers were the first team in professional sports whose name included a state rather than a city or region, according to the team’s website. The team was originally known as the Littler Rock Travelers before being renamed in 1957 to reflect the state. The origin of the nickname “Travelers” stems from a famous minstrel known as the Arkansas Traveler who roamed the Ozark Mountains. It’s a good fit – the miles do add up with 70 games on the road each season.
Want the answer? The Travelers have only missed seven years of play since 1901; the last was in 1962 after the Southern Association folded. The team has been a part of five professional baseball leagues, including the Texas League since 1966. (Even more Travelers trivia can be found at the team’s museum located between home plate and third base inside of Dickey-Stephens Park.)
And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes late, the first pitch was a ball and the first batter struck out swinging. The national anthem was sung by Mickey Thompson in 1 minute, 23.5 seconds. We actually ate one hot dog but mainly munched on slices of pizza and a salted caramel ice pop from a stand that sells the frozen treats made with local ingredients.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.