Monday, June 22, 2015

GCS Ballpark

All photos of GCS Ballpark available on Flickr.

Ballpark #2 of my weekend was across the river from St. Louis for an independent league game.  It was about a 5-hour drive down to Collinsville, Illinois to check into my surprisingly nice hotel room.  How far we've come since the Tour - even Super 8s are fancy now and cost $75.  I relaxed for awhile and watched the last inning of Max Scherzer's should-have-been-a perfect game, and then drove the additional 15 miles to the ballpark.  Why did I stay so far out of town?  Because this ballpark is in Sauget, IL, or in other words, East St. Louis.  Anybody who knows anything about crime rates in America (or has seen the movie "Vacation") knows that East St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the country, by quite an impressive margin.  After going to #2 Gary last year, I might have to plan a trip to Detroit in 2016 to complete the trifecta.  I'm not sure what the story is of why Sauget broke off from East St. Louis, but I'm sure the association with crime was a big reason.  It's a pretty interesting little town in that it has less than 200 people but somehow boasts a professional ballpark and a major airport.  Perhaps the fact that the mayor owns the team and the town takes his family name has a little something to do with that.

But I didn't drive all this way on a danger-seeking mission or a political investigation.  Frankly, baseball wasn't even the top reason - it was the food.  I know of this ballpark primarily from Adam Richman's gastronomical excursion there for his former show "Man v. Food."  In that episode before one of his ridiculous eating challenges, he stuffed his fat face with a bacon cheeseburger utilizing a Krispy Kreme donut as the bun.  Since the media attention gained from Richman's visit, the team has continued to up their game and now claims to have the best food in baseball.  They even have a concession stand arrogantly titled the "Baseball's Best Stand."  I had to see what all the fuss was about for myself.  I tried the donut hamburger ("Baseball's Best Burger") and it was perfectly delicious.  When you think of outrageous ballpark foods these days, in your mind you are probably thinking of something the size of a plate that costs a day's pay.  This burger was of normal human size and only $5, and also surprisingly easy to eat, all of which I liked.  Later in the game I tried the "Baseball's Best Nachos" with queso cheese and ground up steak, also delicious.  Both of these items were up near the top for me in each category.  Now I have to brave one more trip down there to try the "Baseball's Best Cake Bites" (are there any other ones?) and the "Baseball's Best Hot Dog."  I somehow had room in my stomach for a beer as well, and even that was amazing - they have those cups here that fill from the bottom.  There is a hole in the cup with a magnet and when depressed on the dispenser, it fills a 16oz cup in less than 5 seconds with zero waste and very little foam.  Maybe not the best system for a beer snob, but when you're talking about bottom-line speed and profit, it is something that should be installed at every ballpark.

As for the ballpark itself, the one thing I was looking for with a team called the Gateway Grizzlies across the river from the Gateway City was...well, a gateway.  And the entry delivered that.  Nothing too over-the-top like Joliet, to use a comparison from another Frontier League team, but it got its point across and was the defining physical feature of the park.  Other items of note were a very nice outfield berm in right field and a second-level private deck.  A lot of parks this size have these, but the berm was very low to the field behind a short wall, so it was very close to the action, and the second level was open to the back so a fan up there was able to enjoy the weather while still being covered.  Other more standard features were a kids area in left and a picnic pavilion behind the first base grandstand.  Overall a very intimate park that compares favorably with other independent league stadiums, and it was a comfortable enclosed setting despite being surrounded by miles of empty land.  The surrounding area is in fact so vacant that you can clearly see the St. Louis skyline from the parking lot, even on a 90-degree hazy day like Saturday was.  My biggest complaint about the park would be the viewing angles.  The grandstand pitch was much too shallow, and the seats by the right field pole where I sat were rotated awkwardly.

The game pitted the cellar-dwelling Grizzlies against the Windy City Thunderbolts.  Max Schonfeld got the start for the Grizz and was bludgeoned with singles and baserunners over his 6 innings of work but somehow gave up only 3 runs and kept his team in the game.  Things became unraveled for both teams after that, as 11 of the total 17 runs were scored from the bottom of the 6th on.  Ben Waldrip ran into one for the home team as part of a 5-run 6th.  Waldrip is a perfect example of the kind of guy you see a lot in independent league baseball - he looks the part, and maybe has one or two good tools, but then you see the 250 pound guy try to run or field and you understand why he's not signed anywhere.  Despite the T-Bolts getting a guy to 3rd base with less than 2 outs in the 9th - and by the crowd reaction they have seen this before - Brett Zawacki managed to wiggle his way out with the save.  Obviously the pitching and defense were terrible in this game, but I was impressed with the batting averages I saw (and in the Saints game a couple of weeks ago too for that matter).  It is interesting to me that where Major League Baseball is now with so many dominating pitchers that none of these hitters are getting a look; I did not see any scouts.

Because of all the league shifts over the last 5 years, I've now crested the hill and seen 8 of the 14 Frontier League stadiums.  If I ever get back to suburban St. Louis to see the team in O'Fallon, I will have completed the west division.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 7
views from park – 1 (which is probably for the best)
view to field - 5 (poor viewing angles)
surrounding area – 0 (East St Louis)
food variety - 9
nachos - 9
beer - 8 (bonus points for filling system, but points deducted for only Busch products)

vendor price - 8
ticket price - 8 ($7 GA)
atmosphere - 7
walk to park – 4 (nice view of St. Louis)
parking price/proximity - 10 (adjacent lot for free)
concourses - 7
team shop - 8

best food – donut bacon cheeseburger, a.k.a. "Baseball's Best Burger"
most unique stadium feature – the food
best jumbotron feature – they had one but nothing of note occurred on it.
best between-inning feature – watching Grizzlies bullpen try to toss quarters in cups of water

field dimensions – 318/385/301
starters – Danny Jimenez (WC) v. Max Schonfeld (GAT)
opponent – Windy City Thunderbolts
time of game – 3:00
attendance – 4564
score – 9-8 W

Brewers score that day – 5-1 L

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