Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tour 2011: Scottsdale Stadium

All photos of Phoenix day 7 and Scottsdale Stadium available on Flickr.

Our final game of the trip was a 3:10 start, so it allowed us to sleep in past 9:00 for the first time all week. We started the day off at another establishment showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, a fantastic little breakfast nook called Matt's Big Breakfast, just north of downtown Phoenix. The line was insane because the place only seated about 20, but it was ok because we killed part of the 90-minute wait at a bar next door. When we finally got seated, I went with a standard eggs-bacon-hashbrowns breakfast with a side of sourdough toast, and Phil and a salami scrambler. I pretty much knew going in that all of the meat products would be amazing, but I was really surprised by how good something as simple as eggs and potatoes could taste. We didn't get out of there until after 2, but it was well worth it.

Phil and I arrived in downtown Scottsdale about 2:30 and spent at least 15 minutes looking for parking. Urban ballparks have a fantastic atmosphere and can serve as a great anchor for a community, but the drawback is always parking. We eventually conceded to paying $10 in a bank parking lot 5 blocks away after driving through several free garages that were full. Since it took so long to find parking and we weren't entirely sure were the practice fields were anyways, we just went straight to the ballpark and wedged our way into the massive glob of people at the will call window. We finally got in just before first pitch and took our seats in the right field bleachers before we had a chance to get a beer. In about the 3rd inning, we quenched our thirst with a couple silos of Modelo and took a stroll around the park. The attendance was over 12,000 and the park was extremely crowded and hard to navigate through. The team store was also very crowded and was sold out of just about everything but World Series stuff. There were long lines everywhere all day, which was in stark contrast to the relaxing, open nature of Talking Stick the night before. One nice feature at this park is the outfield berm dips back down to form a hill, and the concourse wraps around the back of this at the base. This was part of a 2006 renovation to connect to left and right field berms, and it was a nice secluded area of the park to sort of hide from the commotion for a bit.

The original stadium was built in 1992 and has always held the Giants as its primary tenant. It's a very nuts-and-bolts park and in my opinion is nothing spectacular. The urban location and the atmosphere is what sells this place more than the architecture or amenities. I'd be curious to see what the crowd is like in year which they didn't win the World Series, but I'd imagine being in downtown Scottsdale that they draw lots of walk-up fans regardless. It really reminded me of Warner Park in a way, it had the same typical younger crowd and wild atmosphere, and how various sections of seating seemed very piecemeal and cramped. The way that the bleachers and seating sit on grade with the concession stands stuffed underneath, and you have to arise into the grandstand, is also similar to the Duck Pond. The whole park just didn't seem to have a cohesive design and it felt more like the architect threw in a seating bowl and a pressbox, and then over time added various bleacher sections and the exterior shell. That may not be the case, but that's just how it feels - in my mind, the park just doesn't have a good flow and is discontinuous. On the plus side, Warner Park is one of my favorite ballparks and all of its oddities and shortcomings give the park tons of character, and the same definitely applies to Scottsdale Stadium. It wasn't one of my favorite parks of the week but it definitely was the most unique of the 6. I had heard so many good things about how great the atmosphere was at this park, and how awesome Scottsdale is, so I was excited to go to Scottsdale Stadium and check it out for myself. While that end of the bargain was upheld, architecturally I was left wanting. Even though the game was exciting, the stadium had character, and it was a sellout, paying $29 for a bleacher ticket and $6 for a cold brat negated most of that.

We saw Cincinnati for the 3rd time this week take on San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum in his final spring tune-up, and the final Cactus League home game for the Giants as well. Sam LeCure got the spot start for the Reds in place of Bronson Arroyo. Unlike the Brewers and Cardinals who also have starting pitcher injuries, the Reds are about 8-deep in their rotation and have guys like LeCure and Travis Wood who can step in when Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto go on the DL, or if Arroyo misses a few starts with mono. LeCure pitched admirably but was not really stretched out yet so he was only able to make it into the 4th. The Giants got the bulk of their runs off of Aroldis Chapman, who we saw pitch in all 3 Reds games this week. The Reds had a 6-3 lead until he gave up 5 ER on 4 hits without recording an out in the 6th, and the Giants ended up winning 9-6. Cincy got all 6 of those runs off of Lincecum on 11 hits. I couldn't tell if the Reds were actually hitting The Freak that well, or if he was just out there chuckin' to get his work in and didn't really care. Offensively, Juan Francisco went 3-4 with a HR for the Reds, and Andres Torres was 3-4 with 4 RBI and a walk for the Giants.

I noticed when we were out in Scottsdale on Friday night that there was a Yard House there, so we hit that up for some chow after the game. Phil and I then met up for some farewell drinks with Rob at the same bar we ended up at the night before, playing video lawn darts and some hits on the jukebox until about 11. It was then a 5:30 AM wake-up call to drop off the rental car, and then catch 3 planes and drive 5 hours back to Iowa. What a long day on Sunday, but boy what an unbelieveable trip and a fun week in Arizona with Phil. Overall, I'd have to say that Scottsdale Stadium was my least favorite park of the week, and Camelback Ranch narrowly beat out Salt River Fields as my favorite. I enjoyed my time at every park and would certainly recommend a game at all 6 of the parks we visited. Next on tap for Tour 2011 is a potential weekend Midwest League trip with E; we'll see how that pans out. Happy Opening Day to all!!!

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 5 (could see mountains from right field corner)
view to field - 4 (seats not angled towards field)
surrounding area - 9 (downtown Scottsdale)
food variety - 3
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 5 (points deducted for having $6 12-oz beers)
vendor price - 5
ticket price - 2 ($29 bleacher is outrageous)
atmosphere - 8 (sellout)
walk to park - 6 (depends where you park)
parking proximity - 2 ($10 lot 5 blocks away)
concourses - 3 (crowded, below grandstand no view of field)
team shop - 3 (good size but sold out of a lot)
complex - n/a, did not see

best food - nothing notable; go with the Asian noodles
most unique stadium feature - walk behind the berm, only urban park in Cactus League
jumbotron - yes
best between-inning feature - n/a

field dimensions - 360/430/360
starters - Sam LeCure (CIN) v. Tim Lincecum (SF)
opponent - Cincinnati Reds
time of game - 3:01
attendance - 12096
score - 9-6 W
Brewers score that day - 2-1 W

Tour 2011: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick

All photos of Salt River Fields available on Flickr.

Friday was the day I was looking forward to most on the trip: a doubleheader featuring a nightcap at the brand new Salt River Fields in north Scottsdale. The day started out by picking up Frank at about 10:15 and heading all the way out to Surprise, which took over 45 minutes in traffic. We thought we would be seeing the Giants play the Royals there at 1:05, but it turns out that the Spring Training Online schedule incorrectly listed this game as a matinee instead of a 6:05 nightcap. I thought I had learned my lesson in Burlington last year about checking schedules the day of a game, but I guess not. So we made the longest drive in the Cactus League for nothing. We collected our bearings and consulted the Spring Training pocket schedule, but found no other decent daytime options so we decided to just go back to Maryvale to watch the Crew. We had rainout tickets from Monday that we had to use anyways, so it worked out fine other than me having to change out of my Rick Vaughn jersey since they were playing the Indians. We arrived at noon and got the exact same seats we had on Sunday by the Brewers' bullpen (read more about this game in the Maryvale post from 3/28/11).

After the Brewers' victory we made our way east to the heralded brand new facility of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Our first encounter with bad traffic on the trip was an absolute crawl from AZ-202 all the way up the 101 to the ballpark. We parked the car in an adjacent "lot" for $5 that was actually just a lawn. Why they would cover an entire field in the desert with turf just for you to park on was beyond me, so I hope that it's used for something else the other 11 months of the year. What made the parking situation even more awkward is that there wasn't really a path exiting the lot, you had to navigate this sort of drainage ditch and climb over some rocks to get onto the sidewalk. Once on the sidewalk, it led us through the D-Backs training area and up to the left field gate. We didn't really have a chance to explore the grounds more than in passing, because we got there after 6pm for a 6:40 first pitch. From what we could tell they seemed pretty fan-accessible and close to the ballpark. The practice fields also had a similar landscaped setting to Camelback, including the same type of plinth seating behind the backstops and some small creeks. Unlike at Camelback these creeks are natural, and the complex gets its name from the five "salt rivers" that converge on the site; in reality, they are just five sections of the same small dried-up river bed. There is clearly a lot of leiniency on what passes for a "river" in Phoenix. The other part of the complex's name is a historical reference to a stick used by the local Pima Indian tribe to record events. When it opened this spring, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick became the first MLB ballpark to be built on Native American land.

We collected our tickets at an automated will call kiosk (like the ones they use at Great American Ballpark) and entered in the left field corner. Just when I don't think the next day's ballpark could possibly be topped, it happens. The sight was absolutely breathtaking. To our right was a beautiful, dynamic roof form that swept over the seating at various angles and was designed specifically to shade 90% of the seats at a matinee game in March. In front of us was a fairly plain batters eye and the team offices of the Rockies. And on our left, we saw the large jumbotron, team store, and Diamondbacks offices. Behind all of this was a phenomenal view to the McDowell Mountains in the distance. I just took it all in for awhile and snapped some photos, amazed at the grandeur rolled out by these organizations just for a Spring Training facility. I then grabbed a program and we headed into the team store, which had just about everything imaginable including baseballs with the Talking Stick logo on it. Up to this point, all of the balls I had purchased just had the team logo on one side and "Spring Training" on the other, nothing about the ballpark. Exiting the team store and taking a lap around the outfield, Phil and I noticed how similar this ballpark was to Camelback Ranch. This was especially evident in the identical basic layouts - team offices in the outfield corners, ramp down to mid-level walkway through the seating bowl, expansive second level, and no pronounced entry gate. The similarities continued with color palette and materials, and both parks also have a very distinctive roof form. I was not surprised to find out just now when I looked it up that the two facilities were indeed designed by the same architect, HKS. I'm not sure if these guys have a small foothold in the ballpark monopoly that is Populous, but I thoroughly enjoyed their two stadiums. My rankings are going to show that Salt River Fields scored higher, but I'd still have to give the slight edge to Camelback Ranch if for no other reason than the sensational practice complex.

We had awesome seats for Friday night's game: 1st row of the 200 sections, just off-center from home plate. The teams took their BP in the main ballpark for this game, so we got to watch a little of that. From where we sat, the ballpark really felt like a big league ballpark. If you added 15,000 seats to the upper deck, there's absolutely no reason this park couldn't play in the major leagues. They literally have just about everything else you need and expect from an MLB ballpark except an appropriate seating capacity. There's all sorts of food and a beer stand at the top of every aisle, but most importantly it just has that intangible comfort level you feel at a major league stadium. It's a very spacious park and a relaxing place to watch a ballgame. And what better way to relax at a ballgame than with a silo of beer and a gigantic hot dog? These two items have been the standard fare offered at every park this week, but Talking Stick did it best: a Salt River Dog featuring roasted green chiles, onions, and bacon, and a 24-oz Blue Moon. All of the specialty hot dogs looked delicious and it was a hard choice. There were actually so many concession options that we made a second trip later in the game for garlic knots and daiquiris, both of which were outstanding.

The tenant of Salt River Fields that we saw on this night was Colorado, and they were hosting Texas. The Rockies plated 10 runs on 20 hits, including 8 and 13 off of Rangers starter Derek Holland. Watching Holland's long arm action I could tell that the ball was probably easy to pick up for the hitters. Catcher Chris Ianetta slugged a towering homerun in the 4th, and Rockie legend Todd Helton effortlessly collected 3 singles and an RBI. Eric Young Jr., the son of former Brewer Eric Young, got the start in center and had 2 hits and a run scored. I was really hoping we'd get to see Jason Giambi sub into the game, but he was probably off preparing his testimony in the Bonds perjury trial. Not really much action to speak of for the Rangers. Josh Hamilton went 1-2 with a walk, and Arthur Rhodes might ride into the sunset after his All-Star 2010 campaign, because he surrendered 4 hits in an inning of refief and looked pretty terrible.

After the game, we tied one on pretty hard for the first time that week. We were out in Scottsdale with Rob and Frank until bar close and didn't get to bed until after 4. Saturday is our last full day out here and we have tickets to the Giants game in downtown Scottsdale.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 8 (mountains)
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 7 (downtown Scottsdale nearby)
food variety - 9
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 6 (points deducted for ridiculous serving policy and long lines)
vendor price - 6
ticket price - 7 ($20 behind home plate)
atmosphere - 9 (sellout)
walk to park - 7
parking proximity - 4 (adjacent lot $5, hard to get from lot to path)
concourses - 9 (very spacious)
team shop - 9 (two)
complex - 7

best food - Salt River Dog
most unique stadium feature - roof
jumbotron - yes (kind of hard to read, and the "Salt River Fields" sign on top needs some lighting)
best between-inning feature - n/a

field dimensions - 345/410/345
starters - Derek Holland (TEX) v. Esmil Rogers (COL)
opponent - Texas Rangers
time of game - 3:10
attendance - 12258
score - 10-3 W
Brewers score that day - 7-4 W

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tour 2011: Tempe Diablo Stadium

All photos of Tempe Diablo Stadium and Tempe available on Flickr.

Thursday was the Brewers' only road game of the week in Tempe, so we knew this would definitely be a must-see game when we were planning the trip. Tempe is near the Phoenix Airport and is the home to the Arizona State University campus. It was about a 20 minute drive and we got there at 10:45. Parking was $5 in a lot between the stadium and the practice fields and there were already many Brewers fans there when we arrived. From the looks of the parking lot, we could tell it would not be another sparse crowd as at all the other games that week. In fact, we had heard that the Angels, Giants, and the new Salt River Fields were all really tough tickets to get, so we bought the seats for our last 3 days of the trip in advance.

We picked up our tickets at Will Call and meandered over to the Angels' practice diamond to watch infield practice. Angels Camp had a real learning environment and was far more active than any other training facility we had been to thus far. You just won't see too many other managers hit fungoes and stress fundamentals as much as Mike Scioscia does, which is what makes him one of the best managers in the game. It's not a coincidence that the Angels are perennially one of the best defensive teams in baseball and contend every year in the AL West despite a wealth of young players. We watched Scioscia hit double plays for about a half hour, the same play over and over until they got it right. Down the road at the minor league fields, we also watched some of the pitching coaches work on location and delivery drills with a few pitchers. There was also some BP going on at one field, and 3 minor league intersquad games taking place on 3 other fields. Seemingly everyone in the organization had a bat or glove in their hand, or was working with a coach on something. After watching a few AB's of a minor league scrimmage, we walked back towards the stadium and noticed that the crowd had thickened around the big-league practice field to watch Scioscia switch it over to soft toss. I've had the privilege of watching some of the Angels' top prospects at their A-ball affiliate in Cedar Rapids the last couple years I've lived in Iowa, and I can not wait to see the next batch in 2011 after seeing all those young kids pick it in the infield this morning.

On our way out of the practice field area, we grabbed our "George 'The Greek Streak' Kottaras" and "Craig ' The Wizard of Whitefish Bay' Counsell" signs out of the Altima and headed into the stadium. Tempe Diablo is the type of stadium where you have to ascend a tall staircase to get up to the main entry, and in this case it is a very prominent "Spanish Stair" that doubles as a gathering place. We tried to circumnavigate the exterior but couldn't really find a way around, so we walked up a long ramp that ran from the right field pole up to the main gate behind home plate. Tempe Diablo was erected in 1968 and is the 2nd oldest ballpark in the Cactus League (Phoenix Municipal is the oldest), but the park does not show its age at all. In fact, Maryvale is actually 30 years younger than Tempe Diablo and looks to be in far worse shape. An extensive renovation completed in 2006 included the current entryway, team store, new seats, and moving the training fields on site from Mesa, making the entire complex seem much newer than it really is - not unlike the Angels' big league counterpart of Angel Stadium. Once inside, I immediately sensed a much more intimate feel and energetic crowd. This park seats less than 10,000 and is nestled inside of some roads and large rocky hills, making it seem far less open and expansive than Goodyear and Camelback. These hills provided the best view of any ballpark thus far.

The concourses were packed with fans as we made our way around the stadium. The standard second level that houses the suites and pressboxes is fairly low to the concourse level at this ballpark, and provides continuous cover from dugout to dugout. These are both features that further emphasize the smaller scale and intimacy of Tempe Diablo Stadium. The left field corner features a pavilion filled with tents and standalone vendors with a wide assortment of food and drink. It's an area you typically see at a lot of minor league parks, but at a much larger scale, almost like at the State Fair. I decided to make one attempt at a healthy food for the week and had a portobello mushroom sandwich, and Phil went with the jumbo hot dog. Lunch in hand, we walked down to our seats about 5 rows up behind the 1st base dugout. The crowd filed in fast and it was a near sellout by first pitch. This did not include Frank, who showed up a few innings late after being tied up at a work function downtown.

When we saw who the starting pitchers would be for this game, we knew we were in for a barnburner: Randy Wolf v. Scott Kazmir. After giving up another 4 earned over 5.1 on this day, Wolf's Cactus League ERA is now near 10. He's really only had one good start all spring, but he has been notoriously getting a ton of run support since signing with the Brewers in 2010, and today was no different. Milwaukee banged out 10 runs on 8 hits, including a 1st-inning 3-run bomb by Yuniesky Betancourt, the forgotten man in the Zack Greinke trade. Carlos Gomez and Erick Almonte continued their hot springs with 2 hits a piece. Casey McGehee was actually carted off the field in this game after being plunked in the knee by one of the few pitches that Kazmir through with any movement, but we later found out that it was just a bruise and he would be just fine. Edwin Maysonet spelled McGehee and made a couple of fantastic plays at 3rd in his stead. Top Los Angeles prospects Hank Conger, Peter Bourjos, Alexi Amarista, and Mark Trumbo all saw playing time. Bourjos hit a homerun off of Wolf in the 3rd and is penciled in to be the Angels' Opening Day centerfielder, moving Torii Hunter to right. Conger also has a chance to break camp on the 25-man roster as the backup catcher. The final score of the game was 11-8 Brewers, and I think we predicted 12-9 so we were close.

I was actually pleasantly surprised with the nice view and the general aesthetics and feel of the park, as I was really not expecting much after seeing the likes of Goodyear and Camelback earlier in the week. Take my word for it - in almost every category Tempe Diablo competes with all of the new complexes sprouting up in the Cactus League. After the game, we headed to Mill Street near the ASU campus to visit the local Hooters and watch some of the UW basketball game. Phil and I then dropped Frank off at his parents' hotel in the boonies, and we finished our night by closing down that brewpub by our hotel and subsequently getting kicked out of the hot tub.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 4
views from park - 7 (small mountains beyond outfield berm)
view to field - 8
surrounding area - 7 (ASU/downtown Tempe nearby)
food variety - 8
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 8 (featuring Leinie's and local beers)
vendor price - 7
ticket price - 8 ($16 for 1st base dugout)
atmosphere - 8 (pretty full house)
walk to park - 5
parking proximity - 6 (adjacent lot $5)
concourses - 5 (a little cramped, but points for LF pavilion)
team shop - 3 (a few smaller ones, sold out of a lot)
complex - 7

best food - hot dog
most unique stadium feature - front entry/stair
jumbotron - no, scoreboard only
best between-inning feature - t-shirt toss

field dimensions - 340/420/367
starters - Randy Wolf (MIL) v. Scott Kazmir (LAA)
opponent - Milwaukee Brewers
time of game - 3:13
attendance - 7906
score - 11-8 L
Brewers score that day - 11-8 W

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tour 2011: Camelback Ranch

All photos of Camelback Ranch, University of Phoenix Stadium, and Glendale available on Flickr.

We spent Wednesday at the gorgeous Spring Training home of the White Sox and Dodgers, Camelback Ranch - who also happened to be playing each other that day. It was about a half-hour drive out to 107th & Camelback Road in Glendale, and we got there at about 10:30. Just like Goodyear, Camelback Ranch was built in 2009, has shared tenants, and features free parking.

That was where the similarities ended. After buying our tickets and liberally applying sunblock, we started our walk in search of the practice fields and were greeted by a map and sign at the gated entry to the complex. Rather than be tucked away as an afterthought, the complex grounds are celebrated here at Camelback Ranch and were clearly designed as one intergral baseball experience, not just as neglected back fields. Fans are encouraged to explore the grounds on a series of paths rather than to just find their own way. Camelback is all about the procession and the pastoral experience, and I was absolutely blown away by how beautiful it was. I could have spent an entire day just walking around the back fields (which were built to have the same field dimensions as Dodger Stadium and US Cellular Field, respectively). It had a sort of "zoo" feel to it - winding paths, built-in seating at strategic places of rest and viewing, cage-like fencing, and beautiful rolling hills and landscaping. There is even a canal and lake that is filled with carp that provides inimate places to sit, wonderful little bridges, and also doubles as an irrigation system for the dozen practice fields. In an area of the country with major water shortages, I thought the manmade lake was a nice way to retain and recycle water to irrigate the fields while also providing a nice setting for fans. Phil and I actually got to see the big league teams take BP this morning as well, which only added to the total experience. Matt Kemp and James Loney, and Brett Lillibridge of the White Sox were all tagging the ball, and the sandblasted concrete plinths gave us a seat not more than 10 feet from the action. In a stunning conclusion to the journey through the practice facilities, the outfield entry of the ballpark unveiled itself on the other side of a hill and pond, right behind the Dodgers' main auxiliary field. There was a small pavilion in front of this gate, and it was what appeared to be most like a main entry even though it did not face the parking lot. I thought overall that encouraging, if not forcing, the patron to walk through the grounds to get to the stadium was a solid gesture, and placing the auxiliary fields close to the main ballpark made a lot of sense.

If you go along with my previous "zoo" analogy, then the stadium itself would be like its outdoor amphitheater. It's really just a larger piece of the whole puzzle, and the exterior is nondescript enough so as to not overpower the beauty of the site. The field is below grade, so the entries are not very tall like they are at Goodyear. The inside is a beautiful sea of tans and browns and every attempt is made to bring the outside in, both in terms of earthen materials and landscaping. There's one unique detail in particular that noticeably reoccurs throughout the entire site. HKS Architects clearly wanted that natural stone retaining wall look, but my guess is that it was too expensive or too hard to find such a large quantity of large rocks, so their novel solution was to create sort of a frame out of wire mesh in the shape of a wall and stuff them with smaller stones and rocks. I thought it peculiar at first, but from a distance you can't tell that the cage is there and it is actually pretty creative, as it also seems to somehow work structurally as a wall. Camelback is the largest of all Cactus League parks, seating over 13,000, primarily in a first floor bowl and extensive grass berms. There is also a mezzanine level that houses the pressboxes, suites, and an open bar, which gives the ballpark almost a major league feel, and features a copper-clad canopy that partially shades the first level seating.

After entering back where we parked, we hit the team store and took a lap around the ballpark. We then walked up into the aforementioned 2nd level bar area that is open to all fans and overlooks the field. This is also the same level as the suites and press box and anybody can walk up here on a mezzanine walkway and overlook the entry pavilions and field; it's a pretty interesting view you don't get to experience at many ballparks. On the way down, we found our food for the day at a standalone vendor in the right field corner - Phil had pork nachos, and I a giant burrito. We then swung around the concourse behind the outfield berm and headed to our seats after grabbing a couple $10 silos of Tecate. Our ticketed seats were about halfway up between 3rd and the left field pole, but about the 6th inning we headed for the comfort of the mezzanine bar and finished the game sitting about 30 feet from White Sox GM Kenny Williams.

The game pitted the two tenants of Camelback Ranch against each other for the 4th and final time of the spring, with Chicago designated as the "home" team. The Dodgers won behind a strong pitching performance by former Blue Jay and Cub hurler Ted Lilly. He gave up 2 over 6 with 5 K's, and his counterpart John Danks was a little wilder but still had an effective pitching line. Matt Kemp and Carlos Quentin both hit absolute bombs for their respective teams; Quentin's shot cleared the berm down the left field line. As we near the end of Spring Training, both teams ran most of their regulars out there and everyone got at least 3 at bats. We did get to see former Brewers Tony Gwynn Jr. and Gabe Kapler strap it on for LA. Gwynn was 0-2 with a run scored, and Gabe grounded into a double play in his only at bat. It was a slow and lazy ballgame, and both teams are having a pretty miserable spring, but still nothing beats weekday afternoon ball.

Following the game, we stopped at the nearby University of Phoenix Stadium where the NFL's Arizona Cardinals play, just to snap a few photos and see what Peter Eisenman's crazy ass was up to. We followed that up with a stop at another one of many Phoenix area locales featured on a food show - La Piazza al Forno of DDD fame. The pizza was delicious but I was not able to enjoy it fully because I was deathly ill by this point. When we got back to the hotel I made some signs to take to the Brewers game the next day, and then I took some Nyquil and passed out for about 12 hours. I felt 10 times better on Thursday and was ready to see the Brewers play the Angels in Tempe.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 7 (could have used some variety in color)
views from park - 4 (could see Univ. of Phx. Stadium from 2nd deck)
view to field - 8
surrounding area - 5 (downtown Glendale not far, Camelback Resort)
food variety - 6 (better than other 2 parks but still not great)
nachos - 8 (pork with burrito fixins)
beer - 7
vendor price - 6
ticket price - 6 ($17 for end sections)
atmosphere - 5 (crowds more lively at practice fields)
walk to park - 10 (assuming walk through grounds)
parking proximity - 9 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 8
team shop - 6 (two smaller ones)
complex - 10

best food - Sonoran Hot Dog
most unique stadium feature - practice field complex, mezzanine level bar
jumbotron - yes
best between-inning feature - giveaways

field dimensions - 345/410/345
starters - Ted Lilly (LAD) v. John Danks (CWS)
opponent - Los Angeles Dodgers
time of game - 3:03
attendance - 6037
score - 6-2 L
Brewers score that day - off

Tour 2011: Goodyear Ballpark

All photos of Goodyear Ballpark available on Flickr.

Day 3 of the trip took us into the western suburb of Goodyear to see the Reds battle the A's. The Brewers are actually only 1 of 2 teams that still plays in Phoenix proper, because the surrounding area has so much open land that teams can build new ballparks pretty much wherever they want. This fact, and a lucrative offer from the city, was enough to entice the Reds and Indians away from Florida in 2009 into a brand new $33 million facility in Arizona. The drive was about a half-hour to the edge of the Phoenix metro area.

Exiting off I-10, the city of Goodyear seemed sparkling new, as if it had formed overnight. The sprawl of Phoenix into the Sonoran Desert knows no bounds, and this small town that was once just a plot of land that housed a Goodyear tire plant is now a city of over 65,000 people, and is one of the fastest growing cities in Arizona. It kind of reminds me of how my hometown of Oak Creek, WI was nothing more than a couple of big box retailers 20 years ago but is now one of the biggest Milwaukee suburbs. A definite drawback of this wild growth is that Goodyear definitely does not have the character or charm of suburbs like Glendale and Scottsdale, and that is also evident at the Reds & Indians' training facility. While it is a nice facility, it was a little disconcerting entering an empty parking lot in a barren nothingness, only to find a brand new building arising from the sand in the distance. Goodyear looks like it just sort of "arrived" on the site, much like the city itself. Perhaps this was a conscious acknowledgement by the design team or perhaps not, but either way Goodyear makes absolutely no attempt to relate to its surroundings. There were even palm trees in the outfield, which I don't really associate with an arid climate. There is also no paved path from the parking lot to the stadium and the park was surrounded acres of empty land, making the whole project seem unfinished and, again, as if it just appeared on site.

I don't want to make it sound as if I didn't like the ballpark though. Other than the practice fields being about a 20 minute walk away, I thought it was pretty nice. I honestly appreciated the unapologetic use of materials, and it was refreshing to go somewhere that was not done in the same Southwest color palette and forms as almost every other building I saw that week. The exterior is very rigid, boxy, and vertically oriented, and uses materials like precast concrete, metal, and glass curtainwall - none of which you rarely seen in Phoenix. Aside from the use of some locally trendy weathered copper, you'd never know this ballpark was in Arizona. This was one of the few parks we saw this week with a delineated major entry, and although atrocious, the tall statue in the entry pavilion was a nice subtle touch as a vertical marker amidst the expansive landscape. Architecturally speaking, this park was my favorite exterior of the trip.

As I mentioned, the practice facilities are kind of a hoof from the main ballpark. After we bought tickets and hit the huge team store, we walked what was probably 3/4 mile down some backroads, past the Goodyear airport to the Indians practice facility. The Reds' facilities wer even further away, so we just watched a few minutes of an Indians minor league game before walking back. Each club has its own facility of 6-7 practice fields, a clubhouse, and a team office, and all are designed to reflect similar colors and forms of the main ballpark. We got back to the main yard a little after noon and took our standard lap around the concourse to find our food & drink spoils for the afternoon. Goodyear features mostly hot dogs on the menu, as well as a pizza stand and an all-you-can-eat covered pavilion in right field, and a decent beer & alcohol selection as well. I was extremely pleased to find Skyline Coneys and PBR silos right by our lawn seats in left, but it was a warmer day so I went with a refreshing margarita. The interior probably seats about 10,000 and had the look and amenities of a AAA ballpark. The inside was kind of plain compared to the outside, but I did enjoy the park being appropriately very open for its site; it didn't try to feel "closed in" like so many parks do.

The game itself was a 10-8 win for the Athletics. 2010 rookie sensation Mike Leake - who famously skipped the minor leagues altogether and went right into the rotation - was roughed up by a revamped Oakland lineup that now features Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, Andy LaRoche, and Kevin Kouzmanoff. Leake gave up 7 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks and didn't make it out of the 3rd. I'm really hoping that Dusty Baker doesn't run this kid into the ground like he did last year, because he already looked tired and it's March. Coco Crisp was 2-3 with a homer and was impressive in the outfield, and top prospects Chris Carter and Landon Powell also saw time in the game. Joey Votto had a standard MVP-like game for the Reds, going 3-5 with a HR and 4 RBI. We got to see Aroldis Chapman pitch again, as well as former Brewers closer Francisco Cordero.

After the game, we drove over an hour in traffic from one end of the city to the other to meet up with our friends Frank and Rob in Old Town Scottsdale, which was totally night-and-day compared to Goodyear. We had baskets of pizza rolls for $3 and beers for $2, pretty outstanding. I was starting to feel under the weather on this day, so we called it a night at about 8 and watched the new Robin Hood movie for about the 2nd of 4 times back at the hotel room.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8 (most of these points come from the exterior aesthetics)
views from park - 2
view to field - 6
surrounding area - 3 (Goodyear Airport and residential)
food variety - 4
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 7 (similar prices, greater variety than Maryvale)
vendor price - 7
ticket price - 7
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 2 (partially not paved)
parking proximity - 9 (adjacent lot for free, get there early)
concourses - 6 (open, wide, full circumference, but not much activity)
team shop - 8
complex - 3 (major points deducted for being so far away)

best food - Cleveland Dog or Cincinnati Dog
most unique stadium feature - right field pavilion, materials
jumbotron - yes
best between-inning feature - condiment race

field dimensions - 345/410/345
starters - Brett Andreson (OAK) v. Mike Leake (CIN)
opponent - Oakland Athletics
time of game - 3:03
attendance - 3540
score - 10-8 L
Brewers score that day - 7-0 W

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tour 2011: Maryvale Baseball Park

All photos of Maryvale Baseball Park and days 1-2 in Phoenix available on Flickr.

I just got back from Arizona yesterday, and what a week it was! The first ball trip of the year did start on a somber note a couple of months ago, as Erik regrettably had to back out. But on the bright side, E had previously been to Tempe, Surprise, Maryvale, and Scottsdale Stadium in 2008. So although I kicked off the season without Erik, it was satisfying to know that we were able to cross yet another trip off the list. I would say that you can't count out a return visit from the both of us though, since we both had such a great time on our separate visits, and new parks and teams in the Cactus League is inevitable.

I did not venture out into the Valley of the Sun alone, however. My good high school friend Phil was already planning on going along and the two of us had tons of fun, gallons of alcohol, and a barrel of laughs. The trip began on Sunday, March 20th - I from Milwaukee after a Saturday night Huey Lewis concert, and Phil from Las Vegas following a bachelor party. We both planned our flights to arrive well before 1 so that we could catch a Brewer game, which happened to be one of the closer ballparks to the airport and our hotel for the week. There was a slight hiccup in the beginning when it took me 20 minutes to figure out how to start the rental car. The Nissan Altima push-start was certainly a far cry from my Focus with the manual crank sunroof and 155,000 miles. But after a few tries I finally sucked it up and asked the rental counter guy (who was seemingly expecting me to ask a dumb question) how to start the car, and I drove back up to the terminal to pick up Phil, who landed about 45 minutes after I did. It was a very intersting car ride to Maryvale, as he was still drunk and wearing his standard vest & tie, and I'm pretty sure he hadn't been to bed in 2 days and had no idea where he was. We got to the yard about 12:30 and all of the things I had heard about Maryvale being in a sketchy part of town were confirmed. I wouldn't go so far as to say I felt unsafe, but it was easy to see why the Brewers don't play home night games. Exiting the freeway on 51st Street, we saw many of the typical signs of a poor neighborhood - convenience stores with bars on the windows, cell phone stores, check-cashing places, and low-income housing. For this reason I was not at all surprised to see that parking was $6 when we arrived and was glad to pay it rather than search for a free option.

We paid the cheapest ticket prices and got our biggest laugh of the week right out of the gate. When I got my card out to pay, the ticket lady asked if we were together, and Phil, in a half-stupor and without hesitation, leaned in and said "He's my rock!" We cracked up hysterically and it was a running joke for the rest of the trip. Anyways, after we got our tickets I bought a program at the gate and we walked in. Walking into Maryvale was kind of how I felt when I walked into my very first minor league baseball park in Woodbridge VA 6 years ago. I had not known what to expect really, and had I not gone to any more parks that week, I would have thought very highly of it. But after later seeing the likes of Tempe Diablo, Camelback, Talking Stick, etc., Maryvale pales in comparison. To be perfectly objective, if you're only down at Spring Training for a week or so, there's really no reason to go to Maryvale unless you're a big fan of one of the teams playing. It has the look and feel of a AA stadium at best and is not that appealing aesthetically, other than a brise-soleil covering the concourse that was once white and has now taken some abuse from sandy desert winds. The pressbox looked like it needed some upgrading and the batter's eye was just a standalone wall covered in blue siding. The team store is also small and there is a poor food selection, and as we found out the following day, the rest of the grounds are nothing to write home about. But much like Miller Park, for me Maryvale is pretty hard to think of in a bad light since it has the home-team advantage. There's still the great sausages, relatively cheap beer selection, and mixed drinks in souvenir cups you find at the big league ballpark, and the italian beef sandwich with jardiniere was heavenly. The Sausage Race in the 6th and "Roll out the Barrel" in the 7th also made us feel at home. The Racing Sausages must have needed a little spring warmup just like the players, because they only ran about half the usual distance. An aside on the food - 5 of the 6 parks we went to had the same wok noodle tent. You wouldn't think that Asian food at the ballpark would be that good, but I tried it on Friday and it was the best food I ate anywhere all week. So if you get sick of hot dogs while you're in Phoenix next spring, that's a tasty option.

Our seats were in the first row of about 25, literally right next to the Brewers bullpen. At my first spring training game and with Phil in his vivacious state, I could not have asked for better seats. In general, I would definitely say that sitting as close as you can to a bullpen is the way to go in Spring Training. We got to watch all of the Brewers relievers warm up not more than 5 feet away, and we carried on conversations with Yovani Gallardo and the bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel throughout the contest. Being that close to the Brewers bullpen for a couple of games that week, I really learned that Hanel and the bullpen coach Stan Kyles are more than just a couple of spots on the payroll and they actually really do know their stuff and help out the team. At one point I was ready to get Hanel's autograph, but when he proceded to dazzle the nearby children by holding 7 baseballs in his hand at one time, I was too distracted to ask.

The game itself was a 9-8 defeat at the hands of the Reds, the first of three times we'd be seeing both teams. It left the Brewers at 13-9 on the spring at the time and they now own one of the best Cactus League records as we near the end. Chris Narveson was on the bump for the Crew and struggled with command, giving up 7 runs and pitching into the 5th. As best I can tell he was throwing well over 50% breaking stuff so he may have just been working on some things. George "the Greek Streak" Kottaras had a 3-run shot and Casey McGehee had a bases-loaded single in a losing effort; now-returned Rule 5 pick Pat Egan and Mitch Stetter were among the relievers. The Brewers sported a mostly-regular lineup and the starters played about 5 innings. On the Reds side, we were treated to a start by Edinson Volquez, who is one of the few Reds starters not hurt. He also struggled with command and had 5 walks over 2.1. Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman had a rare multi-inning outing, and he showed fatigue in his 2nd inning of work, proving that he is in fact human. Former Marlins great Dontrelle Willis has latched on to Cincinnati with a minor league deal this year and gave up 3 over 3 in relief. Offensively, only a couple of regulars played and Chris Heisey fell a double shy of the cycle.

After the game, we checked into the Days Inn about 10 minutes from Maryvale in the center of town, and we hit the hot tub and rocked out to some Huey, and then grabbed a bite at a delicious brewpub a couple blocks down the road. We tried to get in some more ball at Maryvale on Monday, but the forecast was looking grim from the start. It was about 50 and raining when we left, and it let up just enough for us to watch an hour of a AAA game at one of the Brewers' minor league fields. Yovani Gallardo was the scheduled starter in the 'A' game but was bumped up to 10AM on the back fields so he could get his work in ahead of the rain. They don't really keep stats for those games, but I heard that he gave up 4 over 7 and the 3 innings we saw were flawless. He also hit one to the warning track in an at bat, but took his homerun trot anyways, much to the dismay of Sounds manager Don Money. Again, as I said for the main ballpark itself...had I not gone to any other practice fields complexes, I would have thought the Brewers facility was just fine. But other places later in the week definitely raised the bar and sadly put the Maryvale facilities to shame. The players certainly didn't seem to be lacking anything as far as a proper field or workout facility, but from a fan experience it was lacking compared to other complexes we visited. The Brewers practice/minor league fields were just simple chain link fences and dugouts and were not really conducive to actually watching a game, but I suppose that's the intent. With Spring Training becoming more and more popular for fans, some of the newer parks have a very integrated and welcoming complex, but the Brewers setup is older and is really more about the players and are just a bunch of fields tucked in the back. I did appreciate that they other fields were very close to the main ballpark, a luxury a couple of complexes for whatever reason did not have. At about noon we collected our giveaway bobblehead at the main gate (which was just leftover Hank Aaron from Miller Park last year) and proceeded to drink Bloody Marys until the game was officially cancelled. Afterwards Phil and I caught up on some sleep at the hotel, and then hit up the Heartattack Grill near Chandler, AZ. It's a place that has been on several food shows in which people who weigh over 350 lbs eat for free. It's the total opposite of the current American health-conscientious restaurant, featuring a menu of burgers and fries fried in lard, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lucky Strikes, and butterfat creme milkshakes. Anybody who successfully finishes a quad-patty burger gets wheelbarrowed out to their car by a waitress in a skimpy nurse outfit. We attempted to go out near the ASU campus on the way home but after one drink the meat coma got the best of us, and we called it a night.

We also went to a game at Maryvale on Friday to use our raincheck tickets from Monday. This game was in the low 70s and sunny and we went with our buddy Frank, who arrived in town on Tuesday on "business." This was also the game that I tried those outstanding Asian noodles at, and we had the exact same seats we had on Sunday by the bullpen. We again saw Chris Narveson, this time against Mitch Talbot and the Indians. Both squads had nearly full major league lineups, both of which played most of the game. Narvy was serviceable but still not great, giving up 2 over 5 and striking out 7. Stetter, Sean Green, Loe, Braddock, and Axford were all pretty lights out and the Ax Man got the save in the 7-4 victory. Carlos Gomez's grand slam to center as part of a 5-run 6th proved to be the game winner. He only had the one hit but continued his torrid spring with some good at bats. Speaking of torrid springs, the Brewers' bench stayed hot with 8 of their 15 hits coming from non-starters. Career minor leaguer Erick Almonte had another 3 hits and looks to have earned himself a much deserved spot on the 25-man roster. Kottaras also went big fly and Rickie Weeks was 3-3 to raise his average to .500 on the spring. Most of the regulars look like they've been ready to go for about 3 weeks now. The Brewers as of this game were 16-9 in the Cactus League, going 2-1 in the 3 games we saw them. Maryvale was not the snazziest of facilities but it was a great starting point for the trip and it was very fun to see some of the non-roster guys play and get me excited for the upcoming Rising Stars Game at Miller Park.

park rankings and statistics (for purposes of Spring Training parks, "jumbotron" is a yes/no question, and the category of "complex" is added):

aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2

view to field - 8

surrounding area - 2 (bad area of town)
food variety - 4
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 6 (same price as other Cactus League parks, smaller variety)
vendor price - 5 (I thought everything but the sausage and soda was pretty expensive)
ticket price - 9 ($13 1st row by dugout)
atmosphere - 4 (smaller crowds)
walk to park - 7 (past practice fields, landscaped walk)
parking proximity - 5 (adjacent lot $6)
concourses - 7 (open; brise soleil nice feature)
team shop - 4 (small)
complex - 5 (points for proximity, but very bare bones)

best food - italian beef
most unique stadium feature - brise soleil over concourse
jumbotron - no, scoreboard only
best between-inning feature - Sausage Race

field dimensions - 350/395/340
starters - Edinson Volquez (CIN) v. Chris Narveson (MIL); Mitch Talbot (CLE) v. Chris Narveson (MIL)
opponent - Cincinnati Reds; Cleveland Indians
time of game - 3:27; 2:31
attendance - 6089; 4775
score - 9-8 L, 7-4 W
Brewers score that day - 9-8 L, 7-4 W