Speaking of which, that wasn't the only bear that we found on our trip - also encountered were some Cubs in the form of the Tennessee Smokies.
Being as big of a Cubs homer as I am, when I discovered that the team's AA affiliate was located just a half an hour from where we were staying, I knew there was no way that I'd miss making a quick visit. Unfortunately, the club was not in town during the weekend we were in-town - of course, we were probably too busy to fit in a ballgame too - their souvenir shop was still open for business. So, just like on our trip to Myrtle Beach, on our way back home, my amazingly patient wife and I swung by the stadium to pick me up a souvenir or two.
This actually isn't the first time that I've made a pilgrimage to Smokies Stadium: back in 2010, some college friends and I also rented a cabin and stayed nearby for a few days. That time, we were able to finagle a game into our itinerary. However, I don't recall too much about the contest, and being the poor college kid that I was, I didn't have the scratch for gas home AND souvenirs, so I have nothing to commemorate that visit. This time was going to be different. In fact, I had a specific target or two in mind.
Spoiler alert: they were all baseball cards.
Minor league team sets are notoriously marked-up on the secondhand market and I was hoping to add a few names for my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection straight from the source. Sadly, the stadium shop didn't have any sets left on the shelves from before 2016 (so no Felix Pena) and, since the 2018 edition has not yet come out, last year's set has yet to be marked down; thus, my options were fairly limited, especially since I didn't feel like plopping down $15 just to get a David Bote single.
I was a tad bit frustrated, although I knew I wouldn't walk away completely empty-handed, thanks to the complimentary pocket schedule I grabbed on my way in. I don't usually collect these card-like objects and I highly doubt I'll be back around for a game this year; but, I wanted to ensure that I had something to remember the Smokies by.
Luckily for me, the Smokies did something unique last summer. Instead of offering up just a single, yearly team set in 2017, the Smokies also put out a secondary, update checklist later in the season. Granted, I don't have a lot of experience with such things, but this seems like a pretty rare occurrence in MiLB baseball - teams usually seem to be content with their one, block issue, player movement be damned. Being that this update set was smaller, so was it's price tag. Even better, it included at least one player that I needed for my precious CATRC.
The recently recalled Dillon Maples was the cover card for the cello-wrapped, 2009 Topps-inspired set and I made sure to grab him and his friends for my official Tennessee trip souvenir. There was not going to be a repeat of 2010!
Mr. Maples was not the only Major Leaguer to be found within these confines either. In fact, this minor league issue had a surprising amount of star power in it's checklist:
A World Series MVP and the 2016 NL ERA leader? You don't see that too often in such an issue!
In a move that I'm surprised that more minor league clubs don't pull, the Smokies decided to include rehabbing Major Leaguers in their amendment. Both Ben Zobrist and Kyle Hendricks briefly blew through town while recovering from injuries last season and, therefore, ended up in the set. These oddballs will look awesome in my "Nothing Major" binder, made up of minor league cards featuring Major League Cubs.
Oh... and so will Brett Anderson, but his appearance is far less exciting. No offense Brett, but your stint in Chicago didn't go particularly well.
The final Major Leaguer found in the cellophane wrapper was actually the main target in this acquisition. Unlike Zorilla, the Professor, or Brett, this guy was not an established Big League veteran visiting the Great Smokey Mountains. In this case, at the time of this card's printing, he was a newly acquired, flier of a prospect, who had yet to put it all together as a professional. Now, he's on the Cubs roster and looks to be a factor in the future of the MLB bullpen:
While it's nifty that Justin Hancock is sporting a Star Wars Night uniform, I wish a better picture was used for this reliever... maybe a little brighter and an actual view of his face. That said, bush league teams can't exactly go to Getty for their photographs.
Hancock might be on the disabled list, but his fastball has him on track to be part of the pen for years to come. Ever since the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, after they acquired him from San Diego in the Matt Szczur trade, Justin has done nothing but impress. An uptick in velocity upon that switch (up to 97mph) is a major factor.
While Hancock was an intriguing lottery ticket, he was never seen as a blue chipper. Thus, unfortunately, he never made it into a prospect-driven set like Bowman, Pro Debut, Contenders, etc. This has made finding a card for my CATRC quite frustrating, with my only option being those aforementioned, marked-up team-issues. While I did have to pay ten bucks for the privilege of tracking down Justin, I also got this whole update set with him. Online, it probably would have been a ten spot just for the single card!
I suppose we might as well take this opportunity to examine the reverse - it's pretty standard with a vitals, a couple years of stats, and a quick blurb about the player spotlighted. We also get the guy's jersey number, a head-shot, and a team logo too. Grandstand and their rival company, Brandt, handle the vast majority of minor league card sets, so there's a fairly consistent look and format.
The rest of the set was made up of, big surprise, minor leaguers. Hopefully, within the next few years, some of these prospects will be making the leap into my CATRC binder and, if they do so, I will be prepared for their arrival. Jose Rosario and Craig Brooks are a pair of intriguing relievers and, owing to his 40-man roster spot, the former could appear in Chicago as soon as September.
Oh Adbert.... if it weren't for his season-ending lat injury he recently suffered, he'd likely have already taken a turn or two in the Cubs' starting rotation. *Sigh* here's hoping the club's top prospect comes back completely healthy and raring to go for 2019.
Kevin Cornelius and Daniel Spingola represent the last of the player-portion of the update set. Like I said, it's a small supplement.
It doesn't appear particularly likely that either of these men will be making the Major League roster anytime soon. Spignola, a 31st round draft pick in 2015, was demoted back to A-ball for 2018 after a weak showing in the foothills. Meanwhile, Cornelius, a Rule 5 selection from the Yankees chain, is no longer a member of the Cubs' farm system - for 2018, Kevin has been plying his talents north of the border for the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the independent Canadian-American Association.
Anyway, like I said, that's it when it comes to players. But, what's a minor league set without....
...broadcasters (with a nice Zobs cameo)...
...trainers and mascots? I don't think it would even count as a "real" minor league set without these wide-reaching inclusions!
All in all, I was rather happy with my souvenir find - knocking off a major need for my CATRC, adding some marquee names to my "Nothing Major" binder, and stashing some big prospects for the future is nothing to sneeze at! However, I'm not entirely materialistic and my visit wasn't solely about buying things to remember our vacation by. Additionally, I wanted to see the ballpark itself and take in my surroundings - I mean, who knows, it might be another eight years before I get back again!
The park itself is oddly nestled among a shopping center, tucked just behind an expressway. In fact, I thought it was a Bass Pro Shops or a strip mall before I realized we were approaching the Stadium. That's not to say that I don't like the facade, it's just that it was a bit easy to miss. Although, I love the fact that the official address of the ballpark is on Line Drive, *ba dum tiss*..
Like I said, the Smokies were actually out of town during the time of our visit. However, baseball was still going on via a high school-level baseball tournament. On the plus side, this meant that I got to see what the park looked like in action. On the negative end, the paid admission meant that I did not get to walk around and explore the facility like I did in Myrtle Beach. Although, the gift shop staff generously allowed me to step outside their door to get a glimpse and snap some photographs.
From what I saw from that perch, it sure looked like an excellent place to play and spectate.
As much as I wanted to, we just did not have time to stick around and take in a game - we were already staring down an almost 10-hour drive back home to Illinois. Just thinking about this 568 mile trek made us preemptively tired and sore.
So, after getting a few good pictures, my wife and I paid for our wares (she also grabbed a t-shirt for her troubles) and bid adieu to the Volunteer State. I can't thank the Smokies staff enough for being so informative, helpful, and kind; even if our visit lasted only about a half an hour or so, their warm and welcoming attitude made it feel like we could have stayed for hours. Maybe there is still such a thing as southern hospitality?
All in all, the entirety of our sojourn to the Great Smokey Mountains region was a massive success and I cannot wait to make a return trip. I truly believe that we will be making that trek again in the not-so-distant future - we may have been there for four days, but I feel like we only got through a quarter of the things we wanted to do. Next time, I want to do some hillbilly golf, go for a long trail run, and take in the tranquil waterfalls among other things on our lengthy laundry list.
And, heck, maybe I can swing an actual Smokies game this time!