Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Repeal Day Madison

I have made it over 6 years before using this blog as a forum for shameless plugs and self-promoting, which let's be honest, is much longer than I thought it would take.  But I feel that this cause is worthy enough to delve into a topic of my life outside the realm of baseball.  Worthy enough that I'm writing a non-baseball post the day before an elimination game of the World Series without mentioning how much I hate the Cardinals or how stupid the Red Sox look with those beards.  Wait, oops...

Anyways, I'll cut to the chase.  My friend Kristen and I are organizing an event to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition in my current city of residence - Madison, Wisconsin.  This event is in conjunction with the local VFW Post in Madison, and all proceeds will go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and its associated charities.  The VFW's mission is to provide much needed services, meals, and support to our nation's veterans.  This is a 2-part event - a 5K run in the morning, and a 1930s-themed party in the evening.  See information below and register today!




Every registration counts and any opportunity I have to get the word out at low cost, I am all for it.  For any regular visitors to this blog, thank you for sparing me this indulgence, and I promise this is one of the rare times I use this blog for my own personal gain.  I hope it will not affect your readership and that you will continue to follow this blog during the 2014 baseball season and beyond. 


Monday, September 30, 2013

Postseason 2013

(image courtesy of Fox Sports Detroit)

As temperatures slowly start to cool and leaves begin to fall, the most exciting month of the baseball calendar is upon us once again.  The 2013 postseason is set to begin tomorrow and is yet another example of the great parity of this game - so much parity, in fact, that we need a Game #163 between the Rays and Rangers tonight.  Only 3 of the top 10 payrolls have made the playoffs this season, and the team with the 3rd lowest payroll has defied all odds to win their division for a 2nd straight season - the Oakland Athletics.  Billy Beane continues to show that even when the entire league knows the cards he's playing following the release of Moneyball that he is still ahead of the curve and arguably the best GM in the baseball.  The A's have won the most games in the big leagues over the past two seasons and are one of several feel-good stories of this postseason.  The other big story definitely has to be the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are enjoying not only their first playoff birth in 21 years, but their first winning season in that same time frame.

NL Wild Card - #4 Pirates v. #5 Reds
NLDS - #1 Cardinals v. WC winner
#2 Braves v. #3 Dodgers

AL Wild Card - #4 Indians v. #5 Rays
ALDS - #1 Red Sox v. WC winner
#2 Athletics v. #3 Tigers

Most improved team: Red Sox +28
World Series Prediction: Tigers defeat Cards in 7
Rooting for: Reds v. A's

Preseason Predictions
#1 Nationals
#2 Reds
#3 Giants
#4 Phillies
#5 Brewers
Nats defeat Giants in NLCS

#1 Blue Jays
#2 Tigers
#3 Athletics
#4 Angels
#5 Rays
Rays defeat Tigers in ALCS

Most improved team: Indians +17
Nationals defeat Rays in 6

Brewers 74-88, -23.0, 4th in NL Central
Reds 90-72, -7.0, NL Wild Card #2 (v. Pirates)
Twins 66-96, -27.0, 4th in AL Central

Erik - 11 (+41 worked)

Peter - 45

Monday, September 23, 2013

September Call-ups

There's been a lot of debate recently about whether or not it is fair for a team to be able to call up every member of its 40-man roster in September, as is the current system.  No other professional sport allows you to affect your roster so greatly at the time of year when it matters the most.  I agree that the system should be a little more balanced from team to team and not unlimited, but I personally like the concept of the September call-ups, and wouldn't want it to go away entirely.  It gives managers a few extra players to mix and match in the late innings, and an opportunity to give guys a rest during the grind of a long season before the playoffs.  It is also an exciting time of year for fans to see hot young prospects getting their first taste of the Major Leagues and perhaps a brief tryout for the club next year.

The Rays have quite an intriguing crop of callups this year.  First and foremost is shortstop and former top prospect Tim Beckham.  Beckham was the last of a slew of high draft picks the Rays had before they got good, drafted #1 overall in 2008 out of high school.  This guy has a sort of Josh Hamilton-Evan Gattis type story where he had to overcome some personal problems off the field.  He has only posted average numbers so far throughout the minors and has generally underachieved, but is still only 23 and has plenty of time to showcase the raw talent the Rays saw in him.  The Rays also called up Enny Romero from AAA to start this week, all because Romero tweeted that he would be "ready to pitch" if the Rays needed him.  Joe Maddon or somebody with the Rays tweeted him back taking him up on his offer.  I don't know anything about Romero, but it's a pretty cool story.  Lastly, the Rays picked up Delmon Young off the scrap heap and he's DH-ing for them now.  Just the type of player a team like the Rays would take a flyer on and have contribute, like Yunel Escobar or James Loney this year, or pretty much anybody they've had in the bullpen the last 5 years.

Another really exciting callup this year is Billy Hamilton.  He is the heir apparent in centerfield for the Reds and his blazing speed and base-stealing prowess are already somewhat of a legend.  He broke Vince Coleman's 30-year old steals record with 155 for AA-Pensacola last year and has 10 stolen bases already in only 9 games played with the Reds this year.  The really intriguing thing about the Hamilton call-up is that it occurred slightly before September 1st, so the Reds will have the option to put him on their playoff roster.  In his first 10 times reaching base, he had 9 steals and 6 runs, and became the first player since 1920 to steal four bases in his first major league start.  If this guy can post a .300+ OBP, he is going to be a dynamic force for the Reds for many years.  It's not very often that base-stealing is touted as a major skill for prospects, which makes Hamilton a very unique and exciting player.  Cincinnati is still going to be Votto's town though, because Billy is a pretty ugly dude, and chicks dig the long ball.

Other call-ups of note to watch: 
  • Yordano Ventura, Kansas City.  This guy averages 99-100 MPH - as a starter - and he dominated in his ML debut.  His problem right now is that he dangerously flies open on his delivery.  If he doesn't hurt himself, he's going to be a #2 starter on that team very quickly.
  • Taijuan Walker, Seattle.  I think he just came up for a couple of starts and is being shut down.  But, much like Yordano Ventura, he throws gas and will position himself as the #2 in the rotation probably middle of next year.  Big time prospect not only for the Mariners but in all of MLB.
  • Xander Bogaerts, Boston.  Called up in mid-August, but I'll include him in this list.  Turned a lot of heads in the 2012 Futures game, #8 on list of top 100 prospects.  Will Middlebrooks and Bogaerts are going to be a really solid left side of the infield for the Red Sox the next 6-8 years.
  • Nick Castellanos, Detroit.  Another guy that really grabbed a lot of attention at the '12 Futures Game in KC.  Tigers have always considered him untouchable in trade negotiations, but he needs to find a position if he wants to play full-time next year.
  • Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee.  Had to throw a homer in there.  After hitting on a number of picks in the 2000s, Nelson is one of the few lower-round draft picks since Ryan Braun that looks like he could make an impact.  He'll be fighting it out with Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg for the #5 spot next spring and has done very well in the bullpen in his first taste of the big leagues, as he has not yet allowed a run.  He was the Brewers' lone representative in the Futures Game this year.
Brewers 70-86, -21.0, eliminated (3 @ Braves, 4 @ Mets)
Reds 89-67, -2.0, -- WC (3 v. Mets, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 65-90, -25.5, eliminated (3 v. Tigers, 4 v. Indians)

Erik - 11 (+37 worked)

Peter - 45

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Midwest League Playoffs

All photos of the Snappers' 2013 playoff run available on Flickr.

The Snappers got off to a hot start this year and carried it into a first half championship, earning them a spot in the postseason regardless of their second half performance.  A lot of teams will let off the gas a little bit with a postseason spot locked up so early, but the Snappers had themselves a fine first full season as an Athletics affiliate.  I headed down to Beloit for a couple of games to cheer them on during their playoff run.  I'm not going to lie - a big part of the reason I made the drive down there twice was to partake in the ridiculous end-of-the-season concessions firesale that is standard fare in Beloit.  Given that Pohlman Field is perennially one of the lowest attended stadiums in all of the minor leagues and that the Snappers were really only guaranteed one home playoff game, most years the team just refuses to restock the concessions during the final homestand so as to avoid throwing away unsold food.  This means that every year the Snappers make the playoffs, they more or less give food away while supplies last.  Both games I went to were Dollar Beer & Soda and half-price food and I spent less than $30 in total.

The Snappers drew the Clinton LumberKings in the first round and completed the 2-0 sweep in the game I attended.  The story of the day was Dylan Covey.  He is the pitcher the Brewers drafted in the first round in 2010, but ended up not signing when they found out he had diabetes during his team physical.  Covey went on to attend college and the A's drafted him three years later, and he spent most of this year in Beloit.  He got the start tonight in Game 2 and went six strong innings, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits.  He's not a big power arm with a lot of strikeouts, but he induced a ton of ground balls, which is the prototypical pitcher the A's like to draft.  Guys who throw 95 and strike out 10 command big contracts and are more likely to get hurt, but Covey could be on the fast track to the big leagues if he keeps it up.  John Wooten was the offensive star for the Snappers, as his 2-run double down the left field line in the 5th pretty much put the game out of reach for the LumberKings.

I also went to Game 2 of the Western Division Finals against the Quad Cities River Bandits last Sunday.  The Snappers also won this game, 4-3, to even the series 1-1.  The man of the match in this one was 2B Chris Bostick.  He launched a homerun in the 1st inning as part of a 3-run inning, and the Snappers never looked back.  He also contributed two more hits and another RBI later in the evening.  It's hard to keep track of players on the Snappers since they do not have very up-to-date programs nor a scoreboard with any player information whatsoever, but he ended up having a pretty fine season.  The top prospect at this level for the Snappers is Matt Olson, and he went 0-4 and was hitless for the playoffs as of this game.  The player I was most excited to see in this game was for the other team though - SS Carlos Correa, the #1 overall draft pick last year for the Astros.  He went 1-2 with 3 walks, and it's pretty clear he has quickly gained a reputation around the league, given how they were already pitching him like Babe Ruth.  Looking at his stats now and seeing he hit .320 with 86 RBI primarily out of the 3-hole, I'd say that's warranted.  He reminds me a lot of Manny Machado - stellar defense, hits a lot of doubles right now with not a lot of power, but with his frame and skill, he's going to fill out and be a 25-homerun guy in the big leagues.  Unfortunately I did not get to see Mark Appel, the Astros' #1 overall pick from this year, as he reached an innings limit and was shut down a few weeks ago.  Earlier this season, the River Bandits became the first minor league team in baseball history to have consecutive #1 overall draft picks playing for the same team in the same game.

The Bandits would go on to win on Monday (clearly because I was not there) and eventually defeat South Bend to win their 2nd Midwest League Championship in the last 3 years, which is impressive considering they changed their parent affiliation in that span.

Brewers 65-83, -21.5, eliminated (4 v. Cubs, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 84-66, -3.5, -- WC (3 @ Astros, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 64-84, -21.5, eliminated (3 @ White Sox, 4 @ Athletics)

Erik - 11 (+37 worked)

Peter - 44

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Montreal Baseball Project

I've undoubtedly been very fortunate to have attended a game in so many ballparks, but up to this point I have two stadiums I majorly regret not going to: Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and Olympic Stadium in Montreal.  Yes, there are a countless number of former parks it would have been nice to have seen if I were older, but these are the two that were still being used during my lifetime that I had ample opportunity to see.  In the case of Tiger Stadium, it has long since been demolished, but Le Stade Olympique retains a shred of hope at hosting baseball once again.  Since the Expos left to become the Nationals in 2005, the Blue Jays have been in sporadic negotiations to bring preseason exhibition games to Montreal, and those talks have ramped up again for the 2014 season.  There are many hurdles to this, as the stadium is far from being up to MLB standards from hosting a game, and in fact was a pretty terrible facility even when the Expos were there - one of many reasons the team left.  But, the stadium still hosts events and soccer matches, so it's not outside of the realm of possibility that baseball could be played there once again, albeit temporarily.  I'm a very calculated person, but if there is one thing I would drop everything to do, it would be to go see a baseball game at Olympic Stadium.  I've just always wanted to go to Montreal and have been fascinated with all things Canadian and I think it would be an amazing experience.  Plus, the stadium boasts the world's tallest inclined tower as part of the structure - very much a part of mine and Erik's M.O., as if we needed more incentive to watch international ball.

Beyond the exhibition games, there has also been an underground movement to bring baseball back to French Canada in the form of the Montreal Baseball Project.  This organization is led by Warren Cromartie, a former popular Expos player who patrolled the outfield at Le Stade along with Andre Dawson in the 70s and 80s.  This non-profit organization's purpose is mainly informational and to get the city excited about baseball once again, but they also are conducting a feasibility study to see if professional baseball would work in Montreal.  MBP also has a website with a team store that I'm unsuccessfully trying to convince myself I don't need a t-shirt from.  Cromartie wrote an interesting piece on the website that talks about how towards the end of the Expos reign, the city really did nothing to save the team, but this time around, the opposite is true - a reincarnation of the Expos could save a city that is mired in corruption and lacks civic pride.  I know that there were a lot of bridges burned when Omar Minaya & Company were run out of town, and a new or renovated stadium would pretty much be a necessity to bring a team back, and these are certainly major obstacles.  But I personally feel that Montreal deserves another chance, and that fans would be passionate about the opportunity.  I will go out on a limb and say that Montreal (along with San Antonio and Las Vegas) will see a new major league franchise at some point in my lifetime, and Erik and I will certainly have a duty to get there as soon as possible.  Hopefully, at least twice - once to see Olympic Stadium, and once more to see its inevitable replacement.

UPDATE: Seriously, not even 24 hours after posting this story, it was announced that baseball will indeed be returning to the Big O next season for some Jays exhibition games!  I guess I have to put my money where my mouth is and start planning a trip now.

Brewers 61-80, -20.5, E# 1 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Reds)
Reds 81-62, -1.5, -- WC (3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Brewers)
Twins 61-79, -20.0, E# 2 (1 v. Angels, 3 v. Athletics, 3 v. Rays)

Erik - 11 (+33 worked)

Peter - 42

Monday, September 2, 2013

Brewers, Reds Quiet at Trade Deadline

For the second consecutive September, the Brewers find themselves in spoiler mode, and the Reds right in the thick of a playoff hunt and Central Division title.  The non-waiver trade deadline and playoff roster trade deadline have both come and gone, and given the position of both of these teams, it comes as kind of a surprise to me that both teams did not make more moves.  The Brewers moved K-Rod to the Orioles pretty early for an A-ball third baseman with a lot of promise, Nick Delmonico, and also recently traded reliever John Axford to the Cardinals.  It's not necessarily a shock to me that Axford was traded - the Brewers do not need, nor can they afford, a $5+ million middle reliever in his 30s - but to trade the guy to a division rival is pretty uncommon (unless this is part of some ploy to have Ax work as a double-agent and pitch bad for St. Louis on purpose).  

The Brewers have a number of expensive contracts nearing their end, an outstanding bullpen, and some exciting young players in their future - it seemed like the perfect season to have a firesale.  Unfortunately, that word is not in owner Mark Attansio's vocabulary, and understandably so.  After all that went on with Ryan Braun and the team not being very good this year, the Brewers attendance figures were already bound to take a hit, and that is something a team in the smallest media market in the country cannot afford.  The Brewers rely more than most teams on high attendance figures to sustain growth, and selling off a lot of talent would be a deterrent to that.  I think if it were up to GM Doug Melvin, from a logical baseball perspective, it makes sense to try to trade players like Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, and Aramis Ramirez, all of whom have are owed a lot of money next season and are past their prime, and I think any smart baseball fan would understand that.  It just makes sense to get something for a player you're not going to (or shouldn't) resign anyways while he still has value, and save some money in the process.  But I think to Attanasio and the casual baseball fan, that sends a message you are "giving up," and that is not something the Brewers can afford.  This team is in a very delicate position of having to try to win every year while still developing their minor league talent and being fiscally responsible.  They could not financially withstand to do what Houston or Chicago is doing right now, and I understand that.  But, several big trades have depleted our farm system, so in turn the Brewers have had to rely heavily on free agent contracts to fill in the holes, which is not a model for sustained growth.  These things ebb and flow and there is finally a crop of exciting young players waiting in the wings, and I hope Brewer fans can be patient with these players.  If fans can put up with probably one more down year, and the front office has the sense to move some large contracts, I think 2015 and beyond will be exciting years with a nucleus of young talent, just as we had coming up 10 years ago.  Regardless of the product on the field, it's a true testament to the organization and the fans that Miller Park will have over 2.5 million fans walk through the gates again this year, which is more than a lot of playoff teams - including the Reds.

Speaking of the Reds, they are sort of in the opposite mentality of the Brewers.  Both teams have had the philosophy of locking up a group of core players, but that is about where the similarities end.  Despite being very competitive each of the last 4 years, the Reds have been notorious for not really making a big splash with trade deadline moves.  Whereas the Brewers have been selling the farm to get to the playoffs, the Reds are not willing to sacrifice the young players they have in their future for maybe a handful of more wins in one season.  You could certainly argue either line of thinking has its pros and cons, and certainly neither is wrong.  I think this year, the Reds are probably thinking that getting Johnny Cueto and Ryan Ludwick back from injury and having Billy Hamilton on the bench as a September call-up are just as good as trades, so there is no real need to make any moves.  The Reds obviously have it in their minds that they have their young talent locked up for a number of years, including an outstanding rotation all under contract, so there is no need to go all in for one year.  We've seen that backfire before with the Nationals and Pirates - after two years not really making big moves, the Pirates finally made some trades this season.  You can look at young talent as trading chips, or as the future of your team, and different general managers have different lines of thinking.  For instance, the Rangers have stockpiled talent for so many years and now have so much of an overabundance that they can afford to make these Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster 3-month rental trades, and it's working out well for them now, but soon they will be a lull as the Brewers are now when they need to restock the farm system.  There's no denying the Reds need an extra bat on the left side of the field, and it would have been nice to see them make a move for a utility guy, but some teams would rather be more even keel than go all out for a season, and that's respectable.  It's very hard and rare to be like the Cardinals who just seem to have young stud talent fall into their laps every year and win every single season.

Brewers 59-77, -20.0, -16.5 WC (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 76-61, -3.5, -- WC 
(4 v. Cardinals, 3 v. Dodgers)
Twins 59-76, -20.0, -16.0 WC (3 @ Astros, 3 v. Blue Jays)

Erik - 11 (+30 worked)

Peter - 41

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tour 2013: Kauffman Stadium Renovation

All photos of Power & Light District and Kauffman Stadium available on Flickr.

I arrived at the ballpark a little after 4.  Navigating the parking lots at Kauffman Stadium is kind of like parking at Dodger Stadium, or Milwaukee County Zoo.  It has direct access off of the freeway just outside of the downtown, and there are many different points of entry with booths at the bottom of a hill.  This makes it incredibly easy to get in, but kind of convoluted once you're inside the grounds, and also long lines getting out.  I wanted to get there as early as possible to explore the park, but unfortunately the gates did not open until 4:30 so I had to bake in the sun for awhile.  Fittingly, it happened to be Salute to the Negro Leagues Night, so I obtained a Monarchs t-shirt giveaway for my efforts.

I entered in the left field gate, so the fruits of the $250 million renovation were immediately apparent as I walked in.  The outfield is almost completely overhauled from when Erik and I were there on the Tour.  Looking back through old photos, really all that is the same is the fountains.  Words can't even describe how awesome the outfield experience is now at the K - in fact, that is what they call it, the "Outfield Experience."  The most noticeable change is the addition of outfield seating.  I don't think before the renovation you could even access the outfield; the fountains were just something nice to look at from the infield.  Now there are seats above, below, and around the fountains, along with a continuous rail for standing along the concourse.  I had kind of assumed/hoped that the seating was set "above" the fountains and that the water rushed below your feet, but I can see now how that would probably lead to the water being littered with garbage by the 2nd inning.  My seats for Saturday's game were in the 4th row in left-center field in front of the fountain, and may very well have been the best seats I have ever had at a baseball game.  Other than taking awhile to get to, they were nearly perfect - I had the field only a few feet in front of me, the calming hum of rushing water behind me, and it was a small section so it wasn't crowded.  The pitch of this section is also higher than usual and the aisle about twice as wide, so it was very comfortable to sit there.  The aisle height/width proved to be most crucial during batting practice, when I was able to nimbly move side to side and easily snag a homerun ball!  For some reason the Royals use random All-Star Game and World Series baseballs during BP and I overheard some fans around me talking about which ones they had in their collection; the one I caught was a 2010 Anaheim ball.  After BP, I got a free refill of my souvenir soda cup - a great feature of Kauffman Stadium that came in handy in the hot weather - and continued my trek around the outfield.

The expansion of the outfield has allowed the team to display some things more prominently inside the stadium.  The Royals Hall of Fame was previously housed in display cases in the concourse and now has its own building anchoring the left field corner.  It tells the history of the Royals organization and Kauffman Stadium, as well as celebrates Royal greats including Bret Saberhagen, Dan Quisenberry, and of course, the greatest Royal of all time, George Brett.  Brett had a statue outside the park that has now been moved onto the center of the outfield concourse, along with statues of Frank White and former manager Dick Howser, all three of whom have also had their numbers retired by the team.  In the right field corner is a building that is a public bar on ground level and a private deck on the roof.  This building mirrors the Hall of Fame building well on the opposite side and maintains the symmetry that is very prevalent at the K.  The largest emphasis of this symmetry is the large crown-shaped jumbotron centered behind the batter's eye that has been revamped into a large digital model.  Behind the jumbotron is a very wide concourse with several concessions stands and a large kids area.  I love many, many things about this addition, but fact that it has so much great public space and is not just a utilitarian way of adding more seats is what makes it so appealing.  I've been very outspoken about the need for stadiums to have areas that foster fan interaction - public access bars, active standing room space, wide concourses, picnic seating - and Kauffman has all of this in spades.  The only other major league parks that even come close to achieving this are PETCO Park and Target Field.  Best of all, this addition works in concert with, rather than in opposition to, the fountains, which are still the centric element to the park's beauty.  Most of the great public spaces in the world are centered around some sort of water element, and Kauffman Stadium is no different. 

I mostly focused my time in the outfield on Saturday, since that was where the majority of the renovation work was done, and I knew I was coming back on Sunday anyways.  I got out of the Hall of Fame about 20 minutes before first pitch in settled into my seat for the game.  The Nationals handed the Royals their 7th straight loss with a 7-2 win.  Wade Davis has been terrible since getting traded from Tampa Bay, and the trend continued tonight as he surrendered 7 runs in 6 innings with 3 walks, including a 2-run homer to Ian Desmond as part of a 4-run 4th.  On the other side, Wisconsin native Jordan Zimmermann has also struggled a bit this year but pitched very well in this game, giving up only 2 runs and pitching into the 8th inning.  A former Brewer favorite of mine, George "The Greek Streak" Kottaras got a rare start tonight and went 1-4, raising his average to a robust .179.  Mike "Moose Tacos" Moustakas and Billy "Country Breakfast" Butler each contributed 2 hits and Luke Hochevar pitched in 3 innings of scoreless relief in a losing effort.

After the game, I went to check out what this Power & Light District was that I'd heard so much about.  It's a pretty typical downtown area with bars, restaurants, etc., and I had a couple of beers at a local brewpub before turning in for the night.  As in Springfield, I really had no interest in tying one on sans Erik.  The next day, I caught the 1:10 matinee before heading back to Wisconsin.  I had seats about halfway up behind 1st base for this game, luckily one of the few sections that was in the shade for the entire game on this 95º day.  I started the afternoon in the outfield again, because for some reason the outfield gates open before the rest of the gates, so I stood along the railing above the fountains in right-center enjoying an ice cold beverage for about a half-hour.  I can't think of too many more beautiful places to stand at any ballpark than where I was; the blazing sun was pretty much the only thing that got me to move from my spot.  Walking towards my seat, I noticed the first level was split in half with a separate ring of concourse inside the seating bowl, kind of like the upper deck at old RFK Stadium.  Although a small gesture, it's something I really liked.  This separate walkway allows the main concourse to be less congested, allows for another great vantage point of the field, and also provides opportunities for concessions "nooks" tucked in a hole through the grandstand in a couple places.  I didn't go in the upper deck, but there are a couple of these nooks up there too that I imagine serve as an amazing viewing platform.  The main concourse is much wider and has more food variety than it did in 2007, including a stand that sold perhaps the most expensive food item I've ever seen at a ballpark: an entire rack of ribs for $21.  In fact, price was pretty much the only complaint I could muster about this park - water is $6 and beer is $11!

The Royals got off the schnide in this game with a 6-4 victory behind a strong effort by defacto ace Ervin Santana.  Santana pitched much better than his final line score of 4 runs on 11 hits would indicate, mostly because manager Ned Yost left him in a couple hitters too long.  I see that Yost has not yet learned how to manage a pitching staff since leaving the Brewers.  Ervin was cruising through 6 and quickly got 2 outs in the 7th before giving up a homerun to Denard Span and a single to Ryan Zimmerman on consecutive pitches.  Despite a lefty being up in the pen, Yost stuck with Santana and he gave up a opposite-field homerun to Bryce Harper to tie the ballgame.  Harper seems to finally be coming out of his funk with his 11th straight multi-hit game on Sunday.  With the game still nodded at 4 in the 8th, the Royals picked up RBI singles from Salvador Perez and ROY candidate David Lough to take the lead, and All-Star closer Greg Holland struck out the side in the 9th with 99 MPH gas to secure the 6-4 victory.

I had an amazing time at my two games at the K and it was hard to leave, partly because I did not feel like driving 8 hours home.  This renovation has turned a ballpark that was already great yet very underrated, into a facility that has gained national notoriety following last year's all-star game.  Kauffman Stadium has without a doubt slid into my Top 10 and I would definitely not be opposed to going back again soon with Erik in tow.

park rankings and statistics:
(see also original post from 7/29/07)

aesthetics - improves to 8
views from park - 9
view to field - improves to 8
surrounding area - improves to 3 (downtown improved, but 5 miles west)
food variety - improves to 5
nachos - improves to 7 (BBQ nachos)
beer - decreases to 2

vendor price - decreases to 5
ticket price - 7 (dynamic pricing)
atmosphere - improves to 7 (good vibe despite small crowds)
walk to park - 2
parking price/proximity - decreases to 5 (lots screwy, $10)
concourses - improves to 9
team shop - improves to 9

best food - KC All Star BBQ
most unique stadium feature - fountains/fountain seats
best jumbotron feature - Garth Brooks "Friends in Low Places" sing-along
best between-inning feature - hot dog race

field dimensions - 330/410/330
starters - Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) v. Wade Davis (KC); Dan Haren v. Ervin Santana
opponent - Washington Nationals
time of game - 2:38; 2:39
attendance - 28,023; 19,661
score - 7-2 L; 6-4 W
Brewers score that day - 6-3 L; 3-1 W

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tour 2013: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

All photos of Monarch Plaza and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum available on Flickr.

Following my exciting night in Springfield, I hit the road for Kansas City a little after 8 AM.  The drive took about 2 1/2 hours and was primarily on this dangerous state highway called the Kansas City Expressway that features a 65 MPH speed limit with controlled intersections, legal U-turns, a narrow shoulder, and Amish horse-drawn wagons.  My plan when I got into town was to have lunch at the famous Arthur Bryant's BBQ.  However, on my way there, I drove past an interesting place called Monarch Plaza.  It is not at all in my nature to alter my schedule, but for some reason I felt compelled to stop.  I'm fortunate that I did, because I came to find out the plaza was built on the historic site of the former Kansas City Memorial Stadium, the former home to the Athletics and later the Royals, the NFL Chiefs, and the Negro League Monarchs.  Since the park's demolition in 1976, the site has remained mostly vacant and overgrown with a few low-income housing units where the outfield used to be, but now is a great marker of Kansas City history with plaques commemorating great athletes who played there.  Google Maps does not even show the plaza, so it must be very new.  I talked to a resident there for awhile who told me a lot of stories about the old park, and one story in particular about Reggie Jackson when he was with the KC A's supposedly hitting the longest homerun in baseball history, which cleared the stadium over the centerfield wall and rolled all the way down the street to Arthur Bryant's 4 blocks away.  After the mention of Arthur Bryant's I kind of zoned out and remembered I was on my way to mow down on some brisket, so I just politely nodded until he was done talking and left.

Before I went on this trip, I asked my friend Evan, who is a native of Kansas City, what the best place was for BBQ there, and he told me Arthur Bryant's without hesitation, and I could tell by the large tour group going in as I got there that he was probably right.  It's one of those places that is so old and entrenched in the community that you really have to be "in the know" to order properly, so I was relieved the tour group was there so I did not feel like too much of an outcast.  The open-faced burnt ends sandwich on white bread was super delicious and it kept me full well into the Royals game that night. 

My next stop after lunch was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, only another few blocks down the road.  It shares a building with a jazz museum in the 18th & Vine District, which I came to find out on the tour was a historically significant location as a former nationally known intersection and pillar of the black community.  Typically this museum is a self-guided tour, but luck was on my side again on this trip as I got there just in time to latch on with some other folks to a private tour for some of the visiting Washington Nationals players - Denard Span, Ian Desmond, and Scott Hairston - as well as some DC media.  It is not uncommon for visiting African-American players to visit this museum (Rickie Weeks did last year when the Brewers were in town), but Hairston's visit was extra special because his grandfather was a former Triple Crown winner in the Negro Leagues.  I really learned a lot I did not know about the Negro Leagues, including how long the league survived after integration, the Monarchs being the Yankees of the Negro Leagues, Latin American presence and barnstorming tours, and most impressively, just how great some of the players were.  Satchel Paige did not make it to the major leagues until his 40s, and Josh Gibson died of a stroke just 3 months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  Many people do not know very much at all about these two players, if anything, and it could be argued that they were the greatest pitcher and hitter of all-time.  Although many individual players were celebrated here, the tour guide made it very clear that this was an all-inclusive museum, and not just a hall of fame.  After the guided tour and sneaking some photos of the Nats players, I kind of went back through the museum in reverse because I didn't really get to look at any of the exhibits in depth.  The museum runs chronologically from the 19th century, to the formation of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s, all the way through its final days in the 60s as a globetrotter-type entertainment league.  Then there were lockers dedicated to all of the Negro League players in Cooperstown and finally the "field of legends" with 9 bronze statues by position of 9 Negro League greats, with of course Paige and Gibson front and center as the starting battery.  Overall, the tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and it was a very amazing and overwhelming experience.  Anybody who considers themselves a true baseball fan definitely needs to make the trip to Kansas City and see this museum.

In total, I spent about 3 hours at the museum, then went to check in and relax at my hotel for a few minutes, and left for Kauffman Stadium around 3:30 for a 6:10 start. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tour 2013: Hammons Field

All photos of Hammons Field available on Flickr.

It was a long wait into the season this year for our big annual ball trip, and as is always the case, it seemed to be over before it began.  Tour 2013 brought us to Missouri, with a stop at a AA game en route to see the $250 million Kauffman Stadium renovation completed for the 2009 season.  I keep saying "us," because Erik and I did plan the trip together, but I actually went by myself because he was unable to shake loose from prior commitments.  In 5 short weeks this season will be over, and will be recorded in the annals of history as the first year since we were in college together that we haven't gone on some sort of ball trip.  Although extremely disappointing, I know we still have many, many years of ball tours ahead of us.  The 8 1/2 hour drive down to Springfield was pretty lonely and most of the way I was thinking to myself how ridiculous it was to go on a weekend vacation alone, but looking back, I'm definitely glad that I went.

I arrived in Springfield around 4:30, well in advance of the odd 7:09 game time.  The first of many small fortunes I encountered on this trip was when I found out the hotel I was staying at had a pool, so I was able to occupy myself until it was time to head to the ballpark.  Erik and I have an affinity for quoting Caddyshack among other movies, and one of our go-to lines is when Chevy Chase says "we have a pool, and a pond...pond's probably good for you."  So, I had to laugh when I saw the pond-esque condition of the pool featuring leaves and bugs, but it was 90º so I jumped in anyways.  After my swim, I took a circuitous route to the ballpark to survey the downtown area for potential places to drink after the game, but finding it to be dilapidated and deserted, I made a bee-line for the ballpark.  I then spent at least 10 minutes waiting in line to get into the parking lot across the street.  It was completely absurd - it is a shared parking lot with a hotel, with only one entry point, and they charge $7!!!  I might have expected this were the ballpark truly urban, but it was more on the fringes and it not a city-operated lot.  Anyways, after that atrocity, I got to the ticket window and found that only GA tickets were available.  The game tonight may not have been the largest minor league crowd I've been a part of, or even the loudest, but it was definitely the most full I have ever seen a minor league stadium.  Usually when I go to minor league games, I just buy GA tickets regardless and sit where I want, but I literally did not see one empty seat for at least the first 6 innings.  Even the grass berms were packed and I ended up standing for most of the game.  Aside from concessions lines being understandably long, being a part of a standing-room crowd at a minor league game was a pretty incredible experience.  It was a perfect storm of A) Springfield being tied for 1st, B) playing the nearby rival Royals' affiliate whom they are tied with, C) the 4th to last home game of the season, and D) just Cardinals fans being awesome in general, as much as that pains me to say.

Given the huge contingent of St. Louis Cardinal fans at the ballpark as well as the team's proximity to St. Louis, I was very surprised to find out that both the team and stadium have existed for less than 10 years.  Hammons Field is named after the late John Q. Hammons, a famous hotel entrepreneur, who funded the ballpark entirely himself with the promise of luring a team to his hometown to become a new Cardinals affiliate.  Included in the price tag for this park was its own separate indoor practice facility beyond the outfield wall, which is a luxury I've certainly never heard of in minor league stadium that doesn't double as a spring training facility.  As it is set up now, there is a berm that wraps around the left field pole into the outfield, is interrupted by some trees in the batters eye, and then another small portion of berm in right center, and between this berm and the right field pole is the practice facility.  The nice part is the out-building gives the site some context, but the drawback is that the concourse does not wrap all the way around.  Other than that, there are a lot of nuances that make this park unique.  Most interesting to me was obviously how the park was constructed.  The composition had a "horse track" kind of aesthetic and the structure utilizes joist girders with clevis turnbuckle rods, painted in sea foam green.  In laymen's terms - fancy metal trusses.  The concourse is also set up kind of cool.  It terminates in left field at a stair tower that goes up a level to a small canopied deck of seating, and down a level to the GA berm area, which also has its own separate concessions area and a half-court basketball hoop.  I really liked that the grass berm area, which can be rambunctious and typically appeals to kids and families, was separated from the rest of the park while still maintaining visual connectivity.  The interrupted berm, the drop in level to the berm, the stair tower on one side, the seating area on one side, the jumbotron being off center, and the out-building in right center - all of these things give the park a subtle asymmetry, which any architect will tell you adds visual appeal.

The park may be slightly asymmetrical, but it was certainly tied together nicely with a sea of red, as over 9000 fans packed "The Ham" for an important game against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (hilariously abbreviated "NWA").  The S-Cards did not have a good showing and got blown out 12-0.  Cardinals starter Anthony Ferrara did not make it out of the 5th, surrendering 4 earned on 83 pitches.  The big blow came in the 8th inning when reliever Danny Miranda came on, loaded the bases on a hit and two walks, and then gave up a grand slam to Matt Fields.  Fields is only hitting .230 on the year but had 31 HR and 85 RBI as of this game, both of which I have to assume are near the top of the Texas League leaderboards.  Despite the schlacking, or perhaps because of it, there was no real shining talent in the game.  With all of the young kids being called up to the big leagues this year for the Cardinals, that honestly didn't surprise me.  There were a couple players though on the Naturals I recognized from when the Royals had an affiliate in the Midwest League - SS Orlando Calixte and 3B Cheslor Cuthbert.  I mean, who could forget names like that?  After the game, I finally managed to find a seat for all 4 minutes of the post-game fireworks extravaganza.

At no point during the weekend was I more aware that my ball trip companion was not with me than on Friday night after the game.  As Erik and I often do in sketchy minor league cities, I settled for a night cap at the local Applebee's to await the inevitability of players and/or team staff coming in for a late night meal, which they did.  My night ended after just one beer, but I imagine Erik and I would have closed the place down, destroyed the Waffle House across the street, and then taken advantage of the mini-fridge and giant handicap-accessible bathroom floor back at the hotel.  On the other hand, the good part of being there myself was I didn't have to share the small bed and was not hung over for my big day in Kansas City.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 2
view to field - 8
surrounding area - 3 (downtown a few blocks away, looks shady/mostly abandoned)
food variety - 3 (one specialty dog stand)
nachos - 8 (custom nacho bar)
beer - 4 ($6.75, 4 kinds)

vendor price - 5
ticket price - 6 ($7 GA)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park - 3
parking price/proximity - 1 (adjacent screwy lot $7)
concourses - 8
team shop - 6

best food - specialty dog stand
most unique stadium feature - structure
best jumbotron feature - Are You Smarter than a Cubs Fan?
best between-inning feature - Duck Hunt

field dimensions - 315/400/330
starters - Aaron Brooks (NWA) v. Anthony Ferrara (SPR)
opponent - Northwest Arkansas Naturals
time of game - 3:04
attendance - 9,509
score - 12-0 L
Brewers score that day - 6-4 W

Brewers 57-73, -19.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Angels)
Reds 74-58, -3.5 
(3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Rockies)
Twins 57-72, -19.0 (3 v. Royals, 3 @ Rangers)

Erik - 10 (+28 worked)

Peter - 38 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mallards Win 2nd Northwoods League Title

All photos of NWL Championship Series Game 1 in Madison and trophy presentation available on Flickr.

Last Monday, the Lakeshore Chinooks embarrassed the Madison Mallards 15-0 in the first game of the playoffs, the culmination of a pretty rough 2-week stretch for the Mallards.  A team that seemed like a lock for the Championship series in July was now looking like it would have an early exit from the playoffs.  The Mallards would need to summon all the strength and determination they could to go on one more run.  Following the pounding in Mequon, they did just that.  Madison came from behind to defeat the Chinooks 2 games to 1, and then swept the Duluth Huskies in the championship round to bring home their 2nd title in franchise history, and their first since 2004.

I was in attendance for Game 1 of what was called the Summer Collegiate World Series - a title I think is misleading and ambiguous, so I refer to it as the Northwoods League Championship Series.  The Mallards obviously won the game I saw, 10-7, and would win 12-3 the next night in Duluth to win the title.  The offensive explosion in the series was indicative of the Mallards' entire season and was what I was hoping to see.  The Mallards have a very complete team with some solid starting pitchers, but I don't think anyone would refute that the bats carried the team most of the year.  They notched 36 total hits in the two games, led by John LaPrise and Joe McCarthy with 7 hits apiece.  Everybody in this lineup contributed all year and they were one of the most exciting team's I've had the pleasure of watching since the Jordan Comadena-Mike Rohde days.  LaPrise led the league in hitting at .414, Drew Weeks led the league with 68 RBI, and no matter who they plugged in around them or how the lineup was stacked it seemed to work.  McCarthy, Mike Fitzgerald, Tate Matheny, Jason Goldstein, and Jeff Zahn all had great seasons.  Zahn is a particularly good story because he came to the Mallards on a temporary contract following a terrible collegiate season and played a very admirable 1st base all season.  Alex Bacon, a guy who didn't even join the team until mid-season, was the hero of the playoffs with two big homeruns, including the go-ahead homerun in Game 1 as part of a 6-run 5th inning.

As I learned at the trophy presentation at the Duck Pond on Saturday, the completeness and competitiveness of this team was far from a coincidence.  The Mallards' manager this year, Donnie Scott, was the team's real true "baseball guy."  In years past the team would hire younger guys or former Mallards to coach, but Scott had many years of minor league experience before coming to the Mallards and won the title with Battle Creek in their inaugural season, so clearly he knew what it took to win.  Part of that winning process was absolving himself of all recruiting responsibilities.  Donnie Scott is used to a minor league background where you just have to work with the players you're given and was clear early on that he wanted no part of making those decisions.  He said to the front office, "you give me 25 guys who can play and love ball, and I'll bring home a championship."  This put a lot of pressure on the GM but they certainly came through, and Scott did the rest.  I was happy to hear at the trophy presentation that he is coming back to manage in 2014 and will be having a bobblehead likeness of himself as a future giveaway.  The trophy presentation probably had more people in attendance than a typical game in most Northwoods League parks, a true testament to the great fanbase Steve Schmitt and Vern Stenman have built up in Madison.  Although, free food and beer certainly didn't hurt.

Even though the irreplaceable voice of the Mallards - PA guy Aaron Sims - is moving on to greener pastures next year, I can still hardly wait to buy my Mallards Championship gear and 7-pack for next season and watch a new team of young men defend the title.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Smokies Park

All photos of Smoky Mountains and Smokies Park available on Flickr.

I stopped at one more game on the way home from Phil's wedding - the Tennessee Smokies of the Double-A Southern League in Kodak, Tennessee, a suburb east of Knoxville.  After a quick stop at Waffle House #2 of the trip, the drive was a scenic 5 1/2 hours from North Carolina through the Smoky Mountains into Tennessee.  The last 100 miles of North Carolina in particular were very pretty and I snapped as many pictures as I could through my windshield while still maintaining control of my vehicle during the scattered downpours.  It was quite a contrast to the horrible 11+ hour drive I would experience the next day.  Just as exciting as the beautiful mountain landscape were all of the baseball towns I drove through on the way to Kodak - Greensboro, Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Hickory, to name a few.  My mind couldn't help but wander to all of the future visits of Josh and Phil I would be making to con them into taking me to see these ballparks.  Pulling off the exit, Kodak looked and felt like Wisconsin Dells.  Similarly to the Dells, it's less a city than it is a conglomeration of tourist attractions stuffed near the freeway exit.  My hotel for the night was across the street from a winery, a fireworks store, a bus depot that ran to nearby Dollywood, and several other hotels and shops, and I could actually even seen the ballpark from my hotel room up on a hill on the other side of the interstate.  I rolled into town pretty early, so I bought some cheap beer at the gas station across the street and pounded one on my wonderful Motel 6 balcony before heading to the park.

I got there about 6:45 for a 7:15 first pitch, and came to find out the first game of a doubleheader was ending upon my arrival.  I was pretty upset because I had checked my MiLB app a couple times in the morning and it said nothing about this, and I was especially upset because I was in town so early; I would have had plenty of time to watch both games had I known it was a doubleheader.  I made the best of the situation and just decided to walk around the park and grab food while the final outs of game #1 were being recorded.  Smokies Park is not unlike any other minor league ballpark of its size built in the 2000s.  It has the same cookie-cutter setup I have grown accustomed to seeing at many a minor league ball field - 25 rows of seats, open concourse, and upper deck for suites and pressbox made out of cheap and drab materials.  Making this park additionally unspectacular are its location outside of the city, the generic concessions menu, the lacking of even one unique design feature, and even a boring generic name.  I'm not necessarily complaining about the park's simplicity or conformity, but more just the fact that there is really nothing that makes this park stand out.  I've certainly been to many stadiums that were much dumpier and much more basic than Smokies Park, yet still had some sort of memorable feature, whether that be an architectural gesture, the food menu, or something else - Community Field in Iowa is an excellent example of this.  I don't want to just bash Smokies Park for this entire post, so I will say that I did like how the building is used year-round, as in Fort Wayne.  The Smoky Mountain Visitor Center is housed there in such a way where it can be accessed when there isn't a game, and there is also a lot of public conference room space that can be rented.  The stadium also has a 360º circumnavigable concourse and a bar area open to the public, both of which I am always an advocate of.

The plus side of being at a very ordinary stadium is that you tend to focus on the game more, but even the prospect of that was put out of reach early in this contest.  I was barely settled in my seat before the home team had put up a 6-spot on the Montgomery Biscuits, which normally would be a good thing but the Smokies are a Cubs affiliate, so I was quietly rooting against them.  Biscuits starting pitcher Marquis Fleming did not even make it out of the 3rd, surrendering 9 runs in total on 8 hits and 3 walks.  The Smokies starter was not really that much better but was able to pass on a lead to the bullpen because of his counterpart's poor performance, which they maintained for the 9-4 victory.  Tennessee's Christian Villanueva was the star of the game to me.  He is a 3rd baseman acquired in the Ryan Dumpst...er, Dempster trade last year at a time when the Rangers were very deep at that position.  He's only hitting about .260 right now but he went 2-3 with a homer and looks to have really good power to all fields without really having a loopy swing; he keeps his bat in the hitting zone a long time.  Amongst the murmuring of the dull crowd, he also seemed to be kind of a fan favorite, so that leads me to believe he plays hard and is exciting to watch.  Matt Szczur also seems to have a cult following, probably for no other reason than the marketability of his name (pronounced "Caesar").  I was hoping to see Jorge Soler play, but it looks like he is still in the Florida State League.

On top of the bland park and game that was pretty much over in the 1st inning, I didn't even get to see a full 9 innings of ball!  For some reason, the first game of the doubleheader was 9 innings but the second game was 7?  I had never heard of that before.  Maybe it was merciful that it was a 7-inning game given the thrashing, but this meant I unfortunately had two less innings to take advantage of a weekday minor league staple - Dollar Dog Night.  My evening ended with an early night back at the hotel room spent wondering why in the world I thought buying three 24-oz cans of Natty Light was a good idea.  Smokies Park was far from being great, but it is very conveniently located and near a lot of activities and cheap hotels, so all in all not a bad place to stop if you find yourself on a roadtrip along I-40 as I was.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 3
views from park - 6 (built into a wooded hill)
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 7 (Dollywood, Douglas Dam, various tourist attractions)
food variety - 2
nachos - 6 (served in actual sized helmet)
beer - 7 (bonus points for Old Style)

vendor price - 7 (would normally be lower, but it was Dollar Dog Night)
ticket price - 4 ($9 GA)
atmosphere - 2
walk to park - 3
parking price/proximity - 6 (adjacent screwy lot $3)
concourses - 7
team shop - 8

best food - Dollar Dogs
most unique stadium feature - Smoky Mountain Visitor Center
best jumbotron feature - movie trivia gone horribly wrong
best between-inning feature - mascots hold empty potato chip bags with "prize" inside

field dimensions - 330/400/330
starters - Marquis Fleming (MON) v. Yeiper Castillo (TEN)
opponent - Montgomery Biscuits
time of game - 2:19
attendance - 2,177
score - 9-4 W
Brewers score that day - off

Brewers 54-70, -18.5 (3 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 70-54, -2.5 
(4 v. Diamondbacks, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 54-68, -18.0 (1 v. Mets, 3 @ Tigers, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 10 (+28 worked)

Peter - 35

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Durham Bulls Athletic Park

All photos of Durham and Durham Bulls Athletic Park available on Flickr.
Photos from Erik's visit to Bull Durham movie sites and DBAP in 2012.
Photos from Peter's previous visit to DBAP in 2005.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I stopped at a couple of ballgames this week on the way home from a wedding in Charlottesville VA, the first of which being a Durham Bulls game.  My friend Josh, who also went to the wedding, lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina and I drove down there with them Sunday afternoon.  We dropped off our bags at his house in Cary and got to Durham about 10 minutes before first pitch.  It was very hot with a threat of rain, so we decided to watch the game from the Tobacco Road restaurant in left field.  It's kind of like TGI-Friday's in Miller Park, but it's more like a restaurant that happens to have a view of the ballpark with gated patio access to the stadium, rather than an actual restaurant inside the park.

I had previously been to this ballpark in 2005 before the blog existed, and in fact at the time it was only the 2nd minor league park I had ever been to.  In 2013, the park was a lot like I remembered it - a very enjoyable retro-style ballpark with a good atmosphere and a fun mascot.  Of course, when most people think Durham baseball, they think of the movie "Bull Durham," which was filmed at the old ballpark and whose main character was based on an actual Bulls player, Crash Davis.  Admittedly, when I went to see the Bulls 8 years ago, back before I was really into minor league baseball, the movie was the only reason I knew there was a team there.  After being etched into popular culture on the silver screen, the Bulls moved up from class A to AAA and built a new park, and have been an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays since the franchise's inception - a franchise whose history of maintaining a very rich farm system is certainly evident in the sustained success of the Bulls.  I didn't actually spend too much time inside the actual park on Sunday, and I honestly don't remember a lot from my previous visit, but from what I can tell it is a very charming park.  The most notable feature of the park is the giant "hit the bull, win a steak" sign that is residual from the old park and now snorts smoke.  My one complaint would be that I don't really like when ballparks have hidden concourses as Durham Bulls Athletic Park has; I like to be able to see the field from most points.  The tradeoff in the case of DBAP is that even though it is separated from the field, the concourse here is very spacious and tall, and there is also a little walk between the 100 and 200 level seating that circles the seating bowl.  If any park is going to go the route of hidden concourse, I think DBAP did it about the best you can.  It certainly helps the park feel more authentic in attaining that "retro" feel.  Another thing they did right is you are able to circumnavigate the field with some sections of actual seating in the outfield, both of which I think every ballpark should have, no matter the size.  We were able to access the outfield concourse from the restaurant after the last pitch and watch directly into the stadium and out the front without any problems.   

Very similarly to my visit to Great American Ballpark the week before, the most remarkable change to the park was not inside, but what has grown around the park.  There are two large buildings in left and right field now that sort of "enclose" the ballpark as at Camden Yards, and the one in left field houses the restaurant I mentioned.  Neither of those were there in 2005.  Outside of the main gate, there is also a row of old tobacco factories that were abandoned on my previous visit and now are a very impressive example of urban renewal and historic preservation.  As you see happening in many urban blighted manufacturing areas of the country, these buildings have new life as shops, restaurants, bars, and outdoor space.  It reminded me a lot of how the Third Ward in Milwaukee has been almost entirely renovated in relatively the same time frame.  The centerpiece of this "Tobacco Row" development is the transformation of what was basically a concrete-lined drainage creek into a scenic riverwalk full of bends, fountains, and waterfalls that looks to me like it is also functional as part of a hydraulic power plant, but I'm not positive.  Josh and Erik have both told me how cool the area was now, but I really had to see it to believe it.  Repurposing old buildings is my favorite kind of architecture and is always one of the #1 signs of an active downtown.

We walked through the Tobacco Row redevelopment after finishing our delicious dinners and watching the Bulls walk-off 5-2 on a homerun by catcher Chris Gimenez.  Never leave a game early, you never know what you're going to see!  With one out, the Bulls tallied three straight baserunners, including Shelley Duncan and Mike Fontenot who are apparently still scrounging around in the minors.  A sac fly by Kevin Kiermaier tied the game, and then Gimenez hit the 3-run bomb, which actually fell not too far from where we were standing at the restaurant, but an usher caught it and kept the ball.  Come on man, your job is to please the fans, give it to a kid at least!  The excitement in the 9th innings overshadowed two pretty good pitching performances.  Journeyman J.D. Martin went 6.2 for the Bulls, and Zach Stewart was in line for the win with his 2-hit gem until Taylor Thompson blew the game for the Knights.

I had a great but brief time in the area and look forward to visiting again next year for the 2014 Doughman Relay.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 7
views from park - 5
view to field - 5 (not the best from the restaurant but good inside)
surrounding area - 9 (Tobacco Row, downtown)
food variety - 5
nachos - n/a
beer - n/a

vendor price - 5
ticket price - 8 ($6 outfield and lawn)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park - 6
parking price/proximity - 8 (3 blocks away in free garage)
concourses - 6 (beautiful but can't see out)
team shop - 9 (sweet retro gear)

best food - (ate at restaurant)
most unique stadium feature - Hit bull, Win steak
best jumbotron feature - (sat above jumbotron)
best between-inning feature - general Wool E. Bull antics

field dimensions - 305/400/325
starters - Zach Stewart (CHA) v. J.D. Martin (DUR)
opponent - Charlotte Knights
time of game - 2:58
attendance - 7,591
score - 5-2 W
Brewers score that day - 2-0 L

Monday, August 12, 2013

Return to Great American Ballpark

All photos of Great American Ballpark available on Flickr.

Great American Ballpark was the park I called home during my 3 years of graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, and even as I start writing this blog post now, I can hardly believe that it had been over 5 years since my last Reds home game!  I've gone back to visit my friends in town quite a few times since graduation, but for whatever reason, I just have not been to a ballgame there since April 2008.  Obviously I am biased, but I think it's a great park and is very underrated, so I was curious to see what was different since my last visit.  I rolled into town from Madison a little later than I would have liked so we didn't have much time to walk around the park, and we also missed the Joey Votto bobblehead giveaway.  More importantly though, I had a great time with my UC friends as always and it was great to catch up for a few hours with Hot Metts and Skyline Coneys in hand.  The five of us sat in the right field "moon deck," as it is called, which were always my favorite seats when I frequented the GAB.  They feature a great view to the scoreboard and skyline, are close to the field and composed of actual seats instead of bleachers unlike a lot of outfield seating at other major league parks, and they are generally out of the sun.

The most noticeable change to the ballpark is not inside, but rather what has built up around the stadium.  When I was in school, the area between the baseball and football stadiums on the Ohio River was a wasteland of parking owned by the Port Authority.  Now, after many years of squabbling, the fabled live/work village project called "The Banks" has completed its first phase and is near both commercial and residential capacity.  Coupled with the new casino up the road and a downtown in the midst of a renaissance, Cincinnati is an exciting place to go after the game now.  No longer do fans have to walk across the river to Kentucky to keep the celebration going after a Reds victory.  I think it's great that downtown living and recreation is gaining interest in the city, and I'm sure it is helping the Reds at the box office as well.  Granted, it was an interleague game and a bobblehead giveaway, but over 30,000 people for a Tuesday night game during a stretch in which the Reds are not playing particularly well is outstanding and something I certainly don't ever remember seeing at the GAB.  The Reds got the W on behind an exemplary performance by starting pitcher Mat Latos.  Jay Bruce went yard in the 3rd, and that would be all the offense they would need, but they tacked on a couple runs anyways for good measure.  The game featured two very exciting Cuban stars, Yoenis Cespedes of the A's and Aroldis Chapman of the Reds.  Chapman bested his peer on this night, as he struck out the side in the 9th for the save, and Cespedes took the collar.

Aside from the team being much better and prices going up a little, there wasn't any extraordinary change that I noticed at the ol' ballyard, other than replacing the outdated dot matrix jumbotron.  It's pretty popular these days for ballparks to offer a large variety of specialty foods and local craft beers, and the Reds certainly are no exception in continuing this trend.  A lot of the concessions stands were beefed up and we sat right in front of a new BBQ shack, and the "good beer" stand in left field has also been amplified.  And of course, the Cincinnati staples of goetta and chili are still prevalent as ever.  I also noticed the riverboat party area has gotten larger, but unfortunately like at Miller Park, this is a private area so I couldn't go up there.  It's one of the only places in the park where one would have a good view of both the river and the field, so I wish it was open to the public.  There's nothing really flashy about the GAB, but a lot of the details are unique and done right, it has one of the better entry plazas in the league, and it is just very elegant in its simplicity.  Yes it has some brick but it isn't just a typical retro park plopped down on a site; it responds well to its urban context by holding the street edge, but the park itself is set back from some out-buildings and is more organic in form.  Great American Ballpark also does a great job of paying tribute and respect to the history of Cincinnati and its Reds - the oldest professional sports franchise - which is perhaps one of my favorite things about the park.  A visit to the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is a must for anybody who goes to this ballpark for the first time.

After the game, we hung out at my friends apartment about a mile north of the ballpark before settling in for the night.  I took it for granted at the time, but looking back on it now, that was the first time I have ever walked to a game there.  It's just something that wasn't even feasible 5 years ago and it's awesome how many people live around the central business district now.  This night in Cincy was actually my first of a week-long roadtrip, with the final destination being my friend Phil's wedding in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I'm bookending the trip with games in Durham NC and Knoxville TN before heading back to Wisconsin tomorrow.  The trip is almost over and I've had an unbelievably amazing time - lots of catching up with old friends, lots of ball, and lots of Waffle House and beer - I don't really know what else you need.

park rankings and statistics
(see also previous post from 06/30/07):

aesthetics - 7
views from park - 8
view to field - 8
surrounding area - improves to 9
food variety - improves to 5
nachos - 3
beer - improves to 5 (slightly more variety but expensive)

vendor price - 2
ticket price - 3
atmosphere - improves to 6 (Reds are good now)
walk to park - improves to 8 (downtown/Banks)
parking price/proximity - decreases to 7 (costs more but still close)
concourses - 9
team shop - 6

best food - goetta burger
most unique stadium feature - Power Stacks
best jumbotron feature - various Reds HOF trivia
best between-inning feature - Mr. Red's Race

field dimensions - 328/400/325
starters - Dan Straily (OAK) v. Mat Latos (CIN)
opponent - Oakland Athletics
time of game - 2:52
attendance - 34,640
score - 3-1 W
Brewers score that day - 3-1 W

Brewers 51-67, -19.5 (2 @ Rangers, 4 v. Reds)
Reds 65-52, -5.0 
(3 @ Cubs, 4 @ Brewers)
Twins 52-63, -16.5 (3 v. Indians, 4 v. White Sox)

Erik - 10 (+22 worked)

Peter - 32