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


STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.26:
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)

2013 GAMES ATTENDED:
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


STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.19:
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)

2013 GAMES ATTENDED:
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


STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.12:
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)

2013 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 10 (+22 worked)

Peter - 32

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Northwoods League "Big League Dreams Showcase"


 All photos of inaugural Big League Dreams Showcase available on Flickr.

The Northwoods League currently boasts more future major leaguers than any other summer collegiate league, and this past Monday the league took another step in cementing that claim.  An inaugural "Big League Dreams Showcase" was held in Madison to display some of the top talent in the league.  When I first heard about the event, my initial reaction was just that Madison was sore about not hosting the all-star game again this year, so hey we'll just hold our own separate game a week later.  Madison draws over 1/4th of the league's total attendance, plays in the largest capacity stadium, and 2nd largest market to Mequon, so by all rights they should be holding the All-Star game just about every year.  However, unlike a true all-star game that selects the best players of a particular season, this Showcase is composed of the top 100 prospects in the league as determined by amateur scouts.  Any Major League Baseball fan knows that an all-star game is not always the "best" players - sometimes guys like Michael Cuddyer go on a tear and deservedly make the team, sometimes the fans vote in who they want to see regardless of stats, and sometimes players considered to be among the elite, like Josh Hamilton or Ryan Braun, are hurt or underperform and do not make the team.  This Big League Dreams Showcase is just a chance for the league to promote its top talent in front of a barrage of scouts in one succinct day of baseball, and it is one more opportunity for all of these kids to get great exposure for next year's draft.  Because in the end, that's what the point of the Northwoods League is all about.  Yes entertainment and profit are big parts of it, but at its roots it is a league meant to simulate minor league conditions and to prepare these kids for the trials and competition of playing professional baseball, and ultimately give them the experience they need to help them get drafted.  The Showcase was split into a doubleheader of North-South matchups, and almost an entire section of seats behind homeplate was filled with scouts charting players and measuring pitch speeds.

The doubleheader started at 4, so I cut out of work as early as I could but still missed the first few innings of the first game.  The Northwoods League website did not post official statistics of the games on its website, but the doubleheader was split with the North and the South each winning a contest.  The Mallards actually had so many players featured in the showcase - 10 in all - that John LaPrise had to get moved to the first game.  The Mallards have had a very potent offense all the way up and down the lineup this year and have been fun to watch, and LaPrise has led the squad by hitting well over .400 for most of the season.  He tied the game at 4 in the 4th with a single and the South ended up pulling away for the 9-4 victory.  Green Bay's Nick Torres and Battle Creek's Tyler Moore paced the way for the South by gathering half of the team's 14 hits.  The 2nd game was pretty much the North vs. the Mallards, as the South's manager started nearly the entire Mallards starting 9, save a couple of Chinooks filling in the gaps.  The South fell to the North in this game, 7-6.  St. Cloud's Adam Martin launched a booming homerun in the win, and Waterloo's Adam Dian needed only a few pitches to nail down the save in the 9th.  Through nearly two months of the season, his ERA is still below a half-run. 

I'm not a professional scout, so it was hard for me to separate any one particular player from any other in terms of talent, but the passion these players have was definitely prevalent.  Every pitcher was amped up to strike guys out, every infield hit was ran out, everybody was trying to hit homeruns and stretch singles into doubles, and nearly every single player that made it to 1st base attempted to steal 2nd.  These players really wanted to show what they could do, and you have to respect that they gave it a 100% effort in an exhibition game.  All in all, I thought this was a great event for the league, but at the same time I am glad it did not have the pomp and circumstance of the All-Star game - I think it would be a mistake to detract from that at all.  This event was clearly catered to the players and scouts, as it should be, but I of course still had a great time watching about 15 innings of ball.  Two additional hours of baseball just meant that many more beer batters striking out and more delicious food, so despite a rare sparse crowd, I had no complaints.  I hope that this is the first of many years of this event held at the Duck Pond.

2013 NWL Big League Dreams Showcase rosters
 
first half winners - Waterloo (N), Madison (S)
pitchers of record - Bryce Bellin (GB) and JD Moore (WAT) W, Nick Bates (WIL) and Taylor Cherry (MAD) L
stadium - Warner Park, Madison WI

STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 08.04:
Brewers 46-64, -20.0 (4 @ Giants, 3 @ Mariners)
Reds 61-50, -5.5 
(2 v. Athletics, 3 v. Padres)
Twins 47-60, -15.5 (3 @ Royals, 4 @ White Sox)

2013 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 10 (+22 worked)

Peter - 30