Monday, July 27, 2015

Biloxi Shuckers Begin Season on 55-Game Roadtrip

This is kind of an old story at this point, but for those who do not know, the minor-league Biloxi Shuckers recently completed a 55-game roadtrip to start their season this year.  A very long story short: the team had moved this year from Hunstville, Alabama to Biloxi and was promised a new stadium by the city in time for the 2015 season, but a variety of delays due to budget and contractor issues pushed the opening back to June 6th.  In any other situation involving a new ballpark and a delay, this wouldn't be a big deal, but since the team was moving and its lease was up in Huntsville, it forced the Shuckers to essentially live as hobos for 2 months, driving around to different cities in the Southern League while living out of hotels and suitcases.  There is a lot of finger pointing and liquidated damages that go along with this - as would be the case in any construction project that did not meet a deadline - but the fact that it is a ballpark and a primarily publicly-financed ballpark at that, this has been much more prominent in industry circles.  What makes it an even better story is that through all of the adversity, the team still somehow managed to win the first half title, despite not having any fans to celebrate that achievement with.  ESPN actually did a nice piece on their tribulations, which was really when this story started picking up national media attention. 

I've been following this for quite some time before that, not only because I am a ballpark enthusiast, but because Biloxi is the Double-A affiliate of the Brewers.  Much like my trip to Nashville this year, I have been waiting for the team to get out of their s***hole stadium before I visited.  MGM Park is still far from being complete; they barely squeaked by with a temporary occupancy permit and continue to finish things while the team is away.  But with this saga nearly behind the team and the city, I look forward to a future visit.  The new Braves stadium is less than two years away, and Biloxi might very well get rolled into an Erik + Peter 10-year anniversary "Dirty South" Tour.

Brewers 43-56, -20.5, -11.5 WC (3 @ Giants, 4 v. Cubs)
Reds 43-53, -19.0, -10.0 WC (3 @ Cardinals, 4 v. Pirates
Twins 52-46, -7.5, +3.0 WC (2 v. Pirates, 4 v. Mariners)

Erik - 13 (+14 worked)

Peter - 30

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hardball Passport

In the early days of Facebook, there used to be an attached app called "Stadium Tour."  On it you could log not only every baseball stadium you've been to, but every arena, every stadium for any sport you can think of, at all levels, including ones that were no longer in use.  It was the most comprehensive stadium tally I've ever seen and one that Erik and I used quite frequently to wage war against each other.  Well, that app went the way of the dodo quite some time ago, and since then much to my shock and dismay, I have not found anything even close to it.  With all of the people that tour stadiums particularly ballparks I could not believe not even one person had thought to develop an app beyond just the 30 MLB teams.  I've been tracking all of my ballparks on a Word document like some sort of caveman. 

I finally discovered something pretty comprehensive called Hardball Passport.  It plays off of the popular MLB passport books that came out a while ago that you can get physically stamped at a ballpark.  This particular website goes even further and offers a database of games that goes back 40 years in which you can track game results, stats, and every park that has been open since then.  It has all current MLB and MiLB parks on it, as well as many defunct ones.  By "checking in" to certain ballparks and in certain quantities, you can unlock many badges or stamps, say for instance visiting every park in California, or all 30 MLB teams.  You can set up challenges to keep yourself on task for ballparks to visit - in my case, I have 4 parks left of 16 in the Midwest League.  You can plan roadtrips on it because all of the team schedules are at your fingertips; it certainly would have been nice to have this for our 2007 tour.  The coolest part and the advantage of having this online rather than paper form is the database available to you at all times.  I know what the Brewers record was in all games I have attended, what the best hitters were of all my visits, and I can see how many times I have been to each park all at the click of a mouse.

No college, summer collegiate, or spring training parks yet, so I still need my Word document, but it is still a cool website for anybody who is a ballpark chaser like myself.

Brewers 38-52, -18.5 (3 v. Pirates, 2 v. Indians, 4 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 39-47, -15.5 (3 v. Indians, 4 v. Cubs, 3 @ Rockies
Twins 49-40, -4.5 (3 @ Athletics, 3 @ Angels, 3 v. Yankees)

Erik - 13 (+14 worked)

Peter - 28

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tour 2015: First Tennessee Park

All photos of Nashville, Lynchburg, Jack Daniel's Distillery, and First Tennessee Park available on Flickr.

My big vacation of the year took me to the mid-South, centered around the new Nashville Sounds ballpark.  The origins of this trip go back many years, during the decade when Nashville hosted the Brewers' top affiliate.  Really all I was waiting for was the team to move out of Greer Stadium, which was widely considered the worst ballpark in the Pacific Coast League.  An announcement of a new stadium and a rave review of the city by my brother all but sealed the deal to start planning this last year.  However, with a new park and a great city comes some clout in the affiliate shuffle game, and unfortunately the Sounds booted the Brewers as their parent club in September, but that did not deter me.  It just so happened that the Brewers new AAA club in Colorado Springs was playing in Nashville over the holiday weekend, so the timing couldn't have been better.  I brought my fiancée and parents along for a nice family roadtrip.  I don't think I've been in a car with anybody that for that long since the Tour, but after 9+ hours of driving we made it to our destination in one piece a little after 4pm on Wednesday. 

We rented a charming mini-Victorian home in East Nashville near the Five Points neighborhood and couldn't have asked for a better setup.  We were surrounded by a nice bar and restaurant area where the locals go, but yet we were also only a couple miles from the downtown.  It was the best of both worlds and the first night we explored the more intimate neighborhood side of the city, which included the best meal of the trip at a place called The Local Taco.  Thursday was the day we went to the Sounds game.  We started the day off by hitting just about every establishment on Broadway downtown.  Broadway is kind of like Beale Street in Memphis - it's a dense street full of tourist bars and shops, and every one of them has live music all day every day in which the artists work for free just for the exposure (and tips of course).  Except in Nashville, it is obviously country music instead of blues.  The street is bookended by the Cumberland River to the east, and the Predators NHL arena to the west, and we spent a good 6 hours there.  The walk to the park was an additional mile just north of the state capitol.  Had we not gotten in line super early for the star-spangled sunglasses giveaway, we would have gotten absolutely soaked to the bone by rain.  There were scattered pop-up showers most of the week we were there (and most of the summer in the south from what I gather), and a large cell passed through just before gametime, delaying the start by a half-hour.  Fortunately it was also Thirsty Thursday, so this just gave us extra time to enjoy $2 beers under the protection of the concourse.

First Tennessee Park sits on arguably one of the most historic sites in all of baseball, Sulphur Dell.  It was the site of the original Nashville ballpark built in 1870 that stood for nearly a century, and even before that was home to amateur baseball played by early settlers and traders.  After 37 seasons at Herschel Greer Stadium, baseball finally returned to the site this year.  It can be reasonably estimated that baseball in some form has been played in Nashville for over 160 years, and First Tennessee Park is continuing that lineage.  Unfortunately, I did not notice that much at the ballpark in the way of celebrating and depicting this history.  There are a few references to Sulphur Dell on some signs and concessions stands, but other than that I didn't notice any sort of plaque or timeline.  Unless I just didn't notice it, this seems like a missed opportunity by the team for something truly unique in a stadium that already isn't very memorable - more on that to follow.

Because of where the stadium is situated in town and the direction it faces, most people as of right now are approaching the park from the outfield or 1st base side of the stadium, even though the main gate is behind homeplate.  This seems like a nuance that will be fixed once the area around the stadium gets built up a little bit more - as with a lot of new parks these days, a "ballpark village" of sorts seems to be in construction on adjacent blocks.  But as for now, it just meant extra walking.  You can't fault the park for being oriented a certain way because the field is required to face east, but First Tennessee Park at least seems to recognize this deficiency and puts its two really interesting elements - the bar/game area and the guitar-shaped scoreboard - in the right field corner to pique your interest right off the bat.  The scoreboard was a vestige from old Greer Stadium (albeit a newer model) and is definitely what the Sounds are famous for.  Aside from that, the park did not really have anything memorable, inside or out.  The front entry is nice, but the façade is so long it seems like more of an arena than a ballpark.  The interior was pretty bland and unassuming, and as I mentioned before, not a lot of history talking about Sulphur Dell other than a sign in left field proclaiming it to be "baseball's most historic park."  There is a fine line from a ballpark being too distracting and too unoriginal, and First Tennessee Park decided to flirt with the more conservative side of that line.  I will say that the really nice part of the park that I mentioned - the bar in right field called "The Band Box" - is almost cool enough by itself to be an identity for the ballpark.  It's so much of a node that draws people in that you almost don't need that much else in the park - so large in fact that it carves into the field substantially, making it only 310' down the line.  There is a lawn area with bags and ping pong set up, a nice couch area with TVs, a gigantic bar, picnic benches, a standing rail along the fence with a view of the field, and some tiered outfield seating.  It feels like a tavern establishment outside of the stadium that just happens to have a nice view of the field, and it is one of the best public bar areas I have experienced.  When I go to games with my family, we have been known to throw back quite a few and spend a lot of time schmoozing the bartenders, so this was an ideal spot for the Nagels.  Megan made friends quickly with a number of employees, including the head bartender who introduced us to one of the most delicious beverages I have ever had at a ballpark - a whiskey & coke slushie.  They were so good that we immediately began plotting how we would make them for a future Brewers tailgate.  Outside of the bar area, there was a fairly diverse concessions variety, but very expensive - the regular price of beer was even more expensive here than Miller Park.  And only one hot chicken stand in Nashville would be like having only one cheesesteak stand in Philadelphia.

The game pitted the Brewers' former AAA affiliate against its current one, and the visiting Sky Sox lineup was full of former Brewer players. Three hitters and three pitchers in the game - Logan Schafer, Elian Herrera, Matt Clark, Hiram Burgos, Rob Wooten, and David Goforth - had all seen time with the Crew in the last year and a half.  Also in the lineup were journeyman Pete Orr, recently promoted infield prospect Yadiel Rivera, and Matt Dominguez, who was a former Astros top prospect picked up off of waivers a few weeks ago.  Perhaps the most intriguing face I saw on the team was Jim Henderson.  He saved 28 games for the Brewers in 2013, but since then has been battling shoulder issues and is still attempting a comeback in the minor leagues after being outrighted off of the roster earlier this year.  He did not see any action in the game but that did not stop me from sneaking some closeup photos of his beard in the dugout from our 4th row seat.  The Sky Sox ended up hanging on for a 4-3 victory.  Burgos was adequate, giving up 3 runs over 4 innings, but just as with the big league squad this year, the bullpen bailed him out to allow the offense back in the game.  David Goforth looked particularly impressive, striking out the side in the 7th.  The only two guys I had not heard of on the team - Nevin Ashley and Robinzon Diaz - each had 3 hits for Colorado Springs.  Joey Wendle was the player of the game for the Sounds, going 2-5 with a homerun.  It was weird to root against the Sounds, but still an enjoyable game.

We spent an additional two days in Nashville after Thursday night's game.  On Friday we made the 70-mile drive south to Adult Disney World, aka Jack Daniel's Distillery.  This was clearly the best part of the trip for my mom, and I also enjoyed it immensely.  I'm more of a beer drinker and am used to brewery tours, so it was interesting to take my first distillery tour and see how whiskey was made.  It was also very neat that it was broken up into many old buildings in a secluded wooded campus.  Ironically, the most famous brand of whiskey in the world is made in Moore County, which has been dry since 1909.  Through some sort of loophole, we were still able to partake in some samples, and it made the day worth it.  On Saturday we had grand aspirations to get a good seat for the downtown fireworks, which are supposed to be largest display in the country (although Madison also claims this title).  However, much like the rest of the week, it rained most of the day and we called it an early night after drinking in a smaller area of downtown called Printers Alley, a little north of Broadway.  We did get to go on an old-time steamboat in the afternoon up and down the Cumberland which was very cool - particularly because they had a bar with souvenir cups - but the river was about 10 feet higher than normal so we did not get to go all the way downtown.

I know I can speak for Megan and my folks when I say we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Music City.  I definitely would recommend to any potential visitors to stay, or at least spend a day in East Nashville like we did.  Not to say things like the Grand Ol' Opry are bad, but exploring the neighborhoods gives a perspective on the city as a whole.  And if you visit in the summer, do not trust the weather app on your phone and just carry an umbrella with you at all times.  This trip may be it for Tour 2015.  I am saving some vacation days to go to the Arizona Fall League with Erik, but he is going to be looking for the first full-time permanent adult job of his life this month, and he needs to get this right.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 5
views from park – 3
view to field - 9
surrounding area – 3 (downtown 1mi south)
food variety - 7
nachos - 9
beer - 9 (would be much lower if not $2 beer night - beer very pricy!) 

vendor price - 5
ticket price - 3 (inner bowl is expensive but GA only $7)
atmosphere - 8 (right field bar is awesome)
walk to park – 6
parking price/proximity - n/a (we walked)
concourses - 6 (bland, but wide with drink rails all the way around)
team shop - 6 (no inaugural season baseballs or Sounds guitar picks!)

best food – pulled pork nachos (did not try hot chicken but that is a Nashville specialty)
most unique stadium feature – guitar-shaped scoreboard
best jumbotron feature – Coke race
best between-inning feature – Zaxby's Chicken Dance

field dimensions – 330/403/310
starters – Hiram Burgos (CS) v. Parker Frazier (NAS)
opponent – Colorado Springs Sky Sox
time of game – 2:59 (:33 delay)
attendance – 7377
score – 4-3 L

Brewers score that day – 8-7 W

Brewers 36-48, -18.5 (3 v. Braves, 4 @ Dodgers)
Reds 36-44, -16.5 (3 @ Nationals, 4 @ Marlins
Twins 43-39, -4.5 (3 v. Orioles, 4 v. Tigers)

Erik - 13 (+15 worked)

Peter - 26

Monday, June 29, 2015

Joe Faber Field

All photos of Joe Faber Field available on Flickr.

Megan and I went to visit her family in central Minnesota this past weekend, and we took in a St. Cloud Rox game with the clan while we were up there.  I learned a couple of interesting hometown area baseball tidbits during our trip.  #1 - the Rox started playing in a new ballpark 8 years ago and I had no idea.  All this time I had been looking forward to writing the name "Dick Putz Field" as many times as possible the day we finally made it to this park, and here I come to find out they play in a newer stadium right next door.  From the looks of it though, it was a good thing.  #2 - apparently her small town of Cold Spring has a 90+ year history of town ball and is equipped with a legit ballpark that hosts 3 amateur teams.  Three teams!  Milwaukee is 150X its size and doesn't even have three teams.  We drove by it on Saturday night and it looked super fun; I'm pumped to go to a game there next summer.

But let's rein it in here and get back to St. Cloud.  Joe Faber Field was constructed in 1998 and has been host to the Rox since 2007 following a renovation.  Together with their former home Dick Putz Field a mere 200 feet away, an ice arena, and a golf course, these facilities comprise the Municipal Athletic Complex, which is on the west side of town.  Faber and Putz also combine to host the St. Cloud State University ball team as well as a lot of regional high school tournaments.  Although not glamorous by any means, Joe Faber looks to be a vast improvement over their old home, and in retrospect I am glad I got to see a game in the newer park as opposed to when Erik visited Dick Putz Field about 10 years ago, back when the Rox were called the River Bats.  St. Cloud changed their team name to the Rox in 2012 to pay homage to the former Rox minor league club that ceased operation in 1971.  St. Cloud has a long history of minor league baseball, like most teams in the Northwoods League do - many of which I'm learning were affiliates of the nearby Twins.

We met all of my soon-to-be in-laws at the park around 5:45 for a 6:05 game.  Normally I like to get to a park I am visiting the first time as close to gates open as possible, but as I could tell when I got inside, I wouldn't really need that much time to walk around.  You emerge through the main gate into a large low-ceiling volume that houses the main concession stand and some souvenir racks, and that's really all there is to the park aside from the grandstand.  This is something you commonly see at an older park like a Wade Stadium or a Carson Park, and when a ballpark has age this can be charming.  But for a park that isn't even 20 years old it seemed very odd and cheap, and makes it feel much more outdated than it already is.  The first thing you see when you walk into a stadium shouldn't be basically a giant white waiting room with acoustical tile ceiling.  To either side of this "room" are tunnels that ramp up and emerge into the grandstand.  Once you are at your seat surveying the field, it looks and feels a lot like old Midway Stadium in St. Paul, and the between-innings entertainment was nearly as zany to match.  The major difference would be that instead of train tracks and industrial wasteland, you have a pretty view of trees and a golf course.  Joe Faber Field also has a fairly elaborate party deck along the 3rd base line.  Most parks in the Northwoods League have an all-you-can-eat section, but it is usually is just a glob of picnic tables.  Here it is a tiered system that allows good views to the field and also extends over the visitors dugout.  Aside from the party deck, I was definitely keenly aware here just how many aspects of the ballpark I had seen copied from others of a similar size and age.  Maybe this was a conscious strategy by the designer or maybe it was just lazy, or maybe being an architect who's visited over 120 stadiums is finally making me crazy.

The matchup pitted the Rox against the Blue Anchors, who have improved considerably since we saw them about this time last year in Alexandria with only 5 wins.  Andrew Clemen was mowing 'em down for the home team, striking out 7 in 6.1 innings.  It was easy to see that he had good stuff and was fooling a lot of hitters, but his stressful arm motion was even more noticeable to me.  It's little things like that that keep kids in this league from getting drafted.  Clemen's counterpart Sean Terres nearly matched him, striking out 7 in 6 innings but with 3 walks.  In the 8th inning with the game knotted at 1-1, Luke Petterson led off the top half of the inning with a single, advanced on a sac bunt, and scored on a throwing error by the shortstop.  We left after the 3rd out because of a threat of rain, but that proved to be the winning run as Alex held on for the 2-1 victory.

If we were talking about a minor league park, this would have been near the bottom of my list.  But for the Northwoods League, Joe Faber Field more than adequately serves its tenants and its community despite its shortcomings.  It is affordable and quality family entertainment in a neighborhood setting, and at its core there is not much more you need at a baseball game.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 3
views from park – 6
view to field - 5 (fence not net)
surrounding area – 3
food variety - 2
nachos - 2
beer - 4 (low variety, $5.75 for craft beer here is absurd) 

vendor price - 10
ticket price - 5 (again, $10 not bad but for this park it is absurd)
atmosphere - 6
walk to park – 5 (golf course)
parking price/proximity - 8 (free lot, but shared within complex so it is crowded)
concourses - 1
team shop - 5 (nice stuff but not an actual shop)

best food – kosher hot dog
most unique stadium feature – "Terrace" party deck
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – kids giant undies race

field dimensions – 315/401/325
starters – Sean Terres (ALX) v. Andrew Clemen (STC)
opponent – Alexandria Blue Anchors
time of game – 2:31
attendance – 1781
score – 2-1 L

Brewers score that day – 5-2 L

Brewers 29-48, -23.0 (4 @ Phillies, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 34-40, -16.5 (3 v. Twins, 3 v. Brewers
Twins 40-35, -5.5 (3 @ Reds, 4 @ Royals)

Erik - 13 (+15 worked)

Peter - 25

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Return to Davenport

All photos of Modern Woodmen Park available on Flickr.

My final game of the weekend brought me back to a familiar place - Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa.  I awoke to strong thunderstorms passing through the area, but by the time I got on the road it had cleared up.  I resisted every temptation to dominate the Waffle House next to my hotel (given what I ate last night) and hit the road around 8AM for the 4-hour drive.  It was a nice drive up Highway 67 through winding fields and towns with names like Industry and Preemption, culminating with my first time crossing the famed Centennial Bridge into Iowa.

There are many things I love about this park and many reasons I keep coming back.  I love the charm of the arched brick exterior and the way you ascend into the park as you would in many parks its age.  The view to the Mississippi River and aforementioned Centennial Bridge directly on the other side of the right field wall is unparalleled and one of the best views in all of baseball.  There are more concessions options than you can imagine, and they are all concentrated into one of the smaller more intimate concourses you'll find.  At most ballparks I am just looking for the first tasty food that catches my eye, but here at Mo Wood it literally took me three passes to even narrow it down to a stand.  Because of the park's low capacity (just over 4,000), noise and crowding are never an issue.  There are a lot of things for kids to do but the areas are well separated from the rest of the stadium.  Lastly, as an affiliate of the Twins, Cardinals, and Astros over the last 15 years, Quad Cities can always be expected to field a competitive team, including 2 league titles during that span.

My motivations for coming back to Davenport this particular time, much like my trip to Sauget, were primarily for reasons other than baseball.  Last year, the ownership group made a bold move by installing a one-of-a-kind attraction that cannot be found at any other ballpark in the world, at least that I know of - a Ferris wheel in left field.  At 110' feet tall, it's tall enough that you get great views of the city and the river, but not so tall that smaller children would be scared to ride (although, being my first time on a Ferris wheel, I will admit I was a little tense at first).  This ride is clearly meant for families and couples, but I paid my $5 and went anyways.  It was so cool and it gives you a very interesting perspective on the stadium you wouldn't be able to get otherwise unless you had a drone.  I got as many pictures as I could, but the wheel moved a lot faster than I expected, and I was paranoid about dropping my camera over the side.  I went before the game started and the line moved pretty fast, but I could see even well into the later innings the line to get on was packed.  This Ferris wheel, along with the tiki bar installed in right field a few years ago, gives Modern Woodmen Park something that a lot of ballparks strive for these days - use outside of a baseball game.  It also makes the view from the grandstand even more breathtaking, something I didn't think was possible.  If there is one stadium in America that is worthy of me trying to figure out the panorama feature on my iPhone camera, it would be this one.

Sunday's game was the last game of the first half before the All-Star Game in Peoria on Tuesday.  I did not stay the entire game, because it was really hot and I was exhausted and it was Father's Day, but it was a pitchers duel for the portion I did see.  Akeem Bostick's pitching line does not jump out at you - 5IP, 1ER, 3Ks - but he did it on only 59 pitches and did a good job of missing the barrel of the hitters' bats.  Jeremy Rhoades, on the other hand, labored for the visiting Bees, needing 51 pitches to get through 2 innings before being removed.  The first run of the game was a run-scoring GIDP in the top of the 5th, and Jason Martin returned the favor in the bottom half with a homerun.  It was 2-1 when I left in the 7th and looks like I did not miss much as the final was 3-1.  One interesting game note: Wayne Gretzky's son Trevor played left field for Burlington and had 2 of the team's 4 hits on the day.  He was drafted in 2011 by the Cubs, and Mike Scioscia traded his own son away for him last year.

This was my 5th overall visit to Mo Wood, formerly John O'Donnell Stadium, and I always look forward to coming back here.  It's probably the park I've visited the most excluding home cities and it remains one of my favorite stadiums, as well as consistently one of the top voted parks in the minor leagues.

park rankings and statistics
(see also previous posts from 8/28/07 and 5/20/09): 

aesthetics - 7
views from park – 10
view to field - 9
surrounding area – 5
food variety - improves to 10
nachos - 6
beer - improves to 8 (very affordable, souvenir cups, craft beer stand)

vendor price - 7
ticket price - improves to 8 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - improves to 7 (Ferris wheel is a big draw)
walk to park – 7
parking price/proximity - 10
concourses - 7
team shop - improves to 6 (new bobblehead museum inside)

best food – Bandit dog
most unique stadium feature – Ferris wheel
best jumbotron feature – commercials
best between-inning feature – kids are bungeed together and try to throw balls in buckets

field dimensions – 343/400/318
starters – Jeremy Rhoades (BUR) v. Akeem Bostick (QC)
opponent – Burlington Bees
time of game – 2:22
attendance – 4135
score – 3-1 W

Brewers score that day – 10-3 L

Monday, June 22, 2015

GCS Ballpark

All photos of GCS Ballpark available on Flickr.

Ballpark #2 of my weekend was across the river from St. Louis for an independent league game.  It was about a 5-hour drive down to Collinsville, Illinois to check into my surprisingly nice hotel room.  How far we've come since the Tour - even Super 8s are fancy now and cost $75.  I relaxed for awhile and watched the last inning of Max Scherzer's should-have-been-a perfect game, and then drove the additional 15 miles to the ballpark.  Why did I stay so far out of town?  Because this ballpark is in Sauget, IL, or in other words, East St. Louis.  Anybody who knows anything about crime rates in America (or has seen the movie "Vacation") knows that East St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the country, by quite an impressive margin.  After going to #2 Gary last year, I might have to plan a trip to Detroit in 2016 to complete the trifecta.  I'm not sure what the story is of why Sauget broke off from East St. Louis, but I'm sure the association with crime was a big reason.  It's a pretty interesting little town in that it has less than 200 people but somehow boasts a professional ballpark and a major airport.  Perhaps the fact that the mayor owns the team and the town takes his family name has a little something to do with that.

But I didn't drive all this way on a danger-seeking mission or a political investigation.  Frankly, baseball wasn't even the top reason - it was the food.  I know of this ballpark primarily from Adam Richman's gastronomical excursion there for his former show "Man v. Food."  In that episode before one of his ridiculous eating challenges, he stuffed his fat face with a bacon cheeseburger utilizing a Krispy Kreme donut as the bun.  Since the media attention gained from Richman's visit, the team has continued to up their game and now claims to have the best food in baseball.  They even have a concession stand arrogantly titled the "Baseball's Best Stand."  I had to see what all the fuss was about for myself.  I tried the donut hamburger ("Baseball's Best Burger") and it was perfectly delicious.  When you think of outrageous ballpark foods these days, in your mind you are probably thinking of something the size of a plate that costs a day's pay.  This burger was of normal human size and only $5, and also surprisingly easy to eat, all of which I liked.  Later in the game I tried the "Baseball's Best Nachos" with queso cheese and ground up steak, also delicious.  Both of these items were up near the top for me in each category.  Now I have to brave one more trip down there to try the "Baseball's Best Cake Bites" (are there any other ones?) and the "Baseball's Best Hot Dog."  I somehow had room in my stomach for a beer as well, and even that was amazing - they have those cups here that fill from the bottom.  There is a hole in the cup with a magnet and when depressed on the dispenser, it fills a 16oz cup in less than 5 seconds with zero waste and very little foam.  Maybe not the best system for a beer snob, but when you're talking about bottom-line speed and profit, it is something that should be installed at every ballpark.

As for the ballpark itself, the one thing I was looking for with a team called the Gateway Grizzlies across the river from the Gateway City was...well, a gateway.  And the entry delivered that.  Nothing too over-the-top like Joliet, to use a comparison from another Frontier League team, but it got its point across and was the defining physical feature of the park.  Other items of note were a very nice outfield berm in right field and a second-level private deck.  A lot of parks this size have these, but the berm was very low to the field behind a short wall, so it was very close to the action, and the second level was open to the back so a fan up there was able to enjoy the weather while still being covered.  Other more standard features were a kids area in left and a picnic pavilion behind the first base grandstand.  Overall a very intimate park that compares favorably with other independent league stadiums, and it was a comfortable enclosed setting despite being surrounded by miles of empty land.  The surrounding area is in fact so vacant that you can clearly see the St. Louis skyline from the parking lot, even on a 90-degree hazy day like Saturday was.  My biggest complaint about the park would be the viewing angles.  The grandstand pitch was much too shallow, and the seats by the right field pole where I sat were rotated awkwardly.

The game pitted the cellar-dwelling Grizzlies against the Windy City Thunderbolts.  Max Schonfeld got the start for the Grizz and was bludgeoned with singles and baserunners over his 6 innings of work but somehow gave up only 3 runs and kept his team in the game.  Things became unraveled for both teams after that, as 11 of the total 17 runs were scored from the bottom of the 6th on.  Ben Waldrip ran into one for the home team as part of a 5-run 6th.  Waldrip is a perfect example of the kind of guy you see a lot in independent league baseball - he looks the part, and maybe has one or two good tools, but then you see the 250 pound guy try to run or field and you understand why he's not signed anywhere.  Despite the T-Bolts getting a guy to 3rd base with less than 2 outs in the 9th - and by the crowd reaction they have seen this before - Brett Zawacki managed to wiggle his way out with the save.  Obviously the pitching and defense were terrible in this game, but I was impressed with the batting averages I saw (and in the Saints game a couple of weeks ago too for that matter).  It is interesting to me that where Major League Baseball is now with so many dominating pitchers that none of these hitters are getting a look; I did not see any scouts.

Because of all the league shifts over the last 5 years, I've now crested the hill and seen 8 of the 14 Frontier League stadiums.  If I ever get back to suburban St. Louis to see the team in O'Fallon, I will have completed the west division.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 7
views from park – 1 (which is probably for the best)
view to field - 5 (poor viewing angles)
surrounding area – 0 (East St Louis)
food variety - 9
nachos - 9
beer - 8 (bonus points for filling system, but points deducted for only Busch products)

vendor price - 8
ticket price - 8 ($7 GA)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park – 4 (nice view of St. Louis)
parking price/proximity - 10 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 7
team shop - 8

best food – donut bacon cheeseburger, a.k.a. "Baseball's Best Burger"
most unique stadium feature – the food
best jumbotron feature – they had one but nothing of note occurred on it.
best between-inning feature – watching Grizzlies bullpen try to toss quarters in cups of water

field dimensions – 318/385/301
starters – Danny Jimenez (WC) v. Max Schonfeld (GAT)
opponent – Windy City Thunderbolts
time of game – 3:00
attendance – 4564
score – 9-8 W

Brewers score that day – 5-1 L

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Midwest League Matchup at Miller Park

All photos of Snappers v. Timber Rattlers @ Miller Park available on Flickr.

Megan is having fun in New York City this weekend, so I of course am trying to cram as much ball into 48 hours as possible in her absence.  My weekend started off at Miller Park on Friday night.  This is a pretty standard place I spend my Fridays during the season, but on this occasion I would not be seeing the Brewers, but rather a matchup of the two Wisconsin A-ball teams - the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and the Beloit Snappers.  Over the years the Brewers have done an increasingly great job of getting non-Brewer events and games at the stadium when they are out of town - charity runs, movies, concerts, other ballgames, even soccer matches.  My favorite such event was a Brewers minor-league all-star game played the Saturday before the 2011 season.  Other than that year, typically the Timber Rattlers will play a game at Miller Park each season.  With the T-Rats being an affiliate of the big league squad the last 6+ seasons, it's a great way for fans to see what sort of talent the Brewers have on the horizon, especially in a season like this that has pretty much been a lost cause since the third week.

Even though the Timber Rattlers were technically the "away team" for this game, I was still very surprised and disappointed with the attendance.  It was posted at 4,507, but unless they were counting everybody in TGIFriday's it couldn't have been half of that.  Which is probably an average crowd in Appleton, but still 10x more than what they draw in Beloit, so it must have felt like the big leagues for the Snappers.  In another way it was kind of cool though to be in a major league stadium that empty, I felt like we kind of had the run of the place.  I went with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, and some friends, and we had 5th row seats just to the right of the 3rd base dugout.  Since we had such good seats for so cheap and there was literally only one concession stand open, we actually stayed and watched quite a bit of the game.  I once again got to see Milwaukee's 1st round 2014 draft pick Kodi Medeiros pitch for the Timber Rattlers.  He had an ERA of nearly 5 coming into the game, but he was dominant from what I could tell.  I've now seen him take a no-hitter into the 6th twice this season with an absolutely filthy slider, so I have no idea how his ERA and record are so poor.  He's averaging more than a strikeout per inning and seems to have pretty decent control for a 19-year old.  Local boy Josh Uhen got into the game also and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless, and David Burkhalter picked up the 2-inning save.  Both Timber Rattlers mascots and Snappy D. Turtle were all hanging out in Bernie's Chalet and we thought for sure they would be up there doing nothing the entire game, but shockingly a Rattlers player actually hit one out and forced Fang down the slide.  Wisconsin has sent their other high draft picks - Jacob Gatewood and Monte Harrison - back down to rookie ball since I last saw them play, so Tucker Neuhaus and Dustin DeMuth are probably the best remaining hitting prospects on the team.  DeMuth had 2 hits in the 5-1 win.

The team in Appleton has inconceivably an even worse record than their parent club, but from what I've seen from them this season, I think there are some potential impact players that could be with the big league squad in a few years, particularly Medeiros.  I am beyond excited to watch their AAA team play in Nashville in a couple weeks and see just how much hope there is in the Brewers' immediate future, sort of a sneak peak for when we trade all of our veterans away and need to call up half of the Sky Sox.

starters – Joey Wagman (BEL) v. Kodi Medeiros (WIS)
opponents – Beloit Snappers v. Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
time of game – 2:40
attendance – 4507
score – 5-1 WIS

Brewers score that day – 9-5 W

Brewers 25-45, -21.0 (3 v. Mets, 3 v. Twins)
Reds 31-36, -13.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Mets
Twins 37-31, -3.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 @ Brewers)

Erik - 13 (+13 worked)

Peter - 22