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