Monday, September 26, 2016

Jose Fernandez Dies in Boating Accident

Tragic news shocked the baseball world yesterday as Marlins pitching phenom Jose Fernandez was mortally wounded in a yacht crash off the coast of Miami beach late Saturday night.  Not all details have been released yet, but what is known at this point is around 3 AM, a capsized boat was found at a jetty just outside of Miami Harbor.  Three bodies were discovered and identified as Jose and two of his friends.  The boat was not his and this is not believed to be an alcohol or drug induced accident at this point, merely just a case of the driver not seeing the rocks on the dark open water.

I'm scouring through my photos and memory bank and I don't believe I ever got to see Fernandez pitch live.  He wasn't yet on the Marlins when we were in Miami in 2012, and he did not start any of the 3 games in Milwaukee this year.  Although I'm sure if I had seen him pitch, I would have blocked it out of my memory by now because he would have undoubtedly have embarrassed the Crew.  Beyond just his pitching prowess - an All-Star 2 of his 3 full seasons, 2013 NL ROY, and a 2.58 career ERA - he will always be known for his love for the game, his jovial personality, and his courage in defecting him and his family from Cuba.  As a young man of Cuban descent playing his home games in Miami, he meant so much to the fans  and community down there and it was always an event every 5th day he pitched, even in a stadium that does not draw many fans.  There are a lot of heavy hearts around Major League Baseball right now and there was a moment of silence held at all 14 games yesterday in his honor, with the Marlins game being cancelled.  It was also announced by the team today that the entire roster will wear #16 for tonight's game vs. the Mets.  Fernandez is a talent and a character that won't soon be forgotten and will never be replaced.

As a baseball fan, it certainly makes you realize that it should never be taken for granted whenever you are a witness to a great player right in front of you.  You never know when a player could be traded, or worse yet his life taken too soon, and you may never get to see him play again.  The main reason I went to the entire Marlins series this year was to see Ichiro play for perhaps the last time, but it never once crossed my mind that at age 24, I would never have another opportunity to see Fernandez pitch.

Brewers 70-86, -29.5, eliminated (3 @ Rangers, 3 @ Rockies)
Reds 65-90, -34.0, eliminated (4 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Cubs
Twins 56-100, -34.5, eliminated (3 @ Royals, 3 @ White Sox)

Erik - 13 (+30 worked)

Peter - 33

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mets Sign Tim Tebow

I'm a little late to the game on this one, but in case you missed it, the New York Mets signed former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL QB Tim Tebow to a minor league deal a couple of weeks ago.  Even though the Mets have been pretty good the last few years, they are in fact still the Mets, and this publicity stunt perhaps ranks near the top in one of the Mets-iest things the Mets have ever done.  You can say what you want about his workout in which yes he did hit some big dongs, or his impeccable physique, or his speed on the bases, but make no mistake about it - this is nothing more than a media grab.  Tebow's extended spring workouts in St. Lucie are drawing more fans than a normal Gulf Coast League team may see in an entire month, and the team is already selling Tebow #15 jerseys.  Although, knowing the Mets, they might just be old blue & orange Gators jerseys with the team name ripped off.

That's not to say I disagree with the move though.  The Mets have absolutely nothing to lose by this move, so what is wrong with a little media attention especially from a New York team?  The best case scenario is that Tebow catches lightning in a bottle, maybe get a call to the show, the Mets sell out some games, and maybe he even contributes to some wins in the process.  At worst it draws some fans and scouts to the Mets farm system and they paid next to nothing to give a player a chance to live out a dream.  I only wish that Tebow himself took it a little more seriously.  He is only showing up to workouts in between his ESPN obligations which he refuses to break, yet I guarantee if an NFL team called tomorrow he would drop everything and do that.  We're not talking about Jose Canseco type independent league stunt - when you sign with a major league team, you should at least give it some real effort.  Tebow is going to be taking the place of perhaps a equal or more deserving prospect on some roster next year, from someone who has probably been playing baseball his whole life instead of just 2 months, and he needs to realize and respect that.

Brewers 68-82, -26.5, -11.5 WC (3 v. Pirates, 3 v. Reds)
Reds 63-86, -31.0, eliminated (3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Brewers
Twins 55-95, -31.5, eliminated (3 v. Tigers, 3 v. Mariners)

Erik - 13 (+26 worked)

Peter - 30

Friday, September 9, 2016

Zephyr Field

All photos of New Orleans and Zephyr Field available on Flickr.

Two of the many things my wife and I have in common is that we are incessant planners and we love to travel.  Even before we left for our honeymoon in June, we were already booking our next adventure - New Orleans!  Luckily for me, a third thing we have in common is that we also both love going to ballgames.  So it came as no surprise to Megan when I alerted her that the New Orleans minor league team - the Zephyrs - was home while we were in town.  We found a break in the weather to attend Sunday night's ballgame - but first, we had some sightseeing to do.

Our extended Labor Day weekend started out Saturday with a fanboat swamp tour in the morning and a walking cemetery tour booked late afternoon, so it was an aggressive first day.  The fanboat took us around Lake Salvador, Lake Cataouatche, and the various protected swamplands in between.  We saw many, many alligators during our trip, most of which were lured right up to the boat by our fearless driver (and Megan's white shirt).  There was also lots of other flora and fauna on the trip, including bay leaf plants, Spanish moss trees, herons, owls, turtles, and spiders about as big as your palm.  There were lots of interesting things we learned on the tour, but the most fascinating to me was the fragility and ever-changing nature of the area.  A combination of weather patterns, sea level rise, and coastal erosion causes the outline of the lake and swamp to constantly move.  We were told that it is not uncommon for the entire swamp to be blown by several hundred yards after a hurricane, which understandably makes owning property in the area extremely difficult.

After watching half of the UW Badger football game (who were coincidentally playing LSU), the second part of our day was a cemetery tour.  New Orleans has burial customs unlike anywhere else in the country, tracing their roots back to its days as a French and Spanish port city.  Families are often buried together in large above-ground crypts and the most recently deceased are just placed on top of the old bones.  The reason for this is twofold: it is a traditional European method of burial, but also because most of New Orleans is actually below sea level.  Walking through cemeteries is not a scary or sad thing in New Orleans, but rather a way to get in tune with the spirits, and simply part of the circle of life.  Following the tour, Megan and I grabbed a to-go beverage at a bar oddly located a block from the cemetery and headed back downtown.  Oh yeah, the to-go beverage thing.  So, New Orleans has an open container law that allows you to drink pretty much anywhere you want at any time, even as a passenger in a car.  There are even drive-thru daiquiri shops throughout the city.  We made the rookie mistake the first day of having a drink in our hands almost at all times, simply because we could.  So unfortunately I don't remember much of the rest of our night on Bourbon Street, other than it smelled like (and pretty much is) an open sewer.

Our second day in the Crescent City was the day we made it out to Zephyr Field.  We started our day with two more quintessential NOLA stops - Jackson Square and CafĂ© du Monde.  If you go to New Orleans and don't see the nation's oldest cathedral and eat a sack of beignets across the street, you are doing it wrong.  Around 5pm we headed out to the ballpark.  The park itself is not actually in the city but in the suburb of Metairie, which is about a half-hour west near the airport.  Zephyr Field opened in 1997 and seats about 10,000 people.  We were actually at the second to last game in franchise history with the moniker "Zephyrs."  The franchise was relocated from Denver following their award of the expansion Rockies and has maintained the Zephyr name ever since, but following the season, the name will be changed to something more locally significant.  This is not surprising, as the owner is the same owner who changed the NBA Hornets to the Pelicans.  For us, it meant that the team store was practically giving stuff away.  It was tempting not to buy a 50% off cap, but I did get a Zephyrs program for only $1.

For being 20 years old, the park was actually in decent shape and not horribly outdated.  It's sad that 20 years is considered "old" in ballpark years these days, but that's a tangent I don't need to go on.  I sort of liked the masonry "fortress" type look that it has on the outside because it played well with the tall palm trees around the park, but the entry stair left something to be desired as it felt like you were coming in in a back hallway.  The park has 2 decks and a concourse with full view to the field, wrapping from pole to pole.  As is customary in minor league parks, there was a party deck added in both the left field and right field corners.  The one in left field was little more than a shed roof and some lawn chairs and looked to be in pretty bad shape.  The one in right field featured a legit swimming pool and a bar.  Having the bar not be a swim-up bar seemed like a missed opportunity.  I really couldn't investigate these areas too well as they were below the concourse level and had separate entrances, which also seemed like a poor idea.  Excluding those glitches, the team has tried in a few areas to make the best of the bones it has been given and make small improvements.  There was an area that looked like it used to be a storage room of some kind that was opened up and appropriately turned into a daiquiri bar.  There was also a fish fry stand with local varieties of fish.  However, in a city with a culture as unique as New Orleans, I had high expectations for things like concessions, marketing, entertainment, etc, but in most areas the team fell short in this regard.  I think that the Zephyrs are just one of those teams that doesn't draw big crowds and has kind of a middle-of-the-road stadium, and so they just kind of quit spending any more money than they had to.  With that being said, the stadium is certainly a timeless architecture that should stand the test of time.  While it is not flashy, I can see this park being around for easily another 50 years and becoming a gem of the community, assuming they are able to keep the team.  There is enough land and space to continue with renovations as the times change.

With 32oz pina coladas in hand, $12 front row seats behind home plate, and a late-inning rally by the home team, it was a minor league experience I won't soon forget.  The Zephyrs beat the Nashville Sounds by scoring 3 runs in the 8th inning and holding down the fort in the 9th to secure the 4-3 victory.  Former Brewer draft pick Cole Gillespie had the game-winning 2-run double.  Other notable players were Colin Walsh, Matt Olson, and Dylan Axelrod.  Walsh saw time for the Brewers this year, where he was infamous for having a .400 OBP despite never hitting the ball.  He picked up his customary walk but also decided to swing the bat once and got a hit.  Olson is one of the A's top prospects and went 1-4 out of the cleanup spot.  Axelrod was a former White Sox closer and got the start for NOLA, giving up only 1 run in 6 innings of work.  And speaking of NOLA, the Zephyrs actually had a guy on the team with the last name Nola who is also coincidentally from Louisiana.  He obviously drew the loudest cheers of the evening and gave the fans even more reason to cheer with an RBI single.

We spent the last day of our vacation riding the vintage streetcar around to different parts of town, eating a disgusting amount of seafood, and seeing some live funk and jazz music on Frenchmen Street.  The main purpose of our trip may not have been to see baseball as my trips with Erik are, but I was glad I got to sneak in one more new ballpark before the end of the season and cross another great city off of my travel bucket list.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 6
views from park – 2
view to field - 9
surrounding area – 2 (Saints and Pelicans training facilities, airport)
food variety - 6
nachos - 7 (BBQ pulled pork and cheese)
beer - 6 (only 1 craft beer stand, but good price)

vendor price - 8
ticket price - 8 ($12 entire lower deck)
atmosphere - 3
walk to park – 2
parking price/proximity - 6 (adjacent lot, we took an Uber)
concourses - 5 (entry sequence, hard to access outfield)
team shop - 7 (bonus points for everything being on sale)

best food – nachos
most unique stadium feature – pool in right field
best jumbotron feature – different item on sale every inning
best between-inning feature – post-game all fans run the bases

field dimensions – 330/400/330
starters – Daniel Gossett (NAS) v. Dylan Axelrod (NOLA)
opponent – Nashville Sounds v. New Orleans Zephyrs
time of game – 2:18 (0:35 delay)
attendance – 5070
score – 4-3 W

Brewers score that day – 10-0 W

Brewers 63-77, -26.5, -11.0 WC (4 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Reds, 4 @ Cubs)
Reds 57-82, -32.0, -16.5 WC (4 @ Pirates, 3 v. Brewers, 4 v. Pirates
Twins 52-88, -29.5, eliminated (3 v. Indians, 4 @ Tigers, 3 @ Mets)

Erik - 13 (+24 worked)

Peter - 30

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Changes Brewing in Northwoods, Carolina Leagues

As of 2017, the Northwoods League and Carolina League will both be getting a little bigger.  It was announced a few weeks ago that the Northwoods League would be adding a franchise in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, which is about an hour northwest of Milwaukee.  The team will set up shop at a diamond on the Marian University campus, which will undoubtedly be rehabbed for the new tenant.  Including the new franchise in Bismarck, North Dakota announced earlier this year, this now makes a whopping 20 teams in the bulbous league.  I can't imagine the schedule and travel demands being able to accommodate any more teams, but granted I have said that before.  It wouldn't be entirely out of the realm of possibility to see another North Dakota or northern Minnesota team pop up to partner with Bismarck.  With teams now spread out across 6 states, 2 countries, and a 500-mile radius, the Northwoods League continues to establish itself as the country's largest summer collegiate league with by far the largest footprint.  I've now got my work cut out for me to make the long trek to the final cities I have yet to visit in the circuit.

Also, as anticipated, it was announced this week that two franchises will be shifting from the floundering California League to the Carolina League.  Nobody has confirmed where the franchises will be located, but Kinston, North Carolina has been widely speculated to receive one of them.  Kinston has already been a part of the league in the past with several iterations of the Kinston Indians, most recently in 2011.  I wouldn't be surprised to see either Savannah or Fayetteville get the other team.  Savannah recently lost their Sally League team and is now hosting a summer collegiate team, and Fayetteville has been in talks off and on for a new ballpark to draw a team.  This will now bring the total in the circuit to 10 teams and leave the California League with 8.  It's been no secret that many teams in the Cal League have struggled mightily with attendance and financial viability, and being on the west coast, many of the MLB teams are just too far away from the league to desire a team there.  The shift of these two teams to the east coast will help to solve the geography problem and place them in an area of the country that is already rich in minor league tradition.

Brewers 57-76, -28.5, -13.5 WC (3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 55-77, -30.0, -15.0 WC (3 v. Cardinals, 3 v. Mets
Twins 49-84, -27.5, -23.0 WC (4 v. White Sox, 3 v. Royals)

Erik - 13 (+24 worked)

Peter - 29