Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Knute Nelson Memorial Park

All photos of Knute Nelson Memorial Park available on Flickr.

It took until I was in a relationship with a girl from central Minnesota to finally make it up to a game in Alexandria.  Megan and I visited her family near St. Cloud for a long weekend and made the trek up to Alex to watch the Blue Anchors play ball on Saturday.  Driving northwest on I-94 through Minnesota, there is a very definite sensation that you are slowly drifting into uncharted wilderness.  Just before I thought I was going to start seeing polar bears, we arrived at our destination.

Alexandria is a very small resort town with a year-round population of around 10,000, but balloons to over 4x that size in the summer due to a booming lake tourism industry.  Because of this, the Blue Anchors regularly draw over 800 fans a game, which is nothing shy of remarkable for this market.  Despite the influx of the out-of-towners, the ballpark and team still have strong ties to the community.  The mix of fans, along with a very intimate ballpark in a residential setting, contributes to a very comfortable and friendly atmosphere at Knute Nelson Memorial Park.  Before going to Alexandria, I was convinced that it would be a model of why I thought a team would thrive in Wisconsin Dells, since they are so similar demographically.  But after leaving, I realized that the sense of community is something the Dells just can't replicate, which is so important for teams in this league in order to maintain a fanbase.  If you are just a fan of a simple and authentic baseball experience in an old no-frills ballpark, then Alexandria is the place for you.

However, I'm not trying to imply that the stadium is a dump.  It's small enough and old enough that I would use adjectives like "quirky" and " unique" as opposed to "rundown."  It reminded me a lot of Athletic Park in Wausau - it has that same entry gate on a residential corner, same small grandstand elevated from the playing surface, and both have very small outfields - only 345 to straightaway center in the case of Knute Nelson.  Both parks are very intimate and were built 70+ years ago, and both parks had the newer party area installed in right field.  The main thing that sets Alex apart from the 'Sau is that it does not have the overpowering exterior.  It's built to look more its size and feel like a neighborhood park.  The seats also seem closer to the field.  Disclaimer: my opinion on this might be influenced by the fact that we sat in a bunker under the grandstand directly behind homeplate.  You have pretty much two seating options besides the group area in right field at Knute Nelson - $5 GA grandstand, or for $20 you get the "Walk-Up Party Deck," in the aforementioned bunker, which includes all-you-can-eat-and drink.  To be literal, it is more like the "Walk Down" party deck, as you have to walk through the kitchen and down a few steps to get into a room with a fenced opening that very clearly used to be an umpires room or a dugout.  A good example of that "quirky" and "unique" I was talking about.  It was not a hard decision to choose these seats over the grandstand and it was definitely one of the better values and most unique seating areas I've experienced at a ballpark.  I was also pleasantly surprised that the hot dogs were delicious locally produced sausages and not just the casings filled with sawdust that you normally get at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was expecting a lot of homeruns in this game based on the size of the field; I just wasn't expecting the Blue Anchors to hit any of them.  The Blue Anchors dropped to a dismal 5-20 on the season following their loss to Rochester, but definitely put up a fight in the 9-8 slugfest.  They came back from deficits throughout the game thanks to the help of 4 homeruns, two by diminutive left fielder Jordan Lee.  Despite being only 5'-8" he is hitting a team-best .375 and 4 homers.  Lee went back-to-back with CF Kris Goodman in the 5th - Goodman's was a bomb into the lake over the center field wall.  In a game featuring 30 hits, there was not much good to say from the pitching side.  The starters gave up 5 and 6 ER respectively, and every pitcher who saw action gave up a run except Nick Highberger, who picked up the save for the Honkers.

We didn't see much else in Alexandria besides the ballpark.  We had an hour drive back to Cold Spring following the game, and even if we didn't, the only commercial street in town was closed due to construction.  While no physical qualities of Knute Nelson Memorial Stadium jump off the page, it definitely scores an 'A' in the all-important intangible quality of ballpark experience.  I would definitely come back, even if the team does not get any better.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 3
views from park – 7 (Lake Winona)
view to field - 8
surrounding area – 6 (main street is nearby, but it was closed)
food variety - 2
nachos - n/a
beer - 9 (we only got Miller, but looked to have a great variety for cheap)

vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9 ($5 GA)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 7 (residential, Lake Winona)
parking price/proximity - 10 (free street parking a block away)
concourses - 2 (there isn't really one)
team shop - 3 (isn't really one of these either, but bonus points for sweet logo)

best food – hot dog (not just by default - it's actually really good)
most unique stadium feature – party deck below center grandstand
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – pregame release of doves

field dimensions – 325/345/325
starters – Spencer Greer (ROC) v. Blake Bass (ALX)
opponent – Rochester Honkers
time of game – 2:53
attendance – 741
score – 9-8 L

Brewers score that day – 9-4 W

Brewers 47-31, +4.5, (4 v. Rockies, 2 @ Blue Jays)
Reds 38-37, -7.5 (4 @ Giants, 3 @ Padres)
Twins 36-38, -5.5 (3 @ Rangers, 3 v. Royals)

Erik - 3 (+12 worked)

Peter - 22

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tony Gwynn Dead at 54

The entire baseball world is in mourning this week, as Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn succumbed to mouth cancer on Monday.  Gwynn is widely considered to be one of the greatest hitters of all time.  He won 8 batting titles and amassed a .338 career average and 3,141 hits during his 20-year career, all with the Padres.  Playing in an age where steroid-fueled power was more prevalent than batting average, Gwynn primarily bludgeoned his opponents to death with stunning hand-eye coordination and bat control, and one could argue was really only rivaled by Wade Boggs in terms of best pure hitter over that 20-year span.  Gwynn's prime years came when I was in grade school, so I can't honestly say I remember a lot about him or even watching him play that much.  But when he retired in 2001, even seeing him for a few years at the tail end of his career made me appreciate what an amazing hitter he was.  I remember him for the fantastic World Series he had against the Yankees in 1998, as part of the historic 1999 All-Star Game with Ted Williams at Fenway Park, and single after single after single laced through the hole between shortstop and third base (which Tony dubbed the "5.5 hole").  And perhaps most vividly, I remember him getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with Cal Ripken Jr. the year that Erik and I were on the Tour, in front of record crowds that might never be approached again.

Eventually, there are going to be a lot of articles out there about how Gwynn is the prime example for why chewing tobacco should be banned in the big leagues, and rightfully so.  54 years old is way too young to leave this world.  But for now, I hope people will take the time to appreciate just how gifted a hitter he really was, a hitter that never got the glory he deserved during his career because of playing 20 years on the west coast and not being known for his power.  Out of all the statistics I've combed through in the last couple days, I think this one best puts his talent into perspective: for 6 straight years (and 8 altogether), Tony Gwynn struck out fewer than 20 times in a season.  In the ENTIRE season.  He struck out 3 times in a game just one time in 20 years.  Conversely, there were 97 players in the big leagues who struck out 20 times last month, and two Brewers struck out 3 times just in yesterday's game.  Baseball has truly lost one of its all-time greats.

Brewers 43-29, +3.5, (3 @ Rockies, 3 v. Nationals)
Reds 34-35, -7.5 (3 v. Blue Jays, 3 @ Cubs)
Twins 32-37, -5.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 @ Angels)

Erik - 3 (+10 worked)

Peter - 21

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bob Warn Field

All photos of Bob Warn Field available on Flickr.

I was in Louisville this past weekend attending my friend Toombs' bachelor party, so of course I checked to see if the Bats were home while I was there.  Unfortunately they were not (although we did have dinner at a brewpub next to Louisville Slugger Field, so that was pretty awesome).  Neither Indianapolis nor Lexington were home either.  At this point I was determined to watch ball somewhere and started to think a little outside the box.  I remembered that the Prospect League footprint covers Illinois and Indiana, so I checked and found a few teams that were home.  I settled on a game in Terre Haute, Indiana for a Sunday 5:30PM first pitch.

The Prospect League is a summer collegiate league that in its current form is probably a tier below the Northwoods League, both in terms of quality of talent and ballparks.  However, in its heyday operating as the Central Illinois Collegiate League, it was one of the premier summer leagues and was funded by the NCAA for decades.  The league today is a combination of remaining CICL teams, a few teams that broke off from the independent Frontier League, and some expansion teams for an odd total of 11.  

Terre Haute is one of the expansion teams and the Rex are in their 5th season of operation.  They actually play in a decent stadium shared with the Indiana State University ball team, and by "decent," I guess I mean better than the 2 sets of metal bleachers and a chain link fence that I was expecting.  The lone entry is a gate on the 1st base side framed by two small brick outbuildings - one containing concessions and the ticket office, and the other restrooms and storage.  Everything in the stadium is weighted onto this side, including a merchandise tent, an extra section of bleachers, and a plaza, which is probably an indication of either site constraints and/or a later addition.  The entry plaza actually would have been pretty nice if there was not a middle-aged couple there singing bad karaoke.  The plaza feeds to sort of a half-concourse that dead-ends into the center section of bleachers.  There is really nothing on the 3rd base side of the stadium except the other dugout.  All of these oddities pale in comparison to probably the oddest thing I have seen at any ballpark in my life - the entire infield is turf except for the mound, and the outfield is grass.  Not only was it very odd but also atrocious, as the infield had lots of hobo patch jobs around the bases, and the outfield grass was not maintained well at all.  I was there plenty early to watch the visiting team warm up and I tried to see if the players were wearing cleats or shoes for this hybrid playing surface, and even they seemed to be confused by it.

This was one of those nights at the ballpark where most of the highlights had nothing to do with the game.  Terre Haute native Tommy John was on hand to throw out the first pitch, which was super cool, but then after that not much happened until the 5th inning when some random guy got on the mic and rapped an entire song he wrote about the Terre Haute Rex.  In between Tommy John and the Rex Rap, I tried my hardest to stay focused on the game, but there was probably more sharp contact made in the pre-game hacky sack circle than in those 5 innings.  By the 7th inning I was getting pretty tired and had a long drive ahead of me back to Milwaukee, so I decided to call it a night and leave a little early.  At worst, my stop at Bob Warn Field was a nice way to break up the incredibly boring drive through Indiana, and at best, I spent $9 on dinner and entertainment.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2 (field is awful)
views from park – 1
view to field - 4 (seats down the line obstructed by dugout)
surrounding area – 3 (Indiana State University)
food variety - 4
nachos - 4
beer - 4 (bonus points just for having beer at a college facility)

vendor price - 10
ticket price - 9 ($5 GA)
atmosphere - 6 (staff really gets into it)
walk to park – 2
parking price/proximity - 10 (got there so early parked in lot for free - normally $4)
concourses - 2
team shop - 7 (actually pretty solid logo and merch but in a tent)

best food – Rex Dog
most unique stadium feature – half-turf/half-grass field
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – guy performs rap he wrote about the Rex

field dimensions – 332/396/332
starters – Ben Braymer (DAN) v. Tommy Strunc (TH)
opponent – Danville Dans
time of game – 2:17
attendance – 855
score – 2-1 W

Brewers score that day – 1-0 W

Brewers 39-27, +5.0, (3 v. Reds, 4 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 30-34, -8.0 (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 31-33, -4.0 (3 @ Tigers, 3 @ Red Sox)

Erik - 3 (+10 worked)

Peter - 19

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Northwoods League Opening Week

All photos of Mallards home opener and Chinooks home opener available on Flickr.

Last Tuesday was one of my favorite days of the year and the unofficial start to my summer - Northwoods League Opening Day!  The college summer league that already has more teams and more games than any other summer league added two teams and two games this year, for totals of 18 and 72 respectively.  Franchises in Kalamazoo and Kenosha were added this year into the South, and Eau Claire moved to the North to balance out the divisions.  The league starts a day earlier this year and added two scheduled home-and-home doubleheaders to increase the number of games.  I'm really curious how the doubleheaders will work.  It's an awesome idea in theory, but things will have to fall into place perfectly for some of these teams to make it to the other city between games.  I'm particularly looking at the day that Thunder Bay and Duluth play a matinee in Canada, then drive 4 hours over the border to Minnesota.  That aside, I'm really excited about it and I'm seriously debating "calling in sick" to go to one.

I attended the Mallards home opener on Wednesday, and the Chinooks home opener on Thursday.  The Mallards game was originally just a regular game that Megan got free tickets to, but the scheduled opener was rained out on Tuesday, so Wednesday ended up being Opening Day Doubleheader!  On top of that, I got to see the inaugural game of the Kalamazoo Growlers franchise as the visiting team.  Madison and K-Zoo split the doubleheader, 6-2 and 5-6.  The only guy I recognized from last year's championship Mallards team was Alex Bacon, besides of course Donnie Scott, the manager.  We only saw a couple innings of the first game because we got there late and had tickets that came with all you can eat and drink buffet until 7, so we had a responsibility to dominate that.  But the 2nd game saw the Growlers jump out to a big early lead and the Mallards claw their way back to make a game of it.  Former Packer great Sterling Sharp was neither sterling nor sharp for the Mallards, allowing 6 runs and 3 walks in less than 2 innings.  Every year I like to identify a Mallard early in the season I think will be team MVP and this year I'm going with 1B Brian Rodemoyer out of Illinois State.  He only went 1-3 but I really like his swing and he has the build to hook a lot of homeruns into the short porch in right.  The only notable change at the ballpark this year was the gaping hole left by the departure of longtime PA guy Aaron Sims.  It's not an exaggeration to say he's probably at least half of the reason the Mallards have built such a following in Madison.  Only time will tell if the new guy will be a decent replacement, but early indications point to a no.  Sims left for browner pastures in Kenosha, and I'm looking forward to hearing his distinctive humor at a Kingfish game later this season.

Thursday was a typical chilly night at Kapco Park in Mequon.  It doesn't matter if it's 85ยบ in the city - the park is right on Lake Michigan, so it always gets down into the 50s by sunset.  I hope my apartment 2 blocks from the lake in Milwaukee will be like that all summer because I hate hot weather.  Anyways, it was a packed house and traffic was terrible so I missed out on the Bob Uecker bobblehead.  It was awesome to see so many people at the game and the front plaza full of people.  Included in the 2100+ crowd were part owners and Brewer legends Robin Yount and Bob Uecker, Milwaukee celebrity lawyer David Gruber, Ron Roenicke and Joe Block from the Brewers, and part of the UW basketball team to throw out the first pitch.  The surprising star of the game was not a starting pitcher or a hitter, but G.J. Strauss of the Chinooks who pitched 5 scoreless innings in relief and picked up the win.  Like Warner Park, not much new at the Chinooks park.  They still have one of the more bountiful and unique food selections in the league and for the first time I had something other than the fish fry.  They were supposed to be Irish nachos with tomatoes onions and cheese on fries, but they ran out of vegetables and just started using pulled pork.  I didn't say stop.

My goal for the rest of the Northwoods League season is see the new Kenosha team as well as the renovation in Wausau, and I also purchased tickets to the All-Star Game in Mequon.  I'm super excited for all three!  I'm eying up the July 2nd Kingfish game for the King Elvis bobblehead and Tribute to Elvis Night.  I don't think I need to explain myself.

Brewers 35-25, +4.5, (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Mets)
Reds 27-31, -7.0 (3 v. Phillies, 4 v. Dodgers)
Twins 28-29, -3.5 (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Blue Jays)

Erik - 3 (+7 worked)

Peter - 18