Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinooks Capture Best Record, First Northwoods League Title

All photos of NWL South Division Playoffs Game 2 available on Flickr.

Congratulations to the Lakeshore Chinooks in winning the Northwoods League Summer Collegiate World Series!  The Chinooks had just about as easy a path to a title as possible, dominating the league with a ridiculous winning percentage of over .700.  They finished the regular season with the best record in the league at 50-21, won both halves of the South Division, and swept the playoffs with a perfect 4-0 record.  I was in attendance at Game 2 of the South Division finals in Mequon, in which the Chinooks advanced to the NWL Championship with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Wisconsin Woodchucks in 10 innings.  The starter for the Chinooks, Shaun Anderson, threw just about the best pitching performance I've seen in the Northwoods League, or in any game for that matter.  He gave up only 1 run with 6 strikeouts and nearly went the distance, getting removed from the game after 26 outs.  Zack Bowers had a big series for Lakeshore, notching the game-winning hit in both games of the sweep.  The Chinooks would then go on to defeat the Mankato Moondogs for their first title in only the 3rd year of the franchise.  I've now been fortunate enough to witness championship campaigns in both of what I consider my "home" ballparks, Madison and Mequon, in consecutive years.  The end of the Northwoods League season is always one of the first signs that summer is almost over, and I am already looking forward to next season.

Brewers 71-56, +1.5, (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Padres, 3 @ Giants)
Reds 61-67, -10.5, -7.0 WC (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 56-70, -14.0, -12.5 WC (4 v. Tigers, 3 @ Royals, 4 @ Orioles)

Erik - 6 (+24 worked)

Peter - 35

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tour 2014: 100 Years at Wrigley Field

All photos of Chicago and Wrigley Field available on Flickr.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field.  Being the baseball junkies that we are, Erik and I felt obligated to attend a game to celebrate this impressive milestone, which we did this past Saturday.  I have taken a pretty hard line in the past on how I think Wrigley is an overrated dump, but it would be stubborn of me to not recognize the historical significance of this anniversary.  Wrigley Field is the 2nd oldest continuously used stadium in the United States - not just in baseball, but in any sport.  Despite what I think of the stadium, it is still amazing for any building to last that long, let alone an outdoor facility exposed to 100 Chicago winters.  As both a baseball fan and as an architect, I was humbled to pay my respects to this palace of our national pastime.

Megan was in tow with me on this trip and we had a long day planned before we got to the ballpark.  We took the Hiawatha Amtrak down from Milwaukee at 8 AM, and already were spotting several visiting Rays fans (who the Cubs were playing that day) at the Intermodal Station.  As we got off at Chicago's Union Station and progressively got closer to the ballpark on the red line, we saw more and more Rays fans at each stop.  It was a sign of a good day to come.  An all but certain path to a good day in Chicago is a stop at Lou Malnati's.  I've probably been to Chicago close to a dozen times in my adult life, and I don't think I've been there one time where I didn't either go to a ballpark or eat deep dish pizza, if not both.  In my mind, there's really no other reason to go there.  We met our good friend Katie at the Lincoln Park location for lunch.  The pie was a lot less dense and thick than I remember, but still delicious.

From there, we took the L another two stops to Addison Street. We went to meet Erik and his girlfriend Katie at the Cubby Bear for a pre-game drink, a must do for any Cubs game.  On the way, I took note of a few changes since my last visit to Wrigley for the Winter Classic five years ago (besides it being 50 degrees warmer).  There is a "new" Captain Morgan Club on Addison where the Harry Caray statue used to be.  Not sure where the statue was moved to or how new the club actually is, but an addition of a bar from which the Cubs can actually make money makes sense given what little space they have to grow.  Moving towards the main gate, it was hard to miss the giant anniversary banners dressing up the front facade.  I couldn't even fit them all in one camera frame from across the street.  The banners served a nice dual effect of being visually stunning, and also covering up having to look at the actual stadium.  On the northwest corner of Clark & Addison, the Cubs have built a new team store called the C-Store.  As with the Captain Morgan Club, it's a nice way for the team to actually make money on merchandise instead of competing with businesses on the street, much like at old Yankee Stadium.  The Cubs have had well-documented troubles getting renovations approved, so they seem to have taken the approach of adding around the stadium as a temporary measure.  This provisional nature is made pretty obvious by the team store being constructed of shipping containers and a tent.  How the city has allowed them to build that pile of junk but not add a couple signs and some team offices is beyond me.

The inside of the ballpark has had some piecemeal sprucing up like the exterior, but nothing too wild.  There was a noticeable increase in the amount of beer and concession offerings.  As with most parks these days, fans are demanding a wide variety of craft beers, but Erik and I were more than content to settle for some refreshing Old Styles after getting shafted at the Cubby Bear.  I had heard that Old Style was getting phased out of the Wrigley due to a new contract with Budweiser, but the petition to bring it back must have worked, because I am happy to report that many stands still sell it under the guise of a "craft beer."  With frosty brews in hand, we made our way to our seats, which were immediately inside the main gate behind home plate.  We had the top row of the lower level, which blocked our view of pretty much everything hit above the outfield wall, but it also kept us in the shade with a nice breeze on this hot afternoon.  The time we did spend in the sun was on a rooftop deck on the upper level above the marquee.  I'm not sure when this was put in, but it's new to me, and I thought it was great.  The couple innings we spent up there was the best part of the day.  It's a really unique setup right above a busy street corner, filled with bars and tables, and featuring nice views of the Chicago skyline.  My only complaint would be that you couldn't see the field from up there, but we didn't miss much as the Cubs ended up losing, 4-0.  The Cubs are loaded with young hitting talent and are on the cusp of being competitive, but for now I will enjoy watching them get beat up for as long as I can.  The game pitted one of the worst pitchers in the league, Edwin Jackson, against former Brewers top prospect Jake Odorizzi, who made his way over to the Rays via the Royals following the Zack Greinke deal.  Odorizzi was dominant and made me wish the Brewers still had him, as he struck out 9 in 6 shutout innings.  Yunel Escobar had 3 RBI in the win, and the Rays' stud closer Jake McGee shut the door by striking out the side in the 9th.  A highlight on the Cubs side was we got to see one of their top prospects, Javier Baez, play in his 5th career game.  He had a typical Baez day, crushing a double sandwiched in between 3 strikeouts.  This kid has a huge swing with a lot of movement, almost like Gary Sheffield plus Carlos Gomez.  It will be interesting to see how it translates to this level and if he needs to make any adjustments.

As I eluded to a few times, I am one of those in the minority who thinks Wrigley Field is a dump.  Yes, I admit a large part of that has to do with being a Brewers fan, and I also understand that it has not been easy for the Cubs to get any sort of significant improvements approved by the Landmarks and Neighborhood commissions.  But I am distinguishing improvements from just standard upkeep.  I'm more just disappointed it has been allowed to get this bad than flat-out disliking the stadium.  I certainly don't know all the facts, but from my perspective it seems like the team has taken the naive approach of "oh, Wrigley will just be here forever, we don't need to maintain it."  There are basic things like paint, updating plumbing, repairing concrete, handicap accessibility, and building clubhouses bigger than my apartment than can probably be addressed outside of the major renovations that are sorely needed.  Urinal troughs and nets to catch falling concrete should not have to exist for a team with as much money as the Cubs.  I think part of the delay of the renovations has not just been the city and the rooftop owners, but also the sensitivity to maintaining the historic feel of the ballpark, which I respect but at the same time it is the 21st century.  The Cubs need look no further than Fenway Park for a perfect example of how to incorporate the new revenue-generating amenities with the old stadium and still having it feel like an old stadium.  The renovation plan being presented to the city looks encouraging and I hope it moves forward, because as much as I enjoyed my time there on Saturday, I do not want to go back until those are complete.  I hate the Cubs and Chicago, and I complain about Wrigley a lot, but it truly is a treasure and it would be a shame if it were allowed to continue to crumble.  As other stadiums will continue to come and go, I hope that Wrigley Field is around another 100 years for my children and grandchildren to enjoy.

park rankings and statistics
(see also original post from 6/26/07): 

aesthetics - 3
views from park – 7
view to field - decreases to 4 (not sure why I ever had it that high - lots of obstructed view)
surrounding area – 10
food variety - increases to 5
nachos - 8
beer - 8

vendor price - decreases to 7
ticket price - 2
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 9
parking price/proximity - decreases to 2 (residential)
concourses - 3
team shop -10 (still primarily outside stadium, new C-Store across the street)

best food – Chicago style dog
most unique stadium feature – hand-operated scoreboard, ivy on outfield wall
best jumbotron feature – the fact that they have one now...sort of
best between-inning feature – celebrity leads crowd in "Take me out to the Ballgame"

field dimensions – 355/400/353
starters – Jake Odorizzi (TB) v. Edwin Jackson (CHC)
opponent – Tampa Bay Rays
time of game – 3:06
attendance – 36739
score – 4-0 L

Brewers score that day – 4-1 W

Brewers 67-55, +2.0, (3 @ Dodgers, 2 v. Blue Jays)
Reds 60-61, -6.5 (4 @ Rockies, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 54-65, -11.5 (4 v. Royals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 6 (+22 worked)

Peter - 34

Friday, August 8, 2014

U.S. Steel Yard

All photos of U.S. Steel Yard available on Flickr.

The Gary SouthShore Railcats are a team I've been putting off going to see for as long as I can remember, despite them playing only a couple hours from Milwaukee.  When you grow up that close to Gary, you hear many stories about how the city does not exactly have a sterling reputation.  Quite honestly, I have been afraid to go there by myself.  I've probably driven through Gary dozens of times on the way to and from Cincinnati when I went to school there and always made a point never to stop in town.  Luckily, I have a friend now who is from the Gary area...well, "luckily" is a strong word...let's say conveniently.  I have a friend who conveniently lives near Gary and knows the area, so I was finally able to go to a game with her this past Sunday.  

We rolled into town from Kristen's parents' house in nearby Griffith at around 4:15 for a 5:00 game, so we had a little bit of time to drive around the city.  I have to say that I'm really glad I came here with somebody, because everything you've heard about Gary is completely true.  Boarded up and decaying buildings, entire retail streets abandoned, roads in disrepair, and slums as far as the eye can see.  Had we not been there during the day I'm sure we would have seen much worse.  I felt incredibly unsafe, but even moreso, it was just depressing.  Gary was once a boomtown during the heyday of the steel industry, but today is just a faint glimmer of its former self.  I almost felt bad that the city had such a nice stadium as the Steel Yard, because I'm sure they could have used that $10 million in so many better ways, at the very least some development around the ballpark's urban site.  But I guess a city doesn't fall this far from grace without the help of a little financial mismanagement.  Political commentary aside, I was still excited for the game - it was perfect weather for baseball and I had $40 in winnings on me to blow from a bags tournament victory the day before.  I briefly considered buying a downtown highrise with my money, but instead stayed on task and purchased two front row seats.

The U.S. Steel Yard takes its name from the once prosperous steel industry in the region, and it is actually situated just south of the one remaining refinery, right on the other side of I-90 and the Metra line.  The park is sunken below the street level to the south, and the freeway is elevated to the north behind a very tall outfield wall, giving it the feel of a sort of bunker.  This arrangement seemed to fit well with the site - it's probably one park you don't want connectivity and views, so the "bunker" made it feel protected from the outside world (or in this case, downtown Gary).  One of the most obvious oddities about the Steel Yard is the glaring lack of...well, steel.  For a park, team, and city celebrating the steel industry, the material was noticeably absent.  There is a little bit of exposed framework at the main entry, but even in this instance it was merely aesthetic not structural.  The brick they used instead isn't completely out of place in context; it does fit with other buildings in the area.  But if you're going to mortgage the city's future on a ballpark AND acquire naming rights from the steel industry, it kind of seems like a missed opportunity not to showcase steel more prominently.  This ballpark more than many could have justified a break from the retro mold, but unfortunately played it safe with a very standard design.  The inside also is not unlike many parks of its size and age, with a deck of seats wrapping from pole to pole, some berm and group areas in the corners, and a suite/pressbox level above the open concourse.  The branding and food selection were both pretty bland.  I went in not expecting a whole lot from an independent league stadium, so overall I can't say I was disappointed, but it certainly was not memorable either.  The atmosphere, our awesome seats, and of course the good company managed to make up for the park's deficiencies and I still had a great time in Gary, which I never thought I would say in my life.

The visiting Saltdogs defeated the Railcats behind a gutsy performance by starter Marquis Fleming and a 3-hit day by centerfielder Jon Gaston, a player Kristen and I nicknamed Jontanamo Bay given his grizzly appearance.  Fleming didn't light up the radar gun and his stat line wouldn't jump off the page, but he shook himself out of a number of jams and pitched into the 7th inning, one of the better independent league pitching performances I've seen.  Gaston had 4 RBI including a homerun on the night and was the clear offensive star of the game.  Dustin Crenshaw struggled in the start for the home team, giving up 10 hits and 4 runs in 6 innings and a lot of hard hit outs as well.  Lanky CF Drew Muren was the only player that earned his paycheck for the hometeam with 3 hits out of the 9-hole.  Kristen and I had an affinity for the little 2nd baseman for the hometeam, Danny Pulfer, who is currently 2nd on the team in hitting, and a mohawked reliever for the visiting team named Conor Spink.  We actually sat right by the visiting bullpen and Kristen went and talked to him for awhile so she could see the mohawk, which was pretty glorious.

With this visit, I have now attended every professional ballpark within 3 hours of southern Wisconsin, as far as I know.  It's now time to spread my ballpark chasing outward and get a little bit more ambitious.  I'm probably done visiting new parks this year, but I sense trips to southwest Michigan and Indianapolis in the cards for 2015.  As for this year, Tour 2014 concludes this weekend with a game at historic Wrigley Field!

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 2
views from park – 3 (freeway and rail lines)
view to field - 10
surrounding area – 0 (downtown Gary)
food variety - 5
nachos - 7 (taco fixins)
beer - 6

vendor price - 6
ticket price - 8 ($9 front row)
atmosphere - 8
walk to park – 1
parking price/proximity - 9 (free adjacent lot)
concourses - 6 (discontinuous, not active)
team shop - 5

best food – Maxwell St polish sausage
most unique stadium feature – freeway/Metra line beyond OF wall
best jumbotron feature – an array of wacky cat videos
best between-inning feature – shortest game of "Simon Says" of all time

field dimensions – 320/400/335
starters – Marquis Fleming (LIN) v. Dustin Crenshaw (GAR)
opponent – Lincoln Saltdogs
time of game – 3:07
attendance – 3041
score – 5-3 L

Brewers score that day – 3-2 L

Brewers 63-52, +1.0, (3 v. Dodgers, 4 @ Cubs)
Reds 59-56, -4.0 (3 v. Marlins, 2 v. Red Sox)
Twins 51-62, -11.5 (4 @ Athletics, 3 @ Astros)

Erik - 6 (+22 worked)

Peter - 31