Friday, April 17, 2015

Return to Appleton

All photos of 2015 Timber Rattlers Home Opener available on Flickr.

Let it be forever recorded here that on April 12th, 2015, I attended a Midwest League opener that was above 40 degrees, for the first and probably the last time.  Megan and I stopped in Appleton on the way back from an event in Eau Claire, and it was near 70ยบ at gametime.  We arrived about an hour prior to the 4:05 first pitch and the parking lot was already packed.  The combination of the gorgeous weather and a Jonathan Lucroy bobblehead giveaway created the perfect storm for a Timber Rattlers record opening day attendance of 5,954.

After a stop in the team store, we went in search of some eats.  Much like their parent Brewers, the T-Rats have been making efforts to improve the fan experience at their ballpark year after year, and concessions is a big part of this.  Even with the large renovation a couple of years ago, the food offerings remained the status quo, but this year features a wide variety of new options.  The T-Rats now offer full-helmet sized nachos, which Erik and I always used to joke about but it seems like a lot of teams are actually implementing now.  There is also now a cocktail bar up the 3rd base line featuring liquors from the nearby Green Bay Distillery, in souvenir cups like the Brewers do.  Last but not least, there is a new made-to-order grill stand in the left field corner, kind of like the setup in Cedar Rapids.  Here you can find a lot of specialty burgers and various other forms of meat on a bun.  Or in some cases, not even a bun - they serve a one-pound burger on two funnel cakes called the Great Mother Funnel.  It also has cheese and 8 SLICES OF BACON.  If you think that's ridiculous, they even had the audacity to put a piece of lettuce on this thing.  What value is that adding?  If I'm spending $20 on a burger that uses a fried dessert as a bun, I am not concerned with the health benefits of a leafy green.  Naturally, Megan and I destroyed this burger.  And if you looked at our plate afterwards, "destroyed" is a pretty accurate term.  The funnel cakes were way overcooked and crispy, so it was incredibly difficult to eat, and we left many rock-hard shards of cake on the plate.  In an era when ballparks are all trying to outdo each other with ridiculous foods, I definitely give points for the effort, but it wasn't worth more than the novelty of just saying you tried one.  I do concede that it was Opening Day, so I'm guessing the guy running the grill probably had no idea how to assemble this beast.  Hopefully by the summer they will have perfected the recipe.  Despite my thin patience, I try not to judge anything going on at a ballpark based on an Opening Day experience - it's an entire staff of new employees learning new procedures during the biggest crowd of the year.

Now that I've talked about a hamburger for a paragraph, I will get into the game.  We had 9th row seats behind homeplate to witness Brewers 2014 1st round pick Kodi Medeiros master the Peoria Chiefs lineup.  He tossed 6 hitless innings with 7 strikeouts and had about the nastiest slider I have ever seen at this level.  Nobody was coming within 6 inches of even making contact with it.  Unfortunately the bullpen went on to surrender 11 runs in the final two frames and the offense mustered only 1 run on 6 hits, so the brilliant pitching performance was practically forgotten before the game was over.  In addition to Medieros, Jake Gatewood and Monte Harrison are on the team, both also drafted high in last year's class.  The Brewers are pretty notorious for coddling their prospects, so it was nice to see these three already in A-ball less than a year after getting drafted.  That tells me the Brewers really see something in these kids and think they will respond well to being thrown into the fire.  Medieros and Harrison in particular have "stud" written all over them and I think will handle this level of competition just fine.  Given how terrible the Brewers are now, it is nice to be able to drive under 2 hours to see their future stars - until Doug Melvin trades them for a middle reliever.

Brewers 2-7 (4 v. Reds, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 5-4 (4 @ Brewers, 3 v. Cubs)
Twins 3-6 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ Mariners)

Erik -1 (+1 worked)

Peter - 4

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Brewers Opening Week 2015

All photos of 2015 Brewers Home Opener available on Flickr.

The Milwaukee Brewers kicked off their 46th season on Monday, and once again my family, fiancee, and I were in attendance (oh yeah, by the way, I got engaged in the offseason). It seems like every year it is either around the freezing mark or 30 degrees above normal, but this year was actually about an average April day. Sunny and 40s made for a great day of tailgating with 46,000 friends. I always look forward to Opening Day, among other reasons, as the real start to spring in Milwaukee. Who wouldn't be anxious to get outside and party after 4+ months of cold weather? Much like spring, Opening Day signifies new beginnings and a fresh slate, and it's easy to be teeming with anticipation on the first day of the season. It is the one day a year I play hookie from work and set an alarm to start drinking, and despite the Brewers seemingly dismal chances this year, that is reason enough to be excited.

We wrapped up our Opening Day tailgate a little early this year because of one of the big changes at Miller Park this year – new security measures. Now implemented league-wide (with the exception of Wrigley Field because it's a shithole), all ballparks are now required to have metal detector screening at the entrances. I've been to three games already this year and for the most part it seems to be just a big production to give fans a false sense of security. You're only required to remove your keys, carry-in items, and phones, no other metal. Megan went through the metal detector and set it off, and the lady asked “do you have anything metal on you?” and she replied no, and that was good enough for her to go through. Yesterday I snuck in beer in my back pockets just like I have for the last 10 years (if any Brewers staff is reading this, that's a joke). In my opinion it's more a scare tactic than a real safety concern, and unfortunately just an annoying way to add 5 minutes to my wait to get into the ballpark. Once inside, we split up – my parents, brother, and sister-in-law took our regular 20-pack seats, and Megan, myself, and her friend went to the standing room area in right-center like we did last year. I really love nice standing room areas at ballparks and I'm glad the Brewers removed the private area that used to be there. A note on our 20-pack seats – this year we moved up to the 300-level club seats, which was surprisingly cheaper than the loge level. We sat there for Friday's game and this was the first time I had ever been up there, it's really cool. You're not that much further from the game action, and you get aisle service from wait staff. The aisles are much wider and the seats are more comfortable, and the sections are only about 8 rows deep so it feels much more private. There is also a huge bar up there open the entire game called the Skyy Lounge, which let's be honest was the main reason we decided to move up to the club level.

The other noticeable changes at Miller Park this year are even more food options, and the retiring of Bud Selig's “number.” As the original owner and person responsible for bringing the Brewers to Milwaukee from Seattle, the Brewers have decided to honor the number 1 and retire it. Personally I think they should be retiring “70” since that is the year the team started, but whatever. The formal ceremony for this is not until the end of May, but the number already hangs from the rafters next to the likes of Hank Aaron, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers, and of course Jackie Robinson. As for the food options, a couple of popular Milwaukee institutions – Smoke Shack and Holey Moley Doughnuts – now have stands on the main level. I ate a sandwich on Wednesday that combined the two called the “Ham Dinger.” It is smoked ham on a freshly baked glazed yeast doughnut, and I ate it quickly so that I did not have the time to process how many delicious calories I was ingesting. Speaking of calories, the Brewers have also added Nachos on a Stick, an 18” long bratwurst with the works, and nachos topped with bratwurst (Bratchos) to their repertoire. The Brewers' marketing department continues to evolve and outdo themselves in the wake of some very lackluster concessions in the first 10 years of the stadium.

I suppose I have to talk about the team now, even though I don't really want to. Words cannot even begin to describe how awful they look. People talk about how the 2011 team started 0-3 and went on to win the division, but I think those in the industry generally expected that team to right the ship and do well. The 2015 iteration is a sad compilation of aging free agents, mid-level prospects that have not yet reached their potential, and utility roster-fillers who only play defense. The pitching staff has given up 26 runs in 4 games and 20 doubles, which is the most given up in the first 4 games of a season since 1914. The offense that was churning out 9 runs a game in the spring has come to a sputtering halt and looks pathetic. Jonathan Lucroy doesn't have a hit yet and Scooter Gennett has already gotten himself ejected from a game for outwardly showing his frustration over sucking. Carlos Gomez looks out of shape and there is a pretty reasonable fear that Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and/or Adam Lind could just break down and go on the DL at any point in the season. If you can't tell from what I'm saying, yes the Brewers are still winless. But the season is young, and even though I don't expect the team to do well, there are some bright spots. Braun and Jean Segura seem to be back to their early 2013 forms and are hitting a lot of line drives. Lind is a complete, professional hitter and I'm really excited to finally have a real first baseman on the team; I always liked him when he was on the Blue Jays. Khris Davis showed substantially more plate discipline in the spring, and if that translates into the regular season, he will eventually evolve into an effective cleanup hitter next year when Aramis is gone. I think Wily Peralta is going to have a big year and is legitimately about one season away from being a real Cy Young candidate. I'm also always excited to see Mike Fiers pitch because he has a chance to completely dominate a lineup and strike out 10 every time out. Even though I think this team needs to sell of some of these expiring contracts this year and rebuild, I am still excited for baseball to be back. I've purchased tickets to a lot of games already, so I at least have to feign optimism - after all, that is what Spring is all about in Milwaukee.

Brewers 0-4 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 4-0 (3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 1-3 (3 v. Royals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 0

Peter - 3

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Commissioner Manfred Already Making His Mark

Robert D. Manfred Jr. was elected the 10th commissioner of baseball on August 14th, 2014, and took office on January 25th following the retirement of Bud Selig.  Many assumed he would continue the groundwork laid by predecessor Selig, namely because Manfred has had full support from most owners and Selig himself from the beginning.  Although Selig had brought baseball to unprecedented heights and instituted important changes that have changed the game for the better, one could not deny the deliberate pace of which he did things, to put it nicely.  Not 12 hours into his campaign as Commissioner, Manfred was already making it clear he was going to be nothing like his predecessor with the announcement of a slew of proposed changes.

Some of these changes fly so much in the face of common sense and tradition that I wonder if Manfred really even likes baseball.  Bud Selig has a lifelong history in the game and although many disagreed with him, his love and respect for the game were never wavering and always admirable.  Rob Manfred, on the other hand, comes from an Ivy League lawyer background and sort of fell into MLB as a collective bargaining consultant.  This contrast in backgrounds is very clear in some of the changes Manfred presents, such as eliminating defensive shifts, adding the designated hitter to both leagues, and pitch clocks.  These things all fall under a larger umbrella of injecting more offense into the game and speeding up pace of play to appease the fans, which I can understand the reasoning.  Average runs per game has gone down and average time of game has gone up just about every year in the last 15.  But at the same time, revenues and attendance at the ballpark has never been higher and there is no evidence low scoring long games has affected baseball's bottom line.  Also I think these measures are for the casual fan and are a knee-jerk reaction to alter the game's natural evolution.  There is a certain amount of strategy involved in baseball that most true fans appreciate and I think would really hurt the game if things like managing a pitcher in your batting order or playing sabermetric percentages were removed.  I also think if you like baseball, you invest the time in going to a game - shaving a game down to 2:40 instead of 3 hours is not going to make people who already don't like baseball suddenly start showing interest.  The NFL is the country's most popular sport and is even longer than baseball.  People go for the social experience of being at the ballpark and I don't think get too wrapped up in the time of the game unless we're talking like a 17-inning affair.  If the commissioner really wants to make the game go quicker, the easiest change to make is to enforce the strike zone like it is truly written in the rule book: from just below the knee to just above the belt.  Wider strike zones mean hitters swing more, which in turn means shorter games.  I will say that I do agree with his simple change of eliminating lag time after TV timeouts.  30-60 seconds times 18 half innings goes a long way.  But to make a pitcher throw a ball after X number of seconds or prevent a batter from stepping out of the box is removing part of the strategy that makes this game great.

I don't want to completely write off Manfred before he even gets his feet wet in office.  I get that he wants to make his mark on the game and it's unfair to judge too much before things play out over the course of a season or two.  And there are a lot of things he talks about that just make a lot of sense - continuing to embrace technology, expanding youth and international outreach, and continuing to improve player safety, to name a few.  But so far what I am seeing are superficial things that are unnecessarily tinkering with the game I love, and I am skeptical.  At the same time, I realize that skepticism is kind of the point - in a game that has historically been so resistant to change, maybe mixing things up for its own sake from a man who comes from a completely different perspective is just what baseball needs, whether we as die-hard fans realize it or not.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tour 2015

It was an exciting moment when the Brewers announced their longtime AAA affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, were finally replacing the dated Greer Stadium.  The Brewers stuck with the Sounds much longer than they probably should have because of promises of a new facility.  First Tennessee Park broke ground in January 2014 and all but cemented a trip for us to be there for the inaugural season.  Unfortunately, the Sounds did not reciprocate that same loyalty and dumped the Brewers for the Athletics in September.  A shiny new facility in a great city brought a lot of suitors calling and left the Brewers on the short end of the stick, undoubtedly due to having one of the worst ranked farm systems in the league the last few years.  This has not deterred us from a visit and I still look forward to spending some time in the Music City this summer.  So far this is slated for a 4th of July weekend trip with Megan and my family, and I'm giddy to cross this city off my US travel bucket list.

Another big trip that is looking less likely but is still on the radar is an Arizona Fall League trip.  This has been in my long term plans pretty much since I went to spring training in 2011, but other monetary and life obligations might postpone this trip.  Novembers are usually so depressing after the season ends and it sure would be great if we could make this happen.  If it doesn't, Erik and I for sure will find some trip to go on.  He is taking his bar exams in July, so we have about a one-month window to squeeze something in.  Thunder Bay/Duluth, Quad Cities renovation, Wausau renovation, and southwest Michigan have all been discussed.  I will also for sure get to the new St. Paul Saints park this year.  I've been in Minnesota a lot for work in the last few months and every time I drive by it on I-94, I get more and more excited.  I'm really curious to see what a ballpark design by a non-ballpark architect is going to look like and I expect no less from the Saints to think outside of the box.

Stay tuned!  Pitchers and catchers report in only 10 days!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Postseason 2014

The postseason could not get here soon enough for me this year.  While I am disappointed the Brewers have failed to make the playoffs for the 3rd consecutive season, with the way they have been playing the last month I am more than ready to start watching some exciting competitive baseball.  Every year there is seemingly at least one team that people may not have expected to win, or was maybe a dark horse pick by some experts/myself, and this year that team is the Kansas City Royals.  They ended MLB's longest active postseason drought at 29 years with an 89-win season and a wild card birth.  I'm glad they at least get to play that one game at home in front of the KC fans, even though statistically they are a much better team on the road.  And it's certainly really great to see Ned Yost finally make it to the postseason after getting canned towards the end of the '08 Brewers run.  The A's managed to avoid an epic Brewers-style collapse to play KC in the Wild Card matchup, and they would definitely be a team to watch with their stacked rotation and the fact that they won't have to play the nemesis Tigers in the first 2 rounds.  The torch for longest playoff drought will now pass to the Toronto Blue Jays, who have not made the playoffs since they went all the way in 1993.  Another team I would put in the "surprise" category is the Angels, who led all of baseball with 98 wins.  Despite an aging middle of the lineup and rotation, an RBI title from Mike Trout and a nice bounce-back year from Albert Pujols, along with a strong bullpen, led this team to the postseason for the first time in 5 years. 

I picked the Dodgers to win the World Series this year, and I'm sticking to that, although I will be rooting for a Nats-Royals series.  Even though I only lived in DC for about 7 months, the Nationals will always have a spot in my heart since I was there for their inaugural season.

NL Wild Card - #4 Pirates v. #5 Giants
NLDS - #1 Nationals v. WC winner
#2 Dodgers v. #3 Cardinals

AL Wild Card - #4 Royals v. #5 Athletics
ALDS - #1 Angels v. WC winner
#2 Orioles v. #3 Tigers

World Series Prediction: Dodgers defeat O's in 6
Rooting for: Nationals v. Royals

Preseason Predictions
#1 Dodgers
#2 Nationals
#3 Cardinals
#4 Brewers
#5 Braves
Dodgers defeat Nationals in NLCS

#1 Athletics
#2 Tigers
#3 Orioles
#4 Yankees
#5 Royals
Orioles defeat Athletics in ALCS

World Series - Dodgers defeat O's in 6

Brewers 82-80, -8.0, 3rd NL Central
Reds 76-86, -14.0, 4th NL Central
Twins 70-92, -20.0, last AL Central

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 40

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Derek Jeter Farewell Tour Nearing the End

It's looking like the Yankees will miss the playoffs this year, which means that there are only 5 more precious games after tonight in which fans will have a chance to see Derek Jeter play.  He is a future Hall-of-Famer, leads the Yankees in just about every statistical hitting category including games played, is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and is 6th all time in hits as of tonight with 3,462.  He is without question one of the best players I have grown up watching and I'm really glad I got to see him play 3 games in Milwaukee this past May.  Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, I am more than ready for this Derek Jeter Lovefest to be over.  Don't get me wrong, I love all of of the tribute commercials as much as the next man, but tonight was the last straw when I turned on ESPN and saw the Yankees were wearing a #2 emblem on their hats and sleeves.  It's so ridiculous and self-serving that it is hard to even write.  He's not dead, he's still playing!  It's probably the most Yankee thing the Yankees have ever done - this is over the top even for them.  It is so misguided to be honoring a player on a daily basis who is not at all helping his team win, and for a team that is not even that good I might add.  It gets to the point where Joe Girardi has been stuck balancing Farewell Tour Manager with Field Manager, and often times forcing himself to write down Jeter's name in his familiar #2 spot in the lineup just so that fans can see him play.  

What disturbs me the most about it is that any other 40-year old in the league would be coming off the bench, and any other .250 hitter with no power would be hitting 7th in the lineup, but because he is Derek Jeter he gets special treatment.  Case in point, another player on their own team - Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro is the same age as Jeter yet still playing at a high level, and he gets lost in the shuffle as the 4th outfielder.  I can't help but think how many games it has cost the Yankees because Jeter is in the lineup everyday.  But what is Girardi to do, not play him?  He would probably get lynched by the New York crowd.  I do understand that at the moment the Yankees have no better option at SS, but they are in fact the Yankees - they could pick up whoever they want.  

Jeter's situation is a much more difficult situation than farewell tours of years' past, in particular the last two years with Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones.  Unlike Jeter, Rivera and Jones were still contributing to their teams in their final seasons and didn't put the managers in much of a bind, other than dealing with Chipper's ailing knees.  One could even argue that Mariano had one of his best seasons ever as his swan song.  Honoring a player retiring at the end of the season for the entire year is seemingly becoming the trend, but it's cases like Jeter's that really make you realize how self-centered and money-driven these things really are, both for the player and for the baseball in general.  If the Yankees really were serious about winning the pennant this year instead of pandering to Jeter's ego, they would have made a move for a shortstop in the offseason instead of signing Stephen Drew off the couch in July.  I expect as much from an organization steeped in tradition like the Yankees, but seeing this spectacle unfold this year has really changed my opinion of Derek Jeter.  Before this year, I would have thought if and when he retired that he would be the last guy to want all the pomp and circumstance of a Farewell Tour.  Now it seems to me that there is no star athlete out there that doesn't crave attention.  

Although, I didn't see Paul Konerko and Jason Giambi getting any canoes this year.

Brewers 80-77, -8.0, eliminated (3 @ Reds, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 73-84, -15.0, eliminated (3 v. Brewers, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 66-90, -20.0, eliminated (3 v. Diamondbacks, 4 @ Tigers)

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 38

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brewers in the Midst of Epic Collapse

Three weeks ago, the Brewers were a game and a half up in the NL Central and about to close out their 5th straight month in first place.  Since then, they are 4-13 including an embarrassing 9 game losing streak.  The dreaded St. Louis Cardinals of all teams have grabbed a 5 game lead in the division and the Brewers are on the outside looking in just for a Wild Card spot at this point.  While early in the season they seemed to be catching all the breaks, these days they are finding every which way to lose a game.  Ryan Braun's nagging thumb injury seems to finally be catching up with him, as he has hit .220 since the All-Star Break.  Jonathan Lucroy, once an MVP frontrunner, has also seen his batting average drop almost 40 points since the break.  Carlos Gomez, Matt Garza, and Aramis Ramirez have all missed a substantial amount of time on the DL.  The defense has at times looked like a little league team.  The starting rotation that was once among league leaders and an anchor of the team has cooled considerably, particularly Wily Peralta, who looked like he was all but a lock to be a 20-game winner a month ago, and Yovani Gallardo, who for some reason is still referred to as the Brewers' "ace."  Will Smith and Zach Duke spent much of the year with ERAs under 1.00 and now are both just awful.  Just as I write this now Smith gave up a 2-run homer.  Really, newly acquired Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez are the only reliable arms that manager Ron Roenicke has to rely on in the bullpen, and even Rodriguez blew a pretty important game on Tuesday.  

The thing is, every game is now important, which is what makes every loss that much more crushing.  Every team goes through bad slides like this - the Crew had one leading into the break as well, and the A's are going through the same thing we are - but now is the worst possible time because tensions are high and so much is at stake.  Losing streaks in May are easy to come back from, but losing streaks in September cause people to lose their jobs.  That's what I'm mostly concerned about.  I would hate for an ill-timed losing streak to cause Roenicke his job.  The players seem to respond to him very well and I love his aggressive style, it fits really well with the personnel.  That being said, a 7-game swing in the standings cannot be ignored, and since you can't cut realistically 25 players I'm sure a few coaches will be at risk.  There are still 16 games left, all against divisional opponents, so there is still hope, and I honestly believe this team has what it takes to get back into the race and go far in the playoffs.  All Brewer fans have seen how well this team plays when everything is clicking.  But it has to be now, or I fear this team will be majorly reconstructed in the offseason.

On the bright side, Miller Park now has self-serve beer machines.

Brewers 76-71, -4.0, -1.5 WC(3 v. Reds, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 70-77, -10.0, -7.5 WC (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 62-84, -19.0, eliminated (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Tigers, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 38