Monday, July 27, 2015

Biloxi Shuckers Begin Season on 55-Game Roadtrip

This is kind of an old story at this point, but for those who do not know, the minor-league Biloxi Shuckers recently completed a 55-game roadtrip to start their season this year.  A very long story short: the team had moved this year from Hunstville, Alabama to Biloxi and was promised a new stadium by the city in time for the 2015 season, but a variety of delays due to budget and contractor issues pushed the opening back to June 6th.  In any other situation involving a new ballpark and a delay, this wouldn't be a big deal, but since the team was moving and its lease was up in Huntsville, it forced the Shuckers to essentially live as hobos for 2 months, driving around to different cities in the Southern League while living out of hotels and suitcases.  There is a lot of finger pointing and liquidated damages that go along with this - as would be the case in any construction project that did not meet a deadline - but the fact that it is a ballpark and a primarily publicly-financed ballpark at that, this has been much more prominent in industry circles.  What makes it an even better story is that through all of the adversity, the team still somehow managed to win the first half title, despite not having any fans to celebrate that achievement with.  ESPN actually did a nice piece on their tribulations, which was really when this story started picking up national media attention. 

I've been following this for quite some time before that, not only because I am a ballpark enthusiast, but because Biloxi is the Double-A affiliate of the Brewers.  Much like my trip to Nashville this year, I have been waiting for the team to get out of their s***hole stadium before I visited.  MGM Park is still far from being complete; they barely squeaked by with a temporary occupancy permit and continue to finish things while the team is away.  But with this saga nearly behind the team and the city, I look forward to a future visit.  The new Braves stadium is less than two years away, and Biloxi might very well get rolled into an Erik + Peter 10-year anniversary "Dirty South" Tour.

Brewers 43-56, -20.5, -11.5 WC (3 @ Giants, 4 v. Cubs)
Reds 43-53, -19.0, -10.0 WC (3 @ Cardinals, 4 v. Pirates
Twins 52-46, -7.5, +3.0 WC (2 v. Pirates, 4 v. Mariners)

Erik - 13 (+14 worked)

Peter - 30

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hardball Passport

In the early days of Facebook, there used to be an attached app called "Stadium Tour."  On it you could log not only every baseball stadium you've been to, but every arena, every stadium for any sport you can think of, at all levels, including ones that were no longer in use.  It was the most comprehensive stadium tally I've ever seen and one that Erik and I used quite frequently to wage war against each other.  Well, that app went the way of the dodo quite some time ago, and since then much to my shock and dismay, I have not found anything even close to it.  With all of the people that tour stadiums particularly ballparks I could not believe not even one person had thought to develop an app beyond just the 30 MLB teams.  I've been tracking all of my ballparks on a Word document like some sort of caveman. 

I finally discovered something pretty comprehensive called Hardball Passport.  It plays off of the popular MLB passport books that came out a while ago that you can get physically stamped at a ballpark.  This particular website goes even further and offers a database of games that goes back 40 years in which you can track game results, stats, and every park that has been open since then.  It has all current MLB and MiLB parks on it, as well as many defunct ones.  By "checking in" to certain ballparks and in certain quantities, you can unlock many badges or stamps, say for instance visiting every park in California, or all 30 MLB teams.  You can set up challenges to keep yourself on task for ballparks to visit - in my case, I have 4 parks left of 16 in the Midwest League.  You can plan roadtrips on it because all of the team schedules are at your fingertips; it certainly would have been nice to have this for our 2007 tour.  The coolest part and the advantage of having this online rather than paper form is the database available to you at all times.  I know what the Brewers record was in all games I have attended, what the best hitters were of all my visits, and I can see how many times I have been to each park all at the click of a mouse.

No college, summer collegiate, or spring training parks yet, so I still need my Word document, but it is still a cool website for anybody who is a ballpark chaser like myself.

Brewers 38-52, -18.5 (3 v. Pirates, 2 v. Indians, 4 @ Diamondbacks)
Reds 39-47, -15.5 (3 v. Indians, 4 v. Cubs, 3 @ Rockies
Twins 49-40, -4.5 (3 @ Athletics, 3 @ Angels, 3 v. Yankees)

Erik - 13 (+14 worked)

Peter - 28

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tour 2015: First Tennessee Park

All photos of Nashville, Lynchburg, Jack Daniel's Distillery, and First Tennessee Park available on Flickr.

My big vacation of the year took me to the mid-South, centered around the new Nashville Sounds ballpark.  The origins of this trip go back many years, during the decade when Nashville hosted the Brewers' top affiliate.  Really all I was waiting for was the team to move out of Greer Stadium, which was widely considered the worst ballpark in the Pacific Coast League.  An announcement of a new stadium and a rave review of the city by my brother all but sealed the deal to start planning this last year.  However, with a new park and a great city comes some clout in the affiliate shuffle game, and unfortunately the Sounds booted the Brewers as their parent club in September, but that did not deter me.  It just so happened that the Brewers new AAA club in Colorado Springs was playing in Nashville over the holiday weekend, so the timing couldn't have been better.  I brought my fiancée and parents along for a nice family roadtrip.  I don't think I've been in a car with anybody that for that long since the Tour, but after 9+ hours of driving we made it to our destination in one piece a little after 4pm on Wednesday. 

We rented a charming mini-Victorian home in East Nashville near the Five Points neighborhood and couldn't have asked for a better setup.  We were surrounded by a nice bar and restaurant area where the locals go, but yet we were also only a couple miles from the downtown.  It was the best of both worlds and the first night we explored the more intimate neighborhood side of the city, which included the best meal of the trip at a place called The Local Taco.  Thursday was the day we went to the Sounds game.  We started the day off by hitting just about every establishment on Broadway downtown.  Broadway is kind of like Beale Street in Memphis - it's a dense street full of tourist bars and shops, and every one of them has live music all day every day in which the artists work for free just for the exposure (and tips of course).  Except in Nashville, it is obviously country music instead of blues.  The street is bookended by the Cumberland River to the east, and the Predators NHL arena to the west, and we spent a good 6 hours there.  The walk to the park was an additional mile just north of the state capitol.  Had we not gotten in line super early for the star-spangled sunglasses giveaway, we would have gotten absolutely soaked to the bone by rain.  There were scattered pop-up showers most of the week we were there (and most of the summer in the south from what I gather), and a large cell passed through just before gametime, delaying the start by a half-hour.  Fortunately it was also Thirsty Thursday, so this just gave us extra time to enjoy $2 beers under the protection of the concourse.

First Tennessee Park sits on arguably one of the most historic sites in all of baseball, Sulphur Dell.  It was the site of the original Nashville ballpark built in 1870 that stood for nearly a century, and even before that was home to amateur baseball played by early settlers and traders.  After 37 seasons at Herschel Greer Stadium, baseball finally returned to the site this year.  It can be reasonably estimated that baseball in some form has been played in Nashville for over 160 years, and First Tennessee Park is continuing that lineage.  Unfortunately, I did not notice that much at the ballpark in the way of celebrating and depicting this history.  There are a few references to Sulphur Dell on some signs and concessions stands, but other than that I didn't notice any sort of plaque or timeline.  Unless I just didn't notice it, this seems like a missed opportunity by the team for something truly unique in a stadium that already isn't very memorable - more on that to follow.

Because of where the stadium is situated in town and the direction it faces, most people as of right now are approaching the park from the outfield or 1st base side of the stadium, even though the main gate is behind homeplate.  This seems like a nuance that will be fixed once the area around the stadium gets built up a little bit more - as with a lot of new parks these days, a "ballpark village" of sorts seems to be in construction on adjacent blocks.  But as for now, it just meant extra walking.  You can't fault the park for being oriented a certain way because the field is required to face east, but First Tennessee Park at least seems to recognize this deficiency and puts its two really interesting elements - the bar/game area and the guitar-shaped scoreboard - in the right field corner to pique your interest right off the bat.  The scoreboard was a vestige from old Greer Stadium (albeit a newer model) and is definitely what the Sounds are famous for.  Aside from that, the park did not really have anything memorable, inside or out.  The front entry is nice, but the façade is so long it seems like more of an arena than a ballpark.  The interior was pretty bland and unassuming, and as I mentioned before, not a lot of history talking about Sulphur Dell other than a sign in left field proclaiming it to be "baseball's most historic park."  There is a fine line from a ballpark being too distracting and too unoriginal, and First Tennessee Park decided to flirt with the more conservative side of that line.  I will say that the really nice part of the park that I mentioned - the bar in right field called "The Band Box" - is almost cool enough by itself to be an identity for the ballpark.  It's so much of a node that draws people in that you almost don't need that much else in the park - so large in fact that it carves into the field substantially, making it only 310' down the line.  There is a lawn area with bags and ping pong set up, a nice couch area with TVs, a gigantic bar, picnic benches, a standing rail along the fence with a view of the field, and some tiered outfield seating.  It feels like a tavern establishment outside of the stadium that just happens to have a nice view of the field, and it is one of the best public bar areas I have experienced.  When I go to games with my family, we have been known to throw back quite a few and spend a lot of time schmoozing the bartenders, so this was an ideal spot for the Nagels.  Megan made friends quickly with a number of employees, including the head bartender who introduced us to one of the most delicious beverages I have ever had at a ballpark - a whiskey & coke slushie.  They were so good that we immediately began plotting how we would make them for a future Brewers tailgate.  Outside of the bar area, there was a fairly diverse concessions variety, but very expensive - the regular price of beer was even more expensive here than Miller Park.  And only one hot chicken stand in Nashville would be like having only one cheesesteak stand in Philadelphia.

The game pitted the Brewers' former AAA affiliate against its current one, and the visiting Sky Sox lineup was full of former Brewer players. Three hitters and three pitchers in the game - Logan Schafer, Elian Herrera, Matt Clark, Hiram Burgos, Rob Wooten, and David Goforth - had all seen time with the Crew in the last year and a half.  Also in the lineup were journeyman Pete Orr, recently promoted infield prospect Yadiel Rivera, and Matt Dominguez, who was a former Astros top prospect picked up off of waivers a few weeks ago.  Perhaps the most intriguing face I saw on the team was Jim Henderson.  He saved 28 games for the Brewers in 2013, but since then has been battling shoulder issues and is still attempting a comeback in the minor leagues after being outrighted off of the roster earlier this year.  He did not see any action in the game but that did not stop me from sneaking some closeup photos of his beard in the dugout from our 4th row seat.  The Sky Sox ended up hanging on for a 4-3 victory.  Burgos was adequate, giving up 3 runs over 4 innings, but just as with the big league squad this year, the bullpen bailed him out to allow the offense back in the game.  David Goforth looked particularly impressive, striking out the side in the 7th.  The only two guys I had not heard of on the team - Nevin Ashley and Robinzon Diaz - each had 3 hits for Colorado Springs.  Joey Wendle was the player of the game for the Sounds, going 2-5 with a homerun.  It was weird to root against the Sounds, but still an enjoyable game.

We spent an additional two days in Nashville after Thursday night's game.  On Friday we made the 70-mile drive south to Adult Disney World, aka Jack Daniel's Distillery.  This was clearly the best part of the trip for my mom, and I also enjoyed it immensely.  I'm more of a beer drinker and am used to brewery tours, so it was interesting to take my first distillery tour and see how whiskey was made.  It was also very neat that it was broken up into many old buildings in a secluded wooded campus.  Ironically, the most famous brand of whiskey in the world is made in Moore County, which has been dry since 1909.  Through some sort of loophole, we were still able to partake in some samples, and it made the day worth it.  On Saturday we had grand aspirations to get a good seat for the downtown fireworks, which are supposed to be largest display in the country (although Madison also claims this title).  However, much like the rest of the week, it rained most of the day and we called it an early night after drinking in a smaller area of downtown called Printers Alley, a little north of Broadway.  We did get to go on an old-time steamboat in the afternoon up and down the Cumberland which was very cool - particularly because they had a bar with souvenir cups - but the river was about 10 feet higher than normal so we did not get to go all the way downtown.

I know I can speak for Megan and my folks when I say we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Music City.  I definitely would recommend to any potential visitors to stay, or at least spend a day in East Nashville like we did.  Not to say things like the Grand Ol' Opry are bad, but exploring the neighborhoods gives a perspective on the city as a whole.  And if you visit in the summer, do not trust the weather app on your phone and just carry an umbrella with you at all times.  This trip may be it for Tour 2015.  I am saving some vacation days to go to the Arizona Fall League with Erik, but he is going to be looking for the first full-time permanent adult job of his life this month, and he needs to get this right.

park rankings and statistics: 
aesthetics - 5
views from park – 3
view to field - 9
surrounding area – 3 (downtown 1mi south)
food variety - 7
nachos - 9
beer - 9 (would be much lower if not $2 beer night - beer very pricy!) 

vendor price - 5
ticket price - 3 (inner bowl is expensive but GA only $7)
atmosphere - 8 (right field bar is awesome)
walk to park – 6
parking price/proximity - n/a (we walked)
concourses - 6 (bland, but wide with drink rails all the way around)
team shop - 6 (no inaugural season baseballs or Sounds guitar picks!)

best food – pulled pork nachos (did not try hot chicken but that is a Nashville specialty)
most unique stadium feature – guitar-shaped scoreboard
best jumbotron feature – Coke race
best between-inning feature – Zaxby's Chicken Dance

field dimensions – 330/403/310
starters – Hiram Burgos (CS) v. Parker Frazier (NAS)
opponent – Colorado Springs Sky Sox
time of game – 2:59 (:33 delay)
attendance – 7377
score – 4-3 L

Brewers score that day – 8-7 W

Brewers 36-48, -18.5 (3 v. Braves, 4 @ Dodgers)
Reds 36-44, -16.5 (3 @ Nationals, 4 @ Marlins
Twins 43-39, -4.5 (3 v. Orioles, 4 v. Tigers)

Erik - 13 (+15 worked)

Peter - 26