Since there are only so many pictures that reasonably make sense in these blog entries, I've taken to adding extras, uncaptioned, to the following site. If the blog's not been enough, feel free to go take a look.
Friday, August 10, 2007
In a nice bit of symbolism, my tour hits the halfway point with today’s game as I reach St Louis and pass under its signature landmark, the Gateway Arch representing the way to the West. The fact that I’m actually traveling east, from KC to St Louis to Cincinnati, during my generally westward ballpark tour, is just a technicality that we’ll chose to put aside for now.
It was hot again today, with a high in triple digits, and the gametime temperature still in the low 90s at 7 PM. This made for a hot and sticky ballpark at the start. Furthermore, while you can do all sorts of great things online to see where your seat will be and what your view will look like, the one thing you still can’t know in advance is whether the person in the seat next to you will… er… let’s just say whether they’ll overflow into your seat more than most people will. I did a bit of bouncing around in my section before finally finding a seat that was far more comfortable on such a hot evening.
Cardinals manager Tony Larussa has been batting his pitcher in the #8 spot, with second baseman Adam Kennedy hitting ninth. This is a pretty bold move, and a definite blow to the ego of any position player finding himself batting behind a pitcher. Theoretically, Larussa’s trying to get another batter on base for the heart of his lineup, but Kennedy’s .217 batting average may be more of an issue. Coincidentally, Kennedy made the final out today, though after a strong and well-fought at-bat against Dodgers closer Takashi Saito.
That at bat came at the end of another tremendous pitchers’ duel, in which Dodgers ace Brad Penny (7 IP) and Cardinals ace-by-default-due-to-injuries Adam Wainwright (9 IP) each kept the other team off the board through 8 innings. But, a James Loney 2-run home run in the top of the 9th gave the Dodgers all the offense they’d need. One day after Rick Ankiel was the news of the day by making it back to the majors as an outfielder 7 years after completely losing his mental capacity to be a major league pitcher, Ankiel was able to advance a bottom-of-the-ninth rally with a base hit, but not to provide the necessary heroics for the second day in a row.
It’s a shame, really. This was a game I *really* wanted the home team to win. But several attempts to get a “Beat LA!” cheer going in the crowd just didn’t seem to have the desired effect.
The new Busch stadium is quite nice, in a classic (and starting to become just a wee bit repetitive) new-retro, brick-and-steel way. It was also quite expensive, but very full, with a sellout and over 44,000 fans in attendance on this Friday night. The World Champs thing has apparently done them quite well. The crowd was also very knowledgeable, in the sort of way that happens when your team has been doing well of late. You could feel that the crowd understood the dynamics of the game, and recognized the mounting 9th inning come-back in a way that only really happens when you’ve seen that sort of thing several times before. Unfortunately, in this case it fell short, but the essence was still there. They also, wonder of wonders, sang along to “Take me out to the ballgame” in the 7th inning stretch with more gusto than any park to date. Wrigley, you’re on notice…
The scoreboards were a shame, especially for a 2-year old stadium. While they displayed both teams’ full lineups at all times, an excellent decision, there was a true scarcity of other information available. Furthermore, a large clear screen was being used for very detailed views of out-of-town scores, which was nice, but was space that could have been well used during play to display more relevant information, saving the out-of-town scores for between innings. The same was true for screens between decks that were dedicated, remarkably, to identifying groups and allowing people to send in text messages, even during play.
Before the game, they had several hundred young girls as young as 5 who were part of various area gymnastics groups get to practice and tumble out on the field. This was very cute, but I’m not completely convinced Dodgers pitcher Brad Penny was thrilled. Now if only they were able to keep the girls in his way a little longer…
Having gotten in to St Louis the night before, I was able to spend some time exploring the city. In particular, I went on the must-be-done tour of the city’s great marketing… er… brewing company. After all, while “life’s too short to drink bad beer”, there are two words that undeniably come to mind in the phrase: “_________ _____, St Louis, Missouri”
I was also able to sample a signature food of the city itself in Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Historic Route 66. It was decent, but fell short of both Tosci’s in Cambridge, MA (my nostalgic favorite) and Vivoli in Florence, Italy (objectively the best I’ve had).
And, of course, the Gateway Arch itself, the city’s key landmark. This was really just down the street from the park, allowing me to get a chance to see it up close and personal, and to get a few cheesy photos. Enjoy…
Kauffman stadium in Kansas City is not a new park. It’s built of concrete, is in a stadium-dedicated area outside of the center of town, has been around for a while, and for a while, had artificial turf. Finally, the team that plays in this Stadium would really be overmatched by some AAA teams, and it therefore draws crowds to match.
Those were the basis for my expectations going in, and everything there turned out to be true. Furthermore, it was an afternoon game on a really, really hot day.
BUT, between its baseball-only design, a great and classic crowned scoreboard display in the outfield, the presence of some really attractive fountains, and an impressively plugged-in crowd, this turned out to be actually quite a pleasant place to watch a game, and I was very pleasantly surprised.
There is still no 360-degree walk-around, which is disappointing. However, plans are in place to develop the stadium further, while preserving the basic structure. This’ll add a full 360-degree range to the park by adding new seats and concessions in the outfield, upgrading the scoreboard, improving the view-level concourses, and developing the stadium entrances further. It will be a shame if they lose much of the grass currently in the outfield, but they’ve firmly stated that the fountains will be unaffected by the development, and it will definitely be good to get the full circle completed.
They were giving away free water, which was a nice touch, and strongly needed. The game time temperature was announced at 91-dgrees, but it felt very much hotter than that, especially in the sun. While I have no idea what this means, the post-game radio show announced the “heat index” as 105-degrees (40 C). If that’s anything like a wind-chill factor, than that definitely presents an accurate view of the feel of the park today.
The lower bowl was mostly full under the shade, but more sparsely filled in the sunny seats closer to the field. My seat was great, at 5 rows off the field, but I joined several people around me mid-way through the game in shifting backwards to covered seats. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen people cheating *backwards* so often.
The crowd was good, and quite impressive. And while it was smaller than that in Baltimore for another Thursday afternoon game, it was somehow more engaged and enthusiastic. I was impressed with the size and the excitement, especially given the large number of Twins fans present
I met a father/son duo from Philly who were doing 6 cities worth of the identical itinerary as me in reverse. They’d been to Cincinnati and St Louis already, and were able to provide some nice tips for my upcoming starts
The game itself was a true pitchers duel, with both starters getting into the 7th, and only one run being scored throughout. That run, as well, was little-ball through and through, with a double, bunt, and sac fly getting the runner in. And despite the lack of offense, it was a tense and exciting affair, proof that a game can be enjoyable without a lot of runs.
Meanwhile, I made a point of visiting two institutions in town that were very highly recommended.
First was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was an excellent and fascinating stop. This museum presented not just the history of these parallel leagues, that featured talent often described as every bit as good as that in the majors, but also the story of this segregated world, and how it reflected America at the time. At its height, teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays were received as stars while touring, while simultaneously being shunned hotel space or food by the very same establishments that were glorifying their achievements.
This was co-located with the American Jazz Museum, which I would have *loved* to spend more time in, but was unfortunately forced to do just a quick run-through. Something to come back for, someday, perhaps.
The other must-do stop in town was Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, a place that absolutely lived up to its billing. Classic Kansas City Barbeque, in my case with ribs and “burnt ends”, made for a fantastic pre-game meal. The line to order stretched out the door and down the block, but I didn’t see a single person complaining.
With the afternoon start, I worked in the drive to St Louis that afternoon, giving me two straight nights in St Louis. The opportunity to take a day without any driving at all will be great, as the 4000 miles I’ve covered in the last 9 days definitely have me ready for a break. Missouri, or at least the Kansas City-to-St Louis corridor, was somehow just a little bit less flat-and-rural than Kansas was, though the crops made the shift to almost exclusively corn. It’s not grain, but it’s definitely amber waves as far as the eye can see.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
As with driving through the South late last week, today’s drive through the Great Plains (namely Oklahoma and Kansas) was pretty cool, and distinctly different from what’s come before.
Most notable is the sky, which is somehow bigger, grander, vaster, you name it, compared to normal. It really does feel huge, and creates a personal feeling of being small underneath it.
The impression of the sky is probably created by the landscape, which is, in turn, remarkably flat and empty. Ok, so it’s not really flat, as the plains undulate in small, rolling hills. And yet, the horizon is perfectly flat, and the overall impression created is of a land that goes on forever.
It’s all oddly beautiful, with the vast expanse of sky and stretch of grass. This became especially true as the day started to fade and the sun’s light began to color the landscape and the sky a fantastic range of colors.
Meanwhile, as the day turned into night, a lightning storm of the sort I’ve never seen before began to build on the left horizon. With lightning flashes coming fast and furious, and an ominous set of clouds forming, it really did feel like America’s heartland. I felt myself in a race to reach my hotel before the storm hit, and, with flash flood warnings coming left and right late this evening, it’s probably become the right move. Despite that, we’ll hope for sunny weather tomorrow for an afternoon game in KC.
Oops. I left out any mention of a signature food in DC. Not because any of RFK’s offerings were particularly appealing, but because I had some time before the game to avail myself of the product of the nearby Chesapeake. Great stuff:
Sure there’s only a half-dozen there, but as an amateur, it took me about an hour and a half to get the meat out of them. Still, absolutely worth it!
Sure there’s only a half-dozen there, but as an amateur, it took me about an hour and a half to get the meat out of them. Still, absolutely worth it!
Ok, so this *is* Texas. Which means that really, football is king. But, for the second night in a row, I was able to watch a ballgame in a really fantastic ballpark. I’d been to see the Texas Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington once before, but found myself even more impressed this time.
To start with, it’s BIG. Yes, it’s still a new baseball-only park, but, as is appropriate to Texas in general and Big D in particular, this is a large park. And many of the features reinforce that. There are great massive archways around the outside of the stadium, the gates are huge, and the concourses are massive. But it all works – my seat was a good one, but even wandering around the park, the sightlines looked good throughout.
Of course, appropriate to Dallas, the park’s in the middle of nowhere. Arlington’s a middle-ground between Dallas and Ft Worth, and appears to be the constructed-entertainment center of town. Therefore, the amusement parks, ballpark, and forthcoming new football stadium (Will God still be able to watch through a hole in the roof, Jerry?) are all out there. That’s definitely a downside, compared to the great appeal of downtown parks, but hey, it’s fitting to the area.
Meanwhile, they’ve somehow perfected the art of putting the park in the suburbs, but still not making the parking convenient. My parking spot, in the general lot, was still a bit of a hike, especially in the 100-degree Dallas heat. But, since I’d shown up quite early, so as to visit the Legends of the Game Sports Museum in the park, I was actually given a ride by the employee shuttle bus, which happened to be driving by. They all gave me a hard time about my Red Sox shirt (hey, it was blue-and-red), though not for my Giants hat, but it was a well-appreciated touch.
The Legends of the Game Museum was a nice visit, and moderate amount of the memorabilia there is actually borrowed from Cooperstown. Having missed the Baseball Hall of Fame on this trip, it was nice to spend some time here, and they’ve done a very good job with the place. A couple of interesting items worth pointing out here: A jersey from the Say Hey Kid, and the famous crown trophy given to the Babe.
The park’s quite reminiscent of Jacob’s field, in that it is new, nicely featured, baseball-only, and well-outfitted, but not the full-blown new-retro of Pac Bell, PNC, or Coors. The two most distinctive attributes, within the bowl, are probably the ornate white-steel-and-glass building front in center, and the old-fashioned pillared double-decker grandstand in right field. Both are definitely nice touches, and add character to the building.
Despite the size of the interior, the Ballpark also includes a feature I’d love to see at more parks: An open-air space outside the building that’s actually included in the ticketed area. There’s a certain discomfort with walking out of the building mid-way through the game, as I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d not be allowed in, but this outdoor area, bounded by two fences and a lake, is actually part of the park. Good stuff.
The luxury suites, in a great touch, are not numbered, but are instead each named after a hall-of-fame baseball player.
Unfortunately, while you can bring a horse to water… Did I say this was a football town? Well, it was borne out in the approach of the fans to the game. This was not a Boston/NY/Chicago crowd.
• Example #1: At a key junction in the top of the 7th, with the Rangers up by 4, the A’s loaded the bases with no one out. The new Ranger reliever was able to induce a pop-up, throw a strikeout, and get a weak grounder to 1st, to get out of it with no damage. A wildly enthusiastic crowd? Fans standing and cheering at 2-strike counts? Nah…. At the time, there were several fans busy trying to start the wave in my section, around whom I had to shift and peer in order to see the drama below.
• Example #2: While I’m still waiting for a truly moving 7th inning stretch (the Yankees do it well, but not on an everyday basis – Wrigley, I’m counting on you), this was a low point. Mostly because there were quite a few people… yep… not even standing. Hmmm…
But, hey. This is a last-place team, and Cowboys training camp is well underway, so perhaps I’m asking too much? The fans who were left at the end of the 9th did give it a good cheer as the game came to a close, though.
Still, definitely an enjoyable place to watch a game, and a good experience. I’d hesitate before buying a day-game ticket in August, but I’d certainly come back if in town.
Off to Kansas City tomorrow and to the heart of the Mid-West.
A quick caveat – I’ve been to both of the two Texas ballparks before, and am a big fan of Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Yes, it’s also designed by HOK, and yes, it shares many design features with numerous new parks. But they’ve definitely done it right, and you definitely feel like you are “Deep in the Heart of Texas”
The roof, which was closed on this visit, works quite well. While in Seattle the stadium roof is for rain, and in Minnesota it’s for snow, the roof in Houston, much like that in Arizona, is used to close out the heat of the summer and air condition the interior. It’s not as hot as it is in Phoenix, but with the Houston humidity, the closed roof and windows and air conditioned ballpark were definitely appreciated. Plus, they’ve been able to maintain natural grass and dirt, due to the fully retractable nature of the roof, so it really does work nicely.
I sat in the Crawford boxes out in left field, a characteristic element of the park. This left field home run porch is remarkably close to home plate, providing a very temping target for right-handed hitters, and a great vantage point for fans, and partly makes up for the deep expanse of center field stretching to Tal’s Hill and the in-play flagpole. And no, given the misunderstanding on a previous blog post about George W DC, I’ll specify that this is not Bush’s Crawford ranch, but rather the street beside the ballpark that this Crawford is named after.
Another distinctive feature of the park is the integration of the historic Houston Union Station as a grand entranceway into the park. I’d missed this on my first visit, but made a point of working my way around the park to enter via this gate. It’s got a great old-fashioned train station feel.
I looked and looked, but there was no sign of an Enron “E” anywhere in sight. That said, this is oil country, so oil stocks were listed in a ticker in right field, the price of crude is displayed prominently, and the total number of Astro home runs hit at the park are listed in a faux gas pump in left field. Gotta love it.
Also an indication of being in Texas: To loud applause, a group of new Marine recruits were sworn in on the field before the first pitch.
The beer selection is poor, but that was ok. I spent my pre-game warm-up at the Flying Saucer , a bar I’d found on my last trip to Houston in the heart of downtown and a short walk to the park that features a truly phenomenal collection of draft and bottled beers.
As usual for a Cubs road game, there were a LOT of Cubs fans in attendance. It’s got to be fairly frustrating, really, for home fans of any park when the Cubs, Sox, or Yanks come to town. But the Astros fans got the last laugh. For me, another day, another extra-inning game. This time, it was a 2-out, man-on-3rd base hit in the bottom of the 10th that sent everyone home happy. Great fun.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Little-ball ruled in the 12th inning at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium on Saturday night. In a truly amusing sequence of events, with 2 outs in the bottom of the 12th, the Astros decided to intentionally walk slugger Miguel Cabrera, who’d burned them once already with a home run to tie the game in the bottom of the 7th. He advanced to 2nd on a wild pitch that caught the catcher in the throat and stunned him. He then advanced to 3rd on another wild pitch, and all the way to home when that wild pitch was judged to have been knocked into the dugout by the catcher. 27 times this year, Cabrera came around to score before the next batter finished his at-bat. This 28th time was definitely the most unique. Is that little-ball? I’m not actually sure. But you get the point.
In some ways, this may have just been payback for a tour around the bases by the Astro’s Carlos Lee earlier in the game. After hitting a catchable ball that instead got past the center fielder for a double, Lee advanced to 3rd on an errant throw from the center fielder to second base, and then to home when the second baseman’s attempt to make up for the first error by throwing the ball to 3rd wound up going through the 3rd baseman’s legs. That’s twice on this tour now that I’ve seen a player hit the equivalent of an inside-the-park home run thanks to fielding errors.
Dolphin Stadium is exactly what it sounds like – a football stadium that happens to host baseball games. It reminded me quite a lot of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, as a classic massive multi-purpose stadium of the pre-Camden/Jacobs field era. That said, the field dimensions and left field grandstand both look far less odd in person than they did on TV. And, unlike Candlestick Park, there are no baseball-configuration seats facing the wrong way. Still, the park was really nothing worth writing home about.
I was quite struck, meanwhile, by how different South Florida is from Central Florida in culture and environment. Having never been to South Florida before, I’d not fully appreciated the extent of the Latin influence, clearly evident at the ballpark as between-inning announcements and entertainment were run at first in both English and Spanish, until at some points late in the game, they gave up on English altogether and just started doing everything in Spanish.
A few random points of note:
It was seriously hot, despite the evening start, and the Marlins apparently draw quite poorly for day games, unsurprisingly. With the wide-open stadium bowl, and the heat and humidity of South Florida, I’ve got to imagine the beach is a far more appealing draw on a hot August day.
In a further nod to the football-inspired environment, the Marlins have cheerleaders. Not simply attractive women helping to rev the crowd up as is seen in other parks, but full-blown pom-pom waving, routine-dancing cheerleaders. While this wasn’t difficult on the eyes, it was more than a little jarring.
There was an ad running occasionally through the big screen whose key message was to ask if you’d had your microchip installed yet. Yikes. Welcome to Florida in the 21st Century.
There were no scalpers anywhere in sight for the first time on the trip, which was a shame, since I was carrying a second ticket that I was therefore unable to offload. Unfortunately, the reason I had the second ticket was because Charlie found himself otherwise engaged, though for very good reason. And, the timing worked out well, as it gave me a chance to help Andres celebrate his 22 hour anniversary. Plus, if he needs a guarantor 31 years from now, I’ll be able to step in.
Unlike at Sharks games, the Marlins were still playing “The Hey Song”. Quite nostalgic, really.
I don’t know if it’s the Latin influence, the heat, or the influence of all the Miami-style exposed skin, but I’ve never seen so much tongue on display on the scoreboard kiss-cam. A bit disturbing, really.
It being a Saturday night, they followed the game with a fireworks show, and then a complimentary concert by Oscar D’Leon, apparently a reasonably well known Latin recording artist. While I didn’t stick around for much of this, it was definitely an apparent drawing card, and the fans dancing salsa in their seats during the concert were clearly having a great time.
Finally, while on the stat trend, I’d really like to see stadiums post teams’ performance with runners in scoring position (RISP). It was great to sit near a person keeping score in Cleveland who was making a point of tracking RISP (they were 1-for-9). This is very revealing, despite Billy Beane’s arguments to the contrary, and often a clear indication of why teams are performing well or poorly. While we’re at it, clutch hitting’s mirror, clutch pitching, was on display in the form of Marlins pitcher Armando Benitez, who threw a masterful 1-2-3 inning, appropriate to a tie game in early August between two non-playoff teams. For Armando, the bigger the stage gets, and the tougher the situation, the more I’m comfortable placing a sizeable bet on Benitez screwing it all up.