Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tour 2014: MLB Homerun Derby & All-Star Workout Day


All photos of ASG Block Party, All-Star Workout Day, Homerun Derby, and new Saints Ballpark construction available on Flickr.

Megan and I got a good night's sleep and took our time getting out of Erik and Katie's apartment on Monday.  They both already had a half day's work in before Megan and I began our stroll back towards the ballpark.  We had some time to kill before gates opened, so we went to check out the All-Star Block Party across the street.  I was really impressed in general with the Twin Cities rolling out the red carpet for the event and providing lots of entertainment outside the ballpark for fans, but the block party was pretty lame.  There was only a few food trucks and a team store, and a tent with the Budweiser Clydesdales.  It wasn't hard for the local news station to pick out the two most photogenic people of the 30 that were there and interview us.  Our interview aired as part of a piece about how the All-Star festivities were expected to bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors and inject $75 million into the local economy (you can watch the story here).  I guess with numbers like that, it makes sense to cram as many opportunities for tourists to spend money in the 5-day period, so I would not be surprised if the block party became an annual All-Star tradition.

We anticipated spending a few hours at the block party but after about a half-hour we had seen everything, so we hit a couple bars and got in line at the stadium around 3:15 for a 4:00 opening.  We wanted to be sure to get there super early, because we had standing-room tickets for the Derby.  Target Field has several phenomenal bar areas open to the public and I had my eye at the one by the left field pole on the 2nd level as our destination.  We entered at the gate closest to this area and hustled up the escalator to get a great spot right along the front rail.  With an unblocked view in front of us and a full-service bar right behind us, we really couldn't have asked for a better spot.  I thought I would care that we would have to basically stay in one spot for 7 hours while standing, but I think we were so into the event that we didn't even notice - and let's be honest, the beer helped.  We had some kids who played for the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League next to us that I talked to, and Megan of course made friends with the bartender, so it was a very enjoyable evening.  I love standing room areas for the social aspect you just don't experience sitting in a regular seat.  If you talk about a homerun drinking game in a seat, a person sitting right in front of you in a row of seats might feel like he would be eavesdropping to say anything.  Make the same comment in a standing room area and you get a group of people joining in in no time.

Preceding the Homerun derby was the workout day for all of the All-Stars.  The AL took the field first for BP, followed by the NL.  Sporadic showers forced the teams on and off the field a few times, but another perk of our standing room spot is we were completely under cover the whole time.  The Workout Day was probably the first glaring realization that I need to invest in an actual camera rather than just my iPhone.  There were 70 of the greatest players in the league right in front of me, including Derek Jeter taking his last round of all-star batting practice, and I just wasn't able to get many good pictures.  Of over 2 hours of batting practice, the person that really stood out was Josh Donaldson of the Athletics.  He was consistently crushing the ball and I immediately looked to him as my sleeper pick for the upcoming Derby.  An odd thing I noticed was that all the players still bunt the first few pitches just out of habit.  Yeah, because Jose Bautista is going to bunt...and in an All-Star Game no less.  Another odd thing was that Jeff Samardzija was warming up with the NL and wearing an NL jersey despite being traded to the A's a couple weeks ago, although he did have just a generic "yay all-star game" cap on.  A cool thing about the day before the All-Star game is this is when you typically see all the players' kids out there with their dads.  K-Rod's young son was having an absolute blast trying to hit balls with his wiffle bat.  Batting practice wrapped up around 6:45 for both teams, and then there was about an hour rain delay before the Homerun Derby started.

Personally, the Homerun Derby has always been my favorite part of All-Star Week.  I started getting into baseball on the fanatic level I am now in the late 90s when you routinely saw 50, 60, even 70 homerun seasons and every year there was a threat a record would be broken, so perhaps the derby just makes me nostalgic for those days.  I know that there are a lot of diehard baseball fans who like to shun the Homerun Derby, but let me tell you that until you've seen it in person, it is not fair to judge the event solely based on 3 hours of Chris Berman.  It was an amazing experience to see 400' blasts coming towards us in the outfield, and to hear that loud crack of the bat on almost every pitch.  This was also the first time I've seen prolific power hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes and Giancarlo Stanton hit homeruns in person, so that was probably the best part for me.  Watching Stanton hit a homerun completely out of Marlins Park on Baseball Tonight and seeing it live are two different things.  Even though a lot of people had sat through 6+ hours of cold and rain, the stadium was electric the entire night and roaring for every homerun.  This year featured a new format that more closely resembled pool play in soccer - 10 participants were weeded into the top 6, and then those 6 faced off in a bracket-style tournament to the end.  The addition of 2 hitters and one round was kind of dangerous since Megan and I were of course playing a Homerun Derby Drinking Game, but we powered through.  My predictions were spot on - Stanton would hit the longest bomb, but one of the Oakland players would win it.  "La Potencia" Cespedes defended his 2013 title by defeating "The Toddfather" Frazier 9-1 in the final round, and Stanton hit one to the 2nd deck in centerfield on a line.  And if you've ever been to Target Field, you know that's quite a poke.  Joey Bats had the biggest round with 10 in the 1st, and former Twin Justin Morneau got a huge standing ovation but only hit 2.  I was happy to see Yasiel Puig put up a big fat goose egg.

Erik had to work the derby and did not get to watch too much with us, so the 3 of us went out for a couple postgame brews at Hubert's and said our goodbyes.  On our way out of town on Tuesday, Meggs and I stopped by the construction site of the new St. Paul Saints ballpark slated to open in 2015.  I wasn't expecting it to be much more than a hole in the ground at this point but they were pretty far along with the concrete framework.  The site does not have very easy access other than by light rail, so I will be interested to see how that all works out when I see a game there next year.  It then took us about 20 minutes of driving through downtown St. Paul to find anything resembling a decent lunch place, and afterwards it was back to Wisconsin.  Tour 2014 continues in only a few weeks with a visit to Wrigley for its 100th Anniversary season!

HOMERUN DERBY PARTICIPANTS:
 
National League
Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado (captain)
Justin Morneau, Colorado
Todd Frazier, Cincinnati
Giancarlo Stanton, Miami
Yasiel Puig, LA Dodgers

American League
Jose Bautista, Toronto (captain)
Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland
Josh Donaldson, Oakland
Brian Dozier, Minnesota
Adam Jones, Baltimore  

winner - Yoenis Cespedes
score – 9-1 final round, 30 total

stadium - Target Field

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tour 2014: MLB All-Star Weekend


All photos of FanFest, ASG Color Run, Futures Game, and Celebrity Softball Game available on Flickr.

Erik and I crossed a major item off of our ball tour bucket list this week - the All-Star Game!  To be more precise, we did not go to the actual All-Star Game per se, but we attended just about every other part of the festivities, including FanFest, All-Star Sunday, and the Homerun Derby.  This year's game was held in Minneapolis, so with Erik living there and only being a half-day's drive from Milwaukee, and in one of my favorite stadiums to boot, it really could not have worked out any better.  My girlfriend Megan was in tow on this trip as well, as she is a diehard Twins fan.  Our trip began on Saturday and we arrived at our hotel in St. Paul around 2:30, following a stop at the local Sports Authority to pick up our Color Run race packets - more on that later.  The Twin Cities Metro recently completed its green line light rail connecting downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis just in time for this event, so we were able to pick up the train a block from the hotel and ride it all the way down University to Nicollet Mall where we met Erik.  It was so incredibly efficient and easy and it really made me wish that Milwaukee would get light rail at some point in my life.  The steady rain that had been falling all day turned to a torrential downpour just as we got off the train, but thankfully Minneapolis has another ingenious means of transportation - the skyway system - and we were able to make it to the convention center mostly under cover.

The Minneapolis Convention Center was host of the 5-day All-Star Fanfest, our first event of the jam-packed weekend.  At its core, it had a lot of the same things you find at other conventions - exhibit booths, guest speakers, interactive displays, shops, etc.  But obviously, FanFest was a lot more enjoyable than the American Institute of Architects Convention I went to a couple weeks ago.  Right inside the front door of the is the "world's largest baseball."  Given the penchant Erik and I have for seeing world's largest/tallest things on our trips, it was a good sign that this was the first thing we saw.  To the left of that was one of the biggest team stores I've ever seen, and here I purchased my usual souvenir ball, as well a Brewers all-star cap.  They actually iron the all-star patches right on the cap for you, it was pretty cool.  Many times during the weekend did I see the little Peanuts All-Star figurines that are this year's theme (like the Statues of Liberty when the game was in New York), and I was extremely proud of myself for not giving into temptation and wasting $30 on a Snoopy doll.  Next to the team store were a few baseball card and collectibles displays, and it was in this area we found the guy who created the Ballpark Passport.  It's a cool concept, you get this book that you can have stamped at each park you visit, but it doesn't do me much good now when I've already seen like 120 stadiums - I wish they had it 7 years ago.  From there, we hit some of the fun stuff - batting cages, and an area where you can race a video of a major leaguer and slide into 2nd base.  I was quite rusty in the cage and running the bases; it's been awhile since I've been in a softball league.  Erik and I both chose to race Bryce Harper.  Did we beat him?  That's a clown question, bro.  I rolled off of 2nd base trying not to draw attention to my pants nearly falling off, and we hit the other half of the FanFest, which was a lot of displays and memorabilia.  The coolest part, besides stealing 2nd, was the room that showcased all of the major baseball award trophies - the MVP award, the Gold Glove, the Jackie Robinson award, even the World Series trophy.  We also got to meet an artist that Erik and I really like who does minimalist prints of all the stadiums.  We both have some of his work framed at our apartments and convinced him that he needed to do a print of County Stadium in the near future.  In total we got through the entire fest in about 3 hours, and probably half of that time was spent waiting in lines and inhaling chili cheese fries.

After the fest, we hitched a shuttle ride up to Erik and Katie's apartment near the ballpark and had burgers & brats on the grill.  We got back to the hotel around 9 and finally checked in, and let's just say it definitely fell into the E + P "shadytown" category of hotels.  The cable and internet were not working, and while there was a hotel bar, it was closed.  It was like I was back in 1997.  It was probably for the best, because we got to bed early for a long day on Sunday.

Our Sunday began with the All-Star 5K at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds.  There must have been at least 20,000 people there, it was insane!  But also impressive in that it was pretty organized, far more organized than the 5K my friend Kristen and I put together with 50 participants.  The past few years there has been a 5K as part of the MLB All-Star Festivities, but to my knowledge this was the first one of the Color Run variety.  What happens is that at several points along the route, volunteers pelt and douse you with colored powder that is supposed to easily wash off, but 3 days later my shoulders and chest are still blue.  It was cool to be part of such a large and fun event, and to run such a casual race in which people seemed to care more about getting dirty than actually running.  Afterwards we hosed down for a bit at Erik's house and watched the World Cup final at nearby Fulton Brewery before heading to the ballpark for All-Star Sunday.

The first game at Target Field was probably the event E and I were looking forward to most of the weekend - the Futures Game.  It's the most honest and inclusive representation of talent among all the athletes showcased during All-Star Week, and an exciting glimpse into the future of baseball.  Most of these players end up in the major leagues within a couple of years, and many have a near immediate impact for their teams.  For example, Mike Trout played in the Futures Game in 2010, and this year not only has he already earned his 3rd All-Star selection, but he is still younger than a third of the players in this year's Futures Game.  Players from all levels of the minor leagues are selected primarily by scouts and sportswriters and divided into USA and World teams, based not just on their season's statistics as a typical all-star game would be, but also by their projections as prospects.  So you are truly seeing the best and brightest stars of the future generation of this game, hence the name.  Some of the more well-known prospects in this year's game included 3B Kris Bryant and SS Javier Baez of the Cubs organization, P Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, and hometown propsect Alex Meyer of the Twins.  Joey Gallo out of the Rangers organization was the MVP of the exhibition contest with the game-winning 2-run homer for the US squad.  The aforementioned Baez also went yard in the game - wow, with him Bryant, Soler, and now Addison Russell, the Cubs are going to be stacked in a couple years.  The lone Brewers representative in the game was Brevard County pitcher Jorge Lopez, who recorded the 1st out of the 8th for the World team.

After the conclusion of the Futures Game, we had pretty much our only opportunity to walk around the stadium for the weekend.  We walked through the team store for a bit and marveled at all of the awesome All-Star gear on display and got a quick bite for dinner.  I had been reading in the weeks leading up to the break about the 50+ new food items being rolled out for All-Star Week, but I honestly didn't notice anything special or exciting.  The calzone I had on Sunday and the foot-long dog I had on Monday were both average at best.  The much-heralded self-serve beer machine was also a joke - and yes, I mean machine, singular.  You still have to buy your pre-paid card for it at the concessions stand, then wait in a ridiculous line to tap your beer.  I'm guessing when people start doing the math and realizing the price-per-ounce is the same throughout the park, the novelty will wear off.  I thought the Twins could have done much more for All-Star Week in terms of concessions, but with staples like Kramarczuk's Sausage, Killebrew Root Beer, and the Tony O Cuban sammich remaining, it would be hard for me to think any lesser of Target Field.

The final event of our long All-Star Sunday was the Legends & Celebrities Softball Game.  Had this not been included with the price of admission into the Futures Game, honestly I don't think we would have went.  It would have been like paying to see a bar league softball game, except with attractive and wealthy players.  But there were definitely enjoyable moments.  Jim Thome, who played a couple seasons with the Twins, was on hand and got some of the loudest cheers, but he didn't do very well.  I think him and Rickey Henderson were honestly there playing for a contract - Rickey, per the usual in this event, led off and went deep.  John Smoltz, Ozzie Smith, Freddy Lynn, Mike Piazza, Dwight Gooden, and should-be-Hall-of-Famer and former Twin Jack Morris were among the former major leaguers to suit up in the game, and Nelly, Minnesota natives Andrew Zimmern and Larry Fitzgerald, and Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise were among the celebrities.  A really cool part was there were a couple of amputee Iraq War veterans in the game, and they actually did pretty well.  One of the guys only had one arm and made some sensational Jim Abbott-like plays in the outfield.  Some guy I never heard of, David Nail, and Nelly won co-MVP honors, each hitting two homeruns in the game.  Looks like Nelly has a nice career lined up for him if that follow-up to Country Grammar never pans out.  It is usually a fun event to watch on TV, but this game was not very suitable for how high up we were sitting without the aid of the on-field cameras.  Megan and Katie seemed to enjoy fantasizing about James Denton taking his shirt off during the game, so I was happy that they were happy.  

They had to drag the game on with an extra inning and a "homerun derby" that was very much just made up on the spot until it got dark enough for postgame fireworks, after which we all went home very exhausted from our long day.  In my heart, I really wanted to stay out and tie one on afterwards, but apparently I am getting too old to wake up early to run and then drink for 12 hours. 

FUTURES GAME STARTING LINEUPS:
 
World
Dalton Pompey, CF, Toronto (A+)

Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland (AA)
Jose Peraza, 2B, Atlanta (AA)
Kennys Vargas, 1B, Minnesota (AA)
Steven Moya, LF, Detroit (AA)
Dariel Alvarez, RF, Baltimore (AA)
Gabriel Guerrero, DH, Seattle (A+)
Renato Nunez, 3B, Oakland (A+)
Jorge Alfaro, C, Texas (A+)
J.O. Berrios, P, Minnesota (A+)

USA
Michael Taylor, CF, Washington (AA)
Sean Coyle, 2B, Boston (AA)
Corey Seager, SS, LA Dodgers (A+)
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chi Cubs (AAA)
Joey Gallo, DH, Texas (AA)
D.J. Peterson, 1B, Seattle (AA)
Jesse Winker, LF, Cincinnati (AA)
Hunter Renfroe, RF, San Diego (AA)
Kevin Plawecki, C, NY Mets (AA)
Henry Owens, P, Boston (AA) 

pitchers of record – Jake Thompson (W), Michael Feliz (L), Noah Syndergaard (S)
time of game – 2:33
attendance – 39553
score – 3-2 USA

Brewers score that day – 11-2 W

FIRST HALF STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES: 
Brewers 53-43, +1.0, (3 @ Nationals, 3 v. Reds, 4 v. Mets)
Reds 51-44, -1.5 (3 @ Yankees, 3 @ Brewers, 3 v. Nationals)
Twins 44-50, -10.5 (3 v. Rays, 3 v. Indians, 4 v. White Sox)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 4 (+19 worked)

Peter - 27 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Simmons Field


All photos of Simmons Field available on Flickr.

The Northwoods League has more teams, more games, and more fans than any other summer collegiate league, and has shown no signs of slowing down - in fact, it is still growing.  This summer, the Northwoods League introduced its 17th and 18th teams to the circuit - the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Kenosha Kingfish.  I made the trip down for the Kingfish inaugural season at historic Simmons Field this past week.  It seemed like it would be a quick and easy jaunt down to the 'Nosh from Milwaukee, but the city is more than 7 miles off of the freeway to the east.  The ballpark is oddly situated on a commercial strip south of downtown on Highway 32, and would be easy to drive right by and not notice on a non-game day.  But when I saw the staff members dressed like Elvis directing traffic, I knew I was at the right place.

The Kingfish play at Simmons Field, which opened in 1920 as the home of the Simmons Bedding Company's baseball team, a company which had its roots in Kenosha in 1870.  Since then, the park has seen a variety of tenants from amateur teams, women's professional baseball, the 2-time champion Kenosha Twins in the 80s and 90s, and even a previous failed Northwoods League team, the Kroakers.  Even though Kenosha has a population of nearly 100,000 with close proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago, they have not had a baseball team other than a local club team in over a decade.  These are exactly the types of challenges that the Northwoods League thrives on and love to take head on.  The same ownership group that has championed successful efforts in Madison and Wisconsin Rapids has taken on the Kenosha venture, and from my observations already look to have scored a big hit with the Kingfish and Simmons Field.  It began with a $1+ million renovation during the offseason, with pretty much only the 84-year old grandstand remaining in tact.  The renovation follows that same formula that has worked so well in Mad City and Rapids - bold branding, reuse and reclaim whatever you can in a unique way, an active concourse, and a slew of group areas and seating options.  This ownership group clearly knows what it's doing and knows what works in this league, and have since even expanded their operation to purchasing the rights to the team in Green Bay.  If Big Top Baseball wants to go ahead and own all of the South Division, I would be perfectly fine with that.

As I've implied, the Kingfish follow the basic template of the Mallards.  For anybody that has been to a Mallards game, or a Rafters game for that matter, a Kingfish game will look and feel very familiar.  There is a similar storyboard banner wrapping around the concourse that educates patrons about the history of baseball in Kenosha.  There are the same types of wacky concessions items and ridiculous variety of beer also found at both Warner Park and Witter Field.  All three parks are big on reclaiming and reusing old materials, including the 2,000+ seats salvaged from Camden Yards now found at Simmons.  Hell, the Kingfish even stole the Mallards' old PA guy, Aaron Sims.  But perhaps the most noticeable similarity is the amount of attention paid to marketing and branding, to the brink of oversaturation.  This includes a fun double entendre of the name "Kingfish," in which the mascot is a fish dressed like Elvis Presley and named King Elvis I - who also arrives to the ballpark via zipline as Maynard G. Mallard does, by the way.  Everything in the park is fishing or Elvis themed and the logo, name, and team colors are seen everywhere.  There is an all-you-can-eat-and-drink area in left field aptly named "The Fish Bowl" (a la Duck Blind in Madison), a portion of which is an actual restored boat called "The Bambino" that is also a part of the outfield wall.  My point is not to make it sound like the Kingfish is just a carbon copy of the Mallards, but rather an extraordinary example of how the ownership has applied a variation of their product that has already proven to be a success.  My experience at Simmons Field was very fun and comfortable because I was familiar with the style of entertainment, but at the same time the ballpark itself made it a unique experience.  The asset that Simmons Field has that Warner Park could never replicate is the atmosphere of a nearly century-old ballpark.

I arrived at the ballpark plenty early to be sure I received my King Elvis mascot bobblehead and to partake in pregame 2-for-1 happy hour.  I took my two Lakefront beers and my footlong fried fish hoagie to a high counter at the top of the seating section along the 1st base line.  This was a very subtle thing, but probably one of my favorite parts of the park.  I think every ballpark, particularly of this size, should have a social area like this where you can enjoy a meal and talk to friends while still being able to watch the game.  From there I moved to a seat in the 1st row by the home bullpen and proceeded to watch the Kingfish destroy the St. Cloud Rox, 14-3.  Rico Garcia was phenomenal for Kenosha, allowing only 1 hit over 6 innings, but obviously in a 14-run output, the stars of the night are going to be the hitters.  7 of the 9 players in the starting lineup had a hit, including a 4-hit performance by Alex Dunlap out of Stanford.  Pat Porter launched a 2-run bomb into the Bambino in the 3rd.  I was hoping to see somebody hit a ball off the wall of the boat to see how it played in the corner, but that did not occur.  

I made it until the 8th inning, but an unseasonably brisk July evening forced me to my car a bit early.  It was only about a 50-minute drive back to my apartment with minimal traffic, so I am going to have to strongly consider a Kingfish 7-pack over the convenience of a Chinooks 6-pack next season when Megan is here.  With the Kingfish, I have one of the few things I miss about Madison within a decent distance of me - really fun summer collegiate baseball.

Coming up this week for Erik and I is our big trip of 2014 - the All-Star Break in Minneapolis!

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5
views from park – 1
view to field - 7
surrounding area – 2 (primarily residential - downtown is a couple miles north)
food variety - 9
nachos - 4 (basic)
beer - 9 (large variety)

vendor price - 7 (lots of specialty items which are pricy)
ticket price - 6 ($10 box, GA is only a small lawn section)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 1
parking price/proximity - 7 (free adjacent but not clearly marked)
concourses - 4
team shop - 9


best food – I did not have it, but the Foot-long King Dog featuring peanut butter, honey, and bananas
most unique stadium feature – private deck on a boat in the outfield (the Bambino)
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – the Flying Elvi

field dimensions – 314/410/330
starters – Tim Faix (STC) v. Rico Garcia (KEN)
opponent – St. Cloud Rox
time of game – 3:13
attendance – 1577
score – 14-3 W

Brewers score that day – 4-1 L

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 07.09: 
Brewers 52-40, +2.0, (3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 49-42, -2.5 (3 v. Pirates)
Twins 40-49, -11.0 (3 @ Rockies)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+18 worked)

Peter - 25 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jose Canseco Homerun Bus Tour


Jose Canseco may be approaching 50 years old and cast as a pariah throughout baseball, but there are two things he can still do very well: self-promote and hit bombs.  In the same week that Erik and I celebrate the 7th anniversary of our 10-week cross-country ball tour, Canseco is embarking on one of his own in a 40-foot custom RV with his 4 dogs and 3 turtles to keep him company (which probably smells only marginally worse than Erik's shoes did).  His management company is billing this as an attempt to break the longest officially recorded softball and baseball homerun records, currently standing at 510' and 570' respectively - the latter by none other than Babe Ruth.  But I've seen enough of Pete Rose's antics the last 20 years to know when somebody is just trying to latch on to that remaining scrap of fame to make a few bucks.  Whatever his reasons, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to witness history when this spectacle rolled through Madison on Saturday.

Following a lackluster 3-1 Mallards loss to the Chinooks, Jose took on two Mallards players in a post-game homerun derby.  He certainly looked the part, donning his old 2000 Yankees jersey and gray baseball pants, both stretched taut over his still bulky, juiced frame.  However, a couple of practice swings in, and I could already tell that I would not be seeing anything close to his launching of an unofficial 572' homerun three years ago, which has since gone viral.  A consistant 15-20 mph wind blowing in from left-center certainly didn't help him either.  He put up a pretty good fight, making it to the final round and losing 10-8 to Joe...well, who really cares who won.  I have to say I was pretty disappointed in the performance, but I was still glad I went.  He still managed to hit one over the scoreboard and 8 homeruns for a 49-year old who just got in on a bus from Canada is still pretty damn good.

I absolutely love that Canseco is still living the credo he outlined in his famed book "Juiced" nearly 10 years ago - that baseball is more about entertainment than sport, and that once a player understands that, it's easier to come to terms with what he has done.  And by that, I of course mean take lots of drugs and hit the ball really, really far.  Since reading his book, I've had the stance that as long as you are honest about what you've done, it doesn't bother me that you took any steroids, because I still think the greatest players of any generation will rise above all others regardless of cheating, and it's safe to assume most players have cheated in one form or another.  That's precisely why I and so many still love Jose Canseco and flock to a small stadium in Madison, Wisconsin to watch him hit homeruns against amateurs.  If you would like to see if the CansecoMobile is making a stop at a city near you, click here for the schedule. 

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 07.01: 
Brewers 51-34, +6.0, (3 @ Reds, 4 v. Phillies)
Reds 43-39, -6.5 (3 v. Brewers, 5 v. Cubs)
Twins 38-44, -9.0 (4 v. Yankees, 4 @ Mariners)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+14 worked)

Peter - 23

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Knute Nelson Memorial Park


All photos of Knute Nelson Memorial Park available on Flickr.

It took until I was in a relationship with a girl from central Minnesota to finally make it up to a game in Alexandria.  Megan and I visited her family near St. Cloud for a long weekend and made the trek up to Alex to watch the Blue Anchors play ball on Saturday.  Driving northwest on I-94 through Minnesota, there is a very definite sensation that you are slowly drifting into uncharted wilderness.  Just before I thought I was going to start seeing polar bears, we arrived at our destination.

Alexandria is a very small resort town with a year-round population of around 10,000, but balloons to over 4x that size in the summer due to a booming lake tourism industry.  Because of this, the Blue Anchors regularly draw over 800 fans a game, which is nothing shy of remarkable for this market.  Despite the influx of the out-of-towners, the ballpark and team still have strong ties to the community.  The mix of fans, along with a very intimate ballpark in a residential setting, contributes to a very comfortable and friendly atmosphere at Knute Nelson Memorial Park.  Before going to Alexandria, I was convinced that it would be a model of why I thought a team would thrive in Wisconsin Dells, since they are so similar demographically.  But after leaving, I realized that the sense of community is something the Dells just can't replicate, which is so important for teams in this league in order to maintain a fanbase.  If you are just a fan of a simple and authentic baseball experience in an old no-frills ballpark, then Alexandria is the place for you.

However, I'm not trying to imply that the stadium is a dump.  It's small enough and old enough that I would use adjectives like "quirky" and " unique" as opposed to "rundown."  It reminded me a lot of Athletic Park in Wausau - it has that same entry gate on a residential corner, same small grandstand elevated from the playing surface, and both have very small outfields - only 345 to straightaway center in the case of Knute Nelson.  Both parks are very intimate and were built 70+ years ago, and both parks had the newer party area installed in right field.  The main thing that sets Alex apart from the 'Sau is that it does not have the overpowering exterior.  It's built to look more its size and feel like a neighborhood park.  The seats also seem closer to the field.  Disclaimer: my opinion on this might be influenced by the fact that we sat in a bunker under the grandstand directly behind homeplate.  You have pretty much two seating options besides the group area in right field at Knute Nelson - $5 GA grandstand, or for $20 you get the "Walk-Up Party Deck," in the aforementioned bunker, which includes all-you-can-eat-and drink.  To be literal, it is more like the "Walk Down" party deck, as you have to walk through the kitchen and down a few steps to get into a room with a fenced opening that very clearly used to be an umpires room or a dugout.  A good example of that "quirky" and "unique" I was talking about.  It was not a hard decision to choose these seats over the grandstand and it was definitely one of the better values and most unique seating areas I've experienced at a ballpark.  I was also pleasantly surprised that the hot dogs were delicious locally produced sausages and not just the casings filled with sawdust that you normally get at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was expecting a lot of homeruns in this game based on the size of the field; I just wasn't expecting the Blue Anchors to hit any of them.  The Blue Anchors dropped to a dismal 5-20 on the season following their loss to Rochester, but definitely put up a fight in the 9-8 slugfest.  They came back from deficits throughout the game thanks to the help of 4 homeruns, two by diminutive left fielder Jordan Lee.  Despite being only 5'-8" he is hitting a team-best .375 and 4 homers.  Lee went back-to-back with CF Kris Goodman in the 5th - Goodman's was a bomb into the lake over the center field wall.  In a game featuring 30 hits, there was not much good to say from the pitching side.  The starters gave up 5 and 6 ER respectively, and every pitcher who saw action gave up a run except Nick Highberger, who picked up the save for the Honkers.

We didn't see much else in Alexandria besides the ballpark.  We had an hour drive back to Cold Spring following the game, and even if we didn't, the only commercial street in town was closed due to construction.  While no physical qualities of Knute Nelson Memorial Stadium jump off the page, it definitely scores an 'A' in the all-important intangible quality of ballpark experience.  I would definitely come back, even if the team does not get any better.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 3
views from park – 7 (Lake Winona)
view to field - 8
surrounding area – 6 (main street is nearby, but it was closed)
food variety - 2
nachos - n/a
beer - 9 (we only got Miller, but looked to have a great variety for cheap)

vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9 ($5 GA)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 7 (residential, Lake Winona)
parking price/proximity - 10 (free street parking a block away)
concourses - 2 (there isn't really one)
team shop - 3 (isn't really one of these either, but bonus points for sweet logo)


best food – hot dog (not just by default - it's actually really good)
most unique stadium feature – party deck below center grandstand
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – pregame release of doves

field dimensions – 325/345/325
starters – Spencer Greer (ROC) v. Blake Bass (ALX)
opponent – Rochester Honkers
time of game – 2:53
attendance – 741
score – 9-8 L

Brewers score that day – 9-4 W


STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 06.24: 
Brewers 47-31, +4.5, (4 v. Rockies, 2 @ Blue Jays)
Reds 38-37, -7.5 (4 @ Giants, 3 @ Padres)
Twins 36-38, -5.5 (3 @ Rangers, 3 v. Royals)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+12 worked)

Peter - 22

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tony Gwynn Dead at 54


The entire baseball world is in mourning this week, as Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn succumbed to mouth cancer on Monday.  Gwynn is widely considered to be one of the greatest hitters of all time.  He won 8 batting titles and amassed a .338 career average and 3,141 hits during his 20-year career, all with the Padres.  Playing in an age where steroid-fueled power was more prevalent than batting average, Gwynn primarily bludgeoned his opponents to death with stunning hand-eye coordination and bat control, and one could argue was really only rivaled by Wade Boggs in terms of best pure hitter over that 20-year span.  Gwynn's prime years came when I was in grade school, so I can't honestly say I remember a lot about him or even watching him play that much.  But when he retired in 2001, even seeing him for a few years at the tail end of his career made me appreciate what an amazing hitter he was.  I remember him for the fantastic World Series he had against the Yankees in 1998, as part of the historic 1999 All-Star Game with Ted Williams at Fenway Park, and single after single after single laced through the hole between shortstop and third base (which Tony dubbed the "5.5 hole").  And perhaps most vividly, I remember him getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with Cal Ripken Jr. the year that Erik and I were on the Tour, in front of record crowds that might never be approached again.

Eventually, there are going to be a lot of articles out there about how Gwynn is the prime example for why chewing tobacco should be banned in the big leagues, and rightfully so.  54 years old is way too young to leave this world.  But for now, I hope people will take the time to appreciate just how gifted a hitter he really was, a hitter that never got the glory he deserved during his career because of playing 20 years on the west coast and not being known for his power.  Out of all the statistics I've combed through in the last couple days, I think this one best puts his talent into perspective: for 6 straight years (and 8 altogether), Tony Gwynn struck out fewer than 20 times in a season.  In the ENTIRE season.  He struck out 3 times in a game just one time in 20 years.  Conversely, there were 97 players in the big leagues who struck out 20 times last month, and two Brewers struck out 3 times just in yesterday's game.  Baseball has truly lost one of its all-time greats.

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 06.18: 
Brewers 43-29, +3.5, (3 @ Rockies, 3 v. Nationals)
Reds 34-35, -7.5 (3 v. Blue Jays, 3 @ Cubs)
Twins 32-37, -5.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 @ Angels)

2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+10 worked)

Peter - 21

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bob Warn Field


All photos of Bob Warn Field available on Flickr.

I was in Louisville this past weekend attending my friend Toombs' bachelor party, so of course I checked to see if the Bats were home while I was there.  Unfortunately they were not (although we did have dinner at a brewpub next to Louisville Slugger Field, so that was pretty awesome).  Neither Indianapolis nor Lexington were home either.  At this point I was determined to watch ball somewhere and started to think a little outside the box.  I remembered that the Prospect League footprint covers Illinois and Indiana, so I checked and found a few teams that were home.  I settled on a game in Terre Haute, Indiana for a Sunday 5:30PM first pitch.

The Prospect League is a summer collegiate league that in its current form is probably a tier below the Northwoods League, both in terms of quality of talent and ballparks.  However, in its heyday operating as the Central Illinois Collegiate League, it was one of the premier summer leagues and was funded by the NCAA for decades.  The league today is a combination of remaining CICL teams, a few teams that broke off from the independent Frontier League, and some expansion teams for an odd total of 11.  

Terre Haute is one of the expansion teams and the Rex are in their 5th season of operation.  They actually play in a decent stadium shared with the Indiana State University ball team, and by "decent," I guess I mean better than the 2 sets of metal bleachers and a chain link fence that I was expecting.  The lone entry is a gate on the 1st base side framed by two small brick outbuildings - one containing concessions and the ticket office, and the other restrooms and storage.  Everything in the stadium is weighted onto this side, including a merchandise tent, an extra section of bleachers, and a plaza, which is probably an indication of either site constraints and/or a later addition.  The entry plaza actually would have been pretty nice if there was not a middle-aged couple there singing bad karaoke.  The plaza feeds to sort of a half-concourse that dead-ends into the center section of bleachers.  There is really nothing on the 3rd base side of the stadium except the other dugout.  All of these oddities pale in comparison to probably the oddest thing I have seen at any ballpark in my life - the entire infield is turf except for the mound, and the outfield is grass.  Not only was it very odd but also atrocious, as the infield had lots of hobo patch jobs around the bases, and the outfield grass was not maintained well at all.  I was there plenty early to watch the visiting team warm up and I tried to see if the players were wearing cleats or shoes for this hybrid playing surface, and even they seemed to be confused by it.

This was one of those nights at the ballpark where most of the highlights had nothing to do with the game.  Terre Haute native Tommy John was on hand to throw out the first pitch, which was super cool, but then after that not much happened until the 5th inning when some random guy got on the mic and rapped an entire song he wrote about the Terre Haute Rex.  In between Tommy John and the Rex Rap, I tried my hardest to stay focused on the game, but there was probably more sharp contact made in the pre-game hacky sack circle than in those 5 innings.  By the 7th inning I was getting pretty tired and had a long drive ahead of me back to Milwaukee, so I decided to call it a night and leave a little early.  At worst, my stop at Bob Warn Field was a nice way to break up the incredibly boring drive through Indiana, and at best, I spent $9 on dinner and entertainment.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2 (field is awful)
views from park – 1
view to field - 4 (seats down the line obstructed by dugout)
surrounding area – 3 (Indiana State University)
food variety - 4
nachos - 4
beer - 4 (bonus points just for having beer at a college facility)

vendor price - 10
ticket price - 9 ($5 GA)
atmosphere - 6 (staff really gets into it)
walk to park – 2
parking price/proximity - 10 (got there so early parked in lot for free - normally $4)
concourses - 2
team shop - 7 (actually pretty solid logo and merch but in a tent)


best food – Rex Dog
most unique stadium feature – half-turf/half-grass field
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – guy performs rap he wrote about the Rex

field dimensions – 332/396/332
starters – Ben Braymer (DAN) v. Tommy Strunc (TH)
opponent – Danville Dans
time of game – 2:17
attendance – 855
score – 2-1 W

Brewers score that day – 1-0 W

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 06.11: 
Brewers 39-27, +5.0, (3 v. Reds, 4 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 30-34, -8.0 (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 31-33, -4.0 (3 @ Tigers, 3 @ Red Sox)

2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+10 worked)

Peter - 19