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

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