Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chinooks Enjoying Success in Sophomore Season

All photos of Kapco Park available on Flickr.

It took nearly 4 months, but Erik and I finally made it to our first game of the season together this past weekend.  Prior to the annual greatest weekend of the entire summer - Milwaukee's Germanfest - we met my brother at Kapco Park for our 2nd Chinooks game, and my brother's first.  The sky was looking ominous but an entire doubleheader was played in full with no problems.  The twinbill started at 4:05, so we didn't make it until the end of the first game, but in total we still got to see 9 innings of ball.

We had some time to eat and walk around between games, and I could not help but go with the Leinie's beer battered fish fry as I did on my last visit.  We took our food and beers to the right field corner, talked to some players, and watched the Chinooks starter warm up for a few minutes, and then tried to take some hacks in the kids inflatable batting cage but the entire staff seemed to be taking some time off during the intermission.  Erik and I did not really notice anything differences at the park, aside from an additional set of rickety GA bleachers in left field.  Kapco Park still has the crazy 99.5% turf field that seems to be holding up pretty well, even though all of the other athletic facilities and lawns on campus get to have real grass.  All of the trees around the periphery are still in their infant stages and a lot of the concession stands and booths still seem temporary, so the park still feels very new.  You still have to park like a mile away and trek past other completely empty and functional lots to get to the ballpark, which I don't understand.  Despite these things and the relatively remote location, the Chinooks have been drawing well in Mequon and currently lead the South Division in the 2nd half with less than two weeks to go in the season.  Due to the unseasonably cool weather and threat of rain, the Chinooks only drew about a half-capacity crowd to watch the home team split the doubleheader with the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters.

Like I said, we missed most of the first game, which Lakeshore won 7-2.  Starter Tim Faix nearly went the distance in the 7-inning game, finishing with 6.1 IP and giving up only 2 runs.  All-Star and Chinooks top prospect Mike Papi went 2-3 with a homerun.  In the game we actually watched, the home team lost 8-4.  One of the few highlights for the Chinooks in this game was Jared Fon launching his first tater of the season.  Otherwise, it was a poor defensive effort with a lot of errors and botched plays.  Trevor Koehn's 5 innings were serviceable enough to get the win, and Donnie Dewees went 4-4 with 3 RBI and 2 runs scored to lead the Rafters offense.

As of today, the Mallards and Bucks have already clinched the playoffs, and the Chinooks lead the South by 4 games, which means that potentially the three teams I consider my "home teams" would all make the playoffs, and that would be really awesome.  Whether the championship will involve me returning to Kapco or Waterloo, or my home base in Madison, regardless I am really looking forward to it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

10,000,000th Fan in Kane County

All photos of Fifth Third Bank Ballpark available on Flickr.

Upon reading that the Kane County Cougars would be welcoming their 10-millionth fan on July 20th (the first class-A team to reach this milestone) I decided to make an impromptu trip down there on my way home from Milwaukee.  I relish the opportunity to be a part of history as any baseball fan would, and I couldn't discount the off-chance that I would myself be the 10,000,000th fan.  I just had this mental image the whole drive down of me proudly donning my Brewers jersey throwing out the first pitch for a Cubs affiliate, and then refusing all of the free Cougars merchandise they would try to pawn off on me - or better yet, burning it in the parking lot after the game.  Sadly, I was not the lucky fan, but I had been meaning to get down to the park anyways to see the renovation, so this was a good excuse.  I got there pretty early and enjoyed watching the pitching coach teach a kid how to throw a slider before the game started. 

The renovation was completed shortly after my first visit to Kane County, in time for the 2009 season.  It was actually quite extensive, the major component of which was the addition of a second deck to the seating bowl, not unlike what the Timber Rattlers did this past offseason.  This deck holds suites and a new pressbox mostly, and there are also new team offices with a separate 2-story glass entrance behind it. The new parts of the park blend in with the existing fabric and materials pretty well, which I liked It didn't make the new deck feel like a "cake topper."  As a project in and of itself, I can understand why it was necessary, but I think it really took away a lot of the charm the ballpark held previously.  It had sort of a "state fair" atmosphere before with an expansive open concourse flanked by portable concession stands, but now it really just looks like any other run-of-the mill minor league park.  There's nothing left at the stadium that is particularly distinctive, which includes its new name of Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, since there are like 5 stadiums now that have some variation of that same name.  Perhaps the Man Upstairs could sense I did not care for the new deck that much, because the 6th inning ended with a torrential downpour the likes of which I've never seen.  Ironically, had it not been for that 2nd deck, everybody would have been soaked to the bone and had an otherwise pleasant evening at the ballpark ruined.  Along with the new addition and corporate sponsorship, the Cougars have also stepped up their game with some new concessions items, an even wider variety of local beers, and a revamped jumbotron, but with this have also come much higher prices.  Kane County is easily the most expensive minor league park I have been to now (as if I needed more reasons to hate Illinois).  I made sure to enjoy a $7 meatball served in a souvenir sundae helmet before ducking out after the rest of the game was cancelled.  Note: all ballparks should offer food served in helmets, so points for that.

The game was a lackluster performance between two last place teams.  The Lugnuts had recently been no-hit for the third time this season, and going into the game the Cougars had 5 wins in the entire 2nd half.  It was 4-3 Cougars after the first inning and the visiting starter did not even make it out of the 1st, so early signs were all pointing to this being a barnburner.  Lansing went on top in the first by a 3-run bomb by DH Kevin Patterson (who held his average above the Mendoza Line with that effort) but the Cougars then scored 8 unanswered to finish the game.  The Lugnuts issued 9 walks and committed 3 errors in 6 innings, there's really no better way to describe the game than with that statistic.  Perennial contestant for the "Best Name in the Minors," Rock Shoulders, suited up for the Cougars and was 0-1 with a walk and an RBI.

Even though the storm let up after a half-hour or so, the umpires had no choice but to call the rest of the game in the bottom of the 6th because pretty much the entire outfield was a pond.  Which was good for my ride home, but bad that I didn't get to watch another 3 innings of stellar baseball.  I tell ya, I give Beloit a lot of crap, but at least they know how to construct a field that drains properly.

park rankings and statistics
(see also previous post from 7/21/08):

aesthetics - decreases to 4
views from park - 5
view to field - 10
surrounding area - improves to 5 (I found historic downtown Geneva)
food variety - 9
nachos - improves to 6
beer - decreases to 8 (variety still high but price is steep)

vendor price - decreases to 5
ticket price - decreases to 2 ($13 for A-ball!)
atmosphere - improves to 9 (now being a Cubs affiliate helps this category)
walk to park - 1
parking price/proximity - decreases to 5 (charge $5 now, but bonus points for pervious pavers)
concourses - decreases to 4
team shop - 9

best food - giant meatball in helmet
most unique stadium feature - decks in outfield
best jumbotron feature - advertisement for Star Wars Night
best between-inning feature - Zooperstars

field dimensions - 335/400/335
starters - Kendall Graveman (LAN) v. Felix Pena (KC)
opponent - Lansing Lugnuts
time of game - 1:59 (0:30 delay)
attendance - 10,587
score - 8-4 W
Brewers score that day - 6-0 W

Brewers 43-61, -20.0 (4 @ Cubs, 3 v. Nationals)
Reds 59-47, -5.0 
(3 @ Padres, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 45-57, -13.0 (3 v. Royals, 3 v. Astros)

Erik - 10 (+18 worked)

Peter - 27

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Carson Park

All photos of Carson Park available on Flickr.

I made the 3-hour drive to Eau Claire, Wisconsin this past Saturday to visit my 13th Northwoods League ballpark, Carson Park.  As you may recall, Erik and I were supposed to go here together about a month ago but, due to a variety of circumstances including weather and my clumsiness, were unable to attend.  For the time being, Carson Park is the final professional ball field I had left to attend in Wisconsin, but when the Kenosha expansion team starts up in the Northwoods League next summer, I will have to make that trek.

I had actually never been to Eau Claire before, and unfortunately I did not get to see much of the city, but what I can say is that the setting of the ballpark is very pristine and one of the more unique ones you'll find.  Much like Warner Park in Madison, Carson Park is actually part of a larger community park of the same name surrounded by water, wooded areas, and a slew of other recreational activities.  In the case of Eau Claire, this park is actually on a peninsula inside of a small lake, which makes the lake look and feel like a river but in actuality it is a crescent-shaped body of water, hence the name Half Moon Lake.  You enter the park at the base of the peninsula through a winding road, and at the end of the road is the stadium.  Behind the stadium are some other athletic fields, and between the fields and the lake is a heavily wooded area and various zones where you can descend steps to the water.  As you can tell, I had plenty of time to walk around and explore upon my arrival.  There were a bunch of kids fishing down by the lake, various picnic areas in use, a high school football game, and believe it or not a wedding, all occurring around the ballpark at the same time.  The couple actually took it a step further and had their wedding reception in the party deck at the game and got to throw out the first pitch, so I made immediate note of that for that Future Luckiest Girl in the World out there somewhere.

The stadium itself is perched at the highest point in the park and was completed in 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration.  Carson Park stands out from some of the other WPA gems currently inhabited by the Northwoods League because it is the stadium where the legendary Hank Aaron got his start in professional baseball, as an 18-year old shortstop on the 1952 Eau Claire Bears.  Aaron had a statue dedicated to him outside the park in 1994, and it is the centerpiece of a ring of plaques in a circular plaza highlighting the proud history of Eau Claire baseball.  The Bears would later be renamed the Braves and leave town in 1962, and since then the park has hosted mainly amateur and high school ball until the Express chugged into town in 2005.  In those 8+ seasons of residency, the Express have put a lot of work into this park while still respecting its standing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The exterior is composed with a beautiful locally quarried stone in an ashlar pattern that is interrupted periodically by the original wooden ticket windows.  Inside the stadium, it is not surprisingly reminiscent of Athletic Park in Wausau, which was built around the same time and has a similar capacity.  The two parks have a similar 3-section covered grandstand with metal bleachers added down the lines at a later date, and both have their concessions in a sort of "bunker" at the entry under the grandstand.  Where Carson Park is different is it has coherent circulation, the seating is less cramped, and seems to be much better maintained.  The concessions area at Carson Park is like a trip back in time and feels authentic, whereas going to get a soda at Athletic Park seemed borderline unsafe and you felt like you weren't supposed to be in that part of the stadium.  And speaking of a trip back in time, you will find some of the cheaper prices in the circuit at this park.  A 20-ounce domestic beer is only $4, and a hot dog is less than $3 - both rarities these days.  Another resemblance to Wausau is the obligatory party deck added in the right field corner, which has impinged on the bullpens and pushed the foul pole in about 20 feet to allow as many people as possible to enjoy bottomless beer.  You can't even really call it a singular deck, it's more like a "village" of decks out there, sort of like how the Duck Blind is now in Madison with all the different sections and levels.  Some of the decks are hoisted up on stilts in a cabin motif set amongst trees leaning into the stadium, it's actually pretty cool. 

The Express had a good showing on Team Trading Card Giveaway Night #1.  Taylor Lehnert fueled the 9-1 victory with 7 strong innings, giving up only 1 run while striking out 6.  Both starters actually faired decently but the Express tagged the Rafters' bullpen for 7 runs in the final 3 innings to break the game open.  Seven of the nine Express players knocked in a run and eight players got a hit, but the star of the game for me was SS Blake Schmit, a Junior at Maryland.  He had 3 hits and 3 RBI out of the 9-hole and made at least three spectacular plays in the field.  There one play where he was ranging to his right and the ball took a really bad hop over his head, and then he reacted quickly by grabbing the ball barehanded and gunning down the runner by a half-step.  Also of note: the Express have a guy on their team with the name Chane pronounced "Shane."  No comment. 

Overall, I'd say this is definitely up in my top 3 Northwoods League parks, and it was totally worth the drive.  The fans in Eau Claire really seem to appreciate good baseball, and in turn the staff really knows how to show everybody a good time.  One piece of advice I will give to any first-time visitors is to bring bug spray.  Sitting in a stadium in a heavily wooded area surrounded by water on a muggy night equaled a lot of bug bites and murdered mosquitoes.  An update on our Tour 2013 trip: Erik is unable to attend, but we had already purchased nonrefundable hotels and Royals tickets, so I kind of still have to go.  It might be a condensed version of what we had planned if I have to go myself, but stay tuned for that at the end of August.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 5 (HS football game)
view to field - 5 (pretty obstructed in main grandstand)
surrounding area - 8 (park, lake, athletic fields)
food variety - 7
nachos - 7 (chicken taco fixins)
beer - 9 (decent variety, great price, surprisingly no Leinie's)

vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park - 6 (could be pretty cool if you parked down by lake)
parking price/proximity - 10 (free adjacent lot)
concourses - 5 (under grandstand)
team shop - 4 (trailers, lots out of stock)

best food - Sriracha chicken bites
most unique stadium feature - ashlar stone exterior
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - porta-potty race, Trax the mascot harassed by players pre-game

field dimensions - 319/388/302
starters - Brandon Schmidt (WR) v. Taylor Lehnert (EC)
opponent - Wisconsin Rapids Rafters
time of game - 2:35
attendance - 2,194
score - 9-1 W
Brewers score that day - 5-4 L

Brewers 38-56, -19.5, last place NL Central (3 v. Marlins, 4 v. Padres, 3 @ Rockies)
Reds 53-42, -5.0, 3rd place NL Central 
(3 v. Pirates, 4 @ Giants, 4 @ Dodgers)
Twins 39-53, -12.0, 4th place AL Central (3 v. Indians, 3 @ Angels, 4 @ Mariners)

Erik - 8 (+15 worked)

Peter - 22

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Manny Signs Minor League Deal with Rangers

Embattled star Manny Ramirez is one step closer to returning to the Major Leagues.  After hitting .352 with 8 HRs and 43 RBI in 49 games with the Rhinos in Taiwan, the Rangers are obviously hoping that the 41-year-old's ability to dominate the inferior Chinese Baseball league will translate to success back in the states.  Ramirez opted out of his contract in Taiwan last month citing a desire to be closer to his family, and many speculated that the Yankees would be a likely suitor, given their propensity for signing declining free agents with baggage.  But the Rangers were the first team to make a serious offer and Manny jumped at the opportunity.  He reports to AAA Round Rock today and it remains to be seen how he will fit onto the Rangers if he gets called up.  Platooning DH is a possibility as Texas has another aging player at that position currently in Lance Berkman who hits far better from the left side.  Manny can probably still play a little left field too in a pinch.  It's far from certain he will even be called up, however.  Manny latched on with the Athletics in a similar capacity last year, but after serving his second drug suspension and not receiving a call-up from AAA Sacramento despite hitting over .300, he chose to leave the organization.  I'm guessing things will be the same with the Rangers - he'll give it a go for a month and hope for the call, but if not he will just call it a year and go back and play ball in the DR.  It's pretty clear the guy can still contribute and hit for average, but his power stroke has severely diminished and he has not played a full season since 2008.  If the Rangers are willing do deal with the media circus and "Manny being Manny," I'm guessing they could catch lightning in a bottle as the Dodgers did when they traded for him.  The most interesting part of this story that is not getting enough attention is that per the Rangers organizational rules, Ramirez will finally be forced to cut his hair that has been out of control for many years now.  Manny was one of my favorite players when I was a kid, but as the dreads got longer and more disgusting, it just became harder and harder to look at him with a straight face. 

Brewers 35-51, -18.0 (3 v. Reds, 4 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 50-38, -4.0
(3 @ Brewers, 4 @ Braves)
Twins 37-48, -10.0 (4 @ Rays, 3 @ Yankees)

Erik - 8 (+15 worked)

Peter - 21