Less naïve people, and two decades later I count myself among them, have already guessed we did not make a trip to Detroit that summer. Since then I haven't seen every team or ballpark that was in its final year, haven't even wanted to, but Jim taught me to go alone if it was important enough to me.
On August 2 and 3 I did just that, making a quick trip to Kinston, North Carolina, to see the Carolina League Indians before they move 70 miles northwest to Zebulon next year. A new stadium was constructed in Pensacola and the Carolina Mudcats will move there, resulting in a game of musical chairs that will probably leave Grainger Stadium without a minor league team.
I learned a lesson from Jim Kantor. I learned another one from Watson, who calculated I could fly to Raleigh-Durham for what it would cost to drive. To make the trip slightly less financially absurd, I decided to re-visit "The Diamond," where Melvin and I saw the Richmond Braves in 2007.
In another case of musical chairs, the Braves relocated to suburban Atlanta in 2010, giving the Eastern League Connecticut Defenders the opportunity to move to Richmond and become the Flying Squirrels. In this case it was Oneonta, New York, that was left without a team as the Tigers filled the vacancy in Norwich, Connecticut.
I did not find any tourist destinations between Raleigh-Durham and Richmond so I researched places to have a late lunch. I found three Virginia barbeque places: Eley's, serving Petersburg since 1946; CD's, in a trailer somewhere in Manakin-Sabot; and the Midlothian location of Q Barbeque.
It was a tough choice because I had to trust my instinct not to trust my instincts. My natural inclination would be to choose either the restaurant that has been around for 55 years (under different names) or the roadside joint.
And Q had some red flags. Two locations is not a chain, not even a regional chain, but the location outside of Richmond sure looked like a chain restaurant in pictures. A "nice" one, not Mickey D's, but still. Scarier, the address is 2077 Walmart Way—it's in a shopping center, just like an Applebee's! I thought, "It's a restaurant formula; it's a restaurant concept; it's going to disappoint you and you're going to be angry you didn't trust your instincts."
Q Barbeque and I put my trust there; they were not wrong.
I had a pork sandwich—three sauces were on the table, not the sandwich, usually a good sign—with collard greens and corn pudding on the side. I prefer my greens smokey not sweet but Chowhound "Janet from Richmond" called them "some of the best." A matter of taste. The corn pudding was light and flavorful. Why don't we ever see this dish up north? The pork was perfect, and the complimentary taste of the brisket was equally sublime. Tender but not over-cooked, pulled not mauled.
When I was done, I considered doing it all over again. Instead, I had a slice of the lemon chess pie, which had a great texture, was just sweet enough and had, I am over-using this word, a perfect crust.
Sated, I headed to the Edward V. Valentine sculpture studio at the Richmond History Center, which Melvin and I missed in 2007. Described as "one of only four surviving 19th century sculptors’ studios in the United States," I had thought the exhibit would be a replication of Valentine's work space. Instead, it is a collection of maquettes and only slightly less interesting for being so.
My next stop was the former Lucky Strike power plant on Tobacco Row near the James River. That is the current location of Connecticut, a plastic and fiberglass sculpture of an Indian that had previously been at The Diamond when the Braves played there.
Speaking of The Diamond, it was time to go there. The hulking 1985 concrete structure is too large for Double-A baseball and the upper rows have been covered with tarps. Traveling solo, I was able to get a front row seat right behind home plate. The humidity made it feel much hotter than 92° and might also explain the batting barrage. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats hit three home runs and seven doubles.
The Squirrels hit three two-baggers and a couple dingers. Below, Roger Keischnick circles the bases in the fourth. Charlie Culberson's blast in the first was the most memorable, well up on the scoreboard, almost hitting himself in the face, so to speak.
The Squirrels were ahead 3-1 through five innings but then the Cats pounced, scoring one in the sixth, three in the seventh and a pair in the eighth. Travis d'Arnaud, Mark Sobolewski, Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavarria all had great nights. The home team battled back in their last frame but came up one short, 7-6. Two errors in the seventh may have cost them the game.
In route the next morning to Kinston I did something Melvin and I have not: made stops for "Muffler Men." A roadside phenomena for sure, but not one that has held a fascination for us. On this trip, however, they were not much of a detour. The Paul Bunyan Muffler Man at Log Cabin Homes (above) was a quick in-and-out. The Muffler Man on top of a closed White's Tire Shop in Goldsboro took a bit more looking around.
I saw a good bit of Goldsboro as I hunted down the second Muffler Man. In the town center, the north-south streets have men's first names and the east-west streets are named for trees. Walnut Street runs from the shuttered Union train station to the courthouse (and beyond). I might hate to mention it, given how prickly my fellow Brooklynite has been, but this is "Debra Jane territory."
As fascinating as Goldsboro was, I tore myself away so I could get to Kinston to see the Indians play the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The official attendance for the 11:00 game was 1,998 and consisted mostly of day-campers. The orange-shirt contingent was the only one to stay until the end.
Again, the heat and humidity were inescapable and it made the play on the field seem scrappy. Everybody on the Pelicans got a hit except for the second baseman (who I kindly won't name), with a couple doubles and a triple in the mix. The Indians were less consistent but got 11 hits, including three doubles.
Additionally, there were six walks, a couple hit batsmen, three sacrifice hits and three stolen bases. There were also three errors, a double play and a player who got caught trying to steal second. Sometimes these events combined so a run or two would score; in other cases men were stranded. After four innings I moved from my seat behind home plate to the last row in the grandstand, where there was at least a bit of a breeze. The Indians won, 5-3.
I asked a couple where to eat a late lunch and they gave me directions to Kings. From modest beginnings in 1936 the restaurant has grown to an 800-seat establishment, I was to learn. I caught the end of the lunch buffet and for a flat price had pork tenderloin, hush puppies, collard greens, popcorn shrimp, pulled pork, black-eyed peas, "spicy chicken cassarole" (like a tetrazinni, and not spicy), macaroon-like crab cakes, and a dish of peach whatever-that-was.
Maybe everything had just been out too long, but I was underwhelmed. Maxim magazine awarded Kings "Best Shipped BBQ Ribs" and Details named them "Best Mail Ordered BBQ," so there certainly is a way for me to give the restaurant a second try.
After my sizeable lunch, I did not need a snack. But in that heat, it is important to stay hydrated so I stopped at Hills of Snow, a snowcone (or shaved ice, or whatever is the vernacular whereever you are) stand in Smithfield. There were 74 flavors in ten sizes, from the #4 to the #32. There was an uncanny correspondence between the #12 I ordered and the 12 ounce cup it came in. I got "Tiger's Blood," coconut and strawberry, a combination I do not recall ever seeing before. It was a really sweet way to end the trip, pun intended.
From an financial standpoint, the trip was hard to justify. Round-trip airfare, a rental car and motel to see two games, one of which was in a stadium I had been to before. I still regret not getting to Tigers Stadium; I have had no regrets about my trip two weeks ago.
Grainger Stadium, from 1949, has a nice, old-fashioned grandstand. I really like the seats and low berm down the right field line, which afford fans a lot of mobility while maintaining great views of the game. Like a lot of the older ballparks, concessions are around the outside and were not much more than functional. Not that I could tell from my various seats, but the field itself is supposed to be one of the finest in minor league baseball. I hope Kinston can find another team, even if it is in a collegiate league.
I am betting another minor league baseball team will not move to the city and that is why I made the trip. Seeing the Flying Squirrels was also an exercise in "completeism." Once I was underway, however, I discovered another theme to the trip.
It might have been in Goldsboro that it occurred to me that unplanned I had created an itinerary filled with sculpture; the Valentine studio, Connecticut and two Muffler Men. The grandstand in Richmond is pretty sculptural as well, as is a glass trophy on display at Q Barbecue (below). Kings has an antique, coin-operated, sidewalk kiddie ride of a pig in the lobby, but I couldn't get a picture; it fits the theme, however. Finally, mimetic architecture like Hills of Snow is inherently figurative. It's probably one of those, "you had to have been there" kind of things, but it delights me no end. The trip was a bargain.
I thank Q Barbeque for emailing this image.
(I would have said nice things about the food even if they didn't.)