Monday, April 25, 2011

Mike Leake Arrested for Shoplifting

Apparently, the cost of living has gone up in Cincinnati since I've left. Reds pitcher Mike Leake, who makes nearly $500,000/year, was arrested for shoplifting $59.88 worth of T-shirts from the downtown Macy's early last week. The petty nature of his crime not withstanding, Leake now joins a long and storied fraternity of Cincy sportsmen having a brush with the law. Up until this arrest, Cincinnati athletes had somehow managed to stay clean since the football season ended (I'm assuming a Bengal was arrested for something last year). I can fondly recall my days at UC, where our local campus dive Uncle Woody's had a toteboard that pitted "Bengals Arrests/Suspensions v. Bengals Wins," and it was tie or victory for the arrests every year. Now with Leake's arrest and Brandon Phillips' reckless driving arrest last year, it looks like the Reds are finally giving the Bengals and Bearcats a run for their money. Maybe Ryan Braun can spare a few items from his designer T-shirt line while the Reds are in town.

Brewers 11-10 (3 v. Reds, 3 @ Astros)
Reds 11-11 (3 @ Brewers, 3 v. Marlins)
Twins 9-12 (3 v. Rays, 3 @ Royals)

Erik - 3
Peter - 12

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jose Canseco Comeback Attempt #5

It was announced early last week that former major leaguer Jose Canseco, along with his twin brother Ozzie, is staging yet another comeback, this time as a player-manager for the Yuma Scorpions of the newly-formed North American League. Since his "retirement" in 2002, Canseco has attempted several comebacks, including with the Dodgers in 2004, and several teams in the indy ball circuit. The most notorious of these comebacks was a stint in the Golden League in 2006, during which he signed with the San Diego Surf Dawgs for one game as a knuckleball pitcher, and was then traded to the Long Beach Armada and ended up making the all-star team and winning the home run derby at the age of 42.

This latest comeback is nothing more than a gimmick to make money that he probably desperately needs. Whether it's writing, celebrity boxing, martial arts, an appearance on "The Apprentice," or baseball, nothing that Jose has done over the last decade has served any other purpose than to draw unnecessary attention to himself. Jose Canseco should have ridden off into the sunset after writing Juiced, a book which changed the landscape of baseball forever and helped shape the drug testing policies and court cases we see today. It was an enlightening book and for a brief time served as Jose's vindication and penance. But now, much like Pete Rose's futile attempts to get back into the game, Jose is just making a fool of himself. I respect a man trying to get his life back together, but managing and DH-ing for an independent league team at age 46 is getting a little ridiculous. But maybe that's just how Canseco wants it. After all, he was part of an era of players that turned baseball from just a game into entertainment. Jose's entire post-MLB life has been an incarnation of his lifelong belief that he has and always will view himself as a performer above all else. His stint in Yuma will definitely put butts in the seats, and if the Scorpions actually do well it will just be a bonus opportunity to stick it to former "Bash Brothers" teammate Mark McGwire to prove he is the better coach.

Brewers 8-8 (3 @ Phillies, 3 v. Astros)
Reds 9-7 (3 v. Diamondbacks, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 6-10 (4 @ Orioles, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 2
Peter - 10

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Minor League Opening Week 2011

All photos of the Kernels home opener available on Flickr.

A week after play started in the big leagues, most full-season MiLB teams across the country started their season on Thursday, April 7th. Minor League Opening Day may not have the pomp and enthusiasm as the majors, but I of course enjoy it just the same because I love the hustle and devotion of minor league athletes. No matter what the league is or level of competition, Opening Day symbolizes the same thing everywhere - a fresh start and a new opportunity. It is the beginning of a journey for each of the thousands of minor leaguers, from new draftees to AAA veterans, that could one day see them fulfill their lifelong dream of playing under the lights of a major league ballpark.

I spent my 2nd consecutive MiLB opener at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. The Kernels actually started out the season on the road, and the home opener was Monday against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. This also meant I was spending my 2nd consecutive MiLB opener rooting for the road team from my home state of Wisconsin. I arrived at the ballpark about a half-hour before the first pitch to make sure I could collect the Veterans Memorial Stadium 10th Season t-shirt they were giving away to the first 1,000 fans. The good news was that the crowd was only about 1500 so there were plently left, but the bad news is that they only had Adult Small left. I took one anyways - maybe I'll lose 30 pounds someday, who knows. I also collected the customary Opening Day magnet schedule. Looking around the park this year, there is nothing really new to report. There was a slew of new outerwear in the team store, and they added a roof over the beer stand in the Randy Kuehl Pavilion - that's about it. Parousing the gameday program, many of the promotions seem to be the same too: Star Wars Night, Jimmy Buffet Night, etc. It seems clear to me that after the Kernels got their new ballpark 10 years ago, they were going to be content with the way things were for awhile. This is the 3rd year I've been to a game at the Vet, and for the 3rd straight year nothing is different. The Kernels have a nice, relatively new park, a good team and fan base, and a slew of great theme nights - I guess with over 100 years of baseball tradition in Cedar Rapids, that's about all you need.

I got my beer wrist band and went with a Leine's Red and a pork tenderloin sandwich for dinner. After trying almost every single food there over the last couple years, this is probably still the best menu item. For those who don't know, the pork tenderloin is pretty much Iowa's state food, so if you can count on one food being done right at any restaurant or venue, it will be the pork tenderloin. I decided to splurge the extra $3 from my typical GA ticket to sit in the 4th row right behind home plate, which proved to be crucial because I now had protective netting in front while I concentrated on not getting mustard from my sandwich on me for the first inning. The T-Rats spoiled the Kernels' home debut with a 3-1 victory, and as a Brewers fan I was very happy with what I saw. Wisconsin played stellar defense, had pretty good pitching, and had many sound fundamental at-bats. My only criticism is that they don't have a lot of team speed. The Kernels, on the other hand, had erratic pitching, particularly their starter who walked 6 and hit a batter. The strength of this team is again supposed to be pitching but I wasn't impressed with what I saw tonight. Offensively, they hit a lot of balls right on the screws but were robbed time and time again by an outstanding Timber Rattler infield. The Kernels' lone highlight was a 405-ft bomb to dead center by Travis Witherspoon, who also collected a single and a walk. Carlos George was the star of the night for the T-Rats, going 2-3 with a double, walk, and 2 RBI out of the 9-spot, and more notably making at least four amazing defensive plays at shortstop that I can remember. As I said, the entire infield defense was pickin' it all night. The top prospects at this level for the Brewers were Reggie Keen and Cody Hawn, and they had one hit apiece. Another player I saw at the Rising Stars Game for the T-Rats was the starter Tyler Thornburg. He struck out 5 in 3 innings of work, and then gave way to Dan Britt who gave up 1 hit in 4 innings of relief, and Brian Garman who shut the door with a 4-out save. It was a good showing by the Brewers' A-affiliate, and I also look forward to rooting for the home team down in Cedar Rapids sometime soon.

Brewers 5-5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Nationals)
Reds 7-3 (3 @ Padres, 4 v. Pirates)
Twins 3-6 (2 v. Royals, 4 @ Rays)

Erik - 2
Peter - 10

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Opening Weekend 2011

All photos of Brewers Rising Stars Game and the Brewers home opener available on Flickr.

It was a little weird that Opening Day was on a Thursday this year, but my excitement and anticipation of another baseball season was not diminished. Excitement, in that all 30 teams from New York to Kansas City start out tied for first. And anticipation over what is going to be at least a 4-team race all season long in the NL Central. Right out of the gates, the Reds picked up where they left off in 2010 as they came back in dramatic fashion to beat the Brewers 7-6 with a walkoff homerun and are already atop the division at 4-0. The Pirates' window of opportunity with its young talent and energetic manager is fast approaching, and hey they won their 5th consecutive season opener - who knew? The Cubs will, yet again, attempt to ride the neverending contracts of Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano into the playoffs. Even though the Cards are already down a perennial Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright and the Pujols contract situation looms daily, you can never count out LaRussa and Dave Duncan. To be blunt, the Astros are in a transitional phase and will be really terrible this year. Last but certainly not least, on paper the Brewers look strong and are expected to have a very successful season following the offseason acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and new manager Ron Roenicke. They had to trade a lot of young talent away to get these two new horses for the rotation, but it was clear after the 2009-10 campaigns that something drastic had to be done.

To encourage fans concerned about the longterm future of the Brewers, a "Rising Stars" game was held at Miller Park the Saturday before the home opener. It allowed the Brewers to show off some of the organization's top prospects and to help alleviate concerns about the dwindling farm system and failed draft picks the last several years. Despite trading away both their top pitching prospect (Jake Odorizzi) and positional prospect (Brett Lawrie) in one winter, the Brewers still hold a number of players filing through the ranks that should make a major-league impact sooner rather than later. Pitching actually holds the most promise, as Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta, Amaury Rivas, Kyle Heckathorn, and Cody Scarpetta are all expected to compete for spots in the Brewers' rotation in the next couple years, and Tyler Thornburg and Josh Butler for spots the bullpen. Half of these guys will probably be on the 25-man roster at some point during the season. The positional players are a little bit further behind, with all of the big names now traded or on the big league squad. But the Brewers still have Mat Gamel and despite a lot of ill-timed injuries, he is still expected to rake at the big league level and it will be his job to lose at 1st next year after Prince leaves. Gamel did not play in the Rising Stars Game, but Scooter Gennett, Kentrail Davis, Eric Komatsu, Eric Farris, and Caleb Gindl all did. I wouldn't classify these guys as blue-chip prospects, but they're solid defenders who have a good approach at the plate, and the Brewers will definitely have spots at least three positions for these kids to compete for next spring.

The results of the Rising Stars Game were mostly reflective of the level of talent at the Brewers minor league level - strong on pitching and defense, a little bit lacking in hitting. But that's really not a bad thing - pitching is something a team always wants in surplus in the minors. Pitching is also cyclical - 6-8 years ago, when the Brewers were selecting big power bats like Weeks, Fielder, Braun, and Hart, who are now all in the bigs, the pitching was lacking, and now it is vice versa. I'm sure once guys like Brauny and Prince get older and start to leave, you'll see another influx of positional drafting by the Brewers. For the game, the Brewers split their top prospects into two teams of "Blue" and "White" and they faced off in a scrimmage, sort of like a minor league all-star game, except it was intrasquad. All the pitchers got about 2 innings and positional players played most of the game. It was a 2-0 win for the White team, but hey the best part was that whoever won, it was a Brewers victory! There must have been at least 20 total strikeouts in the game and all of the aforementioned pitchers simply dominated the hitters in a game that flew by in less than 2 hours. The lone offensive highlight was a solo homerun by Taylor Green. The Brewers have only had a local minor league affiliate in Wisconsin for 2 years, so it was good to see some of the AAA guys that I didn't know too much about, as well as guys like Rivas and Scarpetta that I saw pitch in Appleton. The best part of the game by far though was getting that first 2011 Miller Park tailgate under the belt, and getting a sneak preview of the brand new gigantic HD scoreboard, which is now 4th in the majors to Yankee Stadium, Kauffman Stadium, and Turner Field in size and pixels.

Saturday's event was just a warmup for the big day on Monday. Emerging from the secret path through the VA grounds (which is now paved, by the way) and smelling those brats in the parking lot almost made me forget that it was 30 degrees colder than last year with 30 mph winds. The Brewers drew the 2nd largest crowd in Miller Park history, over 46000 screaming fans. This year, the Brewers remedied Miller Park's two biggest shortcomings: the jumbotron and the food. The old jumbotron really started to show its age last season, with many bulbs out and the obsolete dot matrix board constantly flickering. The $10 million scoreboard upgrade from the stadium's tax district money is amazing. Secondly, food is an area I feel that Miller Park, as a stadium connoisseur, has always lacked in compared to some of the newer parks. Not necessarily in quality, but in quantity of options. Miller Park, up until now, has had the approach of just doing what Milwaukee does best - the best cased meats in the league, and a damn good fish fry that will compete with any in the city. The change started a little bit last year with the introduction of an Asian noodle stand and a burrito cart, but this year the influx of new foods went into high gear: carved prime rib sandwiches, barbeque parfaits, beef brisket, sausage kabobs, and poutine are all new at Miller Park in 2011. I had been full from tailgating at each of the games I've attended at the ballpark thus far, but I will definitely be on a hunger quest at my next Brewers game and will report my findings right here on HE&PB.

The great thing about Opening Day in Milwaukee is that even a 2-1 loss to a rookie pitcher on a cold April day is not enough to deter the fans from carrying their enthusiasm through all 9 innings, and even back to the parking lot to the patented re-tailgate. The Crew did not play very well - aside from starting pitcher Chris Narveson who chucked 6 scoreless - but it's a long season to go and I'm not making any bold predictions at this point. I will say that two things that already concern me are Carlos Gomez's inability to do anything semi-productive offensively, and the combined 78 years of setup guy we're running out there. The Brewers as of this post are still looking for their first win of the 2011 campaign and it will be an interesting season to say the least. Hopefully a dozen of the World Champion Green Bay Packers throwing out the 1st pitch of the home schedule will rub off a little luck on the team and get them on a roll.

Brewers 0-4 (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 4-0 (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Diamondbacks)
Twins 1-3 (4 @ Yankees, 3 v. Athletics)

Erik - 1
Peter - 9