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