This past summer, I was very fortunate to visit the Cubs four minor league affiliates. I hit the road and drove to each affiliate, and took in at least one game per location. At each stop, I gave myself extra time to tour the stadium, try as much food as possible, and generally take in their unique experiences. It was a very fun part of my year, as I got to make lots of unique memories.
In July, I drove down to Myrtle Beach SC. There I saw the Pelicans play twice, and took a stadium tour. On the way back up north, I stopped in Kodak TN and got to take in one game and a stadium tour for the Smokies. A few weeks later, I drove to Des Moines to see the Iowa Cubs play for a 3 day weekend. Finally, in late August, I made a day trip to South Bend to see the SB Cubs.
Overall, I strongly recommend those four stops for baseball. The stadiums, towns, venue were all great! Each location had its charm, and had their specialties. Today, I want to recount some of the great things I experienced by designating awards to each team's unique details. I've been asked which team was my favorite. That's an impossible question to answer. They were all good, and all special in their own way. Even in trying to pick individual awards for each team, there were some very difficult decisions. Really, I have next to nothing to complain about for each of the four farmhands. Each experience was great. I recommend a visit to each team. None the less, here we go!
Best Stadium Experience
Four Winds Field, South Bend IN.
The South Bend Cubs have the most modern stadium with probably the easiest parking out of any professional baseball stadium I've ever been to. The stadium was easy to navigate to find food, bathrooms, etc. The food was great. Any employee I talked to was very friendly and informational. The gift shop was the best out of the four affiliates. They had the highest quantity of fan interactive experiences out of the four. The bathrooms were as clean and nice as an upscale restaurant.
Attending a game there did not have the same amount of hassles or inconveniences that you subconsciously come to expect from attending a professional sports game. It was noticeably less. Thinking back through my day there, I honestly can't think of anything besides the sun cooking me behind home plate. And even that got remedied by an affordable slushie.
They know what they are doing in South Bend. The standard has been set.
Most Scenic Stadium
Smokies Stadium, Kodak TN.
I am biased because I love mountains. But Smokies Stadium has a very unique green feel to it. Between the trees that adorn the outfield, to the circular green seats, Smokies Stadium is gorgeous. The team recently announced that they would be moving and replacing their stadium. That's unnecessary in my opinion. Smokies stadium is gorgeous. Check it out before it goes!
Four Winds Field, South Bend Cubs
Built in an old synagogue, this gift shop is already more unique than any other I've ever been to. It's also large and well stocked with all sorts of cool stuff. In terms of square footage, it rivals an MLB stadium. It features a solid selection of apparel, but also a fair amount of knick knacks and game used gear. Prices are reasonable too. You can easily spend a half hour in there. Well done!
Best Food (overall)
Ticketreturn.com Field, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
A very tough category to judge. The Pelicans pull it out for several reasons
Across the board great food. From the basics to the more gourmet items, it was all great!
Their Chicago-style hot dog was better than Portillo's. A triumphant feat considering the stadium is a thousand miles from Chicago
Solid unique offerings: lots of regional items, all of great quality.
Prices: were very reasonable for a ballpark. Particularly for their larger scale goofy items.
Pelicans by a hair. Iowa gets marks for their specialty left field restaurant. South Bend gets major props for food quality. Smokies get kudos for their Bush's Beans stand. Probably the toughest award to pick.
Best Food (Single Item)
Philly Cheesesteak Nachos: Four Winds Field/South Bend Cubs
This was a very highly competitive category. While the runner ups were great, the Philly cheesesteak nachos win by a nose. Why? Freshness. This should have been a goofy, mediocre carnival food. Chips were drizzled with liquid cheese. But it was not bagged gross cheese. It was very fresh tasting, like a gourmet restaurant prepared it. You could taste the quality in each individual ingredient. Then each ingredient was melded together perfectly. The cheese went well with the fresh chips that worked well with the grilled peppers and the flavorful meat. It is a MUST try.
Bog Balls (Ticketreturn.com field's fried chicken and rice balls)
Smokies Stadium's Rocky Tots (loaded tater tots)
Principal Park's Mad Dog (hot dog with hot sauce, blue cheese and cole slaw)
Ticketreturn.com field's giant cocktails
48oz for $30, and fruity boozy cocktail. A perfect way to beat the heat and humidity. The Pelicans know how to make a good summer drink. Beer and wine are fine and dandy, but a solid fruit juice bend in a glass that lasts forever is the way to go.
Runner Up: The moonshine stand at Smokies Stadium, which had a good assortment of mixed drinks. All tasty.
Des Moines: Iowa Cubs
A lot of Wrigley Field's charm comes from the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood. While none of the affiliates offer quite the same experience, one stands apart: Des Moines. It's got the little town country charm going for it, but also has a lot of the amenities of a larger city. Des Moines doesn't stand out as a typical spot for a tourist getaway. It should.
Runner Up: Smokies Stadium/Kodak TN. While that stadium is tucked up against a highway, there's a couple of nearby shopping centers that feature restaurants, hotels, tourist shopping and even a fantastic distillery.
South Bend Cubs are in kind of a sketchy neighborhood (unfortunately). The MB Pelicans aren't really within walking distance of much, as they are on the outskirts of town.
4 way tie
Iowa's staff would talk to me for 30 minutes, just to be nice. MB's staff welcomed me in quickly and let me throw out the first pitch. TN's staff was super friendly while I was waiting for a tour. and SB's staff was all very nice. I can't choose. Iowa might have a slight edge, but everyone was fantastic and welcoming. Great people at each location, bottom line.
Those are my awards on the Cubs affiliates. Again, I highly recommend a visit to each team. Each experience is unique and special. Each team offers amenities that were unique to the many minor league spots I've been. The Cubs have a great farm system for fan experience.