Friday, June 22, 2018

First Father's Day in Eau Claire

All photos of Eau Claire and Carson Park available on Flickr.

As the title of this post indicates, I spent my first Father's Day as a father in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, of course to watch an Express game, which was shockingly my first Northwoods League game of the year.  Besides being a lot of fun for me, this trip was special for my wife as well.  She graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2010 and has many fond memories of this city, and it is always fun when we get to go back there to visit friends or just drive around campus.  We haven't been in the area in a couple of years and Megan was quite surprised at how much had changed, but that might just have been because she is used to viewing the city through the lens of a stumbling party-goer.  Among the biggest of changes is the mini-renaissance native Justin Vernon has brought to the Chippewa Valley.  After rising to stardom with his band Bon Iver and subsequently founding the local Eaux Claires music festival in 2015, his latest endeavor is the boutique Oxbow Hotel, which embodies Vernon's spirit and civic pride like nothing else possibly could.  We stayed the night there on Saturday and thoroughly enjoyed craft cocktails at The Lakely next door and learning how to use a record player in our hotel room before heading out to the game that evening.  I can't imagine ever staying anywhere else for any future visits to Eau Claire (I'm not going to lie - Ramone's Ice Cream Parlor across the street is also a factor).

I had not been to Carson Park in nearly 5 years, and Megan had not been since college, so in true Northwoods fashion we were both expecting substantial changes at the ballpark.  However, in thumbing through old photos and memories, it was nearly identical to our most recent visits.  Nothing had been noticeably updated, including the party decks.  That's not to say we didn’t have a great time - how can you go wrong with all-you-can-eat seats?!  On my only previous visit I sat in the grandstand, but this time we shelled out the money the right field party area and it was well worth it.  For $28 you get 4 beers and all of the burgers, brats, and dogs you can stuff down.  The downside to the area is the small amount of relief we got from the 90+ degree heat.  The lowly peasants must have been laughing at all of us from their covered grandstand seats that faced away from the sun.  We resorted to standing under one of the party decks for the first half of the game, trying to keep cool by the exhaust of the beer trailer.  Our daughter Molly was in tow and was a champ for the entire evening.  In not even 6 months of life this was already her 5th ballgame and 2nd ballpark!  She is already shattering my pace.

Perhaps it is unfair, but I will admit that no visible upgrades push this stadium down in my rankings a little bit.  It's still one of my favorites in the circuit, but between the newly renovated Athletic Park we visited last year and the continual updates of Warner Park and Simmons Field, the Express are falling a little bit behind.  Again, I'm not complaining - being in an old WPA ballpark is always a treat and an atmosphere you could never recreate today.  The wooded setting in the park, the concession stands below the grandstand, the stone fa├žade, the old-fashioned dot matrix scoreboard - all of the little touches that make this park unique were still there and still things I appreciated on this visit.  Unfortunately for the game itself, the last place Express were matched up against the first place Huskies, and it was very clear that Eau Claire would be outmatched from the beginning.  They ended up losing 10-5 behind a lackluster performance from starter Jake Harrison.  He gave up 4 runs on 6 hits before we even sat down and did not come out for the 2nd inning.  The next man up was Tyler Strzelczyk and he did not fare much better, giving up 4 runs of his own, albeit his were all unearned.  John Lagattuta and Kyle Jacobsen combined to go 4-7 with 2 homeruns for visiting Duluth.  The Huskies also had a kid named Nick Sogard, who I was disappointed to find out is of no relation to the Brewers' Eric Sogard, especially given the fact that he walked twice and has an OBP of over .400.

Despite the outcome of the game, for many reasons, this will be one of my more memorable baseball trips.  I will always think of Eau Claire as fondly as my wife knowing that I spent my first Father's Day there with her and our daughter.

park rankings and statistics:
see original post from July 2013

starters - Andrew Stout (DUL) v. Jake Harrison (EC)
opponent - Duluth Huskies
time of game - 3:16
attendance - 1049
score - 10-5 L
Brewers score that day - 4-1 L

Brewers 44-30, +1.0 (4 v. Cardinals, 2 v. Royals)
Reds 29-45, -15.0 (4 v. Cubs, 3 @ Braves)
Twins 33-38, -6.0 (3 v. Rangers, 3 @ White Sox)

Erik - 4 (+9 worked)
Peter - 10

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Cold Spring Baseball Park

All photos of Cold Spring Baseball Park available on Flickr.

Our creed of "any game, anywhere, anytime" was pushed to its limits once again as I attended an amateur town ball game in my wife's home town of Cold Spring, Minnesota this past weekend, which is bursting at the seams with just over 4,000 residents.  Cold Spring is one of many small towns in Minnesota that is clinging to what is left of the "town ball" tradition in this country, in which fans and players alike can enjoy local baseball in its purest, non-commercialized form.  With the amateur season being so short and the schedule being very "fluid" to put it nicely, I was happy to finally make it to a game on one of our visits.

I will admit that I am guilty of loosely defining the term "ballpark" just to pad my stats (I've been to 137 parks, but who's counting?).  For example, just about every Wisconsin collegiate "ballpark" I've been to has been little more than some metal bleachers, a chain link fence, and a couple of dugouts - hardly more than a playing field in a park by any stretch of the imagination.  However, despite what you may know or think of Town Ball, Cold Spring Baseball Park definitely earns the moniker of "ballpark."  Cold Spring is certainly not your average dinky small town, as they feature several bars and restaurants, a bowling alley, a chain grocery store, a high school, a hotel, a golf course, and even a production brewery.  So it's no surprise that there is a long history of baseball in the town and in particular on their current site for nearly a century.  The current park has existed in some form since 1923, just in time for the formation of the statewide amateur league, which in its heyday around WWII fielded nearly 800 teams.  A covered grandstand was added in 1949, lights were added in the 1980s, and an extensive fundraiser was held a few years ago to update the dugouts, replace the bleachers, and add a party deck and concession stand.  I remember NFL star Eric Decker being at the unveiling of the ballpark renovation on our of our visits, who happens to be a Cold Spring native and major financier of the renovation (and also went to high school with my wife).

I was very impressed by the amount of labor and civic pride that went into a ballpark that probably very few people outside of Cold Spring will ever see or care about.  The amount of volunteer hours that go into just day-to-day operation and maintaining the pristine field for a community this small was unbelievable to me.  Besides the Springers who I saw that night, the park hosts at least 5 other permanent teams, including the local high school and a couple of Legion ball teams, so in the months of June and July there are multiple games here almost every day, which must require a tremendous amount of work.  In fact, there was a Legion game wrapping up when we got to the park, so the Springers game didn't even start until 8:30.  The covered grandstand, the ivy-covered outfield fence, and the tall bulky light towers give the ballpark that old charm that you just don't find anymore, while the 2015 renovations have helped keep it modern and enjoyable for the casual fan.  If Cold Spring was just a little bit bigger, there's absolutely no reason that this ballpark could not logistically host a Northwoods League team - it's certainly at least as nice as half of the parks I've been to in that league, not to mention way nicer than Beloit.  Town Ball is unabashedly no-frills, as baseball was originally intended and what many consider to be the only true form of the game.  It was a treat to feel like a part of the local community for the evening.

I've spent most of this article romanticizing the town of Cold Spring and amateur baseball, but the reality is that the level of play is probably just above high school quality.  Amateur baseball is even below independent league baseball on the spectrum of talent, often a combination of athletes from lower-tier colleges and residents just looking for a hobby after work.  A typical roster will thus range in age from teenagers all the way into 40+.  The clear star for the Springers was Jordan Barth, who recently helped Augustana College win the D3 Championship.  I don't know his exact stats because the league does not offer box scores, but he had at least two run-scoring hits on the evening.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the balding middle-aged starting pitcher for the Springers literally threw only fastballs, and by "fastball" I mean he made Jamie Moyer look like Randy Johnson.  His night basically amounted to him playing catch with the catcher as he took no signs or direction, but still managed to somehow scatter only 6 hits in 6 shutout innings.  The Springers went on to complete the shutout 9-0 over the Richmond Royals in barely over 2 hours.  With no ticket stub, no program, and no published recap of the game available in any form, the only proof I have that I was there is this post and the t-shirt I won from the local dumpster rental company at the annual "Merchant's Night" auction.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 3
views from park - 4 (houses and ivy fence)
view to field - 3 (lots of netting and foul ground)
surrounding area - 2
food variety - 3
nachos - 3
beer - 8 (surprising large selection of Busch and Third Street, not surprisingly cheap)
vendor price - 10
ticket price - 10 (every game is free other than "Day at the Park" fundraiser game)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park - 5 (residential)
parking price/proximity - 9 (free on street)
concourses - 3
team shop - n/a

best food - I guess hot dog?
most unique stadium feature - ivy fence, Deck87 on top of dugout
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - "Merchant's Night" raffle and watching teams take fielding practice

field dimensions - 325/385/345
starters - ??
opponent - Cold Spring Springers v. Richmond Royals
time of game - 2hrs-ish
attendance - 250-ish
score - 9-0 W
Brewers score that day - 12-4 W

Brewers 41-27, +1.5 (3 v. Phillies, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 25-43, -16.0 (2 @ Royals, 3 @ Pirates, 2 v. Tigers)
Twins 29-35, -5.0 (3 @ Tigers, 3 @ Indians, 3 v. Red Sox)

Erik - 4 (+9 worked)
Peter - 8

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Impact Field

All photos of Impact Field available on Flickr.

I once again managed to leverage my insane work travel schedule into another ballpark visit, this time to the brand spankin' new Impact Field in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, on my way home from a site visit in nearby Elmhurst.  I attended the 4th game in stadium history this past Friday, which is boldly nestled between one of the busiest interstates and busiest airports in the country, and not to mention right next door to The Ballpark at Rosemont which houses the Chicago Bandits softball team.  Impact Field was built specifically to host a new expansion team in the independent American Association - the aptly named Chicago Dogs - and holds about 6,300 people.

The comparison I kept hearing leading up to the ballpark's opening was the breathtaking CHS Field in St. Paul, home of the Saints, which opened only a few years ago.  It's an understandable comparison as the stadiums share an architect, are both wedged between within major infrastructure, and are in the same league.  However, that is where the similarities ended.  I found Impact Field to be merely a bastardized version of CHS Field, perhaps taking a few cues of inspiration but lacking the flair and attention to detail that Julie Snow brought to the table in St. Paul.  Rich woods are replaced with cold metal panel.  The backdrop of a historic city center is replaced a bland business park and shopping centers.  The hallmark cohesiveness of CHS Field's concourse is disjointed with a series of out buildings that relate in no way to the concourse.  Perhaps most importantly, there is almost no gateway or entry experience to speak of.  Whereas in St. Paul you walk through the historic downtown and past the train depot to a main entrance, you simply emerge onto the Impact Field concourse from the connected parking garage, as in some sort of concrete mockery of Field of Dreams.  This also means that there is really no "outside" of the stadium that is visible to the public.
Other than the aforementioned freeway adjacency, I really saw no discernable or valid comparison of Impact Field to CHS Field.  However, that's not to say this is a terrible place to watch a ballgame.  The constant rushing of cars on I-294 beyond gave an unspoken energy to the park in an otherwise lowly populated area.  I really enjoyed how wide open the concourse was and how it engaged with the freeway instead of turning its back to it.  A double-sided jumbotron and a large net beyond the left field wraparound concourse let both ballgame patrons and motorists proudly know what is going on here.  The choice of red metal panel and black steel, although cold and stark, are certainly unique and memorable compared to the increasingly monotonous modern ballpark palette.  Something that I have certainly not seen at any other ballpark is an area just on the other side of the left field wall, behind a fenced in area, underneath the concourse.  This field-level area offers fans a unique view of the game and of watching pitchers warm up in the bullpen/tunnel area behind them.  Unfortunately this was a private area as are so many other parts of the park, which was one of my major gripes about the stadium.  I certainly understand that to remain competitive in a saturated Chicago sports market, sellable group areas reign supreme.  However, absolutely nothing other than the main seating bowl was accessible to the average fan, which seemed extreme.  All of the money and effort that went into the carefully composed out-buildings and cladding can only be enjoyed by specific seat holders and thus are views most fans will not get to experience in one of the more uniquely situated parks in the country.  There were at least 4 different suite areas (5 if you count the field level area) that I could not access and was quite disappointed.  I was also disappointed in the lack of beer and hot dog selection at this park.  You would think in Chicago - a city that so celebrates the hot dog that they named the team after it - that more than just a standard "Chicago Style Dog" and Chicago Polish would be available.  And serving Old Style should just be a no-brainer, although I did appreciate the Leinie's special draft made just for the Dogs.  
The game itself was a win for the visiting Winnipeg Goldeyes, and it certainly felt like they brought the Canadian jet stream with them.  I made it 7 innings before succumbing to the 50-degree June night I was unprepared for.  Chicago starter Connor Root didn't even make it out of the 3rd inning, giving up 5 ER and 3 walks in 2.2 IP, including a HR by Grant Heyman.  Shane Dawson pitched quite well for Winnipeg, giving up only 2 runs on 6 hits over 5 with no walks, and improving to 3-0 in the process.  Notable names included Shawon Dunston Jr. of the Dogs (who did not play) and former Marlin Reggie Abercrombie of the Goldeyes, who is still managing to hit well over .300 at age 36.  He was never a productive player in the big leagues but I for some reason remember watching him play for the Isotopes back on the tour.  By the looks of his Wikipedia page this year marks an impressive 9th season in the Indy circuit.

If you are a Chicago native and looking for a cheap and fun night out, or a ballpark chaser like me that doesn't want to deal with traffic into the city, then certainly Impact Field is worth the visit.  But personally, I would rather spend the extra $50 and go to Wrigley Field, even despite my unapologetic opinion of it.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5 (no visible exterior)
views from park - 7 (I-294)
view to field - 8
surrounding area - 7 (Rosemont entertainment district)
food variety - 3
nachos - 8 (steak, chicken, or carnitas)
beer - 4 (poor variety but bonus points for specialty Leinie's)
vendor price - 7
ticket price - 7 (seats behind home plate feature wait staff)
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 1 (parking garage)
parking price/proximity - 9 (adjacent garage for $3 is pretty good in Chicago)
concourses - 5
team shop - 8

best food - Chicago Dog (duh)
most unique stadium feature - proximity to freeway and airport
best jumbotron feature - "Lucky Dog" Plinko game
best between-inning feature - stick horse race ("Dog & Pony Show"), general antics of mascot "Squeeze"

field dimensions - 312/390/294
starters - Shane Dawson (WPG) v. Connor Root (CHI)
opponent - Winnipeg Goldeyes
time of game - 3:12
attendance - 2806
score - 6-3 L
Brewers score that day - 8-3 L

Brewers 37-23, +2.0 (2 @ Indians, 3 @ Phillies, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 21-39, -16.0 (3 v. Rockies, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 25-30, -3.5 (4 v. White Sox, 3 v. Angels)

Erik - 4 (+9 worked)
Peter - 7

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Brewers Off to Best Start in Franchise History

In case you missed it - and judging by the attendance you haven't - the Brewers have managed to win a few games here and there and are threatening to run away with the NL Central.  As of this post, the Brewers are now 35-20 and have a healthy 4.5 game lead over the Cubs in the division.  They are 7-1 on their current homestand, have won or split their last 6 series (all against legit playoff contending teams), and are an astounding 18-7 since being swept in a 4-game series by the Cubs on April 29th.  Following the final game of that fateful series, Travis Shaw took a page out of Aaron Rodgers' playbook when he tweeted the letters "C-H-I-L-L" out to Brewers Nation.  Whether by coincidence or design, the Brewers have been firing on nearly all cylinders since then.  The offense leads the NL in runs and homeruns per game since May 10th, the defense has been solid, the pitching staff overall owns the 5th best ERA in the NL, and the bullpen continues to carry the team with the best ERA in all of baseball.  They say that you shouldn't really pay attention to the standings until Memorial Day; if the year so far is a true indication of this team, it's going to be a hell of a final 2/3rds of the season.

The hot start, while historic, shouldn't come as a complete shock.  This team was expected to be even better than last year and was picked by many pundits to make the playoffs.  However, what might have many Brewers fans on edge have is that they have certainly been in this position before, only to eventually fade down the stretch.  They did so infamously in 2007 and almost again in 2008.  In fact they've done so 3 of the past 5 seasons.  But what sets this team a part from those other teams to me is their depth.  The Brewers are seemingly conducting transactions on almost a daily basis and are on pace to surpass last year's total of 51 players used on the active roster.  Part of it is a product of necessity due to injury and underperformance - look no further than the surprising demotion of Orlando Arcia last year.  But part of it is also the fact that we have the talent to keep guys fresh.  Ryan Braun and Chase Anderson have both served brief DL stints earlier this month for basically what amounted to a sore back and diarrhea respectively.  It's not to say that we didn't miss them on the roster, but this team has the flexibility and talent to allow guys to get healthy and not miss a beat.  I personally was not concerned one bit when Corey Knebel and Eric Thames went down with injuries because I knew we had Josh Hader and Jesus Aguilar waiting in the wings.  I also know Arcia will get right and be back on the team when we need him down the stretch, because Tyler Saladino has been such a good find.  We demoted Jacob Barnes earlier this year because of basically 4 poor outings after being unscored upon most of April.  This team has the depth, and even more importantly the roster flexibility with many players still having minor league options.  The fact that we can keep almost a complete major league caliber team stocked between AA and AAA is extremely encouraging.  If this team can manage to keep this up and stay within sight of the finish line until September call-ups - and the return of Jimmy Nelson - then I have more confidence in this team making a long run into the playoffs than I ever have before.

Brewers 35-20, +4.5 (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ White Sox)
Reds 19-36, -16.0 (3 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Padres)
Twins 22-27, -3.5 (3 @ Royals, 4 v. Indians)

Erik - 2 (+9 worked)
Peter - 6