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

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