Monday, August 28, 2017

Brewers Exploring New Spring Training Facility

(above: photo from my visit to Maryvale in 2011)

It was reported a few weeks ago that the Milwaukee Brewers are considering another alternative for their spring facility in the suburb of Gilbert, which is southeast of downtown Phoenix.  Initial reports were that Gilbert was going hard after the Brewers, throwing them over $90 million for a promise for a new state-of-the-art complex including a brand new 7,500-seat ballpark.  The Brewers would supposedly contribute $20 million under this proposal and more than likely make a long-term lease commitment to the area.

This isn't the first news of the Brewers exploring a new spring alternative and it won't be the last.  With only incremental improvements being made at Maryvale Baseball Park over the years (most recently in 2014), it is clear the team is not happy with its current situation.  It was floated around the time of their last renovation that Mark Attanasio was considering a move to the Grapefruit League and the Brewers decided at that time to settle for $1.6 million in upgrades and another short-term lease, so this may very well be a negotiating ploy.  It's just another example in a long line of teams holding communities at ransom for the promise of a new facility at the threat of packing up and leaving, and unfortunately it almost always works based on speculative and over-exaggerated promises of economic development.  Milwaukee has already seen this twice in its own city in the last 2 decades with Miller Park and the upcoming new Bucks arena, so our fans should be all too familiar with how this game works.

With Maricopa County tied up in a legal dispute with the Diamondbacks over Chase Field repairs at the moment, it could be interesting to see how the Brewers situation plays out.  Gilbert has since cooled in its efforts and I doubt Phoenix has any interest in upgrading a facility in such a "rough" part of town.  One thing is for certain, whatever your thoughts are on the politics of sports facilities - Maryvale is nowhere near the standards of other facilities in the Cactus League, particularly the lack of amenities in the surrounding area.  The Brewers ownership may have other more pressing issues at the moment considering the constant minor league shuffling and the large renovation just completed at Miller Park this past year, but this will become a front burner issue sooner rather than later.

Brewers 68-63, -2.0, -3.5 WC (2 v. Cardinals, 4 v. Nationals, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 55-76, -15.0, -16.5 WC (3 v. Mets, 3 @ Pirates, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 67-63, -6.5, +1.5 WC (3 v. White Sox, 3 v. Royals, 3 @ Rays)

Erik - 12 (+29 worked)
Peter - 32

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Athletic Park Renovation

All photos of Athletic Park and Three Lakes area available on Flickr.

I made it to my 5th Northwoods League ballpark of the year this past weekend, as my wife and I stopped in Wausau on my way up north to catch a Woodchucks game.  It was my first visit back to Athletic Park in 5 years and first trip since the big renovations that took place over the last few years.  We started our trip by finally completing a list - not a ballpark list, but a brewery list.  I finally made it to the Wausau Great Dane to complete the tour, along with the other 4 locations in the Madison area.  Not quite as gratifying as notching a ballpark off the list, but gratifying nonetheless.

We arrived at the ballpark plenty early to ensure we could take full advantage of our our all-you-can-eat seats in right field.  Approaching the intersection of 5th & Wausau, I can honestly say that there was very little I recognized of the old park.  It is still surrounded by houses in a residential area, but there is a street directly adjacent and some lots that have been closed off to make room for a huge plaza.  Literally all I could identify from the old park was the cobbled stone perimeter wall, which was left completely intact around the whole block.  The old green siding press box was town down to the stone wall and built back up with a 2-story area full of suites and offices, along with some balconies and decks built overhanging the wall.  Very little remains of that original WPA structure built over 80 years ago but somehow it still maintains the same "old ballpark" feel and charm.  The neighborhood feel of the ballpark definitely has a lot to do with it and something the team really plays up to with the new plaza.  Rather than having everyone gather in the middle of an intersection to buy tickets at the window and then line up for the one entrance, the plaza offers nice overflow space and a good place to mingle before the game, as if it were its own private street.  We were warmly greeted at the gate to the plaza by Woody Woodchuck and Ronald McDonald.  Ron was there for McDonalds Night and would also sing the National Anthem later, and just generally put a creepy vibe on the entire evening. 

We made our way past the picnic tables and VIP picnic tent to our seats in "The Bullpen," a new party section at Athletic Park that is pretty the norm now for any Northwoods League park.  This section existed as a loose idea during my last visit, with just a scattering of miscellaneous tables in some left over dead space.  The section is all its own now and rivals Madison's Duck Blind in terms of value and design.  For $25 you get all-you-can-eat burgers, dogs, and chips for the entire game, and 3 beers.  I'm not sure how they even make money on that deal so I am suspect of what kind of meat is really in those burgers.  There is a separate new bar with a unique LVL/weathered steel structure and clad in regular plank lumber to give it that feel of a Northwoods shack.  The concessions building has a similar aesthetic with a private party area on top. I didn't know this area was private when we walked up there and I may or may not have stolen a cookie.  The roof of the concessions building creates a porch over some tables down the right field line and that was where we parked ourselves for the game.  We stood the entire time, but with all the activity of the party area, the visiting bullpen nearby, and the game itself, we never really felt like sitting down.  The field is very small - only about 315 down the line and 360 to center - and we were literally leaning against the boundary fence, so it kept us on our toes the entire 9 innings.  I even was alert enough to snag my first foul ball in a long time!  Between my 3 beers, the 3 beers from my pregnant wife, and a couple of 2-for-1 beer batters, I more than drank my share and totally exploited the system.  It was a great area to watch the game and we had a fantastic time.

The rest of the park from the inside looked nearly as unfamiliar as the outside.  There is a new multi-story party deck in the left field corner as well that looks to have replaced another structure.  It's a very oddly shaped with large overhangs and tucked back behind the bleachers, so seems like it would be impossible to see anything except the left fielder from that area.  I can only imagine how drunk those people were.  The bleachers and seats have all been completely replaced as well.  Overall the renovations totaled over $8 million in 2 phases and it looks like every penny was well spent.  The Woodchucks and the city of Wausau should be proud that this historic gem can now serve this community for decades to come, and it is a vast improvement over what was already a neat little ballpark.  Athletic Park is a prototype of how to maintain historic charm while still offering modern comforts.

The game itself pitted the Woodchucks against my adopted hometown team, the Mallards, the second weekend in a row we were cheering them on.  Both teams had no chance of making the playoffs and it was the last weekend of the year, so it was a pretty fun atmosphere standing that close to the Mallards' bullpen.  A number of players hopped the fence by us to grab hamburgers and it funny every time.  Wisconsin defeated Madison 7-1 behind an outstanding 6 shutout innings by Korey Rasure.  Lenny Kwizadala gave up only 1 run in the final 3 innings to pick up the save.  You would think there would be a boatload of offense in a park this small, but in actuality the fences forces the outfielders to play so much closer to the infield that it takes away a lot of extra base hits.  If it's not going over the fence it is usually a single.  The 'Chucks did manage 4 XBH on the evening, 3 of which came off a 3-run triple by Hunter Coleman in the 6th that put the game out of reach.  Tommy Bullock pitched in 3 hits for the Mallards and knocked in their lone run in the 7th.

Following the game was a fireworks spectacle that Erik and I are used to seeing at minor league parks but Megan and I had never experienced.  A couple of dudes in a Toyota Tundra just wheeled onto the field, set up a bunch of fireworks in a row, and then lit them all individually by hand, running away to cheat death just in the nick of time after each light.  It was a perfect end to our evening in Wausau and a great start to our weekend.  We spent all day Saturday up in the Chain O' Lakes area of Wisconsin, near the UP border, and I included those photos in the Flickr album at the top.

By the way, if you didn't pick up earlier in the post, my wife Megan is pregnant and we just found out this week that we are having a baby girl!  While my days of 50+ ballgames a year are now likely over, I can't wait to share my love of baseball with my daughter and introduce to her the thrill of ballpark chasing.  Until she's old enough to take a trip with Dad, Erik will still have to do.

updated park rankings and statistics
see original post from 7/23/12):
aesthetics - improves to 9
views from park - 2
view to field - 3
surrounding area - 4
food variety - 3
nachos - 9
beer - 8
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - improves to 7
walk to park - improves to 7 (new plaza)
parking price/proximity - 6
concourses - improves to 3 (new plaza)
team shop - 3

best food - pulled pork nachos
most unique stadium feature - stone walls, The Bullpen
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - Ronald McDonald sings creepy "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

field dimensions - 304/360/316
starters - Tristen Bayless (MAD) v. Korey Rasure (WIS)
opponent - Madison Mallards
time of game - 2:45
attendance - 2868
score - 7-1 W
Brewers score that day - 11-10 L

Brewers 62-59, -1.5, -5.0 WC (3 @ Rockies, 3 @ Giants, 3 @ Dodgers)
Reds 50-70, -13.0, -16.5 WC (3 @ Braves, 3 v. Cubs, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 59-58, -6.0, -0.5 WC (3 v. Diamondbacks, 5 @ White Sox, 3 @ Blue Jays)

Erik - 11 (+27 worked)
Peter - 31

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New & Improved Duck Blind at Warner Park

All photos of Madison and Warner Park available on Flickr.
I grew up in Milwaukee, I love Milwaukee, my wife and I own a house in Milwaukee.  But Madison will always hold a special place in our hearts as the place it all started.  A series of unfortunate circumstances brought us both to Madison, but as fate would have it we met there nearly 4 years ago and have been riding the wave ever since.  We were only there together a short time, but still look forward to making the 160-mile round trip a couple times a year to see old friends and hit all our old spots.
With any summer visit, a Mallards game is always on the agenda.  The Duck Pond and Big Top Baseball were at it once again this year undertaking yet another massive fan improvement project, this time to the popular Duck Blind.  What was nothing more than a concessions stand and a bunch of picnic tables 5 years ago has slowly upgraded over the years.  Another deck behind the right field wall was added a few years ago, and this year the existing Duck Blind was completely overhauled.  At the right field pole, formerly where the manual scoreboard sat, is now a 4-tiered section of suites and private party areas.  The ground level is kind of like the ATI Club (or whatever it's called now) at Miller Park, where you are literally on field level separated only by mesh.  This area is completely under the suites above so it is kind of dark, but it offers very luxurious seats, a beer bar with TVs, and an arcade for the kids.  As you can imagine this area gets a little crowded, and it is unfortunate that all the nice seats pretty much go to waste because people are either at the bar or running around chasing kids.  I tried to go sit down there in the middle of the game but was shut down by some Nazi kid usher.  The 2 levels above this are more indicative of a suite you might see at a "normal" ballpark, except at Warner Park it is anything but normal.  In lieu of traditional stud-and-sheathing construction, the suites are comprised of shipping containers stacked on top of each other.  This is a popular form of construction with modular homes especially in other countries, but to see them used in a commercial application is something straight out of the Mallards playbook - innovative cost-conscious ideas that enhance fan experience.  I imagine these suites are insulated and air-conditioned because I did hear what sounded like a big RTU humming when we exited the park.  The second level has a few rows of stadium chairs in front of the suites, and the third level has bar-height seating in front.  The 4th level is more of a roof level with tables, chairs, and awnings.  

Megan and I unfortunately did not get to see much of this part of the Duck Blind as we only purchased GA seats, but where we sat was upgraded as well.  The flat expanse of picnic tables has been changed to a 3-tiered section.  My major complaint about the Duck Blind previously was that unless you are sitting right on the rail, you can't see the game.  Not that anybody in an all-you-can-drink section would watch the game besides me, but still I appreciate the Mallards addressing this deficiency.  The concessions building still has the area on top for sitting, but it is now a private area, and it is on the same level as the top tier of the GA section.  This puts the concession building sort of in a tunnel below the GA seats.  This is kind of nice because it alleviates a lot of congestion.  The game was packed and I never had to wait in line for more than a minute nor had to push through any crowds because the seating is now separated on a different level than the concessions.  When you first arrive at the Duck Blind, or any part of Warner Park for that matter, to the untrained eye it looks like a hodge-podge of found materials, random seating sections, and a patchwork of additions.  But it was clear after an evening in the Duck Blind that all of the decisions and adjacencies were very meticulous thought out, no matter how haphazard they may appear.

Every year I come to Warner Park I cannot think of any possible way the Mallards can improve their product any more, and every year I am proven wrong and leave more impressed.  We had a great night at the ballpark and can't wait to see what is in store for the coming seasons, because I understand now that the team will never rest on their success.

Brewers 59-57, -1.5, -6.5 WC (3 v. Reds, 2 v. Pirates)
Reds 47-67, -12.5, -17.5 WC (3 @ Brewers, 4 @ Cubs)
Twins 56-56, -4.5, -1.5 WC (3 @ Tigers, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 11 (+27 worked)
Peter - 29

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Trade Deadline 2017

(photo courtesy of NY Daily News)

In what seemed to be one of the more active trade deadlines in recent memory, at least in terms of big name players, there were several winners, several losers, and a few surprises also.  The Twins went from buyers to sellers in the span of a week, trading for Jaime Garcia, and then flipping him to the Yankees before after just one start while getting stuck with the bill.  They also shipped off the resurgent Brandon Kintzler to the beleaguered bullpen of the Nationals.  A wealth of talented prospects, an endless supply of money, and a division lead proved to be a lethal combination for the Dodgers and Yankees.  LA picked up Yu Darvish who would almost certainly be an ace on 3/4ths of the teams in this league but may be the #3 or even #4 starter on this team.  The Dodgers now have 6 legit starting rotation options not even including the injured Clayton Kershaw.  They also picked up two left-handed Tonys for their bullpen - "I only throw fastballs" Cingrani fromt the Reds and Watson from the Pirates.  The Yankees made the biggest splash of the year, acquiring Sonny Gray for 3 prospects.  While they did give up 3 of their top 12 prospects, two of them are out for the season, and Gray still has 3 years of team control, so Cashman comes out looking like a wizard in this deal.  Speaking of wizard GMs, Slingin' David Stearns picked up a couple of relief arms last week for practically nothing - Anthony Swarzak from the White Sox, and Jeremy Jeffress from the Rangers.  If the Brewers can ever figure out how to hit again, these two should add to a pretty formidable back end of the bullpen along with all-star closer Corey Knebel and rookie Josh Hader.  Jeffress rejoins the team after being traded just last summer.  With Jonathan Lucroy going to the Rockies, the Rangers now have neither player left from the Brewers firesale last year.

Besides the Rangers cleaning house, the Astros were another obvious loser of the trade deadline.  Yes they have been running away with the AL West since about mid-May, but the only major acquisition they made was Francisco Liriano, who probably won't even make the rotation.  The Detroit Tigers also had an opportunity to dive feet-first into a rebuild this summer but chose to hold on to all of their aging veterans.  Justin Upton, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, and Victor Martinez are for some reason all still Tigers as of this post.  The Phillies did the same thing when they refused to trade Rollins, Utley, and Howard 5 years ago while they still had value and now have been the worst team in the league for the last two seasons.  So we'll see if Detroit shares the same fate.

It will be an interesting stretch run for a lot of teams.  The trade deadline was probably more active this year because there were more sellers than in the recent past, but there are still 3 divisions and both wild card races that are wide open.

Brewers 56-53, -2.5, -5.5 WC (3 @ Rays, 2 @ Twins, 2 v. Twins)
Reds 44-63, -13.5, -16.5 WC (3 v. Cardinals, 4 v. Padres)

Twins 51-54, -6.0, -3.5 WC (4 v. Rangers, 2 v. Brewers, 2 @ Brewers)

Erik - 11 (+23 worked)
Peter - 27