Monday, August 27, 2012

Midway Stadium

All photos of Minneapolis and Midway Stadium available on Flickr.

One thing I've learned in the past month is that if there's something in your life you're meant to do, ignoring that inclination is fooling nobody but yourself.  For Erik, I know one of those things has always been moving back to Minnesota.  I know that he loved it there and has really missed it since college.  This past weekend was finally the moment when he got to reunite with the Twin Cities, and I helped him move up there.  Erik and I have both lived as nomads since The Tour, but hopefully he can settle into a nice life there now, and I wish him the best of luck.

Now, when I say "I helped him move," really it was just dragging a mattress and a suitcase up the stairs.  Most of our time was filled with ballgames, and a healthy amount of beer.  A lot of the details of Friday night are blurry, but I do remember that it was the most fun I've had in a long time, and that we identified many key watering holes near his apartment that we will be frequenting upon my next visit.  Saturday was a more standard E & P day - Food Show eatery, brewery, ballpark.  After trying to recollect the evening, we eventually stumbled to Kramarczuk's, the Eastern European deli that provides the sausages for nearby Target Field, and has also gained national notoriety from its appearance on Diners Drive-Ins & Dives.  There is both a restaurant part and an actual delicatessen, and it was pretty spectacular.  A lot of the foods there I remember from my German and Polish heritage, just with different weird Croatian names.  We then made our way to Fulton Brewery, across the street from Target Field.  This is a local brewery that just opened this year; it was started by four guys who homebrewed in a garage and decided to take their passion to the next level.  I didn't really enjoy the beer fully because I was still in pain from the night before, but the space has a lot of potential.  At this point, we figured since we were gradually inching our way towards the ballpark anyways, we might as well take a lap.  We noticed a few new subtle additions around the exterior and then hit the team store.  You can't go to the ballpark in Minneapolis and not go to Hubert's, so we paid our respects there for a drink, and then headed east to Saint Paul.

Midway Stadium is one of a handful of ballparks that we attended in the dark "pre-blog" days, and this weekend was our first visit back together since 2006.  It was built in 1982 and apparently derives its name from being "midway" between the Minneapolis and St. Paul city centers.  I always thought it was because it is near the Midway of the Minnesota State Fair, but not according to Wikipedia.  The St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association are in their 20th season as a tenant of Midway Stadium.  It is not a stretch to say that the Saints pretty much put independent league baseball on the map, and helped create the template for the family-fun atmosphere of baseball as it is today.  This is due in large part to the famously wacky yet visionary ownership group of Bill Murray and Mike Veeck, son of Bill Veeck, who still own the team today and helped revive several dying independent leagues.  Another reason the atmosphere is crazy is to compensate for factors that would run just about any other team into the ground: awful stadium, crappy site, surprisingly higher prices, and a big league team with a beautiful ballpark 10 miles away.  The Saints have always been able to draw well because of their good humor and fun promotions, because certainly nobody is going out there to experience Midway Stadium.  It's cramped, it has poor circulation, and it is well beyond its functional life as a modern ballpark.  In fact, Veeck has proudly proclaimed that Midway is the "ugliest stadium in America" and they have promotions celebrating this fact.  A good example of St. Paul Saints humor is that the PA guy makes light of the fact that the stadium is inconveniently wedged 20 feet from an industrial rail line by yelling "Train!" as one passes by, which is often.  The St. Paul franchise truly is one of the innovators, and all the antics and promotions you've ever witnessed at a minor or independent league game are a dumbed-down version of the Saints. 

The Saints played a 4-game series with playoff implications against the Winnipeg Goldeyes, formerly of the now defunct Northern League, and Erik and I went to two of those four games.  Saturday night was a tribute to "20 Years of David Letterman" to coincide with the Saints' 20th season.  It was a matchup of staff aces, and unfortunately the Goldeyes' pitcher had the better night, nearly tossing a complete game.  Long-time Saint Ole Sheldon had a homerun for the hometeam and has developed a ridiculous Craig Counsell ca. 2007 batting stance since I Iast saw him play in 2010.  The most memorable part of the game was that Michael Coles of the Goldeyes got hit by pitches twice on the same hand and somehow stayed in the game.  Erik and I were both very surprised that there were not fireworks after the game, we've come to expect that now, but as I said before the Saints really go by the beat of their own drum.  Sunday's match was a hot one and we had to keep cool with several frosty Killebrews following our tailgate in the street.  Winnipeg won again to take a 2-1 lead in the series.  The starting pitchers were about average and there was a lot more offense in this game.  The Goldeyes hit a lot of high fly balls to the outfield, and two of them left the yard, including Barbaro Canizares' first of the year to dead-center.  The Saints staged another threat in the 9th as they did on Saturday night but fell 8-2.  Sunday's loss left the Saints 2 back of the Goldeyes for the wildcard spot as the season comes to an end on Labor Day.

Despite everything fans love about the unique atmosphere, in the end it's still about turning a profit, so the team is pushing to procure financing from the state to build a new ballpark in downtown St. Paul to make the team a little bit more viable.  So, to experience the real atmosphere of a Saints game, you might want to get out there in the next couple of years. Because, as we've seen with new parks like Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, it is often difficult to recreate the experience when moving into a new facility - although the Saints do definitely deserve an upgrade, and the schematic design looks amazing.  I look forward to dragging Erik out of the library during a potential return visit to see the new stadium.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2
views from park - 4 (increases to 10 when fire dept test building is on fire)
view to field - 4 (lots of foul ground)
surrounding area - 2 (Minnesota State Fair)
food variety - 5
nachos - 3
beer - 5 ($5.50 for 16 oz, local brews, souvenir cup)
vendor price - 5
ticket price - 3 ($13 box seat)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park - 3 (lawn next to train yard)
parking price/proximity - 4 (adjacent lot $6, street is free)
concourses - 1
team shop - 6 (only a tent but cool stuff)

best food - steak sandwich
most unique stadium feature - trains rolling by during game
best jumbotron feature - PBR ad
best between-inning feature - "Karaoke with a real Japanese guy"

field dimensions - 320/400/320
starters - Andrew Walker (WPG) v. Robert Coe (STP); Chris Salamida v. Luke Anderson
opponent - Winnipeg Goldeyes
time of game - 2:50; 2:56
attendance - 6041; 5070
score - 5-2 L; 8-2 L
Brewers score that day - 4-0 L; 7-0 W

Brewers 59-67, -16.5 (4 @ Cubs, 3 v. Pirates)
Reds 77-52, +6.0 (3 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Astros)
Twins 52-75, -19.5 (4 v. Mariners, 3 @ Royals)

Erik - 28
Peter - 38

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Corn Crib

All photos of Normal and The Corn Crib available on Flickr.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty depressing for me.  My fiance Lauren and I broke up, and Erik has been on "vacation" in New Hampshire and North Carolina with his girlfriend Katie, so I've found myself alone watching a lot of Little League World Series quintuple-headers on ESPN.  Perhaps driving 3 hours into rural Illinois isn't the best way to curb loneliness, but I can always find solace in a trip to the ballpark.  My first option for how to fill my free Saturday was to attend Game 3 of the Northwoods League World Series in La Crosse, but unfortunately for me the Loggers swept the series on Friday night.  After weighing my options, Normal it was.

The ballpark in Normal is ironically anything but normal.  This 3rd-year stadium is octagonal-shaped in order to accommodate the soccer team of the local community college.  Other than maybe RFK in DC, it's the only other ballpark I've seen that is multi-purpose built primarily for baseball.  Although there is a ton of foul territory out of necessity, the seating bowl and layout of the concessions are most suited for watching a ballgame.  Another obvious quirk is the 100% synthetic turf playing surface.  Perhaps this was installed because of budgetary concerns, or perhaps because the stadium is used for several sports, but either way, it is weird.  This is now the 2nd all-turf stadium I've seen this year and I still need to get used to it.  At least at Kapco Park the pitcher's mounds were dirt, at The Corn Crib even those are turf.  I watched the last inning of the game by the bullpen and asked one of the CornBelter pitchers what he thought of the turf mounds, and he told me he preferred it to dirt because you don't have to worry about divots, which makes sense.  This is another one of those ballpark issues where I'm torn between my lives as a baseball fan and an architect.  As a fan, I find it atrocious that a team has to play on fake grass, even fake dirt.  But as an architect, I recognize what an incredible waste of water, money, materials, and labor it is to install and maintain an 3-acre field for one sport.  If you also take into account the cheap building materials and the wind farms in the area, I really applaud Normal for their innovative and sustainable design solution.

What further supports this sustainability concept is that there is corn planted outside the ballpark and over the right field wall instead of absent-minded landscaping (the only grass on the entire property are berms in the outfield).  The corn is not just there because there is an abundance of it in the area, or for aesthetic reasons; the team's main sponsor is the Illinois Corn Farmers Association.  Everything here - the name of the stadium, the team name, advertisements, the concession stand names, even the mascot - all works in congruence with the team's sponsorship very thoroughly.  There are even ethanol commercials on the jumbotron and corn facts on banners strewn around the ballpark.  In an obvious gesture, there are also several foods containing corn at The Corn Crib.  I had a corn dog and an ear of corn for dinner and both were among the best I've ever had.  The rest of the concessions were wide in variety but nothing really unique other than the corn.  My favorite part of the park were the little patio areas they had spread throughout the concourse.  These areas were probably just ways to use up dead space, but I thought they were well done and not tacky.  In particular, the beer tent above the 1st base seating seemed like a great social space.  Seeing as I was like the 9th person to enter the ballpark, I had plenty of time to investigate these areas.

Getting to the park so early also allowed me to obtain a seat in the first row behind homeplate.  At the time of first pitch, it was so quiet I could hear the radio announcer in the booth behind me calling the game, but eventually the stadium got to about 1/3 full and the din was replaced by zany between-innings entertainment.  If you are not a fan of goofy non-baseball related antics and rowdy mascots, then you will definitely not enjoy a CornBelters game.  This is sort of the norm at minor/indepedent league games now and I've grown accustomed to it, but even this was a little too much for me.  There were two mascots, Corny the Cornasaurus and Reggy the Purple Party Dude.  One of them was lazy and fat and mostly just got in people's way, and the other one talked in a Pee-Wee Herman-esque voice and was very obnoxious and did stupid things on the field.  When I wasn't distracted by the mascots, it was actually an outstanding game.  In true Frontier League fashion, it was a pitcher's duel most of the way.  The visiting Rockford starter gave up only 1 run over 8 innings.  The Normal starter Tyler Lavigne scattered 12 hits over 8 1/3 and left 11 runners stranded.  The CornBelters' manager was solely to blame for this loss.  After escaping jams for 8 straight innings, Lavigne was allowed to come back out for the 9th despite having well over 100 pitches.  He promptly gave up the lead, and the manager finally went to the pen for a sidewinding lefty.  He got his man out but then was for some reason left in the game to face a right-handed hitter, despite a righty being up in the pen, and allowed the go-ahead run to score.  The Riverhawks would go on to add 3 more in the top half of the frame, and closed out the 5-1 victory in the bottom half with the most underhanded submarine pitcher I've ever seen in my life.

Following the game, I got a pretty awesome photo through the corn in the outfield, and decided not to blow money on a motel and headed back to Madison.  With this trip, I've now driven the entire length of I-39 in the past month, from Wausau to Normal.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2
view to field - 5 (seats far away)
surrounding area - 4 (Illinois State, Heartland CC)
food variety - 8 (lots of choices but nothing unique, bonus points for funnel cake)
nachos - 6
beer - 4 (only one stand with non-Bud products)
vendor price - 7
ticket price - 6 ($11 box seat)
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 2
parking price/proximity - 7 (adjacent lot $2)
concourses - 7 (partially blocked view to field, but nice patio niches and active entry space)
team shop - 4

best food - anything containing corn
most unique stadium feature - 100% turf playing surface
best jumbotron feature - opposing batter songs correspond with their names
best between-inning feature - Reggy, the obnoxious auxiliary Saturday-only mascot

field dimensions - 328/400/328
starters - Ziggie VanderWall (RCK) v. Tyler Lavigne (NRM)
opponent - Rockford Riverhawks
time of game - 2:54
attendance - 2003
score - 5-1 L
Brewers score that day - 4-3 L

Brewers 54-66, -19.0 (3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 74-48, +6.5 (4 @ Phillies, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 50-70, -15.0 (3 @ Athletics, 4 @ Rangers)

Erik - 25
Peter - 35

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Naming a Minor League Team

One of my favorite things about minor league baseball is participating in Name the Team/Mascot contests for a chance to score free tickets and notoriety. It is not uncommon for minor league teams change their name or logo/mascot when moving to a new ballpark, city, parent club, or league to symbolize new beginnings. Recently, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees announced just such a change for next year when they move into their newly renovated stadium. The team requested new name submissions that reflected the history of the area and represented the Scranton area well. These are the finalists: 

Black Diamond Bears
Trolley Frogs 

These choices left me feeling disappointed, and if I was a fan of this team I would be downright angry. I emailed the Marketing Director of the SWB Yankees to voice my displeasure and he basically responded with "thanks for your opinion, the support of the community has been great." I'd like to know who is supporting these choices, because they are terrible. I mean, what the hell is a Black Diamond Bear? Would anybody be proud to call themselves a Trolley Frog? It seems like the formula these days to name teams is to precede a type of animal with an adjective or some sort of noun reflective of the city. Iron Pigs. Silver Hawks. Sea Wolves. This method ranges from lazy to nonsensical. Hockey is even worse, because those teams just add "Ice" in front of something, like IceHogs. I don't know about you, but I don't view neither a wolf in the sea nor a pig on ice as striking fear into an opponent. Let's go through the rest of these choices. Blast - what is this, the WNBA? Team names should never be a present-tense verb, they should always be the plural form of a noun, no questions asked. No more Lake Elsinore Storm or Greenville Drive (the only exception is Swing of the Quad Cities, because that was pretty much the greatest minor league team and uniform combination of all time). Are Fireflies and Porcupines even associated with northeast Pennsylvania? I appreciate that these are unique, I mean there are only so many Dog or Cat or Bear teams you can have. But if you're going to name a team Porcupines or Flying Squirrels or Blue Wahoos, that name better ring true with every resident of that town as being very familiar. Nobody in Milwaukee questions why their team is the Brewers. That really leaves RailRiders as the most logical choice by deductive reasoning. I might still be apt to choose Porcupines just because I imagine the mascot being hilarious.

It's time for fans, and ultimately teams, to step up to the plate and start thinking of better names. Although it's not a minor league team, one of my favorites new names of the last few years has been the Chinooks of the Northwoods League. It's marketable, everybody understands it, it's unique, it has a sense of civic pride, and it lends itself to a fun mascot. RailRiders could be successful in the same ways, although there are several team names prefixed by "rail," so loss of creativity points there. From what I can gather, Scranton is known for coal mining, railroads, and papermaking. Miners. Engineers. Papermakers. It's not that hard. It doesn't need to be complicated with superfluous words like "Red Miners" or "Paper Bears." I just hope that in this case, the management will do what the Akron Aeros did last year and come to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their original name, in this case the Scranton Red Barons.

Brewers 52-62, -16.5 (3 @ Rockies, 4 v. Phillies)
Reds 69-46, +5.0 (3 v. Mets, 4 v. Cubs)
Twins 50-65, -12.5 (3 v. Tigers, 3 @ Mariners)

Erik - 24
Peter - 34

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

He Can Run, He Can Hit, and now He Can Drink

Happy 21st birthday to Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.  Not too many players have made an impact on the game as quickly as Trout has before even being able to pull up a stool at the bar.  With the hype of Brett Lawrie last year following the Shaun Marcum trade and the metoric rise of Bryce Harper this year, Trout managed to fly under the radar amongst his young brethren when he was called up in April, particularly because the Angels were so terrible at the time.  But he has been a sparkplug and has led the Angels to the best record in baseball since early May.  That's right, I said "led"...a 20, now 21, year old kid is leading this team.  Not the $250-million man Albert Pujols, or the 15-1 Jared Weaver, but Mike Trout.  Even after spending the first month of the season in the minors, as of this post, Trout leads the AL handily in steals, runs, batting average, is 2nd in slugging, 3rd in on-base, and is playing a Gold-Glove caliber outfield.  He's all but a shoe-in for the Rookie of the Year and there needs to be serious consideration to him in the MVP conversation as well.  He is on pace to have the greatest rookie season of all time, not to mention one of the best seasons of all time, period.  With the way Trout has energized this team, especially taking the pressure off of Pujols, this kid really exemplifies the term "Most Valuable Player."

I had the fortune of seeing this kid play a few times in Cedar Rapids when I lived in Iowa, before the guys upstairs realized it was a waste of time to keep him in low-A any longer.  When watching such young kids you don't really notice great talent that often, but I definitely remember Trout standing out for the 2010 Kernels.  Trout hit over .400 in his time in CRapids, and him along with Alexi Amarista and Casey Haerther made for a fun team to watch that was worth the 45-minute drive.  Lawrie seems to have attitude problems, and I can already tell that Harper is going to need to shorten his swing to succeed in this league, but Trout continues to improve.  He's got a short, powerful stroke and he plays with a passion that is refreshing to see in today's game.  I'll be watching the Angels every chance I get this year, and I will be rooting for him to become only the 3rd player in Major League history to win the ROY and MVP in the same season.

Brewers 49-59, -16.5 (3 v. Reds, 3 @ Astros)
Reds 66-43, +3.5 (3 @ Brewers, 4 @ Cubs)
Twins 48-61, -12.5 (3 @ Indians, 3 v. Rays)

Erik - 23
Peter - 32