Monday, January 15, 2018

Tour 2018

Hello to the HEAPB Nation and welcome to another long, cold, and dreary offseason.  We have been keeping busy this winter with our expanding families.  Erik and his wife adopted a pooch Millie, and my wife and I welcomed our daughter Molly to the world on December 30th.  Becoming first-time parents has certainly made the offseason fly by, and I was stunned to look at the calendar this morning and see that pitchers & catchers report in less than month.  Despite our busy and ever-changing lives, we are excited for another season of Brewers and Twins baseball, and most importantly, to announce our annual ball trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania!

With no new major league ballparks on the horizon for a few years, our main stop of the trip will take us to Cleveland to check out the multi-year renovation at Progressive Field. In the 2014-2016 offseasons, the Indians put in over $25 million of work to modernize their stadium, which will be entering its 25th season in 2018 and is already considered "old" by comparison to the rest of the league.  The renovations sacrificed a larger seating capacity that the team already struggles to fill in order to provide the social spaces and technology that today's ballpark goer has come to expect.  PNC Park is very close to Cleveland and still our favorite park after all these years, so we are heading to Pittsburgh for a game as well.  We actually just bought tickets for a Brewers-Pirates matchup in mid-July so it will be fun to see our home team on one of our trips once again.  There are a ton of minor league teams in the eastern Ohio / western Pennsylvania area so a few other games will surely be on the docket as well.  I will likely be driving out there, so I can't wait for another road trip with Erik and to see where the wind takes us.

Come visit our blog again in 73 days (if not sooner) to read all about Opening Day 2018!

Monday, October 2, 2017

2017 MLB Playoffs

All photos of Brewers Final Homestand available on Flickr.

I'm still reeling from the Brewers coming up 1 game short of a potential playoff run.  If you would have told me at the beginning of the year we'd be finish at 86-76 I would take that any day of the week and be damn proud of it for the team with the lowest payroll in baseball.  But after going through a good chunk of the season leading or 2nd place in the division race I reluctantly started to get my hopes up.  Losing a 6-run lead on Saturday for the first time all season was the only thing standing between the Brewers and a Game 163 with the Rockies today.  Looking back on the season I think we can all say that the Brewers overachieved being this soon into a rebuild process, but it still hurts.  The good news is that there are not very many guaranteed contracts for next year and a lot of young players still under control for cheap, so this could lead to a big spending spree and an even better year in 2018.

If you weren't a Brewers or Cubs fan, the other division races were probably a little anticlimactic for you.  5 of the 6 teams that won their division last year won again this year, and 3 of the races have been pretty much decided two months ago.  No team other than the Twins was really a shocker.  The more exciting races this year are for the individual awards.  There are a legit 5 or 6 candidates for the MVP in each league for a change.  We saw a 60-homerun season from Giancarlo Stanton, the first 200-20-30 season in the history of baseball, from Jose Altuve, and a guy who has the potential to be only the 4th MVP-ROY in the same season of all time in Aaron Judge.  The era of the pitcher definitely took a backseat this year, even despite Chris Sale's ridiculous season.  On a personal level I made it to 36 ballgames this year in 13 different ballparks, 7 of which were new to my list.  Seeing as how I bought a house and knocked up my wife during this season, I'd say that's still pretty good.  I can't wait to take my daughter to her first ballgame next summer.

I managed to successfully predict 7 of the 10 playoff teams this year.  My outliers this year were the Marlins and the perennially disappointing Mariners.

NL Wild Card - #4 Diamondbacks v. #5 Rockies
NLDS - #1 Dodgers v. WC winner
#2 Nationals v. #3 Cubs

AL Wild Card - #4 Yankees v. #5 Twins
ALDS - #1 Indians v. WC winner
#2 Astros v. #3 Red Sox

World Series Prediction: Nationals defeat Indians in 7
Rooting for: Nationals v. Twins

Preseason Predictions
#1 Nationals
#2 Cubs
#3 Dodgers
#4 Mets
#5 Marlins

#1 Red Sox
#2 Indians
#3 Mariners
#4 Yankees
#5 Astros

World Series - Nationals defeat Indians in 7

Brewers 86-76, -6.0, 2nd NL Central, -1.0 WC
Reds 68-94, -24.0, last NL Central
Twins 85-77, -17.0, 2nd NL Central, #2 Wild Card

Erik - 14 (+33 worked)
Peter - 36

Monday, September 25, 2017

Beloit Discussing New Ballpark...Again

No matter who you ask in baseball circles, I think most would agree that Pohlman Field in Beloit, Wisconsin is one of the worst if not the worst ballpark in all of the minor leagues.  It hasn't had any major upgrades outside of standard maintenance in over 20 years and it is well below current MiLB standards.  The city, the team, and the Midwest League have not minced words about this deficiency and it is no secret that a new or significantly renovated park is absolutely critical for the long-term viability of the franchise in the area.  However, with upwards of 20% unemployment at times of a population just over 30,000, understandably funding a baseball team has not exactly been a priority for the stateline area.  With the downtown experiencing somewhat of a revitalization in the start-up community and MiLB threatening to sunset all grandfathered amendments to ballpark standards by the year 2020, the time is seemingly now or never for this community and this team.  Despite all of the false starts, the 2017-18 offseason could prove to be the most important in franchise history and might finally gain some traction in the talks of a new facility.
Recently, the Snappers released a video using Dow Diamond and the Great Lakes Loons of Midland, Michigan as a model for potential renaissance in the area.  The power of a ballpark - particularly in this small of a community - to jump-start an entire economy is debatable at best, but the video is still worth a watch for anybody with a vested interest in Snappers baseball (and if you're still reading this I'm guessing you do).  The goal is obviously to drum up support for the board and the city by citing past success in a similar city as an example.  I feel torn as I usually do on new ballpark issues.  On one hand a project of this magnitude has the potential to really promote Beloit tourism and lifestyle, and I obviously don't want the team to leave, but on the other hand it also has the chance to completely devastate and bankrupt the area if not implemented correctly.  There have been talks in recent years about the team perhaps being more viable in nearby Janesville, a city with twice as many people and home to a state college (two if you count UW-Whitewater 30 miles away).  It's unclear what region the Snappers are looking to build in as it is still the preliminary stages.
Regardless, after years of ignoring half-assed attempts to build a quality ballpark in Beloit, this may finally be the time not to laugh it off.  I've been going to Snappers games for over 10 years so I am definitely eager to see how this plays out.  Hopefully, no matter what happens, Dollar Beer Night will remain.
Brewers 82-74, -5.5, -2.0 WC (3 v. Reds, 3 @ Cardinals)
Reds 66-90, -21.5, eliminated (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Cubs)
Twins 82-74, -16.0, +4.5 WC (3 @ Indians, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 13 (+33 worked)
Peter - 35

Monday, September 18, 2017

Brewers Make Marlins Feel at Home in Milwaukee

Following the devastation of Hurricane Irma across most of Florida, the Marlins made the late decision last week that Marlins Park would be unable to host the Brewers in Miami.  Although Marlins Park itself was well prepared for the storm (large sections of the roof were actually tied down) and did not suffer significant damage, the team made the wise decision to not overly tax the city's resources just to play some baseball games that would more than likely be even worse attended than usual.  It's not uncommon for teams to move a series because of inclement weather or natural disaster - in fact, Hurricane Harvey relocated the Astros to Tampa just a couple weeks prior.  What was unusual about this circumstance is that the road team stadium was chosen as host instead of a neutral site.  No doubt in large part due to (A) short notice and (B) having a retractable roof, Miller Park and the city of Milwaukee opened its arms to the homeless Marlins for the weekend.

I wasn't able to attend any of the games this past weekend, but from what I read, the Brewers went all out.  They dressed up the park with palm trees, played walk-up songs for the Marlins players, and even batted first and played as the "away" team despite being in their own park.  They also donated a significant portion of the proceeds from the weekend to the Hurricane Irma disaster relief efforts.  The Brewers were under no obligation to do any of this and it got a lot of great press for the city and the organization, and helped save face from teams like the Cubs, Cardinals, and Rockies who were understandably upset about the Brewers essentially getting 3 extra home games on their schedule during a critical point in the season.

This isn't the first time the Brewers have done something like this either.  They hosted an Indians series in April 2007 that was snowed out, and a rather famous Astros-Cubs game moved due to Hurricane Ike in which Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter.  I don't have many regrets in my life, but not going to that game is still one of them.  Because of the stadium roof, this certainly won't be the last time the Brewers do something like this either.  It's one of the few perks of being a baseball fan in Wisconsin - guaranteed 81 home games and maybe even some bonus baseball, whether or not they go to the playoffs.

Brewers 79-70, -4.0, -2.5 WC (3 @ Pirates, 4 v. Cubs)
Reds 66-84, -17.5, eliminated (3 v. Cardinals, 3 v. Red Sox)
Twins 78-71, -14.5, +2.0 WC (3 @ Yankees, 4 @ Tigers)

Erik - 13 (+33 worked)
Peter - 34

Friday, September 8, 2017

Joseph L. Bruno Stadium

All photos of Troy and Joseph L. Bruno Stadium available on Flickr.

My 7th and final new ballpark of the year brought me to the Capital region of New York state to see the Tri-City ValleyCats of the NY-Penn League.  This was 5th ballpark visited in this short-season-A league and my 135th ballpark overall.  My good friend Josh and his family keep moving to different cities with ballparks I've never been to, so it works out pretty nice for me and my ballpark chasing.  When they moved to the Albany area about a year ago, I made sure to check the 2017 ValleyCats schedule as soon as it came out and plan for a visit.  Megan and I had a nice long holiday weekend relaxing with Josh, Kara, and their 2-yr old and newborn, but for purposes of this blog I'll just skip to the ballpark part.
We went to the game on Saturday night, which ended up being the last home game of the season due to a stretch of bad weather this week.  Joseph L. Bruno Stadium opened in 2002 and seats about 4,500 people, a good amount for a short-season league.  The ballpark has been hosting the Tri-City ValleyCats since their move from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and are so named because of the three city area of Troy, Albany, and Schenectady, which are all situated about 3 hours north of NYC along the Hudson River.  The park also hosts Hudson Valley Community College and both teams draw very well.  The ValleyCats have broken their franchise attendance record just about every year since their inception, and it was a near sellout even on a cool gloomy night in September.  We got seats about halfway up the 1st baseline behind the dugout for only $10 apiece.
Even though there was nothing very memorable about this ballpark, I was impressed with the overall size, concessions, and amenities for just a short-season ballpark.  For a league that is about the same schedule length as the Northwoods League, they had a lot to offer, certainly more than I was expecting after my visits to some of the other NY teams in the circuit.  There is a good selection of local beers and at least 3 bar seating areas, one of which was tiki-themed.  They had a spacious kids area and a lot of food offerings, including a wood-fired pizza area with an actual stone pizza oven, which I've never seen at any ballpark.  Megan and I found the pizza stand during a stroll around the concourse kind of tucked away, and I wish it would have been more prominent as it was the star of the park.  The main part of the building had your usual 2nd level with suites and press boxes and gave the park the presence of a larger scale.  A nice architectural touch was a masonry block and glass tower staircase leading up to the 2nd level.  A twin tower is mirrored on the other side and servs as the ticket office, and both together form a nice gateway entry.  I think baseball purists would complain about the extensive netting and between-innings buffoonery, but on the other hand they would appreciate how well-supported the team is and how seriously people take their baseball in New York, even for a parent franchise in the Astros that is halfway across the country.  I got a glimpse into my future as I totally used Josh's young son as bait to get a souvenir ball thrown to us by one of the mascots (I was nice and let him keep it).  I fully intend to exploit this as a father and add to my duffel bag full of game balls.
The ValleyCats defeated the Aberdeen IronBirds 6-1 despite an outrageous effort by Aberdeen starter Zac Lowther.  He gave up only 2 runs over 6 and struck out 12.  Carlos Hiraldo went only 4 frames but allowed one run fewer, and that was all it took for the win.  3 relievers shut the door with a combined 7 strikeouts.  We left after the 7th inning because, well, when a toddler does not nap during the day it is a disaster.  Little Simon was a trooper and certainly paid more attention than I did when I was that age.  We missed a 4-run 8th inning by the home team which included a homerun by Miguelangel Sierra.  One interesting tidbit of the game was that Ryan Ripken started for the IronBirds, who I can only assume is the son or nephew of Cal Ripken, Jr.  Cal and his brother Billy actually own the IronBirds and they are of course an affiliate of the Orioles.  Ryan being drafted by the family franchise is probably a case of nepotism, but he is hitting cleanup for Aberdeen and was a .287 average on the season as of this game, so he is at least holding his own so far.
That's probably it for ballpark visits for the season, other than Miller Park of course.  Hopefully I will have a fun playoff story to share in about a month.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2
view to field - 5
surrounding area - 4
food variety - 7
nachos - 3 (bag of chips)
beer - 9 (local brews, affordable)
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 8
atmosphere - 6
walk to park - 3 (parking situation is pretty weird)
parking price/proximity - 4 (free but an odd walk to stadium)
concourses - 6
team shop - 6

best food - wood-fired pizza
most unique stadium feature - Top of the Hill Bar & Grill
best jumbotron feature - there was a jumbotron but nothing of note occurred on it
best between-inning feature - local legends race (fun fact: apparently Uncle Sam is a real person and is from Troy)

field dimensions - 325/400/325
starters - Zac Lowther (ABD) v. Carlos Hiraldo (TC)
opponent - Aberdeen IronBirds
time of game - 3:02
attendance - 3633
score - 6-1 W
Brewers score that day - 3-2 L

Brewers 72-68, -5.0, -3.0 WC (3 @ Cubs, 3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Marlins)
Reds 61-80, -16.5, -14.5 WC (4 @ Mets, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 73-67, -11.0, +1.0 WC (4 @ Royals, 2 v. Padres, 4 v. Blue Jays)

Erik - 12 (+31 worked)
Peter - 33

Monday, August 28, 2017

Brewers Exploring New Spring Training Facility

(above: photo from my visit to Maryvale in 2011)

It was reported a few weeks ago that the Milwaukee Brewers are considering another alternative for their spring facility in the suburb of Gilbert, which is southeast of downtown Phoenix.  Initial reports were that Gilbert was going hard after the Brewers, throwing them over $90 million for a promise for a new state-of-the-art complex including a brand new 7,500-seat ballpark.  The Brewers would supposedly contribute $20 million under this proposal and more than likely make a long-term lease commitment to the area.

This isn't the first news of the Brewers exploring a new spring alternative and it won't be the last.  With only incremental improvements being made at Maryvale Baseball Park over the years (most recently in 2014), it is clear the team is not happy with its current situation.  It was floated around the time of their last renovation that Mark Attanasio was considering a move to the Grapefruit League and the Brewers decided at that time to settle for $1.6 million in upgrades and another short-term lease, so this may very well be a negotiating ploy.  It's just another example in a long line of teams holding communities at ransom for the promise of a new facility at the threat of packing up and leaving, and unfortunately it almost always works based on speculative and over-exaggerated promises of economic development.  Milwaukee has already seen this twice in its own city in the last 2 decades with Miller Park and the upcoming new Bucks arena, so our fans should be all too familiar with how this game works.

With Maricopa County tied up in a legal dispute with the Diamondbacks over Chase Field repairs at the moment, it could be interesting to see how the Brewers situation plays out.  Gilbert has since cooled in its efforts and I doubt Phoenix has any interest in upgrading a facility in such a "rough" part of town.  One thing is for certain, whatever your thoughts are on the politics of sports facilities - Maryvale is nowhere near the standards of other facilities in the Cactus League, particularly the lack of amenities in the surrounding area.  The Brewers ownership may have other more pressing issues at the moment considering the constant minor league shuffling and the large renovation just completed at Miller Park this past year, but this will become a front burner issue sooner rather than later.

Brewers 68-63, -2.0, -3.5 WC (2 v. Cardinals, 4 v. Nationals, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 55-76, -15.0, -16.5 WC (3 v. Mets, 3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 67-63, -6.5, +1.5 WC (3 v. White Sox, 3 v. Royals, 3 @ Rays)

Erik - 12 (+29 worked)
Peter - 32

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Athletic Park Renovation

All photos of Athletic Park and Three Lakes area available on Flickr.

I made it to my 5th Northwoods League ballpark of the year this past weekend, as my wife and I stopped in Wausau on my way up north to catch a Woodchucks game.  It was my first visit back to Athletic Park in 5 years and first trip since the big renovations that took place over the last few years.  We started our trip by finally completing a list - not a ballpark list, but a brewery list.  I finally made it to the Wausau Great Dane to complete the tour, along with the other 4 locations in the Madison area.  Not quite as gratifying as notching a ballpark off the list, but gratifying nonetheless.

We arrived at the ballpark plenty early to ensure we could take full advantage of our our all-you-can-eat seats in right field.  Approaching the intersection of 5th & Wausau, I can honestly say that there was very little I recognized of the old park.  It is still surrounded by houses in a residential area, but there is a street directly adjacent and some lots that have been closed off to make room for a huge plaza.  Literally all I could identify from the old park was the cobbled stone perimeter wall, which was left completely intact around the whole block.  The old green siding press box was town down to the stone wall and built back up with a 2-story area full of suites and offices, along with some balconies and decks built overhanging the wall.  Very little remains of that original WPA structure built over 80 years ago but somehow it still maintains the same "old ballpark" feel and charm.  The neighborhood feel of the ballpark definitely has a lot to do with it and something the team really plays up to with the new plaza.  Rather than having everyone gather in the middle of an intersection to buy tickets at the window and then line up for the one entrance, the plaza offers nice overflow space and a good place to mingle before the game, as if it were its own private street.  We were warmly greeted at the gate to the plaza by Woody Woodchuck and Ronald McDonald.  Ron was there for McDonalds Night and would also sing the National Anthem later, and just generally put a creepy vibe on the entire evening. 

We made our way past the picnic tables and VIP picnic tent to our seats in "The Bullpen," a new party section at Athletic Park that is pretty the norm now for any Northwoods League park.  This section existed as a loose idea during my last visit, with just a scattering of miscellaneous tables in some left over dead space.  The section is all its own now and rivals Madison's Duck Blind in terms of value and design.  For $25 you get all-you-can-eat burgers, dogs, and chips for the entire game, and 3 beers.  I'm not sure how they even make money on that deal so I am suspect of what kind of meat is really in those burgers.  There is a separate new bar with a unique LVL/weathered steel structure and clad in regular plank lumber to give it that feel of a Northwoods shack.  The concessions building has a similar aesthetic with a private party area on top. I didn't know this area was private when we walked up there and I may or may not have stolen a cookie.  The roof of the concessions building creates a porch over some tables down the right field line and that was where we parked ourselves for the game.  We stood the entire time, but with all the activity of the party area, the visiting bullpen nearby, and the game itself, we never really felt like sitting down.  The field is very small - only about 315 down the line and 360 to center - and we were literally leaning against the boundary fence, so it kept us on our toes the entire 9 innings.  I even was alert enough to snag my first foul ball in a long time!  Between my 3 beers, the 3 beers from my pregnant wife, and a couple of 2-for-1 beer batters, I more than drank my share and totally exploited the system.  It was a great area to watch the game and we had a fantastic time.

The rest of the park from the inside looked nearly as unfamiliar as the outside.  There is a new multi-story party deck in the left field corner as well that looks to have replaced another structure.  It's a very oddly shaped with large overhangs and tucked back behind the bleachers, so seems like it would be impossible to see anything except the left fielder from that area.  I can only imagine how drunk those people were.  The bleachers and seats have all been completely replaced as well.  Overall the renovations totaled over $8 million in 2 phases and it looks like every penny was well spent.  The Woodchucks and the city of Wausau should be proud that this historic gem can now serve this community for decades to come, and it is a vast improvement over what was already a neat little ballpark.  Athletic Park is a prototype of how to maintain historic charm while still offering modern comforts.

The game itself pitted the Woodchucks against my adopted hometown team, the Mallards, the second weekend in a row we were cheering them on.  Both teams had no chance of making the playoffs and it was the last weekend of the year, so it was a pretty fun atmosphere standing that close to the Mallards' bullpen.  A number of players hopped the fence by us to grab hamburgers and it funny every time.  Wisconsin defeated Madison 7-1 behind an outstanding 6 shutout innings by Korey Rasure.  Lenny Kwizadala gave up only 1 run in the final 3 innings to pick up the save.  You would think there would be a boatload of offense in a park this small, but in actuality the fences forces the outfielders to play so much closer to the infield that it takes away a lot of extra base hits.  If it's not going over the fence it is usually a single.  The 'Chucks did manage 4 XBH on the evening, 3 of which came off a 3-run triple by Hunter Coleman in the 6th that put the game out of reach.  Tommy Bullock pitched in 3 hits for the Mallards and knocked in their lone run in the 7th.

Following the game was a fireworks spectacle that Erik and I are used to seeing at minor league parks but Megan and I had never experienced.  A couple of dudes in a Toyota Tundra just wheeled onto the field, set up a bunch of fireworks in a row, and then lit them all individually by hand, running away to cheat death just in the nick of time after each light.  It was a perfect end to our evening in Wausau and a great start to our weekend.  We spent all day Saturday up in the Chain O' Lakes area of Wisconsin, near the UP border, and I included those photos in the Flickr album at the top.

By the way, if you didn't pick up earlier in the post, my wife Megan is pregnant and we just found out this week that we are having a baby girl!  While my days of 50+ ballgames a year are now likely over, I can't wait to share my love of baseball with my daughter and introduce to her the thrill of ballpark chasing.  Until she's old enough to take a trip with Dad, Erik will still have to do.

updated park rankings and statistics
see original post from 7/23/12):
aesthetics - improves to 9
views from park - 2
view to field - 3
surrounding area - 4
food variety - 3
nachos - 9
beer - 8
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - improves to 7
walk to park - improves to 7 (new plaza)
parking price/proximity - 6
concourses - improves to 3 (new plaza)
team shop - 3

best food - pulled pork nachos
most unique stadium feature - stone walls, The Bullpen
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - Ronald McDonald sings creepy "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

field dimensions - 304/360/316
starters - Tristen Bayless (MAD) v. Korey Rasure (WIS)
opponent - Madison Mallards
time of game - 2:45
attendance - 2868
score - 7-1 W
Brewers score that day - 11-10 L

Brewers 62-59, -1.5, -5.0 WC (3 @ Rockies, 3 @ Giants, 3 @ Dodgers)
Reds 50-70, -13.0, -16.5 WC (3 @ Braves, 3 v. Cubs, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 59-58, -6.0, -0.5 WC (3 v. Diamondbacks, 5 @ White Sox, 3 @ Blue Jays)

Erik - 11 (+27 worked)
Peter - 31