Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fox Cities Stadium Renovation

 All photos of Timber Rattlers 2013 home opener available on Flickr.

It really takes a true baseball fan to brave Midwest League games in April.  Despite the weather, I made the drive up to Appleton to attend the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' home opener.  Beyond just the excitement of Opening Day, it was also the game where the defending Midwest League Champions received their rings; and, as has been customary the last few seasons, Opening Day was also an all-fan bobblehead giveaway.  This year's doll features manager Matt Erickson holding the MWL Championship Trophy, and I must say, it's pretty quality.  Erickson has returned this season to lead his almost entirely new roster towards a repeat performance of last season.  Unlike at the major league level, high turnover in the low minor leagues is actually a good sign.  Most of this year's team is comprised of the Brewers' 2012 draft picks, including top picks Clint Coulter and Mitch Haniger, and I am excited to see them develop this season.

Another major reason I was eager to get up to Appleton this year was to see the fruits of the extensive offseason stadium renovation.  The ownership and city have invested a large amount of money into the ballpark to provide more revenue-generating suites, a better fan experience, and higher quality facilities for the players - much to the delight of the parent club Brewers, who don't really enjoy those luxuries at any other level in their system.  Aside from the addition of suites to a 2nd level and the aforementioned improved player facilities, the most notable change is a much-needed facelift to the exterior.  The lackluster concrete block walls have been dressed up with lighting and fresh paint, and there is now a grand entry canopy behind homeplate, not unlike what I saw at the Corn Crib in Normal last year.  Unfortunately, the exterior improvements are overshadowed by the fact that sidewalks have yet to be poured, as the contractor was clearly not counting on is still being this cold and snowy in April (welcome to Wisconsin).  The team store has doubled in size, but much to my disappointment, the quality of the gear has gone down.  Retro Appleton Foxes apparel is a much more limited selection, and the MWL Champions t-shirts are nothing to write home about.  There is now also a wood plank walkway in the outfield that goes past a couple of children's play areas, a picnic area, and terminates in centerfield, where the bullpens have been moved beyond the wall.  So basically, aside from a small portion missing from left field, the stadium now has about a 90% circumnavigable concourse.  Honestly, I'm unsure if the walkway existed before or was part of the renovation, but I certainly never remember walking to centerfield to watch pitchers warm up, and I know for a fact the walkway was not there in 2007 on the Tour.  Regardless, moving the bullpens out from foul territory and adding fan access to the outfield are always good moves.  The only other new thing I noticed at the park was that the Leinie's Lounge is no longer a private area, but rather an enclosed bar that all fans can go to escape inclement weather.  I like that it is now accessible to the general public, but they could have spiffed it up a little more.  It has a really low drop-tile ceiling and cheap lunchroom furniture, and feels more like a rec room than part of the stadium.  The main concourse remains generally unchanged, and the concessions offerings are about the same and still high in price compared to most other parks in the circuit.

As for the game itself, it was hard to sit through, both because of the cold temperatures and the performance.  The Timber Rattlers lost to the Cedar Rapids Kernels (now affiliated with the Twins) by 8 runs before a crowd of just over 3,000.  Rattlers starter Preston Gainey was atrocious, surrendering 6 runs, 4 walks, a wild pitch, and a balk.  His control was poor but at least seemed to have good zip on his fastball.  Unfortunately I was not in my seat during the lone offensive highlight for the T-Rats, when Clint Coulter went yard in the 4th.  The Brewers' other top draft pick, Mitch Haniger, went 2-4 with a double and looked good in right field, so that is encouraging for the team and the Brewers.  Coulter does not look very good behind the plate though, he's slow on the throws to second and had two passed balls.  If he continues to hit decent as he progresses through the minors, I wouldn't be surprised if the organization switched him to a corner infield spot.  The other player who looked solid was Orlando Arcia.  He's an 18-year old shortstop who played in the Brewers' Dominican academy last year; he has terrific skills on defense, and also chipped in a hit on this night.  Also of note: Byron Buxton, the #2 overall draft pick from a year ago, led off and played center for the Kernels.  He crushed a 3-run homer in the 2nd and is now hitting over .500 on the young season.

One thing that the $6+ million renovation could not buy was a roof.  The home opener I attended was actually the only game they have managed to get in on the homestand thus far.  Four consecutive games have been cancelled due to snow and/or freezing temperatures, and the T-Rats have not played since Monday.  Hopefully the weather can heat up soon, along with the team.

park rankings and statistics
(see also original 9/4/07 post):

aesthetics - improves to 6
views from park - 2
view to field - 5
surrounding area - improves to 3 (signs of life exiting off US-41)
food variety - decreases to 6
nachos - 4
beer - decreases to 9 (price increase but Leinie's Lodge now public)
vendor price - decreases to 7 (price increase)
ticket price - decreases to 8 ($9 box seat)
atmosphere - 4
walk to park - 1
parking price/proximity - decreases to 1 ($5 for A-ball is absurd)
concourses - improves to 6
team shop - 8 (size up, quality down)

best food - helmet cheese fries
most unique stadium feature - entry canopy, walkway behind bullpens in CF
best jumbotron feature - upgraded but no notable features
best between-inning feature - giant Operation game, addition of unspectacular 2nd mascot "Whiffer"

field dimensions - 325/405/325
starters - David Hurlbut (CR) v. Preston Gainey (WIS)
opponent - Cedar Rapids Kernels
time of game - 2:40
attendance - 3,036
score - 10-2 L
Brewers score that day - 7-4 W

Brewers 2-7 (3 v. Giants, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 5-5 (3 v. Phillies, 4 v. Marlins)
Twins 4-6 (3 v. Angels, 3 @ White Sox)

Erik - 3
Peter - 4

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