Monday, September 1, 2014

For the Cubs, the Future is Now


If I was a Cubs fan, I would be pretty excited about the future of their team.  Now, I know that has been said just about every year for the last 100, but I think next year the Cubs actually have a legitimate chance of contending for the division for the first time in nearly a decade.  As a fan of a team in the same division, I can't help but notice their dramatic improvement this season, and I am already not looking forward to playing them 19+ times next year.  Since the beginning of August, the Cubs have called up 3 of their top 10 prospects in Arismendy Alcantra, Javier Baez, and most recently Jorge Soler, all of whom have made a huge impact.  Baez hit 3 homeruns in his first two professional games and although he has a vicious swing should be a great middle-of-the-order hitter after some coaching next spring.  Soler earned a callup by hitting over .600 in his brief stint in AAA and has continued that trend into the big leagues.  Rookie Kyle Hendricks has made a splash in the rotation with an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season.  Jake Arrieta looks to finally be realizing the potential the Orioles were counting on for many years, and has become the Cubs' defacto ace since the Jeff Samardzija trade.  Anthony Rizzo is emerging as one of the game's elite first basemen and is among the league leaders in homeruns, as well as a first-time all-star this season.  It feels like Starlin Castro has been on the team forever but is still only 24 and has provided longterm stability at the shortstop position.  

All of these players may not have translated to much in the standings, but anybody who watches this team on a regular basis can tell they are much improved and the future is bright.  And this doesn't even include September callups.  I would expect Cubs super-prospect Kris Bryant and recent acquisition in the Samardzija-Hammel deal, Addison Russell, to both be up for a cup of coffee this week.  Both of these players are not just top Cubs prospects, but also #3 and #4 in all of baseball, respectively.  Addison may need a little more seasoning, but Bryant has hit well over .300 and 40 homeruns each of his last two minor league seasons and has nothing left to prove.  The hardest part for the organization will honestly be where to fit all of these players, as Castro, Russell, Baez, and Soler are all natural shortstops.  Baez has been playing mostly 2B and Soler in the outfield since their callups.  If the Cubs can somehow dump the Edwin Jackson contract and pick up a couple of arms next year, this team is going to be stacked and dangerous, and definitely a team you do not want to face this year if you are in a pennant race like the Brewers are.

Some if not most of this success can be attributed to bringing in wunderkind Theo Epstein as president and his former partner with the Red Sox, Jed Hoyer, as GM.  After signing in the 2011-12 offseason to 5-year contracts, myself and many experts expected that the Cubs would be relevant and legitimate World Series contenders by the end of that term, and it looks like those predictions are right on track.  The window of time in which the Brewers have to beat down the Cubs is growing shorter by the day.  When all is said and done, Epstein will have completely overhauled two historic franchises and renovated two crumbling stadiums, and will have all but cemented his place in Cooperstown, all before the age of 40.  As much as it pains me to say, a World Series title is becoming more of a dream than a faint hope in Chicago.

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 09.01:
Brewers 73-63, --, -- WC(3 @ Cubs, 4 v. Cardinals, 4 v. Marlins)
Reds 66-71, -7.5, -7.5 WC (3 @ Orioles, 3 v. Mets, 4 v. Cardinals)
Twins 59-77, -15.5, -15.0 WC (2 v. White Sox, 4 v. Angels, 3 @ Indians)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 7 (+24 worked)

Peter - 36 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinooks Capture Best Record, First Northwoods League Title


All photos of NWL South Division Playoffs Game 2 available on Flickr.

Congratulations to the Lakeshore Chinooks in winning the Northwoods League Summer Collegiate World Series!  The Chinooks had just about as easy a path to a title as possible, dominating the league with a ridiculous winning percentage of over .700.  They finished the regular season with the best record in the league at 50-21, won both halves of the South Division, and swept the playoffs with a perfect 4-0 record.  I was in attendance at Game 2 of the South Division finals in Mequon, in which the Chinooks advanced to the NWL Championship with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Wisconsin Woodchucks in 10 innings.  The starter for the Chinooks, Shaun Anderson, threw just about the best pitching performance I've seen in the Northwoods League, or in any game for that matter.  He gave up only 1 run with 6 strikeouts and nearly went the distance, getting removed from the game after 26 outs.  Zack Bowers had a big series for Lakeshore, notching the game-winning hit in both games of the sweep.  The Chinooks would then go on to defeat the Mankato Moondogs for their first title in only the 3rd year of the franchise.  I've now been fortunate enough to witness championship campaigns in both of what I consider my "home" ballparks, Madison and Mequon, in consecutive years.  The end of the Northwoods League season is always one of the first signs that summer is almost over, and I am already looking forward to next season.

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.21:
Brewers 71-56, +1.5, (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Padres, 3 @ Giants)
Reds 61-67, -10.5, -7.0 WC (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 56-70, -14.0, -12.5 WC (4 v. Tigers, 3 @ Royals, 4 @ Orioles)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 6 (+24 worked)

Peter - 35

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tour 2014: 100 Years at Wrigley Field


All photos of Chicago and Wrigley Field available on Flickr.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field.  Being the baseball junkies that we are, Erik and I felt obligated to attend a game to celebrate this impressive milestone, which we did this past Saturday.  I have taken a pretty hard line in the past on how I think Wrigley is an overrated dump, but it would be stubborn of me to not recognize the historical significance of this anniversary.  Wrigley Field is the 2nd oldest continuously used stadium in the United States - not just in baseball, but in any sport.  Despite what I think of the stadium, it is still amazing for any building to last that long, let alone an outdoor facility exposed to 100 Chicago winters.  As both a baseball fan and as an architect, I was humbled to pay my respects to this palace of our national pastime.

Megan was in tow with me on this trip and we had a long day planned before we got to the ballpark.  We took the Hiawatha Amtrak down from Milwaukee at 8 AM, and already were spotting several visiting Rays fans (who the Cubs were playing that day) at the Intermodal Station.  As we got off at Chicago's Union Station and progressively got closer to the ballpark on the red line, we saw more and more Rays fans at each stop.  It was a sign of a good day to come.  An all but certain path to a good day in Chicago is a stop at Lou Malnati's.  I've probably been to Chicago close to a dozen times in my adult life, and I don't think I've been there one time where I didn't either go to a ballpark or eat deep dish pizza, if not both.  In my mind, there's really no other reason to go there.  We met our good friend Katie at the Lincoln Park location for lunch.  The pie was a lot less dense and thick than I remember, but still delicious.

From there, we took the L another two stops to Addison Street. We went to meet Erik and his girlfriend Katie at the Cubby Bear for a pre-game drink, a must do for any Cubs game.  On the way, I took note of a few changes since my last visit to Wrigley for the Winter Classic five years ago (besides it being 50 degrees warmer).  There is a "new" Captain Morgan Club on Addison where the Harry Caray statue used to be.  Not sure where the statue was moved to or how new the club actually is, but an addition of a bar from which the Cubs can actually make money makes sense given what little space they have to grow.  Moving towards the main gate, it was hard to miss the giant anniversary banners dressing up the front facade.  I couldn't even fit them all in one camera frame from across the street.  The banners served a nice dual effect of being visually stunning, and also covering up having to look at the actual stadium.  On the northwest corner of Clark & Addison, the Cubs have built a new team store called the C-Store.  As with the Captain Morgan Club, it's a nice way for the team to actually make money on merchandise instead of competing with businesses on the street, much like at old Yankee Stadium.  The Cubs have had well-documented troubles getting renovations approved, so they seem to have taken the approach of adding around the stadium as a temporary measure.  This provisional nature is made pretty obvious by the team store being constructed of shipping containers and a tent.  How the city has allowed them to build that pile of junk but not add a couple signs and some team offices is beyond me.

The inside of the ballpark has had some piecemeal sprucing up like the exterior, but nothing too wild.  There was a noticeable increase in the amount of beer and concession offerings.  As with most parks these days, fans are demanding a wide variety of craft beers, but Erik and I were more than content to settle for some refreshing Old Styles after getting shafted at the Cubby Bear.  I had heard that Old Style was getting phased out of the Wrigley due to a new contract with Budweiser, but the petition to bring it back must have worked, because I am happy to report that many stands still sell it under the guise of a "craft beer."  With frosty brews in hand, we made our way to our seats, which were immediately inside the main gate behind home plate.  We had the top row of the lower level, which blocked our view of pretty much everything hit above the outfield wall, but it also kept us in the shade with a nice breeze on this hot afternoon.  The time we did spend in the sun was on a rooftop deck on the upper level above the marquee.  I'm not sure when this was put in, but it's new to me, and I thought it was great.  The couple innings we spent up there was the best part of the day.  It's a really unique setup right above a busy street corner, filled with bars and tables, and featuring nice views of the Chicago skyline.  My only complaint would be that you couldn't see the field from up there, but we didn't miss much as the Cubs ended up losing, 4-0.  The Cubs are loaded with young hitting talent and are on the cusp of being competitive, but for now I will enjoy watching them get beat up for as long as I can.  The game pitted one of the worst pitchers in the league, Edwin Jackson, against former Brewers top prospect Jake Odorizzi, who made his way over to the Rays via the Royals following the Zack Greinke deal.  Odorizzi was dominant and made me wish the Brewers still had him, as he struck out 9 in 6 shutout innings.  Yunel Escobar had 3 RBI in the win, and the Rays' stud closer Jake McGee shut the door by striking out the side in the 9th.  A highlight on the Cubs side was we got to see one of their top prospects, Javier Baez, play in his 5th career game.  He had a typical Baez day, crushing a double sandwiched in between 3 strikeouts.  This kid has a huge swing with a lot of movement, almost like Gary Sheffield plus Carlos Gomez.  It will be interesting to see how it translates to this level and if he needs to make any adjustments.

As I eluded to a few times, I am one of those in the minority who thinks Wrigley Field is a dump.  Yes, I admit a large part of that has to do with being a Brewers fan, and I also understand that it has not been easy for the Cubs to get any sort of significant improvements approved by the Landmarks and Neighborhood commissions.  But I am distinguishing improvements from just standard upkeep.  I'm more just disappointed it has been allowed to get this bad than flat-out disliking the stadium.  I certainly don't know all the facts, but from my perspective it seems like the team has taken the naive approach of "oh, Wrigley will just be here forever, we don't need to maintain it."  There are basic things like paint, updating plumbing, repairing concrete, handicap accessibility, and building clubhouses bigger than my apartment than can probably be addressed outside of the major renovations that are sorely needed.  Urinal troughs and nets to catch falling concrete should not have to exist for a team with as much money as the Cubs.  I think part of the delay of the renovations has not just been the city and the rooftop owners, but also the sensitivity to maintaining the historic feel of the ballpark, which I respect but at the same time it is the 21st century.  The Cubs need look no further than Fenway Park for a perfect example of how to incorporate the new revenue-generating amenities with the old stadium and still having it feel like an old stadium.  The renovation plan being presented to the city looks encouraging and I hope it moves forward, because as much as I enjoyed my time there on Saturday, I do not want to go back until those are complete.  I hate the Cubs and Chicago, and I complain about Wrigley a lot, but it truly is a treasure and it would be a shame if it were allowed to continue to crumble.  As other stadiums will continue to come and go, I hope that Wrigley Field is around another 100 years for my children and grandchildren to enjoy.

park rankings and statistics
(see also original post from 6/26/07): 

aesthetics - 3
views from park – 7
view to field - decreases to 4 (not sure why I ever had it that high - lots of obstructed view)
surrounding area – 10
food variety - increases to 5
nachos - 8
beer - 8

vendor price - decreases to 7
ticket price - 2
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 9
parking price/proximity - decreases to 2 (residential)
concourses - 3
team shop -10 (still primarily outside stadium, new C-Store across the street)


best food – Chicago style dog
most unique stadium feature – hand-operated scoreboard, ivy on outfield wall
best jumbotron feature – the fact that they have one now...sort of
best between-inning feature – celebrity leads crowd in "Take me out to the Ballgame"

field dimensions – 355/400/353
starters – Jake Odorizzi (TB) v. Edwin Jackson (CHC)
opponent – Tampa Bay Rays
time of game – 3:06
attendance – 36739
score – 4-0 L

Brewers score that day – 4-1 W

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.14:
Brewers 67-55, +2.0, (3 @ Dodgers, 2 v. Blue Jays)
Reds 60-61, -6.5 (4 @ Rockies, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 54-65, -11.5 (4 v. Royals, 3 v. Indians)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 6 (+22 worked)

Peter - 34

Friday, August 8, 2014

U.S. Steel Yard


All photos of U.S. Steel Yard available on Flickr.

The Gary SouthShore Railcats are a team I've been putting off going to see for as long as I can remember, despite them playing only a couple hours from Milwaukee.  When you grow up that close to Gary, you hear many stories about how the city does not exactly have a sterling reputation.  Quite honestly, I have been afraid to go there by myself.  I've probably driven through Gary dozens of times on the way to and from Cincinnati when I went to school there and always made a point never to stop in town.  Luckily, I have a friend now who is from the Gary area...well, "luckily" is a strong word...let's say conveniently.  I have a friend who conveniently lives near Gary and knows the area, so I was finally able to go to a game with her this past Sunday.  

We rolled into town from Kristen's parents' house in nearby Griffith at around 4:15 for a 5:00 game, so we had a little bit of time to drive around the city.  I have to say that I'm really glad I came here with somebody, because everything you've heard about Gary is completely true.  Boarded up and decaying buildings, entire retail streets abandoned, roads in disrepair, and slums as far as the eye can see.  Had we not been there during the day I'm sure we would have seen much worse.  I felt incredibly unsafe, but even moreso, it was just depressing.  Gary was once a boomtown during the heyday of the steel industry, but today is just a faint glimmer of its former self.  I almost felt bad that the city had such a nice stadium as the Steel Yard, because I'm sure they could have used that $10 million in so many better ways, at the very least some development around the ballpark's urban site.  But I guess a city doesn't fall this far from grace without the help of a little financial mismanagement.  Political commentary aside, I was still excited for the game - it was perfect weather for baseball and I had $40 in winnings on me to blow from a bags tournament victory the day before.  I briefly considered buying a downtown highrise with my money, but instead stayed on task and purchased two front row seats.

The U.S. Steel Yard takes its name from the once prosperous steel industry in the region, and it is actually situated just south of the one remaining refinery, right on the other side of I-90 and the Metra line.  The park is sunken below the street level to the south, and the freeway is elevated to the north behind a very tall outfield wall, giving it the feel of a sort of bunker.  This arrangement seemed to fit well with the site - it's probably one park you don't want connectivity and views, so the "bunker" made it feel protected from the outside world (or in this case, downtown Gary).  One of the most obvious oddities about the Steel Yard is the glaring lack of...well, steel.  For a park, team, and city celebrating the steel industry, the material was noticeably absent.  There is a little bit of exposed framework at the main entry, but even in this instance it was merely aesthetic not structural.  The brick they used instead isn't completely out of place in context; it does fit with other buildings in the area.  But if you're going to mortgage the city's future on a ballpark AND acquire naming rights from the steel industry, it kind of seems like a missed opportunity not to showcase steel more prominently.  This ballpark more than many could have justified a break from the retro mold, but unfortunately played it safe with a very standard design.  The inside also is not unlike many parks of its size and age, with a deck of seats wrapping from pole to pole, some berm and group areas in the corners, and a suite/pressbox level above the open concourse.  The branding and food selection were both pretty bland.  I went in not expecting a whole lot from an independent league stadium, so overall I can't say I was disappointed, but it certainly was not memorable either.  The atmosphere, our awesome seats, and of course the good company managed to make up for the park's deficiencies and I still had a great time in Gary, which I never thought I would say in my life.

The visiting Saltdogs defeated the Railcats behind a gutsy performance by starter Marquis Fleming and a 3-hit day by centerfielder Jon Gaston, a player Kristen and I nicknamed Jontanamo Bay given his grizzly appearance.  Fleming didn't light up the radar gun and his stat line wouldn't jump off the page, but he shook himself out of a number of jams and pitched into the 7th inning, one of the better independent league pitching performances I've seen.  Gaston had 4 RBI including a homerun on the night and was the clear offensive star of the game.  Dustin Crenshaw struggled in the start for the home team, giving up 10 hits and 4 runs in 6 innings and a lot of hard hit outs as well.  Lanky CF Drew Muren was the only player that earned his paycheck for the hometeam with 3 hits out of the 9-hole.  Kristen and I had an affinity for the little 2nd baseman for the hometeam, Danny Pulfer, who is currently 2nd on the team in hitting, and a mohawked reliever for the visiting team named Conor Spink.  We actually sat right by the visiting bullpen and Kristen went and talked to him for awhile so she could see the mohawk, which was pretty glorious.

With this visit, I have now attended every professional ballpark within 3 hours of southern Wisconsin, as far as I know.  It's now time to spread my ballpark chasing outward and get a little bit more ambitious.  I'm probably done visiting new parks this year, but I sense trips to southwest Michigan and Indianapolis in the cards for 2015.  As for this year, Tour 2014 concludes this weekend with a game at historic Wrigley Field!

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2
views from park – 3 (freeway and rail lines)
view to field - 10
surrounding area – 0 (downtown Gary)
food variety - 5
nachos - 7 (taco fixins)
beer - 6

vendor price - 6
ticket price - 8 ($9 front row)
atmosphere - 8
walk to park – 1
parking price/proximity - 9 (free adjacent lot)
concourses - 6 (discontinuous, not active)
team shop - 5


best food – Maxwell St polish sausage
most unique stadium feature – freeway/Metra line beyond OF wall
best jumbotron feature – an array of wacky cat videos
best between-inning feature – shortest game of "Simon Says" of all time

field dimensions – 320/400/335
starters – Marquis Fleming (LIN) v. Dustin Crenshaw (GAR)
opponent – Lincoln Saltdogs
time of game – 3:07
attendance – 3041
score – 5-3 L

Brewers score that day – 3-2 L

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.08: 
Brewers 63-52, +1.0, (3 v. Dodgers, 4 @ Cubs)
Reds 59-56, -4.0 (3 v. Marlins, 2 v. Red Sox)
Twins 51-62, -11.5 (4 @ Athletics, 3 @ Astros)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 6 (+22 worked)

Peter - 31

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Northwoods League All-Star Game


All photos of NWL All-Star Game & Homerun Challenge available on Flickr.

On Tuesday night, I attended my 2nd all-star game in two weeks, this one of the Northwoods League in Mequon, Wisconsin.  In its 3rd season of operation, Kapco Park was selected to host this year's event.  I actually had to call in sick that day, but the nice part about that was I was able to make it in time for the pre-game homerun challenge.  When you're an adult, the "if you're too sick to work you're too sick to play" rule does not apply.  Looked like not a lot of people had that same luxury of having the day off; I got to the park around 5pm and the crowd was still pretty sparse.

Kapco Park has a little bit of berm space in the outfield corners that I never see anybody using, but it came in handy for the homerun challenge.  I grabbed a spot in right field about halfway through the competition.  This year's contest was a challenge moreso than a derby.  Each division was represented by 5 hitters who all hit twice in an inning-style format, so there were 10 innings with 5 outs per half inning.  At the end, both a division and an individual winner were crowned.  Levi Scott for the North and home team participant Brett Siddall were the two studs of the competition.  Scott led the North to victory, but Siddall took home the individual crown in a swing-off with Scott, finishing with a total of 7.  Siddall also hit some of the longest homeruns of the challenge.  He is a lefty and launched a few completely over my head and out of the stadium.  Pete Alonso of the Mallards was also impressive and would later go on to have the winning homerun in the All-Star Game.

The game featured 25-man rosters for both divisions and the league was well represented across the board.  Even the last place Blue Anchors had two players on the team, including the diminutive outfield I saw hit two bombs in Alexandria last month.  The Mallards and Chinooks seemed to have the most representatives, not surprisingly since they are near the top of the standings.  A cool part of the game was that Brewer legends Robin Yount and Jim Gantner threw out the first pitch and were honorary managers of the South and North respectively.  Yount even got out there and coached a little 3rd base, but he seemed to be more interested in yucking it up with the fans than actually working.  Luckily for the South there were no baserunners in the inning, because I doubt he knew any of the signs.  I pushed through illness and 90ยบ heat and made it as long as I could, which was about the 7th inning, but I didn't miss much as the 3-0 score held for a South Division victory.  I can't find a box score online anywhere, but as I mentioned, Pete Alonso had the big hit in the game for the South and was rewarded with the MVP for his efforts.  His homerun in the 4th would account for all of the scoring in the game and prove to be all the South needed to win.  Tyler Sullivan, the leadoff hitter for the North, was the other notable star for the game.  He had 3 hits including an amazing drag bunt infield hit, and played some stellar defense as well.  As in any typical all-star game, most pitchers went an inning or less, and most position players got 2-3 ABs each.  I was actually sitting next to who I eventually deduced to be Alonso's family from Florida.  I would clap as he came to the plate and heard the people next to me clap too, so at first I thought they were also Mallards fans or maybe his host family, but then when the woman got about 80 calls and texts following Pete's homerun, I figured out that must be his mom.  It must have been such a great moment for the family to see their son perform so well on such a big stage.

I will be back at Kapco Park in mid-August to see the first-half champion Chinooks battle in the playoffs for the 2nd straight season.  I can't believe there are only 3 weeks left in the Northwoods League season already!  Both the best part and the worst part of this league is that it is so compact.  It makes for a lot of excitement and nice weather, but it's always over before you know it. 

pitchers of record – Roberto Baroniel, Green Bay (W); Tim Black, Madison (S)
Star of Stars - Pete Alonso, Madison
attendance – 2106
score – 3-0 South

Brewers score that day – 4-3 W

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 07.27: 
Brewers 59-47, +2.0, (3 @ Rays, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Giants)
Reds 52-52, -6.0 (3 v. Diamondbacks, 4 @ Marlins, 2 @ Indians, 2 v. Indians)
Twins 47-57, -11.0 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ White Sox, 2 v. Padres)


2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 6 (+21 worked)

Peter - 29

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