Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Return to US Cellular Field

All photos of US Cellular Field available on Flickr.

Only a week after the wedding, and my wife and I were already on out of town for a weekend roadtrip - Megan at a bachelorette party, and I of course at a ballgame.  Having no interest in tagging along with a bunch of girls wearing glowing penis necklaces, Megan dropped my friend (the groom) Bryan and I off on the south side of Chicago to catch a matinee White Sox game en route to her party in SW Michigan.  It was my first trip to US Cellular Field since 2012, when Erik and I celebrated the 5th anniversary of The Tour at the place it all started.

It was a bright and sunny day just as it was four years ago, but this time it was about 30 degrees cooler and I did not burn my forearms to a deep shade of redBryan and I had tickets in the right field bleachers, only a few rows above the visitors' bullpen.  We got to watch starter Colby Lewis warm up for a few minutes and tried unsuccessfully to lobby the bullpen coach for a baseball.  The older I get without having a child, the creepier it gets to ask for a baseball, and proposing a trade for a giveaway Jose Abreu plush doll did not make it any less creepy.  We spent about the first 6 innings at these seats, primarily heckling Rangers RF Nomar Mazara and trying not to get beer spilled on us by the drunk kids in our row.  After the 6th, the shadows had lurched into our area and we moved to left field - the temperature difference from shadow to sun was incredible.  It was pretty funny from our new vantage point to see all of the fans migrating with the sun as it moved, kind of like a dog does by a porch door.  The game went extra innings and by the end, there were maybe a few hundred people left on the entire right half of the stadium, and everyone else had either left or squeezed into the outfieldThe White Sox won in the 11th on a bases loaded single by Jose Abreu through a 5-man infield, and would eventually go on to sweep the series on Sunday.  The Sox are actually playing surprisingly good ball so far this year, but the AL Central is one of those divisions where realistically every team, after the Royals, has a shot of placing anywhere from 2nd to last.  They got a stellar pitching performance from Carlos Rodon and the Melk Man had a 3-hit afternoon including a homerun.

As far as the stadium goes, not a lot has changed since the last time I was there, other than a few additional retired numbers.  My last two visits were both in the bleachers, and this is definitely the way to go at this park.  The outfield has a lovely concourse that is a little wider than typical, with a lot of concession areas and a bar.  This concourse has a vibe sort of like Ashburn Alley in Philly or Eutaw Street in Baltimore, where it sort of feels like you're walking on a pedestrian street.  One of my bigger complaints with this park is still a relative lack of concession and beer options as compared to most MLB parks today.  The Cell has not seemed to fully embrace the craft beer craze that the rest of the country has and we were only able to find one stand on the lower level that sold anything other than Miller LiteWe did find a great little Cuban sammich cart, but you are primarily going to find the three Chicago staples of dogs, pizza, and Italian beef here (although, one could argue that an $8 Old Style tallboy and a Chicago Dog are really all one would ever want or need at a Chicago baseball game, and that wouldn't be an incorrect statement).  This park also still has the ridiculous rule of only being able to access the level on which you have a ticket.  With so many of the "new age" ballparks being so great and close to one another in terms of amenities, it only takes a couple of poor things like this to keep US Cellular towards the bottom of my list.  Objectively speaking, and team aside, it is as good a ballpark as any to take in a ballgame.  I have still only been to US Cellular for day games and that is a conscious decision - the South Side is terrifying, and I do not want to see what some of these White Sox fans look like at night when they've had an entire day of drinking under their lapped-over belts.

Brewers 8-12, -7.0 (3 v. Marlins, 3 v. Angels)
Reds 9-12, -6.5 (3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Giants
Twins 7-14, -8.0 (3 v. Tigers, 3 @ Astros)

Erik - 6 (+0 worked)

Peter - 7 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Staying the Course in Beloit

All photos of Snappers Home Opener 2016 available on Flickr.

The minor league season opened up shop for 2016 a couple of weeks ago, and as I normally do, I made it to one of the home openers.  This year I decided on Beloit after a one year absence, mostly because I enjoy torturing myself, but also because they were playing the Timber Rattlers.  As usual, it was another frigid home opener at Pohlman Field.  The temperature was below 40° for most of the game and on top of that it was overcast and windy.  I powered through about 7 innings, but by then I had lost all feeling in my toes, and the shrieking hum of the broken speakers was on the verge of driving me into hysteria, so I had to leave.  The Snappers ended up winning 2-1 on a pretty typical April night in the Midwest League - lots of walks and strikeouts with a scattering of ground balls through the infield, and basically everybody trying to get back to the warmth of the dugout as quickly as possible.

I'm always optimistic going to my first game of the year at Pohlman that the ballpark has been improved in some way in the offseason.  Outside of the new tally scoreboard a few years ago, it's pretty much the same place it has been the last 10+ years I've been going there, and probably the same as it's been since it opened in 1982.  At this point I guess all I am looking for is for basic things to be repaired and upkept, and a real jumbotron would be nice given what my attention span has been reduced to these days.  I'm not holding my breath on a new stadium or major renovation anymore at this point, but at the same time I know that Pohlman needs to be upgraded to a certain MiLB standard of operation if they expect to keep their team.  There are many ballpark enthusiasts who would say that the park in Beloit is one of the last of its kind - a simple, quiet, no-frills stadium where the game is the focus.  I do certainly take that for granted on nights when I can get a cheap walkup ticket and not have to deal with screaming children or stupid between-innings games or $8 beers.  And speaking of $8 beers, one promotion the Snappers tried on Opening Night that has already failed are the giant beers in 35th Anniversary souvenir plastic cups that you can pay to have refilled.  I am all for giant beers and souvenir cups, but you cannot properly pour beer into an opaque cup.  I ordered one and didn't realize until I got back to my seat that it was nearly half foam.  It's my love of the game and any little excuse to ridicule the Snappers on social media that keeps me coming back to Beloit almost every year.

Brewers 7-8, -4.0 (3 v. Phillies, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 8-7, -3.0 (4 v. Cubs, 3 @ Mets
Twins 4-11, -6.0 (3 @ Nationals, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 5 (+0 worked)

Peter - 6

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Brewers Home Opener 2016

All photos of Brewers Home Opener 2016 available on Flickr.

The Brewers got their asses handed to them for the 2nd straight opening day this past week, this time by a score of 12-3 to the San Francisco Giants.  In all fairness, this is an even year, so there's no shame in saying we lost to the team that will probably win the World Series.  The Brewers front office is not hiding the fact that this a rebuilding a year so I'm sure there will be many more games like this (Exhibit A: Monday's game), but I am by and large still excited to see all of these young kids play and hopefully improve over the course of the season.

While Opening Day is always special, this year was one of the more forgettable ones.  The day started with me waking up still in Canada from the Montreal trip, as I eluded to in my last post.  I had a flight through Toronto that eventually got cancelled after several planes broke and some bad weather.  I was put on a noon flight on Monday and didn't make it to the ballpark until the 2nd inning.  As if that weren't bad enough, by the time I got there it was snowing.  It was probably the coldest opening day I can remember that I've been to - I don't even think it touched the freezing mark.  My parents had already been inside for a long time to escape the elements and were warming up at the comforts of the club level bar, so I guess the silver lining is at least I didn't miss much tailgating.  Once inside, I was made suddenly very aware of how sober I was.  It's always awkward to be that one sober guy at a bar full of drunk people and that was the case here today.  Because I had not had a drop of alcohol I was more keen to all of the inebriated Brewers fans around me.  The stadium was humming with slurred words and yelling, crowds were stumbling and swaying like zombies, and I even saw two girls having a legit fist fight.  And this fight was in line for a Long Island at Friday's of all places, which is like the happiest place in town.  Megan even got called to help fix a homerun derby game her company had set up because a drunk fat guy threw the bat into the TV screen.  When I finally got up to the club level, the lines were packed at the bar because of the cold - you can only heat up a retractable roof stadium so much.  Between getting there late and spending most of my time in line for drinks, I probably only watched 2 innings of the actual game.  It was definitely one to forget in more ways than one, but I try to keep in perspective that that any day at the ballpark is better than a day at work.

One of the early takeaways so far this year is that the bullpen is really going to have a rough time.  Jeremy Jeffress looks good in the closer role, and Chris Capuano back with the team is a really great story.  But the Brewers lost five(!) relievers in the last week of camp and have been scrambling to sign guys off of the scrap heap just to fill the roster.  Coupled with Matt "The Count" Garza already injured, and this depth we keep hearing about in the minors is going to get tested early.  On the other side, the hitting has so far looked better than I expected.  We haven't had any breakout lopsided offensive games yet, but the heart of our order has been consistently getting on base.  Chris Carter is a beast and looks like he could easily hit 35-40 homeruns if he stays healthy.  Braun is looking alright, and so far Scooter looks like he is on a mission to rebound from last season, and to get out of the record books as the worst statistical lefty batter vs. lefty pitching in Major League history (seriously, that's a thing, look it up).  Our new additions have all played solid defense so far as well.  The biggest question is not if, but when, some of our other young talent is going to get called up.  We're about one week off from that magical date when rookies can gain an extra year of service time, and it will be interesting to see if the Crew starts the clock of guys like Arcia or Hader or Phillips sooner rather than later.

Another home opener in the books and my final as a single man.  I get married on Saturday and cannot wait to continue my baseball adventures with my wife Megan at my side.

Brewers 3-4, -3.0 (3 @ Pirates, 2 @ Twins, 2 v. Twins)
Reds 5-2, -1.0 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Rockies
Twins 0-7, -5.0 (3 v. Angels, 2 v. Brewers, 2 @ Brewers)

Erik - 3 (+0 worked)

Peter - 5

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tour 2016: Olympic Stadium

All photos of Montreal and Olympic Stadium available on Flickr. 

Our first international ball trip since 2009 took us to Montréal, Quebec this past weekend, where Erik and I watched the Toronto Blue Jays battle the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition series at Olympic Stadium (or Stade Olympique as it is known in French).  Both the games and the city were c'est magnifique!  As you can already tell, I fell in love with the French language while we were there and I have already accidentally said merci to several people since I've been back in the states.  Although French and English are both official languages in Canada, most predominantly speak English.  These are your stereotypical "yah der hey" and "a-boot" Canadians.  In Quebec however, French is the main language and it seemed that most people know how to speak both.  This was the first city in all of my travels that I really actually felt like I was in a foreign country.  We were usually greeted in French by the locals until it was clear we were from out of town, which didn't take long.  I was able to pick up some words while we were there - important words like au jeu (play ball or literally "to the game") and bouteille de bière (bottle of beer).  But it certainly helped that Erik took 4 years of French in high school and was able to get us around town as needed.  That French knowledge came in handy immediately as we were able to locate the closest watering hole to our hotel on Thursday night, a place called MVP Bar-Sportif.  After Erik and I both landed close to midnight we needed a few drinks before bed and enjoyed some Labatts Bleue Dry up until bar close at 3AM.

Friday was the first of the two games we had tickets to, but first pitch wasn't until 7pm so we had some time to kill.  We started out with a customary E + P stop at a local burger joint for lunch.  Uniburger is kind of like the In-N-Out Burger of Montréal - just a good greasy burger chain with like 3 things on the menu.  It really built up a good base for what would be the beginning of a 12-hour bender.  But before we hit the bars, we did our one super touristy thing of the trip and hiked up to the top of Mount Royal on the outskirts of downtown.  It's more of a large hill than a mountain but it was still exhausting.  It took us awhile to find the path up to the top and ended up wandering through the McGill University campus and the stadium where the Canadian Football Alouettes play.  Our reward for breaking a sweat on vacation was a stunning view from Chalet du Mont-Royal at the top.  We could see most of the city from up here, except for of course the stadium which was one of the reasons we wanted to walk to the top.  There also wasn't a bar at the top, so we quickly descended and grabbed a couple beers at a great little brewpub near our hotel.  In all we probably walked close to 10 miles before we got back to the hotel and hopped on the metro to the ballpark.  We could not have picked a better location to stay in - we were about a block from the main metro station, 3 blocks from the main bus terminal, and right in the center of downtown near Old Montréal.

Arriving at Olympic Stadium by rail is kind of like arriving at Nationals Park in DC.  You have no sense of direction because you're in a subway tunnel, and you're crammed on a car with a bunch of people in team gear drinking out of plastic bags that would otherwise have no business going to this part of town.  After the mass exodus off of the train, we arrived at a sort of lobby space with a bunch of banners celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Parc Olympique complex.  Outside in the lower plaza we choked down some terrible Canadian gas station beer and got our photos with a sorry excuse for a Youppi replacement mascot before heading inside. 

Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Summer Games and definitely has that 1970s feel similar to Kauffman Stadium - very futuristic organic white forms, brutalist concrete massing, and very little openness.  The only real views to the outside are from a band of windows around the second floor.  Being that it was originally designed as the main Olympic stadium, which are usually very cutting-edge for their time, the various oddities and expression of structure were about what I expected and what set the place apart from just a normal rundown, outdated ballpark.  The place definitely needs a lot of TLC but the wide array of unique features distracted me just enough to not really notice its dumpiness.  For instance, the folding chairs are unlike anything I had ever seen.  They're very narrow and have only one swooping armrest, and they unfold very loudly - fans actually use this to their advantage and there were many times that 50,000 people would clang them in unison to get a rally going.  I didn't really care that they were half-broken and not painted in 40 years because they were just so cool.  The same goes for lots of things, such as the brick bathroom "pods," or the chipping concrete on the arched beams, or the Kevlar retractable roof that doesn't work anymore.  Erik and I were both very curious as to what the vending and team store situations would be, but there was a pretty decent selection of basic ballpark foods and several varieties of poutine, which is pretty much Canada's national food - fries with gravy and cheese curds.  And of course, you can't go to a sporting event in Canada without the cups of beers that come with lids on them.  It was actually quite surprising what they were able to put together in a stadium that only hosts a handful of events per year, and has not had a regular tenant since 2004.  There were also several areas where you could purchase Blue Jays and retro Expos gear.  Erik and I both were impressed with the stadium in general, given the low expectations that have been bestowed upon it by the league.  The fact that it is a multi-purpose venue does present operational challenges, but it's definitely viable as a suitable temporary baseball facility.  I would even go so far as to say it's really not that much worse than where the Blue Jays play now, who were the home team for the 3rd straight year at this preseason exhibition.

Our seats for Friday night's game were excellent, on the 3rd base side of the lower bowl, about halfway up.  We got to our seats plenty early to witness the bilingual pregame ceremony honoring many former Expos greats, including Tim Raines, Pedro Martinez, and everybody's favorite bad-ball hitter, Vladimir Guerrero.  The game pitted Canada's national team, the Blue Jays, versus their AL East rival, the Red Sox.  The lineups were pretty close to the Opening Day lineups, minus the notable absence of Edwin Encarnacion for the Jays.  Erik and I were both hoping to see the beefy slugger Pablo Sandoval get the start for the Red Sox, but apparently he is not even good enough to run out there in a meaningless game.  The scoring got started early with a leadoff homerun by Kevin Pillar in the bottom of the 1st and a Michael Saunders homer in the 2nd, and the Sox responded with an RBI groundout by Xander Bogaerts in the 3rd.  The game went to extra racks and the Red Sox got the game winning hit in the 10th on a 2-run double by some guy who's probably not making the team.  Nearly every one of the 50,000+ fans stayed until the bitter end and it was loud until the very last pitch.  Montréal baseball fans definitely proved that they were passionate about the game and deserve another shot at baseball, and it was no different at Game 2 on Saturday.  For this game, favorite Québécois son Russell Martin was part of a pregame ceremony that honored the 40th anniversary of the Olympic Games with a ritual torch procession around the bases.  Former Expos manager Jim Fanning was also honored.  He passed away recently and was the only manager to take the Expos to the playoffs, in the strike-shortened 1981 season.  This game was also a loss for the Jays, this time 7-4.  The big hit was a homerun by backup catcher Ryan Hanigan to start the scoring for the Sox as part of a 5-run 5th.  Toronto made it a little bit of a game with a small rally in the 7th, but Koji Uehara and Kyle Martin shut the door in the 8th and 9th for Boston.  For some reason new closer Craig Kimbrel did not pitch in the series, which is a shame because I would love to have seen how high his fastball registers in km/hr.

Before Game 2, we were able see more of the outside of the stadium and the rest of the grounds.  Up on an upper platform level, we were able to walk around most of the stadium, although it is just giant expanse of empty concrete and not really that interesting of a space.  To the north of the main stadium are also some venues that were used as part of the '76 Olympics, including the arena, the velodrome, the swimming arena, and the practice track.  Today, the velodrome has been converted into a BioDome, and the Montéal Impact soccer team built a stadium over the site of the former track.  The swimming pool is actually underneath one of the most unique features of the stadium: a slanted observatory tower.  It is still in use today and is still the world's tallest inclined inhabitable structure.  It was like $22 to get up there and we had already had our fare share of climbing up tall things the day before, so we decided to pass, but it was very cool to see this part of the stadium up close.  It's kind of sad walking around the stadium and seeing all the peeling paint and general poor condition of the grounds, even despite the billions of dollars invested into repairs and renovations, but that I suppose is more of a commentary on Olympic Villages in general than Montréal.

After the game on Saturday, we took the metro back to the hotel, and then walked for quite a bit around town looking for a decent restaurant.  We then found a couple of interesting bars before going to bed in the wee hours of the morning.  It's only when I go to other cities that I realize how good we have it here in Milwaukee with a bar on every corner.  Besides the tragedy of having to walk a whole 5 blocks to find an open pub, Montréal was a fantastic city that is full of life and culture, and just one more reason why I love Canada.  However, I do NOT love Air Canada, as I was stranded in Toronto on the way home for nearly 24 hours and almost missed Opening Day in Milwaukee.  Lesson learned: it's still always better to buy American.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 7 (would be higher if it was in better shape)
views from park – 0 (dome)
view to field - 8
surrounding area – 4 (Parc Olympique but really nothing else)
food variety - 4   
nachos - n/a (poutine is Canadian nachos)
beer - 2 (expensive, low variety)

vendor price - 7 (pretty fair except for beer)
ticket price - 7 ($99 lower, $22 upper)
atmosphere - 10
walk to park – 6
parking price/proximity - n/a (subway)
concourses - 6 (liked the intermediate concourse in the seating bowl)
team shop - 4

best food – poutine
most unique stadium feature – world's tallest inclined structure
best jumbotron feature – commercials for monster truck rally
best between-inning feature – OK Blue Jays in 7th

field dimensions – 325/404/325
starters – Steven Wright (BOS) v. J.A. Happ (TOR); Sean O'Sullivan v. Scott Copeland
opponent – Boston Red Sox v. Toronto Blue Jays
time of game – 3:11; 3:05
attendance – 52682, 53420
score – 4-2 BOS, 7-4 BOS

Brewers score that day – 4-2 L, 7-4 W

Brewers 0-2, -2.0 (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Cardinals)
Reds 1-0, -0.5 (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Cubs)

Twins 0-1, -1.5 (3 @ Royals, 3 v. White Sox)

Erik - 2 (+0 worked)

Peter - 3