Friday, August 26, 2016

Werner Park

All photos of Werner Park available on Flickr.

Another "work" trip to Omaha for me this week meant another ballpark visit.  This time I was able to make it out to Werner Park, the home of the AAA Storm Chasers.  And when I say "make it out," I mean WAY out.  The ballpark is actually on the outskirts of Papillion, a suburb that is about a half-hour southwest of downtown Omaha.  If you are in Papillion and start driving west along Highway 370, just when you've passed enough farmland to think you couldn't possibly be going the right direction, you will see the ballpark emerge on the horizon above the corn stalks.  It wasn't until this trip that I realized just how big the Omaha area really is.  I stayed near the airport, and between visiting job sites in west Omaha and Papillion, I probably put nearly 100 miles on my rental car.  The intent with putting this park way out in the boonies was to have access to a huge swath of land to develop and invest into a "ballpark village" like so many parks are doing these days.  The tiny city of Papillion obviously jumped at this development opportunity, but so far nothing other than the stadium and some new infrastructure has panned out.  I hope that this is not a forecast for things to come because the Braves are doing the same exact thing.  From what I've read, the Storm Chasers have been doing well attendance-wise and are paying down their debt despite the lack of anything within 5 miles of the ballpark, so I'm hoping the small crowd on a gorgeous night for baseball was an anomaly.

The ballpark itself is rather unassuming from the outside.  It does not have any sort of main entry feature that draws you in other than just the signage, and the entire park is rather short compared to other contemporary parks.  Werner Park also lacks the weight that you would see with a lot of the massive masonry parks of today.  It has a little bit of stone at the base, but a lot of the exterior is exposed metal and stucco.  This is likely a cost decision primarily, but I also think it pays homage to "farm architecture."  The metal siding and the shed roofs play off a lot of the barns and sheds you might see in the area, and it helps the park to feel like it belongs as part of the landscape.  This is most obvious at the main entry where a taller piece clad in mismatched corrugated siding seems to abstractly represent an old patched-up grain silo or farmhouse.

Once inside, the park almost felt more like a spring training facility than a minor league park.  Aside from materials, it actually reminded me quite a bit of Camelback Ranch in Glendale.  The press boxes and suites on the upper level have their backs visible from the entry gate with a walkway behind them, and are detached from the buildings that surround the periphery of the stadium, just like at Camelback.  This creates a plaza in between these structures and makes a nice transition between the gate and the field.  The second level is also segmented and not one continuous roof, which adds visual interest.  I was pretty taken aback at first when I walked in because there are gobs of exposed PVC pipe under the second floor that you notice immediately, and weird areas of random rock landscaping instead of concrete, both of which were quite the eyesore.  I think both the visual elements and the lack of vendors and soft surfaces keep the plaza from being the great space that it has the potential to be.  The team store is right off of the plaza and was one of the better ones I have seen on any level even despite being about 50% Royals gear.  Concessions were a little disappointing, but the fact that I had to suffer through a plain cheeseburger and a Bud Light did not put too much of a damper on my evening.  Another disappointment was the inability to circumnavigate the outfield, which is always a sticking point for me.  Even if there is nothing out there but a berm and the scoreboard, it is always nice to get that different vantage point and walk around a little bit.  Overall it was certainly a memorable park, both because of and despite of its conscious architectural gestures.

The game got out of hand pretty quickly for Omaha, who are in the basement of the American North division of the PCL.  If this team's performance this year is any indication, the window of opportunity may be closing for the parent Royals, which I would be more than okay with.  Jason Vargas was making a rehab start for the Storm Chasers and does not look like he is ready to help the big club any time soon.  He gave up 3 ER in 3 innings of work, including Matt Chapman's 1st homerun of the year for the visiting Sounds.  Nashville broke it open with 7 more runs in the 4th, including a 3-run bomb by Jaycob Brugman.  The Chasers eventually decided they wanted to play offense and scored a few runs but ended up losing 12-3.  The only Chasers player I recognized besides Vargas was Orlando Calixte, and he went 3-5 with an RBI in the leadoff spot.

It will be well into the fall the next time I visit Omaha, so my attention will probably have to start wandering to the University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey schedule pretty soon.  I'm hoping my projects out there are wrapped up before next season, but I'd be lying if I said a part of me didn't want to go to a Creighton Blue Jays game in April.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 6
views from park – 2
view to field - 8
surrounding area – 1 (literally nothing)
food variety - 5
nachos - 5
beer - 4 (only 1 craft beer stand, primarily Budweiser)

vendor price - 7
ticket price - 5 ($15 just outside dugouts)
atmosphere - 4
walk to park – 2
parking price/proximity - 6 (adjacent lot $5)
concourses - 6 (nice entry plaza but can't go in outfield)
team shop - 9 (point deducted for being mostly Royals gear)

best food – burger
most unique stadium feature – entry plaza / materials
best jumbotron feature – crazy cap shuffle
best between-inning feature – a plethora of mascots

field dimensions – 310/402/315
starters – Dillon Overton (NAS) v. Jason Vargas (OMA)
opponent – Nashville Sounds v. Omaha Storm Chasers
time of game – 3:11
attendance – 3465
score – 12-3 L

Brewers score that day – 4-2 W

Brewers 56-71, -25.5, -11.5 WC (4 v. Pirates, 3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 54-72, -27.0, -13.0 WC (3 @ Diamondbacks, 3 @ Angels
Twins 49-78, -23.5, -21.0 WC (3 @ Blue Jays, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 13 (+24 worked)

Peter - 29

Friday, August 19, 2016

Southern Wisconsin Absent From Northwoods League Championship

 All photos of South Division Wild Card Game available on Flickr.

For the first time since 2012, a representative of southern Wisconsin will not be in the Summer Collegiate World Series.  Kenosha struggled through a pretty rough season this year with not a lot of players returning from their 2015 title year, and Lakeshore and Madison were both ousted from the playoffs on the first day.  With the new playoff format, now in its second year, the number of playoffs in the ever-expanding league has doubled to eight.  To accommodate these additional teams without dragging the playoffs on an extra week, there are now back-to-back winner-take-all games to start the playoffs followed by a best of 3 championship series.  Much like the MLB format, it's certainly exciting to see more teams have a chance to make it, but it makes it hard on any fan who might want to see their team.  There's no guarantee that any playoff participant will have a home game, let alone make it past the first day of the playoffs.  And very often fans will not even know if or where their team is playing until late the night before, which means that even at a place like Madison that tops the Summer Collegiate attendance charts year after year, the stadium is half empty.  It even took an impromptu bobblehead giveaway to get fans to come out to the Duck Pond this year for their Wild Card matchup against the Battle Creek Bombers, and of course I made the drive out for it.

This was my first trip back to Warner Park since the playoffs last year, and for the first time in several years, nothing much has seemed to change.  The picnic area in the left field corner seems to have been spruced up a little bit, but I tried to go up there and the only way to access it was by going up a steep mound covered in used football field astroturf, which seemed incredibly weird and dangerous.  Some of the vendors have spruced up their branding, and as usual there were some new exciting things on the menu.  I ate a salmon burger from the BBQ stand and it was delicious.  I got my customary Great Dane Crop Circle Wheat that I always miss when away from Madison, and I was still disappointed to see that the souvenir beer cups had not returned.  I walked to my seat in the first row of the 200 level for a couple of innings, but as I mentioned, the stadium was uncharacteristically empty, so I made my way down to the 5th row for most of the game.

The game pitted Madison's Heath Renz against Battle Creek's Cody Puckett.  Renz had an outstanding season for Mallards, holding his ERA under 2.00 in 9 starts.  However he did not perform well on the big stage, giving up 6 runs over just 3 innings.  He got through the first two innings with relative eased, but then was schlacked for 6 runs in an inning plus, including a 3-run homerun by the Bombers' centerfielder.  The Bombers continued to pull away with runs in the 4th, 5th, and 6th, but Mallards LF Josh Stowers was on a mission to take the team on his shoulders and almost singlehandedly win the game.  He was 4-4 on the night with 2 towering homeruns and 6 RBI.  You would never know by the power display that he only had 3 homeruns on the entire season before tonight.  A couple of more runs late were not enough to catch Battle Creek, however, as they lost by a final score of 9-8.

Note to Madison area Culvers: if you are going to give out promotional coupons for free custard every time the Mallards score 5 runs, you need to have your restaurant a block from the stadium remain open after the game.

Brewers 52-68, -25.0, -12.0 WC (3 @ Mariners, 3 v. Rockies)
Reds 51-69, -26.0, -13.5 WC (4 v. Dodgers, 2 v. Rangers
Twins 49-72, -21.0, -13.0 WC (3 @ Royals, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 12 (+23 worked)

Peter - 28

Monday, August 8, 2016

Rivets Stadium

All photos of Rivets Stadium available on Flickr.

With only two weeks left in the season already, I finally got my butt in gear and made it down to Rockford to see the newest Northwoods League team, the Rivets.  Their stadium is actually just north of Rockford in the suburb of Loves Park and is very visible from I-90.  However, with easy freeway access generally comes large team-operated parking lots; I arrived just before first pitch driving down from work, and immediately lamented the fact that parking cost almost as much as my front row ticket. 

My first impression of the stadium was that, other than the name and new branding, it had not changed at all in the 10 years since I had last been there.  This was way back in the Year 1 B.B. (Before Blog) when it was known as Riverhawks Stadium, which I am just learning now was the park's inaugural season.  Through all of the name changes and tenants - most recently the indie-league Aviators and now the Rivets - many of the familiar architectural elements and finishes remain the same.  The primary material is still the imposing gray block, and the front gate still has the memorable steel truss towers, only this time with the new Rivets logo banner slapped on the side. 

The inside of the park was exactly the same as well.  It is sort of reminiscent of the what the Kane County park looked like before the renovations - the concourse is completely open to the field of play, aside from a small press box building.  There is no canopy or any structure between the service areas (concessions, restrooms, offices, etc) along exterior of the stadium, and the seating bowl, only a wide open walkway.  While I love that you are able to see the field from almost everywhere, having some public covered areas would be nice.  I do recall in my last visit here that a huge thunderstorm rolled just past us, and if it were only a few feet more in our direction, everybody would have gotten drenched.  There is an enclosed bar area near the main entry along with a team store, but both are about the size of a closet and even with the sparse crowd in the hundreds, would not have been able to fit everyone during a sudden rain event.  The stadium is bookended with a couple of large private party areas in left field, and a beer deck in right field.  The beer deck was basically just some picnic tables with a little shack that sold Miller and "craft beer," and it operated just about as well as it looked - it took about 10 minutes for my debit card to process and then when it finally did, it charged me twice.  The concourse unfortunately stops at the beer deck and does not extend behind the outfield wall, although you wouldn't be missing out on anything in an outfield concourse other than corn and staring at a bunch of empty seats.  The stadium still looks very new and is comfortable for a ballgame, but once you get into the details of it, you can tell that a lot of corners were cut and decisions were made strictly on cost.  Judging by the number of teams that have already left this city, that might have not been the best approach.

This game was the 2nd half of a pretty awesome feature of the Northwoods League the last couple years: the home-and-home rivalry doubleheader.  Rockford played in Madison at 11:35 AM and won 10-9, then both teams hopped on the bus for the hour drive down to Rockford for the 6:35 nightcap.  The league used to schedules these doubleheader games very close to each other and the 2nd game would always start late, so I see that has been corrected.  I still can't imagine what it's like for Thunder Bay and Duluth to have to drive 4+ hours and play two baseball games in one day.  Anyways, the game moved along at quite a brisk pace compared to a lot of games in the circuit.  The Mallards scratched across single tallies in the 2nd and 4th, but other than that Rivets starter Jake Perkins more than held his own by scattering 7 hits over 6 innings.  It was only when Nick Kamrada entered the game that things got out of hand.  He was all over the place, walking 4 in the 7th inning and giving up an unearned run.  It was clear even from watching him warm up in front of me and throwing the ball past the catcher several times that it was going to be a rough outing for the young man.  The Mallards would then load the bases in the 9th off of Quinton Forrestor and plate 2 on a Zach Jarrett double to put the game out of reach.  Rockford mustered only 3 hits.  Perhaps most the most disappointing part of the evening is that I was literally the only person sitting in the stands between the 1st base dugout and the foul pole and I did not get one foul ball.

The Northwoods League is supposed to expand yet again next year, and it should be interesting to see where the Rivets fit into that plan.  This was by far the emptiest stadium I've been to in the league, and they are dead last in total attendance by a substantial margin - both are pretty sad for a first year team.  And as I previously mentioned, it's not like this stadium has a great track record of retaining tenants either.  Hopefully my trip down to Illinois will not have been in vain.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 3
views from park – 2
view to field - 10 (not much netting, open concourse)
surrounding area – 1 (freeway)
food variety - 4
nachos - 5
beer - 6 (fair variety, cheap, but only one stand)

vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - 2
walk to park – 1
parking price/proximity - 2 (the only Northwoods park I can think of that charges for parking)
concourses - 6 (not active but open)
team shop - 2

best food – burger
most unique stadium feature – entry
best jumbotron feature – cheering for the beer batter to strike out
best between-inning feature – very unique and random pop culture music selection

field dimensions – 312/380/312
starters – Westin Wuethrich (MAD) v. Jake Perkins (RCK)
opponent – Madison Mallards v. Rockford Rivets
time of game – 2:47
attendance – 329
score – 7-1 L

Brewers score that day – 7-3 L

Brewers 49-60, -19.5, -9.0 WC (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Reds, 3 @ Cubs)
Reds 45-65, -24.0, -13.5 WC (3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Brewers, 4 v. Marlins
Twins 45-66, -18.0, -16.0 WC (4 v. Astros, 3 v. Royals, 2 @ Braves)

Erik - 11 (+19 worked)

Peter - 25