Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Game #26: Beat LA! Beat LA!

While I’ve never explicitly stated it on this blog, I had set myself a rule to cheer for the home team at every park, as a way of more fully experiencing the atmosphere and environment of each location. But of course, that couldn’t be true everywhere, and LA was very much the exception. As a Giants fan, the concept of cheering for the Dodgers, or rather, of doing anything other than lustily booing them, was clearly a non-starter, so I decked myself out in Giants orange, braced myself, and headed into what very much felt like enemy territory.

The stadium itself was exactly that, a large, concrete, and fully symmetric stadium. It was most reminiscent of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, but without any of the latter’s charm or class. The outfield provided a nice view of hills, horribly scarred by a Dodger-oriented “Think Blue” sign in the style of the Hollywood sign, and there were palm trees placed immediately beyond the edge of the park. Beyond that, the only unique characteristic was the bright pastel color scheme on the seating, which evoked memories of decades-ago LA. While sight lines were decent throughout, the lack of character or aesthetic appeal provided a setting particularly appropriate for the Dodgers.

Meanwhile, there didn’t appear to be any filter placed on the sort of people let into the ballpark. This was evident since the park was lousy with people afflicted with that most tragic of conditions: Dodger fans. In Northern California, these unfortunate souls are kindly shown the way towards trained medical professionals who can give them help, either by throwing food at them to indicate a path towards the closest facility, by offering polite words of encouragement about hot vacation spots they might consider, or by explaining to them what possible thumb-related habits the Dodgers may have had as children. But here in LA, they were inexplicably allowed to wander freely through the stadium. Baffling.

At least their busy schedules weren’t overly inconvenienced by the game. Most fans arrived right on schedule just as the 3rd inning was finishing, and left with plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep by heading for the exits at the start of the 7th. Here’s a picture of the stands as they stood at first pitch:

Ok, ok… so that might not have been entirely true. Here’s a true view of the 1st pitch, mid-5th, and top-9th crowds. Judge for yourself:

There was a strong class system that had been created between stadium sections. The Dodgers provided no access to decks other than the one your ticket is for. This has been true at a couple of other stadiums (Shea, Comiskey), but was nowhere as explicit as it was here, in that each tier had a separate stadium entrance, and climbing up or down between levels was meant to be done before entering the stadium gates themselves. With a Loge ticket, I was able to see a bit of the View level before heading down, but there wasn’t any chance of my getting onto the Field level, even if just for batting practice.

Down at field level, there were also truly distinct boxes among general seating. These were even further differentiated than the bars previously witnessed at Shea and Yankee Stadium, and looked to be a way to create private enclosures right down at field level.

Ok, all jesting aside – there were two moderately positive points. First, having seen Jackie Robinson’s 42 retired at 25 other stadiums already (it’s been officially retired by the entire league), it was still rather fitting to see the original, for the team for which he played.

Also, this was Korean Community Night, complete with a few activities before the game showcasing the Korean Community. One of the acts was a Korean rock band, who performed a song shortly before the start of the game. Former Red Sox (yay) and current Dodger (boo) pitcher Derek Lowe clearly enjoyed the performance, as he was strumming the air guitar between each of his warm-up pitches, a fact that was fairly entertaining to see..

The game was disappointing. The fact that the Dodgers were playing the Nationals, one of the worst teams in the league, was a concern, though the Dodgers’ evening game in NY the night before meant that they were likely fatigued coming into the game. The Nats even managed to come from behind to take a 4-2 lead at one point. However, in 5 of the first 6 innings, the Nats put the Dodgers’ lead-off hitter on base, a fact that eventually came around to bite them.

The food options weren’t particularly impressive either. The famed Dodger Dog, touted throughout the park as grilled after a misguided decision to forego the grilling several years ago, may well have been grilled at one point, but by the time you could buy them, they’d been sitting in a pile, wrapped in foil, under a heat lamp, for quite a while. Not at all impressive. And the Beers of the World stand apparently qualified for that status due to the presence of 1) Corona, and 2) Heineken. Yikes.

I’d attempted to head off this by getting a hot dog at Pink’s, a famous Hollywood institution. My Brooklyn Pastrami & Swiss Cheese dog does in fact have a hot dog under there somewhere, but it, too, was disappointing.

Elsewhere in LA…

Having commented on billboards in the South, it’s only fair that I tip my cap to that most LA of billboards, witnessed on the drive on the way into town: The copy: “Look your best”, next to a smiling woman advertising… yep… breast enhancement. Meanwhile, I also spent about 10 minutes at one point trying to figure out what it was about a guy sitting a few rows in front of me that looked so LA until it suddenly dawned on me that he had an unnatural smoothness at the corner of his eyes where, from his age and appearance, you might have expected to see some wrinkles. The wonders of botox.

Meanwhile, I spent my day wandering through the human zoo that is Venice Beach, and the more civilized Santa Monica, followed by a quick drive through Hollywood. Good fun, and definitely unique.

Game #25: Disney baseball

Game 25 found me in Orange County, watching the Anaheim California Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California. Or something like that. Really, in an effort to expand their viewership and merchandise sales, the Angels have, much to the chagrin of locals, tried to change the team name to the LA Angels, only to find themselves stuck due to contractual constraints with the Anaheim name as well. Furthermore, to Spanish speakers, the very concept of the “The Angels Angels” name is absurd in and of itself. But hey, whatever makes them happy.

More immediate, when attending the game is the realization that this was until recently a Disney-owned team, just down the road from Disneyland. And they’ve done what they can to extend the Disney experience to the ballpark itself. Remodeled after the NFL’s Rams left town and converted back to a baseball-only facility, Anaheim Stadium is still that… a Stadium, but one with Disney touches everywhere you look.

The most obvious Disney feature is the rocks-and-water display in left field. While I’d fully expected this to be Styrofoam, these rocks did turn out to be firm and solid, though so clearly of a crafted and painted variety that they could have been lifted straight from the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad rollercoaster. While they add some visual distinctiveness to the stadium that was not there the last time I visited (pre-remodel), this rock formation was definitely disappointing after Coors Field’s splendidly authentic Rocky Mountain display.

While most parks have also incorporated non-stop crowd entertainment into their ballpark experience, Angel Stadium seemed to carry this even a step further, with ongoing activities even before the game started. This again, for anyone who’s been kept mildly entertained by non-stop goings on during a 2-hour Disneyland ride line, was very familiar.

The front entrance has received the full Disney treatment, flanked by two massive, size 649 ½ hats. Yes, the size was listed on the inside brim – classic Disney attention to detail.

Lastly, no Disney adventure would be complete without animals, and while there was no need for an appearance today, the Angels thrill their fans with their Rally Monkey, an oddly effective scoreboard-led means of encouraging the team to overcome late-game deficits. And, of course, a great way to sell additional $15 souvenirs.

It was certainly appropriate that my Disney ballpark experience would be accompanied by plenty of members of my extended family, who live in the area, including two young ones fully on board with the Disney-style entertainment.

Elsewhere in the stadium, Disney did hold onto a big of history by maintaining the “Big A” that had for years been the primary characteristic of the stadium. Now situated in the parking lot and adorned with advertisement, it very much carries the feel of yesteryear.

That’s one big happy meal. Really, actually, it’s part of the McDonald’s Sunday Kid’s Day celebrations.

The fans do show their allegiance to the team, showing up dressed in red to an extent matched only by the ubiquitous red of St Louis. Much of this enthusiasm appears to be a recent phenomenon, spurred forward in large part by the recent 2002 World Series championship. Mind you, as a Giants fan, I still refuse to accept that the 2002 World Series ever took place, despite the image of Dusty Baker rewarding Russ Ortiz with the game ball while the game was still going on being still seared painfully into my memory.

This game, as well, almost never took place, as I made what should have been a cardinal error. Blatantly tempting fate, I had announced the night before that I was fortunate to have made it all the way through the trip without any games being rained out, given that it never rains in California during the summer. So of course, what should the next morning bring but… yep… rain. Fortunately, even my terrible hubris in the face of fate wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that this was, in fact, Southern California.

For the second of three times on the trip, this game was part of a home-and-home series in which I saw the same two teams matched up at each of their home ballparks. And, as with Baltimore over Tampa Bay, the Angels managed to sweep both games against Toronto, with a never-really-in-doubt 3-1 victory built upon a solid Kelvim Escobar (ex-Jay) pitching performance. But hey, at least it gave me a chance to see O Canada again, eh?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Game #24: Wrigley in the Desert?

So, for the first time in the trip, I was truly torn. After all, the map said I’d arrived in Arizona, but from everything I could tell about the crowd, the game sure felt like a Cubs home game. After all, the Cubs fans appeared to slightly outnumber the Diamondbacks fans, and were by any measure a far more vocal presence. I figured I’d go with my gut and cheer for Arizona, but was definitely confused.

This was further helped by the fact that I was sitting in the bleachers, a classic Wrigley move, ate an Italian Beef sandwich, a classic Chicago meal, and that the two people I sat next to, and wound up heading up to the in-stadium Friday’s bar with for a round of shots mid-game, were a die-hard Cubs fan and a (all condolences welcome) Devil Rays fan. Twice in a week for bleacher tickets for a Cubs “home” game, I suppose.

Mind you, this was a Cubs game in the desert. The temperature outside, at game time, was 114 degrees, shockingly hot, and not feasible for watching a game outside. That said, there was still something of a fair going on outside the front gates, and the bar immediately across from the park was absolutely hopping with people. I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of the former, but water mist generators at the bar kept the temperature definitely alright for a quick drink before heading in. The bar was actually even stocking Old Style, undoubtedly to make the Cubs fans feel well at home.

As with any covered stadium, especially when closed, the roof is a dominant characteristic of the park. I’d been to this ballpark once before, with the roof and side panels open, and something is understandably lost by having the building closed up. However, given the heat outside, they’ve perhaps done the best with what they’ve got. The roof is a flat roof, opening in the center, rather than the fan in Milwaukee or the multi-paneled dome of Toronto, which apparently is helpful for opening part of the roof to help the natural grass get just enough sunlight and not too much heat. Kudos to the team for successfully growing and maintaining grass in the desert heat.

The signature park feature, meanwhile, is the swimming pool in right field, a cordoned off area, complete with private entrance and locker room, that can be rented by groups. During this game, it was rented by a group of (predominantly) Cubs fans, even sporting a “Cubs, hit it here!” sign, who spent their time alternately watching the game, lounging in the pool, eating, drinking, and otherwise being merry.

The displays at Chase Field were both good and complete, providing a full overview of out-of-town scores, both lineups, detailed stats, and still leaving room for highlights, replays and ads. However, much of this doesn’t really support the outfield seating, a common problem, but one that seemed even more of an issue here due to the odd way in which many of these signs were suspended.

The K counter in right field, tracking both the current game and the season as a whole, was a dead giveaway that Randy Johnson played some of his top years here.

Also amusing, and while not unique, certainly uncommon, was the dedicated scalping area placed immediately across the street from the park. Cordoned off by a set of metal barriers, this appeared to be a fully condoned spot, immediately adjacent to police performing traffic control, for resold tickets. Even still, I figured I’d skip taking a picture of this.

The Diamondbacks are clearly very proud of their World Series championship, prominently displaying the trophy in the entrance atrium and posting numerous banners relating to this championship, while the fans themselves were very eager to rub their championship in the Cubs’ faces.

The food offerings were ok. While I’d been recommended, and went with, Hungry Hill’s sandwiches, too many of the other options available were mainstream fast food providers, including McDonald’s, Blimpie, and Panda Express. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, it’s not quite what you want out of ballpark food.

The field itself’s got a very odd home-run line, including an odd triangular spot in each corner outfield, and including a strangely traced home run line in straight center. Take a look at these two pictures for more detail.

Finally, the stadium itself is really quite large. Despite the Cubs being a big draw, and despite this being a battle of two first-place teams on a Friday night, the upper deck was still far from full.

The game itself went the Cubs’ way, though it was far closer than indicated by the final score. In essence, the game turned in the bottom of the 5th, when the Diamondbacks got a man to 3rd with no one out in a 2-1 game. The first batter struck out on a pitch that was clearly, by replay, out of the strike zone. The second batter hit a ball to third that produced a play at the plate that was again, clearly safe by replay, but called out by the home plate umpire. Not to invoke memories of the 1960 presidential election or NBA officiating, but it was enough to make you wonder whether the home plate umpire had been brought along from Chicago as well. Fortune against them, Arizona proceeded to give up another run in the next half inning, and to let the game get fully out of control in the ninth inning.

Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that my home team mojo has gone completely kaput? After starting 5-0, and then settling back to 10-4, the last 10 games, the home team’s gone 2-8. Ugh. As of this game, my record had reached an even 12-12.