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?