Thursday, September 20, 2007

The car that took me 12,442 miles

30 ballparks, Boston to San Francisco, in one rental car. Ok, ok, so there was that quick flight up to Seattle and back, but the vast majority of the time was spent in one rental Ford Taurus.

While I’d originally thought that the car was perhaps a little bigger than I needed, the further the trip went along, the more I realized that having a car with plenty of room was quite nice to avoid feeling cramped, especially on the longer drives. Furthermore, the large trunk was a critical factor, as I left the majority of my luggage in the car throughout the trip, only bringing inside what I needed each night. And, as Adara was happy to demonstrate, the trunk really did have plenty of room:

Meanwhile, how far did I go? Well, it’s shown on the stats to the right, and in the title to this posting, so it’s not giving anything away by highlighting that I put 12,442 miles on the car in less than 2 months. For some perspective, that’s 4 times the distance from Boston to San Francisco had I simply driven directly. Not bad. The rental car return woman did a double take when she recorded the mileage, and asked me if it was correct. But, hey, she’s being paid an hourly wage, so when I confirmed that I had, indeed, almost doubled the car’s mileage, she just printed a receipt and wished me a good flight.

Game #31: Bonus baseball

Of course, the trip didn’t really have to end after 30 games. Due to a change in scheduling, Emily wasn’t able to make it out to SF in time for Game #30, so… here’s Game #31.

Obviously, there’s not much more to say about the park itself. Though by going again, I was able to catch a start by the Giants’ young phenom Tim Lincecum. And while he wasn’t at the top of his game, he definitely pitched well, and was well in line for the win before the bullpen blew it again. Ah well, the danger in cheering for a last place team.

Meanwhile, the one park feature I did experience this time that I didn’t comment on in the last post was a close encounter with Lou Seal, the Giants mascot. Not as close as the time when Lou Seal’s dad sat on Emily’s lap on Father’s Day, but close enough for the following picture:

Monday, September 17, 2007

Game #30, Take II: The Ballpark By The Bay

A few last words about AT&T Park, to help those who haven’t been there really get a sense for it.

Perhaps no other team had the natural surroundings at hand to build as beautiful a park as the one in San Francisco. But the trick was to use that natural beauty effectively. The ballpark in San Francisco does that spectacularly, blending an old-school brick and steel construction with water, islands, bridge, and city, all in a fantastic downtown setting. Some of the best views are from the upper deck seats along the first base line, from which point the span of the Bay Bridge stretches out almost as an extension of the park itself, before plunging into the side of Treasure Island, halfway across the bay to Oakland. From these seats, the graceful arc of balls making their way to McCovey cove can also be best appreciated, or the all-too-common asymmetric curve of would-be home runs being knocked down by the wind into the right fielder’s glove below. Meanwhile, any seat in the park gives a great view of the game below, and a minimum amount of foul territory makes sure that the stands are kept at a fantastically intimate proximity to the game itself. Finally, while the exposed bleacher seats can experience a fairly significant cross-wind, the frigid conditions of Candlestick Park have been mostly prevented.

For a new park, the focus is also kept well and truly upon the game itself. With the exception of a few kid-friendly amusements in the outfield, including a miniature whiffle ball version of the park as a whole, the intention is very clearly that fans be there to enjoy, and focus upon, the game.

For Game #30, what a game! With the Giants in last place and Barry Bonds having broken the all-time home run record, you might not expect much. However, with the hated LA Dodgers in town, and the Giants playing well for a change, the crowd was well and truly into the game. In a back-and-forth affair, the Giants found themselves ahead by a run heading into the ninth. Then, as happened all too often for the Giants, the bullpen was not able to hold on, giving up a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth. But, with an intensity generated from the SF-LA rivalry, and an enthusiasm born of the youthful eagerness of a September call-up, rookie Dan Ortmeier provided the ideal ending to my 30-park trek with a walk-off game-winning home run.

Back to the park itself; AT&T Park is one of the best pitcher’s parks in the bigs, a fact driven at least partly by the irregular plot of land available for development. While the distances down the lines are reasonably short, center field gets deep in a hurry, while the right-center field triangle affectionately known as Death Valley has seen the unfortunate end of many would-be-home runs. Furthermore, while the right field wall isn’t overly far away, it is quite high and supported by a stiff breeze coming in from the water. This has made for a rough outing for many left-handed power hitters, eagerly swinging for the water only to see their fly balls blown straight down and kept in play.

The archways on that right field wall further support the old-fashioned styling of the park. The hand-operated scoreboard is a great touch, as are the open areas outside the park from which eager ticket-less fans can get a peek of the game within. And, of course, along this wall is the Bonds home-run counter, tracking his trajectory to, and then past, the top home run hitters before him. This counter is further duplicated on the outside of the building, for anyone passing by the park.

Bullpens for both teams are placed directly on the field, with pitchers throwing in the direction of home plate. This has several effects, the nicest of which is the immediacy of the bullpen activity to the game itself. With bullpen activity so evident to the fans, this part of the game is brought front and center, and kept within the boundaries of the field, a great touch. From another perspective, this also allows the bullpen pitchers, catchers and coaches to sit in the dugout itself, with the rest of the team, a great touch at the end of tight games when the entire team is rallying together to will their team on. Finally, unlike at Wrigley Field, there is just enough space on the field to fully hold the bullpens, preventing the in-bound field of play from being directly affected by the bullpen pitchers mounds.

The scoreboard, meanwhile, is one element of the park that is most distinctly NOT old-fashioned. A brand new, and absolutely beautiful, high definition screen has been put into place on the large outfield display, exceeding even the screens in Atlanta and Toronto for quality, size, and information. With both lineups displayed at all times, a tremendous wealth of statistics and details, and a fantastically sharp view of replays and highlights, this is definitely the best screen in baseball.

No discussion of the park would be complete without a profile of McCovey Cove, the inlet of water past right field into which long fly balls can splash. Despite the cold water, most games find a number of hardy fans in kayaks paddling around, in hope of catching a ball.

And the kayaks are not the only boats around AT&T Park. Past center field is a fairly large marina, a great place to dock up boats in between beautifully scenic sailing trips around the San Francisco Bay. Tough life, really.

A relatively new feature of the park, and one that will likely be gone next year, is the collection of rubber chickens hanging from the right field wall. This display commemorates intentional walks issued to Giants pitchers, and was first established in 2004 as inspired by the frequency of IBBs issued to Bonds (120 in 2004, almost 3x the next highest mark of 45 by Willie McCovey).

“…where little cable cars, climb halfway to the stars…”

While commercially-driven, the shape of the top of the left-field wall is both unique and rather amusing. As shown in the picture below, the Chevron billboard painted onto the wall actually extends beyond the line that would generally represent the top of the wall. In order to accommodate this, the wall itself therefore extends higher at this point, meaning that balls hit off this portion of the wall stay in the park instead of becoming home runs. While I wouldn’t want to be sitting behind this (apparently they dropped a Dodgers fan into that seat), the novelty factor somewhat overcomes the commercialism.

In front of the stadium, standing as a classic meeting point, is a statue of one of the greatest players of all times, Willie Mays. Formally, the park’s address is actually 24 Willie Mays Plaza, a two-fold tribute based upon the Say Hey Kid's old uniform number.

In a tip of the cap to the large Latin contingent present on the team, the Giants occasionally take the field as the “Gigantes”, with uniforms to match. This evening was one such game.

While this is fairly extreme, it does make a good point. In many of the older stadiums, the seats face forward, regardless of their orientation to the field, thus producing sore necks if poorly positioned relative to home plate. These seats, in the arcade, offer no such problem.

From a food standpoint, there are a few definite highlights. The garlic fries, inspired by nearby Gilroy, garlic capital of the world, are the park’s signature food, and while they use pre-chopped garlic instead of fresh chopped garlic in order to speed up the preparation process, they’re still fantastic. Meanwhile, the mints provided as an automatic side really don’t help.

The local favorite, meanwhile, is the Cha Cha Bowl, from Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ in center field. Named after former Giant Orlando Cepeda, this is a tasty and (potentially) spicy combination of pork, rice, beans, and a pineapple and zucchini salsa. For a recipe, check out the Food Network here.

Beer selections are quite decent, with a variety of local microbrews available. But perhaps more amusing is the prevalence of both hot coffee from Tully’s and hot chocolate, both served around the park by thermos-equipped vendors as a way to fight off the chill of a cold summer’s evening.

Being back in the Bay Area was a nice touch, and I was joined by a group of good friends for the game. With discounted tickets from our former company helping get us into the park, it was a great end to a fantastic trip.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Game #30: I Left My Heart...

This isn't a full entry, but I figured it was time to get something up here.

Game #30 means the end of the trip, which is definitely bittersweet, but the Giants made sure to make it memorable. A walk-off home run to beat the rival Dodgers and the sound of Tony Bennett serenading the crowd out of the park were just the right touches to bring this trip to a close. And yes, Pac Bell (oh, ok... AT&T) is still definitely the most beautiful park in baseball.

(crowd chanting) "Beat LA! Beat LA!"

(crowd chanting) "Barry! Barry!"

(Tony singing) "The morning fog will chill the air. I don't care."

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Game #29: The Soon-to-Be-Fremont A's

There was a classic moment from an old Simpsons episode where the Simpsons visit the San Francisco Bay Area. As the family escapes from Alcatraz at the end of the episode, Bart yells “We can make it to San Francisco!” only to be rejoined by Homer’s “What are we, made of money? We’re swimming to Oakland”

That’s kind of the difference between the two cities in a nutshell. San Francisco – wealthy, young, vibrant, cosmopolitan. Oakland – blue collar, rough, lively in some places, but somewhat depressed. That character is reflected somewhat in their teams, more so in their fans, and very much so in their ballparks. Meanwhile, these A’s are scheduled to move down the Bay to Fremont in the next couple of years, and it’ll be interesting to see how the team and its fan base changes as they embed themselves in the high-tech-dominated South Bay.

It’s a da*n good thing the A’s are moving, too, since the McAfee Coliseum is a classic example of a concrete multi-purpose monolith. It’s massive, to the extent that the upper deck is kept completely shut at most baseball games, and, as with the Metrodome in Minnesota, the signage feels distinctly temporary, letting the stadium flip-flop from A’s green and yellow to Raiders black and silver as needed. The perfectly round original stadium, with its round bowl of seats, also leads to a huge amount of foul territory, pushing fans away from the play and giving the infielders plenty of room to catch pop-flies that would be well into the stands in other parks.

There are tales that the park had a certain degree of character, years ago, when the outfield was open and looked out onto the hills east of the city. In those days, a breeze coming into the open end of the park made it a distinct pitcher’s park, and provided both views and air for the fans to enjoy. Then, in an attempt to lure the Oakland-then-LA-then-Oakland Raiders back into town, Raiders owner Al Davis championed the creation of a monolith structure in center field, featuring seats that are never full for baseball (and rarely full for football for that matter) and luxury boxes much too far from the infield to bear any baseball appeal. Furthermore, this structure blocked out the hills and the breeze, cut down on the park’s character, and turned this once-pitcher’s haven into a still-air home run yard. All for a cost even higher than that of building the entire PNC Park in Pittsburgh, itself a gorgeous ballpark. This structure has gained the scornful name of “Mt Davis” and the park as a whole the status of temporary home until the A’s can complete their new one.

The stadium further suffers by its location, surrounded by nothing more than parking lots and freeway. There’s nothing around and nowhere remotely nearby to head to. Fremont, for that matter won’t be much better without a concerted and active effort to promote local (i.e. walking distance) establishments, a fact that the park owners have apparently recognized. We’ll see how effective they are in following through.

I had actually been to McAfee Coliseum, formerly Network Associates Coliseum, formerly the Oakland Coliseum, many times before, but this turned out to be the first time in my memory that I’ve been there to cheer on the A’s. Every previous visit has been to see and to cheer on the other team, whether the Giants, the Red Sox, the Blue Jays (carrying a large Canadian flag), or even Seattle when Ichiro was a rookie.

I was joined at the game by Sam, and we were fortunate to randomly run into a friend of his on BART (the subway) and her cousin, who were bearing an extra field-level ticket they weren't planning to use. With the addition of one extra close-to-the-field ticket at under face value from a scalper, and given that their tickets had been free, the entire game cost a grand total of $25 for the four of us. Furthermore, we sat at their seats in row 36 for a couple of innings, and then with some creative ticket stub demonstration and careful timing, all four of us were able to sit down to row 10, in the vicinity of my ticket, improving our view nicely.

These seats, though, I think wouldn’t have been worth the money:

I will give the Oakland fans, scarce though they are, some credit. First for the group of fans who make it to each and every game, to sit well out in Left Field and drum their way through the entirety of each game. These fans even made it into a TV commercial a few years back for their well-recognized “Tejada!” chant. The most distinctive, and amusing, current chant features shortstop Marco Scutaro, during whose at bats a variant of the old Marco Polo game seems to spread across the stadium. “marco…” “SCUTARO”

This game was Travis Buck t-shirt day. In classic fashion, and unlike in Philadelphia where Cole Hamels bobblehead day coincided with his pitching start, this promotion coincided with the A’s announcing that Buck was shut down for the season with injuries. Fantastic.

The game itself was the third of the home-and-home series I saw, and unlike in the other two, each of which was swept by a single team, these two games were each, unfortunately, won by the road team, and both in convincing fashion. The storyline behind the game was the matchup between two pitchers having tremendous seasons: Tigers reigning rookie-of-the-year Justin Verlander, and A’s all-star-game-starter Dan Haren. While Verlander lived up to expectations, throwing in the high nineties and racking up 10 Ks in 6 2/3, Haren was not able to hold off the Tigers, who put up 5 runs against him in 6 innings.

The A’s day was epitomized by an incident in the 7th. After the A’s chased Verlander at 128 pitches by loading the bases with two outs, Jack Cust came to the plate with 3 Ks already on the books for the day, clearly not seeing the ball very well. Did the A’s pinch hit for him, in an American league park with no concerns about carefully managing their bench? Nope – they let him hit, and as might have been predicted, he struck out, yet again. Shocker.

Meanwhile, we were within spitting distance of this guy. Luckily, I only had a still camera, and no video camera, or I might have been worried about my safety.

The same book I’d referenced in an earlier post talked up the A’s as having the #1 hot dog in all of baseball. So, thus prepared, I gave one a go, only to be dreadfully disappointed. Not impressive at all, and no better than the $1 dogs I remember having in Oakland on dollar-dog/dollar-ticket Wednesdays a few years back.

I did, though, make it to Top Dog, an apparent Berkeley institution a few days later, on being shown around Berkeley by another friend, Scott. And this did not disappoint at all. The linguica, shown below, was tasty, spicy, and fantastic.

Finally, the drive up from Southern California offered the chance to enjoy some of the great California coastal scenery. While the setting sun meant that I missed out on the northernmost views, the lighting of the sunset on Big Sur made the scenery particularly beautiful. See more pictures in the photo album.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Game #28: Beach Ball

Having lived in San Diego in the past, and having attended several games at the old Qualcomm Stadium, I was quite eager to see the 3-year old Petco Park, which had gotten some great reviews. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the atmosphere, and there are some quite nice features, the ballpark as a whole is rather plain, and didn’t live up to the standard set by new parks in Seattle, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.

The most notable feature of the park is undoubtedly the Western Metal Supply Company building. This old brick building was left in its pre-existing site (with improvements applied for earthquake safety), and incorporated as part of the ballpark, and makes for a nice piece of history right in the new ballpark. There is seating, and party suites, built right into the building, which itself defines the edge of home-run territory, making any ball that reaches these fans a great souvenir.

The other great feature of the ballpark is a open lawn area in right field. Inside the park, but outside the main bowl, this area provides a great spot to lounge out on the grass, with clear sightlines into the park and a large video screen to ensure that details and replays are made fully available to fans. This was a great touch, and a nice way to keep the ballpark feeling like a neighborhood feature.

Finally, the location of the ballpark is excellent, and appears to have further energized the already-happening Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego.

However, once past those three points the rest of the ballpark is rather plain. The color scheme and general construction feel rather sterile and imposing, and were, as with Tampa Bay, rather reminiscent of a shopping mall, though in this case reminiscent of a Southern California-style outdoors mall.

Furthermore, the park does little to make use of the city’s most distinctive features: Beach & water. This is particularly disappointing given the change in team colors and logo on opening the new part to incoporate the ocean into the identity of the team.

The bullpens are rather odd, and perhaps due to the Supply Company building, the opponents’ bullpen is right on the field while the home bullpen has its own separated area. Furthermore, a picnic area opens right onto the home bullpen without any wall, fence, or other barrier in between. Sure, it’s a half-level down, but there’s really nothing stopping overzealous fans from diving into the bullpen or leaning over and asking for autographs/souvenirs

In a terrible example of overzealous security policies, the Petco security staff made an effort, remarkably, to throw out a fan who threw back an opposing team’s home run ball, in classic Wrigley (and now almost universal) fashion. They escorted him, to resounding boos, under the stands, but after an inning or so, allowed him to return to his seat, apparently allowed to stay.

The San Diego Chicken was nowhere to be seen. While originally the Padres’ mascot, due to touring schedules and other factors, he’s apparently rarely at the ballpark, a fact far different from the Philly Phanatic, and one that has even prompted the Padres to introduce a more common, but less entertaining Friar mascot

The game was a strong reminder of the importance of not giving free baserunners to the other team. The night before had been a great performance for Greg Maddux and the Padres, giving up zero walks in nine innings on the way to their 3rd win in row over the 1st place Diamondbacks, actually edging Padres into 1st place by a few percentage points. The game I attended, on the other hand, was a stark contrast, as Padres pitcher Chris Young, still struggling to recover his first half form after some injuries and some time on the DL, had trouble finding the strike zone all night long. With Diamondback players getting free passes all night, Arizona was able to score a number of easy runs, and to walk away with the game.

There was one shining moment that both teams could appreciate, though. In the top of the second, Arizona rookie Mark Reynolds hit a ball within 2 feet of the park’s record, a moonshot that went well up into the left field stands.

The attendance was also disappointing, with only 29,000 fans at the ballpark. For a Thursday night game between the top two teams in division, with the Padres having just made it into 1st place, and with a relatively new ballpark, I was quite disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm shown by the Padres fans.

While I passed on the trademark food at the park, it was only because I’d already made a point of getting some earlier in the day: Rubio’ Fish Tacos. These Baja specialties are fantastic, and I made a beeline for the original Rubio’s location (still the best) upon first arriving in town. Highly recommended.