Saturday, July 28, 2007

Brief Interlude for England Cricket

Meanwhile, it's not all about baseball. In between 30 games and tracking Barry's efforts to hit #756, I've also been able to spare a bit of time for... yep... England cricket. Which made for a very disappointing last Monday at Lord's when they were foiled in their efforts to beat India when play was called for light and rain with England ahead by 92 runs and needing only one wicket to win. Of course, I have it on good authority that certain individuals were exerting unfair influence on the weather, but of course I'd never want to point fingers.

This week's second test, in the meantime, isn't going at all well, with the tourists already ahead by 56 runs in the first innings at stumps on the second day with 7 wickets to spare.

P.S. If you're reading this blog for the baseball and none of this makes the slightest bit of sense, don't worry. I'll be at the Tribe game tomorrow.

Game #5: Camden Yards: The Original New Old Park

When Camden Yards was built in 1992, it redefined the landscape for new ballpark development. While in the years prior, the pinnacle of stadium design was epitomized by massive, concrete, multi-sport complexes, Camden went a different way, bringing back architectural elements common to the classic ballparks of the past, combined with modern approaches to niceties such as concessions and concourses. The Camden experience, in turn, inspired a new generation of new ballparks that have given me good reason to drive across the continent.

All of that said. 1992 has become more than a little while ago. Or, more specifically, the combination of a vast reputation and countless imitators seems to have taken its toll. While the park was nice, it felt rather overrated. While I give Camden all fair dues and rights for ushering in the new era in ballpark design, the opportunity other cities have had to learn from the model and improve upon it has produced other parks, such as the one I visited the previous night in Philadelphia, that have surpassed Camden. If I’d been to Camden for the first time before having seen many of the new parks around the country, perhaps it would have been different, but between the weight of expectations and the growth elsewhere, it was a bit of a let down.

This included the highly-touted Eutaw Street promenade between the large warehouse in right field and the stands themselves. I had expected this street-extension, inside the park’s gates and populated by concessions and businesses, to be more like the Yawkey Way outside Fenway, in being and truly feeling apart from the ballpark. However, in reality, it simply felt like an uncovered continuation of the general concourse.

That said, one neat element of Eutaw street that I’ve not seen elsewhere was the installation of brass plaques into the floor where players have hit home runs. These commemorative plaques make for an interesting study in where home run balls go, and also make for a fun exercise in seeking out your favorite teams or players. To make up for any anger I may have caused by my compliments to Yankee Stadium and to make sure that I don’t have to sleep on the couch when I return home, here’s a picture of a Red Sox commemorative plaque.

One point on which Camden did not disappoint was the food. The highly-regarded Boog’s BBQ was excellent, and made for the first time on the trip that I really felt like it was something I’d be happy to seek out and pay for outside of the ballpark. Also amusing was the availability of Old Bay seasoning as an alternative to ketchup for french fries – this is definitely the Chesapeake region. Meanwhile, beers were again plentiful and varied, with a wide range of local microbrews on tap.

The crowd was pretty small, which is perhaps expected for a mid-day, mid-week battle between the bottom two teams in the AL East. And of the crowd that was there, much of it was part of a kids day promotion that had dozens of groups of dozens of young kid day campers massed around the stadium, each group identifiable by their uniquely colored t-shirts. Unfortunately, that made for less people around, though I was able to strike up a bit of a conversation, when the music wasn’t too loud, with a man behind me who was there with his two high-school-aged kids.

And yes, they played Tampa Bay, so of course the Orioles won.

Parking was a nightmare, even though I arrived more than 2 hours early. The combination of mid-week and day-game in downtown Baltimore seemed to mean that all the usual ballpark-servicing lots were busy handling downtown-working businessmen. After more than 40 minutes of driving in circles between full lots, I finally found a remarkably expensive lot with a few spaces to spare.

I’m definitely starting to head further south. The game time temperature was 92 degrees, and my seat was basking in the sun for 3+ hours of the 3 ½ hour game. It’ll just keep getting hotter – After a detour back north to see Cleveland and Pittsburgh and a game in DC, it’ll be Hotlanta next week, and Florida after that.

Meanwhile, the afternoon game, while making for a hot day, did give me a chance to wander the Baltimore waterfront afterwards, which while fairly artificial in construction, and populated primarily with chain restaurants of all kinds, does possess a tremendous natural beauty. Kudos to downtown ballparks!

That said, despite the nice waterfront area, the Baltimore I remember visiting 12 years ago still exists – I fondly remember park benches in sketchy areas inscribed with the following fantastic saying, in the city with the lowest literacy rate in the nation.

After the game, it was off to DC to crash at a friend’s place, and rest up for a bit. Next stop, Cleveland!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Game #4: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

As I learned upon showing up to Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia, the Phillies had decided to celebrate July 25th with a “Christmas in July” theme. And in keeping with this theme, the game itself featured many of those characteristics commonly associated with that most wonderful time of the year. Just to name a few

Presents: This game was Cole Hamels Bobblehead night. Woo hoo. And especially impressive, it was Cole Hamels night on a night when Cole Hamels was the starting pitcher. Imagine the effort required to coordinate that. [Side note: These bobbleheads are now selling for >$24 on eBay]

Spending More Money Than You Intend To: Of course, the natural result of bobblehead night is… yep… a complete sellout. Which had me resorting for the first time on the trip to buying a scalped ticket on the street in front of the ballpark. Ah well... it was still cheaper than Fenway or Yankee Stadium.

Grown Men Dressed in Odd-Looking Oversized Suits: Ok, so this time it’s the Phillie Phanatic, best known of all MLB mascots, rather than Santa, but he’s still just as entertaining for all involved.

Spirit of Giving: In a true spirit of giving, the Phillies, not content with letting Hamels get the win on his own Bobblehead night, decided to try to give away the game in the top of the 9th. Two of the most gifted around at handing back sure-thing wins paired up to make sure it happened, as Antonio Alfonseca (he of the six fingers and six toes) and Jose Mesa (best known for handing the Marlins the World Series in 97) turned a 2-run lead into a 1-run deficit in a heartbeat. Heck, this spirit of giving continued into extra innings, when manager Charlie Manuel (whose nickname appears to be “idiot”) took the bat out the hands of his second best hitter by asking him to bunt with two-on and none-out out later in the game. Let’s just say there’s a good reason this team has lost 10 thousand games.

A Little Christmas Magic: Inspired by rally caps, Rocky music, and (to my left) a large pink finger, and down to their last out in the 9th, Jimmy Rollins hit a ball to deep center that two outfielders should have had a chance at. But, in a true comedy of errors, first the two outfielders got in each others’ way, dropping the ball, letting Rollins get on base, then the throw to the cutoff man was mishandled, letting Rollins break from 3rd, then the throw to the plate was offline, letting Rollins score on what was, for all intent, an error-induced inside-the-park home run. Not something you see everyday.

Midnight Mass: Finally, on the stroke of midnight, and in the bottom of the 14th inning, Ryan Howard, twinkle in his eye and all, sent everyone home happy with a soaring home run, letting everyone get their bounce on. See Howard round the bases here

Oh yeah… the park.

Citizen’s Bank Park, despite the generic name, is one of the newer among the new-generation old-style stadiums, and one for which they’ve really done a great job. Among parks I’ve been to in the past, it’s most reminiscent of Coors Field, with common modern/traditional elements such as exposed brick and steel, odd-shaped field dimensions, wide open concourses, and great sightlines. It was also the first park on the trip to really cater to the non-hardcore baseball fan, as the off-the-field distractions were plentiful, including, among others, a Build-a-Phanatic workshop run by the Build-a-Bear chain, caricature artists, kids games aplenty, and pitching nets to allow fans to find out their fastballs stack up against MLB pitchers.

The food and beer selections were excellent, with a huge variety of food stalls of all sorts, including an exceptionally crowded BBQ stand, a chicken rotisserie, and three different varieties of Philly cheesesteak. Ok, ok, so I admit to having tried two of them, but in my defense, I was at the ballpark for 6 hours, and I didn’t finish the second. Beer stands were scattered all over the park, with what seemed to be a different collection of microbrews and imported beers on tap at each one.

The one drawback to the Citizens Bank Park experience is the location. Placed in the middle of a sports complex in Southern Philly, it’s possible to stand in one place and be surrounded by the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, the Flyers’ and 76ers’ Wachovia Center, and the minor league Phantoms’ old Spectrum all at once. While this did provide for plenty of parking, and induced a fair bit of tailgating from local fans, the complete lack local activity, and the missed opportunity to explore central Philly were both disappointments.

Finally, I was quite struck at the frequency with which scores from the Phillies’ minor league affiliates were posted on the scoreboard. As the Phillies’ primary AAA affiliate is the Ottawa Lynx, this definitely caught my eye each time it came up.

Game #3: Planes and Trains, If No Automobiles

I’d been warned in advance that to attend a game at the Mets’ Shea Stadium after a game at Yankee Stadium wouldn’t be a great idea. But… that’s just the way the schedule worked out. And while the game was still good fun, and the atmosphere decent, this one-time home of Red Sox misery did little to compare itself with its cross-town neighbor.

The most remarkable characteristic of the park is its placement in close proximity to LaGuardia airport. Or rather, it’s the impact of this placement that’s notable. While the presence of the planes overhead is a well-known characteristic of the yard, and they can be heard when watching a game on TV, the deafening thunder of jets barely overhead and the view of these planes taking off and landing just above must be seen and heard to be fully understood.

The other interesting characteristic, and one that’d I’d noticed but not fully appreciated at Yankee Stadium, is that much of the seating is bound into artificial box-like sections of ~20 seats or so. These aren’t true boxes, but are simply metal bars, suitable for leaning against and for creating a slight sense of separation, around standard stadium seating. While this might not be the case throughout the park, it is something of an oddity.

I sat in the Loge box, in right field HR territory just inside the line. And perhaps it’s the higher corporate-element present in the Loge section (this is equivalent to the Club section of seats just above field level in other parks), but it definitely felt as if some of the visceral New York-ness of the crowd was significantly diminished from at the Yankee game. I’d been hoping for almost the reverse, as Mets fans will insist that theirs is the more baseball-purist experience, rather than it just being a place “to hang out and be seen”, but I didn’t find that to be borne out in practice. Next time, perhaps the upper deck would do better. Though I suppose next time’ll likely be at the brand new Citi Field.

When it came to the game, it was good to be back in an NL park watching the Senior Circuit once again. And while the game was almost astonishingly fast, clocking in at less than 2 ½ hours, the lack of a DH did little to take the pop out of the Mets’ lineup, as the hitting star of the game was none other than starting pitcher John Maine. Adding a 2-run homer (and 2 successful sacrifices) to his 7-innings of 2-run, 7-strikeout ball, Maine was definitely the hero of the night.

Unfortunately, both food and beer offerings were highly uninspired. The standard ballpark fare regarding food was available, but little of individual note. I’d read a recommendation for Mama’s Italian Sandwiches on the field level, but was denied entry to the field-level concourse with my loge ticket mid-way through the game. Poor form indeed. Beer selections varied all the way from Budweiser to Bud Light. Er… yeah…

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Already falling behind

Ok, so I'm already 2 games behind (on the blog, that is, not the travel) with Camden Yards coming up early tomorrow. But I'll have a break after that to catch up. So, just to prove that I'm still making progress, here's some help from a third party:

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Game #2: Start Spreading The News…

Ok, let’s start with a few basic caveats.
Caveat #1: While I’m a part-time Red Sox supporter, I’m really by heart a Giants fan. I can tell this is the case because I (*gasp*) do not immediately despise all things Yankee, while anything in Dodger blue does in fact get my hackles up.
Caveat #2: Yankee stadium was the first new-to-me stadium on this tour.

That in place, I can safely say this… Yankee Stadium was very, very cool.

There’s something about the place that immediately conveys the depth of history it’s seen, the countless championships, and the button-down professionalism of the team. It’s at once truly classy, with the white arches in the outfield, the classic script of the team name, and the precision of the pinstripes, and yet also very blue collar, as evidenced by the crowd, once past the field-level corporate seats. And what a crowd that was. Even for a Sunday afternoon game against the lowly Devil Rays, carrying plenty of potential to settle into a slow and lazy mid-summer affair, the crowd was as enthusiastic as you might expect to see for a mid-Autumn playoff series. Yelling, singing, chanting, and very clearly knowledgeable about the proceedings below, the crowd was a huge part of the atmosphere of the stadium. My personal favorite was the “Hip hip” … “JORGE” chant being spontaneously led by various crowd members at each appearance of the Yankee catcher.

The game itself was a laugher, but a laugher of the sort that this lineup seems built to roll out on a regular basis. Until the Rays spoiled it with an extra run in the 9th, the 21-3 score-that-could-have-been would have been far more appropriate to the NFL’s Giants or Jets than to a baseball game. And all that offense, including 6 Yankee home runs, made for a very high-spirited and enthusiastic crowd, and (recall the caveats here) definitely helped make for a great experience.

My seat was great, and I was very lucky to get it when I did. Having hemmed and hawed for several days, I finally gave in and bought a ticket via Ticketmaster late last night. Those who didn’t bother to do so, walking up to the box office immediately in front of me, found themselves facing a cheapest-ticket price of $280. Yikes. I may need to selectively buy a few more tickets in advance. My seats were in the “Tier Box”, almost immediately behind home plate, at the front of the upper deck. This section angled up from the field at a vertigo-inducing pace, which meant that for those of us near the front, we had a great overview of the park as a whole, combined with a nice intimate proximity to the batter’s box. The ‘pop’ of ball into glove was therefore highly immediate, and very satisfying.

Lastly, I didn’t partake in much of the food, but did have a hot dog – not just any hot dog, but a Nathan’s hot dog, as per the annual Coney Island 4th of July contest. I just had one, mind you, not the 66 that Joey Chestnut ate to unseat Takeru Kobayashi and claim this year’s championship.

The road trip begins

So… until yesterday, this hadn’t yet become a true road-trip. But, having pulled out of Boston and hit the highway for the first time, the road portion of this trip is now on for real. Meanwhile, there was definitely something nice about starting in Boston, as the route along the Mass Pike out of town was tremendously familiar. Remember the scene at the end of Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon's character (what was his name again?) hits the road on the way out of town? That highway scenery in MA & CT was my regular companion towards the end of my college days.