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