Thursday, September 17, 2009

On a Clear Day You Can See Milwaukee

The earth shook, the brilliant blue sky gasped, and Cubs fans near and far hung their heads in disbelief. This has not been the most salutary of seasons on the north side of Chicago, but when Prince Fielder triples--stop and digest that for a moment: Prince Fielder tripled--against you, the season is well and truly lost. I had thought that Baseball Prospectus's recent inclusion of the Cubs in their year-ending series "Kiss 'Em Goodbye" had been just a touch premature, but not after today's 7-4 loss to the Brewers.

In fairness, the World's Largest Vegetarian, as he was dubbed by my one and only, does triple about twice a year. Heck, he's got seven lifetime. But it's a disheartening sight all the same--which, thanks to some corporately provided tickets, we witnessed from much better seats than we had had last time, in May, when we had slogged out to the far reaches of the upper left-field deck. Back then, though, the season was young, Lou Piniella seemed to still give a crap, and the Cubs were surely bound for Chavez Ravine and Fenway Park in October instead of Pebble Beach.

In the event, Fielder was stranded at third, and anyway the real damage had already been inflicted the inning before, when Jody "My Batting Average Is the Numerical Representation of Valentine's Day" Gerut hit a grand slam off Randy Wells. Wells had started the game with ten or so consecutive pitches outside of the strike zone, so it's not surprising he got lit up by someone. But Jody Gerut? Soon enough we were being treated to a tour of the lesser monuments of the Cubs bullpen and the continued perplexing behavior of Milton Bradley, who abruptly took himself out of the game for no immediately evident reason after singling in the bottom of the sixth. It's OK, Milton, you weren't the only one who kind of just wanted to go home today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"See Ya Saturday" (or maybe not)

On the day after Labor Day, my friend Peter and I saw the last game of the year for the Brooklyn Cyclones. Of course, we didn't know that at the time. After the 3-1 loss to the Mahoning Valley Scappers, cable-TV comedian King Henry told the departing fans, "See ya Saturday." However, the season ticker holders made their good-byes like they weren't going to see each other again until next summer. (Photo of his highness by PaulMiles.) The New York-Penn League affiliate of the Mets started with 16 wins and 2 losses, a franchise record, and held first place for most of the season. However, they limped into post-season as the wild card, despite once having an 8.5 game lead over its crosstown rival, the Staten Island Yankees. There wasn't much optimism after Tuesday's game and rightly so, it turned out. The Cyclones lost the second game of the division play-off, also by a score of 3-1, somewhere outside of Youngstown the following evening. In a three-game series, every game is a must-win after you lose the first one.

At least the local fans didn't have to see the visiting team celebrate on the field, as they did in 2007 (above). Even more painful to watch were the Auburn Doubledays fans who made the trip down from the Finger Lakes and cheered their team on from a rented suite (below). There was crying in the stands that night. One couple got into an embarrassing public argument, with him finding tears a bit much and her screaming that his stoicism (not that she referenced any Greek philosophers) proved he wasn't a real fan. The Cyclones have made the post-season in six of their nine years but have so far failed to capture the championship. (The league named the team a "co-champion" when it ended the season early in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.)

Despite the loss, Peter and I had an enjoyable evening. We started at Nathan's, of course, where I confirmed for myself that the lobster roll is a delicious alternative to hot dogs. There were few people at the Coney Island snack bar and that turned out to be the case at KeySpan Park as well. I doubt there was half the announced 2,649 paid attendance actually in the stands. I don't know why it is but the Cyclones, who attract large crowds all season, don't draw in the post-season. It was comfortably cool, even right off the ocean. Both pitchers were sharp, as were several of the eleven total hits. Jason Kipnis hit a home run in the fourth inning for Mahoning Valley that landed with a clang in the empty bleachers. Right off the bat, Nick Santomauro's homer for Brooklyn in the seventh sounded like it would go out of the park. But the Cyclones infield was sloppy, beyond the two errors in the box score, and that gave the Scrappers the opportunity to win the game.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

We had good seats, about ten rows behind the Cyclones dugout--not bad for a walk-up. From there we got an eyeful of the "Beach Bums," a dance/cheer squad, whose bums were indeed on display in their blue stretch gym shorts. (Does baseball really need this?) One did a front walkover for the total number of strike-outs, after each strike-out, on top of the dug-out. The nine strike-outs for the home team had the blood rushing to her head. The ladies also participated in the obligatory t-shirt toss. Peter had a laugh when one landed in the lap of a young Chasidim, dressed simply and traditionally as the ultra-orthodox do. His face seemed to say, "When and where will I ever wear this?"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

When I first became interested in minor league ball, I mentioned this to anyone I thought might want to join me out with the crowd. Many people liked the idea but ultimately didn't want to actually do it. One guy I spoke with was from Elmira, which had a team at that time in the New York-Penn League (NYPL). I asked if he ever went to see the Pioneers, then an affiliate of the Red Sox, and he replied that he and his buddies would go a few times a summer "when there wasn't anything else to do." (Minor league baseball left Elmira after the 2005 season and the present day Pioneers are in the New York Collegiate Baseball League, a wood bat summer league for college ball players not signed to a professional contract.)

I remembered this conversation as I rode the subway home from the Friday, August 14, 2009 Brooklyn Cyclones game. I have gone to at least one Cyclones game every one of their nine years. (Melvin and I and our former wives also saw the Queens Kings, a transitional team that played one year at St. John's University. The former St. Catherines (Ont.) Stompers were still the NYPL affiliate of the Blue Jays but the franchise had been bought by the Wilpon family, the owners of the Mets, in preparation for the move to Coney Island in 2001.) I have enjoyed many a Cyclones game but the realization I had on the train is I take the local team for granted. After all, I can go any time. One year, when I was not celebrating the date of my birth, a friend offered to take me out to the ball game. We got to KeySpan in the third inning and, when I noticed she was bored, we headed to the boardwalk in the seventh. I would never do that anywhere else. If I am seeing what will probably be my only Midland Rockhounds game, I am going to [make every effort to] get there on time, pay attention and stay until the end.

[Mel has pointed out that Midland wasn't the best example since we were in fact late to that game. But what are a couple guys to do? It was the first day of our 2008 Texas trip. The car rental clerk was painfully slow. We weren't going to drive five hours from Dallas to Midland with breakfast as our last meal. Joe Allen's Pit Bar-B-Que was worth being late to the game for.]

Prior to Friday's game, five of us went to Nathan's Famous. (Photo by dolbystereoben using a Holga 120 GN.) The original Coney Island store may be a New York institution but it's not mesquite smoked barbecue. To be honest, I'd even rather go to Tony Packo's despite my earlier criticisms. Like the Toledo restaurant, you don't go Nathan's for the food. In particular, stay away from the corn on the cob, which Nathan's renders inedible. The ladies had lobster rolls and pronounced them a bargain at six bucks. Nathan's is also the official hot dog at the stadium if the pre-game lines are too long.

Walking the two blocks from Nathan's to KeySpan, I couldn't help but to notice that Coney Island is still a dump. I mention this because when the stadium was built during the Giuliani administration, it was promised that the ball park would kick-off the revitalization of the neighborhood. Nine years later, that has not happened. Thor Equities, a development company headed by a native Brooklynite, bought much of the seaside property and proposed an amusement park veering towards Las Vegas. However, the company's desire to build apartment houses as part of the plan was poorly received. (KeySpan is located behind the green and purple mid-rises above; click on the image for the full rendering.) A counter-plan by the Bloomberg administration is currently undergoing land use review. Check back in another nine years.

This trip to the ball park was to celebrate the birthday--hey, different strokes for different folks--of Jose. Jose and I went on a short road trip last year, seeing the Delmarva Shorebirds, Potomac Nationals and Washington Nationals. But mostly I know Jose, and many of the other folks who went to the game, from my local watering hole. I never thought I'd frequent a bar "where everybody knows your name" but maybe it's just another baseball byway; Sam, the owner of Cheers (Ted Danson), was a former pitcher for the Red Sox. The Cyclones-Tigers game itself was entertaining. One team, but never both, scored in every inning but two. For the home team, it was about pitching. Starter Collin McHugh struck out seven in six innings, allowing only two runs. Matias Carrillo was perfect in the eighth inning and Michael Powers closed for his league-leading 12th save. Final score: Cyclones 6, Tigers 5.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

On the subway ride home, in addition to having deep thoughts about my lack of loyalty to the Brooklyn Cyclones, I read the game program. On page 28, the team published the names and pictures of the 21 "Cyclones in the Majors." That averages out to not quite three players per year making it from short season, single-A ball to "the show." (That is consistent with the calculation I made when I saw the Pittsfield Mets in 1998, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of its affiliation with the big league team of the same name in similar fashion.) I did not recognize some of the players' names, something Melvin is far better at, so I did some research on the internet. When you scratch the surface, the photographs would have been more accurately titled, "Cyclones Who Played at Least a Few Games in the Majors." Perhaps a topic for a future post.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Big Time (Iowa Cubs 5, Las Vegas 51s 4)

Before I get into the second annual "Road to Wrigley" game at, um, Wrigley.... wait, why isn't the Road to Wrigley game played in Des Moines? Or Peoria? Or, heck, somewhere out on Addison Street? This is going to keep me needlessly awake. Where was I? Oh, yes, before talking about the game, let me just say that if you want to experience full-throttled condescension about minor-league baseball, check out this weirdly smug report that ran on NPR this morning. It's everything that makes me mental about public radio: the inexplicably plummy tones, the overenunciated cheeriness, and the bafflement--bafflement!--that not only do places called "Pawtucket" and "Scranton" exist, but they have baseball teams there! Just like they do at Fenway Park! And it's pretty fun! Why, America, full of so many kooky li'l wonders! What'll they think of next out there! Back to you, Terry Bleepin' Gross!

Maybe this is why--despite being raised in New Hampshire and usually feeling like a New Yorker--I basically like living in the Midwest. One thing that has been weird this year out here, though, is the lack of summer. It's been basically early March since, well, early March. So when some miserably stifling weather rolled in just in time for this Sunday's game, I said bang a gong, get it on. Which is really only the latest, not the greatest, in the pantheon of Things Melvin Regrets Having Said.

Last year, the Cubs organization initiated this terrific idea of having one of the affiliates play a game at Wrigley while the Cubs were out of town (obviously). Double-A Peoria, managed by Ryne Sandburg, got the nod then and played the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars. The tickets were cheap and the vibe very family-friendly. They drew the largest crowd in MiLB history. So this year, they raised the level by bringing in triple-A Iowa to play Toronto's AAA affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s.

(Yes, the 51s are named after Area 51, in the Nevada desert. No, they don't have funny little aliens on their uniforms any more like they did when they were in the Dodgers system. But they should.)

But this time Wrigley was at least half empty, maybe more. It was still the largest crowd in Iowa Cubs history, but it wasn't the riotous wonder of last year. Some of this was the heat, which would have kept any sane walk-up at home. But for the rest I'm thinking that few locals made the trip from Des Moines (which is about twice as far away as Peoria is) and none at all came from Nevada. Just a guess. Plus, no Ryne Sandburg. Nothing personal, Bobby Dickerson.

Anyway, we had great seats--about 20 rows back from home plate--for just $17 each. Las Vegas had a klutz playing third and an Easter Island statue in left. Unfortunately, that statue also whanged a couple out over the ivy. Nevertheless, the Iowayans prevailed, no one died of heat stroke, so I assume that next year we'll be seeing that guaranteed crowd-pleasing affiliate, the Boise Hawks.

Box score

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Philadelphia Phillies 3, Colorado Rockies 1 -- Thursday, August 6, 2009

Having left Melvin in Chicago three days earlier, my 2009 baseball road-trip ended in Parking Lot E outside Citizens Bank Park. Not really, because I still had a two hour drive back to New York. But the parking lot is where I met Jerry, Rob, Murph' and their friends after the Phillies game. I just wanted to double-check how to get on the Walt Whitman Bridge but I ended up spending an hour or so shooting the breeze with the business partners and brothers-in-law. These guys more than made up for The Pie Lady, the guy in Ogden who needed three seats and the deputy sheriff in Idaho.

I wasn't sure if I would want to see any more baseball after Chicago so I didn't buy tickets for the last three games. This was not a problem in Toledo and Pittsburgh, where I got very good seats as a walk-up. However, the Philadelphia game was a sell-out. (It was Raul Ibanez poster day, or maybe there was another explanation.) I scalped a standing room ticket and eventually found myself on the scoreboard porch, on the stairs under the asterisk-thingee next to "Citizens Bank Park" in photo below by The West End. I lasted six innings there before I had to use the mens room. There wasn't any more scoring after that anyway.

Both starting pitchers gave up doubles in the first inning that ultimately scored on a sacrifice fly. Cliff Lee, who was making his first start in Philadelphia after coming from the Indians, gave up a double to Dexter Fowler, who scored on Todd Helton's sacrifice. In the bottom of the inning, Jimmy Rollins hit a two-bagger off Aaron Cook, who Mel and I saw win his tenth game on July 26. Chase Utley hit the sac fly that gave Rollins the opportunity to come home. The Phillies scored their other runs in the bottom of the fifth. Catcher Paul Bako hit his first home run of the season and Rollins had an RBI triple.

MLB Reports: Wrap-Up Box Score

Before I left, I joked that I might not want to see another baseball game ever after the trip was over. Although the itinerary was some times tiring, I was not burnt out by it. With Melvin as my companion and co-pilot, I drove 4,799 miles across America to see 16 baseball games in 20 days.

Pittsburgh Pirates 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 4 -- Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Wednesday I went to "The Best Ballpark in America," in quotes, initial caps. For years people, including Melvin, have told me PNC Park is the best ball park in the country and I have been longing to see it for myself. The Pirates certainly buy into the belief. I bought a pin for my collection that makes the declaration and the beer cups have the same logo. The only problem with the statement is that it is not true.

As each new stadium opens, ownership incorporates as many amenities as it can. PNC Park debuted in 2001 and seven ballparks have opened since. I have been to four of these; Citi Field (Mets-2009), Yankee Stadium (2009), Nationals Park (2008) and Citizens Bank Park (Phillies-2004). Of these, only the stadium in Washington didn't surpass PNC Park. In fact, Mel and I were surprised that Coors Field was 15 years old because it had all the features a fan can expect to find in a contemporary major league baseball stadium. An analysis of those features deserves a post all its own and I will save that for another time. PNC Park is very nice and one fact is indisputable: the view of the Pittsburgh skyline across the Alleghany River is truly magnificent. (Since I have credited them in other posts, I will add that every ball park mentioned here was designed by HOK Sport Venue, now operating as Populous. They also designed the new Busch Stadium (Cardinals-2006), PETCO Park (Padres-2004) and Great American Ball Park (Reds-2003).

The game was a low-key affair. Both starters--Doug Davis for the snakes and Ross Ohlendorf for the buccaneers--limited the scoring to a home run apiece. Pirate Andy LaRoche hit a two-run homer in the second that gave the crowd hope for a win. D'back Ryan Roberts hit a solo shot in the top of the sixth. However, in the top of the eighth, Arizona's Chad Tracy hit a chopper back to reliever Joel Hanrahan, who considered going to second for an inning-ending double play, but spiked it when he threw to first. Alex Romero hit a pinch hit single followed by a single by Stephen Drew and the score was 4-2. An almost-rally in the bottom of the ninth briefly raised the spirits of the home town fans but only scored one run in the end.

MLB Reports: Wrap-up Box Score

It seems that many Pirate fans are really sour on the team, the management, the ownership (circle one or more), especially after the trades leading up to the previous week's trading deadline. Heading to their cars after the game, many chanted, "Let's go Steelers!" The man to my left, a long-time purchaser of an "eight-pack" (which actually gets you ten games), told me he was not going to buy his seats again next year. The folks to my right, apparently a father and daughter celebrating her birthday, were in better spirits. After attending hundreds of games, he caught a foul ball while on a food run. The next inning, she caught a hot dog shot into the seats. The attendance was only about 5,000 more people than attended the previous night's contest at Triple-A Toledo.

As for my dinner, I stopped at the barbeque stand operated by former bucco' Manny Sanguillén on the concourse overlooking the Alleghany. (Photo by wstera2.) The three-time all-star signs autographs as staff dish up eats. Like The Pie Lady, the meat was over-cooked, but at least Sanguillén, who played on two world champion teams (1971, 1979) when the Pirates were competitive, thankfully didn't get creative with the sauce.

Friday, August 7, 2009

RVs and Mud Hens

No baseball Monday; no rodeo either. We woke up late and went to bed early. Mel unpacked some boxes at the apartment where Watson and he moved just before we hit the road. I got caught up on blog posts. The only driving was to a late lunch at Kuma's Corner, "bovine genocide" at its most delicious. Good beer too.

The next day (Tuesday, August 4, 2009), I hit the road solo. My first stop was Elkhart, Indiana, and the RV/MH Hall of Fame, "Home of the David Woodworth Historic RV Collection." It's like a car museum but for recreational vehicles and motor homes; everything from pop-ups to motor coaches. There was a genuine curatorial sense to the prototypes, custom built motor homes, and historic models like the first twin axle trailer. I enjoyed it even more than the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum, which Mel and I visited on the DC-Birmingham trip. Scoff if you must, but I was far from the only visitor. This is the museum's second home and it was clearly built for growth. Ironically, none of the 200 parking spaces set aside for RVs was occupied.

Fifty miles into Ohio, traffic came to a complete stop. When I finally drove past, I saw the back-up was caused by a "fifth wheel" trailer that had caught fire. The charred skeleton was quite the contrast to the pristine models in the museum. I thought the delay was going to force me to miss Tony Packo's restaurant, which has been feeding folks in Birmingham, the Hungarian neighborhood on the east side of Toledo, since 1932. I ordered the Hot Dog Combo #1: a "world-famous" Tony Packo’s hot dog with mustard, diced onions and "drippingly delicious secret sauce;" a bowl of (the again "world-famous") chili; and my choice of side dish, which was German potato salad. I added a side of cucumber salad a la carte. While I waited, I noticed that most folks got the Combo #2 (two wieners) and ordered them with shredded cheese. I also got to check out the considerable collection of hot dog buns autographed by celebrities that decorate the walls. (That's right Pie Lady; I wrote about the restaurant's unique decor. Photo by Kevin Yezbick.)

I was disappointed by the food. Either the kitchen scrimped on the secret hot dog sauce or the onion over-powered it. I thought the Texas-style beef chili (there are also chicken and vegetarian options) was pretty thin gruel. Of course, America wouldn't have all those chili cook-offs if there weren't differences of opinion. The potato salad was too sweet and not briny enough for my taste, in a too-thick dressing that had bacon dust rather than pieces. All around me, however, were nothing but happy people. Tony Packo's seemed like the kind of place you went with family and friends for a good time, not for great food, and a good time was being had by all. I knew I was back in Ohio when a waitress brought the next table a bucket of Schoenling's Little Kings Cream Ale in seven ounce bottles. Speaking of the wait staff, they are really on top of their game.

The delay on the highway still had me behind schedule. I zipped across the river to the stadium. I drove past the $3 parking lot, then the $5 lots, and was starting to double back when I found a spot on the street, right outside the ball park. My lucky day! Only after two players hit home runs out of the park and on to Monroe Street did I realize why that spot was available. Thankfully, I escaped unscathed. Fifth Third Field, one of at least two ball parks sponsored by the bank, is in a warehouse district near downtown. There has been some redevelopment, including an outpost of Tony Packo's, but many of the buildings remain under-utilized.

It was a fun game to watch. There were 31 hits combined, three for home runs, and Toledo set a club record with seven doubles. The starting pitcher for the Mud Hens, Nate Robertson, and reliever Jeremy Bonderman both started rehab assignments from the Tigers. Robertson left one batter after Bison Andy Street tried to smash my windshield, but he might have been on a strict pitch count. Bonderman retired the side in order in the fifth.

Toledo, which started the day in second place but 9.5 games out, dominated Buffalo, who had won only 40 of 105 games. I was sorry to see this since the Bisons are the Triple-A affiliate of my Mets, who need all the help they can get right now. Lance Broadway (3-7), who came from the White Sox in the Ramon Castro deal, allowed nine earned runs in 4.1 innings, bringing his ERA to 5.84. You want Broadway to succeed, if only because he has such a great baseball name. None of the players whose names I know from Mets games--Argenis Reyes, Nick Evans, Chip Ambres--had good nights at the plate. The outfield of Ambres, Jesus Feliciano and Evans had balls hit in front of them and over their heads. Broadway had to run a chopper to first to finish the fourth when no one was covering the bag. On a pop-up in the fifth, there was miscommunication between catcher Rene Rivera (who also took a shot at my car) and third baseman Javier Castillo. Final score: Toledo Mud Hens 10, Buffalo Bison 6. Just one game, but not encouraging to a Met fan.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

Fifth Third Field is a great place to see a game. It has a concourse that goes around the field and lots of spaces for groups, including "The Roost," a bleacher section attached to existing buildings down the right field line. There are two scoreboards as well as ribbon displays on the facing of the second deck. Combined, they provide more information than fans usually get at minor league stadiums even as they weren't being used to their fullest capacity. Mel, who had already been here and the old Ned Skeldon Stadium, warned me that the food options were poor, which is why I went first to Tony Packo's. I could only wish for a cream ale. The most impressive find of the night was the "The Muddy Times," the free, 9.5 by 12 inch, color program. Everything you might want can be found in the 112-page journal, including the best scorecard I have ever gotten at a baseball game, major or minor league.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chicago White Sox 5, New York Yankees 8 – Sunday, August 2, 2009

Melvin and I buzzed down from Wisconsin, with a quick stop at the Mars Cheese Castle for provisions, for our first afternoon game since the start of the trip. The White Sox had won the first three games of the set, including by scores of 10-5 and 14-4, and the locals were giddy, especially with Mark Buehrle on the mound. However, U.S. Cellular Field was full of Yankee fans not shy about letting their affilation be known. Not subway series full or a day-trip down to Camden Yards full, but when they cheered, I saw Sox fans looking around, wondering how many there were.

Melvin’s trip ends with this game. We drove 3,747 miles from PGE Park in Portland to Chicago, where Mel and his girlfriend and I parked the car in favor of the El. U.S. Cellular Field, still known by many as Comiskey Park, is functional but not much more. We found it disappointing until we learned that the ballpark is older than we realized. The stadium opened in 1991 and was the last major league ballpark to be built before Oriole Park at Camden Yards (the full name) began a new wave of retro/classic parks the next year. Both, interestingly, were designed by HOK Sport (now Populous). Whatever the history of the stadium, which reportedly has undergone a series of upgrades, it is unacceptable that fans can visit only the deck on which their seats are located.

If U.S. Cellular Field is like most stadiums, the best food is on the main level, which of course we could not investigate. There was barbeque on the upper deck (although not when I ordered it), but that once rare treat is now fairly common at even minor league parks. I had instead a local delicacy, the “Chicago Dog,” a hot dog with mustard, chopped onions and sweet pickle relish, topped with a dill pickle spear and tomato wedges. The Chicago Dog is often also dressed with pickled sport peppers, but in this case (I think) the peppers were chopped and mixed in with the relish and there were sweet pickles as well as relish. [Editor's note: How did Rob miss the whole pickled peppers piled on his hot dog? I'm not sure. --Mel] Good beer was in short supply, although Mel’s gal-pal Watson found Oberon Ale, from Bell’s Brewery.

I saw a few brooms, but the ChiSox could not sweep as Buehrle, who pitched a perfect game two starts earlier, was not sharp. He was roughed up for seven runs and 12 hits in four and a third innings. The high point for the game was Yankee center fielder Melky Cabrera, who hit for the cycle. He was the 15th Yankee to do so and the first in almost 14 years, we learned later It was a good game but, to be honest, I was falling asleep during much of it. The road-trip has caught up with me. No game tomorrow, and I am looking forward to it. Mel is home, but I have three more games to go.

Wisconsin Meth Trip

I'll have more to say about the end of the trip before long, but I need to post something quickly about Wisconsin before Rob can post his Chicago ruminations, which he wrote before departing for the east on Tuesday morning.

We left Minneapolis and, after stopping for pastry and a debate over transportation policy in Lindström, Minnesota (one of the few towns in America to sport an umlaut, I believe), crossed into America's Dairyland. Our major objective was the Wisconsin Concrete Park, which proved to be a northwoods bookend to the Peterson Rock Garden back in Oregon:

After this, how could Appleton be anything other than unprepossessing?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Minnesota Twins 5, Los Angeles Angels 13 (11 innings) – Friday, July 31, 2009

I suppose, since Melvin and I are going to see the Twins, it is appropriate for both of us to post to Baseball Byways. Who are Castor and Pollux? Romulus and Remus? E.D. Hirsch, Jr. would be proud of me if I could answer these questions. Maybe it would help if I had been born in late-May or early-June.

As Melvin and I have made our way across America, we have encountered several Twins fans at various games. When we tell them that we have included the final year of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in our itinerary, they all say the same thing, ‘Why don’t you wait a year and come to the new stadium?’ Easy for them to say; they’ve been to the dome any number of times. I have only been once, opening day in 2003, and I wanted to see one more game before baseball leaves the stadium. The Twins are scheduled to play their first game at Target Field against the Boston Red Sox on April 12, 2010.

The Twins’ final year in the Metrodome prompted Mel and me to visit the sites of two earlier local ballparks. We started by driving out to the Mall of America, in Bloomington, which was once the home of Metropolitan Stadium. “The Met” was the original home of the Twins and was constructed to (successfully) attract major league baseball and football franchises to the Twin Cities. Before securing a major league team, the stadium opened in 1956 as the home of the long-established Minneapolis Millers, then the Triple-A, American Association affiliate of the New York Giants. When the new ballpark led to the Washington Senators transforming themselves into the Minnesota Twins in 1961, the Millers folded, as did their cross-town rivals, the St. Paul Saints. The Twins played at The Met from 1961 to 1981, when the Metrodome opened.

Mel and I hunted down the memorial home plate, embedded in the floor in the northwest corner of “Nickelodeon Universe,” an amusement park inside the mall. Once we were correctly oriented, we found above a ride the red upper deck seat where Harmon Killebrew blasted a 520-foot home run to deep left-center field on June 3, 1967. The Met was known as a hitters park but this shot is in another category altogether. This was the longest home run Killebrew ever hit, and the longest ever hit in Metropolitan Stadium. Without any other context, like other seats or the ability to see it from the home plate plaque, the lonely red seat doesn’t really convey much. Metropolitan Stadium was demolished in 1985.

We went next to the former site of Nicollet Park, at 31st Street and Nicollet Avenue South, where the Millers played from 1896 until Metropolitan Stadium opened in 1956. Mel recalls that the park was owned by the trolley car company, which had routes on both streets. After the Millers moved to Metropolitan Stadium in 1956, a bank was constructed on the site of the old stadium. On the day Mel and I visited, the branch of Wells Fargo that is the current occupant appeared to be patronized primarily by Somali immigrants, a curious sight to see. A two-sided plaque outside the bank gives some history of the Millers, which played in a variety of leagues, and Nicollet Park.

Our last stop was Target Field, such as it is as of July 2009. The stadium sits atop and along-side highways, with 20,000 already existing parking spaces within one block of the ballpark. A new light rail stop is being constructed immediately adjacent to the stadium and the park can also be reached via the vast network of sky-ways that connect buildings in downtown Minneapolis. Baseball is inherently nostalgic and I can be easily seduced by ballparks that evoke old stadiums. However, it looks like Populous (formerly HOK Sport, and now independent of the HOK Group) has designed something elegant and new, with a beige limestone exterior. Mel took me across the street to see an early loft conversion and we got a bonus: there was a photo mural of Athletic Park, home of the Minneapolis Millers from 1889 to 1896.

Stadiums of the past, ballpark of the future, finally it was time to go the Metrodome, the Twins' home of the present. Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn got off to a slow start, with two runs scoring against him on just eight pitches in the first inning. Joe Mauer hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the third to get the Twins back on top. A triple by Nick Punto and a double by Denard Span in the bottom of the fourth made the score 5-2. A two-run homer by Bobby Abreu in the top of the seventh brought the Angels within one and when Mike Napoli hit reliever Matt Guerrier’s second pitch over the wall, it was all tied up. It stayed that way until the top of the 11th, when it took three pitchers to get three outs. Unfortunately, Bob Keppel and Jesse Crain got none of those outs and gave up three runs apiece.

There is not much to like about the Metrodome. Instead of just numbers, the franchise has banners beyond the outfield of the players whose numbers have been retired; Jackie Robinson, Killibrew, Rod Carew, Tony Olvia, Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett. The banners look like baseball cards and are pretty neat. I am (still) not going to apologize for wanting to get back here one last time. As for the question, ‘Why don’t you wait a year and come to the new stadium?,' maybe I will. Incidently, a violent thunderstorm began in the bottom of the ninth, which would have caused a rain delay at Nicollet Park, Metropolitan Stadium or Target Field.

MLB Wrap-Up

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dome As You Are

We have seen baseball in some low-rent places—most recently Orem, where the Owlz share the field with Utah Valley State undergraduates. We have also seen the lap of baseball luxury, more or less, in Arlington and Denver. We’ve been to several of the “retro”-style parks that have come to typify the major-league parks since Camden Yards started the trend; we’ve been to classics like Fenway and Wrigley; we’ve been to fairgrounds (Tulsa, Boise, and the old Toledo stadium) and to cavernous relics like Portland. We’ve also made it to some of the multipurpose concrete bowls that were the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Those are nearly all gone now, either demolished (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia) or abandoned (Montreal).

And yet, for a few more weeks anyway, the Metrodome remains.

Baseball Byways is deeply split over the Metrodome—though the schism is conceptual rather than aesthetic. This is as it has to be, I think, as it is almost impossible to imagine anyone actually liking the Dome’s look, feel, smell, and overall gestalt. This distinguishes it from Olympic Stadium, where the Expos used to play—that place was also a sterile, plastic-wrapped, cold, concrete bowl, but it had a certain Modernist style and remaining whiff, however stale, of the utopian vision that gave birth to it at the world’s fair in Montreal in 1967.

The Dome has its own logic, to be sure—it is quite cold in Minnesota much of the year, after all—and the team was prescient in moving back downtown from a suburban location. But these virtues are easy to overlook on a beautiful July evening near the end (for me) of a long road trip.

So if it’s not completism—Rob had already seen one game at the Metrodome, and I had seen about a dozen--or aesthetic preference, why did Rob insist that we make a several hundred mile detour to go to the Dome? The reason is valedictory. Rob has a strong feeling that it is important to see stadiums not only in their first years but in their last ones: he also played recording angel for the Ottawa Lynx at the end of the 2007, for example. Few people understand this urge, and I am one of them. We tried to line up some people to go with us to the Dome, and each of them said, “Why bother? Wait till next year!”

Nevertheless, we went, and I tried to see the best of it. I failed, but I tried. The dinginess, I decided I could overlook. The cold (70 degrees inside; 77 outside) I could live with. The artificial turf—well, as long as I’m not making the diving catches and whatnot, what do I care? The lousy acoustics were no worse than listening to someone shout through a cheap cellphone from the bilge level of a U-Boat. But what I still could not forgive was the Baggie: the plastic sheeting that is used for about two thirds of the outfield “fence.” That is just demeaning, flimsy, and silly-looking. If those were qualities I was interested in, I’d read a David Sedaris book.

The game itself straddled and then erased the line between competent and comically grotesque. Twins starter Nick Blackburn (whom we saw last year in Arlington, too) got off to a rough start, giving up two quick runs in the first to an Angels team lacking both Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter. He settled down after that, mostly, and Joe Mauer put the Twins ahead in the third inning with a three-run shot off Ervin Santana. The Twins, however, like the Casper Ghosts, are notably lacking in bullpen consistency this year, apart from Joe Nathan, who pitched a stellar tenth. We headed into extra innings—because what could be better than more innings in the Dome?—only to watch Jesse Crain and Bobby Keppel give away the store, the livestock, the seed corn, and half the grandchildren in the top of the eleventh. The Angels scored five in that inning before Crain even got an out, and fans, booing, streamed for the pressurized exits.

Which made me wonder: when the last game of the season comes, and it’s truly time to say goodbye to baseball in the Dome, will there be a wet eye in the house?

Friday, July 31, 2009

St. Paul Saints 4, Sioux Falls Canaries 1 -- Thursday, July 30, 2009

Somewhere out in Midway Stadium there was a baseball game on Thursday, but that almost seemed besides the point. The canonized beat the little yellow birds by the score of four-to-one. Other than that, about all I can think of mentioning is Kerry Ligtenberg--who pitched 390.2 innings in relief from 1997 to 2005 for Atlanta, Baltimore, Toronto, and Arizona--closed for the Saints. Ligtenberg, who had a lifetime 3.82 earned run average, was born in South Dakota and went to school next door in Minnesota, where he now resides. Some players resurrect their careers in the independent leagues, but this 38-year-old right-hander is now playing for the love of the game.

Minor league baseball often bills itself as family entertainment, and I don't think I have ever seen a crowd enjoy itself more at a game then the one Melvin and I saw in St. Paul. What can you expect from a team that is partially owned by comedian Bill Murray? Mel and I saw a clown when we watched the rodeo in Steamboat Springs. There were also clowns at the Saints game, which is a first for me. The "ushertainers," as they are called by the team, included The Lumberjack, The Nerd, "a real Japanese guy," and Super Fan. That was just the starting line-up. There was also a cast of supporting actors, including someone whose job it was to bring a pig out between innings in different outfits, an exercise that wasn't even mentioned by the announcer; it just happens at every game.

Mostly, our section saw Super Fan. Among his performances, he revised a standard cheer so it ended with us shouting, "Change!," instead of "Charge!" He also led the crowd through a pantomime of collectively riding a roller coaster. In a way, it's like doing the wave but also fresh and new and fun. When Jason Cooper, who was released earlier this year by the Mets after playing seven years in various minor league organizations, came to bat, Super Fan had one section shout, "Coop'!" and another chant, "there it is!" And he could do things with his pectoral muscles that usually only burlesque dancers train themselves to do. Pepsi Party Patrol, eat your hearts out.

When the fans weren't participating in fun and games, and perhaps glancing occasionally at the action on the field, it was eating and drinking. There was a wide variety of beers to satisfy every palate. Besides the usual ballpark food , there was also lamb gyro, turkey legs, and cheese curds, which are like mozzarella sticks but each the size of a gnocchi dumpling (which are not on the menu). Cheese curds are so very tasty when they come right out of the fryer in all their chewy, cheesy, fatty, salty goodness. All that food and drink had a good portion of the crowd on its feet at any one time, but why not? This was family fun, and plenty of it.

As alluded to in an earlier post, trains run past the outfield wall at Midway Stadium. Only one passed on Thursday, just before the game. The announcer dead-panned, "train." The engineer blew the horn.

Germany Germany

Another long slog on the road, first from Chamberlain to Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, then on to New Ulm, Minnesota, for Hermann the German and the giant glockenspiel. A major source for our nonbaseball wanderings, incidentally, is Roadside America, but I knew the New Ulm attractions from my college days. Herman's only arguably German, by the way, and his name isn't really Hermann. As for the glockenspiel... reader, let us draw the curtain of discretion over the subject.

New Ulm has clearly done everything in its power to re-create itself as a destination downtown—the lures in this case being Christmas ornaments, German crafts, and wienerschnitzel. It makes for an interesting comparison to Fredericksburg, Texas, which seems to be thriving more than New Ulm is—or at least it has fewer empty or desperate storefronts. Also, the food is way better in Texas.

The tourist town is essentially the limit case of the “great neighborhood” phenomenon I pondered over a few posts back. If you’ve doubled-down on promoting the idea of the town, but the actual town is sort of depressing, what’s the next step? All the streetside amenities in the world won’t make those sad department stores any more attractive or that wienerschnitzel any less leaden.

We made it to Minneapolis in time to drop our things at our host’s and head over to Saint Paul. It’s nice to be on familiar ground. (I lived here for a number of years.) I’ll let Rob describe the game experience.

I and Thou

Today we saw the last of Wyoming, driving from Casper east to Lusk and then up to Newcastle. There we picked up America’s Tourist Trap Highway and went into the Black Hills of South Dakota.

This is as good a place as any to mention our evolving observations on western xenophobia. As we’ve gone along, we’ve been taken for drug dealers, undercover cops, recipe and decor poachers, and just plain weirdos. (So far, however, we have not been taken for homosexuals, which was a theme of the 2007 trip.) Rob’s theory, which I agree with, is that what we’re really being taken for is strangers: the places these things have happened are not typical tourist destinations or places where a steady stream of unfamiliar faces is expected. Instead, it’s been back roads, small-town diners, and other places mostly frequented by locals. And given the size and nature of some of these towns, the locals are long-timers, too, if not relatives. So when a couple guys come in looking “funny,” we become a canvas for what’s most feared in that place. I don’t mean by that that we’re fearsome (hardly); just that in a place where people fear getting busted, we get sized up as cops, and where they fear drug runners, we become that.

Now, what do I mean “funny”? After all, we’re not dressed outlandishly, don’t have aggressively distinctive accents (even if Rob does pronounce the word for the day before today as “yestiddy”), don’t have Day-Glo hair, or anything like that. But the codes of normality are very region-, town-, and location-specific. When we were in Cheyenne, we went minigolfing on the outskirts of town, in the middle of the day. There was a couple of guys behind us who seemed to be locals, and they wore blue jeans, big belt buckles, and T-shirts decorated with motorcycle logos and so on. We had jeans, too (mine were black, not blue), but button-down short-sleeved shirts without logos. From what’ve seen, the more acceptable variant on this is collared golf shirts and khakis, usually with a cell-phone holster. That would have typed us as, I don’t know, maybe air-conditioning salesmen, and we might have passed a little better. As it was, we looked like what we are: guys from contexts where logo T-shirts are not everyday wear. No one gives a crap whether we’re from L.A., New York, D.C., or wherever. What we were broadcasting, though, was our lack of participation in the dominant culture here—which is, of course, the dominant culture in most of America.

I’m probably making too much out of this one contrast. But it’s been interesting to see that we send signals even when we are trying to send no signal, and that we are being read everywhere we go. Certainly, no one we have met seemed surprised to hear that we were from far away. It’s easier to lose sight of this phenomenon when you’re in an environment that feels like home, but I know that for me it’s always a small shock to know that I am being watched even as I am watching. Indeed, one of the explicit points of this kind of trip is to go watch things. The things look back, though--and usually aren’t things.

We stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, which has progressed since I last was there in 1988. (This is Korczak Ziolkowski’s mad scheme to carve a mountain into the largest three-dimensional sculpture in the world.) The biggest change has been in the peripheral environment, however—there’s a huge visitors center and a consciously upbeat attitude: not only will this mountain get carved, they say, but there’ll be a museum, a university, a medical center, and so much more. Twenty years ago, it was much more threadbare, and it was reasonable to suppose that at some point the last member of the Ziolkowski family would say to hell with it and walk away. Now, it’s a real station on the Mount Rushmore pilgrimage, which I guess is OK. Who am I to second-guess such a project?

Rapid City turned out to be a misnomer—at least if Tally’s Restaurant there is any measure of the place: mediocre food, baffled service. But this was just fuel for the next stop: the Badlands.

When I came through 21 years ago, I thought this was one of the most unearthly landscapes I’d ever witnessed. But now it strikes me as precisely the opposite. What is more of this earth than these geological monuments? It’s our intrusions on it—and our perceptions of what constitutes “normality” in a landscape—that are ephemeral, constructed, and peculiar.

We wrapped the long day of driving with… no baseball game. We made it to Chamberlain, on the banks of the Missouri River, and had a darn fine meal at Al’s Oasis: whole fried catfish, wild rice, salad, and a dish of bread pudding. Tomorrow we’re on to Minneapolis/St. Paul—finally, real eastward progress.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Casper Ghosts 5, Ogden Raptors 8 -- Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday had a nice rhythm to it. We started by checking out the architecture in Denver's museum district. We ended with a quite enjoyable baseball game at Mike Lansing Field in Casper, Wyoming. In between, we covered some miles and had some adventures in Cheyenne.

When Melvin and I saw these teams match up in Ogden on the 23rd, the Raptors played the theme from Ghostbusters; "I ain't afraid of no ghosts." It is more than a taunt. Thirty-one games into the 66-game season, the Ghosts are finding their tenth win ephemeral, going into today's game with a 9 and 21 record, ten games behind the first place Raptors. Having seen them twice, it is not hard to see at least one reason why. At both the games we saw, the relief pitching has been awful.

The Ghosts scored first. With two outs in the second, Angelys Nina and Nick Valdez walked. David Hernandez reached first when Ogden pitcher Matthew Magill couldn't handle a throw from first baseman Kyle Orr. Nina scored, Valdez advanced to third and Hernandez went on to second on what should have been the third out. When Avery Barnes hit a line drive double to center field, both Valdez and Hernandez scored. The team tacked on an insurance run in the sixth, starting with Jared Clark's ground ball single into right field. Two batters later, Clark went to second on Ogden reliever Jordan Roberts's wild pitch. After Nolan Arenado grounded out to third base, Clark scored when Nina hit a grounder into left field.

However, the 4-0 lead could not survive the Ghostly relief pitching in the top of the eighth. Alejandro Barraza gave up three singles and a walk and made a wild pitch, letting the Raptors score twice without an out. Barraza was replaced by Leuris Gomez, who fared worse. After an error by the Casper third baseman, a double, an intentional walk, an error by the first baseman, a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly and one last single, the score was 8-4 in favor of the prehistoric ones.

The smart and speedy running of Barnes--whom Mel and I saw steal second, third, and home in one inning last Thursday--let the Ghosts score once more, but too little, too late. Barnes was hit by a pitch, took second and third on fielder's choice plays, and scored when Clark singled to third base.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

The day didn't actually begin with our tour of various Denver cultural institutions downtown. It really began with me getting a parking ticket for violating the once a month street cleaning regulations. As an almost 30-year resident of New York City who went to school in Syracuse, which has alternate side of the street parking every single day of the year, I just had to laugh. Then we went downtown to check out the expansion of the Denver Art Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Melvin and I did not go inside, so we cannot say how the various wedge-shaped spaces can or will be used, but we had to wonder how from the outside. The skin is expansive faces of metal plates, some of which looked like they had been installed very poorly.

We both preferred a 1971 addition to the museum by Giò Ponti, which a staffer told us was the Italian architect's only building in North America. Michael Graves's 1995 addition to the Denver Public Library seemed lame to me when it was built, and my opinion was unchanged by seeing it in person 14 years later.

Following our architectural tour, we made quick time to Cheyenne, where we decided to play a round at the "Wyoming Adventure Mini Golf." The course includes miniatures of such state icons as Devil's Tower, Teapot Dome, and the Sierra Trading Post outlet store. Mel beat me by two strokes. Does "par" even mean anything in putt-putt golf? Maybe with practice.

We then had an adventure of a completely different sort by having lunch at The Pie Lady (the restaurant). We both started with pulled pork sandwiches that were uniquely seasoned. I cannot tell you how, because The Pie Lady (the proprietress) expressed great concern that our blog would result in other restaurateurs stealing her recipes and other ideas. I think I can say that the sauce tasted too much like ketchsup and the meat had been cooked too long. Lunch comes with a bag of potato chips, an idea that I do not think is original to The Pie Lady, and a one-tenth slice of pie. Melvin had three "half slices" and I had a half and a whole. Can I even mention the flavors? I know that I am forbidden from describing how the available pie flavors are presented on the wall or how the restaurant is decorated. The pies were good; the paranoia was harder to swallow.

Eating the equivalent of 30 percent of a pie each meant we didn't have time to check out "Old Number 4004," the world's largest steam locomotive, or the ICBM museum on the F. E. Warren Air Force Base. We will have to save that for another trip, as my father used to say on trips to places we would probably only visit once. We did stop for some quick photos of the commercial signs on Lincolnway, a major commercial strip that, as Mel put it, "was the bomb in 1958."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Colorado Springs Sky Sox 3, Sacramento River Cats 2 -- Monday, July 27, 2009

Following on Melvin's post on our enjoyable Sunday, I could title this, "Back to 6,000 Feet," as we went to Colorado Springs for the day. We started at 10:30 with a tour of the Castle Pines golf course, where my cousin (and wonderful host for two nights) Bob oversees the forestry and horticulture. Bob and I both have degrees from forestry schools, and it was enlightening and enjoyable for me to see the beautiful and ecological work he has done at the Jack Nicklaus-designed course (elev. 6,300). We finished our tour at the high point on the property, with views of Pikes Peak, Castle Rock--the town and the geologic feature it is named for--and the valley below.

Unbeknownst to us, the Sky Sox and River Cats were also beginning their days at 10:30. The teams had been scheduled to play a double-header yesterday, and when the second game was postponed, it was only until the following morning. Our tickets were for a 12:35 start, what I had been calling a "day camp special." And special it was, if you like to hear screaming at frequencies usually only audible to dogs. The stadium itself is not so special, but that's unfair. I am sure that people were pleased with it when it opened in 1988, but the ever-increasing features at newer ballparks make Security Service Field seem lacking. Perhaps when the park was constructed, it didn't have a suburban subdivision beyond the left-field fence, where Mel and I saw mountains at our four previous games.

"Sox" is a venerable baseball name represented in the major leagues by red and white varieties and, if you go back far enough, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. (The minor leagues seemed to be populated by an entire animal shelter of cats and dogs, including the opposing team.) I always wondered why the Rockies Triple-A affiliate were the Sky Sox and the answer is simple enough; when the local team was in the Class A Western League from 1950 through 1958, it was an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The current franchise started in the visiting team's hometown, Sacramento, where it played from 1903 to 1960 as the Solons, before moving to Honolulu to compete as the Islanders, 1961-1987.

I had planned to complain about how bush-league it was to close all the food concessions in the sixth inning, but that became more understandable when it was announced that the game would conclude at the end of the seventh inning because it was the second game of a double-header. News to us until then. The score was 2-1 in favor of the aquatic felines, and as the Sky Sox got their last licks, Mel and I started rooting for a tie. We'd get nine innings of baseball one way or another. With one out, Kenny Perez hit a fly ball single to center field and advanced to second on Eric Young Jr.'s walk. Christian Colonel was put in the game as a pinch-runner for Perez, and he scored on Mike McCoy's grounder to right. Young and McCoy advanced one base on the throw. Mel and I then started cheering for a double play, but no such luck. Henry Rodriguez threw a pitch behind Matt Miller--now that's a wild pitch--and Young scored from third.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

Game over, I dragged Melvin to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Broadmoor hotel. I say "dragged" not because Mel doesn't like FLW, which he does, but because the architect designed the Biltmore Hotel outside of Phoenix. Oops, wrong desert. [Update, May 5, 2011: Wright did not design the Biltmore either.  The architect was Albert Chase McArthur, who studied with Wright for two years.]  The Broadmoor was designed by the Warren & Wetmore. It wasn't such a terrible mistake, since our next stop was relatively close. Magic Town is a 1:6 diorama of city life by sculptor Michael Garman, perhaps wearing Tom Waits's sunglasses. It seemed interesting enough from the examples in his showroom, where shoppers can buy individual figurines, but we balked at the $7.00 admission charge. We went to one last destination but, after a little soul-searching, used the bathroom and headed back to Denver.

Mile High Miscellany

Today we dropped several thousand feet and landed in Denver in time for the Rockies game, with great club-level seats courtesy of Rob’s cousin, who lives here.

While the drive was beautiful, I don’t have much to say about it, which may be why I am usually left unconvinced when people enthuse over how much they love living here on that account. Not that there’s anything objectionable or weird about getting off on looking at trees, but I just don’t see how much enjoyment there is in that. I grew up near the White Mountains and spent most of teenage summers there, and I do like mountains, forests, lakes, and all that. But it’s no sort of life.

The residents of Winter Park and the other small, cute towns along U.S. 40 in Colorado doubtless disagree. We poked through the early but growing crowd for the Winter Park Jazz Festival and spotted something we haven’t seen much of in the last few days: black people. We did see nonwhite people in Utah and Oregon, but they were Latino or Asian. The tremendous differentiation of populations across the country does make me wonder sometimes why we even bother with national aggregates.

We didn’t have a lot of extra time before the game, but we saw a little of what they call LoDo—the old warehouse district near Coors Field that has become a hot area. The stadium itself is a delight and doesn’t look its age (16)—perhaps because, we only belatedly realized, it’s been the template for some other places we’ve been. Rob found it particularly reminiscent of CitiField—or, rather, he realized that CitiField is reminiscent of here. Despite the stadium’s considerable size, it didn’t seem overwhelming in scale, and the breadth of amenities was remarkable—never before had we seen a stand selling only gluten-free food. Rob likened the ballpark workers to a hotel staff, in demeanor and efficiency. Which is actually a little weird, but it’s nothing to complain about.

The game itself saw some nice defensive plays by the Rockies. The Giants pitching looks suspect, though of course our exposure has been minimal. (I saw the Cubs host the Giants in May, but that’s about it.) Rockies fans—and there are a lot of them, given Denver’s huge catchment area--see the division title in reach, however delusional that may be. With the weakness of the NL Central this year, though, the wild card could be theirs in a walk. Rockies 4, Giants 2.

Afterward, we were underwhelmed by the famous Tattered Cover bookstore—great aesethetics, surprisingly few books. My friend John, an expatriate New Yorker, took us to his local, The Thin Man, which was delightful, even though we did not spy Myrna Loy lounging at the bar with a rye manhattan in hand. John then took us to City O City for fantastic vegan pizza—you read that right.

The Rockies left town for New York after the game; next for us was Colorado Springs. Well, we all have to be somewhere.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"A day without baseball is a day at the rodeo."

I think Anita Bryant said that--and that was long before "Where's the beef?" Coincidently, this first day without a baseball game is also my birthday. I don't really celebrate, but how could even I resist a twenty-foot dinosaur, in cowboy hat and bandana, with a lariat in its hand and inflatable birthday cakes at its feet. We had to stop for photographs.

The other unique photo opportunity was the remnants of the Bottle Hollow Resort, a motel and convention center opened in Fort Duchesne by the Ute tribe in 1971 and abandoned in the 1990s. The complex, built at a cost of $54 million, was designed by Baird-Young and Jones, a Salt Lake City firm. The June 26, 2009, issue of the "Ute Bulletin" reports that new development of the site is under way. Orange snow fence surrounded the buildings, and Melvin and I were very tempted to enter them, or at least get closer, for better photographs of the far-out, tipi-styled structures. However, the xenophobia that we have experienced so far on the trip made me fearful of being arrested for trespassing, and I convinced Mel to get back in the car. If I am going to get busted, I want to get arrested closer to home and not have it screw up my vacation.

There was some dramatic scenery in the Provo Canyon, right outside of Ogden, and east of Fort Duchesne. Otherwise, the two photo-ops were the highlights of the six-hour drive from Ogden, Utah, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The latter seemed like the kind of town that would have a good brewpub, but Melvin's research uncovered only bad reviews for Mahogany Ridge. So, instead, we went to the Old Town Pub, where the beer was fine but the food rather undistinguished. But what to do after dinner? It felt strange to not have a baseball game to go to, so we went to a different sporting event, the sixth weekend of the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. The ten weekends and final event are part of the Mountain States Rodeo Circuit, which is one of 12 regions in which cowboys and cowgirls earn points to qualify for the Dodge (sponsored) National Circuit Finals Rodeo. Or so we learned from the program; we grew up watching baseball.

We missed the bareback riding but caught the team roping, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bull riding. Children in the audience ages six to 12 got to take part in the "calf scramble," where they try to grab a flag attached to the animal's tail, and children five and under could enter the "ram scramble." The whole event was punctuated not by any sort of irony or self-aware humor but with Hee Haw-level mother-in-law jokes... some of which we laughed at like crazy, in spite of (or because of?) their incredible stupidity. We both commented that if we ever run out of baseball teams, driving around the country following rodeo might not be so bad. We'd have to change the name of this blog, though.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Orem Owlz 5, Idaho Falls Chukars 1 -- Friday, July 24, 2009

I used to be something of a snob about minor league baseball. The first two minor league teams I saw were the Binghamton and Pittsfield Mets, but they are/were affiliates of the major league franchise I root for. And if a team was geographically close, like the Newark Bears, then I wasn't so focused on the level of play. But in general, I have wanted to watch the best baseball I could, Triple- or Double-A. Melvin has been more ecumenical, even being a big fan of independent baseball, and he has made me less of a snob. However, after seeing three of the four teams in the Southern Division of the rookie-level Pioneer Leagues--Idaho Falls, Ogden and Orem--Mel is starting to jones for some better ball.

Tonight's game wasn't as sloppy as the Hawks-Volcanos game we saw, but it was sloppier than the four errors that will appear in the box score. Most of the scoring occurred in the bottom of the fourth when some Owl got the team on the board with a solid home run. (I would tell you who, but the team was wearing camouflage jerseys and I couldn't read the number. The Utah National Guard was being honored at the game and the camo' jerseys were to be auctioned off at the end of the game. This is a fairly common game promotion and when I attended a similar event in Auburn, New York, a Blackhawk helicopter landed in the outfield to considerable cheering.) Then, with two outs, Owlz (sic) hit a double, single, double and a triple and it was four-nothing. By the way, given the team name, fans cheer, "whoo, whoo," when something good happens.

The Owlz tacked on another run in the fifth when the Chukars pitcher picked up a softly hit ball on the field, rather than letting it roll foul. Based on his gestures, he evidently thought the ball had first hit in foul territory but instead of arguing the point with the umpire, he should have thrown the ball somewhere. By the time he turned to throw the ball to first, it was too late, and the Owl on second smartly ran all the way home during the argument, which was not covered because the catcher had joined in the discussion with the umpire. Argue the play after it is over, guys. This is the kind of stuff that has Mel ready for some higher level baseball. Jordan Parraz, on a rehab assignment from the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, hit a double and scored in the top of the ninth to let the Chukars avoid a shut-out.

When the team "dragged" (smoothed out) the infield dirt, it had three of the traditional groundskeepers and one who rode a lawn tractor with one lucky child on his lap. That was a new and nice twist on the mid-game chore. The previous night, in Ogden, the groundskeepers dressed in bad wigs and frumpy women's clothing. "They're drag queens," Mr. I-need-three-seats explained to me, as if I couldn't figure out a pun on my own. "They're faggots," some wit behind us announced. I don't know a whole lot about transvestites, but my guess would be that most cross-dressers are heterosexual. Mel was right; I am ready for another state. I did enjoy the pancake breakfast and parade this morning.

After the Portland Beavers game I wrote, "Beer and baseball have always gone hand-in-hand." Not at Brent & Kim Brown Ballpark. That's a first for Melvin and me, although not altogether surprising since we are in Orem, Utah. We got a six at a Sinclair gas station after the game.