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

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