Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Man Versus the Empire Brain Building

A still from Playtime (1967), dir. Jacques Tati

My employer’s offices recently moved, and the new space was designed from scratch. Opinions vary about the quality of the result, but no one disputes that the design is a very deliberate one that perfectly reflects the worldview and preferences of the company’s leadership. This isn’t always the case—businesses often move into existing office space and renovate it a bit for their particular purposes, resulting in something that may function well enough but doesn’t fully express the personality of the place (at least as conceived of by management). People buy old houses, too, or new ones that come stamped from a mold. Those kinds of places may also reflect some individual worldviews and preferences, but the idiosyncrasies don’t come through as clearly as they do in a place built from scratch to the specifications of a resident mastermind.

Which is a long way around to saying that after our visit to Target Field, we took a trip to the inside of Bud Selig’s brain.

The day started out better than that, though, with a stop at minuscule Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, where contrary to all expectations and experience we waltzed right in. A couple omelets and a great dollop of atmosphere later, we were loaded up and ready to drive in the rain into Wisconsin.

Our first stop was the Wegner Grotto—because since 2007 we have become grotto fetishists. This was no Cullman shrine, of course, but a modest assemblage of rough cement sculptures, polished stones, and lots and lots of colored glass shards. There are two sizable caution signs at the site, and a good thing, too—the place practically screams “Welcome to Danger Playground!” and I can only imagine how many children of central Wisconsin have had scarring experiences here.

By all accounts, the Wegners were fairly ordinary people who simply took it upon themselves in retirement to build a grotto somewhat like those they had seen elsewhere. They memorialized events from their lives—in, for example, the replica of the cake created for their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

On the whole, however, the site is modest, and hasn’t a single screaming peacock. The Wegners built a little shrine on their site, but we weren’t able to go in it. From what we could see through the windows, it’s now used primarily as a tool shed. Yesterday’s quasi-religious space is today’s linseed-oil repository—a juxtaposition that turned out to be an apt precursor to our next stop, where yesterday’s industrial refuse is today’s mythic temple.

As despairing of oddity as we were at the Museum of Whatever the Hell in eastern Ohio in July, Tom Every's Forevertron restored our faith in idiosyncrasy and set a new benchmark for monomaniacal environment creation (MEC). This behemoth of industrial refuse is part mythological vessel, part logistical miracle, and part junk welded together by a moderately unstable nut. Located a few miles north of Sauk City, Wisconsin, Every's site is dominated by the Forevertron but also contains countless supporting objects, sculptures, and rusting sculptures of birds playing orchestral instruments.

The full story of the Forevertron and Every's complicated life can be found in A Mythic Obsession: The World of Dr. Evermor, by Tom Kupsh, but there are many appreciations on the web, as well as the official site of the man himself.

The Forevertron is as pure an expression of Every's internal mania as he's going to get in this world, I suspect, but MECs as a class are everywhere, particularly in corporate form from Disneyland and gated communities to shopping malls and our last major stop of the day (finally!), Milwaukee's Miller Park, home of the newly dedicated Shrine of St. Bud, who was martyred in the 21st century by unthinking heathens who could understand neither his saintly dedication to a DADT policy for chemically bloated behemoths, nor his ability to warp time, space, and the National League to bring into this fallen world the miracles of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule.

I have had unkind things to say about St. Bud, and I did boo him heartily (and solo) in Mobile this April. Having now visited the park whose construction he masterminded while owner of the Brewers—with its pimple-like profile, poor field lighting, dark concourse, strange proportions, needlessly complex technological hoo-haw, autocentric location, crappy bars, soggy cheese curds, and vast expanses of concrete—I can say that I have been too kind to the man. Miller Park is a soulless technocrat's vision of what a baseball stadium could be. Being there is like watching a ballgame inside a beer commercial. Perhaps the worst thing I can say about it is that it almost (almost) makes me miss the Metrodome. We did have nice seats, though:

This is one of the benefits of going to see a team that is well out of it late in the season—StubHub is full of people who will take pennies on the dollar for those seats they bought in a fit of optimism last March. To the discomfiture of our neighbors, we cheered for the visiting Reds, who won, 5–2.

The whole scene does make me wonder—wasn't Bud's argument for contracting the Twins that no one went to see them, they were never very good, and their stadium was a dump? Funny how those arguments don't seem to apply 300 miles to the southeast.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Outdoor Baseball is Back!" and so are we

My insistence that Melvin and I include the final season of the Metrodome in last year's cross-country itinerary is old news. Melvin, who lived in Minneapolis for several years, enjoyed sharing this plan with Twins fans encountered along the way, playing straight-man for the inevitable and universal reaction: "Why?" Most, regardless of whether or not my explanation made any sense to them, followed up by asking if I would come back for the opening of Target Field in 2010. Like many questions ("Do these pants make my ass look fat?"), there was only one answer. There was no doubt I wanted to, but I had no idea how that would happen. As it sadly turned out, Melvin and Watson and I went to Minneapolis for today's celebration of the too-short life of Roger P. Miller. Melvin's ex-wife Red also attended the memorial, which exceeded the capacity of the room. All four of us went to Target Field yesterday and Melvin and I will go to Miller Park tomorrow, but two baseball games are not why we made the trip.

Target Field is stunning. This is no "retro-park" but a stadium for the 21st century. The exterior is native Kasota limestone, the large golden blocks rusticated individually to break up the massing, with glass and metal features. Shoehorned into a site where downtown meets the Warehouse District, there isn't a lot of public space outside. This is particularly true on the north side, hard up against a co-generation plant, where most of the walkway is taken up by an ad hoc queue for the light rail stop right outside the stadium. However, Populous managed to make a walkway above a street into a plaza on the south side. I took this picture --
-- to compare to a picture from the same perspective last year.

The tight site results in a very intimate stadium. We sat five rows from the top, albeit above first base, and the seats were excellent. The concourses are comfortably scaled and offer, if you can elbow through the sold-out crowds, fine views of the field. I had a Cuban sandwich, a salute to Hall of Famer Tony Oliva or just marketed that way. It was tasty but maybe not worth the wait--they can only make them four at a time. There are numerous food options, with many local establishments represented. Summit, from St. Paul, was our beer of choice. The beer wasn't the only thing that was cold; it was chilly in the mid-September shade. The Twins are going to the post-season for the sixth time this decade but 2010 will be the first since "Outdoor baseball is back!"

The Twins beat the Athletics 4-2 on Danny Valencia's three-run homer in the sixth. On the way out of the stadium, we stopped to chat a bit with Sam Graves (right), who with Michael Sacks blogs "on baseball, accessibility, Target Field, and more!" On the day we saw Sam, he posted his thoughts on the Twins post-season pitching, scooping Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse by a day. Another post-season debate is who the Twins are better off facing in the division series, the Yankees or the Rays, whichever is the wild card. Having lost to the Yankees three times (2003, 2006, 2009) in the ALDS, the consensus is the Rays. Then again, it's not like the Twins have a choice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cyclones Playoffs 2010

I've softened my stance on the 2001 New York Penn League championship. For nine years I have said there is no such thing as "co-champions." You either won enough games to make the post-season and then beat your opponents, or you did not. The terrorist attacks of September 11 ended the 2001 championship series after the first game and the Brooklyn Cyclones and Williamsport Crosscutters were declared "co-champions." I thought it more honest to say there was no champion; the explanation remains the same. It now seems to me that either the Cyclones or the Crosscutters could have won it all and its not fair to any of the players to penalize them for the cancellation of the post-season. At worst, "co-champions" is only half wrong.

So with that public withdrawal, I'll write something I've never said before: in ten seasons of play, the Brooklyn Cyclones have won their division five times (01, 03, 04, 07, 10), been the wild card twice (06, 09), went to the championship four times and were the league champions in 2001. Like the Atlanta Braves, that record is an accomplishment but one that inevitably seems a bit hollow. In the team's defence, three-game series are a killer. Lose the first game and you can't lose again. The Cyclones have been swept twice in the championship series and three times in the play-offs.

Last year I saw the wild card winners lose the only game at home. In 2007 I was in Coney Island as the Auburn Doubledays swept the championship. The Cyclones lost the first game of this year's play-offs to the Jamestown Jammers and I thought I might again be there for the end of the season. But a work colleague and I saw a scrappy game won 9-8 on a 12th inning wild pitch. Wally Backman managed aggressively; for example, giving runners the green light at third when it obviously was going to be a close play at home. Miguel Ozuna, who I saw three weeks earlier not win the home run derby, hit the only dinger, for Jamestown. But nine of the 28 total hits were doubles. Both teams had four-run innings. There were five stolen bases, all but one by Brooklyn. Six Cyclones struck out 14. And yes, five errors were committed. You get a lot of entertainment for your money at this level of ball. Box Score

Brooklyn finished off Jamestown the next night, setting up a chance for me to see another game, perhaps even be there when the team really did make it to the post-season and then beat both their opponents. The Cyclones lost the first game away, to the Tri-City Valley Cats. Sunday's home game was rained-out and when I got out to MCU Park the next day, dark clouds were massing to the north. The guy at the ticket window told me the groundskeepers had just put the tarp on the field, an hour of rain was expected, and I should go have dinner and come back. I walked once around the stadium while I decided whether or not to just go home. The Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance, memorializing uniformed personnel that died on 9/11, is on the east side of the stadium. I've never understood why it's there but two days after the anniversary, a chilly breeze, storm clouds, sparse crowds, alone--it moved me for the first time. I worked on getting a city street co-named for Firefighter Shawn Powell and without looking for him, or anyone else for that matter, his plaque jumped out at me. His mother died of cancer before we could get the naming through the City Council and his engine company never had the street signs installed, which had been for her benefit.  FF Powell was one of three firefighters and a lieutenant from E207 to die at the World Trade Center.

I decided to go to Nathan's Famous after all. Dinner was what has become my usual, the lobster roll, which I washed down with a quart of Coors. The food stand was the only place around that was out of the rain and it filled up with people waiting out the storm that finally arrived. Half were baseball fans and the rest were an interesting assortment. A trio of casually dolled-up Brooklyn girls walked around and around and finally asked where they could buy beer, which they did despite the unlikelihood of being 21. A guy with bruised doughnuts around his eyes alternated between twitching in front of the overhead menu and running out to his double-parked car. He finally pulled it together enough to place and pick up an order that he took out to his lady friend in the very large, very dark sunglasses. A street person sang along with the background music--Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes" was probably his best--until management turned off the sound system. So he sang unaccompanied. When he lit a cigarette inside, he was ordered to leave, and the soundtrack resumed. By then, I was ready for a cigarette myself and I waited out the rest of the storm under the sidewalk bridging around the Shore Hotel née Coney Island Theater Building. It rained almost exactly the hour that was predicted. They called the game about 15 minutes after I got back to the ballpark. The Cyclones lost the twice-postponed game tonight. There will be no more baseball in Coney Island this year.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Debutante Ball

Although they didn't wear satin gowns (see Mobile), a friend and I met at Citizens Bank Ballpark for a coming-out party. The Marlins and the Phillies added a 1:00 pm game on Labor Day to make up for one postponed in June. To keep the rest of the starters in proper rotation around the sun, both teams went with September call-ups who had never started a major league game before. We had no idea what we might see and perhaps the managers were feeling the same. Perfect game? Five-run implosion in two-thirds of an inning?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September: Kane County

We're squeezing in what we can here, as the seasons wind down. Labor Day weekend marks the end of the regular minor-league season (coincident with the expansion of major-league rosters to 40 men), so Watson and I took advantage of suddenly mild weather to drive the hour-plus out to Geneva, Illinois, and the Kane County Cougars / Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game. We'd been saying since moving to Chicago two-plus years ago that this would be an easy one to check off the list of minor-league parks, and indeed it was—though it did require puttering through rather too much of the sprawl that locals insist on calling "Chicagoland." The more I see of that nonsense, the less inclined I am to leave the city, retarculous gas prices or not.

The Cougars are the rather far-flung single-A affiliate of the Oakland A's—all the other teams in the A's system are on Pacific Time. In recent years, teams have been tightening their minor-league networks, which keeps down some travel costs but also deepens a team's presence in a region. Few teams are perfectly rigorous about it—the Cubs are about halfway there, with teams in Des Moines, Peoria, Tennessee, and, well, Boise, but the White Sox are an odd case, with teams that are more or less near one another (Charlotte, Birmingham, Kannapolis, Winston-Salem) but not near Chicago. There was plenty of Cubs and White Sox gear on the Kane County fans—one doesn't need a nuanced understanding of central place theory to wonder if this isn't sort of an obvious place for a Chicago-affiliated team. Don't tell me Oakland execs look forward to their annual getways to the Aurora-Geneva metroplex.

We didn't plan this trip far enough in advance to take advantage of any of the oddball sights in the general vicinity, like the statues of the Cat in the Hat and Dick Tracy in Naperville. With those, the Superman shrine that is Metropolis, and the Ronald Reagan tilt-a-whirl in Dixon, it seems like Illinois is on a quiet crusade to claim all of America's great fictional heroes. Personally, I wish it had been the Cat in the Hat trusting-and-verifying with the Soviets, but you can't have everything. (Or can you?)

Speaking of irritating cartoon characters, the antics of Birdzerk were inflicted upon us again. This was "his" fourth trip to Kane County this year, and the act seems to have worn a little thin. The dancing-with-the-ump routine did seem to feature the actual ump, not a ringer, though, and the Timber Rattlers' Cutter Dykstra was a good sport about "losing his glove." Whatever.

Cutter, of course, is the son of financial genius and deposed car-wash magnate Leonard Kyle Dykstra, who when last heard from was living like an animal. Whether Leonard and Cutter are still on good terms isn't any of my business, but I would like to know how many other former major-league players have named their sons after lesser pitches in the professional repertoire. I don't seem to recall ever hearing about Change-up Boone, Spitter DiMaggio, or Eephus Yastrzemski, but I'm open to correction and amplification.

Anyway, Kane County's a pretty nice joint for single-A. In style and layout it's fairly similar to the Timber Rattlers' stadium in Appleton, but it scores better points on food (Bobak sausages and roasted corn), beer (Two Brothers, from nearby Warrenville), and parking engineering (pervious pavement!).

The Cougar pitchers had trouble with the top of the Wisconsin order—Dykstra and Khristopher Davis were both 2-for-4, with Davis smacking his 22nd home run of the year over the scoreboard in left center—but not the rest of it. After a four-run fourth put the Cougars up 6–4, they never looked back, en route to a 9–4 final. There's but one game left in the season, which is almost impossible to believe. It seems like only yesterday we were at the season opener in Montgomery, but obviously it wasn't.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and out of Control

Perhaps the best thing about having a local team fall apart in July (if not June) is that by September tickets are much cheaper and pretty easy to come by. My friend Red—OK, really, my ex-wife Red—was in town for a couple days, and we decided to see if we could get Cubs / Mets tickets. (Little Melvin Jr. didn't come along on this trip, principally because he doesn't exist.) I was figuring for the usual bad or expensive last-minute options, but since the Cubs are freefalling into Pittsburgh-like oblivion this year, the streets are thick with woebegone scalpers. We were able to nab a pair of seats about 30 rows behind home plate for about a third of the usual price, via StubHub.

The Mets aren't lighting up anyone's dance card this fall either, so we got to see a number of recent promotions from Triple-A try to impress their respective lame-duck managers. Mike Quade might actually be the Cubs skipper next year, but in the current sweepstakes for the job, I'm laying money on None of the Above, with Ryne Sandberg about to start a long Ulysses (or do I mean Wally Backman?) act that will land him in the Cubs dugout round about 2016.

Anyway, Mets' latest exile from Buffalo, Lucas Duda, got his first major-league hit, after going 0-for-8 in his first two games. Duda, of course, is a headline writer's dream waiting to happen, but he;s got to do something first. Right now, the best we can hope for is an irate fan in Queens deciding to abscond with the young man's ride ("Duda: Where's My Car?").

On the mound for the Cubs, Randy Wells did his usual Start-Me-in-the-Second-Inning routine, giving up three in the first to set the stage for a long afternoon of scoreboard Ping-Pong. There were 21 hits overall—including Luis Hernandez's second career home run—with the Cubs squeaking out a 7–6 win. These affairs usually take forever and a day, what with endless pitching changes (in this case, Jerry Manuel trying to prove to someone somewhere that he is still doing something), but somehow this one rang down the current after about 2:35's worth of entertainment. Amazing, really. Red and I ran for the exit as an inept and unfamiliar tune rose over Clark and Addison.