Friday, July 22, 2016

Homerun Derby at Kenosha Harbor

All photos of 2016 Northwoods League HR Derby available on Flickr.

I went to one of the more unique baseball events I've ever been to earlier this week - the Northwoods League Homerun Derby.  That in and of itself may not sound too crazy, but when you add the fact that the derby was not in a stadium but rather at the Kenosha Harbor, well that's pretty crazy.  The Kingfish are following a recent trend, or perhaps a shift, in baseball minor and independent leagues to add a more unique twist to their all-star festivities.  The Camden Riversharks and Lake Elsinore Storm have both hosted homerun derbies that took place on a USS battleship, and a few years ago the Eastern League had a "hitting challenge" in lieu of the traditional homerun derby.  The KBO even held a "bunt derby" on the same night.  The Big Top Baseball-owned Kingfish were certainly a worthy contender to carry the torch of wacky all-star events and put on an excellent show on Monday night.  The event was so well promoted that it actually ended up in many national sports publications and came in at #8 on Sportscenter's Top 10 the next morning.

The format of the event, which seems to change every year now, was set up as a regular 9-inning game, with one player from each division batting per half inning with 6 "outs" each.  At the end of the 9 innings, both a division and an individual player were crowned.  This format did two things - it gave a lot of players a chance to participate, but it also kept the event moving, as there were no lights at the harbor like you would have at a stadium and the derby had to be wrapped up before sundown.  The South Division rose again and beat the North rather handily, and hometown slugger Marty Bechina took home the individual title with 6 taters.

The logistics of this derby were actually very well executed given the zaniness of it.  Pitchers stood at the far end of a pier closest to the water, and the hitters stood 60'-6" closer to shore, with a catcher and screen behind him.  It was hard to tell what the width of the pier was from where we were standing, but I can assure you that had Carlos Gomez been participating, he surely would have swung out of his shoes and fallen right into Lake Michigan.  Batted balls that jettisoned towards the harbor then had to cross a line of floating yellow buoys to count as a homerun.  I presume that the homerun line was set up to match the dimensions of Simmons Field because it looked like a pretty short porch.  Staff members in kayaks patrolled the "infield" to retrieve balls, and there were many boats in the "outfield" that chose to forgo the $10 admission price and watch the derby for free.  Anybody staying at the Best Western next door would have gotten a free show as well, so I'll have to remember both of those as options if this event ever returns.  There was also a giant schooner that sailed back and forth keeping score, and also had fans aboard who purchased special VIP tickets.  Other than the winning slugger Bechina, there really wasn't another hitter that ever got on a roll, so the event did grow a little stale after awhile.  But it was still so cool to watch balls kerplunking into the water and people in boats scurrying after the ball like you would see in San Francisco.  Everybody longs to see a "splash hit" when watching a Giants game, and tonight every single ball hit was a splash hit.  The biggest splash of all came not from a participant, but from a young Kingfish staff member.  He bet some of the players earlier in the day that he could hit a homerun on his first swing, and he did!  The bet was that if he didn't hit a homerun, he had to jump in the lake, but on a night where the temperature approached 90ยบ, he gladly jumped in anyways.

With over 3,000 people in attendance for 2 hours of derby, live music, and fireworks, the event was an overwhelming success.  The best part about it is you can be all but guaranteed that the Northwoods League will make it a goal to make next year's homerun derby even more insane.  Perhaps the new Rockford team will get the game next year and try to hit balls onto I-90.

Brewers 40-52, -16.0, -10.0 WC (3 v. Cubs, 4 v. Diamondbacks)
Reds 36-59, -21.5, -15.5 WC (3 v. Diamondbacks, 3 @ Giants
Twins 35-59, -21.0, -18.0 WC (4 @ Red Sox, 2 v. Braves, 1 v. Orioles)

Erik - 11 (+17 worked)

Peter - 22

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Brewers Likely to Active Sellers Again at Trade Deadline

With the All-Star Break upon us and the Brewers already 14 1/2 games out of 1st place, Slingin' David Stearns has been fielding phone calls left and right about any and all players in what should be another active trade deadline for him.  When I was away on my honeymoon, the Crew flipped Aaron Hill for two prospects to Boston, which was probably the most expected move of any they could have made.  Hill came along in the package we got in the Segura-Wagner trade to Arizona, and I thought at the time how brilliant it was to get another trade chip in that deal.  It was a very Billy Beane-esque move.  There is no space on a rebuilding roster for a 34-year old with an expiring contract.

There have also been a lot of rumors floating around about where Jonathan Lucroy is heading.  The Rangers, Astros, and Red Sox are all in need of an upgrade at catcher and have all been linked to the all-star, among others.  A common thread with all of the teams interest is the bevy of blue-chip prospects they have in their farm system and/or Major League roster right now.  I would think that Lucroy will demand no less than 3 major-league caliber high-ceiling type prospects, not just guys who can fill a roster.  I personally don't see him getting traded until the offseason unless some team suffers a catastrophic injury at catcher in the next 2 weeks, but because he is arguably the Brewers best player and has a very team-friendly contract, he will continue to garner the most attention.  More likely than Lucroy, I expect to see some of our bullpen pieces get traded.  Jeremy Jeffress has been extremely serviceable as the closer in a year where he was not even expected to be in the role.  He has an ERA a shade above 2.00, a great groundball rate, and only 1 blown save.  Will Smith has also been one of the most reliable lefty late-inning relievers in all of baseball the last 2+ seasons, with mid-90s heat and a diving slider.  They are both also under team control for at least 3 more seasons, making them very attractive to any suitor.  Blaine Boyer is pitching decently and is a veteran on a one-year deal.  I expect one or all of them to be dealt soon, and really any reliever we have right now has to be considered fair game.  Chris Carter, Junior Guerra, and some of our bench outfielders might get some interest as well.  In fact I would say pretty much anybody except Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies is tradeable at this point on the major league roster. 

It should be an interesting couple of weeks to say the least.  Come August 1st, we could have a completely different roster.

Brewers 38-49, -14.5, -8.5 WC (3 @ Reds, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 32-57, -21.5, -15.5 WC (3 v. Brewers, 3 v. Braves
Twins 32-56, -20.0, -17.5 WC (3 v. Indians, 3 @ Tigers)

Erik - 11 (+15 worked)

Peter - 21

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

College World Series: TD Ameritrade Park

All photos of TD Ameritrade Park available on Flickr.

I have to travel a fair amount for my job, which generally sucks.  But sometimes it does have its perks.  At the moment I have several projects in the Omaha area, and given that most of our work is in the rural Midwest, I choose to look at this as a blessing and not a curse.  This means that for at least the next year, I get to plan site visits around various ball schedules and basically have the company pay for it.  I was out there this past week and the job superintendent was able to score us some free seats to the College World Series!  This event is a huge deal in Omaha that has been held there for over 60 years.  I was fortunate enough to attend the final CWS at the old stadium 6 years ago and was eager to see what was different at the new park that opened downtown in 2011.

I was staying at hotel nearby and there was a shuttle that took us about a mile and a half to the park.  Not to the front door, or a drop off point, but on a super sketchy deserted street about 2 blocks north.  I just could not believe how stark of a contrast it was between the stadium area two blocks away and where we were dropped off, moreso than any other urban stadium I can recall going to.  Omaha definitely has that Memphis or Milwaukee-like quality where you can go from ghetto to vibrant area in the blink of an eye, but it also is like Phoenix in that it is sprawling out of control.  It is well over 30 miles from the Iowa border to the far western edge of town.  Anyways, we navigated the desolate area north of the park to a party tent where our free tickets were awaiting us, and were pleasantly surprised to find out we got free food and beer as well!  It was getting close to game time at this point, but far be it from me to turn down anything free, so we crushed some Omaha Steak burgers and an America Light before heading inside for first pitch.

TD Ameritrade Park is the type of park where you need to ascend a flight of stairs outside to the main gate, and it really worked well for this park since the main entry was on a busy intersection.  It created this sort of "Spanish steps" gathering place that worked well with the bars and shops across the street.  The second level of the exterior was also ringed with this green tinted glass all the way around the seating bowl.  I found this to look kind of dated, but I did like that the glass panels had varying opacity, which was a cool look at various angles from the sun.  The street level is grounded with brick to give it scale.  Between the brick and the mostly opaque glass on the top, and the stadium being elevated, there weren't really any parts of the where you could see inside, which was probably my biggest peeve with the park.  If it was the city's intent to locate this park downtown as part of a revitalization project, I think it was a missed opportunity to not have it interact with the street more.  Once inside, the concourse was very spacious and featured a very good variety of concessions.  Most notably, almost every single stand had a different menu featuring a different type of nachos.  Beer was about average for price and variety, but honestly I was not expecting that to be a huge priority at a collegiate park.  One of the more unique parts of the stadium is its size.  Because this stadium is primarily used to host the College World Series, it doesn't really follow the capacity guidelines of any particular level of baseball.  It's smaller than a typical MLB park, but larger than a typical minor league park - incidentally, this is part of the reason that the AAA Storm Chasers got their own separate new park, because they would never be able to fill this place on a nightly basis.  It looks like it could be a Major League park from the outside, but on the inside, it looks more like a larger spring training facility.  Our seats were in the first row so it might be hard for me to judge, but from where we were sitting, it seemed like a fairly intimate park even though it was a crowd of over 25,000 people.

The evening's matchup was Game #10 of the CWS, pitting #5 ranked Texas Tech against the underdog Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.  When I say underdog, I am not exaggerating - they came into the tournament unranked and as a first time participant, not even from a D1 conference.  And don't ask me what a Chanticleer is.  It was a long game that I tried my best to make it through, but alas my consecutive 4:30 AM wakeup calls prevented me from seeing CCU finish off the 7-5 upset.  They actually would go on to beat TCU this past weekend and are playing in the finals tonight.  Starter Jason Bilous was wild in and out of the strike zone and got knocked around in the beginning for the Chants, but ultimately was able to keep his team in the game just enough.  Stephen Smith got the scoring started with a 3-run double in the 2nd, but CCU answered right back and plated a couple on a ball under the glove of the Texas Tech first baseman in the following inning.  It is a lead they would not relinquish and tacked on a few runs for good measure.  Backup catcher David Parrett, batting .151 on the season, was the unlikely hero for the game as he went 2-4 with 3 RBI for CCU.  Mike Morrison and Bobby Holmes were also filthy in relief.  I was quick to notice what so many pundits have said - that the park is a dead zone for hitters, as opposed to the old bandbox at Rosenblatt.  Even though there were 12 runs scored in the game (which has been the highest scoring game in this year's tournament thus far), many balls died in the air to the outfield and only a couple of safe hits made it even as far as the gaps.  I think a lot of that has to do with the new composite bats as well.

After the game, we waited on the shady dark street corner for our shuttle to arrive and it was an early flight for me back to Milwaukee the next day.  I wish Erik could have been there with me since this trip happened to fall on the 9th anniversary of our Tour, but maybe when I make it back for a Storm Chasers game in a couple of months, he can call in sick.

A side note: I am going to be off of the grid for awhile as I am going on my honeymoon in Iceland and Amsterdam!  Don't worry, I'll be back in time for the annual Homerun Derby Drinking Game.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 6
views from park – 7 (decent view of downtown Omaha in right field)
view to field - 10
surrounding area – 5 (depends on which way you go...)
food variety - 9
nachos - 10 (many different varieties)
beer - 7

vendor price - 5
ticket price - 7 (ours were free, upper deck $35)
atmosphere - 10
walk to park – 2 (again, depends on where you come from)
parking price/proximity - 7 ($10 across the street)
concourses - 8
team shop - 4 (several small carts)

best food – Reuben sausage
most unique stadium feature – size, green glass
best jumbotron feature – ads for schools
best between-inning feature – when every single fan in LF bleachers threw a beach ball onto the field at one time

field dimensions – 335/408/335
starters – Jason Bilous (CCU) v. Erikson Lanning (TTU)
opponent – Coastal Carolina Chanticleers v. Texas Tech Red Raiders
time of game – 3:48
attendance – not given
score – 7-5 CCU

Brewers score that day – off

Brewers 31-39, -15.0 (3 v. Dodgers, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Nationals, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 29-48, -21.0 (3 v. Cubs, 4 @ Nationals, 3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Marlins
Twins 24-51, -21.0 (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Rangers, 3 v. Athletics, 4 @ Rangers)

Erik - 11 (+12 worked)

Peter - 20

Monday, June 20, 2016

Return of Big Time Timmy Jim

Tim Lincecum finished the long road to recovery from hip surgery this past weekend in the Bay Area, but not in his familiar orange and black Giants uniform as we have all been accustomed to seeing.  Rather, he was pitching in Angel Red against the A's in Oakland.  The Angels signed him to an incentive-laden minor league deal a few weeks ago, and after a few starts with mixed results in AAA Salt Lake to build up arm strength, LA called up the former star to a rotation in desperate need of help.  CJ Wilson is now 35 and has been on the DL all year with a shoulder injury (which means his career is probably over), Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney are both getting stem cell injections to try to avoid elbow surgery, and Jered Weaver's fastball is now being clocked with a sundial.  "The Freak" showed up in a big way on Saturday, giving up only 1 run in 6 innings and striking out 2.

The Angels record aside, he really could not be walking into a better situation.  It's a team with no better options that is struggling for an identity, and even though they are close in age, Jered Weaver has reinvented himself in the last few years as a soft-throwing finesse pitcher and is somebody that Timmy can really lean on to learn a lot from.  Here's hoping that this is the beginning of a new chapter for Lincecum, who is still exciting to watch and easy to root for, not to mention still extremely marketable.

Brewers 31-39, -17.5 (2 @ Athletics, 3 v. Nationals)
Reds 27-43, -21.5 (2 @ Rangers, 4 v. Padres
Twins 21-48, -17.5 (3 v. Phillies, 3 @ Yankees)

Erik - 11 (+10 worked)

Peter - 17

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Opening Week in Kenosha 2016

All photos of 2016 Kingfish opening week available on Flickr.

My wife Megan and I did not renew our Kenosha ticket package this year because of all of our summer commitments this year, but we did still manage to make it down for the 2nd game of the season this past Wednesday.  Skies were threatening throughout the day, but it managed to clear up just before first pitch and the weather was beautiful throughout the game.  We even got there early enough that we were able to procure a Championship Elvis bobblehead, which was the main reason we went to Game 2 instead of the home opener.

I was hoping that along with this Championship bobblehead that the Kingfish would be raising their championship banner from last season, but alas it was just a normal night at the ballpark.  The Kingfish actually seemed to have trouble raising much of anything, as Elvis was unable to be hoisted onto his perch to zipline down with the game ball.  There was actually nothing new at the ballpark that Megan and I noticed, not even a new food, which is certainly atypical of a Big Top Baseball-operated facility.  I went with the Spicy Bacon Philly and Megan had the Cranberry Walnut Chicken Salad sandwich, both of which were delicious.  Most people would probably never notice or care about this, but I've always liked that this park sells aluminum pints of Coors Banquet.  In this age of craft beer connoisseurs and large beer sponsorships, I like to enjoy a cold shitty beer at the park once in a while.  I have to say that I was disappointed with the team store's lack of All-Star Game and Championship apparel.  There was one t-shirt of each from what I saw and neither were anything spectacular.  Hopefully by next month when K-Hole hosts the All-star game they will have stepped up their game a little bit.  The logo features the Simmons Field grandstand as a backdrop and will look pretty sweet on hats and shirts.

We sat in the 1st row, one section down from where our 7-pack seats were last year.  The first thing we noticed after we sat down was that one of the guys in the all-you-can-eat pen in front of us had the nerve to bring his laptop to the game.  Smart phones is one thing, but how out of touch with your surroundings do you have to be to physically bring a computer to a ballgame?  However, after I noticed he was using his laptop to check Northwoods League scores and cycle through various NWL live game feeds, and that the others with him were doing the same on their phones, I did some investigative Googling and figured out they were the president and co-founders of the league!  I didn't get a chance to talk to them but many other people stopped down to pester them.  Dick Radatz Jr. in particular seemed very excited about the updated website and where the league was heading.  I was hoping to eavesdrop on some conversations about league expansion, but we were pretty close to the field so I had to pay attention to every pitch, lest I get clocked in the face by a foul ball.  The fact that these guys were in Kenosha instead of the new Rockford franchise for opening week really speaks volumes to what they must think of the viability of that franchise (and Illinois in general).

The Kingfish ended up winning 7-6 in 10 innings.  We stayed through the 9th inning and saw Kenosha blow leads of 3-0 and 6-2 to force extra racks.  Kenosha built their leads largely in part to the 5 errors committed by Lacrosse.  Two of the Kingfish runs scored on passed balls and two were on errors and only two of their seven runs were charged as earned.  The player I was most impressed with was 1B Gunnar McNeil.  With a name like Gunnar you expect a beefcake of a man, and he was - he actually looked kind of like the mean Mets slugger from Rookie of the Year.  He only went 1-5 on the day but every ball he put in play was absolutely crushed, even the foul balls.  His one hit was a laser double out to the opposite alley.  Derek Heffel tossed the final out of the game and picked up a win for his effort.

Megan and I will be returning to Kenosha next month for the Home Run Derby, and I cannot wait.  The team got permission from the league and the city to put this event at the harbor, so contestants will be launching balls out onto the water from shore!  There has been a trend in the minor leagues in recent years to use non-ballpark site and non-traditional formats for these types of events and this will certainly be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Brewers 26-31, -14.5 (4 v. Mets, 3 @ Giants, 4 @ Dodgers)
Reds 21-36, -19.5 (3 v. Athletics, 4 @ Braves, 3 @ Astros
Twins 16-40, -16.0 (3 v. Red Sox, 3 @ Angels, 4 v. Yankees)

Erik - 10 (+8 worked)

Peter - 15

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Ichiro Nearing 3,000 MLB Hits and All-Time Hits Record

As of this post, Ichiro Suzuki needs only 40 hits for 3,000 in MLB, and even more impressive, only 18 hits to break Pete Rose's record of 4,256 (if you include the 1,278 accumulated in Japan prior to moving to the US in 2001).  I think everybody knows at least on a cursory level how good a hitter Ichiro is, but he may very well be putting together the quietest Hall of Fame resume of any player in modern history.  During his prime he played in relative obscurity in the Pacific Northwest on mostly awful Mariners teams.  During the tail end of the "streroid era" where 50+ homerun seasons were still rather common, 200 hits and 30 steals a season just did not get the same fanfare.  He was then traded to the Yankees and saw his stats start to diminish as part of an aging outfield.  He now plays primarily off the bench for the Marlins.  Talk about obscurity - I doubt many people even knew that he was still playing.  Last year in about 400 ABs he posted the lowest batting average of his career of .229, but even at age 41, few expected him to retire given how close he was to etching his name in the history books.  He signed a 1-year deal to remain in Miami and is experiencing somewhat of a career renaissance this year, despite (or perhaps because of) seeing fewer and fewer at bats to the young and talented outfield of Ozuna, Yelich, and Stanton.  Up until he hit a 1-24 skid recently, he was hitting well over .400 primarily in pinch hitting opportunities.  At his current pace he should get to 3,000 hits by the end of the season, and to 4,256 around the All-Star Break.  Although, he has recently come out and said he intends on playing to age 50, so what's the rush?

With the Brewers being in the National League and Ichiro playing in the AL for most of his career, I have not gotten to see him play as much as I would have liked.  But I did see him in his prime on the Tour in Seattle and his 3-hit game there is still one of my lasting memories 9 years later.  I also saw all 3 games when the Marlins were in town recently.  Ichiro is without a doubt the greatest player I have watched for an entire career, and along with maybe Griffey and Vlad Guerrero, one of the greatest hitters I have ever seen in person, period.  He was gifted in all facets of the game during an era that did not care about speed or defense, and before sabermetrics introduced the world to OBP and BABIP.  I will be watching closely for him to reach this milestone and hope to make the trip back to Cooperstown for his induction someday.

Brewers 23-29, -13.0 (4 @ Phillies, 2 v. Athletics)
Reds 17-35, -19.0 (3 v. Nationals, 3 v. Cardinals
Twins 15-36, -14.0 (4 v. Rays, 3 v. Marlins)

Erik - 10 (+5 worked)

Peter - 14

Friday, May 20, 2016

Report: Rangers Latest Team to Con Their Way to New Stadium

The buzz around the interwebs the last couple of days is that the City of Arlington is expected to announce their plans to help finance a new retractable-roof stadium for the Texas Rangers.  The Rangers currently play at Globe Life Park, which is barely 20 years old and cost about $190 million in 1994.  Their proposed new facility would cost nearly 5 times that amount and is speculated to open before their current lease is up following the 2023 season.  Arlington's share of the cost would come via dedicated sales tax, which would be on top of the one that already exists for JerryWorld across the street.  Taxpayers largely footed the bill for the current facility as well.

Am I excited that there will be another new park that I get to go see?  Of course I am.  I'm sure Erik and I will be there in its opening season like we always are.  But I think that any remotely intelligent person also understands how terrible of a deal it is when municipalities subsidize sports venues.  The thought of not having a major league team is so ghastly that cities and their citizens, almost without fail, are willing to just throw bags of money at teams lest they threaten to leave.  The Rangers are not the first team to use this tactic and certainly won't be the last.  The Braves successfully did the same thing a few years ago, and there was a story at the beginning of the year about how the D-backs already want out of Chase Field.  And I honestly can't say that I blame any of these teams - I mean, baseball is a business after all, and who wouldn't want for a free stadium if they knew they could get one?  The issue is much deeper than that and speaks to the whole concept that sports teams somehow provide financial benefit and social enrichment to a city, so much so that if one were to leave, it would be devastating.  The Supersonics left Seattle about 10 years ago and the city did not crumble to the ground or experience a mass exodus of people.  Having a sports team, while awesome, is largely a perceived value that does not organically spur economic development, unless that too is subsidized as in the case of many ballpark villages around the country.  Milwaukee went through this with the Miller Park 20 years ago (which we are still paying for), and they are going through it again now with the NBA Bucks.  The Brewers promised that the area surrounding the stadium would boom, and pretty much all we have to show for it is more parking lots and a new Target.  The Bucks have the whole state convinced that their new arena will create thousands of jobs and create a whole new entertainment district, and a state budget that was already in the red bonded the project with little opposition.

It may seem like that I am opposed to teams building new stadiums, but I am not.  If the Rangers honestly believe their current ballpark is already outdated after 22 years, then they have every right to do what is best for their business.  And however intangible, there is definitely something about having a major league sports team that puts a city on a different level.  But it is one thing to finance a project yourself like a normal developer or business would, and another thing to put it on somebody else's tab.  The practice of blackmailing municipalities for new ballparks is a dangerous trend that is only getting worse.  Many of these stadiums are putting cities into holes of debt that they can't climb out of.  Stadiums are getting more expensive and becoming obsolete at a faster pace than ever before, and until there is a fundamental shift in the way we think of the value of a sports franchise, the only losers will be taxpayers like you and me.  Rangers fans owe the team absolutely nothing, and the Rangers will do just fine financially if they play at Globe Life Park for the rest of its useful life.

UPDATE: Shortly after this post more specifics were announced.  Expected to top $1 billion with a 50/50 city-team split and anticipated opening by the 2021 season.  Would be located just to the south of the existing park in the same complex.  The new lease would run through January 1st, 2054.

Brewers 18-23, -11.0 (3 @ Mets, 3 @ Braves, 3 v. Reds, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 15-26, -14.0 (3 v. Mariners, 3 @ Dodgers, 3 @ Brewers, 4 @ Rockies
Twins 10-30, -14.5 (4 v. Blue Jays, 3 v. Royals, 3 @ Mariners, 3 @ Athletics)

Erik - 8 (+2 worked)

Peter - 14