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

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