Monday, December 12, 2011

Ryan Braun named MVP, tests positive for banned substance

It's been quite the emotional rollercoaster for the Milwaukee Brewers over the past couple of months. There was the thrill of winning their first division title in 30 years, followed by the agonizing collapse at the hands of the eventual World Series champion and division-rival St. Louis Cardinals. About a month later, Brewer fans everywhere rejoiced as All-Star slugger Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp for the National League MVP award, swiping 20 of 32 first-place votes. But the announcement of the regular season awards also marked the start of the offseason, and fans got daily reminders that Prince Fielder had not only most likely played his last game in Milwaukee, but even worse he had a good chance of becoming a Cub. And before we even had time to celebrate the departure of Albert Pujols, an even bigger bombshell dropped – Ryan Braun had tested positive for an illegal substance.

This news left people even more stunned than the Pujols deal, and shocked not only Brewer fans but the entire baseball world. Suddenly, one of the pillars of the game today, and one of the shining examples of how well the drug policy was working with today's modern sluggers, had cheated the system and taken us all back to a topic we thought was long past in the rear-view mirror – performance enhancing drugs. This was supposed to be over. We were supposed to be talking about exciting things like the new CBA and divisional realignement, the Athletics' ballpark saga, expanding instant replay and the playoffs – fun things. Things to foster progress in the game. But then suddenly, a giant step backwards. A week ago all that was on the minds of the common Brewer fan was who was going to play short. The signings of Alex Gonzalez, Aramis Ramirez, and K-Rod, while a week ago would have meant World Series or bust, now almost feel insignificant. What's the point without Braun? The face of this franchise has turned his back on his team and his city and has left the entire 2012 season in limbo before spring camp has even started.

I'm still kind in disbelief over the whole thing. I almost feel like somebody told me that Santa Claus isn't real. Braun is a hero and role model in Milwaukee, to myself included, and I just feel like he let down an entire city by cheating. He was the first Brewer MVP since arguably the greatest Brewer of all time, Robin Yount. Braun had a chance to be even better than Yount, but that is now forever tainted because his career will always have that shadow lurking in the court of public opinion. It really hurts when somebody you put so much faith in is not the person you thought they were. Ryan's brutal honesty and impeccable character have temporarily earned my trust; I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are out and the appeal is over. But if he is found guilty, it will undoubtedly take some time before I can root for him with the same passion I had before.

Earlier I posed the question, what's the point without Braun? To use an analogy familiar to Wisconsinites, it's the same thing many Packer fans were asking when Brett Favre left in 2008. I certainly did. The only reason I watched the Packers for many years was to see Favre play. He was a hero and could do no wrong, and I loved how he played the game and admired him as a person. Then all of a sudden, for various reasons he became kind of an outcast, and that magical way people felt about him seemed to wane. Ryan Braun is almost the exact same situation. I'm not too old or too proud to admit that I have sports heroes, and Favre and Braun are definitely two of them. Hero or no hero, just as the Packers did, the show must go on. It's not fair to hold it against the entire team just because one player is out. And who knows, maybe the Brewers will find their “Aaron Rodgers” this year while Braun is out? I thought I would never forgive Favre for leaving the Packers the way he did. But even the next season, as he looked like an idiot donning Viking purple, I always put aside my feelings for 3 hours to watch him play and found myself instinctively rooting for him. I still loved to watch him play, and I always will. Even though Ryan Braun has a lot of explaining to do and has disappointed and hurt an entire state's worth of fans, I hope that each time he's between the chalk lines, I'll be able to put all the anger aside to watch him play for my hometown team. The Brewers have always felt like a part of my family, and what do family members do? They forgive each other, and they support each other unconditionally, for better or for worse. I will always be privileged to say to my grandchildren someday that I got to see the best hitter of his generation play his entire career as a Brewer, and no drug test or sports writer can ever tell me otherwise.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cardinals Win World Series, LaRussa Promptly Retires

All photos of NLDS Game 1 and NLCS Game 6 available on Flickr.

Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals for winning their 11th World Series title in franchise history, 2nd only to the juggernaut that is the New York Yankees. As much as I dislike the Cardinals, they truly did deserve to win with how well they played in the last 2 months. The team's stars rarely hustle and the lineup is filled with whiners and jerks, but they also just flat out know how to play baseball and do a lot of little things right. The Cards' dangerous lineup featured all 1-8 regulars hitting near or above .300, and since the trade deadline they had also featured one of the best bullpens in the majors. In fact, against the Brewers in the NLCS, they became the first team in NL history to record more outs with the bullpen than with the starting rotation in a 7-game series. I would think that after Adam Wainwright went down in February and with all the blown saves in April-May, that most people including myself wrote this team off pretty quickly. But they persevered and continually defied the odds to write one of the greatest championship stories in the history of baseball.

The author of this book was skipper Tony LaRussa, who after a wild weekend of celebrating in St. Louis, announced his retirement after 33 years as a manager. LaRussa won 3 titles (2 with the Cardinals and one in 1989 with the A's) and leaves the game 3rd all time in managerial wins behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw. I have personally witnessed the past 14 years of LaRussa's career, since the Brewers joined the NL Central in 1998. I have come to loathe his managerial style and his attitude towards the game. He changed pitchers and lineups way too much and played way too many mind games to make the game bearable. He's also a whiner and doesn't hold a lot of accountability. But you can't argue with results - the guy just knew how to win. He put together one of his best managerial efforts in his last season, long after everybody wrote this team off. Some of his best seasons were 85, 87 win campaigns where he took a bunch of scrapheap players and ragtag arms and won despite all the odds. He always got the most out of his players and has always received nothing but high praise from players past and present who have said they would die on the field for Tony. A lot of credit generally falls to his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, and rightfully so, but LaRussa was certainly the star of the bench this season. Despite what I think of him, he will go down as one of the greatest in-game strategists and most cerebral managers of all time, and is certainly a lock for the Hall of Fame. The biggest compliment I can pay LaRussa is that by virtue of his retirement alone, the Brewers stand a chance at repeating as division champs in 2012.

Speaking of the Brewers, congratulations to my hometown team on a historic year! The Cardinals disposed of them in a 6-game NLCS on their way to the championship, but the Brewers fought hard all the way despite all five of their starters being absolutely gassed from the long season. Now that I've had time to digest the season and to calm down from the agony of defeat, I really couldn't be prouder of this team. They achieved a career high in wins (96) and their best ever home record as a franchise, and they made the entire season exciting to watch. Prince is probably gone in 2012, but they still have a lot of players under contract - including all five starters - and I think they have at least one more year to make a run at this thing, this time with even more playoff experience under their belts. One thing is for certain - 2011 MVP candidate Ryan Braun is locked up until 2020, which will always give me a reason to go to the ballpark, no matter how grim the team may look.

Brewers 96-66, +6.0, NL Central Champions, lost in NLCS
Reds 79-83, -17.0, 3rd in NL Central
Twins 63-99, -32.0, last in AL Central

Erik - 17
Peter - 40

Monday, September 26, 2011

Brewers Clinch First Division Title since 1982

Congratulations to my hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers, for winning their first division title in 29 years!!! The Brewers clinched in dramatic fashion on Friday night in front of a home crowd of over 44,000. It was all set up by a catastrophic loss by the Cardinals to the Mets on Thursday night, which lowered the magic number to 2 and presented the opportunity for the Brewers to clinch on Friday night with a win and another Cardinals loss. Tied at 1 in the 8th, Corey Hart ripped a double and Nyjer Morgan walked to start the rally. And then one of the most memorable moments in franchise history, delivered by who else but Ryan Braun - a 3-run bomb off the scoreboard in center. K-Rod struck out 2 batters in the 8th and John Axford easily attained his 45th save in the 9th to secure the victory. Following the game, not a single person or player left the stadium, and the Cubs-Cards game was broadcast live on the jumbotron. Everyone rooted for the Cubs for perhaps the first time in their lives as they beat the Cardinals 5-1 and the champagne began to flow immediately following the final out.

It was eerily similar to the playoff run of 2008, when with the score also tied 1-1 in the 8th, Braun stepped up to the plate and drilled a 3-run homerun to give the Brewers the lead, and immediately afterwards everyone stuck around to watch the Mets lose, thus securing the Brewers' wild card berth. Both the 2008 and 2011 games also featured gutsy performances by the starting pitchers - a complete game on 3 days' rest by CC Sabathia in '08, and an 11-K gem by Yovani Gallardo this year. Hopefully this year, the team has better results in the playoffs than the '08 team, and hopefully they don't have to face the Phillies in the first round. As it stands now, the Brewers are one game ahead of the Diamondbacks for the #2 seed, which would afford them the luxury of having home field in the first round. This is crucial not only because of the Brewers' amazing home record, but because then I could actually see them play since the first game would fall on a Saturday. There are 3 days left and a lot can happen yet with the wild cards and the potential matchups, but I'll make my playoff predictions as best I can right now. One thing is for certain - the Brewers are the NL Central Division Champions!!!

#1 Philadelphia v. #4 St. Louis* - Phillies in 5
#2 Milwaukee v. #3 Arizona - Brewers in 4

NLCS Philadelphia v. Milwaukee - Phillies in 6

AL Play-in Game - Tampa Bay over Boston
#1 New York v. #3 Detroit - Tigers in 5
#2 Texas v. #4 Tampa Bay** - Rays in 5

ALCS Detroit v. Tampa Bay - Rays in 6

World Series Philadelphia v. Tampa Bay - Phillies in 5

*Atlanta currently leading NL Wild Card by 1 game
**Boston currently leading AL Wild Card by 1 game

#1 Philadelphia
#2 San Francisco
#3 Cincinnati
#4 Milwaukee
Phillies over Giants in NLCS

#1 Boston
#2 Minnesota
#3 Oakland
#4 New York
Red Sox over Yankees in ALCS

Phillies over Red Sox in World Series, 6 games

Brewers 94-65, +6.0, clinched NL Central (3 v. Pirates, NLDS starts Saturday)
Reds 77-82, -17.0, eliminated (3 @ Mets)
Twins 61-98, -31.0, eliminated (3 v. Royals)

Erik - 16
Peter - 39

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wild Card Races Heating Up

Ten days ago, everything was pretty much locked up. The Phillies and Red Sox were cruising to their preseason anointing of meeting in the World Series. The Braves bullpen was absolutely unhittable. The Giants' lack of hitting finally caught up with them as they plummeted in the NL West. Now with 10 days to go in the regular season, the AL and NL Wild Cards are not so sure anymore. The Red Sox running John Lackey and Tim Wakefield out there every 5 days finally slowed the team down, and as of this post they hold a mere 1.5 game lead for the wild card spot, after losing the first game of a doubleheader to the lowly Orioles. The Sox have lost 10 of their last 14 games, including 3 out of 4 at home to the team chasing them, the Rays. Tampa Bay has managed to overcome dumping the top 4 salaries of their 2010 ALCS team and has ridden the back of a once again young, stellar rotation into a dead heat for the final playoff spot. Their road goes through the Yankees for 6 games whereas Boston only has to face the O's 6 times, so it should be interesting.

In the other league, the Braves have pretty much been in cruise control in the NL Wild Card spot since about June, largely behind their superb rotation and back end of the bullpen. But now, Jurrjens and Hanson are on the DL, Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson have been awful, and the 7-8-9 combo of O'Flaherty-Venters-Kimbrel may have finally reached their innings limit. These young arms seem to be out of gas and have blown quite a few games in the past few weeks, although Craig Kimbrel did recently break the single-season save record by a rookie. Their season officially took a turn for the worst when they were swept by the Cardinals, and now have seen their wild card lead dwindle to 3.5. And right on the Cards' heels are the Giants, who all of a sudden learned how to hit and have won 8 in a row. With the Brewers and D-Backs faltering a little in the past week, it's all starting to come together for an exciting September.

I personally think that the Rays and Cards can both catch their respective wild card leaders. The Rays are the hottest team in baseball right now and they have the best starting staff in the AL. I actually hope that both the Rays and Cards make it. I'd love for the Brewers to get another crack at St. Louis after they beat them 5 of the last 6 meetings, if for no other reason than to hit Pujols with a couple pitches square in the back. Then after the Brewers sweep them, Albert can go home and do what he does best - not hustle and stare at homeruns, which in this case would be hit by the Crew. And as for the Rays, I mean come on who doesn't root for the Rays? Joe Maddon is awesome and the team is still as fun as ever (seen above wearing letterman sweaters on the train to New York). I think this season's postseason chase is a great example of why expanding to 2 wild card teams per league would be a terrible idea. If there was a 10-team playoff, we'd already know who was in like 2 weeks ago and there would be no thrilling September baseball.

I'll post my postseason predictions next week, along with hopefully a proclamation of the Brewers winning the NL Central! And PS - congratulations to Mariano Rivera for breaking the all-time saves record with his 602nd today at Yankee Stadium.

Brewers 90-63, +6.5, magic number 4 (3 @ Cubs, 3 v. Marlins)
Reds 74-79, -16.0, eliminated (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 59-93, -29.5, eliminated (1 @ Yankees, 3 v. Mariners, 4 @ Indians)

Erik - 15
Peter - 39

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Top Logos, Ballparks, and Promotions

I thought a nice way to wind down the regular season on the blog would be to share some articles that have come out in recent weeks: the 25 Coolest minor league ballparks and the 50 Best MLB logos of all time. Compiling various rankings and statistics is always a great way to look back on each baseball season with fond memories.

The website Complex ranks Coca-Cola Field as the #1 minor league park in America for 2011, and the coolest thing about these rankings, is just that - these are the "coolest" or most unique parks, not necessarily the best. So for instance, on most rankings you would never see a ballpark surrounded by unsightly factories on a list of "Top 25" ballparks, but the West Virginia Power and Bridgeport Bluefish come in at #8 and #22 on this list, respectively. I've been to 7 parks on this list, and I hope to someday make it to the other 18. I was glad to see Modern Woodmen and Richmond County Bank come in at 2 and 3 on this list, those are two of my favorites; I think the Staten Island Yankees' park is definitely very underrated and has one of the best views in the minors. I myself officially made it to 10 new ballparks this year: Maryvale Baseball Park, Goodyear Ballpark, Camelback Ranch, Tempe Diablo Stadium, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale Stadium, Parkview Field, Fifth Third Ballpark (MI), Prince George's Stadium, Copeland Park, and the newly renovated Warner Park. In terms of "coolness," Copeland Park and Warner Park should definitely be on this list.

The "Top 50 Logos" compilation is more of an all-time list, not just this year. Some notable ones are the old Seattle Pilots logo, the Mr. Met alternates, the 1960s Astrodome logo, the Swingin' Friar, the Boston Brave, the timeless Yankees 'NY', and of course the Brewers ball-and-glove logo. I was made aware of this list because the original Brewers "Barrel Man" logo came in at #2, as it should be (Philadelphia A's elephant is #1). There are so many logos these days that are just letters, and there are so many minor league teams that are just "____ Cats/Dogs/Birds." This list is a very refreshing reminder of when creativity in branding actually meant something. My personal favorites have got to be the Brewers ball-in-glove and the old Expos logo. It took me until like 2007 to realize that those logos actually had hidden letters in them.

There have also been numerous articles about the top minor league promotions of the year, which are always fun to read, but 2-for-1 Kraft Singles Tuesdays will always be #1 in my mind. It's just nice to know that once a week I can always get a free ticket almost anywhere in America, just so long as I keep some cheese in my fridge.

Brewers 86-62, +6.5, magic number 9 (2 v. Rockies, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 71-76, -14.5, -12.5 WC, elimination number 1 (4 v. Cubs, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 59-87, -25.5, eliminated (2 @ Royals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 15
Peter - 39

Monday, August 29, 2011

Brewers Going Beast Mode

In case any baseball fan has been living under a rock for the past month, the Brewers have managed to explode from the pack and take a commanding 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Central. They've been the best team in the majors by far since July 26th, and they've done it with starting pitching, a strong back end of the bullpen, timely hitting, improved defense, a little luck, and a lot of swagger. The Crew has won a ridiculous 27 out of their last 32 games, which includes 5 consecutive weekend sweeps and a 21-4 mark against their division during that span. The Brewers are on pace for the best August in team history, and one of the top ten of all time, at 21-5 currently with 2 games remaining in the month. Overall, they are a ridiculous 50-16 at home. Ryan Braun leads the league in runs and is 2nd in hitting, Prince Fielder leads the league in RBI and is tied for 3rd in homeruns, John Axford is 2nd in the majors in saves, and 4 of the team's 5 starters are in double-digit wins with an ERA under 4.00. And in the center of it all, Nyjer "Tony Plush" Morgan has been the team's major catalyst and resident goofball.

I could go on and on. The point is, no matter how you slice it, the Brewers are just flat out playing good baseball, and it shouldn't be forgotten that this team did all of this winning with the best 2nd baseman in the NL - Rickie Weeks - on the DL. Their magic number is currently at 18 and hopefully they can ride out this wave a little bit longer, at least until they play the Cardinals and Phillies next week. It's pretty unlikely that they will keep up this torrid pace for the last month of the season, but even with a .500 month and splitting the remaining 6 with the Cards, they should be able to clinch their first division title in almost 30 years. Getting the September call-ups, Weeks, and Carlos Gomez on the roster will only strengthen the Crew for the October push. Perhaps most importantly, I feel that this team can go much further than the '08 playoff bunch because they have so much more confidence and chemistry. This is most outwardly visible in the loose fashion in which they play, i.e. the "Beast Mode" celebration they do that is reminiscent of the "claw" and "antlers" that the Rangers did last season. You can just tell how much fun they're having on the field, and that makes them really fun to watch. A great attitude coupled with a lot of talent is proving to be a deadly combination.

I've got my playoff tickets ready, keep it up Brew Crew!

Brewers 81-54, +10.5 (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Astros, 3 @ Cardinals, 4 v. Phillies)
Reds 67-66, -13.0 (4 v. Phillies, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Rockies)
Twins 56-77, -17.0 (3 @ White Sox, 3 @ Angels, 4 v. White Sox, 3 @ Tigers)

Erik - 13
Peter - 36

Monday, August 15, 2011

Copeland Park

All photos of La Crosse and Copeland Park available on Flickr.

This past weekend, I had to drive home to Milwaukee to pick up Lauren at the airport on Saturday. Given that my office has half-days on Fridays and I had nothing to do in the evening, this was all the perfect recipe to find a new ballpark to go to. My first inclination was to visit Peoria, the only Midwest League ballpark in the Western Division I haven't seen yet, but alas they were on the road. After running through a few other options, I finally settled on Copeland Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Erik had visited the stadium about 5 years prior and highly recommended it, and it only added about 2 hours to my total drive to Milwaukee. It was well worth the extra driving before I even got to the ballpark. The highways through northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota, particularly Allamakee County, were absolutely beautiful. Who knew that Iowa had hills and forests? I always thought that was a myth.

I rolled into town about 4:30 and checked into a hotel just north of the ballpark. My room had a nice view of the Mississippi River and I killed some time watching the Little League World Series regionals before heading out at 6. Copeland Park is also right on the river. And I mean literally on the river- many foul balls hit to the left side landed in the water. Since it is so close to the river, parking is kind of a squeeze. Your options are either a small gravel lot across the street, or to park on the street between the park and the river and risk your car almost certainly getting hit with a foul ball. I felt Yeller already had enough dents and the lot was half-empty when I arrived, so I parked there. After purchasing my standard GA seat and collecting my giveaway can coozie, I quickly found out that the stadium had been open since 5:30 for the final Fish Fry Friday of the season. The crowd was already electric as I waited in the huge line to indulge in this Wisconsin tradition, and for $6.50 it was a pretty outstanding meal. As a matter a fact, it was a pretty outstanding evening - for $15.50, I got a ticket, a program, the fish fry, and a large souvenir soda, not to mention the free parking. I came to La Crosse with only $22 in my pocket and I left with change, even after going to the bar after the game. After finishing my dinner, I walked around a bit and got a feel for the stadium. I enjoyed all of the subtle references to the team name "Loggers," such as all the trees that remained on site rather than being torn down. The one thing I didn't like about the park was that beer was unnecessarily difficult to find and the prices were not posted at either stand.

As I made my way to my seat in left field, I began to notice that there were many similarities between Copeland Park and pre-renovation Warner Park. The setup is much different as you enter, but the ballpark has standalone bleachers in left just like the old Duck Pond, and has an all-you-can-eat pavilion that looks just like the Duck Blind. There are also some suites in right field which are comparable to the left field party deck in Madison, aside from the log cabin motif. Once the game was underway, the similarities between the two parks went even further. A lot of the between-innings games were exactly the same - mascot races a child, dizzy bat race, child hits ball off a tee and runs for a homerun, and so on. The PA guy even sounds just like Aaron Sims. Most of all, this was the only Northwoods League park I've been to that is even remotely close to rivaling the energy and atmosphere of Warner Park. The Loggers would draw a sellout crowd of nearly 4000 on this night and welcomed their 100,000th fan of the season to "The Lumber Yard," and once again finished 2nd to only Madison in collegiate summer league attendance. It was also the final home game of the season, and this only added to the excitement.

The Loggers did not disappoint in front of the large home crowd, as they slipped past the Bucks 3-2 in 10 innings to temporarily keep their playoff hopes alive (they have since been eliminated). Starting pitcher Brando Tessar gave a gutsy performance, scattering 9 hits and 2 walks over 8 innings. The Bucks has several threats, including loading the bases with 1 out in the 2nd, but did not break through until a clutch RBI double down the right field line by Jordan Adams in the 8th, who was in turn knocked in by Sean Borman shortly thereafter to take the 2-1 lead. La Crosse tied it right back up in the 8th on a sac fly by Tyler Smith, and then won it in extra racks on another Smith sac fly. Louie Lechich was the spark plug for the Loggers all night, going 3-4 with a run and a steal, and a few nice defensive plays in center field as well.

After the game, I headed downtown for a couple pints at this place called Bodega Brewpub before turning in for the night. It was advertised as a brewpub online, but it really didn't brew any of its own beer. It did have over 400 beers on the menu though, so it was awesome. La Crosse is a beautiful city with a fun ballpark, but for heaven's sake stay away from the La Crosse Lager, it tastes like bleach.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 6 (nice view behind the stadium)
view to field - 5 (my seat was kind of far away)
surrounding area - 4 (downtown a couple miles away)
food variety - 7
nachos - 2 (of the "bag o' chips/cup o' cheese" variety)
beer - 5 (Leinie's, Pabst, Miller)
vendor price - 9
ticket price - 8 ($5 GA)
atmosphere - 8
walk to park - 6 (short but nice)
parking proximity - 10 (adjacent lot/street for free)
concourses - 3
team shop - 4 (inside covered dining area)

best food - fish fry
most unique stadium feature - log cabin suites in right
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - Arcade Pumping toilet seat toss

field dimensions - 325/365/315
starters - Scott Benson (WAT) v. Brando Tessar (LAX)
opponent - Waterloo Bucks
time of game - 2:50
attendance - 3896
score - 3-2 W
Brewers score that day - 7-2 W

Brewers 71-51, +6.0 (4 v. Dodgers, 3 @ Mets, 4 @ Pirates, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 59-62, -11.5 (3 @ Nationals, 3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Marlins, 3 v. Nationals)
Twins 53-67, -10.5 (3 @ Tigers, 4 v. Yankees, 4 v. Orioles, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 12
Peter - 35

Monday, August 8, 2011

Prince George's Stadium

All photos of Prince George's Stadium available on Flickr.

It's pretty much impossible for me to go on a summer vacation and not somehow fit a ballgame into it. I was in the DC area this past weekend with my fiance Lauren visiting friends and attending a wedding, and of course I immediately checked the local ball schedules after we booked our flights. The closest game I could attend in a stadium I hadn't yet been to was in Bowie, Maryland. Lauren stayed behind playing with her friend Claire and her baby, while Phil and I drove about a half-hour from Silver Spring southeast to Prince George's Stadium, where we met up with my friend Emilie from grad school for a little Sunday Night minor league ball.

Bowie is about 20 miles east of downtown DC, just beyond the Beltway and the end of the orange line, and is host to the Baysox, the AA-affiliate of the Orioles. As we read in the gameday program, all of the Orioles' affiliates are within about 4 hours of Baltimore, with only AAA-Norfolk actually playing outside of Maryland. It must be nice to be able to cut down on the moving and traveling if you're an O's prospect; however, Bowie seems to be just a huge suburb and nothing to write home about. The stadium is located off of a major highway and shares a parking lot with a restaurant and a Home Depot, which is a large indicator of just how rapidly the city has grown. For once, this was actually a stadium I was glad was not in an urban setting, because ballparks in outlying areas are generally cheaper, safer, and easier to get to. It was far enough outside of the Beltway that we didn't have to contend with the frustrating DC traffic, the free parking lot was a welcomed rarity in the metro area, and Prince George County does not exactly have a stellar reputation, so the lot also made me feel safe walking back to our car at night.

While most suburban ballparks boast ample parking and accessibility, they generally lack in aesthetics and context. Approaching the monumental front gate from the lot, I remarked to Phil how it actually reminded me of another O's affiliate park we'd been to in Aberdeen. I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or not. The inside was in a lot better shape than I thought it would be and gave the illusion of being "nestled" into a site because of the many trees beyond the outfield wall. It had the press box on concourse level behind homeplate like in Appleton, but unlike in Appleton there are actually suites, which look almost like motel rooms since they for some reason had curtains. The seating bowl is very tall and separated into an upper and lower section with an intermediate walkway halfway down. There is a a huge wall a few feet beyond the outfield wall laden with advertising that had to be at least 25 feet tall, which further contributed to that "nestled" feeling. There were only about two main concession stands, both of which featured the same items, but the food and beer they did have was very original and it was very hard to find even just your standard hot dog and light beer. The most unique part of the park was a children's carousel and an orange-and-white-striped, mini-golf-sized lighthouse in the right field corner. We got seats in the 2nd row right behind the 3rd base dugout and got to watch the carousel spin the whole game. Overall the setup was fairly memorable for a ballpark of that size.

Another unique thing about the ballpark is that it is pretty close to Fort Meade, so a bunch of guys from the military were there to present the colors and sing the National Anthem, which was pretty cool. It was also supposed to be "Happy Un-Birthday Night" at the ballpark but I never heard anything mentioned over the PA system about it, so that was kind of disappointing, but overall it was still a nice night for a ballgame after the rain subsided. The Baysox moved within a half game of first place in the Western Division with a win over the Fisher Cats, 5-3. I spent a fair amount of the game chatting with Phil and Emilie, whom I haven't seen in 4 years - much to the dismay of the sweaty old guy sitting in front of me that kept giving me the stink eye - so there were a few subtle aspects to the game that I missed. For instance, I see from the box score now that 2B Greg Miclat had 4 steals for the home team, giving him 46 on the season and putting him only a few away from breaking the all-time team record. Also, I knew that the starting pitcher Mike Ballard had a great game but had no idea that he racked up 10 strikeouts, en route to his 7th win of the season. Most of the offense came from 1B Joe Mahoney, who had a 2-run double in the 5th and also a sac fly. Steven Lerud also rang one off the right-field foul pole in the 6th for his 5th dinger of the year. One thing that didn't go unnoticed by me personally was the quality of the men in blue; it was such a relief to see good umpiring after what I've been subjected to in the Northwoods League for the past 2 months. The best part of the game was that former Phillie backstop Sal Fasano is the manager of the Fisher Cats and was also coaching 3rd right in front of us. His mustache is as glorious as ever, but he is not nearly as agile as he was in his playing days.

It was about an hour drive to Claire's house in Fairfax after the game, and what a wonderful way to cap off my vacation weekend back in my former city of residence. Random August stadium trip #2 is this coming Friday in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 6 (outside blah, inside not bad)
views from park - 4 (trees)
view to field - 10 (not much protective netting)
surrounding area - 2 (DC about 20 miles away)
food variety - 7 (bonus points for unique items)
nachos - 4
beer - 5 (about 10-12 kinds but expensive)
vendor price - 5
ticket price - 4 ($14 behind dugout)
atmosphere - 3
walk to park - 2
parking proximity - 10 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 4
team shop - 5

best food - giant hot dog w/ sauce + grilled onions
most unique stadium feature - carousel
best jumbotron feature - turtle shell shuffle
best between-inning feature - tee-ball homerun derby

field dimensions - 309/405/309
starters - Deck McGuire (NH) v. Mike Ballard (BOW)
opponent - New Hampshire Fisher Cats
time of game - 2:40 (0:29 delay)
attendance - 2156
score - 5-3 W
Brewers score that day - 7-3 W

Brewers 65-50, +3.0 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 55-59, -9.5 (4 v. Rockies, 3 v. Padres)
Twins 51-65, -10.5 (3 v. Red Sox, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 11
Peter - 33

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New Marlins Park 75% Complete

The Marlins have officially released a construction camera of their new ballpark through their website. Along with that, I also found a photo gallery of construction ranging from November 2010 through late July of this year, courtesy of Fox Sports Florida (see above). This yet-unnamed, 37000-seat ballpark is slated to open on the site of the former Orange Bowl in Little Havana for Opening Day 2012, and features a SAFECO Field-style retractable roof which acts as a canopy resting on two large piers off the back of the stadium when open.

Whereas in Seattle the roof covers a train shed when open, in Miami there is a plaza below. Other than this plaza, nothing about this park seems particularly impressive to me. I definitely appreciate the design straying from the retro style, as well as the small capacity, but from what I've seen so far from photos and renderings this ballpark is going to be pretty awful. It's hard to get a grasp on how a stadium will "feel" from aerial photos, particularly a domed stadium, but all that white metal aesthetic makes the stadium look monotonous, almost like a UFO. On the inside, the outfield configuration seems very arbitrarily angular, including a jumbotron that is for some reason rhombus-shaped. There is also a weird unidentifiable concrete oval in left-center field that Erik and I are hoping will be a marlin tank. I'll be keeping an eye on the construction over the remaining 8 months, but so far it looks atrocious and I am very disappointed.

That's not to say that we're not going to the inaugural season next year, because you know we are! Can't wait to take the bus from downtown into the hood to go to a ballgame here; I am most interested to see how the neighborhood around the ballpark takes shape in the coming years. We're hopefully going in April or May to beat hurricane season, but we have to be flexible since I'm now also planning a wedding.

Brewers 61-49, +3.5 (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Astros)
Reds 53-56, -7.5 (3 @ Astros, 3 @ Cubs)
Twins 50-58, -7.0 (3 @ Angels, 3 v. White Sox)

Erik - 11
Peter - 32

Monday, July 25, 2011

Alomar, Blyleven, Gillick elected to Hall

Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, and Pat Gillick were enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Cooperstown, NY. Alomar became the first player to go in as a Blue Jay and only the 3rd Puerto Rican (Clemente, Cepeda), and he is arguably the greatest defensive 2nd baseman of all time. He was also an great switch-hitting talent, amassing over 2,700 hits during his 17-year career. Blyleven finally got the call on his 14th year on the ballot and perhaps was only handicapped by his reputation during his playing days as a selfish whiner. He finished his career just 13 wins shy of 300 and 5th all-time in strikeouts with 3,701, and certainly by the numbers did not deserve to have waited this long to get into Cooperstown. Pat Gillick was a 3x World Series Champion as a general manager and was the engineer of the Toronto Blue Jays over the course of 3 decades. He retired in 2008 following his World Series Championship with the Phillies. Every single team he was a part of made the playoffs at least twice, and neither the Blue Jays, Orioles, nor Mariners have made the playoffs since his departure. Besides capturing back-to-back titles with the Jays in 1992-93 (teams that featured fellow inductee Alomar), Gillick is perhaps most known for heading the team with the highest single-season win total of all time, the 2001 Mariners (116-46).

With the advent of the MLB Network and, I've been able to watch parts of the induction ceremonies over the past few years, and it looks like an amazing experience. The groves of people that came in from Canada, Holland, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico to pay tribute to these three baseball greats was simply incredible. I know that being the baseball fans that we are, that Erik and I eventually have to make the trek out to rural New York to attend an Induction Sunday. But when do we go? Here are some of the players coming up for election in the next 5 years:

2012 - Bernie Williams
2013 - Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, David Wells, Kenny Lofton, Jose Mesa
2014 - Moises Alou, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Frank Thomas
2015 - Carlos Delgado, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield
2016 - Ken Griffey Jr, Trevor Hoffman, Andy Pettitte, Billy Wagner

I mean, look at some of these classes, 2013 is a beast! I feel really honored that I got to see all 9 of those guys play in their final season during our '07 tour. I think holding out for Glavine and Maddux going in together would be my top choice right now but you can't go wrong with any of these years. It would be interesting to see if they intentionally don't vote in Glavine and Maddux on the first ballot so that they can go in with Smoltz in '15. The only bad part about this imminent trip to Cooperstown is that the Oneonta Tigers moved, so we'll have to drive 90 minutes to Binghamton to actually watch ball. Oh well.

Brewers 54-49, -- (3 v. Cubs, 3 v. Astros)
Reds 50-51, -3.0 (4 v. Mets, 3 v. Giants)
Twins 47-54, -7.0 (4 @ Rangers, 3 @ Athletics)

Erik - 10
Peter - 30

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Brewers Trade for K-Rod

Sabathia. Greinke. Rodriguez. In the latest in a string of bold trades, GM Doug Melvin pulled the trigger on a deal that sent two minor leaguers to be named later for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez along with his remaining salary, shortly after the All-Star Game on Tuesday. In his career, Frankie is 32-27 with a 2.54 ERA and 291 saves. Despite supposedly being in decline, he has already logged 23 saves and is currently 2nd in the league in strikeouts per 9 innings.

The main thing to take out of this trade is that the Brewers front office is again going all-in as they did in 2008, when they acquired CC Sabathia at the trade deadline en route to their first playoff appearance in 26 years. This trade proves that the Brewers are willing to do what it takes because they believe they have a shot this year to not only make the playoffs, but to win the division and make it out of the first round. A lot of teams would have been scared off by K-Rod's $17.5 million option that vests if he finishes 55 games this year, but the Brewers are going with the "win now" mentality. With weaker teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati (thus far) and atrocious teams in Chicago and Houston, the Brewers currently tied for first, and Prince Fielder likely gone after the season, the division is prime for the taking and the time is now.

A lot is being made of this vesting option of K-Rod's, and how it will affect current closer John Axford who is having a phenomenal season. I am concerned a little bit on how it will affect Ax mentally, if he will put too much pressure on himself to be "the guy," but I think Roenicke's relationship with his players - including being a coach for Anaheim for 7 years while they had K-Rod - will help that transition. Axford knows deep down that this team just got a whole lot better and he has to play the role he's asked to to help the team win. The Twins did the same thing last year when Jon Rauch was having a great first full season as a closer, and they brought in Brian Fuentes and Matt Capps as insurance. In this scenario Rauch went back to his old role as set-up guy and the Twins ended up winning the AL Central. As for the Brewers, only time will tell how the 9th inning will be split, but one thing is for certain - the Brewers are not dumb enough and do not have the money to allow K-Rod to finish another 21 games this season to kick in his option for 2012. Besides the Brewers' payroll restrictions, K-Rod just isn't worth that much money anymore. Even though Melvin and Roenicke have been quoted as saying that Ax and K-Rod will split closing duty, I think that was just the PC thing to say. I think you'll still see Ax still get the majority of the save chances, but the idea is that if you have an opportunity to pick up the all-time single season saves leader for practically nothing, you do it. Prior to this trade, the Brewers' 8th inning options were a former starter, a guy with sleep disorder, a guy already nearing 50 appearances, and two 40-ish relievers with recent injuries. Things just got a whole lot more stable in the back end of the Brewers' bullpen. Assuming Greinke and Marcum can get back to their June form (and that the Pirates remember that they're the Pirates), I don't see any reason why this team will not run away with the NL Central.

Brewers 49-43, -- (4 @ Rockies, 4 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Giants)
Reds 45-47, -4.0 (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Braves)
Twins 41-48, -6.5 (4 v. Royals, 4 v. Indians, 4 v. Tigers)

Erik - 10
Peter - 28

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Remember this date: Nationals and Pirates both above .500

Following tonight's 3-2 win over the lowly Cubs, the Nationals have improved above .500 once again on the season. Perhaps even more remarkably, the Pirates moved into sole possession of 2nd place in the NL Central with a win over the even-more-lowly Astros and it's the latest in the season they've been above .500 since 1992, when they had some guy named Barry Bonds and won 96 games. I'm pretty upset with how terrible the Reds and Brewers are playing and how feeble the NL Central is in general this year, but you can't help but feel good for a team that has been downright embarrassing for nearly 2 decades. The same goes for the Nationals, who were salvaged from the scrap heap in Montreal in 2005, only to be brought to the junkyard of RFK Stadium until obtaining a pristine new ballpark in 2008. The Pirates also have a gem of a stadium in PNC Park, and both of these teams can be proud that they are playing well enough to warrant people filling the seats there.

All 30 teams should go into Spring Training with a goal of reaching the playoffs, but .500 for both of these teams would truly be an amazing accomplishment considering where they have come from. I wrote a post last year about how the Nationals, through high draft picks and keen free agent signings, are on the brink of being contenders in the NL East, and I still firmly believe that despite Ted Lerner throwing away $126 million on a 31-year old outfielder whose best years are behind him. They have a solid rotation that is only going to get better when Steven Strasburg returns from Tommy John rehab. They also have a young bullpen with power arms and 18-year-old phenom Bryce Harper was recently promoted to AA and went 2-3 with an RBI in his debut. Michael Morse is deserving to win the All-Star Final Vote and Danny Espinosa is probably the leader in the clubhouse for NL Rookie of the Year thus far. The Nationals were my NL sleeper pick this year and are showing signs of what they're capable of.

On the other hand, I don't think anyone could have predicted what the Pirates are doing right now. I mean come on, their major offseason acquisitions were Matt Diaz, Lyle Overbay, and Kevin Correia - I laughed at the time. But these veterans have been the nucleus of a team of budding stars including Andrew McCutcheon, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Jose Tabata. It seems like they get new contributors every week too - Chase d'Arnaud and Alex Presley were called up last week to fill in for injuries, and Brandon Wood is getting key hits after being released by the Angels. Most importantly, the two things that the Pirates have lacked for 20 years are coming together this season - management and starting rotation. From Clint Hurdle to the front office this team is making good moves for now and for the future, and the pitching is keeping them in games. If they can figure out a way to beat the Brewers and can lock up even one or two of their stars in a team-friendly deal a la Ryan Braun or Evan Longoria, this team will contend for the division next season. Keep an eye on the A's next year, too; the Royals are still a couple years off, they have a gifted lineup but need a legitimate staff ace.

PS - not really related to ball, but I got engaged on Sunday! She's been very supportive of my baseball fetish and I'm very excited to take a few ball trips with her as well as E.

Brewers 45-42, -2.0 (3 v. Diamondbacks, 4 v. Reds)
Reds 43-44, -4.0 (3 @ Cardinals, 4 @ Brewers)
Twins 38-46, -7.0 (3 v. Rays, 4 @ White Sox)

Erik - 10
Peter - 27

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jack McKeon Back in Miami

Back on Memorial Day, the Marlins were one of the hottest teams in baseball and were serious contendors along with the heavily-favored Phillies for the NL East title. Then the Brewers came to town for a 4-game wraparound series, and my how the tables have turned. The Brew Crew would sweep that series, and since then the wheels have absolutely fallen off for the Fish. As of this post, the Fish are now 2-for-June, and in the past week they have fired their hitting coach and their manager has resigned. Son of Reds legend Tony Perez and former ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez was hired as the new hitting coach, and as of yesterday, Jack McKeon has taken over the reigns from Edwin Rodriguez as interim manager. After tonight's victory over the Angels to snap an 11-game skid, 80-year-old McKeon became the 2nd oldest manager to win a professional baseball game, next to the timeless Connie Mack.

This is McKeon's 2nd stint with the Marlins, the first being from 2003-05 during which he memorably won Manager of the Year and the World Series in his first season there. To quote Trader Jack: "I don't need this job, but I love it." I would argue that the team needs him. In his first act has manager, he benched slumping superstar Hanley Ramirez for showing up late to the ballpark. A poor work ethic has dogged Hanley his entire career and I'm positive that McKeon is not going to put up with his crap, or anybody else's excuses for that matter. The Marlins are a very good but very young team, and I think it's a good move to have McKeon come in - even if it's just on an interim basis - to whip this team into shape so that they don't embarrass themselves in their new ballpark next year. I will be excited to watch this team get back to playing the type of baseball they're capable of under Perez and McKeon, and I will certainly be very excited to see if Jack still sneaks a couple of stogies in the dugout when the cameras aren't looking.

Brewers 41-34, +0.5 (3 v. Rays, 3 v. Twins)
Reds 38-36, -2.5 (3 v. Yankees, 3 @ Orioles
Twins 31-39, -7.0 (3 @ Giants, 3 @ Brewers)

Erik - 8
Peter - 23

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Warner Park Renovation

All photos of Warner Park available on Flickr.

The turning of the calendar to June marked the beginning of another collegiate summer ball season, and like every year, I was very eager to see my local Northwoods League teams play. My patience was wearing thin as this season approached, as I could not wait to see the $1.8 million renovation the Mallards and the city of Madison invested into The Duck Pond. This renovation was Phase 2 of a 3-phase project, with Phase 1 being last year's addition of the TDS Triple Play Club and a new children's area along the left field line. This series of renovations was developed as a contingency plan for demolishing the entire stadium and starting over, for which the money just wasn't in the budget. Despite the fact that the ballpark is improperly oriented southwest instead of east, I'm glad they decided to renovate instead of rebuild.

This year's effort was actually more of a remodel than merely a renovation, as the entire grandstand was torn out and built again from scratch. The bleachers may have been at the end of their functional life as their designed use, but the bleachers live on in the new team store located behind home plate. This beautiful building was constructed out of 85% reclaimed material from the grandstand demolition, including re-purposing the bleachers as siding, the old press box canopy as its roof, and the wooden posts as part of the structure. Pretty much the entire building uses reclaimed and recycled materials except the glazing. To go along with the "green" concept, every single seat in the new seating bowl is reused from another major league park, the majority being from Camden Yards. This new seating bowl was wisely designed to have a second tier of seats on the 1st base side while the 3rd base side has only one, in response to the the fact that Warner Park is one of the only ballparks in America that faces the setting sun. This should not be too much of a problem for the remaining 3rd base seating however, as the canopy has more than doubled in size. Fans in general are now far more connected to the game, as all the seating sections in the main grandstand are now continuous and are up to 6 rows closer to the field in some areas. Lauren and I sat about 5 rows from the top of the 200 level along 1st, and Erik sat in the 1st row with his 10-pack tickets, and both offered equally stellar views of the action. Some more subtle changes include a new food stand layout in the pavilion that now features more food & beer choices, and an additional vendor in the seating bowl behind home plate. The only thing that kind of put a damper on the evening was that we arrived too late to receive a bobblehead, but we still got caps featuring the new logo. Pair that with a Mallards victory and a couple of cold Magic Hat beers, it doesn't get much better on a Friday night in Madison.

I'm not sure what Phase 3 holds in store, but over the past decade of Mallards baseball I've come to expect a lot of Vern Stenman and the gang and I'm sure the front office will not disappoint. Warner Park has changed exponentially since the team moved into Warner Park in 2001, yet has managed to maintain the same atmosphere, quality level of entertainment and competition, and affordability that fans associate with the Mallards. Warner Park was already my favorite ballpark in America to watch a ballgame before the huge renovation. Now that the aesthetics of the ballpark have finally caught up with its aura and activity, I think it rivals just about any minor league or independent league stadium in the country.

park rankings and statistics
(see also 06/21/07 original post):

aesthetics - improves to 7
views from park - 2
view to field - 10
surrounding area - 2
food variety - 7
nachos - 5
beer - improves to 9
vendor price - 9
ticket price - 8
atmosphere - 10
walk to park - 3
parking proximity - declines to 7 (lot is not big enough)
concourses - improves to 6
team shop - improves to 9

"best" items - same; ballpark now has jumbotron

field dimensions - 308/380/295 (shorter down the lines than in 2007)
starters - Chase Stevens (WAT) v. Cash Collins (MAD)
opponent - Waterloo Bucks
time of game - 2:17
attendance - 6750
score - 7-2 W
Brewers score that day - 8-0 W

Brewers 38-29, -- (4 @ Cubs, 3 @ Red Sox)
Reds 35-33, -3.5 (3 @ Dodgers, 3 v. Blue Jays)
Twins 26-39, -9.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 v. Padres)

Erik - 7
Peter - 22

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tour 2011: Fifth Third Ballpark

All photos of Fifth Third Ballpark available on Flickr.

We only got about 6 hours of sleep following a very long Saturday, and we were back up and at 'em by 7 AM. After a fabulous free breakfast at the hotel, we hit the road about 8:15 for Grand Rapids, and the drive was a little bit less than 3 hours along I-69 and I-96. We made about an hour stop on the way to the ballpark to visit Erik's aunt and got to the park a few minutes before first pitch. Fifth Third Ballpark is very visible from US-131 and is actually outside the city a bit in Comstock Park, but despite this the team still draws very well, as indicated by the long ticket line on a scorching Sunday afternoon that caused us to miss most of the 1st inning. Fort Wayne and West Michigan were actually #3 and 4 respectively in attendance of the 16-team league at the time of this post (not surprisingly, Beloit is dead last).

We started the afternoon off in the shade of the right field picnic area, where we had full access to a bar and cooled off with a 32-oz beer and souvenir sodas. It was a very good view from out there, but we obviously wanted to see the rest of the park, so we left to find food and take a lap after the 2nd inning. Formerly Old Kent Park, Fifth Third Ballpark has that massive shell and high-pitched seating you see in a lot of early-90s minor league parks. The main entry is of the Tempe Diablo-Modern Woodmen Park variety of which you have to ascend to get onto the concourse, and this dramatically contributes to the feel of the park. We actually had to walk up quite a steep hill along the 3rd base line to get from the picnic area to the concourse. What sets this ballpark apart from other minor league parks is that the suite/press level is actually quite tall and fully enclosed, and it wraps the entire concourse from bullpen to bullpen, whereas generally it only covers portion of the concourse and the press box is more open. The suite level is actually so tall that it in itself serves as shade for the seating bowl instead of a canopy. I didn't necessarily like nor dislike this design decision, but it definitely makes the park seem much bigger and more enclosed than it really is. My only real complaint about the ballpark is that, just as at Fort Wayne, there is sort of an "entrance identity" issue, as the main ticket window is in right field, but what I would consider to be the "front" is more hidden with trees and contains no signage. And of course it would have been nice to be able to walk all the way around the perimeter; but, a lot of ballparks are missing this, as that feature substantially adds to the cost.

Now, let's get down to brass tacks here - most people go to this park because of the food, myself included. Before I saw this ballpark featured on Man v. Food in 2009, I had little interest in visiting this stadium, other than for my own personal gratification of seeing every Midwest League park. But after seeing Adam Richman take down the Fifth Third Burger, I just knew I had to get out there as soon as possible. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the ballpark because I did, but I was much more interested in lunch than watching the game. Honestly, I had built it up so much in my mind that at the time I was a little disappointed with the food variety, but looking back on it objectively, there was actually a pretty fair selection. You have your standard ballpark fare, but there are also things like elephant ears, Texas steak nachos, sundaes served in huge plastic cones, barbecue, and of course the giant burger. Enormous food and beverage items was definitely a theme of the menu. We decided to refrain from the burger, and I'm glad we did - the posted nutritional info stated it is 4,800 calories and contains nearly 2 pounds of meat! As of our visit, Mr. Richman was one of only 157 people to complete the challenge in the allotted 2 1/2 innings. I instead went with a generous helping of helmet sundae and fully-loaded steak nachos, and both made me very happy.

After finally finishing my nachos and walking around for awhile, we watched maybe 5 of the 9 innings from our ticketed seats, about 5 rows from the top behind home plate. West Michigan blew out Cedar Rapids 10-3 on Autism Awareness Day. The Kernels' starter was chased in the 3rd after giving up 7 runs on 9 hits, including a homerun by catcher Rob Brantly in the 1st that landed in the picnic area just as we were sitting down. Beau Brooks then came in and closed the door for a little while, but then the Whitecaps shoved it back open with 3 runs in the final innings off two other relievers. The Caps' starter was pretty good, giving up only 3 hits in 6 with 3 Ks. 7 of the 9 starters for West Michigan had at least 2 hits, whereas only one guy in the Kernels' lineup is currently hitting above .260, not including newly-named all-star Travis Witherspoon who for some reason did not play.

A brief and exhausting trip, yet totally worth it! Cross off Midwest League parks #9 and 10 for me, and so far the Eastern Division looks to be way better than the West as far as stadiums go. Aside from a few random ballparks I'm visiting this summer, our next big trip together will be Marlins Park next spring.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 2 (suburb of Grand Rapids)
food variety - 7
nachos - 10 (steak, A-1, queso, peppers & onions, good chip ratio)
beer - 8 (modest variety, but only $7 for a 32-oz beer!)
vendor price - 7 (fyi - Fifth Third Burger is $20)
ticket price - 7 ($9.50 behind home plate)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park - 1
parking proximity - 4 (adjacent lot for $5)
concourses - 5
team shop - 5 (small but some unique items)

best food - Texas Steak nachos
most unique stadium feature - Fifth Third Burger competition area
best jumbotron feature - paste a fan's face in moustached silhouette of a Whitecaps player
best between-inning feature - guys in eyeball costumes run around aimlessly and get tackled by giant chicken

field dimensions - 327/402/317
starters - Baudilio Lopez (CR) v. Patrick Cooper (WM)
opponent - Cedar Rapids Kernels
time of game - 2:55
attendance - 5955
score - 10-3 W
Brewers score that day - 6-5 W

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tour 2011: Parkview Field

All photos of Fort Wayne and Parkview Field available on Flickr.

Neither Erik nor I have a lot of money or free time, but we weren't going to let anything stop us from going on at least one ball trip together this year. After Erik backed out of the Spring Training trip, we started tossing around ideas for a simple weekend driving excursion we could do together, and very quickly gravitated toward going to Grand Rapids, Michigan and Fort Wayne, Indiana. The draw to these teams was completely different in nature: the Whitecaps mainly because of the food selection made famous by the show "Man v. Food," and the TinCaps to see their heralded new ballpark (and possibly wear pots on our heads). However, we would be pleasantly surprised to discover both the ballpark and the food was great in both cities. Erik and I also had welcome company on our trip, as my girlfriend Lauren was convinced she could best Adam Richman's time on eating the Fifth Third Burger in Grand Rapids. So for the first time, she got to see what a real E & P baseball roadtrip was all about - and how easy it is to stink up a car and fill it with junk in only 36 hours.

We picked up Erik around 9:30 on Saturday and got on the road about 10 AM from Madison to our first stop, Fort Wayne. We hit an awesome hot dog stand in Merrillville, IN for lunch and arrived at the Hampton Inn about 5pm, giving us a little bit of time to unwind from the 6-hour drive and take a few laps in the hotel pool before heading the additional 15 minutes to the park. Parkview Field is located across the street from the Grand Wayne Center downtown and is in its 3rd season of operation. This ballpark replaced the atrocious Memorial Stadium built on the same site in 1993, and in celebration the team left behind its old name "Wizards" for the more locally appropriate "TinCaps," in honor of Johnny Appleseed who is buried in Fort Wayne. The mascot is now also a lovable, pot-wearing, plush rendition of this local legend, of course called "Johnny." To take this concept even further, everything from signage to food stands is apple-themed. The team store is called "The Orchard" and is one of the better ones I've seen. There is even a vendor that sells all apple products: apple sauce, apple wontons, apple crisp, etc. The crisp is what drew me to this stand, as it is served in a souvenir helmet. Aside from maybe Schaumburg, I can't think of any other ballpark I've been to that takes branding to the level that the TinCaps do. Why the TinCaps sell apples and the Cedar Rapids Kernels do NOT sell the state's #1 product of corn, I'll never know. And it wasn't just cheesy marketing either - all of the park logos, signage, and color schemes were done elegantly, and most of the food items were delicious. Being at the ballpark for over 5 hours due to a rain delay, it was hard not to try everything on the menu; there literally was a 6-page menu provided in the program.

Beyond the branding, Parkview Field is beautifully assembled and should have no problem lasting many more than the 16 years Memorial Stadium did. I'll start off with the only two things I did not like about the park. The first thing is the parking to entry sequence. I love that the parking garage was incorporated into the park, and I do understand that there are parking limitations at an urban ballpark and it probably won't end up being free. But the walk could have been a little more inviting to the front entry. There is an access point right next to the garage but it is used only as an exit, so if you park in the garage you have to walk all the way around along a brick wall. I would have liked to have been able to see into the park at a few points, or at least some interesting artwork. I think sometimes it's ok to sort of "reveal" the view in a grand way, but that would only work in this case if everyone was parking in the lot behind home plate. The second thing I think that all three of us noticed that was odd was the ratio of picnic seating to fixed seating. There are huge picnic areas along both the 1st and 3rd base lines, and it seems like there should have been more fixed seats in at least one direction. I think it's great that Parkview Field provides a plethora of seating options, but the picnic areas should always be a special section, not the norm. Visually, the picnic areas just looked weird proportionally when juxtaposed against the seating bowl.

Beyond these small complaints and the outfield grass being splotchy, the park was amazing and I can safely say it has supplanted Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport as my favorite Midwest League park so far. The main entry was done beautifully in brick and cast stone but was not overpowering as masonry can be. The stone was brought to the inside in the form of an information counter, ticket window, and a full bar behind home plate. The team store is also in this area and the concourse is very wide as you enter, which makes all the sense in the world. The concourses pinch in either direction down the lines as you are introduced to the multitude of concession stands and carts. The built-in concession stands just offer the standard fare of sausage, popcorn, nachos, etc. But in the outfield and at some of the loose carts, you can find things like corn on the cob, various apple desserts and snacks, grilled-to-order chicken and pork sandwiches, a decent variety of beers, and a superb rib joint. Parkview Field allows you to continuously circumnavigate the field, a feature that every ballpark should have. The outfield concourse is very spacious and has a nice plaza and fountain area in dead center. The team and city are committed to having Parkview Field be a year-round destination, but so far this is only evident in the abundance of picnic seating for businessmen eating lunch, and an enclosed event venue in right field that overlooks the field. Eventually there is supposed to be a Harrison Square project in left field that features retail on the ground floor and condos above, but three years into a recession and the hopes of that getting built are slimmer by the week. Completing the loop around the ballpark, there is a bank of bleachers anchored to the adjacent parking garage, behind the outfield concourse and above the venue building. Just past these bleachers is one of coolest during-game distractions you'll ever see - a full batting cage. From the food, to various points of aspect, and plenty of entertainment, Parkview Field has thought of just about everything. The cherry on top is that the TinCaps won the Midwest League title in the ballpark's inaugural season.

The TinCaps are terrible compared to that 2009 championship team, and they lost a marathon of a game on this night. If it wasn't enough that it was 96° at first pitch, there was a 2-hour thunderstorm delay, AND the game went to extra racks. We finally had to tap out and call it a day after the 10th because we were exhausted and had to get up at 7 to head to Grand Rapids. The TinCaps ended up losing in 11 to Kane County, 6-4, in what totalled 5 hours and 13 minutes including the delay. The TinCaps had this guy named Luis Domoromo, and he had 2 hits and an RBI besides having a fun name to say. Jake Blackwood chipped in another 3 hits including 2 run-producing doubles, and he was definitely the offensive star of the day. It was looking good for Fort Wayne, leading by 1 with 1 out in the 9th, when the closer gave up a booming homerun down the left field line to another guy with an awesome name, Cheslor Cuthbert. I'm not sure how the Cougars won since we left an inning early, but from the box score it looks like the same guy who gave up the homerun to Cuthbert pitched another 1 1/3 and got charged for the go-ahead runs and picked up his 3rd loss of the season.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 5 (nice opportunity for view, but Fort Wayne isn't much of one)
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 4 (downtown Fort Wayne)
food variety - 9
nachos - 5
beer - 6 (about 10-12 kinds and fair price)
vendor price - 7 (specialty items are more reasonable)
ticket price - 8 ($9 five rows behind dugout)
atmosphere - 7 (remaining crowd after rain delay was still higher than average Kernels attendance)
walk to park - 4
parking proximity - 3 (adjacent garage for $4, lots of traffic)
concourses - 8
team shop - 9

best food - BBQ pulled pork sandwich
most unique stadium feature - Wrigley-style bleachers anchored to parking garage
best jumbotron feature - despite the fact that I hate cats, "DJ TinCat" was pretty hilarious
best between-inning feature - The Amazing Christopher

field dimensions - 336/400/318
starters - Leondy Perez (KC) v. Andrew Werner (FW)
opponent - Kane County Cougars
time of game - 3:13 (1:56 delay)
attendance - 7075
score - 6-4 L
Brewers score that day - 3-2 W

Brewers 34-26, -1.5 (3 v. Mets, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 31-30, -5.0 (3 v. Cubs, 4 @ Giants)
Twins 22-37, -11.5 (3 @ Indians, 4 v. Rangers)

Erik - 6
Peter - 18

Monday, May 30, 2011

Never a Shortage of Peculiar Injuries

(Above: Joey Votto, one of many MLB players diagnosed with social anxiety disorder)

I think we can all agree that ballplayers today don't really seem to be as tough as they were in the golden era of baseball. As fans we certainly shouldn't underestimate just how mentally and physically taxing it is to play 162 games a year. But at the same time, there just aren't that many Mickey Mantles out there anymore that are going to play every single day with broken arms and bad knees and still be able to produce. The game just revolves too much around large guaranteed contracts nowadays to take any chances on long-term injury. However, over the last several years, the interpretation of what constitutes an injury has become a major gray area. It's certainly understandable that something like "elbow inflammation" or a sprained knee is just something that a guy 40 years ago would have played through and not said a word. But reading the disabled list reports these days is almost comical.

It used to be that I made fun of somebody for having "turf toe" in football, but even that is so commonplace that it has lost all humor, much like the infamous "oblique strain" in baseball. I barely have time to laugh at a guy for having a ridiculous injury now before another one comes along. Here are just some of the illnesses and injuries that have put millionaire, adult baseball players in the infirmary in the last 5 seasons alone: tired arm, stubbed toe, bilateral leg weakness, social anxiety disorder, bleeding testicle, blisters, anal fissures, carpel tunnel, mono, emergency appendectomy, fatigue, and my personal favorite - sleep disorder. It is just seems like everyday there is something new, and they just keep getting funnier. Now, I'm not trying to say that it's funny to have anxiety disorder, I'm sure that is serious. And if your appendix bursts, I mean not much you can do about that one. But it's just strange to me that you never saw these injuries even as recent as 10 years ago, and that there is always something new cropping up. Whether that's a product of toughness or just how the times have changed, I don't know. Maybe Cal Ripken would never have admitted that he pinched a testicle or had anal leakage for fear of ridicule in Kangaroo Court. Or maybe Mickey Mantle was just too drunk to realize he ever had anything wrong with him.

And let's keep in mind that the list I presented does not include the source of any of these injuries, just what they are listed as on the DL - because that would be a whole other ballgame. I'd then have to include former Brewer reliever Matt Wise going on the DL twice - once after falling down stairs, and once after stabbing himself with salad tongs. Or the time Milton Bradley tore ligaments in his knee during a heated argument with an umpire. The list goes on and on.

Brewers 29-24, -2.0 (3 @ Reds, 4 @ Marlins)
Reds 27-27, -4.5 (3 v. Brewers, 3 v. Dodgers)
Twins 17-35, -14.5 (3 @ Tigers, 4 @ Royals)

Erik - 4
Peter - 15