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.

Game #27: The Pacific Northwest

For a true planes, trains, and automobiles trip, I needed to drop in one flight to my roadtrip. So, in order to ensure I got a chance to end my trip in the SF Bay Area, I took a quick side-trip from Southern California up to Seattle and back to catch the Mariners game.

Safeco feels like an illustration of what a well done park can do for a city. Everywhere you looked in Seattle, there were signs and banners and references to the team, and throughout the town you could hear people talking about them. While not quite to the extent of the great East Coast franchises in Boston and New York, for a team with almost zero notable history (the M’s have never been to a world series, and instead proudly fly banners highlighting the years in which they made it as far as the ALCS) it was quite impressive

For the real experience, it’d be appropriate to visit each of the roofed ballparks twice – once with the roof open, once closed, as these two experiences typically provide two completely different impressions of a ballpark. And yet, Seattle seems to have done a good job making this not nearly as relevant a consideration. The massive roof structure sits far above the field, and is an impressive piece of engineering even in the open setting, literally shifted over to cover part of the parking lot when not in use for the field. However, when closed, the roof in Seattle apparently does far less to create an indoor stadium in the manner of Milwaukee, Arizona, and Houston, but rather functions somewhat as an umbrella, keeping the rain off the field and the fans while letting outside air continue to circulate through the stadium, thus maintaining an outdoor feel. The luxury of a balmy climate, in which rain, not heat or cold, is the only concern.

The park itself has got a close and intimate feel, with seats close to the action and a sense of immediacy. This is true throughout, including on the concourses, which provide plenty of standing room and a clear sight onto the field. The construction, heavy on green steel and a Pacific Northwest blue-green palette, does a great job of combining the size of the building with the intimacy of a small park. Meanwhile, the architects found a way to include seats in several places in home run territory where other parks might have given up. Where appropriate, this was a great way to make sure that balls hit out of the park would find their way into the hands of waiting fans, rather than disappearing into the no-souvenir-zone gullies recently seen in Anaheim, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

The local train lines, of which there are many, seem to run almost directly under the right field wall, and trains apparently make a point of sounding their whistles as they pass by the park. These trains are loud and clear, and the thunder of their passing can be felt throughout the entire park.

The bullpens were another great and unique feature. While their position, behind the left field wall, partially hid them from view from the field, pretty much every other vantage point was available. Fans could walk right up beside the bullpens, and watch pitchers warm up from behind a screen a few feet away, or even peek into the bullpens through small portholes at the bullpens’ end. This made for very popular pre-game entertainment, including a large group of Japanese girls very disappointed that Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima was not helping Mariners’ pitcher Jeff Weaver warm up.

This group of Japanese girls were not alone; there were a LOT of Japanese fans around in general, drawn, perhaps, due to the presence of players such as Ichiro and Johjima, due to the exposure of the Mariners in Japan thanks to their Japanese ownership, and perhaps due simply to proximity. That led to a number of signs being posted in both Japanese and English, as per the following posting of the Code of Conduct:

This Japanese connection also ties into the classic Safeco trademark food: The Ichiroll sushi combo. While sushi is now available at a couple of other parks (Detroit for sure, San Francisco on the club level, apparently), it was the introduction of sushi in Seattle that first drew newspaper headlines.

There was one other demographic factor noted that day in a local paper: Apparently, Seattle has the highest percentage of female fans in Major League Baseball, a fact that caused the columnist’s friend to state, regarding Safeco field: “This is, like, the Pottery Barn of baseball stadiums”

The game itself was, as has seemed so often true lately, a home-team loss. The Mariners, after tearing up the league lately, including beating up on opponents twice already during my trip, had closed the gap with the division-leading Angels to the point where this series could have given them the division lead. However, these three days were a painful recalibration for the M’s, as they were swept, and soundly, by the Angels, who well and truly illustrated who the best team in the division is.

The game I attended started promisingly for the Mariners, as they put up five runs in the bottom of the first and chased the starting pitcher, all before the second out was recorded. But slowly and surely, the Angels chipped away at the lead, while the Angel bullpen did a masterful job, eventually securing a 10-6 victory and helping to send Seattle into a tailspin.

Elsewhere in Seattle…

Beer - The Pacific Northwest is known for its brewpubs, so I made a point of hitting up three of them. Of the ones I tried, Elysian was the best, for their own brews, the atmosphere, and for an impressive collection of guest beers including Rodenbach Grand Cru, Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Westmalle Tripple, and Delirium Tremens. Heck, the beer selection at the ballpark was also great, with a wide variety of microbrews available on tap.

Coffee – Seattle’s also known for its coffee, of course, and along with the original Starbucks, I spent a fair bit of the next afternoon touring a series of local coffee shops.

Pike Place Market – Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in town is the Pike Place Market, itself best known for its flying fish. Or, well, for the large fish stand at which the employees famously throw fish to one another upon making a customer sale. This was fantastically entertaining, as was the market as a whole, though I do feel a bit sorry for the employees. The famous stand is mobbed with people, all day long, though few, if any, have any intention to actually buy any fish. Most people spend their time standing and waiting for someone else to buy one, generating as it does the grand theatre of large fish flying silvery and floppily through the air. Still, great fun.

Space Needle – Seattle’s greatest landmark is the (now fairly dated) Space Needle, which stands only about half as tall as the CN tower in Toronto. That said, the scenery in and around Seattle is fantastic, and makes a ride up to the Space Needle’s observation deck well worthwhile. Free tours at the top included pointing out the location of the houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle, and the location where Frasier’s condo would be, were the building that were there only 6-7 stories taller.

REI – Finally, the outdoorsy spirit that imbues Seattle finds its heart at the original REI store, itself a great piece of Northwest architecture.

Running a bit behind again

Ok, ok - I'm a few entries behind again. They're on their way, and there are pictures in the photo album (at right) but for the snapshot summary:

Safeco in Seattle - Incredible. Beautiful park, fantastic environment
Petco in San Diego - Disappointing. Nice features, superior to Qualcomm Stadium, but overhyped.
McAfee in Oakland - Concrete and painful. But... not as bad as I'd remembered

Big Sur - Beautiful, especially at sunset
Clay Buchholz - Very impressive. Way to go, kid
Home team mojo - Kaput, completely