Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bob Uecker's Winter Warm-Up

All photos of Bob Uecker's Winter Warm-Up available on Flickr.

Last Friday evening the Brewers held the annual Bob Uecker's Winter Warm-Up and revived the long dormant Brewers On Deck event. I was very excited for these two events. They indicate that interest in the team is growing tremendously here in Milwaukee. Of course, this has been noticeable at the ballpark over the past several years as well as by the number of Brewer fans Pete and I have run into across the country over the course of our travels. But, seeing the crowd lined up around the block to get into the Riverside Theater on Friday night was amazing.

The evening started out with Mr. Baseball warming the crowd up telling stories about his playing days. My favorite was Ueck's story about his pennant run with the 1964 Cardinals. Uecker said that late in the season he was called into the general manager's office and was told he could best help the team by taking an injection of meningitis to open up a roster spot for another player.

Next came a panel discussion with Brewers GM Doug Melvin, new manager Ken Macha, and coach Willie Randolph. With these three guys running things, I have no doubt that the Crew will continue to be competitive for the next several years. Both Macha and Randolph have had success, leading the A's and Mets to playoff births, in recent seasons. Macha talked about players taking responsibility for their day-to-day performance. I believe that he will be a lot stronger manager than Ned Yost and get the best out of our fine young players.

After a brief appearance by the racing sausages, JJ Hardy took part in a Dating Game style show to find him a new girlfriend. JJ asked the ladies a few questions and most of the conversation centered around fishing. After a brief intermission with music from the Miller Park organist Prince Fielder was introduced and talked a bit about his new 2 year, $18 million contract. He was greeted with loud applause but only talked briefly and left before the festivities were over.

Next came a Family Feud style game show that pitted a Canadian team of Doug Melvin, Assistant GM Gord Ash, Dave Bush, and a Brewers prospect against a team of Americans made up of Jeff Suppan, Corey Hart, Mike Cameron, and Rickie Weeks. Topics included Top Foods You Can Add Cheese To, And Favorite Canadian Baseball Players. This last topic provided the most laughs since both Doug Melvin and Gord Ash were Top 5 answers but neither man guessed himself. Finally Ueck held a brief interview with Ryan Braun and Bill Schroeder's introduction of new closer Trevor Hoffman.

The event was a huge success and both Pete and I are very excited for pitchers and catchers to report to Maryvale Baseball Park for Spring Training.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Tour 2009: Winter Classic

All photos of Chicago and NHL Winter Classic available on Flickr.
Once when asked what he did in the offseason, Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby famously responded "I sit by the window and wait for spring." If asked that same question, Erik and I would reply "We go to hockey games." Although we are certainly not as passionate and knowledgable about hockey as we are with baseball, it's a nice way to pass the winter months since we both hate the NFL and basketball, and we have a few hockey events on our large "Tour Plus" list. With this year's 2nd annual Winter Classic being played at the incomparable Wrigley Field, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to watch the first professional hockey game ever played at a baseball stadium, just 90 minutes away.
Our original plans called for a New Year's Eve celebration in the Windy City, and to stumble to the ballpark shortly before gametime, but as it turned out, none of my friends that I know that live there were able to put us up for the night. So, we rang in 2009 in Milwaukee, and left at 8 AM for Chicago. I know what you might be thinking; but after the big tour a couple summers ago, waking up early to drive to the ballpark after a long night of drinking does not really phase us anymore.
We arrived in our many layers of clothing downtown at around 9:30 and took the train to the stadium. The scene on Addison Street was amazing. Stores and bars were open, there was a pre-game block party with live music that started early in the morning, and it seemed even more crowded than any Cubs game I've ever been to. Erik and I bought our souvenirs (we each got a puck and a program, Erik a hoodie and I a scarf) and walked around the park and listened to the band for awhile and took some pictures. It wasn't until we entered the stadium at about 11 and I first saw the rink that it sunk in - we were about to see a HOCKEY game at Wrigley Field! We took more photos, received giveaway rally towels, binoculars, and beads, and headed to our seats in the left-centerfield bleachers.
The seats started to fill in quickly as the pregame festivities rolled on. There were interviews being shown on the two jumbotrons brought in at each pole, and Blackhawks greats Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Dennis Savard, and Cubs legends Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, and Fergie Jenkins were introduced. The rink was set up between first and third base, facing the infield, with the back of the benches just beyond the pitchers mound. There was also an auxiliary rink in the outfield where contests and youth hockey was played before the game and between periods. There was an entire row of fence covered in banners to resemeble the brick and ivy of Wrigley Field, and between this fence and the wall was an interstitial space for the crew to walk and speakers to be set up. Lastly, there were two "huts" in the gaps where play-by-play and interviews were being conducted for various networks (Don Cherry was in the hut directly below us). Leading up to the game, the renditions of O Canada and the Star-Spangled Banner were probably the best I've ever experienced - the crowd was roaring the whole time, great singers, and a flyover! The last thing that happened right before the live NBC national feed, was that everyone seated in the infield held up cards for two "card stunts." With everyone working in unison, the cards spelled out "Happy New Year" for the first stunt, and then the cards were flipped over to spell "Winter Classic - Red Wings v. Blackhawks" on the other side (see photos). Finally, shortly after 12:30, 41000 cheering fans were totally oblivious to the 32-degree temp as the puck was dropped.
The game started out promising for the Blackhawks. Kris Versteeg, Martin Havlat, and Ben Eager all scored in the first period to take the 3-1 lead at the first intermission. Detroit started out the game with a lot of penalties, and early on Chicago was the aggressor and had a lot of nice hits, but soon Detroit's experience and dominance over the young Chicago team showed, as they scored 5 unanswered goals and went on to win the game 6-4. Four players had 3 points for the Red Wings, including Marian Hossa and Hank Zetteberg. The free-agent signing Cristobal Huet started in goal for the Blackhawks and faired pretty poorly, giving up 6 goals on 30 shots; he was pulled for Nikolai Khabibulin in the 3rd.
After the game, we took the train back to our car, which we purposely parked across the street from Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, which is generally regarded as the best deep dish pie in Chicago. We saw this place on Throwdown with Bobby Flay last week and knew we had to stop there before we went home. The pizza was amazing, and it was so thick and cheesy that it was the first time I've ever taken leftovers home from a 12" pie. Overall it was a great way to spend New Year's Day, and even though it was cold, there were lots of Red Wings fans, and we couldn't see all that well, it was totally worth it and a hell of a way to kick off Tour 2009! Next stop - World Baseball Classic in two months!
park stats and rankings (re-ranked as hockey venue):
aesthetics - 7 (WC banners and infrastructure all put togther very nice)
views from park - 3 (we could just see the Hancock Building from our seats)
view to field - 2 (could barely follow the game action, but had nicer view than most of the stuff going on behind the rink)
surrounding area - 8 (Wrigleyville)
food variety - 3 (too cold to get up, we had dogs)
nachos - n/a
beer - 3 (points deducted for Old Style taps not on due to cold)
vendor price - 3 (regular hot dogs should not be more than $3.50)
ticket price - 1 (ours were over $200 on StubHub)
atmosphere - 10 (loud the whole game despite the cold, and the bitter rivalry helped)
walk to park - 8 (a tight crunch coming off the subway, surrounding festivities great)
parking proximity - 2 (parked 15 min. away downtown for $10, took the L)
concourses - 2
team shop - 9 (team stores on Addison and Clark had lots of Winter Classic gear)

best food - post-game pie at Malnati's (there is also one near Wrigley)
most unique stadium feature - the rink set-up in general
best jumbotron feature - fan contest to win set of tires
best intermission feature - card stunts, NIU marching band

starting goalies - Ty Conklin (DET) v. Cristobal Huet (CHI)
Three Stars of the game - none selected
opponent - Detroit Red Wings
time of game - 2:30
attendance - 40418
score - 6-4 L
Admirals score - 3-1 W (12/31)