Thursday, April 29, 2010

Community Field

All photos of Burlington and Community Field available on Flickr.

Erik's line of work affords him little time to go to the ballpark. So, in what is seemingly becoming an annual tradition, we took an impromptu roadtrip this past weekend before he starts his next campaign in May. It'll be nice for both of us when the day comes that Erik decides to live in one city permanently and work 8-hour days like a normal person, but for now it gives us a good excuse to go watch ball - as if we needed an excuse.

The main point of the weekend tour was to visit a ballpark we haven't seen yet in Burlington, Iowa, but before I get to that I'll briefly go over the rest of the weekend. We started by meeting at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport on Friday night to see the River Bandits. This was the 4th year in 5 I've been to Davenport, but we just couldn't pass up Salute to Grilled Cheese Night. This is still my favorite Midwest League park, and I find "MoWood" to have some of the better promotions and team-following in the entire league. Grilled Cheese Night turned out to be a little disappointing though. We found out after the game that the celebration was actually just a 50-cent reduction in price of the grilled cheese they regularly have on the menu for $2.50. They also ran out of bread and served us our grilled cheese on charred brat buns. It was advertised that there would be varieties of grilled cheese, but they also failed at that. However, it was supposed to rain all night and the weather held up, and that's all we really cared about. Add on top of that the fireworks show, a River Bandits win, and a couple good bars after the game, and it turned out to be a fun night. The following day was supposed to be a 90-minute drive down to Burlington to see the Bees, but we found out around 3pm that the game was moved to 2 that day to beat the rain, so we ended up staying an extra night in Davenport and using our free grilled cheese coupons at Hooters from Friday's game.

We finally made our way into Burlington on Sunday morning, this time making sure beforehand to check that the game was still on. Skies were ominous and the wind was cold as we rolled into town, but 3 years later, the luck of the tour is still with us and the Bees and Kernels would play a full 9 at Community Field. We got there early enough that we even beat the visiting team bus, so we walked down the street, past the $175/week motel and local waterpark, to the gas station for some silos of cheap beer and had our second beverage-only tailgate of the weekend.

I think Erik and I both had the same reaction when we walked into the park - it was by far not the nicest minor league park we've ever been to, but the distinct design features were very welcome. At this point in our ballpark-going careers, "nice" to us just means that the park is unique and it has a good beer selection, both of which Community Field possesses. As we later found out from Burlington's general manager Chuck Brockett (who came and talked to us for two innings), the Bees put in about $3 million a few years ago to renovate the ballpark. Part of the renovation was a tall, sweeping metal roof canopy straddling the grandstand and the new ticket window building in the front. Below this canopy is the main concourse, with one side having restrooms and picnic tables under the grandstand, and the other side having concessions and the team store. The rest of the renovation included a small brick out-building in left with a party area, and a new scoreboard. Brockett walked right up to us and told us all these things, because he could just tell we were from out of town and that we loved baseball. We had a great conversation and a great time talking to him about the Midwest League. Burlington understandably will never be able to compete financially with teams like Dayton or Great Lakes, but the Bees put whatever money they can gather back into their park so they can remain a competitive farm club. Brockett is smart and realized early on that the most crucial element in the park was a well-maintained field so the guys can get their work in, and the thing I was most impressed with was how good the grass looked even after 24+ hours of rain. The Bees have been a professional team in some form for over 60 years, including a Brewers affiliate from 1975-81. They are now regionally affiliated with the Royals, which I would guess helps the attendance of such a small-town team.

On this day however, there were only about 300 fans present to watch the Bees fall to the Cedar Rapids Kernels, 7-6. The Kernels got the scoring started with 2 in the first on a Jose Jimenez double, and added another run in the 2nd. The big play for the Bees in the game was a 3-run double by 1B Joey Lewis in the 3rd. The Bees led for most of the way after that and it looked like they were going to pull in out, until the Kernels' DH Casey Haerther rang a towering homerun off the left-field foul pole on reliever Dusty Odenbach's first pitch of the game in the 8th. The stars of the game were the DHs - Haerther, and Ryan Stovall for the Bees who went 3-4 with two doubles.

Erik and I watched a good ballgame in Burlington for very little money, I caught a foul ball in the 1st inning, and I got to talk baseball with the team's general manager. Aside from being in rural Iowa in April, it was just about the perfect day. We only wish we could have had more $2.50 Old Style, but we had to drive the 2 1/2 hours back to Waterloo for the night to conclude the great day by watching Braves-Mets on Sunday Night Baseball. Community Field marks the 8th Midwest League stadium I've been to out of 16, and this now leaves only one remaining professional ballpark I have yet to visit in Iowa - Lewis and Clark Park in Sioux City.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 7 (a nuts-and-bolts park but unique canopy feature/concourse)
views from park - 2 (lovely downtown Burlington from top of bleachers)
view to field - 5 (close but obstructed by nets)
surrounding area - 4 (FunCity and fast food joints)
food variety - 4 (standard)
nachos - 6 (sloppy joe meat & cheese)
beer - 9 (good variety of cans for $2.50)
vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 2
parking proximity - 8 (adjacent lot for free, but points deducted for "lot" just being a lawn)
concourses - 6
team shop - 7

best food - Bees Rite, the Bees' version of a "maid rite" i.e. Iowa term for sloppy joe
most unique stadium feature - canopy over concourse
best jumbotron feature - player information
best between-inning feature - trivia

field dimensions - 338/403/318
starters - Patrick Corbin (CR) v. Tyler Sample (BUR)
opponent - Cedar Rapids Kernels
time of game - 2:30
attendance - 335
score - 7-6 L
Brewers score that day - 12-2 L

Brewers 9-12, -5.5 (4 @ Padres, 3 @ Dodgers)
Reds 11-11, -4.0 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Mets)
Twins 14-8,
+1.5 (3 @ Indians, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 7
Peter - 6

Friday, April 23, 2010

Seats Available

In the early weeks of the 2010 season, four teams have already set record lows in attendance: Baltimore 9,129 (4/12), Cleveland 10,071 (4/14), Seattle 14,528 (4/19), and Washington 11,623 (4/19). Toronto also recorded their lowest attendance since moving to the Rogers Centre 22 years ago, with a measly 10,314 fans attending a game on April 19th. As you can see, three of these record low games occurred on one day, which was what originally made me take notice of this trend. Further research will show that although Major League Baseball attendance is up this year, that figure is mostly skewed by the Twins' new ballpark - which has already sold out over 50 games - and of course teams like the Red Sox and Cubs that sell out every game. The entire Rays-Orioles series last week took in fewer fans (33,000+) than for a typical game at Fenway, the ballpark with the smallest capacity in baseball. Aside from a small handful of teams, almost every team in the majors is down at least 5% in attendance from 2009.

So what can we take away from this? For one thing, it is April, so I'm not panicking too much. It's also interesting to note that the other three teams in the AL East besides Boston and New York all draw well below the league average. The Rays are currently tied for the best record in baseball right now, and the Jays have been far from slouches so far in '10. Could it be because of the old, artificial-turf parks they play in? Maybe. It could just be that fans in Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa are just sick of losing to the big market teams. I'm not one of those baseball fans that likes to complain about the lack of a salary cap, but it's just something to think about.

For many years, the Brewers only drew large crowds when the Cubs were in town, and now they are well on their way to surpassing 3,000,000 fans for a 3rd straight season. I think more of these teams that don't draw just need to look to the Brewers for how to run a small to mid-market team. Sure, new stadiums and promotions are great, but the novelty wears off - you have to put a consistent product on the field through a well-stocked farm system to stay competitive in this league, and to draw fans on a regular basis. League contraction, moving teams, divisional realignment, and fixing revenue sharing are all just bandaids for the real problem - there are way too many terrible upper managements and scouting departments in baseball. It's easy for a bystander to yell at Orioles fans for being fair-weather, or to call the Astros terrible, but the blame should be placed almost solely on the GM and his scouts. It's understandable that winning for a smaller market team will go in cycles, but the years of suffering that some cities have had to endure is beyond ridiculous. It would be nice if the Pirates would draw a crowd once in awhile so they would actually be allowed to show a panorama of that beautiful ballpark on TV, instead of me just having to text Erik "seats available behind home plate at PNC Park."

Brewers 8-7, -2.0 (3 v. Cubs, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 7-9, -3.5 (3 v. Padres, 3 @ Astros)
Twins 11-5,
+2.0 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ Tigers)

Erik - 3
Peter - 3

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Duane Banks Field

All photos of Duane Banks Field available on Flickr.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day everybody! Following the excitement of opening week, I came to the grim realization that I wouldn't be back in Milwaukee - and thus unable to attend a Brewers game - for over two months, which would be by far my longest in-season drought since high school. This means I will have to explore other opportunities to watch live ball, and God forbid, I may have to go a week or two without going to the ballpark! I began preparing for this scenario last month by researching all of the local universites I could find. Iowa State does not have a team...the Upper Iowa University Peacocks only play day games...UNI's baseball team folded after the 2009 season...University of Iowa, jackpot! Ever though the Kernels were home this week, I decided on Tuesday to drive the extra 15 minutes to Iowa City because the Hawkeyes were playing my alma mater, UW-Milwaukee.

Exiting off of I-80, I immediately noticed how much nicer the drive was to the ballpark than when I went to Kinnick Stadium in November. Hwy 6 through Coralville is lined on one side with hundreds of shops and eateries to satisfy the student population, and a beautiful pasture on the other. Duane Banks Field itself is situated in a very quiet area of the campus and offers free parking in a side lot just outside of the left field foul pole. The path to the front gate is in a park-like setting, lined with pear trees on the right, and with a clear view into the concourse on the left hand side. The pear trees were in full spring blossom with white flowers just in time for baseball season, and gave the approach a simple beauty you'd be hard-pressed to find even at a professional ballpark. Even more beautiful then the path was that at the end of it, I only had to pay $3 for a ticket - nevermind that the ticket stubs are torn off a roll and say "Iowa Gymnastics" on them.

The concourse is of the Mayo Field/Knology Park variety. On the field side, you can see the underside of the seating bowl, and aside from one vending stand and some bathrooms, there are no rooms or walls built up underneath the grandstand. The other side of the concourse just has a chain-link fence that looks out onto campus buildings along 1st, and the entry path along 3rd. The coolest part of the ballpark for me was the plaque in the concourse behind home plate that honored former Brewer pitcher and Hawkeye alum Cal Eldred for donating the money for Duane Banks Field to install lights. After reading this plaque, I ascended into the stands via ramp, and was greeted by two sections of metal bleachers along the lines, and one section of actual plastic folding seats behind home plate, topped by a concrete-block media booth. I took my seat behind the UWM dugout along 3rd, about 5 rows from the top and next to two UWM coaches. The crowd was in the low-hundreds as I expected, and the park looked to hold about 3-4,000. This was only the 3rd collegiate ballpark I have been to, but I thought it was pretty nice. Normally if I go to a minor league game that has free surface-lot parking and 300 people in the stands, I would make some sort of snide comment, but at an NCAA game I didn't seem to mind the small crowd. That's not to say that there wasn't any life there - the fans and announcer got into it and cheered for the home team, and there were surprisingly even some minor-league staples like between-innings entertainment and t-shirt tosses. Overall it was a very relaxing night at the ballpark.

The fast pace of collegiate baseball and the constant changing of pitchers kept my attention for the entire game. The game looked bleak for the Panthers at first, as I arrived a little late and it was 3-0 before I even sat down. Both teams put up zeros through the next 4 frames before UWM tied it with 3 of their own in the 6th. The pace of the game slowed considerably towards the end of the game, as UWM gave up an additional 6 runs with 5 different pitchers in the latter innings, and ended up falling 9-3 to the Hawkeyes. Phil Keppler and Zach McCool - two players I saw a lot of as members of the 2009 Waterloo Bucks - were the stars of the game for Iowa with a combined 4 hits and 4 RBI. McCool had the at-bat of the game in the 7th when he managed to work a full count and foul off a bunch of tough pitches before stroking a 3-run double to right-center field. Second basemen Paul Hoenecke had 2 hits for UWM.

A lot of things surprised me in this game. There were quite a few guys who knew how to work the count, and the infield defense was much better than I expected given the aluminum thundersticks that NCAA baseball uses. I was also very surprised to see that nearly all of UWM's relief core throw sidearm or has some sort of unorthodox delivery, even the guys that just warmed up in the pen and didn't get into the game. To me this is a smart move by whoever the pitching coach is, because it says that if you want to have a chance to make it to the bigs from a small school like UW-Milwaukee, you have to show the scouts something unique. I was also surprised to find out that Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team without a baseball program. Baseball is usually one of the first programs to go when there's a finance or Title 9 issue, and I was happy to see that the other 10 schools in the conference still had a team. Lastly, I was also very pleasantly surprised that there was a team store at the park and that they gave away magnet schedules! I immediately placed said magnet schedule in its rightful place on my fridge when I got home, and quickly noted a return trip to Iowa City in early May when the Kernels are on the road.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 3
views from park - 3
view to field - 9 (obstructed by fence behind home plate)
surrounding area - 7 (University of Iowa campus)
food variety - 2
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - n/a
vendor price - 5 ($3.50 for 20oz bottle of soda, rest of prices are fair)
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - 6
walk to park - 8 (tree-lined path or through campus)
parking proximity - 10 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 3 (not a lot of activity)
team shop - 3 (more of a shed, but decent selection for its size)

best food - brat
most unique stadium feature - pear trees outside concourse
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - Paper-Rock-Scissors contest

field dimensions - 330/400/330
starters - Jayme Sukowaty (UWM) v. Zach Robertson (IA)
opponent - University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers
time of game - 2:42
attendance - 315
score - 9-3 W
Brewers score that day - off

Brewers 4-5, -2.0 (3 @ Nationals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 5-5, -1.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Dodgers)
Twins 7-3,
+0.5 (3 v. Royals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 3
Peter - 3

Friday, April 9, 2010

Opening Week 2010

All photos of the Brewers' home opener and the Kernels' home opener available on Flickr.

After another long winter, the 2010 season is finally upon us, and I could not be more excited! Is it just me, or does Spring Training keep getting longer and longer? Maybe it was because I decided to renew my subscription after a 2-season hiatus, but listening to all of those Spring games on my computer got me more revved up for this season than ever. Or, maybe all of the Brewers offseason signings got me really excited for the season. Perhaps it was watching new time-lapse videos every week and reading articles about how fast the construction time was at Target Field and how the new Twins' home is supposed to be the new gem of the big league ballparks. It could be that my fantasy baseball team is loaded with Cy Young and MVP candidates that I'm so anxious for this season. But really, there's no one specific reason, other than I'm just ready for the warm weather to roll in and to watch ball. It's also great to be watching Baseball Tonight again and listening to all of the pundits make bold claims for what player is going to break out of the pack or what team will dominate. It's easy for me to write a blog post predicting that the Phillies are gonna win it all or that Brian Matusz and Jason Heyward are going to win Rookie of the Year, but what makes baseball's Opening Day so much more awesome than any other sport, is that there really is no way to predict this early who will be left standing after 162 games. You could make 10 predictions for the season right now knowing you'll probably get 9 wrong, but you just can't help but watch for 7 months how the story will unfold. For instance, if someone were to tell you that a new pitcher was going to skip the minor leagues entirely and start in the Majors this year, you would most certainly have guessed either Cuban star Aroldis Chapman or the Nationals' phenom pitcher Steven Strasburg. Low and behold, Mike Leake will become the first pitcher since Darren Dreifort in 1994 to forgo the minor leagues to be the 5th starter in the Cincinnati Reds' rotation. That's right, the Reds are sending Leake to the big leagues and Chapman to AAA. Unbelievable!

The Brewers opened their 2010 season at home this season, and for the 3rd consecutive year I had tickets to the game, along with my family. Erik and I had no offseason trips planned this year, so Opening Day at Miller Park was that much more special to me since it was the first time I'd set foot in a ballpark in over 6 months. There's the obvious thrill of skipping work to go to Opening Day, and the tradition and atmostphere of the first tailgate, but other than that I'm always anxious to get to my first Brewers game to see all of the upgrades to Miller Park. Even if nothing has changed, I still love to snap photos because after being away for the offseason, everything seems so new. Owner Mark Attanasio has been notorious for putting profit and revenue sharing money back into the ballpark, but this year there aren't many visible changes. As far as I could tell, there were a couple vendor additions (a burrito cart and a pasta stand) and a few new sponsors, but the biggest change was behind the scenes with clubhouse and video room upgrades. Supposedly on the slate for next year is a new $1 million HD scoreboard, because at 10 years old, Miller Park's is already out of date. It's not really a ballpark upgrade, but it is also worth noting that there is a "Countdown to 600 Saves" banner in left-center for Trevor Hoffman. He entered this season as the all-time saves leader with 591 and has already notched two more.

In front of the second largest crowd in Miller Park history, the Brewers dropped a heartbreaker to the Rockies, 5-3. Newly-signed ace Yovani Gallardo gave up 4 over 7 for the Brewers in a servicable outing, but the Crew could never really muster enough offense against fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez. Even when they had him on the ropes in the 6th, a fatigued Jimenez still got out of it with only one run allowed. The Brewers made a game of it with a Carlos Gomez homer in the 7th and a 9th inning rally against the Rockies' wild closer Franklin Morales, but it was too little too late. The Carloses were the stars of the day - Gomez and Gonzalez went 8-10 for their repsective teams with 4 runs. After losing the opener, the Brewers would go on to win games 2 and 3 and take the series against a team many have picked to win the NL West. I thought the Brewers played outstanding in all 3 games and I'm very confident that they will be fighting for the postseason in September. The most encouraging sign is the true team effort it took to win, particularly the bullpen hierarchy. Everybody single person on the 25-man roster except Gregg Zaun contributed, and with his .471 spring I'll let a couple poor games slide.

The Brewers' first off day of the season coinciding with Minor League Opening Day could not have worked out any better. However, the weather across the midwest on Thursday was a far cry from the 70s we had for Opening Day on Monday. Erik was supposed to attend the Timber Rattlers' home opener in Appleton, but it was snowed out! There was no snow in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, but it was still pretty darn cold. Despite the cold weather, I was hoping for a bigger crowd, but paid attendance was announced at only 1300-something. Everything's pretty much the same at Veterans Memorial Stadium this year, other than some new items in the team store. In mid-season last year, the Kernels added a concessions tent that grills specialty burgers and sausages, and that still looks to be the best food option there. There are also the same promotional nights, in which beer is on sale for 4 of the 7 nights of the week. And perhaps most importantly, Mr. Shucks is still his usual jovial self. As for the game, the outcome was fairly predictable for a low-level minor league game in April: 2-0, Cedar Rapids loses in 10 innings. I say "predictable" because many of these young A-ball kids are not used to playing in 30 and 40-degree temps. When you throw in the fact that for many of these kids, this was also their first professional baseball game, what you get are amped-up pitchers blowing hitters away and being kept warm by adrenaline, and hitters taking homerun cuts on every pitch so that they can get back in the dugout and put on a jacket. Maybe it's different in the SAL, I don't know, but all the April MWL games I've been to were far from barnburners. The guy who finally sent everybody home was DH Derek McCallum of the Snappers, who laced a 2-run bases-loaded single to right in the top of the 10th. Over half of the 60 outs in this game were made via the strikeout.

I was thrilled to get 19 innings under my belt this week and to finally ring in the start of the MLB and MiLB seasons. I'm looking forward to attending a handful of Kernels and Iowa Hawkeyes games before the Northwoods League starts in June, for which I purchased Waterloo Bucks season tickets at the whopping price of $104.

Brewers 2-1, -- (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 1-2, -0.5 (3 v. Cubs, 4 @ Marlins)
Twins 3-1,
+1.0 (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Red Sox)

Erik - 1
Peter - 2