Saturday, August 25, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Game #21: The Winner Is.... The Polish Sausage

Into every vacation, a little rain must fall. Fortunately, after losing a couple of hours to rain delays the day before at Wrigley, the next couple of games were both held at roofed stadiums, this one at Milwaukee’s Miller Park, whose fan-like retractable roof was definitely the most notable feature of the ballpark. Collapsing to the baseline walls when open, the individual roof segments close to form an almost spider-like (from the outside) lattice inside the park. It’s an odd, but remarkably intriguing look, especially given the tremendous size of the mechanical structure. It’s completely different in look and feel from SkyDome in Toronto, and front what I hear, different again from Seattle’s Safeco Field. Perhaps they’re still trying to figure out what quite works, and given that there are stories that this one working quite as intended, this may not be the ideal solution either. But, it’s definitely worth taking a look at.

Beyond the roof, Miller Park is a really nice park, and, with the Brewers battling for 1st place in the NL Central, they’ve been filling it up game-after game. We were very fortunate, as having expected to have to settle for standing-room tickets (Milwaukee isn’t exactly a scalper’s paradise), there turned out to be some rather good tickets available at the box office that hadn’t been available online only a couple of hours before. Perhaps these were originally the team’s or the league’s, but either way, we weren’t complaining.

I was joined at the game, for the second time in a week, by Fabio, Irina, and Stefania, who, given the miserable weather outdoors, figured that an indoor ballgame would be a good way to spend their Sunday afternoon. It was good to see the lack of home-team run support by the White Sox hadn’t scared them away, and we were indeed treated to a much closer, and more tightly fought, match this time around.

There was some sort of mist and/or haze inside, perhaps due to the rain and all the humidity, but it didn’t interfere with our ability to appreciate the play. Also, and unfortunately, there’s a bit of a gap between the top of the HR fences and the crowd, which means that many home run balls may not actually make it into the hands of fans. That wasn’t a problem for our game, though, as most of the many home runs we saw went well out of the park.

This being Wisconsin, the pre-game entertainment was heavily tailgating-dominated. While we didn’t partake, the terrible weather did nothing to discourage many of the diehards, who were grilling, drinking, and playing away to their hearts’ desire in the vast expanses of parking lot outside.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm with which people participated in the national anthem, singing along in full voice, with the anthem placed almost immediately before the first pitch. I’ve often found it ironic that baseball, for which the pre-game anthem and “Play Ball!” call are so much a part of the common lore, often under-sells the anthem, while hockey games almost uniformly create a great and hair-raising experience.

The game itself featured plenty of fireworks, both figuratively and literally. With each Brewers home run, their mascot, Bob the Brewer, slides down a curved slide high above left field while fireworks are set off, even inside the closed dome. Fortunately for us, this game featured plenty of Brewers home runs, though unfortunately it featured plenty of Reds home runs as well. In the end, despite taking a quick 5-0 lead, the Brewers lost, remarkably for the 16th straight time in which starter Chris Capuano started a game (yikes!). And really, he didn’t pitch *that* badly, though he was definitely left in just a few batters too long.
See video of a Brewers home run celebration here.

Of course, the big highlight of any Brewers game is the famous sausage race. I’ve included video of this in the photo album as well. For our race, the Polish Sausage came first, leaving neither Fabio nor I in the money in our side betting, though Fabio still maintains that instant replay would have proven the Brat the true winner.
See video of the sausage race here.

The brat, meanwhile, was the hands-down winner in our evaluation of the classic Milwaukee trademark foods, i.e. the range of sausages available. It outdid both the Italian and the Polish (pictured), while we figured the hot dog clearly wouldn’t be able to compete. The new entrant, the chorizo, didn’t make it into our taste test – I’m only willing to give up my body so far for this trip.

Last but not least, Bob Uecker, longtime Hall-of-Fame radio announcer for the Brewers and star of Mr Belvedere and (co-star of) Major League, is still going strong, and, we realized at the end, was sitting pretty much right behind us. No autographs, but we did get a good look at him.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Game #20: Getting Wet at the Friendly Confines

Ah, Wrigley. The majors’ second oldest stadium, and a monument to true-retro, with all the good and bad which that entails.

This was my third ever ballgame at Wrigley, but my first to sit in the bleachers, generally considered the quintessential Wrigley experience. And, within the context of this trip, how could I do anything else? Unfortunately, a bleacher seat comes with two significant drawbacks. First, you’re not allowed access to any of the rest of the ballpark. Second, the seats are general admission / first-come-first-served. As a result, the moving from seat to seat that I’ve sometimes been doing at these games wasn’t feasible, and there was definitely no chance to make the full circuit of the yard. That said, the bleachers do make for a fun and rowdy atmosphere, so it was well worth it.

Mind you, this was a Saturday afternoon game against the Cubs’ traditional rival Cardinals, with the Cubs in first place in the division in mid-August and the Cards only 3 games behind. As such, this was a very hot ticket, and my bleacher seat wound up running me about 3-4x the cost of any other games so far. But, hey, it’s worth it, and a simple necessity of supply and demand.

Unfortunately, the game was wet. Really wet. There was a one-hour rain delay before the game started, and then another of equal length with 2 outs in the 8th. It also rained off-and-on throughout much of the game itself, but once they had started play, they apparently didn’t want to stop until the rain really got quite hard. This was interesting, as it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced a baseball rain delay, having seen most of my baseball in San Francisco, though I seem to attract rain for cricket games. But they’ll call play for rain at cricket far more readily than they did at Wrigley. The rain didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the fans in the bleachers though. While the bleachers are a general admission area, which meant that people were forced to stay at their seats throughout the first rain delay for fear of losing them to other more weather-hardy fans, and while many people weren’t wearing much rain protection at all, the crowd was still boisterous and in high spirits, fueled on by beers aplenty and the hope of baseball ahead.

Part of the enthusiasm of the crowd may also have been aided by pre-game lubrication in the surrounding Wrigleyville area, which really is one of the best ballpark neighborhoods around. I was joined by my friend Mondira (though Debarshi was away due to work and couldn’t join us), and we met up with another friend of hers for lunch at a local brewpub. But despite being on the ‘el’ a full 3 hours before game, we found ourselves surrounded by people clearly also on their way to the game. It made for a great atmosphere.

In terms of the park itself, what can be said that hasn’t already been said? In many ways, this is an experience similar to going to a game many decades years ago, with the old-fashioned construction, the view-obstructing pillars, the classic feel and atmosphere, the ivy-covered walls, and the hand-operated scoreboard. Of course, I have to imagine that the crowd’s a bit rowdier than it was decades ago, but it’s a collegial, Chicago rowdiness, without the hard edge of Boston or New York. It’s a great experience, and one that all baseball fans should try. All that said, to be fair, I will say that it does fall a bit short of those aforementioned east-coast parks, perhaps because the demand for excellence isn’t quite there. Fans in Chicago are so used to losing that they aren’t as fussed when their team doesn’t do well, and aren’t as intensely riveted upon the game. In that way, it kind of becomes like a fun day (or night) out, whereas Fenway, for comparison, is absolutely a live-or-die event.

Wrigley still maintains a more old-fashioned approach compared to Fenway in some ways. There were no ads anywhere to be seen, with the sole exception of two small electronic scoreboards attached to the facing of the upper deck, which are used to display ads between innings. There’s no jumbotron, no billboard advertising, no oversized soda or beer bottles or basketball-sized oranges. And between innings, there’s no crowd-entertainment other than the organist, tooling away in much the same way he did during the rain delays.

There was also LOTS of red in the stands; St Louis isn’t that far away, and this is the two teams’ biggest rivalry. With the Cardinals as reigning World Series Champions, and making their way up the standings thanks to faltering play by the Cubs and Brewers, there were plenty of very enthusiastic Cards fans present making their presence well known.

The first pitch was thrown out by Kevin Dillon of the HBO show Entourage. There were definitely plenty of Johnny Drama fans within the bleacher crowd, and he was well forgiven for being high and outside on the throw.

The game itself was great fun, and a lesson in the importance of timely hits. The Cards hit three home runs off of Cub pitching, but all of them with no one on base. The Cubs, meanwhile, only had one good inning, and really one key hit. But that hit was a Daryle Ward grand slam that’d give the Cubs 4 of their 5 runs, and one which put a fantastic charge into the crowd. The atmosphere and enthusiasm were great, and really a fantastic factor in enjoying the full Wrigley experience.

The second rain delay, coming as it did with two outs in the 8th, and two strikes against Cardinal batter Chris Duncan, was tough to take, as it felt as if the Cubs had almost sealed the deal. But the rain really started coming down hard at that point, chasing even the bleacher fans out of their seats. This timing thinned out the crowd significantly, but those who stayed were treated to a one-pitch strikeout by new Cubs reliever Pignatiello, followed by a 1-2-3 9th, to send everyone (in blue) home happy.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Game #19: South of the Border, Down Canada Way

No, that wasn’t a typo, though I don’t think it’s quite the way Frank’d sing it. I crossed from the US to Canada between Detroit and Windsor. Seriously – if you don’t believe me, go look it up.

I’d been to a game at SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, before, but not since long, long ago. In the years since my last visit, about 20 new ballparks have been built, I’ve seen a LOT more baseball at many more parks, and the Blue Jays have dropped from drawing many millions of fans and winning World Series championships to playing third fiddle to the Yankees and Red Sox in their division. And while Skydome was once considered the epitome of modern ballpark design, it’s now looked upon as a concrete behemoth. But, you know, the building itself hasn’t changed, and many of the things that did indeed make it a good place to see a game are still true today.

First off, it really is massive. I know I’ve described several ballparks as being big, but this is just jaw-dropping. From the outside, it feels like a truly massive structure, and once inside, the five decks of seats and boxes rise seemingly forever. As a result, I’m sure a seat back in the top deck really doesn’t provide the sort of intimate view of baseball that we’ve come to know and love. But from our seats on the field level, around 20 rows back and not far past the 3rd base bag, the action was close and exciting.

The highlight of the park is definitely the CN Tower rising high above. With the roof open, as it was tonight, this makes for a fantastic backdrop to the game, and for a great sight as the light changes over the course of the evening.

Also great, of course, was being present for the Canadian National Anthem. Good fun. Though I was quite surprised that people didn’t sing along; a fact that didn’t seem right given the full voice with which fans tend to greet the anthem at hockey games.

The crowd, as well, was really quite decent. With almost 28,000 people in the building, there was still room enough for each person to bring another friend. In the perspective of a smaller yard, though, 28,000 people is a good-size crowd, and it was a crowd that came ready to cheer, to participate, and to enjoy themselves.

I was joined in the game by my dad, who I was thrilled to have fly on into town for the game. While he was only able to get away for the evening, the short flight from Ottawa still left time to come in and out for the game, and for a few beers and some food before (at Gretzky’s restaurant) and afterwards. As he’s been following this trip closely throughout, it was both fitting and enjoyable to have him come along. Mind you, with the Senators-Leafs hockey rivalry the way it is, he wasn’t able to bring himself fully to wearing only blue at a Toronto sporting event, but the Jays are a team for which Canadian red is always a fair substitute.

The game itself was good fun, though the home team fell just short of winning. The more baseball I see, the more I’m reminded of the importance of defense, and its underrated influence on game outcomes. The Jays lost this game, in essence, on a terrible sequence in the 7th when, down 2-1, first baseman Lyle Overbay committed an error, letting a ground ball that should have been an out, or even potentially a double play, roll into right field, and then failed to field the throw back in from the right fielder, a second error graciously applied to right fielder Alex Rios instead of to Overbay. A run scored on that play, and a second on the next at bat, very much the difference in what wound up as a one-run game.

Meanwhile, the Angels first run, and the one that gave them the lead in the game was a monster home run from Gary Matthews that hit the top of the restaurant, famously installed in the SkyDome outfield. As far as it went, it still highlighted just how mammoth the 5th deck home run hit by Jose Canseco a number of years ago must have been.

Elsewhere in Toronto:

While the Niagara side trip consumed almost an entire day, I still had a nice opportunity for a breather in Toronto, and a good chance to get to know the city a bit better. This included…

Second City: I spent one evening attending the Second City comedy club show in Toronto. This club, an offshoot of the famous one in Chicago, boasts an almost-as-famous alumni list, and lived up to their billing with a hilarious revue culminating with a song entitled “Jesus is on your Facebook”, including such lyrics as “Jesus has requested you as a friend” and “Jesus has changed his status from ‘Crucified’ to ‘Risen again’”. Anyone familiar with this popular social networking site would definitely have gotten a kick out of this.

Being stuck in traffic: Having been in NY, Chicago, and Houston on this trip already, and having spent my share of time driving in Southern California, I can safely say that Toronto traffic may well be the worst around. It was astounding to me how horrible the traffic was, arriving in the city, heading out and back from Niagara, leaving in the end, and generally being anywhere on or off the city’s freeways. The complete lack of geographical constraints to keep the city compact seems to have spread out everything outside the city centre, and very much made a mess of things.

Soccer exposure: The sports talk radio channels were announcing English Premiership scores as they happened, a fact that would be unheard of in the US. I wonder, was this always the case, or has the MLS possibly had an impact?

Hockey: I could also definitely tell I was in Canada given that in mid-August, with training camps still several weeks away, the front page of the Toronto Sun, the city’s #2 or #3 newspaper, was a full-page spread announcing that “The Leafs Are Back!”, due simply to a few players renting out some neighborhood ice time for a bit of rust removal.

And last, but absolutely not anywhere close to least, the Hockey Hall of Fame: See the next post for this…

The Hockey Hall of Fame

This was something I’d been very much looking forward to, and which I had a blast seeing. The ticket taker had advised me to budget 1 to 1½ hours, but I was there almost 3, checking out memorabilia aplenty, some great displays of famous players, and all sorts of other great stuff. As opposed to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, in which I recognized a number of names, and had associations with a smaller set of players, at the Hockey Hall of Fame, pretty much each honored player had some strong set of memories and mental images, generating all sorts of great reminiscing as I wandered through the exhibits.

Among the pictured highlights:

The classic HHOF shot

Bobby Orr’s bronzed skates, from the famous 1970 cup-winning goal (Note: The Orr display was further punctuated by a thickly Boston-accented father, leading his sons by the two-stall-wide display, commenting to them “That’s disgusting, he played 30 games for Chicago, but just for that they’ve also got a Blackhawks jersey in there?! Terrible”)

Bourque and Neely, HOF plaques side-by-side

Doug Wilson’s jersey as first ever Sharks captain

Natural Wonder #1: Niagara Falls

Having not been since I was about 5 years old, I decided to take a day out of the Toronto portion of my itinerary to go see Niagara Falls. It was definitely impressive, and great to go see, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss regarding what to say about it, other than, well, look:

While there, I couldn’t pass up a trip on the Maid of the Mist, which is the boat that you can see in some of these pictures that heads right on up near the bottom of the falls. I figured it was a better bet than anything including a barrel.

Game #18: And the Prize for Best Integration of Team Name into Ballpark Design Goes To...

While the old Tiger Stadium was apparently a great venue, with classic features and styling, when it came time to retire it and replace it with Comerica Park, they really did a fantastic job. The new home of the Tigers has a great feel and style, and above all, they’ve gone far further than any other team in the majors at integrating their team name into the design of the park. Surrounding the park are dozens of tigers such as the one at right, each of which was significantly larger than I’d realized from seeing pictures, and at each of the entrances are quite spectacular displays of tigers guarding the team’s lair. The most impressive, at the main park entrance, is below:

Once inside, the stadium continues to impress. Sight lines are great throughout, and there are a multitude of standing-room-dedicated areas that were thronged with people on the night I went, despite it being only a Monday night. These standing room areas, when combined with the cheapest ticket price point of $5, and the availability of on-street parking, can make this one of the most economical experiences in the majors, despite the quality of both the environment and the team.

In right field, in what is perhaps a nod to Kansas City’s great fountains, is a fountain display, which, while commercialized and not as pure as the one at Kauffman Field, was a nice touch nonetheless.

The field of play itself is huge, with a big expansive outfield that creates plenty of opportunities for doubles and triples, in a style similar to Coors field. This is true despite their having pulled the fences in a few years after opening the park, due to the dearth of home runs being hit.

The crowd was engaged and vocal, with fans not shy to express their emotions. They booed passionately when long reliever Jason Grilli came in, and booed him again an inning later when his performance proved to deserve their wrath. But on the flip side, there was definitely impressive crowd support when deserved. Even somewhat into the mid-west, this remains an east coast city in some ways.

Scattered around the concourse are a series of displays like the one below, each commemorating a decade in Tiger baseball with memorabilia, stories of players, and tales of the team during those seasons. These were quite nice to have around, and a definite upgrade over the insert-team-name-here paid admission museum approach. Note the motor city nod in the construction of each display.

While on the topic of history, in recognition of several legendary Tigers, they’ve built 5 statues in left field. Here’s Ty Cobb's.

Also in left field was this guy. He’s not the mascot, he’s just a very, um, dedicated fan.

I was also getting close to Canada, as I could tell from Labatts Blue on the taps and plenty of Canadian t-shirts and hats, including even a few Argos shirts, believe it or not.

Meanwhile, the evening proved to be a beautiful night, 77 degrees and clear, with a slight breeze. The heat wave that was running through the country had definitely passed, but it was also been nice to work my way further north.

For the second straight game, saw a record. This time, Placido Polanco played in his 144th strait game without an error, tying a record for second basemen. That said, I was frustrated throughout the game at how many of the A’s hits went through the gap between the second basemen and shortstop. Coincidence? The shortstop’s fault? Or a reflection of a lack of range by both guys? It’s tough to say. But I’ve never liked errors as a primary measure of fielding performance, since they fail to capture the positives, and only reflect the avoidance of obviously negative situations.

The game itself was rather disappointing for the home team, as the Tigers really didn’t play like a first place team, and, as manager Jim Leyland pointed out on the radio after the game, really didn’t put forth the sort of effort needed to get into the playoffs. Managing to muster only 4 hits and 2 runs (all in the 1st) off of A’s starter Chad Gaudin, it was, all-in-all, a flaccid performance.

From a food standpoint, despite warning to the contrary, I felt I needed to give a nod to Detroit pizza king and Red Wings & Tigers owner Mike Ilitch by trying his Little Caesar’s pizza. They were selling full-size pies at the park, or, as I tried, selling individual slices. Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The pizza was really quite unimpressive, and definitely didn’t hit the spot.

That had already been partly made up for by a quick pre-game beer at Cheli’s Chilli Bar, which was a great place with a fantastic location. With several floors and a roof deck immediately across the street from Comerica Park, Detroit Red Wing Chris Chelios definitely did well for himself.