Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tour 2009: Final Season of HHH Metrodome

All photos of Minneapolis and Metrodome available on Flickr.

This past weekend, Peter and I attended the Sunday Night Brewers-Twins game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Twins will be moving into a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis next season and are celebrating their last year in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. I'll start by detailing a brief history of my experience with the Metrodome. While I was attending college across the Mississippi River at the University of Minnesota and cutting my teeth in the political world, I found paying summer work with the Minnesota Twins. I began working for the Twins in the summer of 2005 as an usher at the Metrodome. Being an usher at the Dome has many particular challenges that other stadiums just don't have. First of all, all the seats face the 50-yard line when the Dome is set up for football. This leads to Twins fans having to sit or crane their necks 45 degress to see home plate when there is a ballgame going on instead. To aid these fans a little bit, Metrodome ushers hold back fans returning to their seats from the restroom, concession stand, etc. until there is a change of batter. As one can imagine, this leads to many backups at the entrances to the sections and plenty of upset fans who are missing the game. Another challenge of working at the Metrodome is the panic doors. For those who do not know, the roof of the Metrodome is supported by pressurizing the air inside, there is no structure. Fans must exit and enter the stadium through revolving doors in order to maintian the pressure. These doors would never do in an emergency however, so each gate also has 8 panic doors. When these doors are opened the pressurized air inside the Dome rushes out, creating a wind tunnel. Often, Dome engineers will allow for a few of these doors to be opend following a game to ease congestion exiting the stadium. The wind tunnel effect leads to a few falls. Additionally, on days when the doors are not open, there are always a few drunks who either want to fell the rush of air or who simply can't wait to get to the bar, who open these doors. Closing them again is quite a challenge. I worked for the Twins for three years, the last being the summer of the main tour in 2007. I saw the team win the AL Central pennant on the last day of the season, saw Justin Morneau win an MVP award, and saw Joe Mauer become the first American Legaue catcher to win a batting crown. I played softball on the outfield turf and made a lot of good friends. After the Twins play their last game at the Dome, I'll miss it. Many say that the stadium is a dump, but to me its special.

Ok, enough history. Here's what happened this past weekend. I arrived in Minnesota on Friday afternoon and meet up with a buddy of mine who I would be staying with through the weekend. Pete had an interview in Madison and wouldn't be getting in until later in the evening. After meeting my buddy and having a beer and terrible hot dog and a South Minneapolis bar, I headed for the Dome. I parked a few blocks away and bought a $5 ticket from a few Brewers fans outside the Metrodome Plaza. I headed into the stadium and began making my way around visiting many of my old friends. It was good to catch up with all of them and it made me wish I was back in Minnesota and working for the Twins. I settled into my seat and was heckled by a few Twins fans sitting near me. The Brewers took it on the chin in game one, losing 11-3. Michael Cuddyer hit for the cycle and Kevin Slowey dominated the Brew Crew.

On Saturday morning, I headed down to the Mall of America in Bloomington. I was not going to shop, however. The MOA stands on the site of the Twins first ballpark in Minnesota, Metropolitan Stadium. Hidden inside the amusement park at the center of the mall is a plaque that marks the location of home plate. Several hundred feet away, above the Log Flume ride, a red chair sits high above the floor. This chair marks the landing spot of the longest home run at Met Stadium, hit by Harmon Killebrew. After a quick bite to eat I headed for the Dome. The Twins are using special balls this year commerorating their last year in the Dome with a pretty sweet logo and I wanted to see if I could snag one during batting practice. After purchasing a $10 GA ticket and then making my way down to the lower level, I raced down the stairs near the left field foul pole. About half way down the section I spotted it, sitting under the last seat in the row. I had my Metrodome souvenir. I decided to go down to the rail anyways and shortly after a soft grounder was hit toward the corner. One of the Twins ran over and when I held up my glove, he flipped the ball to me. I was pretty excited, especially when I looked at the ball and discovered that it was a commemorative, but not from the Metrodome. The Twins had just suffered three heart-breaking walk-off loses to the Yankees in New York and had apparently took some of their commemorative balls on the way out of town. The ball that was flipped to me has a scuffed logo so I'll just have to try for a clean one when we're in New York in July. After snagging these two balls I headed toward my seat and some beers. The Brewers would lose on Saturday night as well. Anthony Swarzak made his Major League debut for the Twins and went 7 great innings, allowing no runs on only 5 hits and two walks, while striking out 3. Twins catcher Joe Maur supplied much of the offense in the 6-2 win, going 3-3 with a walk and a solo home run and scoring 3 runs.

I finally met up with Pete on Sunday afternoon. Pete had attended his roomates wedding the previous day in Alexandria. We met at the Dome and proceded to Matt's Bar in South Minneapolis. Matt's is the home of the Jucy Lucy burger. Another bar stakes claim to the invention of this awesome burger, but everyone knows Matt's was the first. The Jucy Lucy is a cheeseburger that, rather than having the cheese melted on top, has it stuffed in the middle. Each burger comes with a warning form your waitress to wait a few minutes since many first timers have been burned with molten cheese squirting out of the burger with their first bite. The Jucy is toped with pickles and raw or fried onions and should be washed down with a cold glass of Grain Belt Premium. It is delicious and not to be missed. Following lunch at Matt's we headed to downtown Minneapolis to check out the future home of the Twins - Target Field. I will miss the Dome but man am I excited to watch a game at this place. The structure of the ballpark is complete and a lot of the glass and limestone curtain walls are already in place. The ballpark looks simply gorgeous. One thing I find peculiar about Target Field are the demensions of the playing field itself. For all the abuse that the Metrodome takes, the Twins are mimicing its dimensions at the new stadium. Yes, there will be a 21 foot high fence stretching from the right field foul pole to right-center field. Fortunately, it will be a padded wall rather than a baggie at the new stadium. The new stadium will feature man of the modern ballpark luxuries that the Metrodome just can't offer. There will be luxury suites, resturants, a huge team store, and an HD scoreboard only slightly smaller than the one the Yankees have in thier new stadium. Like I said, I can't wait to get there in 2010.

As for the game, it was another disappointment for the Crew. Scott Baker dominated for 8 1/3, allowing just 3 runs (2 in the 9th) on 7 hits. The one bright spot for Milwaukee was Mike Cameron who hit his 250th career home run in the 4th. Prince Fielder added a 2-run bomb to the upper deck in right which chased Baker. Joe Mauer continued his torried month, hitting a home run in the first inning and going 2-3 with 2 runs scored. Justin Morneau also cracked a homer over the baggie, deep into the upper deck for his 13th of the year.

I concluded my farewell to the Metrodome by taking in the Memorial Day matinee between the Twins and Red Sox. I arrived at the Dome about an hour before first pitch and spent my time wandering, taking photos, and saying my last good-byes. I finally got a picture next to the Kirby Puckett seat. This seat in left-center field marks the spot where Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning homer run landed, sending the 1991 World Series to its epic Game 7. This home run will forever live in the memory of Twins fans with the words "And we'll see you...tomorrow night" echoing as Puck rounded the bases pumping his fist. The game itself promised to be a good one with Fransisco Liriano facing Brad Penny. Liriano didn't have his stuff though, giving up 11 hits and only lasting 4 innings. The Twins tried to make it interesting in the 9th, however, with Joe Mauer hitting a pinch hit 2-run homer with 2 away to pull the Twins within 1. But, they would get no closer and the Sox triumphed 6-5.

So farewell Metrodome, and Target Field, we'll see you...tomorrow night!

Brewers 27-20, -1.0 (3 v. Reds)
Reds 26-20, -1.5 (3 @ Brewers)
Twins 24-25, -3.5 (3 @ Rays)


Erik - 17 (+ 8 worked)
Peter - 21

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Weeks Out for the Season

All photos of Modern Woodmen Park available on Flickr.

With the Milwaukee Brewers untucking their shirts at an astonishing rate this May, their winning ways hit a slight bump in the road on Sunday as it was announced that second baseman Rickie Weeks would be out for the season with a torn sheath in his right wrist. This worries me for several reasons, not the least of which is that this will be Weeks' third wrist/hand injury in the past 4 seasons. Rickie was really coming into his own this year, both defensively and offensively. Every single ball he's hit all year has been a line drive and he's not hanging around in the count begging for walks anymore like Yost had him doing. The man who has the highest all-time 4-year collegiate batting average (.430) was finally showing his promise, thanks in large part to bench coach Willie Randolph. Also, the Brewers really have no other option at second base or at leadoff. Hart swings too much and too early in the count to be a leadoff guy, and his bat is much more valuable in the middle of the lineup. For right now, it looks like the Brewers will platoon Casey McGehee, a guy who has no major league experience at 2nd and is hitting below .200, and Craig Counsell, who is 38 and playing with torn cartilage in his knee, and is currently Macha's utility infielder and best option off the bench. I had mentioned to Erik jokingly that the Brewers should try to get Ray Durham off the couch - a mid-season pickup of the Crew last year brought in to spell a struggling Weeks - but it looks like he's already working out in North Carolina and has already been contacted by GM Doug Melvin. Reports right now say that the Brewers will try out their #1 position prospect Alcedes Escobar at 2B in AAA, and will call him up if he can handle it, but otherwise would try to sign Durham. This is the third thing that worries me about the Weeks injury - it almost ensures that some infielder will be traded or released next season. If Iribarren, McGehee, Durham and/or Escobar shine at 2nd in his absence, Macha will have a tough choice come next season, especially when you throw the Gamel/Hall 3B logjam into the mix, and when you look ahead to Brett Lawrie and Cutter Dykstra down the line who also play second. Lastly, the torn sheath in the wrist is the same injury that slugger David Ortiz suffered, and we all know of his epic homerless streak that is ongoing this year. The Brewers as of today lead the NL Central by 3 games; here's hoping we can maintain that lead throughout the summer without Weeks.

In other news, I visited Davenport, Iowa for a third time this week while on my way out to an interview in Waterloo. In my first visit there in 2006, the downtown was desolate, attendance was sparse, and the team was known as the Swing of the Quad Cities and played at John O' Donnell Stadium. Now in 2009, the stadium has been renamed Modern Woodmen Park and the team went back to its former name, the Quad Cities River Bandits. The city and stadium look a lot nicer too. There's still the methadone clinics across the street, but the riverfront is starting to develop, and the ballpark was packed with children for an 11 AM game. The ballpark has added amenities such as a cornfield in left where players enter from in the summer, and a tiki lounge in right field. Excluding the fact that the Swing logo and name were way better, the team store has much more and much better apparel (they did not have baseballs OR souvenir cups on the tour). There were even Bandit-themed foods at the concession stands - the Bandit Dog with bacon, cheese, and chili was phenomenal. Being there two previous times in August, it was nice to take in a game in more comfortable weather. Overall this was my best time of the three in Davenport, and Quad Cities won to boot. The River Bandits beat the Cougars 3-1 behind an overall great pitching performance. Three Quad Cities pitchers combined to strike out 12 batters while walking only one. Charlie Cutler was the star of the day, going 3-4 with an RBI for the home team.

rankings and stats-
see below and 2007 John O' Donnell Stadium post:
aesthetics - improves to 7

food variety - improves to 7
team shop - improves to 5

best food - Bandit Dog

starters - Kenny Smalley (KC) v. Arquimedes Nieto (QC)
opponent - Kane County Cougars
time of game - 2:09
attendance - 6159
score - 3-1 W
Brewers score that day - 8-5 W

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Independent Leagues Begin

All photos of UWM-Butler game at Miller Park available on Flickr.

Mid-May is around the time every year when I really get excited about the baseball season. After Opening Week, of course I watch a lot of ball...but it's still cold, there are a ton of rainouts and a lot of off days in April, and the NFL Draft, NBA & NHL playoffs, and even horse racing dominate Sportscenter. Memorial Day to Labor Day is undeniably baseball time though. The sun is out, the grills are fired up, and it's the start of independent league baseball.

The Northern League and the American Association started play last week, the Frontier League begins on Wednesday, and college summer leagues and other lesser semi-pro leagues all start in the next couple weeks. I'm very excited to attend a bunch more Mallards games this year, as well as some games in the Northeast Wisconsin League, which Erik and I just discovered recently. Independent League and minor league baseball has been my favorite kind of baseball for the last several years, and if Milwaukee didn't have a pro team I would probably rarely attend any other kind of games. The games are cheap, there's tons of entertainment, and most of all, the players are dedicated. Most of these players, especially those in the independent leagues, make only enough money to buy food and are riding on buses to podunk towns all across America for 4 months, just to play the game that the love. These players and their families sacrifice and get by on $400/week and second and third jobs just to make ends meet, and I really admire the dedication. So, whenever I get the chance, I like to support these players and teams, and it's no coincidence that my minor/independent league posts are always the most energetic. Erik and I look forward to visiting cities all across America for some new semi-pro experiences every summer.

Speaking of dedicated players, Erik and I attended a UW-Milwaukee game at Miller Park on Thursday. They played after a Brewers' matinee sweep of the Marlins. Honestly, not the greatest crowd, and I'm not a particularly huge NCAA baseball fan, but it was free and there's nothing better than weekday afternoon ball. UWM actually played Butler in two games, but we could only stay for one, as I had a softball game to attend. The Panthers swept the doubleheader, thanks in large part to the energy of their recently renamed mascot, Pounce (Victor E Panther was way better). As far as the game we saw, UWM scored two in the bottom of the 9th to win 6-5 over the Bulldogs. Starting pitcher Tim Lusti gave up 5 earned over 7 and LF Tim Patzman went 2-4 with a HR for the Panthers, and Jeff Sinkiewicz gave up 3 earned over 6 and RF Colin Ziegel was 2-3 with a HR and a walk for Butler. And by the way, in doing the stats research for this post, I discovered that the Horizon League's website has a neat little videogame-like feature where you can watch a play-by-play reenactment of any game that is worth checking out.

Brewers 23-14, +1.5 (makeup game @ Cardinals, 3 @ Astros, 3 @ Twins)
Reds 20-16, -2.5 (3 v. Phillies, 3 v. Indians)
Twins 18-20, -3.0 (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Brewers)

Erik - 12 (+ 8 worked)
Peter - 17

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fallen Heroes

Everyone that doesn't live under a rock knows by now that Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension last week for testing positive for a banned substance.  The tests found hCG in his blood, a female fertility drug commonly used by athletes at the end of a steroid cycle to restart the body's natural testosterone production.  Also in the past few weeks, two books have come out chronicling the playing careers of A-Rod and The Rocket.  Both books discuss ad nauseum how these players cheated the game through steroid use.  After admitting a short period of use in Texas, a new book accuses A-Rod of having done steroids since high school, accounting for his large growth spurt and monstrous numbers with the Mariners.  Clemens, however, nearly 15 months after his federal grand jury testimony, still refuses to admit anything.  The book claims that Roger added 4 MPH to his fastball in Toronto after everyone thought his career was over in Boston.  He went on to play another decade, winning four more Cy Youngs after the age of 35.

I've come to accept that this is just a dark period in baseball history that is being addressed and will always be something baseball fans have to deal with, no matter how sick of it they are.  The thing that gets to me though, is the talk about if these players are "Hall-of-Fame worthy."  For about a 20-year period starting in the mid-80s, it is just plain naive to think that a significant portion of players were not taking steroids, and I think that people who get a HOF vote need to take that into account.  The majority of players who took steroids we've never heard of - they didn't take it to get an edge, or to recover for an injury, but simply to get a chance to be a major league baseball player.  Most players that juiced were average minor leaguers looking to improve to maybe a good utility player, but yet the public only sees the star cases of great players looking to get even better.  We can't continue to keep our great players like Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens out of the Hall when EVERYBODY was doing it.  I am not saying they shouldn't be punished or subpoenaed or persecuted, but we have to look at their on-field achievements against the backdrop of the Steroid Era.  The sooner we just accept that it was a troublesome time in baseball in which most players were trying to gain that chemical edge, the sooner we can start separating talent from drug enhancement.  A lot of people view the Steroid Era, unlike the Deadball Era or the period since the pitching mound was lowered, as something that affected only some, not all, and I just don't feel that to be the case.  I refuse to believe that any less than 90% of players didn't have their fingers in the pie for some period of time - the game is just too competitive, too salary-driven, and too personal-training oriented now to think otherwise.  MLB needed the long ball to save baseball (see 1998 Homerun Chase), and was indirectly encouraging steroid use anyways up until about 2003, so why not take a risk that nobody was monitoring?

When the Manny story broke, broadcaster Bob Costas summed it up very well on the MLB Network.  He said that there are three camps of HOF voters: those who refuse to vote for anyone linked to steroids, those that will look at the extent of use, and those that will be discretionary and will vote for players that would have been Hall of Famers anyways.  Given that this is a Steroid Era, and not a Pete Rose-like isolated case, EVERY voter needs to be in the third camp - vote based on skill, not on drug use.  Now, this is still debatable and subjective to a degree, but it is a start.  Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco probably would never have been good without steroids, they were just giant muscle masses.  Mark McGwire?  That might be a case on the fence.  Players like A-Rod, Palmeiro, Bonds, is hard to deny that these players wouldn't have made the Hall anyways, or we wouldn't be talking about them so much.  A-Rod and Manny are career .300+ hitters; steroids add strength and speed, but not ability.  Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in any professional sport, and players like A-Rod, Palmeiro, Ramirez, and Bonds may have increased homerun totals, but were still great hitters.  Bonds had 3 MVPs before his first 40-HR season.  As far as pitchers, this is more of a clearcut case to me.  Scientifically, it is physically impossible to throw a baseball harder than a force of 80 Newton-meters (about 110 MPH) without your arm snapping off.  Pitchers are already at the upper limits of a tolerance that would cause normal humans to shatter every tendon in their arm.  And besides that, it is incredibly tough to control a fastball in excess of 100 MPH (see Joel Zumaya).  With that all being said, based on physics alone, the only conceivable reason for a pitcher to take steroids is to help with injury or elongate a career.  Andy Pettitte won 4 World Series before the age of 30, and Roger Clemens had 3 Cy Youngs before the age of 35, and should be in the Hall.

This is a hot-button issue that will not be resolved quickly, and probably none of the players I've mentioned will make it to the Hall of Fame since you need 75% majority.  I guess I'm trying to say that you can't fault a great player for trying to "keep up" when hundreds of average players around them like Albert Belle and Greg Vaughn are hitting 50 homeruns in a season.

Brewers 18-14, -2.0 (3 v. Marlins, 3 @ Cardinals)
Reds 18-14, -2.0 (3 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Padres)
Twins 15-17, -3.0 (3 v. Tigers, 4 @ Yankees)

Erik - 10 (+ 6 worked)
Peter - 15

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

2009 MLB Draft

Given the unrelenting coverage of the NFL Draft on ESPN, I thought I would write about the upcoming MLB draft in June. There has been a lot of buzz about Steven Strasburg out of San Diego State, a three-year starter that can reach 103 on the gun and had a 23-strikeout game last season, and Patrick Schuster, a Tampa-area high schooler that tied an American high school record by tossing four no-hitters consecutively. But when the draft approaches, I always look to a sabermetrics website for the most accurate prospect list. Sabermetrics is a term coined by Bill James and is a way of analyzing baseball players objectively through statistics, rather than subjectively based on things like "stuff," "athleticism," and "potential." It was popularized by the Oakland Athletics in the late 90s and was made popular enough in the 2003 book "Moneyball" that now I would say every team except the Yankees uses it to some degree. Sabermetrics has given us such stats as the WHIP (walks & hits per inning pitched) and OBP (on-base % + slugging %) - objective statistics that are used as better ways to measure a player's ability. Given the annual success of small-market teams like the As, Twins, and Marlins, and even larger-payroll teams like the Angels and Red Sox, sabermetricians are generally a good source of knowledge on prospect potential.

Here are the top 10 propsects according to
1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, SDSU
2. Dustin Ackley, CF, UNC
3. Grant Green, SS, USC
4. Andrew Oliver, LHP, OKSU
5. Donovan Tate, CF, HS
6. Tyler Matzek, LHP, HS
7. Josh Phegley, C, IU
8. Matt Davidson, 3B, HS
9. Alex White, RHP, UNC
10. Matt Purke, LHP, HS

This is a pretty solid list I'd say. Strasburg is by far the consensus #1, although there are some concerns if the Nationals would be able to sign him. His agent is Scott Boras and there are talks that he would demand a 6-yr/$50 mil guaranteed contract. Also, with a player that can reach triple-digits on the gun with a mean slider, that always sends up the red flag for future injury problems. I would say Tyler Matzek is your best high school prospect on this list. He has great mechanics, and any hard-throwing lefty will always draw attention. Position players is kind of a toss-up - the players on this list are all great prospects, but there's also a great catcher I've heard a lot about named Austin Maddox, who has a great eye at the plate and hits for power, but weight and defensive mechanics may be an issue. Aaron Crow is also a name to watch out for. He's a hard-throwing righty that was drafted 9th last year but failed to sign, and he projects to be a solid #2 starter if he irons out some mechanical flaws that could lead to injuries.

In the end, it's always hard to project how the draft will shake out, which is why baseball's draft is given the least coverage out of the four major sports. It's not a sport like football or basketball where the drafted players go right to the pros, so it's harder for the casual fan to get excited for players they won't see for 3-4 years, if ever. There are so many factors that go into a prospect delivering in the pros that go beyond stats - things like poise, work ethic, or even small things like adjusting to wood bats or better pitching. Pitchers, particularly those out of high school, are usually a bust because they end up getting hurt, traded, or developing mechanical issues moreso than position players. A lot of pitchers get drafted with one or two good pitches and cannot develop those pitches or any additional pitches to get big-league hitters out with. Baseball is an individual sport in a lot of ways, and perhaps more than any other major sport, there is intense pressure on high-drafted players to make it big, which is part of the reason there are so many minor league levels - to ensure the best preparation and seasoning possible for every talented prospect. The fact is that only about 3% of all players drafted make it through the five levels of minor leagues to the pros, and only 1% of those players that make it become Hall-of-Famers. I read somewhere once that of all pitchers drafted, the average number of pitches thrown in the big leagues per player is five pitches. With the odds stacked against prospects from the start, and with salaries reaching epic proportions, these are major reasons that a great scouting department, which includes use of sabermetrics, is THE most crucial element of fielding a competitive team at the professional level, and it all starts with the draft.

Brewers 14-12, -3.0 (2 @ Pirates, 2 @ Reds, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 13-12, -3.5 (2 @ Marlins, 2 v. Brewers, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 13-13, -2.0 (2 @ Tigers, 2 @ Orioles, 3 v. Mariners)

Erik - 10 (+ 4 worked)
Peter - 14