Monday, June 29, 2009

Waterloo Riverfront Stadium

All photos of Waterloo Riverfront Stadium available on Flickr.

Two weekends ago, I concluded my move to Waterloo, Iowa. As I mentioned in the Cedar Rapids post, there are a ton of ball teams around me that I look forward to exploring (I guess I should also mention that my job is pretty cool). Naturally, before even settling in, I spent my first full day as an Iowan attending a Waterloo Bucks game. My dad left early Sunday after the move, but Lauren and Erik stayed for the day to take in some Sunday matinee action.

The Waterloo Bucks are celebrating their 15th season in the Northwoods League in 2009, and they play at Waterloo Riverfront Stadium, which is just west of downtown. The ballpark was built in 1946 and hosted the Waterloo Diamonds of the Midwest League for 35 seasons before becoming the home to the Bucks and the University of Northern Iowa Panthers, whose campus resides in nearby Cedar Falls. Anyone who was following the news closely last year can recall the devastating 100-year flood that caused tons of damage along the Cedar River, including Waterloo's riverfront. The Bucks had to play about 3/4 of their season on the road last year due to flood damage and a high river, and even currently, a heavy rain is still capable of soaking the field to the point that it causes a postponed game. The city's refusal to update the ballpark was one of the main reasons the Diamonds left for Lansing, but with the flood damage sustained last year, the city had no choice but to rebuild. The evidence of the new building, besides the construction trailers, can be seen in the transition from exterior to interior. As you exit your car and walk through what resembles a marshland, the exterior appears brand-new, with a nice stone gate with tickets windows built in. However, on the inside, one can see the water mark on the 25' wall in the outfield, and all of the rust and paint damage on the metal bleachers around the park. There is also now a retaining wall beyond the fence to protect the street and train tracks from ballpark flooding. I later read in the program during the game that there were new clubhouses and batting practice cages built as "structures inside the structure" that can be wheeled out during a flood.

With that being said, after we arrived at this beautiful gate and took in some BP at the brand-new batting cages, we were understandably disappointed once we got inside. We were there plenty early and got to walk around the entire circumference of the ballpark, watch the players warm up from the retaining wall in the back, and hit the team store/room. Ticket and beer prices were fair, but beyond that, not a lot going on. The party deck, which has become pretty standard at your typical minor league/semi-pro ballpark, is usually the barometer for how well the team draws, and these were nearly empty. The Bucks were 6-17 on the day we were in attendance, and by unfortunate circumstances happened to match up against the best pitcher in the Northwoods League, Zach Varce. He was dominant, striking out 9 over 7 and giving up no runs. The Bucks' starter Scott Williams would have nearly matched him, had it not been for his four walks issued, but he did end up tossing 8 frames. Overall, there were only eight combined hits in the game. Nick O'Shea had the lone offensive highlight of the afternoon with a solo shot in the 6th.

Watching a pitcher's duel in 90+ degree heat with sparse attendance was not how I envisioned my first Waterloo Bucks game, but I will definitely be back for more. Erik and I are in New York City this Friday for our final Tour 2009 trip - New Yankee Stadium and Citi Field! Stay tuned!

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 3
view to field - 9 (dangerously unobstructed)
surrounding area - 2 (cemetary, park, run-down homes)
food variety - 6
nachos - 9 (loaded with taco fixings!)
beer - 7 (decent variety, dollar-beer batter, points off for false advertising of local beer)
vendor price - 7
ticket price - 8
atmosphere - 2
walk to park - 2
parking proximity - 8 (adjacent lot for free, but more of a field than lot)
concourses - 3
team shop - 5 (good variety for NWL, but small)

best food - nachos
most unique stadium feature - entry
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - hit target in outfield with water balloons

field dimensions - 335/375/335
starters - Zach Varce (GB) v. Scott Williams (WAT)
opponent - Green Bay Bullfrogs
time of game - 2:18
attendance - 1072
score - 2-0 L
Brewers score that day - 3-2 L

Brewers 40-35, -- (3 v. Mets, 4 @ Cubs)
Reds 37-37, -2.5 (3 v. Diamondbacks, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 39-38, -4.0 (3 @ Royals, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 25 (+12 worked)
Peter - 32

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Veterans Memorial Stadium

All photos of Veterans Memorial Stadium available on Flickr.

I have mixed feelings about my upcoming move to eastern Iowa, but one of the definite perks is the abundance of minor & independent league baseball franchises nearby. There are 14 teams (that I know of) within 3 hours of me, seven in Iowa alone. The city I'm moving to, Waterloo, does have a Northwoods League team, but as I strive to get my fill of professional baseball, the Cedar Rapids Kernels will probably become the team I follow most intimately. They play about 45 minutes southeast of Waterloo, and I was excited to catch a Wednesday kids' day matinee on my way back to Milwaukee after signing my lease.

I left at about 10:15 for a noon first pitch, and it was a very relaxing ride spent honking at cows through miles of rural nothingness. Cedar Rapids is Iowa's second largest city and has been home to the Kernels in some form since 1891 (my favorite former team name of theirs is the Bunnies). Much like every Iowa city I've been to, old dirty factories dominate its downtown, the largest of which there is the Quaker Oats factory. But, also like every Iowa city I've been to, Cedar Rapids has a wonderful riverfront and has a very vibrant and historic community. Iowa seems a lot like Madison, in that most people are either born or go to school there, and then you stay forever. I have an unexplained comfort level with all of the small blue-collar cities and farmland in Iowa that would turn off most city folk, and I look forward to exploring this city more when I have some time.

The ballpark is a couple miles outside of the central business district and is in sort of a sports complex that also contains a football stadium, an ice arena, and a high school diamond. I must have parked in the players lot, because all the gates on my side were closed and I had to take a long stair around the building to get to the main gate. It looks incredibly old from the outside, particularly from the side that I parked, but I actually just looked it up and it was built in 2002 and designed by 360 Architecture. The interior more reflects this newness, as there is a nice concourse that I would compare to Fifth Third Field in Dayton, a play area and picnic area in left field, and bleachers past 1st base. The team store, scoreboard, and suites were all above-average for an A-level team. I find myself using the phrase similar to "pretty good for the minors" a lot when doing these posts, but as this is my 7th Midwest League ballpark, really all of them have been pretty nice except Clinton and Beloit. Even so, the Lumberkings' park is like 70 years old and was still way better than the Snappers - again, Pohlman Field needs to get its act together or the team has to move.

After purchasing a Kernels cap, grabbin' some chow, and obtaining a magnet schedule for my new apartment, I headed down to my seat by the 1st base dugout directly underneath the blazing sun. When it's too hot for beer and the mascot is spraying the kids in the audience with a water gun, you know it's gonna be a long day. The Kernels got spanked 11-3 by Kane County. The Cougars scored in each of the 1st 6 frames with the help of three homeruns, and 3 hits by cleanup hitter Steve Kleen. Every ball hit in the air looked like a golf ball carrying off the tee. Josh Barfield's brother Jeremy hit the most impressive shot for the Cougars that wound up in the hot tub in left field. The Cougars' starter Figueroa gave up only 3 over 6, and the lone highlight for the Kernels was a towering solo shot by Angel Castillo in the 8th.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 2
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 3 (other sports venues and a bar)
food variety - 8 (grill along 3rd base with a dozen kinds of burgers)
nachos - 3 (come in bag with cheese dip cup)

beer - 6 (moderately priced, Coors Bud & Leines)
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 4 ($7 for lawn seats?)
atmosphere - 5 (Camp Day)
walk to park - 1
parking proximity - 8 (where I parked was free, but hard to find gate)
concourses - 6 (featuring Cedar Rapids walk of fame)
team shop - 7 (includes CR HOF)

best food - tenderloin sandwich
most unique stadium feature - Randy Kuehl's Honda Home of Honfidence pavilion
best jumbotron feature - Mr. Shucks does the Cupid Shuffle
best between-inning feature - "Trash or Treasure" game featuring Curby, the Cedar Rapids recycling mascot

field dimensions - 315/400/325
starters - Pedro Figueroa (KC) v. Tyler Chatwood (CR)
opponent - Kane County Cougars
time of game - 2:42
attendance - 2965
score - 11-3 L
Brewers score that day - 9-8 W

[I won't have internet access for awhile, so here are next week's series]
Brewers 37-29, +1.0 (3 v. Twins, 3 v. Giants)
Reds 33-31, -3.0 (3 @ Blue Jays, 3 @ Indians)
Twins 33-33, -2.0 (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Cardinals)

Erik - 21 (+10 worked)
Peter - 30

Monday, June 15, 2009

3rd Annual Civil Rights Game

Shortly after Erik and I got back from Memphis for last year's Civil Rights Game, Bud Selig announced that it would no longer be an exhibition game in Memphis, but rather would become a roaming regular season game in different cities every year. We had mixed feelings about this - we were very happy that the game was becoming popular enough to warrant a larger venue and more diverse crowds around the country, but disappointed to see it leave Memphis, which may collectively be our favorite city to visit. We also feel that this should still be an exhibition game, which allows for the game itself to serve as more of a backdrop. We had a blast in Memphis last year and were looking forward to going back someday soon, and now with the game moving, we are grateful we got to see it in perhaps its final time there.

It was announced in September that the game would be in Cincinnati this year and in 2010. This year's guests and Beacon award winners include Bill Clinton, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Oscar Robertson, Tony Perez, and Muhammad Ali. Erik and I were reluctant to buy tickets since this season by far is our busiest and most expensive Tour Plus year, but long story short we eventually caved in, but since I am now moving to Iowa next weekend for a job, we had to sell our tickets. If any city was going to have this game besides Memphis, I was glad it was Cincinnati. As our long-time readers know, I went to grad school there for 3 years and made a lot of great friends, saw a lot of Reds games, and learned a lot about the city as well.

Only a couple years before I got there in 2004, there were race riots in Over-The-Rhine, a former German area of the city that now has a 95% poverty rate, an average family income of $5,000, and is one of the roughest ghettos in the country. These riots ensued at the border of OTR and the downtown and really tainted an already poor reputation of racial inequality in Cincinnati, what with former Reds owner Marge Schott's famously racist attitudes. These stories of riots, racial hatred, and policy brutality my friends at UC would tell me seemed like such a distant past for someone coming from the outside, but for them it was very real. These friends and I all toured the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as a class at architecture school, and most of us took a studio right on the border of Over-The-Rhine that was focused on improving the inner city through better public transportation, both things that would be unheard there of a decade prior. I remember driving through OTR, or sometimes even taking the bus through it, and how I had never seen such a poor rundown area in my life. I just never fully grasped my friends' lingering concerns for getting home before dark from studio, when I was also reading news articles about gentrification and seeing new housing developments go up on the fringes of Over-The-Rhine. I was lucky to come into Cincinnati while it was on the upturn and making strides to get better, and I can only imagine what the city was like just eight years ago during those riots. Cincinnati has come a long way since 2001, and even since I've lived there, and it deserves this chance to showcase its improvements. I'm sure I speak for the Reds organization and all its fans that we are very proud that Cincinnati is getting the Civil Rights Game this year, and hopefully Erik and I can make it next year.

Brewers 34-29, +0.5 (3 @ Indians, 3 @ Tigers)
Reds 31-31, -2.5 (3 v. Braves, 3 v. White Sox)
Twins 32-33, -3.0 (3 v. Pirates, 3 v. Astros)

Erik - 21 (+10 worked)
Peter - 28

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wildwood Baseball Park

All photos from Wildwood Baseball Park available on Flickr.

There may have been thunderstorms and tornado warnings in southeastern Wisconsin yesterday, but about an hour north in Sheboygan, Erik and I tailgated under blue skies at our first Northeast Wisconsin League game. This is a league that I discovered about four months as I was looking for work - because of course, if I was going apply to work in a city, there had to be ball nearby. While sending in applications to some firms in the Green Bay, Appleton, and Sheboygan areas, I ran across the NE Wisconsin League and Wisconsin State League, which are semi-pro leagues that run concurrently with many of the same teams. With Erik taking an LSAT exam 15 minutes away from the park on the day of the Sheboygan A's home opener, we marked this date on the calendar right away and have been looking forward to it ever since.

We got to the park around 5:30, early enough to beat the parking attendant and start a tailgate. It seems like the type of lot where tailgating would be discouraged, but the A's welcome it (as quoted on their website). Sheboyan is a pretty city right off the lake and the ballpark is in a very nice area with a park and some softball fields across the street. As we fired up the grill and popped open a couple PBR tallboys, our anticipation for the game only grew as we watched all of the players arrive in 10-year-old Hondas and Toyotas, some clearly coming straight from another job. We wrapped up the tailgate about 45 minutes before first pitch and purchased tickets, walked around the park, bought some beer (beer comes in pitchers!), and watched some bullpen sessions. Watching the players warm up, I was instantly reminded of why I loved semi-pro ball - if you want to play ball and you're dedicated enough, you can find a team just about anywhere in America to play for.

I found out two things quickly upon entering the stadium. Well, three things - #1, Wildwood Park was 5 times better than Pohlman Field and the city of Beloit should be ashamed of itself. There's just no reason that a team in this league should have a better team store, scoreboard, field, pressbox, and attendance than a minor league franchise - I won't even get into the fact that the A's are 7-1 and the Snappers are like 20 games below .500. #2, I had expected this league to be of the Golden League variety, a bunch of has-beens and never will-bes. Actually, it's somewhere between a college summer league and a semi-pro league. There are some older players on the roster that dabbled in the minors - one of the relievers was 41 - but most of the team is made up of college kids. Whereas Northwoods kids come from all over the country though, this league is mostly local talent. The third thing I picked up on was the rich history of baseball in the Sheboygan area, which I never would have guessed there was. The Sheboygan A's (note: upon investigation, "A's" is not short for's just A's) are in their 47th season and are very much a local institution. The city has continuously supported the team, and has raised millions of dollars throughout the years to keep the franchise running and to update the ballpark. On this night, the pregame ceremony had the owner, team president, and mayor on hand to burn the Wildwood Park $105,000 mortgage note as a symbol of it being paid off in the offseason. The joy and loyalty in the faces of the ownership, the boosters, and the crowd was very inspiring. In 1973, fans raised money for a new ballpark; in 1997, fans raised $400,000 as part of a major renovation that included the mortgage; and this coming year, fans will again come to the team's aid for a third ballpark renovation, this time to add expanded amenities, a new protective net, and a jumbotron. Aside from the nearby Green Bay Packers, never have I seen such unquestioning community involvment, pride, and fan dedication in an sports organization that goes so far beyond the game itself, and I was truly honored to be there to help celebrate.

Speaking of the game itself, it certainly was not a letdown following all the pregame hubbub, as the A's rallied from 2 down in the 9th to win 6-5. Greg Blahowiak got the start for the A's and pitched great, giving up only 2 runs and 3 hits over 6. Mitchell Gardner pitched the final 3 innings and got the win. In the end, it was defense that won the game for Sheboygan, as they made a couple nice plays in the infield and the centerfielder Albright made an amazing diving catch, and on the flip side Menasha had five errors. 2B Matt Shilter had 3 hits for the winning team, and David Novak drove in the winning run in the 9th for the walk-off victory.

After the game, we celebrated the victory with a tap at a local bar down the street, despite being 2+ pitchers deep and having an hour drive ahead of us. We both paid for that decision this morning! The trek was definitely worthwhile, and I can only hope that any other NEW and WSL experiences we have are half this entertaining, or at least have an awesome mascot like A-1!

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 3
views from park - 3 (houses)
view to field - 4 (close but obstructed by posts and fence)
surrounding area - 5
food variety - 4 (menu appears large, but is mostly candy and beer)
nachos - 5 (good cheese to chip ratio, very cheap)
beer - 7 (only Bud & Coors, but points added for pitchers and souvenir cups)
vendor price - 10
ticket price - 9 ($5 behind home plate, $3 GA along the lines)
atmosphere - 6 (small crowd but very involved)
walk to park - 4
parking proximity - 10 (across the street for free)
concourses - 2
team shop - 4 (decent variety but not a lot on display, and the store is actually a shed)

best food - nachos
most unique stadium feature - bullpen area easily accessible by fans for viewing
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - live oldies band

field dimensions - 320/395/320
starters - Mike Lloyd (MEN) v. Greg Blahowiak (SHB)
opponent - Menasha Macs
time of game - 2:45
attendance - 191
score - 6-5 W
Brewers score that day - off

Brewers 33-24, +2.5 (3 v. Rockies, 3 v. White Sox)
Reds 29-27, -3.5 (3 @ Nationals, 3 @ Royals)
Twins 28-31, -4.0 (4 @ Athletics, 3 @ Cubs)

Erik - 19 (+8 worked)
Peter - 26

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mallards Home Opener

All photos of the Mallards' 2009 home opener available on Flickr.

With me now having a girlfriend that lives in Madison, I have become completely unphased by the 2.5 hour roundtrip from Milwaukee. And so, it should come as no surprise that a few days ago I decided that I was going to make another trek out west for the home opener of the most exciting team in baseball, the Madison Mallards. Winning a ticket in a drawing on Saturday and Lauren having off Monday nights all but sealed the deal. I decided to not drag her to yet another baseball game on her one day off, so I rode solo to be one of the 5200+ screaming fans in attendance.

I arrived at the ballpark about 20 minutes before first pitch, knowing that I would need a little time to find parking and to take in the new surroundings. More than any other ballpark I know, Warner Park adds and changes so much from season to season. It is so different now than from when I first went there three years ago that I can hardly imagine what it must have looked like during the Mallards' inaugural season of 2001. Madison has the attendance to be able to invest in their park, team, and promotional calendar that other Northwoods League teams simply do not. The most noticeable features inside the park this year are the expanded Duck Blind and the addition of bullpens in left-center and right-center, which I'm sure are probably the only enclosed bullpens in the NWL. The Duck Blind has been pushed closer to the foul line to allow for more seating and has added a section of bleachers, since it can be hard to see from that area (although people who purchase the all-you-can-eat-and-drink seats typically aren't too attentive, understandably). The same has been done on the left field side, where an existing section of bleachers has been angled and pushed closer to the field. The fences have been pulled in for the third year in a row to accomodate the bullpens in the outfield, which are surrounded by chain-link fence and advertising. The team stores seem to contain a lot more items this season as well, and it looks like they finally figured out how to use the jumbotron they installed last year. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the concession stands now serve funnel cake! All of the annual additions always seem to contribute to an atmosphere I would already rate a '10,' which just goes to show you that there is no real substitute for good cheap concessions and quality entertainment.

As for the game itself, it was a back-and-forth battle in which the home team eventually pulled out a 7-6 victory over the Rochester Honkers. It seemed for most of the night that nobody really wanted to win, as eleven total errors were committed, and the defense only got worse as the night got cooler. There were also at least seven hit batsmen that I could count, three by the Mallards' starter and son of Dodger great Orel Hershiser, Jordan. He lasted only 1-1/3 and his ERA is now 20.26 after his first start since missing his entire season at USC with Tommy John surgery. The Mallards' bullpen would surrender three more runs (none earned) after Hershiser's exit en route to a walk-off win in the 9th. Pitchers in the Northwoods League are really just experimenting with pitches for the next collegiate year, and defense is usually shotty; the real treat is to pick out which hitters are adapting to using wood and put together quality ABs. Every year, I like to latch onto a Mallard who I think is gritty enough to have what it takes to get drafted, and this year my favorite Mallard so far is the C/DH Ben Long. He wears #00, and he runs out to the bullpen after making outs to warm up relievers, so he caught my attention right away. He was 2-4 on this night, and I found out on the car ride home that he is hitting .588 on the season, so I must know how to pick 'em! I'd also give an honorable mention to Troy Channing - he is the cleanup hitter and has a really nice stroke. Now let's see if he can follow in the footsteps of my past projects of Jordan Comadena, Mike Rohde, and Tony Campana and latch onto a pro team someday. As always, I was entertained the entire game by an assortment of new and old between-innings games and some wild plays in the field, and I'm excited for another season of Northwoods League baseball.

Brewers 30-21, +1.0 (4 @ Marlins, 3 @ Braves)
Reds 27-23, -2.5 (4 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Cubs)
Twins 25-27, -4.5 (3 v. Indians, 3 @ Mariners)

Erik - 18 (+ 8 worked)
Peter - 24