Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ballpark of the Future

(image is rendering of new Braves Stadium, courtesy of Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Andrew Seligman of the Associated Press wrote a provocative article about a month ago on the future of the modern ballpark.  In it, he argues that with the rapid changes in technology and the need to cater more to the millennial crowd - something seen in just about every business - baseball will be coming a more and more digital, personal, and interactive experience.  I won't regurgitate the entire article - you can read it yourself here - but I just thought it was something interesting that readers of this blog might find interesting as well. 

The fact is, almost every single ballpark in the major leagues now has been built in the last 20 years, and for the most part have followed the same basic template - retro style, urban/walkable neighborhood, intimate, focus on fan experiential qualities.  In about 10 years we're going to start talking about replacing or majorly upgrading all of these facilities in the same cycle.  Maybe this starts with the new Braves Stadium opening in 2017, I don't know...but there will need to be a serious dialogue about what the "ballpark of the future" will look like, and this article I think is a good indicator of the challenges that will be faced.  I think you will start to see parks that are readily adaptable and perhaps even a new exploration of the multi-purpose facility, something that could anchor and serve a city for years to come.  With the amount of public money that is bonded and taxed for new ballparks, and with how fast they become obsolete, I believe it will only be a matter of time before an inventive new solution for a shared stadium comes back to the front burner.  Seligman argues for a stadium that is adaptable for 300+ day a year use with interchangeable displays, facades, and graphics with a complex digital interface.  That to me is a fancy way of saying multi-use stadium, whether that means multiple sports or just multiple civic uses, or both.  With how social and interactive baseball is, it seems like the first of the major sports that can take on this concept of the modern stadium, and as both a fan and as an architect, I am excited to see what the future holds.  I am absolutely positive that Miller Park will need to be replaced at some point in my lifetime, and I hope by then we have a better understanding of what a 21st century sports venue should be, and how it should serve the fans and citizens of a city.

Brewers 16-30, -13.5 (3 v. Giants, 3 v. Diamondbacks)
Reds 18-26, -10.5 (3 v. Rockies, 3 v. Nationals
Twins 26-18, -2.0 (3 v. Red Sox, 3 v. Blue Jays)

Erik - 11 (+6 worked)

Peter - 13

Monday, May 18, 2015

Living Like Champions in Minneapolis

All photos of Champions Club @ Target Field available on Flickr.

As any avid reader may remember, there were some dark years of my life when I was holed up in Waterloo, Iowa for a job.  I made the best out of that unfortunate situation and ended up making a really good group of friends, and I am very blessed that we still get together a couple times a year.  This past weekend we met up in Minneapolis where my friend Kyle lives now, and the weekend culminated with seats in probably the coolest place I've ever been in a ballpark, in what was already one of my favorite ballparks - the Champions Club at Target Field.  My friend Justin scored these seats through his company, and we took full advantage in every way of living like "the one-percenters" for an afternoon for free.

The Champions Club is not unlike the Gehl Club at Miller Park, the 755 Club at Turner Field, or any other private all-inclusive area, but what sets the club level apart here is that it is right behind home plate on the ground level.  It combines the experience of a ballgame and a Las Vegas casino buffet.  For those who are more interested in the game, there are comfortable high-back chairs and a waitstaff with 12 rows of seats directly behind home plate, and for those who just want to indulge and be pampered, the club room is only a short walk down a flight of stairs.  I tried to take in a little of both - it was hard to pass up watching as much of the game as I could from seats that good, but at the same time, there was a table with giant bowls of steak and bacon about 200 feet away.  Had I not had to drive 5 hours home after the game, I probably would have been pounding beers two at a time as well.  Everything was included and unlimited, and I also got the impression that if by the off-chance they didn't have something on the regular menu that you wanted, they would have made it for you for a price.

In the post from my original visit to Target Field, I talked about how the stadium architects had the challenge of trying to fit like 10 acres of stuff on 7 acres of site, and a consequence of this is that a lot of the sidewalks and plazas around the stadium cantilever over streets and parking lots.  The Champions Club has a special parking lot with valet service that I would never have known about had I not had tickets here, because it is basically underneath the main level of the stadium.  You feel like you're entering under a freeway overpass and it really contributes to the exclusive concept of this area.  Once inside, there is a little room that I can only describe as having the aesthetics of an old supper club or country club - lots of wood, display cases, groupings of lounge furniture around televisions, and a team store.  To add even further to the prestige of the Champions Club, the 1987 and 1991 World Series trophies can be found here.  This area then opens into the main buffet hall and large bar area.  We each had about 2 full plates of food here, fistfuls of candy, some ice cold Grain Belts, and even got our picture with T.C. Bear.  He was being urged by his handlers to hurry up because he had a pregame parade to lead, but T.C. always has time for his fans, which is part of what makes him the best mascot in the major leagues.

What we did watch of the game got out of hand pretty quickly for the Twins, who have actually been playing surprisingly well under first-year manager Paul Molitor.  They were going for the sweep against the Rays and ended up losing 11-3.  Staff ace Chris Archer got the ball for Tampa Bay and gave up only 4 hits and 1 run over 6 innings.  It started to rain in the 8th so we left, but by that time the outcome was pretty much already decided.  Joe Mauer had his customary RBI single and it was really great to see ol' T-Nutts back in uniform for Minnesota where he belongs.  He doesn't run well anymore but that guy looks like he could still play at least another 3 years.  I will be making a return trip to Target Field in about 3 weeks as part of a Twin Cities doubleheader, and plan on being first in line for the Torii Hunter giveaway jersey.  

Brewers 14-25, -11.5 (3 @ Tigers, 4 @ Braves)
Reds 18-20, -7.0 (2 @ Royals, 3 @ Indians
Twins 21-17, -3.0 (2 @ Pirates, 3 @ White Sox)

Erik - 3 (+5 worked)

Peter - 12

Monday, May 11, 2015

Craig Counsell Named New Manager of Brewers

Following a utterly disastrous 6-18 start to the season, and in actuality, embarrassing play since mid-August of last year, the Brewers finally decided to relieve Ron Roenicke of his managerial duties last week Sunday.  Less than 12 hours later, the Brewers already had named his successor in a morning press conference - former Brewer player and 16-year MLB veteran Craig Counsell, who had been working as a special assistant under the tutelage of Doug Melvin since his retirement following the 2011 season.  This appears to be far from a PR move or a temporary position, as he was signed to a 3-year deal.  In hiring Counsell, the Brewers are following the current trend in MLB of hiring a young manager with no prior experience at any level.

I won't elaborate on the Brewers being terrible - we know they are terrible and I already expounded on this a couple of weeks ago.  My opinion related to this specific move is that there really could not be a much better choice for this team and this situation than Craigers.  Paraphrasing what Ryan Braun said after the news broke, there is really nobody that more exemplifies the Milwaukee Brewers, outside of Bob Uecker, than Craig Counsell.  He knows this organization better than anybody with all the time he spent here as a player and in the front office.  I don't think it is a coincidence that so many managers such as Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, and Matt Williams are enjoying success in their first gig as a manager - they are not that far removed from playing and can relate to the players of today with a fresh perspective.  I think Counsell has a great chance to enjoy the same success for the same reasons.  To me, the hiring of Craigers and signing him to a 3 year deal is the first domino to fall, and an all but sure sign that the Brewers are in for the upside-down rebuild I have been clamoring for.  The upper management could just as easily have signed a high-profile name like Ron Gardenhire or Bobby Valentine only to sell tickets and signal to fans that they are still looking to win this year, no matter how unrealistic that would be.  No proven manager would ever walk into a mid-season gig to not be competitive.  Hiring a younger unproven guy who knows the farm system really well, coupled with a general manager whose contract expires at the end of the year, says that Mark Attanasio is in this for the long haul and ready to make the hard decisions that will be good for the future of the franchise - namely, trading away all assets and perhaps finding a new progressive General Manager.

At worst, Counsell will be a fresh voice who makes the rest of the season exciting for the fans and players, and perhaps is only a stopgap until more changes in the offseason.  At best, Counsell will be around through a robust rebuild, and by the end of his contract, some of our high-ceiling talent in A/AA, as well as potential prospects from trades, will be up and the Brewers will be an exciting team again.  Either way it's a resume builder for Craig and it's a win-win for the organization.  For the first time in a couple years, I am excited for the future of the franchise.

Brewers 11-21, -11.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 @ Mets)
Reds 15-16, -7.0 (3 v. Braves, 4 v. Giants)
Twins 18-14, -2.5 (3 @ Tigers, 3 v. Rays)

Erik - 2 (+5 worked)

Peter - 10

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Victory Field

All photos of Indianapolis and Victory Field available on Flickr.

This year's semi-annual, semi-spontaneous "it's been Spring for awhile but it's still 40 degrees and I need to get the hell out of here and watch outdoor ball" trip took us to Indianapolis, Indiana.  Slowly but surely, the radius of ballparks I've visited surrounding Milwaukee has been widening, and I'm starting to reach into destinations that require me to stay overnight.  Megan and I left Saturday morning and 4 1/2 hours later arrived at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis.  We bought tickets and checked into our hotel a couple blocks away, and I couldn't help but stop and think for a minute, as I stared out the window from our 10th floor room, just how far I've come since the sleazy motels of the original Tour.  Just across the street, we stopped at a patio bar to hustle down a pregame drink, and in the process shared some laughs watching hoards of gaudy teenagers walk by on the way to their prom.  We arrived at the ballpark around 6:30 for a 7:05 first pitch.

Upon arrival, we soon realized why there was a huge line waiting to get in when we got into town - Wade Boggs was signing autographs.  I'm definitely not one of those fans who likes to hassle players off the field, but Boggs in particular I've always wanted to ask if the legend of him drinking 64 beers on a transcontinental flight was true.  However, in true Wade Boggs fashion, I chose to spend my time waiting in line for a cold one instead.  Megan and I both enjoyed a local Sun King Brewery beer called Indians Lager, and as far as beers go that are brewed specially for a ballpark, this one tops my list.  We paired our adult beverages with rather unimpressive fries and sandwiches, and did a quick lap around the ballpark before gametime.

Victory Field opened for business about 20 years ago as the cornerstone of a large downtown Indy revitalization project.  On the surface it is very clean and beautiful, but because of its age lacks some of the amenities that people have come to expect from modern ballparks.  For example, there is only one small standing room bar / specialty food area in the entire stadium, in left field; everything else is served at concessions stands or carts.  A standard minor league park nowadays is laden with various fan interaction zones, party decks, grills with crazy food items, and picnic areas, like the park in Charlotte we visited last year.  The downside of this at Victory Field is a lack interesting nodes in the ballpark, but the upside is a generous and peaceful centerfield promenade with a full wraparound berm and nearly uninterrupted views.  This walkway culminates at a grand centerfield plaza, which is flanked by the main gate to the northeast, a grove of trees in the batters eye to the southwest, and concession stands and carnival games to the sides (which are meant for children but we played anyways).  If this ballpark was built today, that avenue would have been lined with high-top seating, a shack serving six different types of bacon cheeseburgers, and the plaza would have had a huge bar with TVs, and the ambiance would have been completely different.  Not necessarily better or worse, but certainly not unique.  Speaking of unique, this stadium was also built at a time when AAA stadiums had a much larger seating capacity, so there is a full 2nd deck here that is atypical of minor league parks today.  We sat up here and really enjoyed it - you get a great view of the city yet still feel close to the action despite being higher up.  Nothing about this park really stands out or is particularly glamorous, but it is a very comfortable and spacious place to watch a ballgame, particularly on the first 70-degree night I have felt in 8 months.  A ballpark in a dense urban area doesn't need much to achieve a great sense of place, and I think they pulled this off quite well in Indianapolis.

The night's matchup was a battle of Pennsylvania farm clubs, as the Indians hosted the dismal Lehigh Valley IronPigs.  I recognized quite a few players in the lineups from their time in the majors, including Brian Bogusevic, Jordan Danks, Dominic Brown, Jose Tabata, Steve Lombardozzi, and the Indians' starter Chris Volstad.  At the time, I was wondering how some of these players were not good enough to make the Phillies roster given how awful they are, but now that I see their record going into Saturday's game was 6-18, I guess that answers my question.  Volstad stumbled through 6 innings for Indy, giving up 5 runs, including a booming homerun to the aforementioned Bogusevic.  The I-Pigs actually managed to carry a 5-3 lead going into the 9th, but the Indians had some fight left in them and rallied for the 6-5 walkoff victory.  Perhaps the most unlikely of candidates to win the game was the .136-hitting Brent Morel, but he did just that with a 2-run, 2-out single for the home team.  And that's why you never leave a game early!

Following that thrilling ending, Megan and I explored downtown Indy a little bit.  We were directed to Georgia Street by one of the beer vendors and it was definitely the place to be downtown.  We sat and enjoyed some drinks outside at an Irish bar and walked around to a few other places, trying our best to find bars not charging $10 for the stupid boxing match.  I was extremely impressed with downtown Indianapolis and had no idea it would be as big, as clean, or as lively (now I know how visitors must feel when they leave Milwaukee).  My only complaint would be there are far too many chain restaurants and bars from what little of the city we did see.  I mean, seriously, there's a Hard Rock CafĂ©?  I didn't even know those still existed.  On Sunday, we had brunch at a fantastic little scratch brunch place called Milktooth and swung by the Indians' former home, Bush Stadium, before hitting the road back to Wisconsin.  We both arrived home exhausted, yet glad we went and wishing we would have spent an extra night.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 5 (entrance is in the back of the stadium)
views from park – 8 (Indy skyline)
view to field - 10
surrounding area – 9 (downtown Indy)
food variety - 2
nachos - 5
beer - 5 (one local brewery, $7.25 for 16 oz)

vendor price - 8
ticket price - 2 ($16 and for some reason upper deck is same price as lower deck)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 8
parking price/proximity - 3 (lots close but expensive)
concourses - 9
team shop - 8 (two mid-size ones, lots of retro gear)

best food – anything from "The Cove"
most unique stadium feature – main entry is in centerfield
best jumbotron feature – graphics for "Star Wars Night"
best between-inning feature – Chick-fil-A Cows Race

field dimensions – 320/402/320
starters – Adam Morgan (LHV) v. Chris Volstad (IND)
opponent – Lehigh Valley IronPigs
time of game – 2:33
attendance – 9620
score – 6-5 W

Brewers score that day – 6-1 W

Brewers 8-18, -11.5 (4 v. Dodgers, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 13-13, -6.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 @ White Sox)
Twins 14-12, -3.0 (4 v. Athletics, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 2 (+4 worked)

Peter - 8