Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tour 2011

It's been a few months since I've written on the blog, and I thought that being snowed in after the first big snowstorm of the season was as good a time as any to update our readers on Erik and myself. Erik is once again through another campaign, with Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett losing a heartbreaker for the Wisconsin governorship. He is now putting the second half of his resume to use at a Madison sandwich shop. I am still working in Iowa and trying hard to find a job back in Wisconsin. On the ballfield, the 2010 season ended in disappointment for the Brewers again, as they finished below .500 for the 2nd straight season. Manager Ken Macha has since been fired and replaced with former Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke, and Erik and I are both optimistic that it will be an exciting season in Milwaukee in 2011.

It is also shaping up to be an exciting 2011 Tour Plus schedule. This is our first year since the main tour that there is not a new MLB stadium opening, so our options of what to cross off the list were wide open. Our tentative plan for a few years was to fly into Anchorage and spend a week exploring the great state of Alaska and its collegiate summer league. We always thought that going to Alaska in a year before the both of us were married made the most sense. But, several factors including cost, Erik's perennial job insecurity, and me having an abundance of weddings to attend all weighed in on us postponing this trip for another year. Not to mention the fact that this was the first trip we ever brought up to the girls that they too seemed excited about, so it would be nice to save that adventure for a time when the 4 of us could go together. Spring Training was something we've been putting off for a number of years, and with the Brewers' future in Arizona in limbo after the 2012 season, the Cactus League was our first logical choice to replace the ABL. In true Houses E&P Built fashion, we are basically just trying to cram as much ball into a week as possible. There are 10 ballparks shared by 15 of the 30 MLB teams in the Cactus League, and we plan on seeing at least 7 or 8 of them, as well as a Phoenix Coyotes NHL game, schedule permitting. Every park except HoHoKam (Cubs) and Phoenix Municipal (Athletics) is supposed to be fairly new and nice. Erik had previously been to Spring Training in 2008 and a couple of my friends from high school follow the Brewers around every year, so we should have ample research before the trip to know what parks/cities/eateries are the best, and I could not be more excited. As of now we are shooting for the 4th week in March. I always love those years when I have a few ballgames under my belt even before Opening Day!

Traditionally we have been planning at least two trips a year, but this year's 2nd trip is kind of in jeopardy. Our 2nd trip was to be the Golden League v. Northern League All-Star Game at Kevin Costner's new park in Illinois. But it seems official now that the Northern, United, and Golden Leagues have in essence merged into a super-league, the North American League. So we kind of have to wait it out for the schedules to see if an All-Star Game is still being played at the Lake County Fielders' park this summer. Another idea of ours to take a day trip to Green Bay to see what was supposed to be the opening season of the Bullfrogs' new park also seems to be a no-go, as I don't believe that the team was able to procure financing. Right now our contingency plan is just a weekend excursion to some Midwestern ballparks we haven't found time to see, which I assume includes the parks in Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne, but Erik and I haven't talked in depth about it. Either way I am sure we'll have a great time, and either way we'll eventually have to hit up a North American League game. 109 days until Opening Day, and even less so until we fly to Phoenix!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Odds and Ends

All photos of the Brewers' final 2010 home game available on Flickr.
As the regular season draws to a close, it's time to tie up some loose ends and cover all of the stories I didn't get a chance to write about this year.
- One night when watching the news at my girlfriend's house in Madison this summer, I saw scores for the "Home Talent League" scrolling across the bottom during the sports report. The teams were all playing in small towns in the south-central Wisconsin area, primarily in Dane County. Was this an independent league I'd never heard of? I did some research and discovered it was an adult amateur baseball league founded in 1929. From what I can tell, it's almost akin to a softball or bowling league. Players pay league dues rather than receive any salary and there are tryouts annually for the now 44-team league. Since teams seem to play at local ballfields and county parks it might not be worth "ranking" these fields on this blog but I sure do hope to get to one of these games next season to see some old guys duke it out for the love of the game.
- There were no first-ballot Hall-of-Famers in this year's class, as Andre Dawson was the lone inductee. That might not be the case in upcoming years as there are many big names approaching their eligibility. The next 5 years alone could see Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, and Ken Griffey Jr all welcomed into Coooperstown. The big year to keep an eye on is 2015, because there is a lot of talk that Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will intentionally not be voted in in '14 so that they could go in together with John Smoltz the following year. All 3 were long-time, Cy Young award winning members of the great Braves teams of the '90s. An induction ceremony is definitely on our list and that would certainly be an awesome year to go. Although it dates myself, it's great to start seeing players I grew up watching getting inducted into the Hall, starting with Ripken and Gwynn 3 years ago.
- In July, there was a vendor inspection report released by ESPN. In it, it very simply lists every team in the 4 major sports and how they faired on their most recent health inspections. The results were given as a percentage of vendors with "critical violations" and listed some of the most heinous for each team. The results were staggering to me, as only the Cubs and White Sox reported no health code violations - this probably speaks to a stricter health code in Chicago. Back home, Miller Park reported that 33% of its vendors had a "critical violation" and that "mold was growing near ice machines in 6 locations." All 3 of the Tampa area's sports venues had at least 75% of its vendors having violations, with the Trop astonishingly having all 100% of its vendors reporting a violation. It's worth noting that Angel Stadium, where Erik and I were told not to eat certain foods in 2007 because of rat infestation, showed an improvement to 12% violations in this study. It's also worth noting that all 30 MLB stadiums passed basic health inspections and standard levels of cleanliness which allowed them to operate despite having violations. I personally don't want to know what is in most of my food as long as it tastes good, let alone ballpark fare, but it's just something interesting to think about.
- A couple notable stories off of Ballpark Digest. The Phillies are now making it possible to order food using an app on your iPhone and having delivered to your seat in 30 minutes or less. Also, the Rays and Athletics ballpark proposals have gone nowhere for another season. The Rays have been drawing very poorly despite having a very good, young team, and the A's are trying to get rights in the San Jose area (Giants territory) to build a stadium there. On a side note, I encourage anyone who wants to read more about these and other ballpark stories to go to Ballpark Digest's website, as it is a fantastic source of information and is very well written and organized. However, I discourage anyone and everyone from become a fan on Facebook. The guy who writes on that fan page is the most pompus and arrogant jerk I have ever come across in my entire life and it is not worth your time.
- I wrote earlier this month about Trevor Hoffman's 600th career save, and I mentioned how Ken Macha getting ejected in the 2nd paved the way for the opportunity. What I did not mention in that post was how the umpire had also tossed 3 other people that game, including an apparently rowdy fan in sitting in the front row by the Brewers dugout. Just one other thing to make Trevor's milestone even more memorable - the first fan ejected by an umpire in Miller Park history. Apparently, Yadier Molina was complaining about some of the comments he was making and asked the ump to do something about it. This was not too long after Molina had started a fight with Brandon Phillips of the Reds which led to a bench-clearing brawl. Looks like the Cards finally having an off year has gotten the best of Yadi.
- Ending on a lighter note, there was a pretty funny story released a few weeks ago - around the same time as the aforementioned umpire-fan story - about Arizona's Ryan Roberts sleeping in the Aces' clubhouse when he was at AAA Reno this summer. He spent most of the 2009 season with the Diamondbacks and figured to be on the club in 2010. But after buying a new car and signing a lease in Phoenix, he ended up getting beat out by Rusty Ryal for the 25th spot on the roster. After a brief callup in May, his family decided it wasn't worth the hassle of moving back to Reno again. So, with the help of the cleaning crew, he proceded to live for most of the season at the ballpark while his wife and daughter were back in Phoenix.
PS - Cincinnati can clinch the NL Central today with a win over the Astros or a Cardinals loss to Pittsburgh - go Redlegs!

Brewers 73-82, -13.5 (4 @ Mets, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 87-69, +6.0 (3 v. Astros, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 92-64,
AL Central Champs, -1.0 AL Best Record (3 @ Royals, 4 v. Blue Jays)

Erik - 20
Peter - 52

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

600 for Trevor

Congratulations to Trevor Hoffman, who became the first pitcher in Major League history to collect his 600th save in a 4-2 win against the Cardinals last night. The Brewers grabbed the lead in the 5th off of Kyle Lohse, and manager Ken Macha's ejection in the 2nd all but sealed the deal that Trevor would get his 14th save opportunity, as he did not have the chance to blow the game with middle relief as he always does. Instead, bench coach Willie Randolph allowed Chris Narveson to twirl a 9-strikeout, 7-inning gem. John Axford was the setup man in the 8th, and Trevor got his 3 outs in the 9th on a double play ball to second, and a harmless grounder to the sure-handed Craig Counsell at short. The crowd stuck around for a standing ovation, his family embraced him on the field, and he was eventually carried off by team leaders Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. He never wanted any of the pomp and circumstance associated with his quest for 600, but there could not be a more deserving man of all the adoration in all of baseball than Trevor Hoffman. As humble as he is, he even addressed the team with a motivational speech about the value of hard work following his monumental acheivement, in lieu of a celebration.
The save has only been a major league statistic for about 40 years, and Trevor Hoffman has dominated the closer's role for over half of those years throughout his Hall of Fame career. He got 552 of his 600 saves with the San Diego Padres, 1 with the Marlins early in his career, and the remainder with the Brewers, including 9 this season. Although he lost his closer's role early in May to Axford, he was always the consumate professional, and handled his new undefined role with dignity and determination. After amassing a sub-3 ERA following his demotion from the closers role, Hoffman slowly started getting more save opportunities to achieve the unthinkable milestone of 600. I was lucky enough to see save #599 on the Brewers' previous homestand, and hopefully now with the Brewers out of playoff contention, maybe Trevor will get a few more save opportunities and I can see #601 on Friday against the reeling Cubs.
Brewers 65-74, -14.0 (3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Astros, 3 @ Giants)
Reds 79-60, +6.0 (3 v. Pirates, 4 v. Diamondbacks, 3 @ Astros)
Twins 83-57,
+5.5 (3 @ Indians, 3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Athletics)

Erik - 20
Peter - 49

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapmania in Cincinnati

With all of the hype and excitement surrounding Steven Strasburg, Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman's callup to the Reds yesterday met with little fanfare outside of Cincinnati. After an easy 1-2-3 inning against the Brewers on only 8 pitches in his Major League debut last night, and with Strasburg done for this year and probably next with Tommy John surgery, all eyes are now on Chapman. I've been keeping track of him on various Reds blogs as best I can this season, but the few Team Cuba and AAA highlights I've seen hardly do his stuff justice. If you were to create a pitcher from scratch, he would have Chapman's long body type, fluid mechanics, and dynamic stuff. He has a fastball that consistently sits around 100 mph with pretty decent command, a filthy slider in the low 90s, and once in awhile mixes in a changeup that still probably averages a higher speed than half the league's fastballs. Last night he topped out at 103, and just a couple days ago it was reported by several scouts that he hit 105 on the gun in his last appearance for the Louisville Bats. Discounting Bob Feller's famously wild assertions that he was once clocked at 109, Chapman's has got to be the hardest pitch ever legitimately recorded. In a previous blog entry, I discussed how the show Sports Science calculated that it was physically impossible to throw more than 110 without your arm tendons shattering, so that makes his feat even more amazing.
The Reds were smart to call Aroldis up a day before the rosters expanded in order to make him eligible for the postseason roster. There is no doubt he will have an impact on Cincinnati's burned-out middle relief corps, but they're not paying him $30 million to pitch the 7th inning. At some point next season he is going to be stretched out as a starter again, where he struggled mightily in AAA, and the true test will be if he can consistently get major league hitters out or if he will become the next Joel Zumaya. The hardest part is over for Chapman - defecting from Cuba and being dumped in Kentucky for 5 months. I think Chapman will do very well for the Reds this September and hopefully October in a situational role, but his next challenge will be developing a good 3rd pitch in the offseason. You can throw 105 mph fastballs all day, but if they're not located well and the hitter knows it's coming, any big leaguer can turn one around. He may only be 22, but he has over 5 years of experience logging many innings for the Cuban National Team so he will not have to be coddled as so many rookies are. He can and will make an immediate impact on next year's club if he can develop his offspeed pitches, and if his arm doesn't explode.

Brewers 62-70, -15.0 (3 @ Reds, 3 @ Phillies, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 77-55, +7.5 (3 v. Brewers, 3 @ Cardinals, 4 @ Rockies)
Twins 76-56,
+3.5 (3 v. Tigers, 3 v. Rangers, 3 v. Royals)

Erik - 20
Peter - 48

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Elusive Triple Crown

August is typically the time of the season when people stop talking about the Triple Crown races and start talking about the Wild Card races. However, this season the talk does not seem to be going away. With 6 weeks left in the season, there are still several viable candidates in each league. Josh Hamilton leads the American League in hitting by over 20 points with a .356 average as of the time of this post, and is also 5th in homers and 8th in RBI. Miguel Cabrera was the leading all 3 categories for most of the 1st half, and is still 2nd in RBI and average. Jose Bautista is pretty much running away with the AL homerun title, so I do not think anybody from the American League will be winning the Triple Crown. The guy who still has the most realistic chance is the National League's Joey Votto. An NL Final Vote All-Star, Joey is putting together his best season ever and is 2nd in homeruns and average, and 8 back in the RBI category. Carlos Gonazlez of the Rockies has also come on strong since the break. And in the NL, you can never count out Albert Pujols to win a Triple Crown.

There are a lot of guys putting up monster offensive seasons, despite 2010 being the so-called "Year of the Pitcher." However, I just don't see anybody winning the Triple Crown. Not this year, not next year, not ever. I think that it is just one of those unattainable season goals that will probably never happen again. I think that a pitcher might have a slightly better chance of winning the Pitcher's Triple Crown - wins, strikeouts, and ERA - but this is also near impossible. The game has just changed so much since the last Triple Crown in 1967 by Carl Yastremski, and it is so hard to maintain a high average AND hit for power in the middle of the lineup in today's game. I could be wrong - a lot of people never thought that any NFL team would ever go 16-0 again and that happened a few years ago. It is something that is fun to think about, but I personally do not like all of the talk devoted on Baseball Tonight every summer to Triple Crown chances. There is absolutely no reason to be discussing Triple Crown candidates and All-Star voting in April and May. I think it is a waste of time and I'd much rather hear about something more tangible like the Rookie of the Year and MVP races, which almost never get talked about until September. With baseball being the most statistics-oriented of all sports, the dreams and hopes of a Triple Crown winner will never, ever go away.

Brewers 57-64, -12.0 (3 v. Padres, 3 v. Dodgers, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 68-51, +2.5 (3 @ Dodgers, 3 @ Giants, 3 v. Cubs)
Twins 69-50,
+4.0 (3 v. Angels, 4 @ Rangers, 3 @ Mariners)

Erik - 20
Peter - 47

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Return to Warner Park

With the 2010 Northwoods League regular season coming to a close, I finally made it to a Madison Mallards game last weekend. I was very anxious to get there and see what changes Vern and Steve had in store for the Duck Pond this year. Lauren and I arrived about 20 minutes before first pitch, and the parking lot was as full as I'd ever seen it. I did not think this would bode well since I had not purchased tickets before hand, but thankfully I was able to obtain my free Bucks Season Ticket Holder bleacher ticket that I get at all NWL games away from Riverfront Stadium. We barely made it inside the gate and I already noticed many new features at the ballpark. I know I've said this many times - but more than any other team I know, the Mallards reinvest annually in their ballpark, and every year there is something new. Warner Park is still as fun a place to watch a ballgame in 2010 as it was when the team started in 2001, but boy has it changed! This year when you walk in to your left, there is a covered gazebo area paved with masonry units and filled with patio furniture, sponsored by a local company. The 1-millionth Fan statue added last year now resides in this area.
The other big change is past the children's sand pit, where there is a new section called the TDS Triple Play Club, the 4th "party" section now available at the Duck Pond. They tore down a standalone section of GA bleachers to add this section and it is a welcome improvement. The most popular section to sit by far at Warner Park has and will always be the Duck Blind in right, but the problem is that it sells out so quickly and is always jam-packed, and there really aren't good views to the game over there since it is mostly picnic tables. This new section is actually a few rows of seats with a standing-room rail on a platform at the top. The section features its own bar only for people in that section, and you get all-you-can-eat plus 3 beers included in the $23 ticket price, whereas the Duck Blind is $36 for all-you-can-drink beer and food sales end in the 5th. They even use original wooden seats salvaged from a Wrigley Field renovation in this section, which is a nice touch and adds to the piecemeal theme of the park.
Lauren and I really wanted to sit there, and it came highly recommended by Erik, but my free ticket limited us to seats between home and 3rd near the top of the grandstand. It was a warm night, and Warner Park is one of the few parks in the country where the sun sets in the right field corner as opposed to the 3rd base side, so it was right in our faces for a few innings. But beyond that, we had a hell of a time. It was Bacon Appreciation Night so there was an entire food stand devoted to the most delicious food on the planet. I had a "Pigsicle" - chocolate dipped thick-cut bacon on a stick - and the best food in the park, beer-battered fries. Lauren got something from the new Willy Street Co-op stand, as she is still somehow successfully dieting during a Wisconsin summer. A couple of cold Great Dane beers, a slew of runs by the home team, and the always hilarious PA guy capped off a great night at the ballpark.
I couldn't help but brainstorm during the game what would be new for next year. The grandstand seems to be in good shape and there is not much room left to add anything. Major needs of a new team store and a scoreboard have been addressed the last two seasons, and new clubhouses is probably going to be on the docket eventually. The playing field is now 310 and 295 down the lines and is shrinking every year as seats are added - capacity is now up to 7500, hands down the largest stadium in all of college summer league baseball. Bullpens were even added last year and pushed in the fences at the gaps. There were a number of players that sliced lazy pop flies to the warning track in right field, and 2 of the 3 homeruns were banged off of the back wall and would have been doubles two years ago, but this season cleared the inset bullpens for round-trippers. My point is that the field is getting dangerously small and the only logical way to expand is out. I think a nice outfield section is the next logical progression at Warner Park. There was also some talk a few years ago of completing starting from scratch and flipping the field 180 degrees to address the sun angle issue, but I think the eclectic, patchwork character would be too much to sacrifice to achieve that. For now, expect great things in small packages every single year at Warner Park in Madison.

Brewers 53-61, -11.5 (3 @ Rockies, 2 @ Cardinals)
Reds 64-51, -1.0 (3 v. Marlins, 3 @ Diamondbacks)
Twins 64-49,
+1.0 (3 v. Athletics, 3 v. White Sox)

Erik - 20
Peter - 45

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tour 2010: Franklin Rogers Park

All photos of Franklin Rogers Park available on Flickr.

As usual, we made every effort to cram as much ball into our trip as possible, which meant a doubleheader on Sunday. When the Sunday Twins-Mariners game ended at a brisk pace of just over 2 hours, we knew we'd have plenty of time to make it down to Franklin Rogers Park for a 6:05 first pitch. It took me quite awhile to find where I parked and to find the freeway, but we still got to the park with about 20 minutes to spare. Mankato was only slightly out of the way on my way home to Waterloo, and the 90 minute drive took us through a very scenic route past rolling hills and forests.

To be honest, after a busy weekend with a lot of driving, and after just seeing two major league games in a beautiful new ballpark, part of me just wanted to go home and I was not too thrilled with the idea of stopping in Mankato. But when we got into the game action and I noticed all of the dirt cheap concessions, I was instantly reminded of why I loved the Northwoods League, and my attitude changed quickly. I won't lie and say that Franklin Rogers Park is a gem, but it was nicer than I expected and was definitely worth the stop. "The Frank" has a three-section covered grandstand setup similar to a lot of parks of its size (about 1400 capacity). There is also a picnic area down the left field line, and a private party deck on the roof of a concessions/restrooms building beyond first base. As you enter the stadium from the 1st base side, concessions are arranged around a paved square, mostly in tents. The team store is also unfortunately under a tent, but did have a pretty nice selection. I just could not pass up buying a Moondogs cap with that sweet logo of a lowercase 'm' set inside a crescent moon. From a fan's perspective, the park has been updated just enough over the years to be a very comfortable place to watch a ballgame. However, a major drawback from a player's perspective is that the stadium does not appear to have locker rooms, as visiting players had to change on the field following the game before getting on the bus. Franklin Rogers Park is in its 50th year and is operated by the Mankato Parks & Recrecation Dept. It served as the original home to the old Mankato Mets farm club in the 1960s, and then had no real permanent tenants besides high school teams until the Moondogs joined the Northwoods League in 1999.

The game pitted the hometeam Moondogs against the Border Cats of Thunder Bay, Ontario. We saw yet another strong pitching performance on this trip - this one was turned in by starter Blake Schwartz of Mankato, who also happens to attend nearby Minnesota State. He dazzled friends, family, and the home crowd by tossing a 2-hit shutout with no walks and 8 strikeouts. He unfortunately had to come out after 7.2 innings due to Northwoods League pitch count rules, but he was absolutely brilliant in the 5-0 win. The Moondogs got on the board with 3 in the 4th, and also notched single tallies in the 6th and 7th. Mike Moore went 2-4 with 2 RBI for the home team and was hitting .417 on the season as of Monday. The guy we saw start the game against the Lunkers in Brainerd, Jeff Deblieux, played right field and led off for the Border Cats in this game and went hitless.

After the game, I had about a 3-hour drive home, and Erik about 5. We were both very tired on Monday but what an excellent trip, 6 games in 5 days! I enjoyed all of the parks very much, except for Brainerd's. We are currently kicking the tires on a few ideas for next year's trip(s), but nothing is set in stone yet, so check back this offseason for more updates.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 3
view to field - 5 (net & pole obstructions, lots of foul ground)
surrounding area - 3
food variety - 5 (one stand had state fair foods)
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 6 (Busch products only for $3.50)
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park - 4 (walk from left field gate is nice)
parking proximity - 10 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 5
team shop - 5 (pts deducted for being a tent)

best food - cheese curds
most unique stadium feature - rooftop party deck, atop of which cameraman cheats death
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - fans try to throw balls into back of groundskeeper vehicle from rooftop deck

field dimensions - 320/386/330
starters - Garrett Yount (TB) v. Blake Schwartz (MAN)
opponent - Thunder Bay Border Cats
time of game - 2:22
attendance - 914
score - 5-0 W
Brewers score that day - 5-2 L

Brewers 50-59, -11.0 (3 v. Astros, 4 v. Diamondbacks)
Reds 61-48, +1.0 (3 @ Cubs, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 59-48,
-1.5 (3 @ Indians, 3 @ White Sox)

Erik - 20
Peter - 39

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tour 2010: Target Field

All photos of Minneapolis and Target Field available on Flickr.

Saturday was the big day - Target Field! After getting in late from Willmar, we slept in until about 10 and lounged around our luxurious hotel room before heading out for the day around 1. Erik lived in Minneapolis for nearly 3 years, and I have been there many times before, so we really didn't have a big agenda before the game at 6:10. In lieu of sightseeing, we decided to go to the 5-8 Club for some Juicy Lucys. Erik and I had visited Matt's Bar on our last trip to Minneapolis in May 2009, and I was really excited to sink my teeth into the 5-8's version of this local delicacy. The 5-8 Club uses more meat of a higher grade, and they offer options of what you can get your burger stuffed with - mine was filled with wild rice and swiss cheese, and Erik's with mozzerella and pepperoni. But I recall Matt's version was greasier and cheesier, and therefore tastier. I don't think you can go wrong with either option, but I know I also speak for Erik when I say that my vote goes to Matt's. After downing our burgers and a pitcher of Leinie's, we headed back downtown and had a pregame beer at Hubert's. We always used to drink there before games at the Metrodome and were very pleased to see a new location open next to Target Field.

We knew we'd have a lot to see so we got to the park as early to gates opening as possible, about 4:15. We approached the stadium from the east and spent a few minutes in Gate 34 Plaza, taking our pictures with the Kirby Puckett, Tony Olivo, and Gold Glove statues. Each gate at Target Field is numbered after a famous Twin - Gate 3 (Killebrew), 29 (Carew), 14 (Hrbek), 6 (Olivo), and of course 34 for Kirby Puckett. The distinct numbering of the gates is very crucial at this park for wayfinding, since there really isn't a main entry. Gate 34 is probably the closest thing resembling a main gate since it is the only area connected at street level, but no entry can be said to be "in the back" or off to the side. This is one of my favorite things about this park - every entry is designed and all sides of the ballpark were given the architect's full attention. As a comparison, the absolute worst thing about Miller Park in Milwaukee is approaching the huge ugly green wall on what is very clearly the back of the stadium from the General Parking lot, the area where most people park. Whether by design or by constraints of the site, Target Field simply does not have that problem. The only sort of shady side of the ballpark is the west end railyard. For now, there is a chain link fence with banners and posters strategically blocking the view, but this is something that will be more permanently addressed by the "Tradition Wall" to be built in Phase II.

I mentioned the constraints of the site - the use of the site is probably one of the most unique things about Target Field. Most ballparks take up about 12 acres, but the architect Populous was only given about 2/3 of that to work with. Populous could have tried to wedge a smaller stadium into its site such as in Boston, but instead chose to place the actual field level below grade, and to cantilever some of the concourses and exterior walkways over railroad tracks, streets, and parking garages. This results in the user being able to walk around the entire park unobstructed despite it being on a downtown site. The exterior walkways, plazas at each entry, and the light rail station station on the north end all sort of "float" at or above street level and are a very nice way to enjoy the urban setting before gametime without having to contend with street traffic. The other very noticeable thing about Target Field other than the "floating site" is obviously the choice in material - locally quarried limestone, which is rarely seen at ballparks today. The limestone is most definitely a nod to the many masonry retro parks of recent years, but the fact that it's a very thin veneer that is very clearly hung off of a steel frame is sort of a play on the whole "floating" concept of the site. The limestone facade is broken up very nicely by a pattern of varying shades of tan, nonrectilinear angles, and a random array of punched window openings. At points of emphasis such as the team store or at a gate, metal and walls of glass are used to further contrast the heaviness of the stone.

As you can tell, there were many exciting and distinctive stadium features before we even set foot inside. Once we completed our lap around the park, we entered back through Gate 34 and collected our giveaway Twins caps. We could immediately see that the same attention to detail on the exterior was given to the interior. Everything from the smallest details of bar & stool design, to something commonly overlooked such as drywall ceilings covering ductwork, to the most subtle gesture of bringing some of that limestone inside the park, was all thought of at Target Field. I would say Erik and my only real complaint is that a lot of areas feel crowded due to the small site. A lot of it could also have to do with the fact that the Twins have been drawing standing-room only crowds since the park opened, but there's no denying that the concourses have pinch points at each entry gate and get very crowded. Things like team store lines kind of overflow into lines for the escalators and bathrooms, simply because there wasn't one more inch of room to widen the park. I think the architects did the best they could with what they had to work with, and all of the community areas and attention to detail more than make up for the crowded concourses and the incredibly steep bleacher sections shoved into the outfield. A big win for me as far as the interior goes is all of the standing room areas and gathering spaces. Even myself as a huge baseball fan, it's hard for me to sit still for 9 innings. Target Field has dozens of great areas where you can stand and watch a game, pull up a stool at a bar, or even full-service pubs to seek shelter in during the cold spring months and humid summer days.

It was very hot and humid as Erik and I walked around snapping photos and just soaking in the atmosphere, before finding our seats in right-center field. Erik sat and watched T.C. Bear entertain the crowd while I set out in search of food. The Twins pulled out all the stops for concessions too, as almost everything is locally made and can be found at no other ballpark. I went with the Tony O's Cuban pork sandwich and it was weak-in-the-knees delicious. After all of the hype and excitement, it was finally time for first pitch, and the game was just as much of a treat as the ballpark itself. Felix Hernandez got the start for the opposing Mariners and gave up 3 quick runs in the 1st inning off of run-scoring hits by Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, and Jim Thome. Mauer had a typical day, going 3-4 with an RBI, and the hot-hitting Young had 2 RBI of his own. King Felix settled down after that and ended up throwing 6 consecutive scoreless innings to earn a quality start. The Mariners' weak offense made Kevin Slowey look like...well, Felix Hernandez. He tossed 8 outstanding innings of 3-hit ball before giving way to Jose Mijares to complete the 4-0 victory. Following the game, we stopped at Hooters for a pint and then walked over to one of our old haunts from Erik's U of M days, Brit's Pub. It was a beautiful night to be sitting outside with a cold beer and it was a perfect end to the day.

We also had tickets to the series finale on Sunday. We said goodbye to our 10th floor hotel room at the Hilton and got to the yard about an hour before 1:10 first pitch. Today we approached the park from the #29 Carew gate and got to see the Rod Carew statue and the "money shot" Target Field sign above the team store. Our seats this day were excellent, in the 14th row on the first level, third base side. We had a beautiful view of downtown, and the sun wasn't directly in our face as it was the previous night. Before settling in for the game, we dominated the team store, and bought a couple of Killebrew root beers in souvenir aluminum bottles from Hrbek's Pub. Erik then decided to go with the Murray's steak sandwich, while I had a handmade polish sausage with fresh kraut from the Kramarczuk's stand. These locally made sausages were the talk of the park when it opened and did not disappoint, but I'd still have to say I liked the cuban pork sandwich better. Erik and I clearly needed at least another three games to try all of the food options at Target Field. Today's pitching matchup was Minnesota's ace Francisco Liriano against Seattle rookie Luke French, and it was another 4-0 victory for the Twins to complete the sweep. Liriano struck out 11 over 7 and the strikeout-counter guy in left field nearly ran out of empty spots for K's. Mauer and Thome both had the matinee off, so Jason Kubel provided the offense for the day with a 3-run double off the 23' high right field wall in the 6th, later scoring on hit by Danny Valencia. We were disappointed we didn't get to see Justin Morneau in the series as he is still on the DL with a concussion, but seeing ex-Brewer J.J. Hardy lace 'em up for both games was a treat, even though he contributed absolutely nothing to either win.

Twins fans deserved outdoor baseball in Minneapolis again, and the Twins delivered. And if it isn't enough that Populous crammed this beautiful open-air stadium into an 8-acre site and a $440 million budget, Target Field is also certified LEED Silver and has taken the crown of "world's greenest ballpark" away from Nationals Park. I think Target Field has the potential to be like Camden Yards in the 90s and could start a new design wave in future ballparks. Marlins Park, and renderings for the Rays and A's parks, already look to have strayed greatly from the retro ballpark motif, just as Target Field has. Erik and I thoroughly enjoyed our time here and we both definitely agree that this is without a doubt in the top 3 of all the major league stadiums.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 9
views from park - 8 (downtown)
view to field - 7 (cannot see entire field from bleachers, but great view angles and pitch)
surrounding area - 8 (downtown/Warehouse District)
food variety - 9
nachos - 8 (large portion, taco fixins)
beer - 7 (some local beers, several pub areas with good variety, expensive)
vendor price - 5
ticket price - 8 (excellent for a good major league team)
atmosphere - 9 (sellouts both games)
walk to park - 8
parking price/proximity - 6 (I parked 4 blocks away for $10, can also take light rail)
concourses - 4 (cramped, stairs are narrow)
team shop - 7 (seemed like mostly t-shirts)

best food - Tony O cuban pork sandwich
most unique stadium feature - site & materials
best jumbotron feature - Race to Target Field
best between-inning feature - pre-game homerun derby featuring T.C. Bear

field dimensions - 339/403/328
starters - Felix Hernandez (SEA) v. Kevin Slowey (MIN); Luke French v. Francisco Liriano
opponent - Seattle Mariners
time of game - 2:07; 2:14
attendance - 40799; 40374
score - 4-0 W; 4-0 W
Brewers score that day - 5-0 L; 5-2 L

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tour 2010: Bill Taunton Stadium

All photos of Bill Taunton Stadium available on Flickr.

We couldn't leave the Brainerd Lakes Area without taking a dip in one of those lakes. So after enjoying the hotels continental breakfast and reading a recap of the previous night's game in the Brainerd Dispatch, we headed to Lower Whipple Lake. The beach was very nice and the water cool and refreshing, but it was mostly deserted on an overcast and breezy day. We swam for a bit, played some catch on the beach, and then showered and shaved at the park's pavillion before setting out to explore downtown Brainerd. We took some pics with the Paul Bunyan & Babe statue that Brainerd is famous for, and then spent some time looking for a brew pub that we never did locate before settling in at Matty's Bar for lunch. Pete had a steak sandwhich and I enjoyed some Pimps Chicken while we both downed a couple of Grain Belt Premiums. With lunch finished, it was time to set out on the 3 hour drive to Willmar.

Once we got to Willmar, Google Maps lead us astray for the third consecutive day, taking us out of town on a county road and past the ballpark. Eventually we made our way to Bill Taunton stadium and struggled through a few horrible brews in the parking lot that Pete bought at the local liquor store, before heading into the game. Tonight was Hat Night at the Stingers game and after acquiring our giveaways and hitting the team store for our usual purchases of a souvenir ball and helmet, we walked around for a bit and then found our seats.
Taunton Stadium is very nice and reminded me a lot of Community Field in Burlington, IA and Pete of Wildwood Park in Sheboygan. The stadium consists of a covered grandstand with rows of box seats seperated from reserved bleacher seats by a narrow walkway. Down the right field line is a lonely grandstand and three rickety bleacher sections. Down the left field line, above the Stingers dugout is a bar rail with stools where fans can sit, have a beer, and see what's going on in the dugout and bullpen. All the seating, with the exception of the right field berm area, is very close to the field and offers excellent views. Having now been to both of the inaugural franchises in the Northwoods League this season, I'd have to give the nod to Willmar. They seemed much better prepared to be hosting a team this season, with a much newer park that has Northwoods League experience (hosted some Beetles games last year) and a better sense of order and direction than Wisconsin Rapids.
Back to the game, it was clear from the top of the 1st that we would not be in for another pitching duel. Stingers starter Charley Olson gave up 4 runs in the top of the first and didn't fair much better in his second and final inning, including a home run to Huskies' 3B Cody Asche. The bullpen didn't fair any better for the Stingers, surrending another 6 runs over the final 7 innings. Duluth, on the other hand, got an excellent start from Connor Hulse, who went 6 innings, struggling only to retire Stingers leadoff batter Isaac Ballou. Ballou was 1 for 2 on the night with 3 walks. He created trouble all night on the base paths with his speed and accounted for 2 of the Stingers 4 runs. The home team is now sadly 0-2 on this trip, and 0-4 for Pete.
After the game we hopped in our cars for the 2-hour drive to Minneapolis and checked into the Hilton by the Metrodome, which appears to be WAY too classy for us but we'll take it. Today and tomorrow, we will finally check out Target Field, the new home of the Twins.
park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 6
views from park - 5
view to field - 7 (sit in the grandstand, not down the right field line)
surrounding area - 2
food variety - 3
nachos - 5 (bag of chips, lukewarm cheese)
beer - 5 ($3.50 for 16 oz bottles, Miller Lite, MGD, Heiniken, and Corona)
vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 7 (stadium was packed and fans were into the game)
walk to park - 3
parking proximity - 10 (adjacent lots for free)
concourses - 4 (very crowded between innings)
team shop - 5 (no inaugural season merchandise)

best food - hand-made local hot dog
most unique stadium feature - bar seating above dugout and bullpen
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - player v. fan bags competition

field dimensions - 326/373/324
starters - Connor Hulse (DUL) v. Charley Olson (WIL)
opponent - Duluth Huskies
time of game - 2:45
attendance - 884
score - 13-4 L
Brewers score that day - 5-0 L

Friday, July 30, 2010

Tour 2010: Stewart C. Mills Field

All photos of Cloquet, Brainerd, and Mills Field available on Flickr.

I spent my Thursday afternoon exploring Duluth on a beautiful sunny day, while Erik spent his driving 8 hours to meet me in Brainerd. I got up around 9 so that I could go for a run on the Bong Bridge. I didn't quite make it all the way across to Minnesota but I was still energized for the day. After a shower and checking out, I made stops at the Aerial Lift Bridge and the Starkey House. The lift bridge is an iconic piece of infrastructure in downtown Duluth, in which the entire bridge section lifts up on towers like London Bridge, rather than opens like a traditional bridge. I sat by the lake for about a half hour and got to see it open and close. There were a ton of ships and people crowding the harbor that day for the Tall Ships Festival that I did not know about, and all of downtown was very active. I negotiated through traffic to snap a couple photos of the Starkey House on the east end of the city, designed by Marcel Breuer in the 1950s, and then headed to Fitger's Brewhouse for some lunch and a couple beers. Again, I cannot emphasize how impressed I was with Duluth, it was an absolutely gorgeous city and I could have spent several days there. I also have to mention though that Google Maps gave me wrong directions to just about everything I wanted to see, so there may be some sort of conspiracy against me making a return visit.
Erik and I converged at the Rodeway Inn in Baxter, Minnesota at around the same time, 4:30. I would have been there sooner if not for a lot of construction and a stop in Cloquet to fill up at a gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We checked into the hotel and spent some time checking out the latest trade deadline moves on ESPN. At 6:00 we headed over to the park. Stewart C Mills, Sr. Field is located in one of Brainerd's city parks and surrounded by softball and little league diamonds. When we first arrived we expected a large crowd due to the high volume of traffic around the field. Turns out that most of those cars were there for the local softball league, and the crowd was a more modest but respectable 865. There isn't much to Mills Field, just three grandstand sections that wrap behind the plate from dugout to dugout and a party deck down each baseline. The team store is three folding tables of gear set up beneath the grandstand and there is a small concession stand on the first base side. Its layout reminded us a lot of Dutchess County Stadium in New York.
Last night was Dukes of Hazzard Night at the ballpark, featuring an appearance by the actor who played Roscoe P. Coltraine in the original series. I was very excited to get my picture taken with Roscoe but was disappointed to find out that, unlike Potsie from Happy Days and Sgt. Slaughter, whom we've met at Northwoods League stadiums in the past, Roscoe was charging for his autograph and pictures.
After Roscoe finished goofing around with the first pitch, we were treated to an excellent game between the Lunkers and Thunder Bay Border Cats. Both starters held the opposition scoreless and kept the bases clear for the first three innings. The Lunkers put something together in the bottom of the 4th, loading the bases and plating two on a soft ground ball that just eluded the Cats' 2nd baseman by Matt Hillsinger. Thunder Bay tied the game in the top of the 6th on a 2-run HR by Tanner Nivins. The Border Cats took the lead for good in the 8th when Lunkers reliever Aaron Sapp suffered from a lack of control, walking two and giving up a single to load the bases before Tyler Wosleger sent a grounder to 2nd that should have ended the inning. However, Lunkers 2B mishandled the ball and rushing his throw to second, sent the ball into left field, allowing two runs to score. Despite many opportunities and baserunners over the final 3 innings, the Border Cats bullpen kept the Lunkers off the board to secure the win.
After the game, we headed to downtown Brainerd for a few drinks. We spent some time shooting darts and pool at the Blue Ox, a dive bar that was empty on a Thursday night but had very cheap drinks, so we ended up sticking around for a while. This morning, we are off to swim in one of the many lakes that surround Brainerd, then to a brewpub for lunch before heading south to Willmar to take in a Stingers game.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 2
views from park - 5 (Minnesota's Northwoods)
view to field - 5
surrounding area - 3 (downtown located a short drive away)
food variety - 2 (can't even get a cheeseburger in Brainerd)
nachos - 2 (not a lot of cheese)
beer - 4 ($3.50 for 16 oz bottles, but only Miller Lite, MGD, and MGD 64 available)
vendor price - 10 (most expensive sandwichs were $3.50)
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 6
walk to park - 4
parking proximity - 9 (ample adjacent lots and side streets for free)
concourses - 5 (beneath grandstand)
team shop - 4 (Team Store attendant: "We're outta balls." Two innings later balls appear.)

best food - Pulled pork sandwich
most unique stadium feature - concourses beneath grandstand
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - child catches balls shot from catapult in a fishing net

field dimensions - 324/406/324
starters - Jeff Deblieux (TB) v. Charlie Henderson (BLA)
opponent - Thunder Bay Border Cats
time of game - 2:21
attendance - 865
score - 4-2 L
Brewers score that day - off

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tour 2010: Wade Stadium

All photos of Duluth/Superior and Wade Stadium available on Flickr.

After over a year of anticipation, our Minnesota trip finally kicked off today. With Erik not being able to attend the College World Series with me in Omaha, this trip marks our only "official" Tour Plus trip of 2010, and I could not be more excited! It's been over a year since our last ball trip, and that's just way too long. So long in fact that I couldn't wait just one more day to meet up with Erik in Brainerd, and decided to get in an extra day of ball myself in Duluth. Wade Stadium is the first of three Northwoods League parks I/we will be visiting, and then the trip will culminate with a couple games at the Twins' new home, Target Field.

I have no idea if I've read or heard that Duluth was awesome, or if I fabricated it in my mind, but for whatever reason I've just always wanted to go there. When Erik was not able to get Wednesday off of work for this trip and the Huskies' homestand ending that day, I decided I could not pass up the opportunity to see this city, as long as I was already that far north. I left work around noon and rolled into my hotel in Superior - which is across St. Louis Bay in Wisconsin - at nearly 6pm. The drive into town was just incredible. It was nothing special until I got to St. Paul, but beyond that it was a thick wooded area, and the final five miles into Duluth you sort of descend into the city from a hill, and the view to Lake Superior and the gigantic bridges crossing the bay is an amazing sight. It was like Tampa Bay meets Washington state. After checking in, the night did not start off too well, as I got lost on the way to the park. All the parks and driving we've done and this is the first time this has ever happened to me. Both the directions I had, and the directions I called Erik to confirm, told me the park was downtown, but it is actually on the west end of the city. So for those of you thinking of going to Wade Stadium, it is on 34th & Grand, NOT 2nd & Superior, as Google Maps and Mapquest both indicate. Compounded on my faulty directions was the ridiculous amount of construction and what I can only describe as a "spaghetti of bridges." Duluth looks absolutely beautiful and the downtown is very pretty, but getting there leads you over, under, and through about a dozen 2-lane bridges and freeway interchanges, and it was very unsettling to me as a visitor.

I finally employed the time-tested Erik P. Bal navigation method of "look for signs and drive towards the light towers," and found the park. Wade Stadium is a very old stadium, built in the 1940s as part of the federal goverment's Works Progress Administration projects. This ballpark has hosted teams for about 50 of its 70 years of existence, and the current tenant Duluth Huskies have been there since 2003. As one of the few remaining WPA stadiums in America, the community has a very special bond with its teams and the ballpark. "The Wade" remains a treasure in the city of Duluth, not to mention one of the top ballparks in all of college summer league baseball - but make no mistake, this park definitely shows if not flaunts its age. There is a ridiculous amount of spackle work on the masonry exterior, paint job after paint job on the benches, and visible rust on the steel structure and canopy. Protective nets are weighted down with buoys and are patch-repaired with twine, and makeshift fences obstruct views. However, for whatever the reason, The Wade just has that certain intangible quality that won't show up in my stadium rankings that simply makes it charming. I'm not one of those people who is mystified by older parks just because they're old and they have history - they have to at least have the illusion of being updated, maintained, and structurally sound, while still keeping its character intact. As both an architect who believes in the importance of historic preservation, and as a ballpark enthusiast, I greatly appreciate the city of Duluth's efforts to make the best of their situation and keep Wade Stadium standing for generations to come.

I arrived at the park at what I thought was about 20 minutes before first pitch, but after I purchased my GA seat I heard the crack of a bat and cheering. I put 2 and 2 together and figured that last night's game must have been rained out, and today was a doubleheader. This gave me time to circumnavigate the park a bit before game two. The ballpark is surrounded by very massive masonry walls down the lines with almost no apertures to speak of, even at the entrance. These walls jut out well past the bleachers and were at first very intimidating, but the good mason craftsmanship and the use of warm brick as opposed to cold concrete, coupled with hearing crowd noise on the other side, helped negate this. Beyond the outfield wall (and I do mean wall - again, massive) was another parking lot, and several little league diamonds. After doing a lap, I finally made my way into the park and took a seat for the final inning of game one. The visiting team Mankato won the game, 4-1. In between games, I hit the team store and got my customary ball and program, and then got something to eat. I was disoriented at first, since the concourses are narrow, white, and flourescently lit - I felt like I was in a correctional facility. After getting my bearings, I was quite pleased with the food and drink selection. Very good prices, a decent variety, and even a great system assembly line ordering system, sort of like ordering from a drive-through. I also liked that the beer and food stands were separate, this reduced the lines greatly in the small corridor space.

The second game of the doubleheader was a 7-inning affair, as all independent and minor league doubleheaders are. The starting pitchers for each team pitched 6 of the 7 innings and were both fairly dominant. Alex Blackford of Mankato struck out 11 Husky hitters and was overmatching them all night with a very sharp breaking ball. Duluth's Chris Jensen kind of came unraveled in the 6th a bit but struck out 8 men of his own, mostly on fastballs. Errors proved to be the key factor in the outcome, as 3 of the 4 runs Mankato scored were unearned. In the 7th, the Huskies' second and first basemens' feet both came off their respective bases on the same double play grounder and both Moondogs were called safe, leading to an insurance run. This run proved to be crucial as Duluth mounted a small comeback in the bottom half of the inning, but fell short and got swept in the doubleheader, 4-3.

It was great to remember what "cold" felt like, as it got down into the 50s after sunset. After the game, I somehow navigated all of the construction and retired to my incredibly spacious hotel room to blog and relax. I figured Erik and I have 72 drunken hours ahead of us and I should probably rest up. Tomorrow I'm going to explore Duluth a bit before I meet up with E two hours away in Brainerd for a Lunkers game.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 7 (brick walls intimidating, but charming and unique)
views from park - 4 (can see lift bridge and Lake Superior from top row)
view to field - 4 (many obstructions)
surrounding area - 3 (residential)
food variety - 7
nachos - 6 (lots of cheese and pulled pork; pts deducted for being out of pulled pork)
beer - 9 ($10 for souvenir mug with $2.25 refills)
vendor price - 9 (nothing over $5)
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 8
walk to park - 5 (walk around periphery is nice)
parking proximity - 9 (ample adjacent lots for free)
concourses - 3 (cramped, below grandstand)
team shop - 5 (pts deducted for being a booth)

best food - Chicago-style hot dog
most unique stadium feature - exterior walls
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - no-hands cake eating contest between opposing players

field dimensions - 340/380/340
starters - Logan Odom (MAN) v. Frank De Jiulio (DUL); Alex Blackford v. Christopher Jensen
opponent - Mankato Moondogs
time of game - 2:01; 2:14
attendance - 2596 (total)
score - 4-1 L, 4-3 L
Brewers score that day - 10-2 L

Brewers 48-55, -9.0 (3 @ Astros, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 57-46, -- (3 v. Braves, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 56-46,
-1.0 (3 v. Mariners, 4 @ Rays)

Erik - 15
Peter - 34

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Giants Spooked out of Milwaukee Hotel

One of the hardest things about being a professional ballplayer is being on the road over a third of the year. A four-game road sweep would normally be something that would help a visiting player sleep better at night, but not in the case of the San Francisco Giants. A couple weeks ago, Pablo Sandoval and Edgar Renteria checked out of the historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee after being "spooked by ghosts." Had this been an isolated incident it might be pretty hilarious, but it turns out that Sandoval and Renteria are just two of hundreds who have experienced paranormal activity at this hotel.
At first I was skeptical, because the hotel is well over a century old, and I figured players were just creeped out being in such an old building that creaks and groans - I certainly would be uncomfortable staying there. But after I read about this incident, I dug deeper. It turns out that this has been going on for many seasons at the Pfister. Guests have reported hearing voices, flickering lights, electronics going haywire, and seeing the apparition of a "portly, smiling gentleman" roaming the halls, who could be none other than Charles Pfister himself. He opened the regal hotel with his father in the late 1800s and it has hosted every US president since McKinley. My dad's good friend, Jim Ksczinski, was the visiting clubhouse manager for the Brewers for over 30 years, and he also confirmed that there were several incidents over the years at this hotel with visiting ballplayers.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and I never knew until I read this article that the Pfister was haunted. Even more shocking to me was that players still stay at this ridiculously old hotel when there are other newer, more posh places to stay downtown. I would say that it's the Brewers trying to gain a competitive advantage if they didn't have the worst home record in baseball.

Brewers 43-53, -11.0 (4 v. Nationals, 3 v. Reds)
Reds 53-44, -1.5 (3 @ Astros, 3 @ Brewers)
Twins 50-45,
-2.5 (4 @ Orioles, 3 @ Royals)

Erik - 15
Peter - 32

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Rough Week for the Yankees

In the past few days, the New York Yankees have lost two of their most beloved, influential, and memorable off-the-field figures. On Sunday, longtime public address announcer Bob Sheppard died quietly in his Baldwin, New York home, only three months shy of his 100th birthday. He announced over 4,500 games at Yankee Stadium from 1951 through 2007, when illness and old age finally forced his retirement. From Mantle to Jeter, and 13 World Championships in between, Bob Sheppard was and is among the most recognizable voices in baseball history. One thing the new Yankee Stadium can never recreate is the smooth, distinctive player introductions of Sheppard.

Now batting, for the Yankees...#2, Derek Jeter...#2.

Only two days after Sheppard's passing, Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III died of a massive heartattack in Tampa at the age of 80. Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 for what was then a very large sum of money to buy a team - $8.7 million. Seven World Titles later, the team was estimated to be worth over $1.5 billion by Forbes this year. "The Boss," as he was called, was controversial, and butted heads with a lot of his players and managers, but was also said by many to be a very caring, generous, and passionate person. He will perhaps be known for two things in particular: the hiring and firing of 20 different managers in his first 23 years at the helm (including Billy Martin five different times), and his brainchild of the YES network. This Yankees broadcast station brought in unimaginable revenue streams for the team and helped finance the new ballpark that opened last year. Unfortunately, illness forced Steinbrenner to relinquish control of everyday operations to his sons following the 2006 season. Never has an owner been more in the public eye and more influential on his team in the history of sports than George Steinbrenner.

Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa.

Both Sheppard and Steinbrenner were honored with a moment of silence before the 81st Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night in Anaheim. Erik and I are both grateful that we got to be in the presence of these two Yankee giants while they were still with the team in 2007.

Brewers 40-49, -8.5 (4 @ Braves, 4 @ Pirates)
Reds 49-41, +1.0 (3 v. Rockies, 4 v. Nationals)
Twins 46-42,
-3.5 (4 v. White Sox, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 15
Peter - 31

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mets-Marlins in Puerto Rico

As I write this, Chris Volstad is throwing the first pitch of game 3 of the series in San Juan, Puerto Rico between the Mets and the Marlins. It is the first time a regular season game has been played outside of the United States or Canada since 2004, when the Montreal Expos played 22 "home games" as part of their schedule, due to poor attendance at Olympic Stadium and as part of Puerto Rico's bid have the team move there. Crowds have been well over capacity for this series at historic Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which opened for business in 1962. This series is part of an ongoing effort by MLB to expand baseball's world impact and to play to the increasing international popularity of the sport. Every major league team now has scouting camps, winter leagues, and training facilities in some Latino/Carribbean nation, and it is only a matter of time before MLB is playing in a 3rd country on a more permanent basis. Just watching even one inning of this Marlins-Mets series, one can see how enthusiastic and devoted some foreign countries are to the game, and are not just having our American sport crammed down their throat like the NFL or NBA. Continuing to develop international talent and spread baseball acadamies across the globe is the next big step in MLB's life cycle (now that the Steroid Era is more or less over) and events like this series in Puerto Rico, Japanese barnstorming tours in Spring Training, and the World Baseball Classic are all big steps in the right direction. Erik and I are eager to someday visit an international league and to witness the passion and excitement firsthand.

Brewers 35-43, -8.5 (4 @ Cardinals, 4 v. Giants, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 44-35, +0.5 (4 @ Cubs, 3 @ Mets, 4 @ Phillies)
Twins 43-35,
+1.5 (4 v. Rays, 3 @ Blue Jays, 3 @ Tigers)

Erik - 14
Peter - 27

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lewis & Clark Park

All photos of Lewis & Clark Park available on Flickr.

After a long day of college baseball at The Blatt, I decided to spend a few hours seeing the rest of Omaha, rather than get to Sioux City any earlier than I had to. Omaha is actually a pretty nice city, once you get past the ungodly summer heat, which I have coined as "Oma-hot." I took streets to downtown from my hotel instead of I-80, and I drove past the University of Nebraska-Omaha campus and the Gene Leahy Mall. It is not uncommon for a metropolitan area to have a scenic riverwalk, a tree-lined historic district with cobbled streets, or an urban commuter rail system, but it is pretty rare to have all three as Omaha does. I walked part of the Papillion Creek riverwalk and into the historic part of downtown, where my walking tour of Omaha abruptly ended when I located the Upstream Brewing Company and stopped in for some beer and grub in refuge of the Oma-hot. After sampling a few housemade brews and some tasty mac & cheese, my stay in Omaha concluded with a drive through northern downtown (NoDo) to see the new TD Ameritrade Park, slated to open in 2011 as the new home of the College World Series. It looks nice and NoDo seems like a cool area, but I will still miss Rosenblatt and was glad I got to go to a couple games in its final season.

From there, it was on to I-29 for the 90-minute drive north to Sioux City, coming in as Iowa's 4th largest city with a population of over 80,000. All I really got to see in Sioux City was the Motel 6, a dinky airport, a bunch of big-box and fast food stores, and the ballpark. The downtown may very well be amazing - the park is south of the city center - but obviously I was not at all impressed with my time there. On top of my lack of enthusiasm towards the town, I had to pay $2 to park and $10 general admission for an independent league park in the middle of nowhere. Factored in with the ridiculous prices and being so far from civilization, there was a threat of storms in the area, all of which contributed to a low attendance on what turned out to be a good home team performance on a comfortable night for baseball.

Lewis & Clark Park and the Explorers are both named for Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, who helped settle the area and whose famous expedition claimed its only life, Sgt. Charles Floyd, in what is today Sioux City. Lewis & Clark Park opened for business in 1993 and has hosted the Explorers every season since. It's a ballpark in that crossroads between new and old, in a situation where it is certainly not showing any signs of aging, but yet is not going to have the customary amenities and luxuries afforded by parks of the 21st century. For now, this 3600-seat stadium serves the fans and the team adequately enough. Not much is happening as you enter the park, with the lone concession stand directly in front of you, and a small team store just off to the side. The walk down both lines is very disconcerting, as the grandstand towers overhead and the patron is presented with just a tall blank wall with only a couple doors for staff and team access, making one feel as if they're trespassing when in certain areas of the stadium. Looking out from the grandstand, you can see US-20 beyond left field and acres of rolling hills and empty land past right field. The outfield wall stands alone with only the scoreboard behind it, and a grass buffer to the freeway and outlying bosque of trees, no seating or equipment whatsoever. The entire park just feels very isolated, as if baseball just "appeared" at this site - kind of like the Field of Dreams, but not in a good way. Also, prices did not get much better once I got inside; the most reasonable deal of any food worth getting was a Grande Nacho at $6.

All of my previous American Association experiences involved the Saints, and the Saints were again the opponent this night in a 10-0 defeat to the X's. Sioux City played very well in all facets of the game, and St. Paul just looked god awful. They played some of the worst infield defense I've ever seen, most notably the first baseman Ole Sheldon who could barely bend or move in any direction. Leading the league in homeruns won't get you on a minor league roster if you miss four plays a game on defense. The guy I was hoping to see at first base for the Saints was veteran Major Leaguer Kevin Millar, who started his pro career with the Saints and signed a contract with them in the offseason after getting cut by the Cubs. Unfortunately, he is on the DL, so Erik and I will have to hope he's ok by July when we head up there. Anyways, the X's all but put the game away in the 8-run 4th, during which they sent 12 men to the plate. Catcher Ray Serrano went 2-2 in that inning and 4-5 on the night with a HR, 2 RBI, and 3 runs scored. He also made a couple nice plays at the plate and called a really nice game for Jae Jung, who hurled 7 scoreless. There is probably not a big market for 29-year old overweight catchers, but he's now hitting nearly .400 on the season and just made it look way too easy at the plate all night. He was recently playing AAA ball for the Braves, so let's see if Serrano can't fight his way back to affliated ball. Another player of note who was recently cut by a pro team was DH Chris Errecart. I had never heard of him, but apparently he played for the Helena Brewers last year, and he went 3-5 with a 2-run HR in his first game of the season for the X's.

My brief trip concluded with a rough 8 AM wakeup call followed by a 3 1/2 hour drive, all so I could make the 1:05 first pitch at Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo. Hey, nobody said the life of a season ticket holder was easy! The next new ballpark(s) I'll be attending is with Erik on our July trip to Minnesota.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 2
views from park - 6 (set in hillside, US-20 and fields)
view to field - 8
surrounding area - 2 (Walmart, fast food, empty lots, etc)
food variety - 3
nachos - 8 (large portion, full array of taco toppings)
beer - 3 (low variety, $6 for large)
vendor price - 3
ticket price - 1 ($10 GA in independent league is ridiculous)
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 2
parking proximity - 4 (adjacent lot, but parking should have been free)
concourses - 1
team shop - 4 (small but good variety, pts deducted for being a booth and not walk-in shop)

best food - Grande Nachos
most unique stadium feature - unobstructed view to US-20 not more than 30ft from OF wall
best jumbotron feature - "Ring 'em Up" strikeout animation
best between-inning feature - all kids cha-cha on field with mascot Slider for a Pepsi

field dimensions - 330/400/330
starters - Todd Mathison (StP) v. Jae Jung (SC)
opponent - St. Paul Saints
time of game - 2:08
attendance - 788
score - 10-0 W
Brewers score that day - 7-5 W

Brewers 30-40, -9.0 (3 v. Mariners, 3 v. Astros)
Reds 40-33, -0.5 (3 v. Indians, 3 v. Phillies)
Twins 40-30,
+1.5 (3 @ Mets, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 14
Peter - 23

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

College World Series: Final Season of Rosenblatt Stadium

All photos of Omaha and Rosenblatt Stadium available on Flickr.

The College World Series has been at the heart of Omaha summers since 1950, and all 61 fields of 8 have played at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. In 2009, the city and the NCAA renewed its CWS lease through 2035, but with the caveat that Omaha build a new downtown stadium by 2011. The series, with attendance increasing above capacity almost every season since 1991, was outgrowing the stadium and the players, and a larger ballpark with modern amenities would be needed to generate more revenue for Omaha and the NCAA. On the other side of the coin, Rosenblatt's other tenant, the AAA Omaha Royals, were obviously struggling to fill this 23000+ seat ballpark on a regular basis - the O-Royals typically draw at less than 1/4 capacity. The plan for next season is for the O-Royals and the CWS to have separate stadiums that fit each of their needs, one downtown and one outside of the city. With that being said, I just had to go see a game during the final College World Series ever played at Rosenblatt Stadium. Erik and I had planned a week-long trip to Omaha, but his job prevented him from going. So, I condensed the same trip into a couple of days and journeyed on solo. Normally I would not cross things off of "the list" without Erik, but I feel that seeing Rosenblatt in its last season was warranted.

Erik and I both passed by Rosenblatt on the way from Lincoln to Des Moines on the tour, and even though we did not go inside, it has stood out in my mind these past 3 years among the many mindless minor and independent league structures we visited. Rosenblatt Stadium may not look flashy on the surface, but is very unique in a couple of ways. First, several additions have made this ballpark into the largest minor league park in the country. This gives it a much different look and feel than most of the more intimate ballparks in the minors, particularly at a CWS game. Secondly, the ballpark was opened for the 1948 season. Much like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City (ironically the O-Royals' parent club), the era in which it was built gives it a motif unmatched anywhere else. It postdates all of the wood frame ballparks erected earlier in the century, and predates the smaller, amenity-filled parks we see today in the minors that all have the same basic layout. The blue steel webframe structure and original "Rosenblatt" signage are both instantly recognizable. With the Royals moving to a 7,500 seat ballpark in outlying Papillion, and the College World Series moving to the 30,000 seat TD Ameritrade Park downtown, efforts have been ongoing to save the historic ballpark. The nearby Doorly Zoo will take ownership of the land starting in 2011 and intend on using the land for parking. The latest proposal I have seen presents a compromise of repurposing over total demolition, with the front entry gate and diamond remaining as a park, and the outfield behind being converted to parking stalls. Much of Rosenblatt's charm will be lost to generations forever, but this compromise or something like it would allow Omaha to keep a small piece of history alive. Rosenblatt Stadium is definitely a hidden gem that many people do not know about because they may not be college baseball fans, but make no mistake - it has the same character and memories as the Fenway Parks of the world and will definitely be missed.

I arrived in Omaha at about 1:00 on Monday, about a 4 hour drive from Waterloo. After checking in at the Super 8 - hiked up to $80/night for the CWS, and every room was full - I figured I had a little bit of time to kill before heading to the park. Big mistake. Wasting a half-hour watching the World Cup in my room almost prevented me from gaining access to the 3:30 game. It took me about a half-hour to get from the off-ramp to the the lawn I parked on 5 blocks away for $30. The neighborhood and the atmosphere was unbelievable. Never in all my visits to Lambeau field or Yankee Stadium, or all of my college football experiences, have I seen the crowds and activity like I did there. Like Lambeau Field, parking at the field is insufficient and nearby residents charge a ridiculous fee for them to park on your lawn. I read a lot of articles about how neighbors are glad to see the CWS leave Rosenblatt, but for making $100-200 a day in parking fees for two weeks, I'd put up with the madness. Like Yankee Stadium, there are merchandise tents, stores, and bars lined all up and down Bert Murphy Drive and 12th Streets, interspersed between and in front of houses. And like a college football Saturday at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Iowa, or any other big university, the crowd is electric. People tailgate and drink on their porches from first pitch to the last out. Thousands of students wander the streets supporting their schools with the little clothing they have on. Lines form around the stadium and onto the street.

The College World Series experience combines the most insane atmospheres of the NFL, MLB, and college football all in one, packed into 10 days. On top of that, throw in that people converge from all over the country to see this event, and you have a scene that will likely never be fully recreated after this year. A downtown ballpark may provide much deserved revenue and development opportunities, but will never recreate the neighborhood feel and chaos that is present every June at the Blatt, and that to me is a big loss. Having now attended the CWS at Rosenblatt, I will (as a lifelong Cubs hater) finally reverse my stance on tearing down Wrigley Field. Yes, the stadium will crumble and require significant structural renovations, but who cares? It's all about the fans and the neighborhood. Having that gameday aura in Chicago, or Omaha, or anywhere else, is something very special. The Yankees had the opportunity to rebuild their new stadium across the street, but the Cubs and CWS unfortunately do not have that luxury.

After finding my way through the crowd and the muck from the overnight rain, I finally arrived on the hallowed Rosenblatt grounds. The College World Series and the NCAA host a FanFest outside the ballpark every year, which was kind of like the scene outside the Winter Classic at Wrigley. There were tents selling food and merchandise, some bands playing, fan activities, and just a general gathering spot before and after the games. The festival led me to the front gate, and I tried as best I could to get some unobstructed photos of the "Road to Omaha" statue and the front gate signage, but the crowd was very thick. Flags of the 8 schools flanked both sides of the statue - TCU, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, UCLA, South Carolina, Clemson, and #1 ranked Arizona State. By this time it was an hour to first pitch, and I thought I had time to circumnavigate the park quick. I made my way through the makeshift "ESPN Camp" past left field, and discovered two things: (1) you can't circumnavigate a park perched on a hill, and (2) I'd better get in line right now! They had set up a line with ropes and posts, not unlike waiting in line at a roller coaster park, and I snaked my way through it as fast as I could and got into the park at about 3:00. At the CWS, general admission ticket holders like myself are not guaranteed entry - only about 5800 per game - so getting into the stadium was an accomplishment in itself. OK, I found parking, and I got in - now to find a seat. Being there alone, I was able to wedge in at the top row of the lower section in left field to take in an elimination game between Florida and Florida State.

Just as with being outside the park, inside was no different - no glitz and glamour, but still distinctly original, and the fans totally made the experience. Rosenblatt appears much more massive than the web frame and metal bleachers seen from the outside would indicate. It's a very tall one-deck park, with seats surrounding all sides, and a small standing area beyond the batters eye. All of the concessions were under the bleachers offering a limited palette, but most importantly lots of water, soda, and frozen treats on this hot day. The only bad part of my day was that the GA sections and the reserved seating areas were separated, so I was not able to see the entire park. The afternoon game was just under capacity, probably because of the 90+ degree heat and the threat of rain. Eventually the skies turned partly cloudy and the rain held up, so it turned out to be a relaxing game, despite its nearly 4-hour length. Amidst the constant confiscation of beach balls and taunting of the right field fans - "Right Field Sucks! Right Field Sucks!" - I was able to witness Florida State edge out Florida 8-5, thus making the Gators the first team eliminated from the CWS. Brian Busch overcame a shaky start for the Seminoles, giving up a tape measure shot to the first batter of the game, but ended up going 5.1 innings for the victory. Florida made it interesting in the 9th with a 3-spot, but Mike McGee came in from left field for the 'Noles to pick up his 13th save of the season. The star of the game was undoubtedly McGee. He not only hit the tie-breaking 3-run homerun in the 3rd, but as I said also picked up the save. McGee is not surprisingly a finalist for the John Olerud award, given each year to NCAA baseball's top two-way player. Austin Maddox was the big-name player I recognized in the game, and he went 2-5 with an RBI as the Gators' DH.

For the last game, I had to exit the park and re-enter for an 8:00 first pitch. Since the afternoon game did not end until 7:15, lines were already very long to get into the TCU-UCLA nightcap. At first glance at the gathered crowd, I thought that there was zero chance I'd get back in. But with nothing better to do on a Monday night in Omaha and with ticket already in hand, I gave it a shot, and was literally in the last 20 or so people to gain entry. I walked down the concourse to get a burger, and when I walked back past the gate, the people behind me in line had not yet left. Security was actually letting in handfuls of people at a time as people exited throughout the game. I tried to sit in right for this game so that I could see the jumbotron, and to see if right field did in fact suck. I searched for about two innings all across the outfield for a seat and finally decided to just stand in the aisle illegally in right-center with about 2,000 screaming TCU fans. This game was much more rowdy than the first, and it seemed to be mostly TCU fans aside from a section behind the UCLA dugout. There were a lot of shirtless guys walking around with Bruins caps on, but being from LA they probably weren't at the park to watch the game anyways and were no doubt leaving early. Again surrounded by a sea of beach balls, bleacher bums trying to start waves and chants, and security removing people left and right, I was able to see an amazing game. Gerrit Cole completely dominated the Horned Frogs for 8 innings in a gutsy performance. Aside from the 7th in which he loaded the bases and gave up a bases-clearing triple to Taylor Featherston, he had TCU hitters looking foolish all night. The best half-inning of the entire day was when Cole, a first-round draft pick this year of the Yankees, remarkably came back out for the 8th after looking to be tapped out in the rocky 7th. He proceeded to strikeout the side on mid-90s fastballs, making it a total of 13 for the night on 122 pitches. After heading for the dugout with a fist-pump following the 3rd out, a barrage of beach balls and inflatable animals engulfed the entire outfield in one final act of defiance towards the beleaguered security crew. Players including Cole himself came out to the outfield to help restore order, and after a strategic playing of "Sweet Caroline" by PA guy, the crowd was distracted enough to let the final inning play out and UCLA to prevail 6-3. The Bruins' leadoff hitter Beau Amaral was the offensive star of the game, going 3-3 with 2 runs scored and an RBI.

I would conclude this long post with a list of tips for anyone visiting the CWS, but I doubt any of the same problems will exist at the downtown ballpark next year. All I can say is to get there plenty early if you hold a GA ticket and hang on for a wild ride! I had an absolute blast and cannot wait to visit TD Ameritrade Field with Erik in the near future. My brief roadtrip will conclude today with finding a good brewpub to watch the World Cup this afternoon, and a 90-minute drive to Sioux City to watch the Explorers.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2 (some views of the zoo through the back fence)
view to field - 6 (obstructions in the gaps, behind the plate, and from massive crowds)
surrounding area - 4 (zoo, residential - bump it up to a 9 for CWS FanFest)
food variety - 2
nachos - 4 (standard)
beer - not sold at NCAA event
vendor price - 5 ($4 for water)
ticket price - 9 ($10 GA is pretty good for a championship event)
atmosphere - 10
walk to park - 9
parking proximity - 3 (relatively close, but $15-20 per game on surrounding lawns)
concourses - 3
team shop - 7 (pts deducted for almost everything in & out of park sold out by end of gm 2)

best food - Omaha Steak burger
most unique stadium feature - "Road to Omaha" statue
best jumbotron feature - Rosenblatt CWS memories
best between-inning feature - beach balls in bleachers

field dimensions - 335/408/335
starters - Hudson Randall (FLA) v. Brian Busch (FSU); Kyle Winkler (TCU) v. Gerrit Cole (UCLA)
opponent - Florida Gators v. Florida State Seminoles; Texas Christian Horned Frogs v. UC-Los Angeles Bruins
time of game - 3:33; 3:18
attendance - 19500+; 23100+
score - 8-5 FSU, 6-3 UCLA
Brewers score that day - off